Rev. Ted Huffman

The Seventh Day of Christmas

I occasionally have conversations with people who are not involved in the congregation I serve that reveal that people have very different understandings of the nature of the church than the institution I experience in my everyday life. Sometimes, upon finding that I am a minister, people begin to apologize for their lack of attendance at church. They may be apologizing for their failure to attend different congregations, as if they expect that I would be judgmental of those who don’t attend church. I never know quite how to respond to such statements. I’d be happy if that person were to find a church community that is meaningful and would become involved, but that is behavior that I can’t control. The person would need to make their own connections and commitment. I don’t make any judgments about a person’s character based on how often they attend worship. I am closer to those who are regular worshipers because I know them better. We spend more time together than I spend with folks who aren’t involved in churches. A person who doesn’t attend church doesn’t need to answer to me or to explain their behavior to me, but there seem to be quite a few people who feel compelled to do so.

Some people, upon learning that I am a minister, want to tell me part of their religious experience. That is understandable, such experiences are life-shaping and generally are interesting for me to hear. It seems to be a privilege of my calling that I know things about relative strangers that have not been shared with everyone else. I suspect that there are plenty of customers who shop in a certain office supply store who don’t know that one of the clerks is the daughter of a Lutheran minister. You could shop there for a long time without knowing that particular detail. One day, however, when I used the church’s credit card for a purchase, she asked me if I was a minister. When I answered, she told me about her father and continues to share bits and pieces of the story when I return to the store to make purchases. Perhaps she is just a friendly clerk who shares her stories with all of her customers, but it seems that we have a particular connection because of the similarity of her father’s vocation and mine.

Sometimes those who are not involved in churches, or at least not in the congregation I serve, speak as if they think that everyone in the church agrees about each detail of doctrine. Our church isn’t much for doctrine in the first place, preferring to use statements of faith as testaments of belief, not tests of faith. There is a wide diversity of beliefs within the congregation I serve and I think that the diversity is one of the treasures of the community. But outsiders think that we agree on every detail of our faith. I often will have a bit of a conversation with someone who thinks that being involved in a church means a specific belief. There are quite a few people who think that all people in the church are advocates for official teacher-led prayers in public schools and all reject scientific theories such as evolution. In my own personal case, I spent a decade serving in a community where the majority religion was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I’m simply not a Mormon and I pray differently than some of the public Mormon prayers that I have heard. I don’t want to live in a society where someone else decides what prayers should be prayed in school. I’m all in favor of prayer in all aspects of life, but I see no reason for the prayers to be imposed by school officials. And as to the theory of evolution, I don’t find my particular understanding of the Creation stories of our people to reject scientific method or commonly held discoveries of scientists. But on both of those issues, you would find a diversity of opinion in my congregation. We don’t see things from the same point of view.

People are not required to agree with me in order to participate in our congregation.

Faith, from my point of view, is different than intellectual assent. We don’t have to agree in order to believe together. In fact, we stand in a long tradition of engaging in conversation and even debate about interpretation of scriptures, tradition and other aspects of our faith. Jesus grew up in a tradition of teaching through arguing and debate. He often debated with the religious scholars of his day. Part of our Christmas tradition is the story of Jesus in the temple, talking with the elders at the age of 12, where the temple leaders. The Gospel of Luke reports, “they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions; and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” (Luke 2:46-47) The temple as Jesus experienced it, was not a place where everyone agreed, but rather a place for questions and answers and the give an take of honest intellectual inquiry.

I enjoy thinking about God. I enjoy talking about God. I enjoy discovering new ideas and fresh perspectives. All of those things are aspects of my faith, but I also practice my faith by singing and repeating historic prayers and considering how our community has come to its unique position in the world. I don’t find it necessary to agree with every word of every hymn we sing in order to find comfort and solace in singing with a community in good times and hard times. I don’t sing to make logical arguments, but rather to participate in a community. This doesn’t mean that I have huge disagreements with the elements of worship we use, just that I see plenty of room for differences of interpretation in our words and actions.

The season of Christmas is a season of worship for me, and I am delighted that we bring many different perspectives to our worship. We’ll leave intellectual agreement and same beliefs to others.

