Halloween fright

I am slowly working on a new kayak. I’ve been working on this particular kayak for several years. Other chores and jobs keep taking precedence and my boatbuilding projects are a hobby that sometimes has to take a back seat to more pressing needs. However, from time to time I do get to work on it and there is visible progress. I have a completed hull and a completed deck and, after some outfitting, I’m getting pretty close to mating the two. Once that happens, it will look like a kayak as I finish the bulkheads, hatches, coaming and outfit it with a seat. It will be ready to slide into the water next spring. On Monday, I had a little time, so I had the deck upside down and was making sure that everything was in place. The inside of the deck is not visible once the boat is assembled. The work on it is not for appearance, but rather for strength and balance. However, the wood is the back side of what shows on the surface of the boat, so it is carefully pieced together and it looks vey nice. The wood is sealed with epoxy, so no water can penetrate and cause rot. I have a home-built kayak that is almost 20 years old and still looks quite good and paddles very well. It could easily last long beyond the span of my lifetime. So I want the work to be done right and the boat to perform well.

On Monday it was warm, so I was able to work epoxy, something that I will not be able to do in my unheated garage when winter makes everything out there cold. I carefully prepared my surfaces, vacuumed up the sawdust, scrubbed the wood to make sure everything was clean, mixed the epoxy and spread it carefully. It looked great when I was finished. Later that evening I went out to check my work and discovered that a fly had managed to land on the epoxy, flail around a bit and expire. Epoxy is pretty toxic. Last night, when I had a little time after supper, I went out and sanded out the area where the fly had messed up my handiwork. I won’t have time to work on the boat for a couple of days, but when I return, I will have to find a time when I can get the boat up to 65 degrees for a couple of hours to re-do the epoxy in that area.

I don’t like sanding epoxy. I have to wear a respirator and the sawdust is very fine. The epoxy is hard and it takes quite a bit of work to get everything smooth. But when epoxy is applied correctly there is little sanding required. Flies just don’t help the process.

On the other hand, the mess isn’t as big, nor as complicated to correct as the time the cat decided to jump up onto a boat with wet epoxy. The poor cat had to make an emergency trip to the vet to get its fur clipped before I could tackle sanding and repairing the boat.

Still the fly was a disappointment. When the sun shines through our south-facing patio window these days, I can usually find three or flies to kill. It is that time of year. Our house is really weather tight, and I can’t figure out where the flies are getting in. I suppose they come in when we open the doors. On Monday I had to dispatch a large yellow jacket that somehow made its way to an east-facing window in the basement.

I mention the wasps and flies because they are probably the fiercest monsters that we’ll see around our house this Halloween. I will be a work until after 8 pm, so I won’t be around to greet trick-or-treaters. Susan may get home early enough to hand out a few treats, but the kids in our neighborhood, even when wearing costumes aren’t frightening. They’re friendly. And, for the most part, they are polite and careful about safety as they wander around the neighborhood.

I know enough to avoid West Boulevard, a street not far from the church, if I need to run an errand in the late afternoon or early evening. That is one of the most popular areas for trick-or-treaters in our town. 1,500 or more children with their parents will be going house to house for treats and it is best to be walking rather than trying to get through the crowds in a car.

Halloween doesn’t disrupt my life in any way. I’m not afraid of the black cat that likes to hunt mice in the church yard. I’ll be the one to lock up the church building tonight after everyone else has left. As I turn off the lights and lock the doors, I won’t be surprised by any ghosts. As far as I know our church has none.

I’m not really afraid of the various insects who find their way into our house. Flies are just annoying, and it has been a long time since I’ve been bit by a wasp. The occasional one that makes its way into our house doesn’t have much of a career left and the general rule in our house is that spiders outside are left alone. Those that come inside have forfeited their rights. When I see a particularly interesting spider, I might trap it and release it outside, but what we see are mostly common spiders who end up getting stepped on, I try not to kill crickets, but they are generally fairly easy to catch and release and it has been years since we’ve had one of those inside the house.

Halloween won’t be very scary around our house. I haven’t invested in a new costume since my family gave me a gorilla suit 15 years ago. It isn’t close to being worn out. I don’t put it on very often. My daughter doesn’t like it and I’ve not been around my grandchildren at the right time to give them a start. Most Halloweens I just go as myself. In fact I find it a bit strange when I encounter professionals at the bank or at a doctor’s office who are wearing costumes at work.

If you want to feel really scared, all you have to do is read the news. That’s way more frightening than spiders, flies, wasps and Halloween combined.

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!

Healing broken hearts

In 2001, cardiologist Dr. Piero Anversa published a paper with his findings about stem cells and the heart. At that point, his findings were radical and departed from mainstream thinking about how heard disease and other vascular diseases worked and could be treated. Like other studies that push the edges of medical research, the paper caused a reaction that included millions and millions of dollars for additional research. If an effective and non-invasive treatment could be found for cardiovascular disease millions of people could benefit and, in the United States, millions of dollars in profits could be earned by those who held the patents to the treatments. The paper made Dr. Anversa famous.

In the years that followed, Dr. Anversa published or participated in 30 additional studies. His research made the idea that damage to the heart can be effectively repaired with the use of stem cells popular. Hopes rose. Monies continued to flow in for additional research. Then, in 2013, a review of Dr. Anversa’s studies was initiated. Accusations that Dr. Anversa had tweaked data in order to receive funding arose. Harvard University’s medical school and the Brigham and Women’s Hospital were forced to repay about $10 million to the government in order to put to rest accusations of tampering with data. The payment was finally made in April of 2017. By that time the extent of the doctor’s fraud wasn’t fully known.

Recently Harvard University has called for the retraction of 31 studies authored by Dr. Anversa. The extent of the doctor’s fraud is almost unprecedented in scale. Years of work from the labs he was associated with has now been called into question. Other labs that tried and failed to reproduce Dr. Anversa’s findings refuted his claims as early as 2014, but it has taken years for the full extent of the fraud to become public and for Harvard Medical School to completely renounce the papers and studies.

It turns out, once again, that healing broken hearts is a difficult and challenging process and easy fixes simply don’t work.

This past summer one of the books that I read over and over to our granddaughter is a little golden book called “Mr. Bell’s Fixit Shop.” Mr. Bell could fix nearly anything and people smiled when they walked past his little shop and saw the sign that said, “Mr Bell’s Fixit Shop I fix everything but broken hearts.” Jill, who lived nearby loved to look around in Mr. Bell’s Fixit Shop. One day, when a puppy chewed up Jill’s favorite doll, she burst into the shop in tears. Mr. Bell was tired and hungry after a very busy day, but he promised that he would fix the doll, named Jill, as good as new. And that is exactly what he did. He worked into the night with bits of cloth and paint and yarn and repaired the doll. The next morning, Jill was delighted with the repaired doll. Then one day she insisted that Mr. Bell fix the sign in the window of his shop. Now it says, “Mr. Bell’s Fixit Shop I fix everything, even broken hearts.”

The story is a great read for children, and for grandfathers.

If you do an Internet search for books about broken hearts, you will find dozens and dozens of titles. A few of them are about cardiology, but the majority of the books about broken hearts are about emotional pain, like the pain Jill feels when her doll is damaged by the puppy. There are books on recovering from the death of a loved one, books on children and divorce, books on grief and loss and much more all using phrases about broken hearts. Poems and scriptures are offered for comfort. There are novels and children’s books and movies that lean on titles about broken hearts.

Yesterday I watched a short video with four people who arrived at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, just moments after the shooting started. They told of hearing gun shots and of rushing to call 911. They told of the panic they felt when they understood that their small synagogue was under fire. They spoke of what is being called the worst anti-Semitic attack in US history where 11 people died. Rabbi Doris Dunn said that if they had arrived three minutes earlier, they too would have died. With her that morning was Dean Root, who said, during the interview, “The way to respond in a moment of trauma is to reach out.” On the day after the shooting, Rabbi Dunn began to say morning blessings as she usually does. The familiar prayers began, but she discovered that she could not say them. She began to just talk to God directly and said, “God, I am really having trouble here. I cannot pray because I’m broken and I cannot pray.” Seymour Drescher, who also arrived moments after the shooting started said, “You first have to feel the pain in all of its power.”

I am confident that God will bring healing to the community of Tree of Life. But I do not know how or when. I know that people don’t get over trauma such as they have experienced. We get through it, but we don’t get over it. It is never fully in the past. It is always present.

The truth is that there is no easy way to fix a broken heart, whether you are talking about cardiology or emotional trauma. There are times when I wish it were as simple as Mr. Bell delaying his supper to paint a new smile on a broken doll. I wish it were as simple as reading a story to my granddaughter. But I have been around enough trauma to know that it will take a long time for our nation to heal from this horrible crime. And I know, from experience, that a new trauma will come and another story of senseless tragedy will occur and our hearts will be broken again. Layer upon layer of grief is a part of the fabric of our nation’s story.

And we have to “feel the pain in all of its power.”

And “The way to respond in a moment of trauma is to reach out.”

So we will reach out in the midst of the pain even when we don’t have words for our prayers. And we will thank God that we are not the only ones praying.

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 deeply disturbing week

I know, from my conversations with others, that these are trying times for our country. I’m not able to judge how these times rank with other periods in our country’s history. I just finished reading Jon Meacham’s “The Soul of America: the Battle for Our Better Angels.” There have been some other periods in our history when tensions have risen, when democracy has come under fire, when leaders have lost trust and when divisions have threatened. Former US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice recently insisted that America in the 1960’s was a far worse place - three political assassinations, the Vietnam War, cities burning and bitter racial division. that eclipsed anything being seen today, she said. I lived through the 1960’s. There were some terrible things that occurred. But I don’t know that I can agree with secretary Rice. At least my experience of the 1960’s wasn’t like my experience today. I spend a fair amount of each week counseling and consoling people who are distraught. I hear deep fears for the future of our country. I see people who are upset not just at what their leaders are saying and doing, but also at what their friends and neighbors are doing and saying. There are deep and painful divisions in our country. These may not be the worst of times, but neither are they the best of times.

I’d like to be writing about the World Series. The Red Sox won again. Unlike my favorite Chicago Cubs, after they broke the curse and won a world series, they have continued to produce winning teams. And the series losers managed to set a world record in the process. The Dodgers only won one game in the series, but it was the longest game in the history of the series.

Sadly, that isn’t the big news of the week just past. So much happened that it is hard to take it in.

A 51-year-old white man tried to enter a predominantly black church in Jeffersontown, Kentucky. When he couldn’t get in he went to a nearby supermarket and shot dead two elderly black people. It is being treated as a hate crime. The man, who has been arrested had a history of mental illness and should not have been able to have a gun. That wasn’t weeks ago. It was Thursday. The news media has almost forgotten this story in the light of what happened the rest of the week.

Then there is the slightly longer story of a pipe bomber who mailed devices to prominent critics of Donald Trump and Democratic political figures. The first was sent to George Soros. Then others to the most senior Democrats in the country. Luckily no one was hurt. While the politicians are shielded by security guards and sorting procedures, the risk to postal workers and others was real. The maker of the bombs left enough evidence in the packages that law enforcement agents were able to figure out who he was and arrest him. Before the arrest there was plenty of speculation about who was responsible. There were even some who theorized that the attacks were fakes, created by Democrats for publicity just before the mid-term elections. The bumper stickers on the man’s van tend to play down that particular theory.

And, on Friday, as the members of Tree of Life Synagogue were celebrating a new birth, the peace of the tiny community was shattered. 11 people were killed. The gunman was heavily armed, and had a long track record of peddling anti-Semitic bile.

I know that even in these dark times, we are immensely fortunate to live where we do and in the times that we do. I have walked on the gravel of Dachau Concentration Camp and peered into the ovens that were used to cremate human beings. I have stood on the parade grounds where thousands of Jews, Roma, dissidents and homosexuals were forced to stand for hour after hour in the depths of winter in their striped pajamas as their Nazi guards looked on with indifference. I have seen the crude wooden bunks where they lay, too starved to move, too sick to resist. I know that we must never forget. I know that we cannot afford to be complacent when acts of hatred and violence are fueled by careless political rhetoric.

I have visited Hiroshima Peace Park, walked among the memorials, and visited the museum. I have glimpsed the results of the destruction of which humans are capable. I know that it is the obligation of every witness to the violence and inhumanity of the 20th Century to work towards a better and more peaceful future for all humans.

Maybe it is because I have visited these places that the events of the past week are so disturbing. It can feel like we are on a one-way spiral towards nihilism. Deep fissures in society fueled by venomous spitting on social media can make it seem like we are losing our sense of the common good and our ability to treat one another with decency.

When we condemn the violence and terrible acts, we quickly slide into blaming those withe whom we disagree. We fall prey to conspiracy theories or blaming when what is most needed is compassion and solidarity. Even the words that are used to console the victims can sound like campaign slogans instead of empathy.

While it is true that we have become more polarized and there are many warning signs that all is not well in our nation, it is also true that our nation is home to many caring and compassionate people. We have good neighbors who truly care about one another. We have a political system that is resilient and not destroyed when individuals make bad decisions. We have a system of participatory government where “We the people” have more power than the individuals at the top of the system. There are signs of warning, to be sure. We need to be vigilant and careful. But there are also signs of hope. Not every week has to unfold like the last one. Not every week will. Perhaps the week is the wake up call that we all need to reach out across the divides and bridge the gaps and remind ourselves that we are all in this 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!

A big challenge

There are still a few world records that have not yet been set. Although humans have done some truly amazing things, if you look around you can find some things that have not yet been done. If you are going for a world record, there are two ways to do so. You can find an area where you are better than anyone else who has don it: run faster, climb higher, endure longer. At the moment Usain Bolt holds the record for the fastest 100m race. His fastest time, 9.58 scones beat his previous record of 9.6 seconds. That was faster than the 9.63 seconds with which he won the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But, like the rest of us, Bolt is growing older. It is unlikely that he will set another record. Tyson Gay and Yohan Blake have both run the course at 9.69 seconds and both have beat Bold in individual runs. There are a half dozen runners who have broken 9.8 seconds. But breaking Bolt’s record is going to be a monumental challenge. It is conceivable that the only way to run faster would be to discover some breakthrough in nutrition for some evolution in human beings to occur.

The second way to set a world record is to do something that fewer people have done. If you accomplish something that no one else has done, you’ll hold the record just for having finished the task. Of course the easy things have already been done. You’ll still need strength, resourcefulness and endurance to set a world record.

There is a third way to set a record: wait, age and become the oldest person to do something.

Irish born Shirley Thompson is going for two of the three. She intends to set off in December to row solo across the Atlantic ocean. If she makes it she will be the oldest female to row solo across any ocean and the first Irish female to row solo across an ocean.

There aren’t too many ocean rowers out there. Fewer people have rowed across an ocean than climbed Everest. Rowing across the Atlantic is a significant challenge. It can take up to three months of rowing 16 to 18 hours per day. Solo rowers face sleep deprivation. Because of the fragile nature of their craft, they have to keep the boat headed in the correct direction in relationship to the waves and therefore generally cannot sleep for more than tow hours at a time, even with a directional autopilot. No days off for 90 days on two hours of sleep at a time is definitely a feat of endurance.

There are real dangers in ocean rowing. Whales, sharks, submarines and submerged gas bubbles all may be encountered. Tankers and cruise ships pose the danger of fatal collisions. Small craft have become entangled in lost fishing nets. Although she plans to row outside of hurricane season, early hurricanes have occurred. She’ll likely encounter thunderstorms with lightning. There can always be rogue waves that will roll or capsize her boat. She will have to be capable to self rescue. Being thrown off the boat, even with a safety tether requires strength and mental fitness to get back in the boat. She’ll probably have to endure sea sickness, salt sores, blisters and could face sunstroke.

Oh, and did I mention that Shirley Thompson doesn’t have much experience with rowing. She decided to attempt the record in March. She wasn’t a sailor. She wasn’t a rower. She didn’t know how to swim. She started with a water rowing machine and worked her way up from four hours a day to 16 - 18 hours a day on the rowing machine. When she wasn’t rowing the machine, she took courses in sea survival, First Aid, Navigation, Seamanship.

Then there was the challenge of the boat. She didn’t own a boat. And ocean rowers are all custom boats. She did manage to find one that would do, but it had to be rebuilt and refurbished to meet her needs. The cost of the boat, when ready for the adventure will be close to $100,000.

It is a significant challenge for someone with a few of her peers already retired and plenty more of them more focused on retirement than on a monumental physical challenge.

It can be done. Canadian Jean-Guy Sauriol rowed across the Atlantic at 60 years of age. He made it in 74 days and three hours. At one point he capsized twice in the same night. The first time he was washed out of the boat and had to climb back in. The second time he was in the cabin with a helmet, but his face was slammed against a wall hard enough to give him a fat lip, a loose tooth and a bruise on his knee. Rowers have to bend their knees with every stroke. A sliding seat allows them to put the power of their legs as well as their arms into their strokes.

