Rev. Ted Huffman

In the midst of the mess

Over two million people have watched Tim Harford TED talk in which he tells the story of Keith Jarrett arriving at the concert hall in Cologne, Germany, where the piano was completely unacceptable for performance. The pads were worn and harsh and the upper register was tinny. The pedals weren’t working properly. Worst of all, the piano was simply too small for the large hall. He had the concert promoter informed that the concert was off unless a new piano could be obtained. He couldn’t perform on such an unacceptable instrument.

As he waited outside in his car, the concert promoter tried to obtain a different piano. It was too late. There was no one who could move a new instrument in with such a late notice. The promoter, a teen ager who was staging her first concert, went out in the rain and pleaded with Jarrett to play that impossible piano. Somehow that wet and scared teenager convinced him to play.

The audience came, the concert began. Jarrett began playing in the middle registers of the piano and avoiding the harsher, higher tones. He also was trying to compensate for the size of the piano by pounding harder and harder on the base notes. He would repeat his bass riffs in order to emphasize them, straining to make the tones reach the back of the audience. The audience, in turn, moved forward in their seats to hear the music.

The piano was impossible. The situation was impossible. The piano was unplayable.

Within moments, it became clear, however, that something very special was happening. It is an electrifying performance that has incredible dynamic qualities. The audience loved it. And audiences continue to love it. The album that is the recording of that concert is the best selling piano album in history and the best selling jazz album.

Something about the challenge of impossible circumstances brought out the absolute best performance possible. In his book, Harford wrote of the concert, “Handed a mess, [he] embraced it, and soared.”

I try not to use my daily blog as a place to review books. If you’ve checked out my book blog, you’ll see that I’m months behind in writing my book reviews. As I write this morning there is a stack of read, but unreviewed books sitting on the floor next to my desk. What is more, I haven’t read Harford’s book yet.

I just love the title: “Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform our Lives.”

The book is, I have discerned from reviews, an exploration of disruption theory. The theory is that disruption inspires creative thinking. He defends the creative potential of the imperfect, incoherent, crude, cluttered, random, ambiguous, vague, difficult, diverse and even the dirty. I’m pretty sure that is a book for me.

One reviewer comments that in the book Harford cites a story which I’ve known for some time. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a studied and meticulous about his preparation for public speaking. He worked hard on his sermons and engaged in a lot of research. However, on the eve of his scheduled address to the March on Washington he couldn’t get his speech right. He worked late into the night and the speech remained unfinished. He continued to work on it up to the last minute, scribbling notes in the car, crossing out phrases and making changes right up to the moment when he approached the lectern. Then, partway into the speech, he abandoned his notes and began a verbal exposition on a theme that wasn’t even in the prepared notes. “I have a dream . . .” he declared and one of the greatest speeches in human history was delivered.

I can’t imagine how terrified Dr. King was. I can barely stand facing my own congregation when events have kept me from proper preparation of my sermon. I don’t sleep when I am unprepared.

I have, however, experienced first hand the power of disruption to spur the creative process. Some of my best writing has come from days when there were too many interruptions in my thinking. The phone kept ringing, people kept stopping by, conversations ensued which were unplanned and which I had tried to avoid.

I have discovered that my messy desk can be an inspiration for creative work. When it gets too messy, instead of sorting through the papers and books and putting things in the right order, I make piles of the things on my desk and begin to deal with them in the random order into which they fell. My goal is to deal with the contents each piece of paper so that it can be thrown into the trash when I’m finished. No filing. No putting things off into another pile. Complete the task and then move on. The result is that I begin to do tasks in a random order. I make a phone call, followed by filling out a form, followed by delegating a task to another person in the church, followed by getting a bill paid, followed by writing a thank you note followed by whatever task comes up next.

Invariably those days are among the most productive days of work. The disruption forces me to focus in a way that I am unable to achieve when I am working according to a precise and rational plan.

Obviously such conditions wouldn’t work for every person. We have two administrative colleagues who share the same desk and computer. Clutter would make it impossible for either to work effectively. I have colleagues who simply can’t work on a sermon when there are unanswered letters. I know others for whom my messiness is frustrating.

For me, however, there is something creative and empowering about working with a bit of mess. After all, I am a disciple of Jesus - God who comes into the messiness of human life to participate fully in human experience. Our theology is not based on completely neat and rational activities, but rather the most disruptive event in human history.