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The Sixth Day of Christmas

I remember nights when our children were very young. Perhaps my memory has merged several nights into a single memory, but I know that there were times when I was awake trying to calm a fussy baby, knowing that even though I was exhausted, my wife was equally so and trying not to wake her while I tried to come up with the right actions to calm the baby. Even though I was a dad who was actively involved in childcare, my repertoire of actions was fairly limited. If the baby was clean, dry and fed, about the only thing I knew to do was to wrap the child in a blanket and rock it. Sometimes I would sing. What I remember is being tired and feeling like I wished the child could talk and tell me what was the matter.

There weren’t many nights like that, really. Our children were healthy and grew quickly and from the perspective of these many years later, their time of being infants went by very quickly. Soon they were not only able to speak, but became articulate at telling us what they wanted and needed.

There are a lot of memories, of course, and I won’t report all of them in this blog, but here is another. Our children were 2 and 4. I was preaching as a candidate to be presented for call to a new parish. As the service was ending, I looked up to the rear of the sanctuary, where there was a window from the nursery. Parents could take their small children to that room where they could hear and see the service, while their children could play. When I looked up, our two children were standing with their faces pressed to the glass looking down at me. Suddenly, the weight of the decision that lay ahead overwhelmed me. If I accepted the call to this congregation, our children would be moving with us from one state to another. They would grow up remembering a city as their home town instead of a small town. My decision wasn’t just about me and my career, but about our whole family.

Being a parent is all about learning that one lives for more than oneself. The recognition that one’s decisions have a big impact on the lives of others is evident when one considers the children. Of course those who never become parents also live lives that have huge impacts on others. Children, however, remind one of this reality in an undeniable manner.

The journey from infancy to adulthood is especially long in humans. I watch the deer in the yard. As mammals go, they are fairly large. Their young, however, become quite capable in a short amount of time. They walk within a few minutes of their birth. They are nibbling grass and eating independently within a few months. By the age of two years, they are fully capable of living independently and engaging in full adult behavior. A few animals take a bit longer to grow to maturity. Humans take years. In earlier generations children were considered adults in their early teens when they reached sexual maturity. In our culture, we consider that trip to take much longer. Children often aren’t fully independent until their late twenties. Education, the establishment of careers, developing relationships, learning about intimacy, making commitments - there are a lot of complex parts to becoming an adult human being. Along the way children need love and support and, occasionally, a bail-out.

Becoming a parent is a long-term commitment. And that commitment continues when your children are in their thirties and forties and fifties as well. When they become parents, you feel the bond and connection in deeply meaningful ways.

One of the things that our children teach us is that our relationship with God is a growing and developing relationship. In this season each year we remind ourselves that God’s love for humans was expressed in the form of an infant. God didn’t enter humanity fully developed, but rather as an infant, born with need of assistance in nearly every aspect of survival. Jesus came to this world as a tiny babe, in need of help with eating, cleaning, and comforting.

The gospels don’t report much of his childhood. We have a few stories: the presentation of the infant in the temple, a return when he was 12 years old and the report that the an annual visit to the temple was part of his parents’ routine, and then, a verse or so later, Jesus is 30, considered to be a mature adult. The details have not been retained in our common memory, but we know from the record that his mother, Mary, “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Just because we don’t remember the details a couple of millennia later doesn’t mean that they weren’t important.

Given that the process of his growing took decades and required no small amount of patience on the part of his parents, we shouldn’t be surprised that sometimes it takes decades for contemporary humans to come to faith. Faith rarely is an instant process. It takes time and patience. It frequently involves missteps and diversions. And like the development of other aspects of adult life, we don’t all go through the process in the same fashion. Each journey of faith is unique with its own unique challenges and opportunities and experiences.

Christmas is a time of remembering that our faith is a relationship that grows and deepens over time. We need not expect instant results. We might experience a few nights that are long when the dawn isn’t clear. We are likely to become frustrated at times and marvel at others. And when, after many years of journeying, we look back, our minds will compress the journey and make it seem less difficult and long than it seemed as it was being lived.

This Christmas, give yourself the gift of patience. Allow time to pay attention and marvel at the wonder. Don’t look for instant results. Soon enough it will seem like it all passed far too quickly.