Human beings have achieved a lot of things that were once thought to be impossible. Humans are amazing in their capacity for strength, endurance and mental fitness. Shirley Thompson actually has done quite a bit of mental preparation for her challenge. She has run a lot of foot races over the years and has done several endurance feats including ultra runs in the desert, the mountains, Antarctica and the jungle. She is a pioneer of jungle racing and was a race organizer of the Brazil Amazon Jungle race. She has been in hostile environments.

But rowing solo across the Atlantic will pose a new and different challenge for her. She’ll be alone for the entire trip. Out in the middle of the ocean, there is plenty of time for your mind to wander and plenty of time to wonder why you are doing this in the first place.

I wish her well in her adventure. It is the challenge of a lifetime. And, if she succeeds, her name will be in the record books. The next Irish woman over 60 to attempt will have to do it faster to claim a record.

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!

River Adventure Books

I don’t remember how old I was when I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. I’m pretty sure it was a kind of follow-up read to the Adventures of Tom Sawyer. At any rate, I was a student in elementary school at the time and the book stirred my imagination about river travel. We lived next to the Boulder River, which runs into the Yellowstone River just two miles downstream from our place. The Yellowstone runs into the Missouri near the Montana-North Dakota border and the Missouri runs into the Mississippi near the border of Kansas and Missouri. I knew these facts. We floated on the Boulder in our own makeshift rafts, usually with a few inner tubes as the primary flotation. We tried to make rafts of logs and sticks, but were usually unsuccessful. Although the Lewis and Clark expedition made dugout canoes from cottonwood trees felled near our town, which got its name, Big Timber, from that expedition, cottonwood logs are heavy and were too unwieldy for us as children.

So I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a story about a momentous river trip. I think that many of the discussions between Huck and Jim that explore Huck’s racism and his struggles with whether or not to turn in Jim escaped my attention. I do remember a conversation with my mother over the frequent use of the “N” word in the book. She said that it was kind of like cursing. There are words that other people use and that you might hear in a conversation that you should never use yourself. The “N” word was one such word. In fact, I’m not sure that I saw it as different than a vulgar curse word at the time. I had to grow up a bit and learn more about the world before I began to understand the dynamics of racism.

If you take the book as a river adventure, it has got to be the most popular river story of all time. The book has sold an estimated 20 million copies since first published in 1885. I pay attention to stories of river adventures. I have had a few river adventures of my own and I own a stable of canoes, mostly hand-built. I also have a collection of books about canoeing and canoe adventures. I even own a copy of Steve Chapple’s Kayaking the Full Moon. It is a story of paddling the length of the Yellowstone River from the border of Yellowstone National Park to the confluence with the Missouri. It has received a bit of popular acclaim, but there is a particular story, about the shooting of a camper, that is retold in the book from only one perspective. Since I knew the victim of the shooting, I felt that Chapple’s handling of it was very poorly researched and did not tell the real story. It made me suspicious of other tales told in the book. I think that the truth might have been stretched in the story. It did, however, sort of make me want to make the journey myself. I’ve paddled quite a bit of the Yellowstone in short sections, always day trips, but that was how Chappel did it also.

So I like river adventure stories. In that light, Eddy Harris’ 1988 book, Mississippi Solo: A River Quest, can be read as a paddling book. It is often sold as travel writing. It chronicles weeks of paddling, adventures with barges and wild dogs and an encounter with a couple of shotgun-toting and very dangerous bigots.

Eddy Harris’ book, however, is not only a book about a river adventure. Like Huckleberry Finn, it is a book about racism in America. Harris is a black man traveling alone from “where there ain’t no black folks to where they still don’t like us much.” The book was republished by Macmillan a decade after it was initially published and it was the Macmillan edition that caught my eye. The book came back to my attention this year when I read an article in Paddling Magazine that reported that a documentary film, River to the Heart, is being made about Harris’ river adventure.

It is a good time for Americans to be having conversations about race and racism. The rise of white nationalism in our country is truly alarming and dangerous. I have not seen the movie, but it might be a good catalyst for important conversations.

Thinking about the book, however, brought to mind another book that might be called a paddling book that isn’t really about river travel, James Dickey’s Deliverance. The movie based on the novel was a box office hit and is still available on YouTube, Amazon Prime, and Google Play. For around $3 you can watch it again and listen to the famous dueling banjos, which is about the most that folks remember of the movie. As a paddler, I’d prefer movies about the adventures of paddling rather than violence erupting between backwoods locals and river travelers.

The truth is that wilderness travel by canoe or kayak has dangers, but the dangers don’t come from the people who live in the wilderness. They come from the challenges of reading rivers and handling rapids. They come from paddlers who are unprepared or untrained in river rescue. Stories of wild-eyed and murderous locals don’t hold my interest for long.

Like other adventures, however, paddling reflects that realities of the people who undertake the adventure. We are flawed human beings. We reflect the society in which we live. A river adventure can be a tale of racism in America. It can be an opportunity to discuss the prejudices we carry and how we might change those prejudices and form a better society for all people. A true adventure, properly undertaken can bring out the best in humans. I’ve seen young people whose lives were transformed by waterspouts adventures. An encounter with wilderness can teach us about what is most important and who we really are.

It is probably time for me to re-read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Despite its use of inappropriate language, it may still have some lessons to teach 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!

Building faith

Last night I found out that there will be a Habitat for Humanity Faith Build in 2019. We have had a couple of faith builds in the past, and we currently have a faith build going this year. The concept is pretty simple. A group of churches decided to partner with Habitat for Humanity to build a house. Each church contributes what it is able in terms of financial support and volunteer hours and somehow the home gets built.

In a sense, every Habitat for Humanity house is a faith build. People have faith that a construction company that sells homes at no profit and makes mortgages at no interest will be sustainable. People believe that others deserve home ownership and that having simple, decent housing is essential to family security and stability. Habitat for Humanity International has become an enormous enterprise. From a single house, built in San Antonio, Texas, and a small cluster of homes in Zaire in 1976, Habitat for Humanity has become the world’s largest not-for-profit builder in the world. In 2013, the 800,000th home was dedicated. Every year approximately two million volunteers help with Habitat for Humanity home construction. Here in Rapid City, Black Hills Area Habitat for Humanity has been building homes for 28 years and last spring we dedicated our 100th house. I was blessed to be able to speak at that dedication.

Our affiliate is a complex organization with many committees and dozens of employees. We have a retail Re-Store and professional builders who lead teams of volunteers. But Habitat for Humanity is really a very simple concept. Millard Fuller used to call it the finances of Jesus. The Bible is very clear in its instruction not to charge interest of those who are impoverished. Habitat for Humanity helps families get into home ownership for a price that is less expensive than renting substandard housing by selling homes at no profit and financing the purchases at no interest. For each home we build, we raise the necessary funds so all expenses are paid up front. Then when the mortgage is paid, the funds are reinvested in building more homes. In that first partnership project in the community of Bokotola in Zaire, they started with a single house and within three years had built 120 houses.

I think of a faith build in a completely different manner, however. I know that fail will build houses. I know it takes faith to start a house when not all of the money is raised. I know that the faith of volunteers and donors makes it possible. I know that faith is built into the home and transferred in the dedication of the home.

But I think that building Habitat for Humanity houses also helps those who participate to grow in faith. A mature faith is a lifelong challenge. We all can benefit from opportunities to grow in faith. A faith build project builds faith in the people who participate.

I remember when our congregation decided to sponsor a Habitat for Humanity house to celebrate our 125th anniversary. When we had the congregational meeting to launch the project, our finances had taken a downturn. Pledge income had fallen about $20,000 behind expenses in the first six months of the year. Although we had reserves to keep the church running, we were worried about our financial state. Then we decided to ask the congregation to approve a $40,000 project to build a home as an expression of our gratitude to the community that had provided us a home for 125 years. Each year we had benefitted from police and fire protection and a stable city government with reliable services. Each year we had occupied land within the city that was exempt from property taxes. It make sense to give back and pay forward by building a Habitat for Humanity House. However, we were already falling behind in our fund raising. Adding another big financial commitment was counter-intuitive. It might have been argued that it would make better sense to launch the Habitat for Humanity home after we got our own finances in order. Nonetheless, the congregation voted to proceed. The funds for the Habitat House were raised. The home was built. The congregational vote was held in May and the family was in their home for Christmas that year. And while we were raising money for the house and recruiting volunteers to build we didn’t have much time to worry about our own finances, which recovered and we ended the year in the black.

Despite what some people will tell you about asking too many times or the need to be timid in financial decisions, the truth is that generosity begets generosity. Giving begets giving. When the church as an institution practices generosity, its people lear from the example.

So we still have a bit of money to raise to complete this year’s Faith Build. We did a good job of recruiting volunteers and engaging congregations in the plan, but we didn’t raise as much money as we intended. There is work that remains to be done. And we will be asked to make a commitment to next year’s faith build as well.

It is an opportunity to build our faith.

One of the great sources of inspiration for me for more than a decade has been a young woman who as a high school student raised a lot of money for Habitat for Humanity. She and her sister astounded and inspired us with their dedication, resourcefulness, and faith. One night when I was serving as emcee for A South Dakota Acoustic Christmas, I invited them to join me on the stage to celebrate their dedication and faithfulness to Habitat for Humanity. That young woman is now 28 years old. In a tragic and unforeseen accident, she was injured on the job site of the faith build this summer. It wasn’t just a little accident. Her injuries were permanent and life-altering. In just two months, she has made an incredible and inspiring recovery. I got to see some pictures of her playing basketball from her wheelchair. She had already invested heavily in Habitat for Humanity. Now she has literally poured her life into home building in partnership with those in need. Her faith is incredible.

Were we to show less faith or to be willing to sacrifice less, it would be understood and forgiven by God. But perhaps her faithfulness and sacrifice can be an inspiration for us to be more generous and more giving. I pray that this is so. Now I need to turn my prayers into action. It is how faith is built.

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 climate of fear

Several years ago, when we were just starting our firewood deliveries, we were traveling in a small caravan of pickups and trailers to a location on the Pine Ridge Reservation to make a delivery. We stopped at Sharp’s Corner to use the bathrooms and purchase a few snacks. Sharp’s Corner is a typical Reservation location: a convenience store and gas station in an older building. Locals come to the area because it is the closest source of gas and groceries to their remote homes. Sure the price of milk is high, but when you have to drive for all of your supplies you learn to factor in the price of gas when you head out for groceries. These days there is a dialysis center at Sharp’s Corner, but back then there wasn’t much else there.

Later, after we had gone back home, I learned that some in our caravan had chosen not to go into the store. One person commented to me that there was a question about the safety of the place. The comment set me back. You have to understand that I’m a real small town kid. When I lived in Chicago, I used to fear having my car break down in busy, urban areas. I thought that no one would help me and that they were dangerous places. On the other hand, I had no trouble driving our old, quite worn and usually overloaded car across the wide open spaces. I would cut across the Cheyenne River and Crow Reservations in Montana because the narrow country roads felt more safe to me than the Interstate highway. I knew if I had trouble, the first car that came along would offer help. I used to breathe a sigh of relief each time we crossed the Missouri River heading west. It seemed to me, at the time, that folks were more friendly and I was more at home west of that river.

I’ve since learned that some of my biases are inaccurate. There are some really nice people who live east of the river. We even met some genuinely nice people in Chicago. I’m nowhere near as afraid of the city now as I was when we first moved there.

Still, I just couldn’t understand why someone was sensing danger about going into a little store in the middle of nowhere. It seemed perfectly safe to me.

Later I learned that there are some people who live in our town who have never gone to the neighboring Reservations and who think of them as drug-infested, alcoholic-filled places of danger. I’ve even learned that there are people who think that some neighborhoods in our city are too dangerous to visit at night.

I just don’t experience any fear. I enjoy trips to the Reservation. I like to see my friends who live there. I respond to calls in all of the neighborhoods in our town and I go wherever I have business without any fear at all, day or night. Yes, there are some crimes committed in our town, but they have never been targeted at me. We live in a very safe place. Anyone with just a little bit of street smarts can walk anywhere in our town without fear.

Fear is a powerful motivator. It can be stoked by conversation and talk. More often than not, people’s fears are based on stories that are less than true. The things of which they are afraid are dangers that exist only in the imaginations and stories of others.

Psychologists have special language for identifying and treating those who suffer from excessive fear. Paranoia is the irrational and persistent feeling that you are at risk. Those suffering from this condition often feel that others are out to get them. Psychologists distinguish between paranoid personality disorder, delusional disorder and paranoid schizophrenia. The middle of those three, delusional disorder, is fear when no real danger exists. In its extreme form it is a mental illness that requires intensive treatment, often including powerful medicines and treatment in a hospital.

There are plenty of people, however, who do not have a mental illness and do not need intensive therapy who experience fear when no danger exists.

Stirring fears has become a popular political strategy in recent years. Politicians pontificate about dangers as reasons that people should vote for them. Often the so-called dangers are things that are not really threatening, but if you repeat a story often enough some people will begin to believe it. If you speak of fear often enough, some people will become afraid. For millennia, those who seek power have known that a common enemy will unite people and that fear will motivate them to yield authority to leaders. There are plenty of stories from history of leaders who abused that power and who manipulated the fears of large groups of people without benefit to the people.

It certainly seems like the dominant emotion of the upcoming election is fear. Political ads predicting disaster are airing so often that it is hard, even for someone like me who doesn’t watch television, to escape them. Basically the formula is this: If you vote for my opponent, terrible things will happen. Scare tactics are being used by both sides in this highly divisive, hyper-partisan campaign season.

If you stoke false fears enough, they can turn into real danger. Yesterday, pipe bombs were discovered in packages sent to public officials all over the country. While investigators have not yet announced a suspect or a motive, all of the intended targets are favorite targets of politicians who use fear to stir up the public and make political gain. Attack ad after attack ad have been aimed at the same people over and over again stating that they present dangers and should be feared. Someone, or someones, probably suffering from delusional paranoia, attempted to eliminate the so-called threat by using physical violence. So far no one has been hurt, but real violence is often the outcome of exposing people to the constant drumbeat of fear.

Voters have spent months learning about imagined threats.

It is time for leaders who have the courage to speak of hope. Sadly, there seems to be a lack of courage in the current atmosphere of fear. Hope, however, never dies. So this weekend, we'll be delivering firewood again and thinking about our neighbors and their needs instead of the fears of politicians. In the end, as the Bible teaches, faith, hope and love remain.

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!

Some criminals are easy to catch

BBC News is reporting the story of a Belgian e-cigarette shop owner who found himself in a frightening situation and yet was able to think clearly in he midst of pressure. Here is what happened:

A gang of robbers walked into his shop. There were six people in the group that intended to pull off a daylight robbery in the suburban shop. The clerk told them that there was almost no cash in the shop at the moment, but if they returned at the end of the business day, he would have 2 or 3,000 euros.

The group bought his bluff and left the shop. The clerk called the police. The police informed him that they probably wouldn’t come back. But they did come back at 5:30 in the afternoon, an hour before the shop’s closing time. The clerk recognized one of the robbers and told him it still was not the end of the business day and that they needed to return at 6:30 when the shop was closing. They did and this time the police were waiting for them. Five men were arrested including a juvenile.

It almost sounds like a joke. The robbers have been labeled the worst robbers in Belgium.

I enjoy reading stories about criminals who make mistakes and intended victims who escape unscathed. I know that the motivations for crime are multiple and that desperation sometimes causes people to do the wrong thing, but I always find myself cheering for the intended victims in these stories.

In another story, a shop where a previous armed robbery had taken place was entered by three thieves, armed with a knife and two handguns. The shop assistant grabbed a box of chili powder and threw it into the faces of the would-be robbers and they fled the scene.

I’ve heard of using baseball bats and handguns and pepper spray as defensive weapons, but I don’t think I would have thought of chili powder. Who knew I had such powerful weapons in my own spice cabinet.

I don’t plan on carrying chili powder in place of bear spray in grizzly country, however.

There is the story of the young man attempting to shoplift a bottle of wine. When confronted by a security guard he dropped the wine and also dropped his wallet which contained his ID. He was arrested within a half hour of the attempted crime.

A man went into a target store complaining of a printer that he had bought. He was dissatisfied with the quality of its output. The store agreed to accept the return of the printer and give the customer a refund. However, when the printer was returned, the customer had left some of his work in the printer - counterfeited money. He was soon arrested, charged and convicted.

Three British robbers attempted to steal an ATM machine. They wrapped a chain around the machine and attached the chain to the bumper of their car. The machine stayed put, but the bumper was pulled off of the car. The robbers fled the scene leaving behind their bumper and the license plate of the car. They were soon arrested, and easily identified by the security cameras that captured their attempted robbery.

I also read he story of a burglar who broke into a garage to see what he could steel. He found a refrigerator with beer inside and popsicles in the freezer. He decided to enjoy a treat. However, he removed his false teeth to enjoy the popsicles and ended up leaving them behind. I don’t know exactly how the police found the perpetrator, but I can imagine them looking suspiciously at anyone who had no teeth until they got their match. The burglar did 16 months in the county jail for his crime.
In Minneapolis they still tell the story of the man who got into an argument at a bus stop. The argument became intense and the man threw several punches, injuring others who were at the bus stop. As he fled the scene, he dropped a folder. When the police came to investigate they examined the folder which contained the assailant’s homework from an anger management class. He was identified, arrested and convicted. One wonders if he ever completed the course.