So, I think I should read Harford’s book. I probably will one day. However, I have vowed to not buy another book until I get through the pile of unread books sitting on top of my printer.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. If you would like to share this, please direct your friends to my web site. If you want to reproduce any or all of it, please contact me for permission. Thanks.

Taking responsibility

I’ve been involved in several conversations recently where the tone of political speech has been criticized. The polarization of the country and the amount of angry rhetoric has been lamented by my friends and colleagues. Many of us are dismayed at the lack of respect and the abundance of personal attacks that are aimed at demonizing those who have different policies, beliefs or points of view. There seems to be a constant stream of angry speech spewing from television, social media and other outlets. I join in those conversations freely. I am as likely to be the one complaining as anyone else.

When I stop to think, however, I suspect that we are a bit quick to turn the blame on others for the dysfunction in our nation’s capital and the tone of media relations. After all, when we boil it down, we are no better at talking with those with whom we disagree than are the politicians. Like those in power, we also tend to surround us with those whose views are similar to our own and stay away from those who see things differently. We haven’t maintained diverse communities with good communication.

What if the dysfunction in Washington D.C. is a true reflection of the state of community in our nation today?

If we truly are people who value friendship, family, community, education and workplace, there is much that is required to maintain those relationships. I wonder if we are willing to make the investment that is required to make a change in how we relate to one another.

I am as guilty as the next person. I have filled my life with commitments and obligations and lists of things to do. I am way too busy to have what might be described as a contemplative lifestyle. I don’t give myself enough time to think. I am quick to blame others for my busyness, but the truth is that it is the result of decisions that I have made. I fill up my schedule with all kinds of things that are probably less important than just making time to talk with others, to get to know their deepest thoughts and desires, and to minister with them in reaching out to others. I like to think of myself as a person who is able to listen, but I don’t spend enough time really listening to others. I’m too busy thinking about the next meeting, the next appointment, the next obligation.

When I find myself longing for a day off, I know that I have no one but myself for my hectic schedule.

If I, whose vocation and calling is listening to others, don’t allow enough time, how can I expect politicians to do so?

When I take time to think, I know that I genuinely believe that we, who live our lives in community and consider ourselves to be the grass roots people, can have an impact on how our leaders behave. If we learned to really listen to those in our community with whom we disagree, we would have a lot more leverage when we ask our leaders in Washington DC to do the same. If we take time to discuss the urgent issues of the day with an eye towards seeking solutions instead of winning, we might induce our elected officials to do the same.

There is a simple concept that might be more valuable in our conversations than our constant complaining about others. We might instead focus on the common good. What ideas, policies and laws provide for the benefit or interests of all.

After all, we have much in common with those with whom we disagree. We are all human. We all need food, clothing and shelter. We all have a desire for the well being of our children. We all want safe and effective schools. I’m pretty sure that a list of the shared wishes of the majority of the people in this country would fill this blog and spill over several pages. But we get in the rut of focusing on our differences instead of pouring our energy into seeking the common good.

To put it another way, there are plenty of things for which I might advocate that are also good for my neighbor, that improve the quality of community and benefit all. We might disagree on methodology or which route is the best to achieve a shared goal, but there are many things upon which we can agree.

In a poem entitled “Councils” Marge Piercy suggests that perhaps we should sit down in the dark where we can’t see who is speaking to teach ourselves to focus on what is being said instead of who is talking. She also urges some of us to “dare to speak” while others must “bother to listen.” “Perhaps,” she writes, “we should talk in groups small enough for everyone to speak.” She also suggests that we start by speaking softly.

I long for those kinds of quality conversations. I also am in a perfect position to facilitate such talk. The church is a excellent arena for meaningful and respectful conversation.

Of course I must be careful not to just add one more meeting to my schedule. I must be respectful of the fact that the time of others is also a valuable commodity. But we have the opportunity to form and maintain genuine community despite the rhetoric of the media and the uncivil conversations of government. We have the power to make decisions about our own behavior and how we treat others.

In doing so we can change the style and mood of conversation in our community - in our state - in our nation.

I probably won’t stop complaining about the tone of political speech. I probably won’t stop whining about the thoughtlessness of media. But I hope that I can muster the discipline to spend more of my time facilitating genuine conversation and less of my time complaining. It would be a good start on an important task and a much wiser investment of my time.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. If you would like to share this, please direct your friends to my web site. If you want to reproduce any or all of it, please contact me for permission. Thanks.