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The Fifth Day of Christmas

I’ve heard lots of stories about the hidden meanings in the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Probably a few of them stretch the truth a little bit. Online, you will find bloggers and commentators who insist that the song is a Catholic catechism. The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus Christ, the four calling birds are the four gospels, the six geese are the six days of creation, the eleven pipers piping are the eleven faithful disciples, and so on. One story I read claimed that the reason that the catechism was hidden in symbolic language was that it dates to the period from the 16th through the 19th centuries when it was illegal to be Catholic in England. One of the problems with that story, however, is that there is nothing in the purported meanings of the song that is particularly Roman Catholic. Protestants believe in Jesus, the gospels, the creation and the disciples. And none of the stories that I have seen have given any original sources for their information.

It seems more likely that the song is just a fun counting song that entertains children and adults alike. I don’t know when the song was first published but it appears in “Mirth without Mischief,” published in 1780 and “The Nursery Rhymes of England,” published in 1842.

It is curious that the first verses all refer to birds, while verses eight through twelve are groups of entertainers. Well, minds a milking probably isn’t really entertainment like ladies dancing, lords leaping, pipers piping and drummers drumming. And then five golden rings brings to mind hand jewelry more than a bird. The five golden rings may, however, be a reference to the yellowish rings around a pheasant’s neck or to “goldspinks,” an old name for the goldfinch.

Counting birds at Christmas is a tradition that goes back quite a while. The official Christmas bird count began in 1900 which makes this year’s event the 116th count according to the Audubon Society’s web site. Christmas bird counts are conducted between December 14 and January 5. Local counts are arranged by volunteers and amateurs are welcomed to participate in identifying and counting wild birds. There is a specific methodology to the Christmas Bird Count and in each location a particular strategy is developed to count all of the birds within a 15-mile wide circle. Birds can be counted by direct sight or by sound, if the counter is able to identify the species.

The count is one of several citizens science projects that allow for large amounts of data to be collected by enabling interested volunteers to participate in genuine scientific research. The bird counts are used to monitor the health of various populations of birds, check on habitat degradation and other factors.

The tradition of counting birds at Christmas dates to an earlier tradition, that of hunting birds during the Christmas holiday. So called “side hunts” were competitions aimed at testing the marksmanship of shooters. Participants competed at how many birds they could kill, regardless of whether they had any use for the carcasses or whether the birds were beneficial, beautiful or rare. These senseless hunts led to the degradation and even total destruction of some species of birds. In 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman, founder of Bird-Lord (which became Audubon magazine), proposed counting birds on Christmas instead of killing them.

At our home we used to feed birds year round. Then there came a year when there was a bird disease that was attributed to a fungus that was found in bird seed. As instructed, we cleaned out our feeders to make sure that we weren’t contributing to the problem. I noticed that the birds were creatures of habit and came to the feeders even when they were empty of seed. Later I learned that birds can form dependencies on feeders and that once started the practice needs to be sustained as it becomes part of the feeding cycle of the birds. I still feed the birds a little bit, but no longer keep multiple feeders going year round. Putting out bird seed during the Christmas season seems to be a kind gesture, especially when the weather is cold. I put out seed yesterday for the birds and will keep feeding until the weather warms.

I also have my annual “natural bird feeders” in the form of a crop of sunflowers. I plant sunflowers each year and leave them for the birds. The pinion jays seem to really like the seeds and often descend in mass and clean out the entire crop in a few hours.

Watching the birds in the wild, however, remains the best treat. Instead of attracting birds with food that I put out, I prefer to learn where the birds naturally congregate and where I am likely to see them when walking in the woods.

Around here winter is a time with fewer species of birds. Many of our birds head south for the winter and enjoy warmer temperatures and more abundant food nearer the equator during this time of the year. That gives us the joy of watching for their return in the spring. The first tanager of the year is always a delight and a treat.

I’ve never taken the time to become an educated bird watcher. I don’t know the names of many of the birds that we see around here and I haven’t taken the time to learn all of the calls. I can identify a few species and I enjoy looking at the wide variety of birds, but I’d be little help on an official bird count because I would be spending all of my time looking up the birds and then being uncertain about what I had seen and heard. I have a friend who is an amateur ornithologist and has developed a great deal of expertise in identifying birds. He and his wife have made birdwatching one of their major hobbies for decades. I haven’t been similarly dedicated.

So I’ll just speculate about the possible meanings of five golden rings in an attempt to understand a children’s song. After all, singing songs with children is as much fun as watching birds.