A robber had the clerk of a convenience store put cash into a bag and then fled the store. However, he forgot the bag with the money on the counter. When he turned around to claim the loot, an auto lock system made reentry into the store impossible. The robber was staring into the store and pounding on the glass door when police arrived and arrested him.

Police were summoned in Hickory, North Carolina to a restaurant where a thief had made off with their cash register. As the thief fled, the roll of receipt paper had fallen from the machine. The police followed the paper trail 50 yards to the man’s apartment where he was arrested.

Then there is the thief who took his son with him when he robbed a pet store. He left, however, without his son, who told police when they arrived the name of his father who was arrested.

A Scottish shoplifter, after stealing a bottle of vodka, noticed the attractive clerk and paused to flirt with her. She managed to get him to leave his name and phone number before he left with the stolen vodka. You can imagine how easy it was for the investigating officers to find and arrest the thief.

A careful burglar robbed a home and left no fingerprints. However, he paused to take a gulp from an orange juice container and left it in the sink. An alert crime investigator noticed the bottle, took a DNA sample which matched DNA in the database and led to the arrest of the burglar.

A man in California specialized in stealing bicycles, bicycle parts and accessories. His home was filled with stolen items. He would steal the items and then sell them on the internet. One day he managed to unknowingly sell a bicycle to the person he had stolen it from, who promptly called the police and gave them the information they needed to lock him up.

There are hundreds and hundreds of similar stories. It seems that some criminals aren’t all that careful and the impulsiveness that results in crime often results in leaving behind significant evidence. If these kinds of crime were all that were involved, I might enjoy being an investigator. Sadly, however, there are many crimes in which victims are injured and killed. We all know that crime doesn’t pay. Sometimes, however, it does provide a bit of entertainment.

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 more complex view of the Bible

I was ten years old when the United Church of Christ published what was then simply called the new Curriculum. After the formation of the United Church of Christ, the education staffs of the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Church were merged into a common group of educators for the new United Church of Christ. One of their first tasks was creating a comprehensive curriculum for Christian Education. The project was large and expensive. Staff writers created the books and resources. Many of the books were published as hard cover volumes. Care was given to the selection of artwork. Contemporary images were introduced. There was some controversy over the new resources, but they were widely embraced by the church. I am not sure when the congregation that I grew up in first embraced the new resources, but I was probably about a sixth grader at the time. My mother was among the representatives of our Conference who undertook the introduction of the curriculum to local congregations. We had many of the books that were a part of the curriculum in our home and I read a fair number of them as a child.

The approach to learning and teaching was carefully thought through as was the theology and biblical resources. The curriculum used the Revised Standard Version of the Bible and was careful to turn to theologians and teachers to insure its biblical integrity.

This was a huge change from the resources that had been used by many congregations. No small amount of congregations of the United Church of Christ turned to the publisher David C. Cook for resources, which focused on short preparation times for teachers and often used comic book formats for student resources. The shift to denominational resources and a more academic focused approach was a big change for many congregations.

Because the change took place in my church during my Sunday School years, I have been shaped by the resources that our church used. In my early Sunday School years, many Old Testament figures were presented as heroes and the stories selected were usually the most dramatic and easiest to tell. Other stories were pretty much avoided. Then, as I became a teenager, we were introduced to academic bible study and more advanced tools for interpretation. I was intrigued by this approach and I am sure that it influenced my choices of study during my college and graduate school years.

As a young child, however, I thought of Biblical figures as heroes of stories. I and not sure whether I thought of the stories as fiction or history, but they were stories that seemed to be important to adults who I respected. I learned about David’s defeat of Goliath, but there was no lesson on his affair with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah. I thought of Biblical heroes as fairly uncomplicated characters and knew little of their flaws.

The story that was always taught about Solomon, as an example of his wisdom, was the famous judgement when two women, both claiming to be the mother of a child, were brought to him for judgment. The way that we were taught the story, Solomon revealed their true feelings and relationship to the child by suggesting that the baby be cut in two, with each woman to receive half. My reaction to the story was horror. What a terrible idea, to cut a baby in half. I remember thinking that neither woman would have really accepted such a solution. Even the woman who was the imposter and not the mother would not have stood for the butchering of the child.

Many years later, I read the novel “God Knows” by Joseph Heller. In that book it is hinted that Solomon was not really all that wise, but rather that he really wanted to cut a baby in half. I know it is just a novel and not a book of biblical scholarship, but the image has lingered and when I study that section of the bible, my eyebrows are raised a bit.

In the first book of Samuel, Samuel is asked by the people to appoint a King. They want to be like other nations: “That we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles.” Samuel warns the people that they should be careful what they wish for. A king, he warns, will confiscate property, conscript sons and daughters, and impose taxes. (1 Samuel 8:11-17). Samuel’s predictions all come true. Israel becomes a more centralized state. Instead of a few highly regarded individuals taking on the role of seer, prophet, judge or military commander, usually on a temporary basis, Israel opts for a strong monarchy with a permanent and professional king, a military command structure, and all of the trappings of a centralized government. By the time of King Solomon, who builds the temple at Jerusalem, the official government was becoming nearly absolute in its power, with knowledge, wealth and power all being consolidated in one city under a single King.

This centralized structure doesn’t really work for the freedom-loving people of God. the monarchy becomes divided and eventually breaks up entirely. The nation is defeated by more powerful nations. The people are taken off into exile. And the prophets, who had warned of such, had to bit their lips and refrain from saying “We told you so,” as they offer comfort to the displaced and devastated people.

Our history is more complex than was presented in my childhood comic books. And some of the great heroes of our faith were the prophets who argued against centralized government for Israel in the first place.

The warnings of Samuel are prominently featured in the writings of 17th and 18th century English and North American writers who were resisting the growing power of the Stuart monarchy and the efforts of the British Empire to exert its power over the North American colonies. Those warnings are equally relevant today in a time of immensely centralized governmental power.

Fortunately for those of us who don’t want to see babies cut in two or families torn asunder, there are more voices in the Bible than that of Solomon and more wisdom than a single story.

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

Halloween already?

Halloween is more than a week away, but our neighborhood is starting to look like it is ready for the holiday. One neighbor has really gotten into decorating. There are small pieces to cloth tied to the trees to resemble tiny ghosts, lights in the trees, a large inflatable figure that is all lit up and more. Other neighbors have decorated as well. We’ve had a small population boom at our end of the street. There are a few children in some of the houses. Last year we had a dozen or so children come to the house to trick-or-treat. There was a party that included children across the street and some of those who attended went up and down our street. But it is safe to say that our neighborhood is really different from the popular destinations for trick or treat in our city. We hav friends who live on West boulevard who had 1,500 come to their house last year. They take turns, but someone sits outside to respond to the parade of children and youth rather than have them come to the door and ring the bell. It is a steady stream from about 4:30 in the afternoon until they turn off the lights six hours or so later.

My memories of Halloween when I was going up include going to the neighbors and receiving treats. We worked fairly hard on our costumes some years and other years we kind of threw something together at the last minute. At our house, Trick or treat was for the younger children. By the time you got to high school you were expected to leave that practice behind. For the most part, youth and adults didn’t wear costumes. The rule in our home was that trick or treat couldn’t start until it was dark out and you had to be home by 8 pm if there was school the next day or 9 pm if Halloween landed on the weekend. Halloween was the big candy holiday for us. We didn’t see much candy after that until Christmas, when there’d be a bit in our stockings, but other than those occasions we didn’t have much candy around our house.

Over the years I have noticed that the celebration of Halloween and some other holidays has become a much bigger event. I have friends who went to “The Haunting of Keystone” last night. It was the second weekend of organized tours through the town’s several locations with haunted houses with specially constructed and decorated sets, staffed by volunteer actors who work hard to get a scream out of their visitors. You have to have advance tickets to visit the attractions. A ticket to a single attraction, such as the mine or the schoolhouse is $10. A $30 wristband allows visits to all of the attractions. The attractions are popular with teens and our friends who were going last night are adults.

I’m not all that interested in paying others to scare me. But then again, I’m not into riding roller coasters or attending scary movies, either.

For many, Halloween is more than a single evening. It is a month or more of special events and activities. The pumpkin festival in Rapid City was in September this year. I don’t know if that was because of a full schedule or other reasons, but there have been plenty of decorations up for quite a while in our town.

The name Halloween refers to a single evening. The holiday grew, in part out of the mystery of death. All Saints Day, on November 1. The festival has been known as All Hallow’s Day, Feast of Saints and even Solemnity of Saints. It arose in the Christian church out of a strong sense that there is a deep connection between those who are living and those who have died. Those who die in faith are not absent from the world. Even though there is no physical presence, life is not conquered by death. Resurrection is promised to all who live and die in faith. In the Western Church the celebration of saints begins with vespers on October 31. In the Eastern Orthodox Church all saints is celebrated on the first Sunday after Pentecost. A few other communions recognize all saints on the first Friday after Easter.

In parts of the Western Christian world, All Saints was offered as a liturgical response to pre-existing observances that were not related to Christianity. The Celtic Samhain, also known as the festival of the dead, was observed before Christianity came to the British Isles. There were also observances in Germany and other areas of Europe that explored connections between those who had died and those who are still living.

From about the eighth century the observance was expanded to November 2, which was all souls day. On all saints day, faithful people remembered those who had distinguished themselves by their faith and had been recognized by the church as saints, although it was always acknowledged that the observance was of saints “known and unknown,” acknowledging that there were some saints who lacked official recognition. The following day, designated as all souls day, was for observing and honoring all who had died. The concept that as long as someone remembers a person continues to live became popular.

The celebration of all saints and all souls was popular as Christianity spread to the American continents. Observances in Central and South America have become very popular. Lighting candles, placing flowers and candies on graves and other observances are designed to honor and remember those who have died.

Popular observances of Halloween seem to have lost much of the connection with death and the mystery of what happens to one who dies. Concepts such as zombies and people who are not quite dead as well as portrayals of characters that don’t exist in real life have become popular as people seek the rush of emotion that comes from being frightened.

In Guatemala, All Saints Day is a time to fly kites. It is believed that kites help to make a connection with those who have died. That seems like more fun than going into a poorly lit house staffed by actors who are trying to scare you. Maybe I’ll get out a kite this year. It is always fun to have the neighbors wondering what I am doing.

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 border

I once visited a man in prison who I was told was among the worst of the worst of offenders. His list of crimes included drug smuggling and distribution, assault and murder. I was told that he was part of the “Mexican Mafia,” which was dealing drugs and bringing violence to our area. It is not my position to be a law enforcement officer. I am not a judge. I was there only because a man requested the opportunity to have a chaplain pray with him. He may or may not have been telling me the truth. I’ve been lied to many times. But he said that he loved his wife and children. He said that he wanted to make amends and change his ways. He said that he was sorry for his crimes. That is pretty much what most prisoners say to me. Talking to me has no effect on their status within the facility nor the status of their legal proceedings. I only bring up this story because part of the story he told me was of his coming to this country from his native Mexico. He didn’t sneak across the border. He didn’t swim across a river. He didn’t trek across a desert. He drove across the border in a late-model car and passed through a regular border crossing without incident. At least that is what he told me.

I want to emphasize that one experience with one person in jail doesn’t make me any kind of an expert. I’ve had enough experiences with those who are incarcerated, and with those who are not in trouble with the law, to know that not every story that you hear is the truth.

Most people in jail will tell me that they are innocent. I once had a man swear to me that he was innocent of the crime that had landed him in jail. We were stirring at a small metal table with him ini his prison uniform and a guard peeking in through the window. The only thing on the table was my bible, from which I had just read. So he didn’t exactly swear on the bible, but he came pretty close. I am not a judge, but a jury of his peers under the supervision of a judge did convict him. I know that the court system does make mistakes, but another possibility is that he wasn’t telling me the whole truth.

I remember a man who told me, in no uncertain terms, that he would do anything to save his marriage. He didn’t. Perhaps it was because he couldn’t. Addictions are powerful and his was severe. I believed at the time that he was serious about making changes and amends. Things didn’t work out the way we had imagined when we were together.

I’ve heard some pretty incredible stories from people who come by the church in need of money. There was a woman who I helped with groceries and an occasional tank of gas who spoke of her love for her children and the trials of being a single mother. She seemed genuine and sincere. But I could tell the street price of a hit of methamphetamine by her requests for cash. She always had a story about why she needed cash instead of groceries, even though she knew from experience that I don’t hand out cash.

I don’t make any attempt to figure out the guilt or innocence of those who come to talk to me. I occasionally remind them that it is God who is the ultimate judge and it is God who brings justice. I have occasionally interrupted a story to remind the person telling it that they don’t have to convince me of anything. I try to provide food for hungry people. I try to do what I can to help. I sometimes believe that giving people what they ask for is not helpful. I am not a banker. I don’t loan money. I am not aware of any place where you can get free gas. It is something that has to be paid for if you are to obtain it.

I write this only to say that I am no expert. Still I can’t believe that a group of families with children trying to get out of Honduras to escape poverty and impossible living conditions are all drug smugglers and rapists and murders. Some of them are the victims of brutal gangs and terrible crimes. They have a dream of coming to the United States to make a better life for themselves. They have been told that if they present themselves at the border and ask for status as refugees they might be allowed to enter the United States. It seems like a desperate dream. We have read plenty of articles about people being turned away at the border. We know that the tightening of immigration policy has led to separation of families and detention camps for children. But these people are taking incredible risks in part because they are desperate. They want to find a better life than the poverty and victimization that they have known.

It is not my place to judge who should and who should not be allowed to cross the border. I just want to observe that it seems that some people who are innocent and desperate are being turned back while some violent criminals are crossing the border without problems. The system is imperfect and proposed solutions such as building a wall and closing the border crossings don’t seem to hold out much hope of providing for safety and security for those who suffer.

I’m sure I have much more to learn. I am no expert. But I look at the pictures of children sleeping on the ground in the refugee camps and I read the stories of desperate parents trying to build a better future for their children and I am convinced that the refugees are not our enemies.

I didn’t just carry a bible with me when I visit in the jail. I also read it. It is pretty clear in its instructions on how we are to treat immigrants and strangers in our land. It would be a good read for the policy makers and politicians 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!

Overcoming bias

From time to time I will mention having grown up near the mountains in Montana and the fact that when I moved away from that state I fully expected that I would soon return to live there. I think about the simple fact that my life didn’t work out that way and that i have not returned to that place. My friends can sense a bit of longing in my heart and will make comments about how things did turn out. They remind me that I live in a beautiful place, which is true. Despite a kind of nostalgia about my growing up years, I am truly fortunate to live in a place I love. I’ve lived in my current house more years than I have lived anywhere. I enjoy waking to deer in my yard and watching the turkeys come and go. I like my neighbors and I love the work that I do. I count myself among the most fortunate of people. Life has been good to me and if I occasionally wonder how things might have been different, I do not intend to be complaining.

It is interesting to me how certain biases in my life have been challenged by experiences that teach me to question my assumptions. My grandfather endured some hard times in North Dakota. Born in a sod sack to homesteading parents, their family was among the fortunate ones who were able to stick it out and form a successful farming operation in Dakota Territory. When North Dakota became a state, they endured the ups and down of the farm economy and the weather. As an adult, he nearly lost the farm during the Great Depression and they endured some pretty lean years. So when he saw the opportunity to sell the farm and purchase a gas station in Montana, he picked up his family and moved on. That all happened before I was born, so when the stories were told, they had been stripped of tales of the good times in North Dakota. It wasn’t until after my grandfather died that I learned about the grandeur of prairie sunrises and sunsets, the community of friends and neighbors and many other things that had been left behind. Folks in Montana tell North Dakota jokes that don’t portray the people of North Dakota in a positive light. My grandfather told the jokes along with the rest and when he was challenged for an off color joke, he’d reply that his winters in North Dakota earned him the right to tell those stories. My grandfather was able to sell his first service station and move up into the mountains to secure his retirement with an investment in the tourist economy. He took to the high country very well. And I grew up with geographical biases as well. Real mountains soar above the tree line. There are no mountains in the Dakotas. And when a family vacation included a stop at Wall Drug of Mount Rushmore we were reminded again that they call the Black Hills hills because they are not mountains.

Moving to North Dakota was, for me, a temporary solution to the simple fact that there were no United Church of Christ congregations seeking a full time pastor when we graduated from seminary. The towns where we moved were not that far from the Montana boarder and we got used to driving home for holidays and vacations. I remember rising one Christmas morning after finishing our Christmas Eve services, loading our infant son into the back seat of our Ford Pinto and bucking snow drifts across southwestern North Dakota and southeastern Montana for four hours, worrying about running out of gas for the last half hour or so of the trip. We finally found an open gas station in Miles City, Montana and the roads improved for the last three hours of the trip. We had Christmas dinner with family. Looking back, I’m pretty sure that I’d wait for the snow plows to get out before tackling such a trip these days. And I have an all-wheel drive car now.