Words that still matter

There are moments in history that bring out the best in people. There are times when people rise to significant occasions demonstrating remarkable vision, clarity and insight. The founders of our American Democracy were participants in one of those dramatic and incredible moments of history. Every once in a while it makes sense to remember their words and contemplate their meanings.Our constitution begins with these words:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

It think that is is possible that the words are even greater than the people who wrote them. Those colonies, established on a foreign continent, with abundant natural resources. were remarkably diverse. There were Catholics and Quakers and Congregationalists and Episcopalians. There were people who had left Europe as a form of religious protest and others who had been sentenced to expatriation because of crimes, both petty and large. There were adventurers and scoundrels. The phrase “We the people” included a lot of differences and was a grand vision.

But it was a case in which the words were greater than the authors. Those who penned the words, “We the people,” didn’t include the indigenous people who had inhabited the continent before the arrival of the settlers for the most part. They didn’t count as people African slaves who had been imported against their will to the colonies for 150 years before the writing of the Constitution. It took many decades for we the people to understand that phrase included more than just some of the people. Part of the genius of the constitution lies in its ability to self correct and be amended. Part of its genius lies in the creation of courts that could make an independent analysis of the laws to reveal an even greater meaning of those words.

We, who are the inheritors of both the words of our founders and the generations of their interpretation, would do well to return to the concept of “We the people.” That phrase does not mean “some of the people,” or “the people who agree with me,” or “the people who look like me.” It means all of the people.

Yes, there are a lot more of us than was the case when that document was written. Yes we are in many ways more diverse and have more differences than was the case in those days. The distance between the ultra-rich and the very poor is greater than at any point in the history of the globe. But we are still the people. And our government is based on all of us, not just some of us.

There are other words in that preamble that have inspired generations. Worthy of our contemplation is the goal, “in order to form a more perfect Union.”

You might get the impression, from listening to much of contemporary political debate that our country exists for the purpose of competing with China, or finding the best technological advances, or serving as the world’s police force, or amassing wealth. Our founders believed we formed ourselves as a nation “in order to form a more perfect Union.” Our purpose is to draw closer to one another - to form a community - to discover our purpose as a people.

At our core, each of us has been given the task of discovering what ti means to be truly human. When we take that task seriously we discover that being truly human has to do with forming relationships with other humans. We cannot achieve our purpose alone. We are made for each other. What is our purpose in this life? And what responsibilities come with the discovery of that purpose? These are questions which have been at the heart of religion for millennia. They are also questions at the heart of the American Democratic experiment.

I call it an experiment because we have a long ways to go before we can say that we have achieved the goals our founders set out before us. Perhaps it would be fair to say that after the Civil Rights Movement and some of the great court cases on human equality our union is “more perfect” than it was at our founding. But it would be ludicrous to argue that we have achieved the goal. We have a long ways to go before ours could be called a more perfect union.

Consider the election maps of red states and blue states. What does it mean to form a more perfect union? Consider the harsh rhetoric of political advertising and the tone of congressional debate. What does it mean to form a more perfect union? Consider the clear cases of elected officials to place partisan bickering above their responsibilities as elected officials. What does it mean to form a more perfect union?

A quick glance at social media will reveal that one of the popular modes of political rhetoric these days is blaming others for the ills we perceive. We keep looking for scapegoats and pointing the finger at others. In doing so, we miss the genius of the words of our founders. Ours is a nation of “We the people.” When we disagree with the actions of government, we must be willing to take responsibility for our role in those decisions. Just because our party lost the election doesn’t make us any less citizens. It doesn’t absolve us from the responsibility to work towards a more perfect union. When our leaders act, they do so, in part on my behalf. As citizen I need to be willing to stand up for my ideals, but also to take responsibility for my failure to convince a majority of my fellow citizens of those ideals. The actions of our government are the result, in part, of my action and/or inaction.

I’m no politician. I haven’t got the stomach for that arena. But I am a citizen. And, like all citizens, I am a part of “We the people” as we seek to form “a more perfect union.”

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. If you would like to share this, please direct your friends to my web site. If you want to reproduce any or all of it, please contact me for permission. Thanks.