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The Fourth Day of Christmas

Growing up, the fourth day of Christmas was my father’s birthday. We loved to hang on to the Christmas spirit for several days around our house. Winter was a slower time for father’s business and he often worked shorter days between Christmas and his birthday. The final days of the year were devoted to inventory and end of the year business, and there were always a few significant sales in his business as ranchers took a look at their tax situation and considered the implications of making a major purchase at the end of the year instead of deferring it into the next year. For the most part, however, the first four days of Christmas were devoted to family time.

We played outdoors a lot when we were kids. If the wind had been blowing, there’d be big snow drifts at the airport and we could carve snow caves and play inside of the drifts. There was always sledding and tobogganing down the hills and, depending on the snow conditions, you could ice skate on the irrigation ditches and go for miles. If the snow was moist enough we made snowmen and other creatures out of the snow, built snow forts and held snowball fights.

Dad’s birthday was always a bit of a logistical problem for us kids. We had just spent our chore money on Christmas presents, so we weren’t exactly feeling wealthy. And it was always a challenge to know what to purchase for Dad. He loved orange slice candy, but with seven children, not everyone could get him the same gift, even though candy was always a good idea because the first thing he did upon opening candy was to pass it around and everyone got a piece.

What I remember is that we did a lot of things together. Looking back, I realize that some of our family activities revolved around dad’s work. We often “played’ at the shop or the airport - the places of his work - during our vacation from School. But there was a different mood to the days around Christmas. It is worth noting that our family always waited until Christmas day for our celebrations. My younger brother’s birthday was Christmas Eve and we made a distinct separation between the two events. I knew the song, “The twelve days of Christmas,” but didn’t really know the reason for a twelve-day celebration. Usually we were back in school before twelve days had passed and there was always New Years Day - a feast only a week separated from Christmas Day. Still I had a sense that Christmas was more than just a single day. I also knew that our father’s birthday was a day to celebrate and a day for family fun and activities.

Now, from the perspective of an age my father never reached, I look back with gratitude for that childhood. I was indeed a very fortunate person to have been raised with so much love in a family with such remarkable parents. One of the things both of my parents taught me was the power of incarnation - of word made flesh. Although the Gospel of John can be read as if the process is a bit ethereal and theoretical, there is a very practical side to those who can make a direct connection between the words they speak and the actions they take in their lives. Our father was one of those people who lived the concepts and ideas that were most important to him. He didn’t just talk about love - he lived it. He didn’t just talk about peace - he lived it. He didn’t just talk about truth and justice. He lived them.

I don’t know that I was aware of how rare it is or how risky it can be to show such integrity. We live in a world where there are plenty of empty words. And we live in a world where it often appears that power and prestige arise from angry and even hateful words. It doesn’t take much time of watching television to come to the conclusion that so called political leaders run orchestrated campaigns of disconnect between words and actions. They say one thing and do another. They make promises that can’t possibly be kept.

We long for the important words - love, truth, peace and justice - to become flesh and dwell among us. We long for incarnation. It is a process filled with risk.

That is what is so remarkable about our story. God chooses to become human flesh in a very risky fashion. God comes not as a warrior king, or a wealthy benefactor, but rather as a child of poverty. And Christmas comes each year as an invitation to each of us to be born again - to take on the shape of one who lives for what is truly important despite the risks involved.

It is one of the treasures of living Christmas as a season instead of a day. We are given time to get beyond the crass commercialization of the day. The stores have already moved on. We can go beyond what too often becomes showtime filled with bling in our churches to the real thing. We can but aside our disagreements over whose theology is best and look again to the true meaning of the story.

An infant in a manger is as vulnerable as human beings get. If we would allow that story to live in our lives, we are invited to show our vulnerability as well. The needs of the baby are simple: food, shelter and protection from harm. A child needs to be swaddled in unconditional love.

There is no shortage of the need for food, shelter and protection from harm. From the refugees fleeing conflict and war to the neighbors who lack sufficient resources we are surrounded by vulnerable humans. And we are invited to join them in their vulnerability.

As we journey through this season this year, I keep thinking of the Word become flesh. What good words within me are waiting to take on flesh? How can I love others in ways that allow those words to be born and dwell embodied in the world?