The blessing of living in North Dakota was that I discovered how wrong my biases were. The people we served and our neighbors were intelligent, educated, thoughtful and caring. They were happy and they had a love for the prairie and a joy in sharing its beauties. They invited us into their homes, shared meals, and told us stories of neighbors helping neighbors. I learned that the landscape is not bleak or barren. The national grasslands are teaming with life. the land “where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play” is truly spectacular. I know a few places where I can go to this day where there is no sign of human habitation other than the highway and the fence next to it. There are hilltops where you can see for miles - as far as you can from the top of a mountain. And if you were to experience car trouble out there, the very first car that cam along would stop and offer help. And those people are good help, too. They knew how to fix things themselves.

I have lived a life that is remarkably free from loneliness. I’ve always been planted in the mist of good people. I have friends from my North Dakota days who are still my friends and we love to get together to talk. I doubt that we’ve ever voted the same way in a major election. We don’t share the same opinions on dozens and dozens of topics and we know that this is so. But we are good friends and we would do whatever we could to help each other. We share the same basic values and the same faith.

We are daily bombarded with stories about the deep divide in America. Partisan leaders speak as if we should consider those with whom we disagree to be our enemies. But it just isn’t so. When we reach beyond our biases, we find that those we labeled “other” are very similar to us indeed. Our biases are almost always wrong. And sometimes, through the grace of God, a kid from the mountains of Montana is allowed to walk on the prairies of the Dakotas and discover how wrong his thinking had been.

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!

Questions I can't answer

I have been working with families who have lost a loved one to suicide professionally for over 20 years now. I have ben trained in Applied Suicide Intervention Skills, Effective Suicide Prevention and Care for Caregivers, Sudden Loss and Trauma, QPR Institute Training, and LOSS Team practices and policies. I am a certified first responder to assist families who have suffered a loss to suicide and a team leader for our Local Outreach to Survivors of Suicide. Once, when taking a training for law enforcement chaplains in the field of suicide, I asked the instructor how many suicide scenes he had attended. He responded, “ten or twelve.” I’ve attended ten or twelve a year for the past decade and 5 to 7 a year for a decade before that.

I am not afraid to talk about suicide. I am not afraid to talk about death. I have had the sad and serious responsibility of being the one to notify family members that they have lost a loved one to suicide on multiple occasions.

I have a strong system of support. I follow procedures for diffusing and debriefing. I have access to a professional law enforcement psychologist when needed. I work with a team who are trained to look for signs that I need help.

Still, I found myself in a situation not long ago where I was struggling to find the right words.

“What is suicide?” is a tough question coming from a 7 year old whose 14 year old sister died by suicide. There were younger siblings in the room as well. “suicide is when the person who dies made a decision or took an action that resulted in their own death.” I began. “Sometimes, when a person isn’t thinking well, we say that the person isn’t in their right mind. Sometimes, when a person isn’t in their right mind they do something that causes them to die.” Then I asked, “Did that answer your question, or do you need more information?”

The answer satisfied the questioner, at least at the moment. My follow-up question unleashed a torrent of questions from an older brother, who wanted to know how several different types of suicide occur. He wanted to know details about hanging, self-inflicted gunshot wounds and drug overdose. While acknowledging that all of those means of suicide exist, it wasn’t the right time or place to go into details because of younger children in the room. On the other hand, I didn’t want him to go to the Internet for answers to his questions. There is too much that is too graphic for a grieving person in that location. I wanted him to know that he could trust me and my team to provide the information he needed. I arranged for a couple of us to have a conversation with him and his mother after the group meeting.

The entire conversation was so painful for the mother that she had trouble focusing. Her grief was so raw and the pain so deep that for a while I was in what I call “Tissue Dispenser Mode,” when about all I can do to comfort a grieving person is to make sure that they don’t injure themselves and provide tissues.

Of course I left resources. I try to always lave resources. I know that in the midst of shock and grief people can’t remember the words that I say. I left a book on talking with teens about suicide and grief. I left another book with specific things to do with younger children as they grieve. I left a document about talking with teens and children about grief and suicide. I left a packet with information about support groups and counseling services and a host of other community resources. I gave the children wrist bands with the suicide hot line and text line on them. I handed out cards with contact information.

But, as I mull the interaction in my mind and write up the reports, I know that I didn’t get all of the questions answered. I know that the question, “What is Suicide,” comes with other questions: “How could someone do that?” “What could have prevented it?” “Why did she do that?” And, most frightening of all, “Will that happen to me?”

I am a busy person. I know that there are a few people who think that my priorities are a bit skewed. There are some who think that I spend too much time on community outreach ministries and not enough time caring for the members of my congregation. They are definitely right about the second part of their observation. I could definitely spend more time providing care and visitation to those in need within the church. I know that there is room for adjustment and shifting of priorities.

But I also know that these children and their cousins and friends need and deserve competent follow up. I know they need a support group where they can meet regularly with people that they trust, people that they know understand them, people who will answer their questions honestly. And I know that I need to take the lead in setting up that group. It is not just a little bit important. It is life-and-death important.

But there is something else that I know. Death by suicide is increasing in our community. We haven’t “fixed” the problem by our response. All of our hard work and all of our interventions are less that what is required.

As a pastor and theologian I know that I am not the savior of the world. I know that I can’t fix the brokenness of this universe by my actions alone. I know that I am not the source of hope and faith and love. It isn’t all up to me. I can’t do it all.

To think otherwise would be to abandon humility and, eventually, to abandon my ability to help at all. I do this work because I know that God is present in every conversation. I do it because I know that Jesus showed us the way of resurrection. I do it because death is not the end.

And I’ve been doing it long enough to recognize that some questions left in my mind and some second thoughts are a good thing. Each night my prayer is one of placing these tender and irreplaceable young ones in God’s eternal care. Then in the morning I get up and go to work once again.

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

Bucket lists

I’ve written before about bucket lists. I don’t know the origin of the phrase, but it certainly became far more common in the popular lexicon after the release of the 2007 movie about two terminally ill men who leave a cancer ward to pursue a list of adventures they want to complete before they die. From time to time, people will tell me that there are things on their bucket lists: take a cruise, buy a certain kind of car, visit a particular destination. The lists are as varied as the people with whom I work.

The interesting thing is that people rarely talk in terms of bucket lists when they are facing a life-ending disease. That is a place where my experience differs from the plot of the movie. I know lots of people who would like to go on a few fantastic adventures. The chance to drive a race car or go on a safari in Africa or visit the Taj Mahal or see Antartica are appealing to people, but when they really come face to face with their own mortality, those items seem to fade from the priority list. Relationships with friends and family take center stage in the face of the end of life.

I suspect that making a bucket list has far more to do with living than with dying. People make bucket lists as an expression of what they want to do while they are living and as a reminder that sometimes it takes a shift in priorities to do discover what is really most important. People tend to get stuck in ruts and find themselves caught in patterns of behavior that don’t reflect their true values and an occasional look at their priorities can make a difference in their quality of life.

Three are several people with whom I am close who are receiving treatment for aggressive forms of cancer. Their illnesses have re-defined their lives. Chemotherapy treatments consume time and energy. All kinds of things in their lives have to be re-ordered to make time for the process of medical treatment. They have to be wise in their decisions about what to do with the few remaining moments when they have energy and spirit for other activities. It is a distinct honor that some of them choose to spend time with me.

We talk about a lot of subjects, but there aren’t many talks about going sky diving or taking raft trips down the Grand Canyon. We talk of plans to attend a daughter’s graduation or a granddaughter’s wedding. We talk about on-going projects that need to be completed and other projects that need to be handed off to another person. We talk about philosophy and religion and scripture and faith. We talk about resurrection.

Years ago, I had a conversation with a young man who loved to travel to exotic locations. He would work long hours at whatever job he could obtain, live as simply and inexpensively as possible and, after some months, or sometimes a couple of years, he would quit his job and head off to some distant part of the world on an adventure. I asked him how that worked in his life and received a fairly direct and simple answer. He selected a trip and destination and got as much information as he could about the cost. He would set a goal, usually somewhere between 18 months and 2 years. Then he would divide the cost by the number of months and set up a savings plan. He reminded himself of the rule of threes for outdoor survival: The average person can live for three hours without shelter, for three days without water and for three weeks without food. So his priorities for spending were: shelter, water and food. He was pretty minimalist with his needs for shelter. Sometimes he would find a small room in someone else’s house, living with family and friends. Water and food came next. Then the next thing on his list was the savings for the trip. Everything else was discretionary. He rarely owned a car. He didn’t care for fancy clothes. In fact most of the time he lived out of a backpack, wearing the kind of clothes you might use for an expedition: sturdy, well made items that are easy to wash by hand and that can be worn without showing wrinkles.

I think of that no longer young man often when I consider my own life. Doing what matters most is a process of getting your priorities in order. For him travel was more important than luxury. it was more important than building a resume. It was more important than many things. And he succeeded in traveling a lot.

When people become ill, they often re-order their priorities. Acquiring possessions is rarely a priority for someone who is facing death. When you lose the ability to drive, getting a new car doesn’t seem important. Some of the people with whom I visit have significant financial resources. They realize that they will not run out of money before they die. Others have financial concerns as they face their illness. For all, the importance of money and finances changes and shifts as the end of their lives draws close. Dying is a process of releasing control and in some cases of having control taken away. Control of finances is one of the areas that one loses in dying. Someone else will are making those decisions.

Time takes on a different meaning as well. Most people have a sensation of not having much time when they receive the diagnosis of a life-ending disease. Their life will be shorter than expected. There isn’t enough time to do all the things they once had imagined. On the other hand, they find themselves spending a lot of time in hospital and clinic waiting rooms. There are days when they have little to occupy their time. They at once feel that they are out of time and that they have too much time on their hands. It is a strange sensation.

The bottom line is that we will all one day die from this life. Our time is limited. We have to make decisions about what is most important. I don’t happen to need a bucket list. But I am indeed fortunate to have friends who are facing their deaths ahead of me who are teaching me how to come to terms with who we are and what is more important in life.

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

Divisions in the Church

In his pastoral prayer, reported in the 17th chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus prays for his disciples: “That they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” The motto of the United Church of Christ comes from this verse: “That they may all be one.” At the time that the United Church of Christ was formed from Christian, Congregational, Evangelical and Reformed roots, church leaders had a strong vision that church unions would continue and that one day in the future there would be a reunification of the Christian Church. So far, that vision remains a vision, without much real-world manifestation. Denominations are shrinking and independent congregations, with few ties to other communions, are on the rise. There seem to be more and more expressions of Christianity and less and less unity among churches.

This is not a new story.

A bit of church history can give us some context. About a thousand years after Jesus, starting in 1054, a great divide developed in Christianity. Two churches, The Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church separated and many of the ties between the two communions were halted. Although there have been many overtures and a few shared worship services, that split has continued to the present time. Then, in 1378, there was a split within the Roman Catholic Church that led to there being two popes at the same time. This split was eventually healed and the Roman Church was reunited in 1417, only to experience the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. That reformation began as a movement to reform the Roman Catholic Church and provide some limits on the political power and control of ambitious leaders within the church. The result, however, was a splintering of the church. Not only did leaders and congregations break away from the Roman church, but they, in turn, formed denominations that were separate from one another.

History demonstrates that we Christians are not very good at getting along with one another. Jesus prayer remains as relevant and necessary today as when he first prayed it. The fact, however, is that all Christians are connected. We believe in the same savior. We share a great deal of our history. What happens in one part of the church has an impact on other parts of the church. We were not created to “go it alone.”

From a great distance, I’ve been watching, along with many other Christians, a tragic split that is widening in the Eastern or Orthodox side of our church. We’ve been separated from our brother and sister Christians in that part of the church for more than a millennium, but this new split is important to the overall story of Christianity in the world.

The Russian Orthodox Church has cut ties with the Church leaders in Istanbul. For centuries the Istanbul church, known formally as the Constantinople Patriarchate, has been considered to be the headquarters of the Eastern Orthodox church. But Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church has at least 150 million followers, which is more than half the total of Orthodox Christians. The divide has occurred because of a disagreement over another split within the church. The much-smaller Ukranian Orthodox Church has sought independence from the Russian Church largely because of the political conflict between Russia and Ukraine, which has been intensifying since 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and Russia-backed separatists seized a big swath of territory in eastern Ukraine. The Russian Orthodox Church accused the Ukranian nationalists of attacks on its churches and has condemned actions of Ukrainians, alienating leaders of the Ukranian Church. The Ukranian Church has declared itself to be independent from the Russian Church. Last week the Constantinople Patriarchate decided to back the Ukranian Church’s bid for independence.

You might say that this is an obscure theological dispute in a distant part of the world. Most Christians in the United States don’t feel much connection with the workings of the Orthodox Church. When I read of the autocephaly of the Ukranian Church, I had to look up the word “autocephaly.” It isn’t in my usual vocabulary.

The Russian Church, however, has close ties to the Putin Government. President Vladimir Putin has boosted the prestige of the Russian Orthodox Church and many of its priests identify with his nationalist agenda. There have been many ceremonies where priests have blessed Russian military jets and space rockets and troops.

This dispute affects a lot of individual believers. It is estimated that there are 150 million followers of the Moscow Patriarche out of a total of 260 million Orthodox Christians. The division leaves roughly 110 million faithful to Istanbul. There are two huge churches which see themselves in conflict where not long ago there was one.

There are many who believe that the conflict within the church has been manipulated by forces outside of the church. Politics of power in the former Soviet countries are creating tensions and divisions within the church, which is being used to boost the control of governments. Church politics are usually closely related to governmental politics and lines of separation are not always evident and sometimes cease to exist entirely. 150 million believers is a lot of people and leadership of their church is a powerful position.

I, and many other Christians, have no desire to become involved in these massive power plays and struggles for position. I’m happy to be just a pastor in a rather obscure denomination with a remarkable history serving a congregation that has been serving its community since the days when it was the first and only Christian congregation in the town. We count our membership in the hundreds, not thousands or millions. We don’t have the ear of political leaders and power brokers. We are not the shapers of government.

We are disciples. Which means that we are followers. Our faith is not blind. We are informed and aware. And we know that we have deep connections with those in other parts of the church. But for now, we’ll leave the politics to others and turn our attention to prayer for all of the church, “that they may all be one.”

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!

Cans of parts

The smell of brewing coffee brings so many memories to my mind. As far back as I can remember, the coffee was on when I got up in the morning as a child. In those early years it was a stove top percolator, with a glass bulb at the top. Mother scooped ground coffee out of a can and used tap water to make the coffee. I don’t remember ever seeing her make the first pot of the day, but the pot was refreshed as needed throughout the day. The coffee of choice in our home was Folgers, from a three pound can. Our home was near 4,500 feet above sea level, which meant that whenever you opened a vacuum sealed can, a bit of air would escape because the pressure of the can, packed at sea level, would be higher than the pressure at our elevation. The wheel of the can opener cutting into the metal top of the can produced a whiff of coffee smell. It was familiar. It smelled like home.

My Uncle Ted, who lived a few blocks away, made his offer differently. He bought the same brand of coffee also packed in a metal can that let off a burst of aroma when it was opened, but he bought the one pound can. He would open the can, pour the entire contents into a sauce pan, run some tap water on it and set it to boil. When it had boiled down to the consistency of honey, he’d scoop and pour it into quart jars and set them in the refrigerator. When he wanted a cup of coffee, he would take out a tablespoon and scoop out a big glob of the thickened coffee mixture. That went into the bottom of a mug which was filled with boiling water from the tea kettle that lived on his stove. A few stirs with the spoon and the coffee was served.

My Uncle Ted never threw out anything that had a potential use. so the empty coffee cans were kept. He also obtained a supply of the three pound cans from our home. In those days the dans were painted rather than having paper tables, so they all were red. Big cans for big parts, small cans for small parts. It was one of his organizations systems for his garage and sheds. Another element in his system involved a lot of shoe boxes. He and my dad always bought the same brand of shoes and the boxes were all the same size. A grease pencil was used to label cans and boxes.

Because I knew these ways of living from my earliest years, they seemed completely normal to me. If you want a screw or a nun or bolt, you grab the appropriate can and start sorting. The same was true of nails, though they were often sorted at least by type and sometimes by size. Roofing nails had their own can. tenpenny nails are three inches long, but the can might have anything from 2 1/2 to 4 inches. threepenny nails are an inch and a quarter, but the can would have anything two inches or smaller. Finish nails had their own can.

My wife’s father was an electrician, so the cans in his garage had types of parts that weren’t as common in our garage or that of my uncle. After I became a part of the family, I would occasionally receive the gift of a 1 pound can of miscellaneous electrical parts including wire nuts, small screws for switch plates, and other miscellaneous supplies left over from wiring jobs. The contents of the cans were handy when making small home repairs. I occasionally worked as a janitor during the early years of our marriage and i was always finding need of a small screw or part in making minor building repairs.