Watching the royals

I’ve never been much of a royal watcher. I understand that the monarchy is a big deal in England and the royal family is carefully watched in other countries of the British Commonwealth. I have close Australian friends and I agree with them that Queen Elizabeth II is a remarkable woman. Crowned just before my birth, she has shown amazing grace and dignity throughout many decades of changes throughout her reign. There are a dozen countries that have become independent nations curing her reign, and in most of them, she is still revered as queen. Still, I confess that I really don’t understand the monarchy and why any country needs a royal family. I’m very comfortable living in a country where we have a President and former presidents, where the head of state changers on a regular basis regardless of how much I complain about the process of campaigning.

It seemed that the wold world was caught up in the spectacle of the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana in the early ’80’s and their divorce in the mid 90’s. Diana’s death was a matter of international news and her funeral a huge media event. I sort of paid attention to some of the things, but never got into the scandal and rumors about others. It seemed to be a huge tragedy, but I didn’t feel enough association with them to cry.

I do, however, confess a wee bit of envy of the royals this week. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, William and Kate and their two children, Prince George and Princess Charlotte, are having what seems to me to be a dream vacation. They are spending eight days in one of the most gorgeous places in the world, British Columbia. Saturday they flew into Victoria on Vancouver Island. After a night’s rest the royal couple boarded a Harbor Air Twin Otter floatplane for the hop over to Vancouver where they visited the Immigration Services Society of British Columbia for an event to celebrate young leaders in Canadian arts, music, sports, charity, business and film. Later yesterday they got to visit the Kitsliano coastguard station.

I’ve been to Victoria and Vancouver. They are beautiful cities. I’ve sat on the waterfront in Victoria watching the floatplanes come and go. I’ve never had the opportunity to fly on one of them, but I’d sure love to. William, being a rescue pilot himself, must have really enjoyed the trip on the iconic twin-engine floatplane. The view has got to be spectacular and he would have been allowed to discuss the flight with the pilots.

I’m very interested in the multicultural climate of Canada. Canada has resettled 25,000 Syrian refugees since November of 2015 and the royal couple got to meet a couple who just came to Canada in August of this year. They got to speak to the couple about their children and the struggles they left behind in Syria.

And I’m sure that William had a good time visiting the Coast Guard lifesaving station. Accompanied by Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire, they had the opportunity to meet with the crews and view all of the high tech equipment used by the crews who patrol some very rugged and isolated coastline.

Today they get to fly up to Bella Bella in the Great Bear Rainforest. I’ve never been that far up the coast. We were limited by the end of the highway at Powell River when we made our trip there a decade ago. A visit to the Heiltsuk First Nations community would be a fascinating way to learn about the tribes who have lived for centuries in one of the largest temperate rainforests of the world. The giant spruce, hemlock and Douglas fir trees and the wide variety of ferns and fronds on the forest floor fascinate me. The culture of those who have lived there is amazing.

Tomorrow it is off to Kelowna, a city we have enjoyed visiting and a tour of the Okanagan campus of the University of British Columbia, a site were we once attended a writers’ conference. They’ll tour Mission Hill Winery before flying up to Whitehorse to be greeted buy the Canadian Rangers. The next day they’ll visit the MacBride Museum and meet members of Whitehorse’s cultural community before traveling to Carcross as guests of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation people.

Back in Victoria at the end of the week, there will be a children’s party on the grounds of Government House. On Friday they will fly up to the coastal island of Haida Gwaii, home of the Haida Nation for the opening of a new hospital. They’ll also have a few hours of fishing on Hecate Strait.

As I said, I’m not much of a royal watcher, but this week I’m paying attention. Talk about a dream vacation. There are a few luxuries enjoyed by the royal couple that are beyond my means at this moment. I don’t spend much energy envying other people, but you’ve got to admit that this is a great trip!

So far the weather looks pretty good for them as well. The aspens and birch should be right yellow with a sprinkling of red maple leaves in the more southern locations. As they fly into Kelowna, they’ll see the brilliance of the Tamaracks beginning to change color. The gorgeous mountains of the coastal range will have snow on their tops and they’ll get a few glimpses at the glaciers as well.

Not only will they see some beautiful country, they will be seeing a lot of the diversity of Canada’s people. They’ve already met new refugees and First Nations people and dedicated public servants. They will be meeting with additional First Nations tribes, youth, people who have suffered mental illnesses and their families, victims of domestic violence and those who provide wilderness medical services.

Checking out their official schedule, it would appear that they have access to some pretty first rate childcare during their trip as well. Not every activity such as wine tasting and ocean fishing are places for the children. Still, I’m thinking the kids will have a lifetime of wonderful memories from the trip.