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The Third day of Christmas

A couple of months ago we had an interesting conversation in a meeting of our Department of Worship. We were discussing our Christmas worship services, specifically the services we hold on Christmas Eve. Some of the members of the department were concerned about hospitality and making our guests feel welcome. The feeling was that passing the plate makes it seem as if we are asking our guests to pay for the expenses of operating our church. After a good conversation the decision was to use a donation box in the entryway of the church instead of passing the plates during the service. Interestingly, the box ended up being placed right at the front door as people came into the building and couldn’t be missed by visitor or regular.

The offerings at that particular service don’t go to the operating costs of our congregation. They go to mission projects. This year the offerings were designated for Church Response and for the mission meals served by our Department of Ministries at Cornerstone Rescue Mission and at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.

While the conversation was a helpful discussion, it focused on a contemporary sense of hospitality without venturing into the history of offerings and their role in worship. The practice of bringing offerings as an act of worship is ancient, far more ancient than the observance of Christmas. Making offerings to God appears in the earliest stories of the Bible and the tradition of bringing offerings as an act of worship was well established practice before the birth of Jesus.

Of course there is a practical side to offerings. The church is an institution with expenses and we do use some of the money given as offerings to operate that institution. We pay the light bills, salaries, maintenance, and program costs out of the offerings that are made by our members and guests. This tradition of institutional maintenance was part of the offerings at the Temple in Jerusalem back in the days when agricultural products were being offered. Part of the offerings made at the temple were used by the priests for food and to offset the costs of operating the temple. There are, however, meanings attached to offerings that reach beyond the maintenance of the institution.

The first chapters of the Book of Leviticus outline 5 different kinds of offerings that are appropriate for the worship of God. The burnt offering was a sacrifice that was completely burnt. None of it was to be eaten at all, and therefore the fire consumed the whole sacrifice. It was the tradition that the fire on the altar was to be continually burning and never put out, similar to the perpetual flames that are common as memorials in contemporary churches. Meal offerings were often cooked bread or dough. A portion was placed on the fire and consumed, but the bulk of the loaf was used as food for the priests, except in the cases when the original gift had been made by a priest. A peace offering was shared by the fire on the altar, the priests, and often with common people within the temple. Peace offerings were generally animals which were slaughtered and cooked within the temple. Unleavened cakes were also offered as peace offerings. Sin offerings were given in response to sins that were identified and recognized in the community. The offering was a method of reconciling with God and other people. The size and type of offering was different depending on the perceived size of the sin that had been committed. The trespass offering was similar to the sin offering, but usually was an offering of currency in response to a sin that involved fraud, stealing or mismanagement of money. The book of Leviticus takes seven full chapters to address the subject of offerings and this simple summary doesn’t do justice to the nuances of the various offerings.

In our contemporary worship, the process of offering is simplified. Giving is a way of expressing gratitude. In the act of offering we acknowledge our gratitude to God for the gift of life. Even in the midst of difficulties or illnesses there is much for which to be grateful and making an offering is a way of expressing that gratitude. It is common for people’s attention to be drawn to money when we make our offerings because we pass a plate to receive gifts of money, but the intention - and the words used in our worship - always focuses on gifts of time and talent as well as financial gifts. The prayer of dedication often mentions that monetary gifts are symbolic of the wider gifts of lives that are offered in this portion of our worship service.

The conversation that we began at that meeting is worthy of continuation. There are many ways to make offerings in the context of worship. In addition to using an offering box and passing the plates, there are congregations where offerings are brought to the communion table by worshipers and placed there as a sign of dedication. Many of our members make their most substantive offerings through monthly or annual checks or electronic transfers of funds. The passing of the plate is largely symbolic for them. Others like to actually place their gifts in the plate and listen carefully as the prayer of dedication is given. There is room in the church for many different kinds of offerings. We don’t follow the practices of the law as outlined in Leviticus. There is no continual flame on our table that consumes the offerings of our members.

We do, however, understand that the primary reason for having offerings as a part of our worships the need of our members to give, not the need of the institution to receive.

In popular culture the gifts of the Magi are often associated with Christmas though in the church we wait until January 6 to celebrate their visit and see Epiphany as a separate season from Christmas. Giving gifts, however, is associated with all of the twelve days of Christmas and is an appropriate focus of our attention during this season.

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