It has been more than a decade since we cleaned out my wife’s parents’ garage. At the time I had extra cans of electrical parts to give away. I brought a can of wire nuts to the church basement and there may still be a few of them around. I took a couple of cans of miscellaneous parts home with me, but over the years, I’ve picked over them and usually when the can is down to about a quarter of its original contents, what remains is pretty much useless junk and eventually it gets tossed.

We don’t buy coffee in cans any more. Actually we don’t buy coffee all that often at our house now that both of us have given up caffeine. We still have a coffee maker and I keep decaf around for an occasional cup and we have coffee beans that we grind for use when we have guests. The church buys coffee in plastic cans, but I keep a supply of freshly -roasted coffee in my office for use when I make coffee for groups.

I’ve been thinking of using the lack of coffee cans as an excuse for the disorder in my garage. The truth is that it has nothing to do with containers. I live in a different time and I have a different attitude.

My son’s garage has very few bins of miscellaneous items. Extra parts and small pieces that aren’t being used get thrown away. When a new screw or nut is needed a trip to the hardware store is in order. He is very good at making home repairs and takes care of their cars, but finds that having a lot of spare parts that might be used someday to be unnecessary. He’s likely to watch a YouTube video on how to make a repair and then gather up the necessary tools and parts, make the repair, put away the tools and throw away unused items. He is still collecting tools, so sometimes a new repair is an occasion for a new tool.

I’m somewhere in between my Uncle Ted, who never threw out anything that might one day have a use and my son. I’ve got several containers of miscellaneous parts, but often I can’t find the right part at the right time and end up going to the hardware store.

One of these days I need to get up early in the morning, make myself a good cup of coffee (decaf will be fine) and go out and clean my garage. It will produce a lot of garbage, I’m sure. I’ll probably also keep a few cans of miscellaneous items, just in case.

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!

Medical education failures

Here is a story of someone in another state, but it is a story that could have happened in our town.

After having had a persistent cough, a person was experiencing back pain. The person did some online exploring and discovered that such back pain can sometimes be caused by the motions of repeated coughing. Physical therapy was suggested as a possible treatment for the pain. In order for insurance to pay on the physical therapy, the person needed a referral from a primary care physician. Not having an established relationship with a primary care physician, a choice was made, feeling that a single appointment would result in the referral.

At the physician’s office, after waiting beyond the scheduled time for the appointment, the person was taken to an exam room, weighed, had blood pressure, blood oxygen and temperature taken and was asked a battery of screening questions. After another wait, the physician entered and began to question the person about the blood pressure reading, which had been elevated. The person tried to get the doctor to focus on the back pain, but the doctor showed little interest in his symptoms. The doctor suggested prescriptions to medicines for hypertension. The person suggested that given his age and previous history lifestyle modification might be a first response to hypertension rather than medication and reminded the physician once again that he would like a referral to physical therapy for the back pain. The physician quickly wrote a script for physical therapy for “stroke assessment.” The appointment finished, the doctor left the room without repeating the blood pressure measurement and without every looking at or touching the patient's back.

I should add, I suppose, that the person is young, in his 30’s. He has good medical insurance and is able to pay deductibles and other expenses. He is also a trained medical researcher with over a decade serving as a medical librarian and hospital administrator overseeing libraries and research for one of the largest hospital corporations in the nation. And, for the sake of full disclosure, he is my son.

He subsequently bought a blood pressure cuff and the high blood pressure has not been repeated. He also made an appointment for physical therapy. It took a few weeks, but when he finally was assessed by the therapist, who, in spite of being confused by the order to make a stroke assessment, discovered two sprained sections in the patient’s spine and three ribs that were wiggling, but still attached. There was also evidence of a rupture of a costovertebral joint. Physical therapy has begun and full recovery is expected in six to eight weeks.

I wish that the doctor who wouldn’t listen and the delay in treatment were anomalies. They aren’t. I hear stories like the one above all the time. There is the patient who asked for a referral to a gastroenterologist, but could not get one from a primary care physician. The patient lost over 40 pounds and was eventually hospitalized, where he suffered for over a week before a gastroenterologist was summoned and finally made an accurate diagnosis of the condition.

There was the elderly patient who was suffering intense pain as a side effect of a statin medication for high cholesterol whose physical kept dismissing the reports of the pain and refused to change the medication even when the patient asked for it.

We have a system of what we like to call scientific medicine in the United States. Physicians are trained in chemistry and biology and other scientific disciplines, but their education also systematically excludes other sciences that would help provide for better patient care and better patient outcomes.

It is not appropriate to call medical education in the United States scientific. It is based on educational theories that are over a century old. The intentional shortage of physicians created by a system that admits far too students and excludes many capable students makes inaccurate assessments of who should become physicians in the first place. Then the system operates without regard to the conditions in which students learn best. Students are overworked, deprived of sufficient sleep and forced to focus solely on short-term evaluations. Knowledge that is required for tests and in-person evaluations is required for periods of a year or less in most cases and subsequent evaluations of knowledge are rarely made. Therefore the education focuses on short-term memory and has few components which produce good long-term memory results. It isn’t scientific, but it is what the teachers had to endure so it is how things continue. Instructors in medical schools may be good chemists and biologists, but are rarely evaluated for their skills as teachers. Medical school administrators seem to lack knowledge about the scientific evaluation of teachers and teacher performance.

Then, once in practice, physicians seem to ignore social science. They seem to be ignorant of solid scientific research that has already been made. There have been many studies of how to manage a practice and appointments that move patients through clinics without the need for large waiting rooms filled with people. Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota is a good example of a clinic where appointments occur on time and patients are not kept waiting. It can be done, but very few other medical practices even make an attempt at reducing patient waiting.

There are multiple studies that demonstrate that data obtained from medical tests that are conducted before the physician listens to the patient are of little medical value. A single blood pressure reading is not valid for diagnosis. It takes multiple readings to determine whether or not a medical condition exists. The physical who suggested hypertension medication for a young man based on a single reading that the physician herself did not witness was irresponsible on the verge of malpractice. Hypertension medication has its place, but to order it without solid evidence of a medical condition is irresponsible, especially in a young patient, who will likely outlive the effectiveness of the medicine. Even if hypertension were present, lifestyle modification should have been the first treatment option considered. It is unlikely that the physician was malicious. It is far more likely that the physical is poorly trained and is unaware of the relevant studies.

i could go on an on. There is nothing scientific or even modern about medical pricing and billing systems. Patient care is diminished by the systematic practice of teaching physicians the false belief that they are smarter than (and deserve higher salaries than) the people they treat. There is nothing scientific or even modern about the design of medical buildings which are generally among the most expensive construction in contemporary society. Three-story cathedral entrances and million dollar art collections do not improve patient care. Although the buildings are clearly designed to intimidate, there is no evidence that intimidating patients produces favorable medical outcomes.

Perhaps a starting point would be for medical schools to hire some real teachers who have degrees in education and are up to date with the latest science and state of the art practice to help them redesign their educational programs.

The failure to address these issues will result in a continuing degradation of the quality of medical care in our country. We are already falling behind the world despite paying the highest price. And we are not getting what we are paying for.

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

Just one more thing

I have never been a big watcher of television, but television is so much a part of popular culture that you don’t have to watch it to be aware of its effects on society. I’m sure that I haven’t watched very many episodes of the old show “Columbo,” but I’ve heard a lot of people tell stories about the episodes. I have a pretty good sense of the personality of the character and the gist of the show.

The show, popular in the 1970’s was about a homicide detective with the Los Angeles Police Department. He came across as a bit of an absent-minded character. I think that in most of the episodes, the audience was aware, fairly early in the show, who the guilty party was and the entertainment was in figuring out how the detective would get the evidence needed to convict. He would play mind and word games with his suspects, lulling them into a sense of security in which they would confess or at least give clues to what happened.

The trademark phrase of the detective, played by Peter Falk, was “there’s just one more thing,” or some variant on that phrase. The detective would appear to have finished his questioning and sometimes he would begin to walk away. Then he’d come back and say, “There’s just one more thing.” What followed was the critical question that turned up the key piece of evidence.

A few years ago, I would even refer to our choir director as “Columbo.” She had a way of coming to my office or a meeting and talking about any number of things. However, I knew that she had some specific concern on her mind. However, that concern usually had to wait until the very end of the conversation. Sometimes, like Columbo, she would even leave the room and then return with the one question or topic that was the most important to her. I learned to listen carefully to the very end of our conversations and not to change my attention too quickly when working with her.

I think that a psychologist might be able to bring some understanding to the patterns of our conversations, noticing that we often surround important questions and conversations with other less important topics.

The Gospel lesson for today has one of those Columbo moments in it. Jesus is setting off on a journey when a young man rushes up, kneels in front of him and asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, after questioning the man about why he calls him “good,” reminds the man of the commandments. The man reports that the has followed the commandments since his youth. Up to this point the conversation is similar to what you would expect from any competent Jewish Rabbi. A question about eternal life is an opportunity to speak of the value of the commandments. The questioner demonstrates his own piety and commitment to following the commandments. The specific commandments named by Jesus in the exchange are fairly easy: “Don’t murder. Don’t commit adultery Don’t steal. Don’t bear false witness. Don’t defraud. Honor you father and mother.” Those particular commandments are less complex than the one about honoring the sabbath or not coveting. Compliance with these commandments is fairly simple to evaluate.

It would appear that the conversation is complete and has followed an expected pattern. Then Jesus throws in his Columbo moment: “Just one more thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. You ill have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

Mark’s Gospel reports that the young man was shocked and grieving because he had many possessions.

I’ve read that story many times and have probably preached a dozen sermons on the text. It is striking to me that the young man refers to eternal life as an inheritance. Over the years I’ve been involved with or heard stories from a lot of families who have had disagreements over inheritances. There are a lot of people who grow into adulthood believing that they are entitled to an inheritance. They can become combative and aggressive the the time to settle an estate arrives. Brothers and sisters can get into some serious fights with lasting consequences over that they determine to be money that is owed to them. Inheritance, however, is not something that one can earn. It is a gift, provided by the generosity of the giver, not the worthiness of the recipient. One doesn’t earn one’s inheritance. It seems to me that Jesus might have said to the young ruler that eternal life belongs to God and to God alone and that it is given by God’s grace, not by a particular set of behaviors or actions on the part of a person. Such an answer would be keeping in line with the mainstream of Christian theology.

Instead, however, Jesus puts a challenge in front of the young man that quickly becomes impossible for him. He asks him to give away all of his possessions. From the Gospel report, we assume that the young man was unable to do so. It was just too much for the one who had so many possessions. He goes away sad.

The story doesn’t report whether or not the young man ever inherited eternal life. Perhaps the only thing that he lost in his encounter with Jesus was his sense of entitlement. Maybe realizing that he was not capable of earning eternal life was the lesson that he needed to learn that day. Perhaps he went on to live a life of generosity and service and died fulfilled and was embraced in eternity by God’s grace. Maybe the shock and grief that he felt in his conversation with Jesus was temporary and an important part of his growing into a more mature relationship with God.

Jesus goes on to teach his disciples about how wealth can become a barrier to a life of faith: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The wealth that was seen by society, and perhaps Jesus’ disciples, as a sign of great privilege, is viewed by Jesus as a barrier and a challenge for the rich young ruler. Jesus is pretty consistent at turning things upside down when he teaches. There are still many lessons to be learned from each story reported in the Gospels.

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!

Reasonable risk management

I don’t write about college sports much and regular readers of my blog may not have caught that today is homecoming at Penn State University. The Nittany Lions host the Michigan State Spartans in their 99th homecoming. The game will be nationally broadcast and begins at 3:30 Eastern time. Fans are supposed to check their tickets or the school’s web site to see whether fans in their section of the stadium are wearing blue or white for the game. Game day parking is exhausted. Fans who do not have a parking permit have not been able to purchase parking permits for over a week.

Football is a big deal at Penn State. Their No. 8 ranked team draws a full stadium for every game. Today, the parking lot, for those who have parking permits, opens at 8 am. Official tailgate parties start at 10 am. The stadium opens at 1:30 and concessions will be discounted for the first 45 minutes that the stadium is open.

It is a big enough deal that school officials will be on the lookout for counterfeit tickets. There are some out there.More than 300 counterfeit tickets were confiscated before the Nittany Lions’ last home game against Ohio State on September 29.

There are risks associated with a college football program. There are a variety of statistics, but it is commonly reported that the injury rate for college football players is 9.7 per 1000 athlete exposures. Concussions make up 7.4 percent of all injuries in college football players. It is a rough sport and injuries occur. It is a risk that, so far, colleges, are willing to accept. After all revenues from college football programs are incredibly high and fund a lot of college programs.

I mention this because last April Penn State University completed a risk management review of its 79 student clubs. Among the results of that study was the decision that there would be no more outings for the Penn State Outing Club. That isn’t quite the case this fall as the club, one of the oldest clubs at Penn State, had a movie night last week and has a couple of hikes scheduled for the weekend. They are restructuring their plans after the risk analysis found that the university would no longer allow the 98-year-old club to organize student led outdoor trips. Along with the caving club and the diving club, the club was deemed to have “an unacceptable level of risk in their current operation model.”

The same review found that the university’s martial arts and rifle clubs would be allowed to continue.

The risk review followed a pattern that has been observed across North America in recent years. A Canadian high school’s board approved a year-end, capstone paddling trip for students with the following restrictions: There was to be no swimming allowed, even if everyone wears a PFD. Youth were not allowed to handle knives, including pocket knives and pen knives. Students could not tend campfires. I’m trying to remember my camp experiences. Take away swimming, whittling, and helping cook supper, and there isn’t a lot to do. An outdoor adventure isn’t supposed to be boring.

I recently read an article about another student-initiated school paddling trip, scheduled for calm waters in canoes, that was cancelled because it was deemed to be an unacceptable risk.

I understand that there are risks involved with outdoor activities. Part of the adventure is always managing risk. When I have led outdoor adventures with youth, considerable effort has been extended to speak of the risks and planning to avoid injury. The waterspouts camp that I led in Idaho had a component where every participant was certified in CPR. We had wading and swimming experiences designed to teach students to trust their PFDs. We trained for canoe capsize and recovery. We inventoried first aid kits and talked about roles and responsibilities should an injury occur. I recruited RNs and EMTs to be with each group that went on an outing.

I am not saying that there are no risks involved in going canoeing with kids. A 2002 study that focused on whitewater rafting ranged from approximately 2.2 to 8.7 fatalities per million participant days. Injuries and fatalities occur. But based on actual rates of occurrences, a school that deems paddling to be too risky might want to look at any school activity that involves riding in motor vehicles, where the fatality rate is 152 per million.

The solution to risk is not avoiding it completely. I understand that school boards and university administrators are risk adverse and terrified of law suits. But learning to manage and decrease risk is an important life skill that ought to be taught in university programs.

cleaarlakepaddle
There is another factor, which I don’t think has been the subject of any studies of university and high school programs. That is simple joy. It is hard tor me to describe the joy that I have experienced by taking a canoe or kayak to the lake and watching the wildlife. I can have the mood of an entire week lifted by a sunrise paddle on calm waters. I am well aware that there are risks associated with paddling. The water around here is cold. A self-rescue plan needs to take into consideration that one has at the most 6 to 10 minutes of effective muscle function if one falls into the water unprotected. Dry suits, gloves and other gear can extend survivability quite a bit. I’ve never capsized a boat while paddling alone on very cold waters, but I have a self-rescue plan every time I go out, just in case it were to happen.

On the other hand, I’ve come up from the water during practice rolling exercises or canoe capsize recovery games with a big grin on my face. I’ve seen the sense of accomplishment when a par of teens succeed in assisting another pair in recovering from a capsize drill on a summer day in a swimmable lake. I’ve witnessed the confidence that comes from acquiring outdoor survival skills.

I hope that our schools don’t become so frightened fo law suits that they take all of the fun out of outdoor activities. That, in my opinion, would be an unbearable tragedy for future generations.

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!

Raising awareness

Here is a topic about which I haven’t written for a while. Are you ready to celebrate and have your awareness raised? I hope so, because today, October 12, 2018, is National Farmer’s Day. It is a good thing to celebrate farmers and the hard work they do to supply us with food. Records of National Farmer’s Day events exist back to the 1800’s. Here at the end of harvest it makes sense to thank farmers for their work and their contributions to our economy.

But you will want to save some energy because it is also National Savings Day, National Gumbo Day, National Freethought Day and, through I’m not exactly sure how this can be, it is also national Vermont Day. I get celebrating gumbo and I think eating a bowl of gumbo to celebrate might be a good idea. And there aren’t many people here in South Dakota who know that the word Gumbo comes from a West African word for okra. Some believe that you don’t have real gumbo without okra. Gumbo is the official cuisine of the state of Louisiana. The place to be for the celebration of national gumbo day is New Iberia, LA, where the World Championship Gumbo Cook-Off will be held. Maybe you have to travel to celebrate some of these days. I’m now sure how someone who was born in Montana is supposed to observe National Vermont Day in South Dakota.