I’ll probably never be able to replicate such an adventure. I am, however, hoping for a ride in a seaplane one of these years.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. If you would like to share this, please direct your friends to my web site. If you want to reproduce any or all of it, please contact me for permission. Thanks.

The loss of community

A few days ago a friend asked me to give my take on the declines in church participation that have been shown in virtually every poll on religion in recent years. He wasn’t asking about our particular church, but rather about the national trends of shrinking churches and increasing numbers of people who express no religious preference. He noted that similar declines are occurring in other community organizations such as service clubs.

I don’t really have much information to add to such a discussion. His information appeared to be accurate and although I try to keep up with research, I don’t base my ministry on that kind of research. I spoke of a couple of different attempts that we have made at reaching out to those not involved in church and of my observation that young adults across the board, even those who are nominally members of churches, appear to be less involved. They attend less frequently and, in many cases, less regularly than did their parents. I reflected on events and activities that we have planned to bring young adults together in our church and the challenges of scheduling. Our conversation soon drifted off into observations about the choice of many people to live lives that are over scheduled and over committed.

I’ve been thinking about the conversation ever since. My worry for many people in today’s world is that they don’t have the strength of community backing them up that we have experienced in our lives. The failure to form community seems to be a hallmark of our society. I am reminded of the adages that I was taught about faith early in my life: “Faith is not for the good times, but for the hard times.” “Anyone can believe when things are going well, it is when disaster strikes that you need to have faith.” In general, we have it pretty easy in our society. The state of health care means that most young people don’t experience life-threatening illness. Although the economy isn’t growing at a rate that allows for upward mobility for many, there is a sense that the status quo can be maintained with a few adjustments and corrections. We live at a fairly high level of luxury when compared to previous generations. Many have not faced much hardship at this stage in their life’s journey.

All of that is fine until a crisis occurs. I wonder if today’s “nones” (people who profess no religious affiliation) have the systems of support that are required in difficult times.

My volunteer work with the Sheriff’s Office and our LOSS (Local Outreach to Survivors of Suicide) team has frequently placed me in the homes of people facing severe crises. I have witnessed the power of community as a person struggling with devastating grief is transformed into the center of care and concern by the arrival of friends and family. I have also sat with people who face devastating news in relative isolation and feel lost and alone as they struggle with the process of facing their grief and loss.

I remember sitting with a woman who had just received the news of the death of her teenage son. As the impact of the initial shock began to fade and she recovered her ability to speak, she began to question me about what she was going to do. I tried to guide here in setting forth a simple set of things that she might do that day, such as calling a clergy person, notifying family and friends, choosing a funeral home, She didn’t belong to a church. She didn’t know any minister or religious leader. The number of relatives and friends who needed to be notified was shockingly short and she was not eager to talk to any of them. She dreaded the thought of making phone calls to anyone. Her husband, who was not the father of the son who died, was present, but didn’t know how to assist to her. She asked me to recommend a funeral home. While I can list the funeral homes in our community, I am in no place to recommend one above another. Each of the tasks of the day was overwhelming to her and she was immobilized and unable to act. I moved to a more basic level, offering to get her a glass of water, asking if she needed a jacket or blanket, recommending a couple of things that she could do for self care. In time, we were able to formulate a basic plan for the rest of the evening.

That experience contrasts so starkly with some homes where I have visited as family and friends are already assembling, offering love and care and support and assistance. The doorbell rings and more food is taken into the kitchen. A pastor arrives and offers a prayer. People ask if they can help with phone calls. There is usually one or more people who simply pitch in and start cooking and cleaning. The suffering person is surrounded by a community of care and concern.

I am well aware that churches are not the only meaningful communities in people’s lives, but it does seem that there are more and more people in today’s world who do not have any community to back them up. Since my vocation has been the church, I think first of church as the place to build relationships and form community. I continue to be very attentive to nurturing community as a routine part of my job.

As I mull the conversation with my friend, I understand his concern that churches are losing members. I know that decreased membership means decreased donations and decreased budgets. I am well aware of cutbacks in various settings of the church. I have served my entire career in the climate of institutional decline. I understand the tragedy of churches losing members.

That tragedy pales in comparison to the tragedy of people losing their churches. The institution may decline, but it doesn’t experience the suffering of those who have no community.

We have plenty of work to do to help to build up community in the lives of those who have none.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. If you would like to share this, please direct your friends to my web site. If you want to reproduce any or all of it, please contact me for permission. Thanks.