And if the national days for today don’t excite you, never fear. There are nearly 1,500 national days, national weeks and national months. nationaldaycalendar.com lists 113 national observances for the month of October. Some are important awareness issues, like breast cancer awareness month and caffeine addiction recovery month and dyslexia awareness month and spina bifida awareness month. But did you know October is also national squirrel awareness month, which is different than squirrel appreciation day in January. October is national toilet tank repair month and national pretzel month and bat appreciation month. And, readers, don’t forget that October is national church library month.

If national month designations don’t get your awareness going, October has 11 world days when a national recognition just isn’t enough. And there are twenty official week long observances from spinning and weaving week to no salt week and national carry a tune week, which, by the way has already passed, so if you are still humming you may be out there all by yourself.

If you check you mail, your email inbox or your social media accounts you will find that they are filled with pitches aimed at raising your awareness about this or that issue. Kaydi Pyette, a columnist for Paddling Magazine has referred to the time in which we are living as the golden age of awareness raising.

Awareness raising can be important. We should pay attention to white cane safety and brain training and it is probably good to have a national mother-in-law day. I hope you are all planning a very special pastor’s appreciation day, which is coming up on the second Sunday of October. This year national pastor’s appreciation day is also national dessert day, so it might be a good time to share your favorite dessert with your pastor. Just saying . . . I’m not up on all of the proper social media rules, but I now you have to have a hashtag to get a lot of attention. How about #pie for pastors?

And just in case you haven’t noticed, the day after national pastor’s day, October 15, is national grouch day. Those two days might be connected, especially if your pastor doesn’t end up feeling appreciated. Just saying . . .

Back in the 1980’s when i was early in my career as a pastor, social scientists popularized the information deficit model. The belief was that if only the public had the right information, conveyed in a way people could understand, they would make the right choices. In the intervening decades it has been fairly clear that just having awareness is not enough, though there are certainly a whole lot of groups around who use this model and who seem to believe that all we need to do is to be aware.

But as I remind my family doctor from time to time, I’m not overweight because of a lack of information. I know the basics of diet and exercise. I have information on a healthy lifestyle. I know that smartphones make people more stressed, but I haven’t given mine up yet.

Take the problem of plastic pollution. More than 40 percent of plastics are used only once and then discarded. Plastic makes up approximately 90 percent of all trash floating on the ocean’s surface. According to Google News, plastic pollution has been the topic of more than 2.6 million news articles. There have been 1,600 news reports in the mainstream media that have focused on plastic pollution. I’m pretty sure that the average citizen has heard about the threat of plastic to the world’s oceans. If awareness was all that was needed, plastic pollution would be decreasing, but it is not.

Sometimes it takes more than awareness. Real change requires action. And we are more effective in our actions when we are focused and choose just a few areas of concentration. No one can be effective at managing 1,500 causes every year. None of us is going to take action on 113 national awareness issues this month.

What we can do is to pick a few important causes and invest our energy. National Gumbo day might not be capturing your attention, but you might passionately care about Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness.

Awareness, focus, action - there are several steps required to bring about genuine lasting change. We seem to have the awareness part down pretty solidly. The next step, focus, is a challenge. With so many efforts at raising our awareness constantly bombarding us we need to not only choose which areas are worthy of our focus, but also which areas we will ignore. For example, I have no intention to observe national brandied fruit day or national mulligan day for what it is worth.

I’m including farmers in my prayers today. They’re pretty good at praying themselves, but a few extra prayers never hurts. I’m hoping that Vermonters can take care of themselves.

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

Of dentists and boats

Somehow I got to thinking that someone trained in dentistry might make a good restorer or wooden boats. When I have been working on old wooden boats, one of my jobs has ben to use a number of short picks to locate soft and rotting wood. Then I use the most precise tools that I have to remove all of the rot while leaving as much of the healthy wood as possible. After making sure that I have cleaned out all of the rot, I need to restore the original shape of the wood. When possible, I use a variety of fillers, such as wood flour mixed with two-part epoxy, or epoxy thickened with other substances. Other times, I need to cut out an entire piece of rotted wood and make a replica to replace it. Dentistry has some similar aspects. Of course, I’m not qualified to be a dentist and they have to deal with infection control and work in a sterile environment. No one has ever accused me of having a sterile shop. And a dentist is usually working in much smaller areas than I, although I have had some places that are hard to reach.

I have a friend who is a dentist and he has, over the years provided me with some items that have been helpful in my hobby of messing about with wooden boats. He has given me some boxes with gloves that I wear when working epoxy to keep my skin from being exposed to the toxic chemicals. He has provided me with a few small plastic medicine cups that i use for precise measurement of fillers and glues. And it seems to be easy to talk to him about what I’m doing with boats. He seems to understand the process very well.

Of course a dentist doesn’t often get to work with the actual material. The enamel of teeth is a natural product that once damaged needs to be replaced with a synthetic. The crowns of replacement teeth have been made of wood, precious metals including gold and, most commonly these days, ceramics. I do think that one product that is used in some implant and other dental surgical procedures is a kind of bone dust that is similar to wood flour. Wood flour is fine sawdust, usually gathered from a power tool’s dust collection system. I typically use material produced by a belt sander. I think that surgeons save bone fragments from orthopedic procedures and some of it can be reused in other procedures involving bones, such as inserting an implant rod into a jaw bone.

Dentists, however, probably don’t often want a hobby that seems so much like the work they do for a living. On the other hand, an old boat needs no anesthetic and it really won’t complain except by reducing its performance on the water if not treated properly. And when a wooden boat restorer is filling out insurance claims, it usually is the product of careless and injury not an attempt to get reimbursed for work that is already completed, not that any dentists I know went into their vocation for the love of insurance forms.

Just to show you the strange ways that my mind works, I was thinking about wooden boat restoration yesterday as news about Hurricane Michael battering the Florida panhandle began to come in on my phone and other devices. The storm seems to be really causing a lot of destruction in coastal areas. The Florida panhandle is home to a lot of small sailboats and some very practical day sailers. I wonder how many of the damaged boats are restorable and if there are boat lovers who scoop up the damaged boats and invest hours upon hours restoring them.

I, of course, won’t be finding that out. A trip to Florida right now is out of the question. If I did go, the focus of my trip would have to be helping people, not messing with boats. And the cost of a trip to Florida would mean that any boat I purchased there and hauled home would be too expensive for my budget. On the other hand, there is a story that was widely reported of President Trump’s visit to storm-ravaged areas in North Carolina in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. According to the reports I read, the President spoke with an older man standing in front of a small brick house, behind which was a large yacht that had washed ashore and was shipwrecked against the man’s wooden deck. When asked if this was his boat, the man told President Trump, “no.” The president said to the man, “At least you got a nice boat out of the deal.” Then he commented to reporters, “I think its incredible what we’re seeing. This boat just came here. They don’t know whose boat that is. What’s the law? Maybe it becomes theirs.”

I’m pretty sure that the owner of the boat and the insurance company that covers the boat and perhaps the bank that holds a lien on the boat don’t think that the President’s interpretation of the law on the matter would give the boat to the homeowner. Maritime law takes a pretty dim view of piracy, even when the ship is wrecked. There are specific laws governing salvage of boats and ships.

But a big storm must make a lot of work for those who repair boats. And sometimes it seems plausible that it might make a bargain for someone who was willing to invest a lot of sweat equity in restoring a badly damaged boat.

Cleaning up after a severe storm involves a lot of decisions and there are many interconnected parts. The fate of boats should be way down the list of priorities. People, however, become pretty connected to boats. All you have to do is go through a marina and read the boat names off of the sterns of the craft and you’ll discover that most boats have a story behind them. A brush with a storm and a careful restoration might add to the story and, in the case of at least some boats, to even result in a change of name.

So far, however, I’ve yet to see a boat named “Dental” or “Tooth Doctor.” It wouldn’t surprise me. After all I’ve paid more money to my dentist over the years than I’ve invested in boats - clearly enough for him to be able to afford a boat if he wanted one.

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!

Changing jobs

Since we celebrated the 40th anniversary of our ordinations this year, I have been reflecting on how many people I know who have made major career changes in their lives and how few I know who have, like us, found a vocation early in life and had the luxury of remaining in that vocation for decades. Even those who remain in the same field, have experienced large changes in direction, focus, and the type of work they do. The big changes in our careers have been two events of leaving congregations we had been serving to accept a call to a new congregation. We served 7 years in our first call, 10 in our second and so far 23 in this call.

According to what I read, ours is not the course of the future for many people. Most young people entering their careers will experience multiple changes in career over the span of their working lives. Major shifts in the economy mean that there are many jobs of today that simply won’t exist in the future and many new jobs that are just emerging or that do not yet exist that will employ people in the future.

I know someone who used to be the owner of an independent bookstore who is now a corrections officer.

I have an acquaintance who once was a salesman and service technician in a bicycle shop and now is a nurse.

A good friend who was a graphic artist in the printing industry now is a clerk in a toy shop.

These people are far more common than folks like me who have only one career in their lives. I have colleagues who, like me, entered the ministry at a young age and have continued in that same career. Some of them, however, have gone from serving local churches to serving in mid-level or national judicatories. Others have followed their careers into specialized ministries of counseling, community development and other areas. I also have a lot of colleagues who have come to the ministry from a wide variety of other backgrounds.

I know a minister who was once a weather forecaster. Another came from a career in business. I know several who became ministers after retiring from military service. One is a former chemist. Another practiced law before ordination. I know a retired physician who now serves as a licensed lay minister.

Of course the joke in the ministry is that it pays to be independently wealthy before entering the profession. People are not attracted to the ministry because of the promise of high salaries. There are plenty who have taken very large decreases in pay in order to serve.

It is fashionable to advise others to “find your heat’s passion and pursue it.” Certainly it is a blessing to have a job that is doing what you feel called to do. But I think it is a mistake to create the illusion that a person might have only one true calling in life. I know people who ended up in their jobs because of circumstances and yet who are very happy in their line of work.

One of my uncles complained about his job nearly every time I was with him. He began to talk about retirement when he was in his forties and retired very close to his 65th birthday. His son, my cousin, followed him into the same field of work, complained just as much and retired as soon as he was able. Both had some wonderful experiences in their retirement, but endured a job that at least on the surface was less than fulfilling. In both cases the job that was disliked provided the means for the retirement that was enjoyed.

I know others who discovered their jobs by accident or at least by circuitous routes. One friend was laid off from an executive banking job in the midst of a large merger and ended up in the insurance industry. Another person became a realtor in a bit of a panic over a sudden unemployment. Both seem to be thriving in their new careers.

The world of work is shifting. The United States, once home to an economy that was based on manufacturing, is shifting to a service economy. We have a trade deficit when measured by goods imported vs goods exported, but we have a trade surplus when it comes to services. Items manufactured in other countries are designed in ours.

Our grandchildren may well be employed in jobs that do not exist today. When I was completing my education the position of computer programmer was a new and emerging field. There was no such thing as a job as a web designer or a computer systems administrator. If someone had announced that they were going to seek venture capital to start a new application, we would have thought of that person as out of their mind and destined to failure.

The world of work, like so much of our society, is changing so rapidly that it is hard to keep up.

In the midst of that rapidly changing world, however, there are still many who are called to vocations that are based on personal relationships. The world will always need pastors and teachers and nurses. Medical specialities will come and go as the art and science of medicine changes, but there still will be a need for those who change the bedding in hospitals and who provide care during times of recovery. Counselors will not be replaced with computer algorithms. Day cares will not be run by robots.

I have been blessed to have discovered my calling early enough in my life to devote decades to learning how to do my work. I’m still learning. I don’t feel that I have achieved the best that is possible. Each sermon is a new challenge and each day contains fresh opportunities. Boredom is not something that I fear. The challenges of maintaining long term relationships are as engaging as those of starting something new.

There will always be room for those who discover a singular vocation and pursue it for a lifetime. I feel blessed to be one of them.

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!

Dire predictions

A recent report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of scientists convened by the United Nations to guide world leaders, is very grim. It describes a world of worsening food shortages and wildfires, a mass die-off of coral reefs as soon as 2040, and massive coastal flooding. Entire islands may disappear and major cities could become uninhabitable within the lifetimes of people who are already born.

It isn’t the first time that we have read dire predictions by scientists. Around the time I was beginning my college education, Stanford University Profession Paul Ehrlich and his wife, Anne Ehrlich published a book about expanding global population. The Population Bomb warned of mass starvation as early as the 1980’s. The book began with these words, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate . . .”

The book was unashamedly alarmist. It has been criticized for the inaccuracy of its predictions. The worst of its predictions didn’t come to pass. But it has also been lauded for raising the alarm that caused individuals and governments to make serious changes that have lessened the impact of increasing population.

The problem is that when the worst predictions don’t come to pass, people begin to be skeptical of those who are raising the alarm. It becomes like the story of the boy who cried “Wolf!” Raising a false alarm leaves people less likely to respond when a real threat appears.

There is general agreement among scientists, however, that dire warnings of the effects of human-caused global climate change are not overstated. Many species are in critical danger of extinction right now. Flooding and wildfires are increasing in severity and damage right now. Food shortages already exist and by 2050 he world will need to produce 60% more food than current levels.

The planet is around 1 degree Celsius than it was 160 years ago at the start of the industrial revolution. Scientists say that if we can keep global warming from rising by no more than an additional half a degree by the end of the century, it will be better for us, better for animals, and better for the entire planet. Their prediction, however, is that the world is on track for as much as 3 degrees of warming by the end of the century, with dire consequences.

We seem to play a kind of tug-o-war with dire predictions and making the changes necessary to protect our environment. We’ve seen it with the pollution of water. After decades of dumping raw sewage, industrial waste, chemicals and other pollutants into our nation’s rivers, many rivers were so polluted that people could not swim in them and could not eat the few fish that remained by the 1960’s. Famously, the Cuyahoga River which flows into Lake Erie, became so polluted that it caught fire in 1969. Of course the river itself wasn’t burning, but rather the pollutants that were floating on the water. Nonetheless the dramatic fire caught the attention of the nation and helped spur the environmental movement in the United States. The Clean Water Act of 1972 established the basic structure for regulating pollutant discharges into the waters of the United States.

Although some decried the restrictions put into place by the Environmental Protection Agency, there is no question that federal regulations helped not only to govern water pollution but also to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of our nation’s waterways. Without concerted federal efforts, drinking water shortages would already have severely limited the ability of our nation to provide basic survival to its citizens.

We pollute. Scientists raise the alarm. We work at cleaning up the pollution. Restrictions are put into place. The restrictions have a positive effect. We relax. We chafe at the restrictions. Restrictions are eased. Pollution increases. The cycle repeats.

At times it seems as if there is a virtual war between extremes. There are those who argue for unlimited expansion of manufacturing and other industrial activities. They often have large amounts of money for lobbying and influencing legislation. There are others who want to halt all industrial activities and return the planet to its status before humans began their activities. Most of us are somewhere in between these extremes, having enough practical vision to understand that humans are part of the environment and that our actions are part of the globe. While we need to be good stewards, it is unreasonable to pretend that we won’t have an effect on the world.

In those pendulum swings between the poles, we seem to be in a time of decreased regulation and decreased care for the planet. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has declared that no fish from Lake Elmo in Minneapolis should be eaten due to PFCs, primarily caused by the practices of 3M corporation. Warnings have also bee issued for Lake Harriet, Lake of the Isles, Lake Calhoun and Twin Lake. The beautiful urban lakes of Minneapolis may be wonderful for sailing and canoeing, but they are no longer places where people can safely swim.

The issues of our environment and our role in caring for this planet are complex. Our ever-increasing appetite for energy makes all of us participants in the causes of global warming. The decisions about what vehicles to drive, about how to heat our homes, and about which foods to eat all have an effect on the process of global warming. Decisions about what to include in public education and which textbooks to use in public schools have an impact on what information people have and how they respond.

We can hope that the scientists’ predictions are wrong and that our amazingly resilient planet will help to mitigate the impacts of our actions, but the potential effects on human life are so severe that such a course of action seems ill advised. Each of us needs to take a look at our personal decisions as well as the actions of large companies and decide what changes we are able to make. Our choices might make all the difference in the world.

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

Watching the weather

They are getting pretty good at predicting the weather around here. Most of the time we experience something that is close to the predictions. The hills are tricky, however, there are a couple of factors that make accurate prediction difficult. One is temperature. The temperature can vary a lot in a short distance in the hills. As the altitude rises, the temperature does not always descend. The hills are great places for inversions with armer air resting on top of cooler air. We’ve been in the clouds here at home since yesterday and the cover provides a bit of insulation. The temperature has remained just above freezing, with a variation of just a couple of degrees in the last 24 hours. A couple of degrees colder, however, and the precipitation would be snow, which is what they have predicted.

The other challenge for forecasters is timing. They can be right about approaching storms, but the pace at which they arrive is harder to predict. The forecast today looks about the same as the forecast looked yesterday. We’re probably going to get the snow, but it is likely to be a bit later than originally expected.

I get a kick out of talking with people about the weather. Last week at a meeting of Pennington County Search and Rescue Team, people were almost gleeful as they predicted six to ten inches of snow for today. They had heard the warnings about the possibility of the first winter storm of the season and were getting prepared by moving equipment around in the garages so that they would be able to get at the snow cats if needed. Of course, they live for times of adversity and emergency. Like others I know, they are adrenaline junkies and have to have their fixes of excitement in order to be really happy. they train and prepare for disaster all of the time and when they get to use their skills in real life situations they feel justified for their investments of time, energy and money.

Its been five years since Rapid City got hit hard by a heavy winter storm in early October. Winter Storm Atlas started dumping snow in the hills on Thursday and it was still snowing on Saturday. There was a lot of wind with that storm, with peak gusts reaching 70 mph. There were four feet of snow in Deadwood and nearly 30 inches of snow in Rapid City. I think we got about 28 inches here at our home. There were extensive power outages and lots of trees fell. We lost two trees into our backyard. Cutting them up and hauling the branches to the huge piles that were building up in the parking lot of the baseball fields took a couple of days. We still enjoy telling stories about the storm. Actually, we didn’t have it very rough. We do have an all electric home and we were without electricity for about 3 days, but our inconvenience was minimal. We ate through the leftovers in the refrigerator and moved a few foods to the freezer as the temperature in both appliances rose.

The ranchers were the ones who took the brunt of that storm. The cattle losses were extensive as animals became trapped in the deep snow and ranchers were unable to get feed to them. The snowfall was preceded by rain and ice coated everything beneath the snow, including the cattle.

It doesn’t look like we’re in for that kind of storm this time. We’ll probably have rain that turns into freezing rain and then into snow. There will probably be some cancellations of meetings and other events on Tuesday. Right now, I’m no expecting much disruption.

Although there are a few chores that remain undone, part of me is ready for winter. I like the change in seasons and I enjoy the challenges of getting out in the snow. I’m not quite as excited as the crew at Search and Rescue, but I’m not threatened by the weather, either. I’m probably affected more by the short days and overcast skies than the snow and cold. It really doesn’t get all that cold in the hills anyway. I’ve lived places where the temperature remains below zero for days at at time, but the super cold doesn’t seem to last long in the hills.

The weather is an additional attraction to the place where we live. Of course none of us can control the weather. It is a reminder that there are faces in the universe which are beyond the reach of human manipulation. Not that we have no effect on the weather, but most of the impacts of humans on weather patterns are unintended consequences of our behaviors, not a demonstration of an ability to control. I am grateful for the reminders that we get that we can’t control everything. I don’t even mind the fact that we can’t completely predict the weather. I’m open to surprises.

So the first surprise was no snow this morning. There will probably be snow tomorrow morning, but a couple of inches probably won’t disrupt my day very much. So far the forecast doesn’t call for high winds, so the snow will pretty much stay where it falls and with daytime highs above freezing, it won’t stay around very long. We’ll likely get a bit of good fall weather and have an opportunity to catch up on outdoor chores before winter settles in for good. The hills are a good place for breaks between storms and we usually have periods during the winter when all of the snow is gone.

We’re probably not going to get really good stories to tell about this particular storm. It is just part of the usual around here and once it is past it will fade into memory pretty quickly. The specialty equipment at the Search and Rescue garages will stay in place, awaiting a bigger even and another opportunity to put the skills of the rescuers to their test.

We might get lucky and have a meeting get cancelled, but that is probably wishful thinking.

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!

Cautionary tales

Years ago I was trained in leading a church planning process by what was then called the Office for Church Life and Leadership of the United Church of Christ. Those of us who were trained went out to local churches, usually within our conference, to assist them with setting goals and planning. Part of the process was an informal time of sharing the high points of the history of the congregation. People were asked to recall times when they felt good about their church. Right away I observed that in every church where I led this process, members would recall times when the church was having financial struggles. I heard stories of how the church pulled together during the Great Depression and paid the pastor with produce and farm animals when there wasn’t enough money today a cash salary. One congregation told of a time when they had a fund-rising dinner every week and became a kind of community cafe where others from their town would drop in for pie and coffee when they were struggling to make ends meet.

I visited with other consultants who were trained in the process and we all were experiencing the same thing. When asked to remember the good times in the history of the church, people invariably remembered things that might look to others as hard times. They remembered having significant challenges as being positive.

The congregation that we served before coming to Rapid City has, as important part of its history, the story of how a fire destroyed the church building in 1942. Despite the building being occupied by a church meeting at the time of the fire, virtually nothing was saved. One member managed to retrieve the bible from the communion table before the fames consumed the rest of the building. Despite the nation being at war, they managed to fund funds and labor to build a new, modern, brick building with a beautiful steeple and a much larger sanctuary. Then a decade later, in 1952, a fire, caused by an electrical short, most likely the result of having installed substandard wiring due to wartime shortages, erupted in the upper story of the church. The fire burned the roof off of the building. The water damage from fighting the fire required that the entire floor of the sanctuary be removed. Once again the bible that had survived the first fire was rescued, but there was a lot of damage. The congregation was stunned. They had been planning to add an education wing to their building and now they had to raise funds just to have a roof over their heads. They dug in, raised funds and repaired the building and also added the education rooms, only slightly pared down from the original plan.

There is a story in the congregation we now serve that dates back to 1914. The church had decided to build a new building and the modern brick structure was a real stretch for the congregation. In fact as they prepared for the closing on the mortgage with the national church and the dedication of their new building they had exhausted all of their available funds, yet a payment would need to be made before they could seal the deal. No one was quite sure what would happen if they failed to make the payment, but it was something that they had agreed to do. However, cost overruns and unforeseen expenses had exhausted all of the available funds. A special drive was held. Members were asked to dig deeply. The funds ran short. Finally, the Friday before the dedication someone remembered that the women’s fellowship had a modest savings account. The account was zeroed out, the payment was made, the church was dedicated and future payments to the mortgage were made. That building served the congregation from 1914 to 1958 and stall stands as a church building in the downtown of our community. When the time came to build the building we currently occupy, it was sold, but it continues to serve as a church in Rapid City.

When I get together with a group of boating enthusiasts, invariably there will be a story about bad weather, or boating mistakes, or people falling overboard. I’ve heard stories of people taping garbage bags over boat decks to slow leaks, of missing the step between the dock and the boat and falling into the lake, of kayaks tipped over where it was too shallow to roll the boat, of canoes capsized in raging rivers and a thousand other adversities that have been encountered. I have my own tales of being cold and wet and frightened by the size of the waves and water.

The same is true when I am with a group of pilots. Tales of accidents and near accidents and mistakes made began to be told. It’s true of law enforcement officers and fire fighters as well. It seems to be a part of any group of people with like-minded interests.

One possibility is that we tell these stories because they are instructive. We can learn how to avoid disaster by talking about the things that have gone wrong. A cautionary tale about a lack of preparation or a poor decision can serve as an effective way to learn and to avoid troubles in the future. I think it is also possible that we tell these stories to remind ourselves of the realities of aging. The truth is that my reflexes aren’t as good as when I was younger and I don’t have the strength that I once possessed. It is time for me to be cautious when encountering whitewater and there are days when paddling on a calm lake is a better decision than heading down a raging river. I don’t like to admit my limitations, I no longer am getting better and better at paddling. In fact, if the truth is told, I am slipping a bit. It is the saying you’ll hear at airports: There are bold pilots and there are old pilots, but there are no old bold pilots.

A little caution is a good thing. But we shouldn’t take it too far. When stories of disaster and tales of misfortune become crippling and our fear prevents us from taking risks, we fail to be faithful to our calling. Life is a journey and we don’t complete it by focusing our attention on our own safety only. After all, one of things we need to do is to provide stories for future generations to tell.

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 truth that makes us uncomfortable

BBC News produced a short video that shows a few scenes from a photography project by Johnny Miller. He has been using drones o photograph major cities around the world from Mumbai to Mexico City. He has photographed many places in the United States, including Palo Alto, the home of Google and Apple, Baltimore, Detroit, Oakland, and other cities. What his photographs so clearly illustrate are the incredible discrepancies between wealth and poverty and the dividing lines that exist. “Discrepancies in how people live are sometimes hard to see fro the ground,” he says. “Some communities have been expressly designed with separation in mind, and some have grown more or less organically.”

There are some really striking images in his work. He has a photograph that shows the headquarters of Facebook, one of the world’s richest companies. Right across the street is a homeless encampment. There is another photo of a Silicon Valley street lined with motorhomes, school buses and campers that are home to people who cannot afford permanent domiciles just miles from the headquarters of Google and Apple. The blue tarps of temporary shelters of homeless people in the area known as skid row make a stark contrast with the gleaming skyscrapers of Los Angeles’ financial district.

California has long been a state of huge contrasts. People of great ambition often head to that state in search of fame and fortune. Some find it. Others do not. First published in 1939, John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Grapes of Wrath,” follows a busted Oklahoma Dust Bowl family’s journey to the promise of California. Physical mobility does not always equal social mobility. The myth that is often sold as “The American Dream,” is that anyone can achieve wealth with enough hard work. If you try hard enough, you can make it. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Hard work and industriousness is not lacking in the open-air drug markets blocks from downtown LA. Hard work and industriousness is evident in the creativity of those living in tent cities that share real estate with Silicon Valley’s biggest firms. It is not a lack of ambition or capability of those who come to California seeking advancement. It is a system which systematically oppresses minorities, women, and the working class. It is a system which does not provide adequate social services, enough housing, sufficient healthcare, and often fails to provide basics such as food and clothing.

We have a problem with sharing wealth and power.

It is evident in more places than the photographs of Johnny Miller.

It has been abundantly evident during the past week in the news reports from the United States Senate. No matter what your position on the nomination and confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh, you don’t have to watch much television or scan the Internet for long without seeing scene after scene of rich white men angrily defending their power and position.

Keep in mind, as you continue to read, that I am the recipient of a great deal of privilege because of my birth. I was given a home and an education and position and power simply because of where I was born, my gender and the color of my skin.

The argument that has been raging in Washington DC and across our country is essentially about who is the victim. It is hard to believe, but powerful white men from the President to leaders of the Senate, have portrayed Judge Kavanaugh, who is educated, accomplished and who would continue to be a judge in one of the nation’s highest courts even if he was not confirmed, as the victim in the hearings. They seem to be unable to see the situation of Christine Blasey Ford, who reluctantly came forward with a painful story of her past and was rewarded for her truthful testimony by being publicly mocked by the President of the United States in front of a rally of screaming people. Who is the real victim here? It is an art that the President uses skillfully. Whether talking about Nazis marching in the streets of Charlottesville or his own scandals of sexual infidelity and paid coverups, he portrays himself and others like him as victims without regard to who is really being hurt and who is really receiving privilege.

What we are witnessing is a cultural struggle over how power and wealth and influence work. Our nation is governed by a set of people who are accustomed to being insulated from the consequences of their actions and they want to keep it that way. The founders of Facebook do not want to see the connection between their consolidation of wealth and the poverty of their neighbors. The bankers who ride to work in limousines from their multi-million dollar mansions don’t want to see billions of dollars of federal bailouts as undeserved. They found such governmental expenditures as necessary at the same time that they opposed providing health care for people who live in poverty. They don’t want to see the connection.

But we are all in this together.

I am saddened that we seem to be able to look at the real facts.

The fact is that men who are accused of sexual assault are not representative of all men in America. The tiny number of those who have been accused does not put all men at risk. It pales in comparison with the real number of actual victims of sexual assault.

Yet we persist in portraying these reversals.

We want to believe that the real victim isn’t the child who has been separated from his or her parents and incarcerated in a detention center. We want to believe that we are the victims because we fear that our jobs will be given to someone who was born in another country.

We don’t want to believe that a Syrian family trying to stay together while fleeing for their lives from scenes of incredible violence and destruction aren’t the real victims. We want to believe that we are the victims because we fear being blown up by terrorists.

The world is changing. The scenes that our grandchildren will see played out in the halls of government will look different from what we see. There will be more women and more people of color in the halls of government. But they will also see more scenes of angry white people of privilege pretending that they are the victims because the simple truth is that they don’t want to share their wealth and power. And, unfortunately they will have to witness scenes of incredible courage because for a while - and we do not know how long - when a woman who has been the victim of abuse comes forward, the President will use her as a punchline in front of a crowd.

Still the truth remains. There are far more real victims than persecutors. As the abolitionist Theodore Parker preached, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Just as our grandparents and great grandparents sacrificed to bring about an end of slavery and suffrage for women, we are called to sacrifice for a better future for our grandchildren. In the long run, the truth will prevail, but it requires us to continue to speak it.

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!

Officer down

People in Gillette, Wyoming are grieving. A well-known police officer died over the weekend. Gillette is a city that is about 140 miles from Rapid City and folks are going back and forth between the two locations every day. Lots of families have members in both of our towns. Most of us in Rapid City have friends in Gillette. Most folks from Gillette have friends in Rapid City. So we’re saddened by the news as well.

Mike Fischer was an officer of the highest esteem. He served the Gillette Police Department for more than 30 years. He served in almost every area of the Gillette Police Department. Most recently he was serving as a patrol officer, but he had been a school resource officer, primarily at Thunder Basin High School. He was the department’s primary radar and lira instructor. He helped train nearly every new recruit.He always had a smile on his face.

And now he is dead.

The day before yesterday, when Campbell County Coroner Laura Sundstrrom said she can’t release the cause of death yet, rumors about his death were already flying. I was making a presentation to Law Enforcement Chaplains about Police Suicide and the Police Suicide Foundation and someone texted me a link to the official statement by the City of Gillette, which clearly stated that the coroner had not yet released the cause of death. The implication of the message was clear: here is an example of police suicide. I chose not to discuss Mike Fischer’s death in the context of that class. I didn’t have official confirmation of what had happened.

I knew, however, what had happened. And yesterday, my ideas were confirmed by an official communication with personnel within the Gillette Police Department.

Here is the sad truth: In Washington, D.C., there is a wall of heroes to honor our fallen law enforcement officers. We lose a lot of law enforcement officers each year. The official count for 2018 is 113 line of duty deaths. That does not include Officer Terrence Carraway who was killed in Florence County South Carolina the day before yesterday as he was being rushed to the hospital after falling along with six others who were met with a barrage of bullets when a gunman opened fire from a home. All of those fallen officers’ names will be added to the wall, which is right. There are fallen officers whose names appear on the wall who died as a result of the attacks of 9/11, ones who were victims of assault, ones who died in automobile crashes, those who drowned, those who had heart attacks and motorcycle accidents and those who died by gunfire. There are even a few for whom the official cause of death is listed as accidental gunfire.

But for every name on that wall, there are at least two fallen officers whose names do not appear on the wall. For every line of duty death of a law enforcement officer in the United States, two die by suicide. Those who dies by suicide placed their lives on the line for others. They endured the daily stress of a life of service. And they died violent deaths.

Here are some reasons why law enforcement officers are more apt to die by suicide than people with other professions.

  • Military training is excellent training for law enforcement and law enforcement agencies hire a lot of people with military experience. Veterans have a higher suicide rate than the general population due to the stress of the trauma they have witnessed and other causes. The United States looses an average of 22 veterans every day to suicide. The suicide rate among veterans is double that of the civilian population.
  • Traumatic stress is cumulative and officers witness a lot of trauma. It has an ever-increasing effect on their psychological well being.
  • Police officers are asked to investigate suicides. Those who are close witnesses to suicide are at increased risk of dying by suicide themselves.
  • Police officers operate in a culture of honor and silence. They often avoid seeking help because they do not want to appear to be weak. They know that psychological illness can end their careers.
  • Care givers are often not practiced at receiving care.
  • Police officers suffered the same stresses and problems as those who are not in law enforcement. They have high divorce rates, they experience financial distress, they have regrets that are the result of bad decisions.
  • Police officers are trained to make instant decisions. They are used to making life and death decisions in a fraction of a second. This makes them more vulnerable to impulsive behavior.
  • Police officers have ready access to weapons and they know how to use them.

These are just some of the reasons why our heroes die. Many officers who die of suicide have exemplary careers. And they have died as they lived, as servants of all of us who enjoy the security of living in safe communities.

Here is another thing about the community of Gillette. The entire police department is grieving. Every officer who is a part of that department is asking themselves, “Could this be me?” and “Why didn’t I see this coming?” And those officers, in the depths of their grief will continue to protect the city 24 hours a day 7 days a week, including the hour of Officer Mike Fischer’s funeral. It is what they do. It is who they are.

All survivors of suicide are familiar with the stigma that is attached to death by suicide. That stigma is especially evident when a law enforcement officer dies by suicide.

Over 100 people have commented to the message of support for Officer Fischer’s family and friends that was posted on Facebook. Campbell County Health’s comment was this: “Sending high and love to the colleagues, friends and family of Officer Fischer. You are not alone.”

I propose that one memorial to Officer Fischer is a heightened sense of caring for one another. We would honor him by asking our friends and family members, “Are You OK?” “Do you need to talk?” “Is there anything I can do to help.” We would honor him by taking extra time to reach out to one another.

I’d love to see the day when every officer who falls to suicide is honored with the same level of respect as others who have died in the line of duty. Until that day comes, let us honor them by caring for all of the men and women of law enforcement. They are treasures. We need them.

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!

Watch out for birds

This week the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office and the Rapid City Police Department are hosting the annual Regional Training Seminar of the International Conference of Police Chaplains. About 40 law enforcement chaplains from five states have gathered for a few days of training and building networks of support. High quality continuing education events for pastors often require travel for local pastors, so this is a good opportunity for those who have interest in law enforcement and chaplaincy to take classes and earn continuing education units.The International Conference of Police Chaplains is the most widely accepted accrediting agency for law enforcement chaplains. I hold a basic certification from the association. Because I was on sabbatical during the summer when most of the planning was done, I didn’t participate in the meetings, but did volunteer before leaving on sabbatical to host the coffee breaks. So it has been a busy week for me, running back and forth between the church and the public safety building.

One thing that pastors and chaplains do when we get together is to update each other on local news. Much of the news that gets shared in this gathering has to do with law enforcement, crime, and related stories. Our regional gathering has a contingent of chaplains from the Duluth, Minnesota Area. I know some of the chaplains from previous gatherings and have visited with them during breaks around the edges of the seminar. In doing so, I caught news of a law enforcement story that some of my regular readers may have missed.

About a hour north of Duluth on the Iron Range, there is a small town called Gilbert. The police in that town have been responding to calls about rambunctious birds flying into windows and doors and being uncommonly aggressive. It turns out that the birds are flying under the influence and that it is not an isolated incident. There are lots and lots of intoxicated birds in town flying into cars and windows and acting confused.

An early frost, well before the birds normally head south for the winter, caused berries, mostly chokecherries to ferment. The birds eat the berries and become intoxicated and confused. The Gilbert police chief, Ty Techer said, “We’ve sort of nicknamed it ‘berry benders’ now that these birds are on a berry bender. The young birds livers can’t process it as well. They seem loopier, for lack of a better term.

Chokecherries and even larger fruit, such as crabapples can produce significant quantities of alcohol when their natural sugars begin to ferment and become alcohol as they lose moisture.

There have been several jokes going around about the phenomenon. Park Ranger Sharon Stiteler wrote, “Drunk birds are totally a thing. I’ve had to give sober rides to cedar wax wings from uptown.” She made a sober box as a place for bombed birds to sleep off their stupor. “Much like your drunk friend who sleeps on the couch, the birds will throw up and then feel better. Give them some carbs and some water and they’ll take the flight of shame home.”

Law enforcement officials admit that there are no laws against birds flying while intoxicated. They do note that smaller birds, like cedar waxwings, are more vulnerable to predators when they are under the influence.

I can say from first hand experience that robins are mean drunks. When I was growing up, we had lots of chokecherry bushes at our place. The robins would flock to the bushes and eat the ripe berries. When we got an early freeze, the robins would get drunk. I’ve seen a robin face off with a magpie that was three times its size and the magpie ended up flying away. Don’t mess with a drunk robin. They also get aggressive toward other animals. I once watched a cat who thought that a drunk robin would be easy prey. The robin chased the cat up a tree.

The Gilbert, Minnesota, police department Facebook page has a post that asks people not to call the police every time they notice intoxicated birds. However, they note they would like people to call the Gilbert Police Department if they see any of the following:

  • Heckle and Jeckle walking around being boisterous or playing practical jokes.
  • Woodstock pushing Snoopy off the doghouse for no apparent reason.
  • The Roadrunner jumping in and out of traffic on Main Street.
  • Bigbird operating a motor vehicle in an unsafe manner.
  • Angry Birds laughing and giggling uncontrollably and appearing to be happy.
  • Tweety acting as if 10 feet tall and getting into confrontations with cats.
  • Any other birds after midnight with Taco Bell items.

It’s a good thing that the police have maintained a sense of humor about the incident.

What I do know, from observing the birds, that when the phenomenon occurs, which isn’t every year, it goes away quickly. Usually after a few days, or at most a week, the birds have consumed all of the fermented fruit and return to their normal patterns. Since they are fattening up for the annual flight southward, they continue to eat voraciously and their short benders don’t seem to have a lasting effect on their behavior.

Of course, like humans, there are a few who make fatal mistakes when intoxicated. Behaviors while drunk can have permanent effects. Some of the birds that fly into cars or windows are killed in the encounter. Some are taken by predators when unable to fly away as quickly as usual. Fortunately, the overly aggressive behavior of the birds rarely results in injury or harm to other creatures, something that cannot be said about humans who over consume alcohol.

Today is the final day of the training seminar. I’m sure that there will be plenty of talk about the tragic events in Florence, South Carolina where one police officer was killed and six others were wounded after an attempt to serve a warrant. As is our custom, we will pray for the individuals involved and their families. Law enforcement chaplains tend to be realistic and serious about our calling.

But there will probably be a few jokes about drunk birds as well. Sometimes, in the midst of serious business, a little humor helps to release the tension.

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

Signs of politics

My parents were politically active. We lived in a small town and all of our neighbors knew the political preferences of my parents. They didn’t always agree with each other and we were used to passionate arguments about various candidates for office. We also grew up with candidates for office doing to our home when they were campaigning and got to know some people who served in political offices. As November approached in election years we often had a few signs in our yards and the family car often sported bumper stickers. There was, however, an important rule that I don’t think was breached. There were no bumper stickers on company vehicles and no signs on business property. I wouldn’t say that our father kept all politics out of his business. He would talk politics with his customers and they knew his viewpoint. But the official position of the company was that it sought all people, regardless of their political points of view as customers. And customers need to be treated with respect. I learned quite a bit about how to greet visitors and guests in church from the way that all customers were treated when they came into my parents’ place of business.

Driving around Rapid City these days, I have noticed that not all business owners and operators follow the same set of guidelines when it comes to politics and business. Political yard signs appear on in front of places of business. There is a prominent down town business with a political banner posted right on the side of the building. There are several lots in town that boats a lot of yard signs that belong to businesses. It is not at all rare to see a company vehicle that sports a variety of political signs and slogans.

I’m not sure, but I suspect that businesses that are overtly political don’t suffer much of a loss of business from those who hold opposing points of view, but it is possible that a few customers make different choices based on the political signs that they see. I know that there are a couple of businesses with whom I choose not to do business because of overt political campaigning or public views of the owners. I don’t organize public boycotts but I might quietly avoid shopping in a particular store.

I’ve seven seen political signs in church yards and on church buildings. I know that wouldn’t work for our congregation because on any given political issue, we have members who are supporters of both candidates and who support both sides of different political issues. In fact, I have a member of my church who has taken several photographs of cars parked next to each other in the church parking lot with opposing bumper stickers. I think it is part of our corporate identity that we are a church with many different points of view. Whatever political positions one holds, that person is welcome in our church. We currently have members who are candidates from for public office, one running as a Democrat, another running as a Republican. It isn’t the first election where that has been the case.

I pay attention to politics. I read the news. Increasingly I use the computer as my primary source of news, but I try to stay informed and to be aware of the important political issues in our community and country. I vote in every election. But I haven’t been as overtly political as some of my siblings. Two of my bothers have earned party nominations to run for political office. And, as a display of our family’s love of politics, they weren’t nominated by the same party. Actually their political views were pretty different from one another. We are still capable of political arguments in our family, though they are somewhat mutes because we put some effort into avoiding the intensity and loud arguments that marked our young adult years. We’d rather have time with each other than try to convince each other to change our minds these days.

There is a part of me that laments the increasing corporate influence in politics. There are many large corporations who fund virtually all political campaigns so that they have access to the office holder regardless of who wins the election. Corporate money plays a huge part in politics. A candidate for statewide office in our state is likely to have added to their campaign finances a lot of corporate donations. The amount of money in politics is way beyond the point where an individual donor feels as if he or she has contributed significantly to the campaign process. That leads to a sense that individuals aren’t important in the process.

I wish we could return to a more grass roots style of political campaigning where neighbors talked with each other about how they intended to vote and candidates spoke directly to everyday people. I’d love to think that the candidate with the most money wasn’t always the winner in political races and that hard work and grass roots organization make a difference. There is still some evidence that this might be the case.

Of course lamenting change isn’t a very viable political position. There have always been politicians who are influenced by the presence of money and power in politics. There have long been those who favor rich donors over everyday people. Still, I wish the public had more access to information about where the money comes from in various political campaigns. Perhaps it is good for us to see signs in businesses and on company vehicles as an indication of who is investing in various campaigns. It is an imprecise art, to be sure, but it is good to know a little bit about the role of money in political campaigns and in political leadership.

But for now, I’m not inclined to be overtly political. I don’t have any yard signs. I don’t have any bumper stickers. I try to keep my political viewpoints to my self or to conversations with close friends.

And I like belonging to a church where no matter what political cause you support with bumper stickers on your car, you are welcome to come inside and worship.

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!

Reaching out

I go to the church early on Sundays. I spend some time alone in the sanctuary preparing for worship. I organize my thoughts for the day. I read and answer a few emails. I set out coffee for early arrivers. I turn on the monitors that show church announcements. I check the building, turn on the lights and unlock the doors. I like being the first to arrive and it helps me to get my mind wrapped around the tasks that lie ahead.

One morning, not long ago, as I unlocked the front doors, I noticed someone sitting on the benches outside of the door. I greeted the person and asked if I there was anything that was needed. “Can I talk to a pastor?” was the question. As I answered that I am one of the pastors of the church, I admit that I was steeling myself. That question is usually followed up by a request for money. There are quite a few people who see churches as social service agencies and turn to them for assistance with rent, gas, utilities, groceries and a host of other needs. We try to help where we can, but we don’t have the resources to solve many of their problems. It isn’t at all uncommon for someone to make a request that is hundreds of dollars more than we have available to help. There are a lot of problems that come to us that we are not able to solve.

This person, however, did not ask for financial support. Instead, I began to hear an entire life story. I invited the person to my office and we sat and talked for more than an hour. It is really hard for me to give up an hour of my time on a Sunday morning. There were a lot of things that I wanted to do and I have a particular pace that helps me be ready for my sermon. And this particular Sunday I had a complex sermon with quite a few specific elements that had to be memorized. I finally had to draw our conversation to a close because people were arriving for choir and I needed to rehearse with the choir. I invited the person to worship with us, which happened and the person disappeared shortly after worship. I didn’t get a follow up conversation.

Being a pastor involves a community that is larger than the membership of the church. I am called to serve the folks who belong to the church. We have quite a few members who have belonged to the church for a long time and were very regular in attendance before a health issue forced a change in their lives. They miss church and they want the pastor to come and visit them. I make a lot of that kind of visits, but never enough to satisfy my own sense of what I should be doing and never enough to satisfy the lonely ones who miss their church. I could spend eight hours every day visiting people and there would remain those who need to be visiting. I understand that my job involves a lot of listening to people. So it would be easy for someone who is feeling a bit undeserved to question my priorities when I spend a very valuable hour not long before worship listening to a stranger who will likely not ever join the church and will not become a contributor.

My call and my professional code of ethics demands that I remain impartial when giving respect and concern to others. Length of membership, size of pledge, status or other factors should not influence my giving of care and concern.All people deserve care and respect.

In every situation in which I have served as a minister, I have seen it as part of my calling to serve the community. I have been involved in community activities and participate in a lot of things outside of the church. I serve on boards of nonprofits, participate in ecumenical activities, and work hard to raise the visibility of the church that I serve in the wider community.

From time to time I get a bit of criticism from members of the church who think that I spend too much time out in the community and not enough time providing direct service to members of the church. It is a fair criticism, at least it is important that I work towards balance and am open to considering making changes. I am only one person and there are only so many hours in a day and how I prioritize my time is worthy of careful consideration.

Still, there are times, like that recent Sunday morning, when I feel as if I have been swept up by the events and circumstances of that particular day and am not always in charge of my time.

I can make some hospital calls in ten minutes. I stop by, check on the patient, share a prayer and am out of the door and on to the next task. I have also had situations where it takes more than two hours to make a hospital call. Not long ago there was a member of our congregation in the hospital with whom I spend more than an hour a day for a week, including days that are my day off. Then a day came when I wasn’t able to visit in person and I spent at least 15 minutes on the telephone. Every situation is unique. It is one of the joys of the ministry. It also demands that I bring flexibility and the ability to respond to the needs of other to my work every day.

Even after 40 years as an ordained minister, I struggle with how to best serve the people of my congregation. I try to listen to what they have to say and to respond to their concerns as well as paying attention to the wider community. We exist to serve others as well as ourselves. Real Christian service occurs outside of the church. A church that fails to recognize this cannot grow. A church that is faithful to its call must learn to discern the complexity of that call and to develop new responses to new situations.

I am glad I took the time to speak with the person who interrupted the flow of my Sunday morning. I may never now if I was a help, but I know that the person didn’t experience being brushed off or turned aside at the door of the church. For that I am grateful.

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!

For Sale items I won't buy

I have friends who have really been enjoying their tandem bicycle. They happened to find a high quality used tandem that was available for sale. The bicycle is in excellent shape and they have been riding it on the George Mickelson Trail. The trail is a converted rail bed that runs north and south through the heart of the Black Hills. If you were to ride the entire trail in one direction, it would are 107 miles, but they are doing it in sections, riding out and back, so when they finish, they will have ridden each section twice. A couple of hundred miles on a tandem bicycle is a good adventure for the fall.

I’ve not ridden a tandem bicycle very much. My brother owned a tandem for a while and I had a couple of rides when visiting him. It was an interesting experience and I can see why riding a tandem is an acquired taste. Only one of the riders gets to steer. The other is there for pedaling. Good communications about starting, route and stopping are essential. But I have ridden enough to see the appeal of the device. Riders can easily talk as they enjoy a pace that really allows you to see the scenery. Still a bicycle is faster than walking, so you can cover quite a bit of ground with a reasonable output of effort. Modern bikes, like the one my friends have are equipped with multiple speeds and effective brakes and are good for a variety of different terrain.

20,000 dolar trike
If you want to take the concept to the extreme, Hammacher Schlemmer sells a seven person tricycle. The advertisement says that the vehicle facilitates close-knit conferencing during joyrides. Each rider has his or her own set of pedals that can bear operated together with the other riders’ pedals to propel the vehicle up to 10 mph. Of course there is only one person with a steering wheel. the other six have to trust that person to stay on the path. And a vehicle that goes 10 mph must have some system of brakes. After all the catalogue lists the price of the tricycle at $20,000 plus $650 for shipping and handling. I don’t plan to order one.

That is pretty much the purpose of me and the Hammacher Schlemmer catalogue. It is a place I go to look at things that I would never buy. I’m not sure who does buy the items in the catalogue. One presumes that someone might, making the production of the catalogue worthwhile. The company has been in business for 170 years. And they don’t charge you to look at the catalogue, so they must get their income from sales. Then again, I have no idea what the dealer profit is for a seven person tricycle. Maybe you don’t have to sell too many at $20,000 each in order to have a healthy profit.

floating hot tub
If you are not into pedaling, perhaps you’d prefer sitting back and relaxing in the Amstel Hot Tub Tug. It is a wood burning hot tub that is also a tugboat. The tug part is propelled by an electric motor that provides a cruising speed of 3 mph on calm rivers, lakes or ponds. The ad says it can accommodate up to six adult bathers in 475 gallons of water heated by that wood stove. It takes 2 1/2 hours to get the water heated with the woodstove, which gets up to 100 degrees. That’s pretty hot so the craft has two built-in ice chests. The ad says that the device will run up to 8 hours on a single charge of the battery. I think I’ll pass on this $25,000 device as well. I already own more boats than is practical. And my boats keep you dry when you are paddling them.

Another item I noticed is the iceless skating rink. For those who just can’t wait until winter, you can purchase a set of interlocking polymer panels that mimic the slickness of ice, yet rain solid when set up outdoors in warm weather. You could use it indoors if you had a room that was more than 15 by 30 feet. It seems perfect for people who can’t go all summer without strapping on their sakes and don’t want to take the time to visit an indoor rink. In our town you can skate year-round at the Roosevelt Ice Arena. It has the added benefit of refrigeration to keep the real ice solid, so it is a cool place on a hot summer day. Compared to the price of a seven-person tricycle or a floating hot tub, the artificial ice rink is a real bargain, priced at only $4,000 plus $200 for shipping and handling. I’m not a customer for the ice rink. I’ve never even spent a tenth of the purchase price on a bicycle.

Within my price range is a flameless candle lighter. Instead of emitting a flame like a regular lighter, it sends and electronic pulse to a pair of conductive electrodes at the tip of the device that ionize the air between them and generates a 2,012 degree voltaic arc. I don’t know how good the device is at lighting candles, but I have to admit that my mind wondered to more nefarious uses of the device. It might work like a personal taser. It certainly seems like being touched with those electrodes when charged would cause a significant amount of pain. It doesn’t take much thinking on my part to decide that owning a device like that one isn’t a good idea, especially for someone like me whose mind thinks of the wrong ways to use the thing.

I’m not going to order anything from the catalogue. Still, it amused me for a while and I got a journal post from it. I don’t know who buys that things that they sell, but there must be others who read it to look at pictures of things that they would never buy.

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!