Rev. Ted Huffman

Moving Pianos

We moved a piano yesterday after church. Crews from our church have moved a lot of pianos over the years. I suppose that one of the reasons is that we love music. Our building is graced with some magnificent instruments. We have a 9’2” concert grand in the front of our sanctuary and a 6’ grand in the balcony to accompany the choir. We have brought in additional 9’ pianos on two occasions for the joy of hearing piano duets. We genuinely love the sound of piano music and part of having pianos is moving pianos.

But we also find ourselves moving pianos because we love people. That is what happened yesterday. Without telling the whole story, a little background is necessary. Our congregation is a gathering place for retired ministers. At times we have had as many as ten retired clergy in the congregation. Add that to the three of us who are on staff and another minister who is the chaplain at our hospital, and a very well-trained lay minister who has graduated from the Yankton College theology program and there are a lot of minister types hanging around. Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd and so the table in the fellowship hall with a bunch of ministers talking theology after most worship services is attractive to other retired or retiring ministers who happen to visit and the number continues to grow. It is really good for the active pastors to have this crowd around us. There is always a ready hand to help when we need assistance. There are special occasions when we serve communion by having the congregation come forward as opposed to our usual of serving in the pews. We can set up five or more stations staffed by ministers to quickly serve our congregation.

And we ministers tend to form households full of things that are hard to move. We love books and books are heavy. And many of us love music, so there is usually a piano thrown into the mix.

One of our retired ministers has had to move into a nursing home recently. He lost his wife to heard disease suddenly a couple of years ago and has been living independently in their townhouse, but the time came when complications of his diabetes and other health problems meant that he could not longer live alone even with daily assistance from health care workers. So his children assisted with the move and they put his house on the market so that his assets could be used for his care. They didn’t expect a quick sale in the downturned economy. But we are often surprised. Just before Christmas they received a cash offer for the house and the buyer needs to close the deal by the end of the year for tax purposes. So, they had only a week to empty the house. And there was a lot of stuff in that house.

The piano was a family heirloom. It had been the piano of the grandmother of the adult children who were responsible for cleaning out the house. They loved that old piano, but none of them had a place for it. They called the church offering the piano “free to a good home.” It is a quality console piano, the kind of instrument often used for teaching in schools. People at the church got on the phone and went to work to help the family struggling to deal with all of the things in the house. Working with the Red Cross, we were able to get furniture to a family who had lost everything in a house fire. There were even some toys for the children, who were excited to begin with at the prospect of having beds to sleep on. There were clothes to go to the thrift store, some tools to go to the Habitat for Humanity ReStore, and theological books to go to the Eagle Butte Learning Center. There were a couple of boxes to be put in storage for the church rummage sale.

And, yes, we found a home for the piano. A young family in our church has a mother who plays the flute and loves music. Her mother-in-law is a cellist and music teacher. The father of the family was raised in a musical family and always thought that his home would have a piano. Everyone was delighted with the match. Everything was falling into place. But the piano had to be moved before 10 a.m. on December 31. So after church we assembled a crew to move the piano. Everyone on the crew had a direct connection to the adventure. A couple of our lifters had been special friends with the retired minister and were happy to meet his daughters. The new owners of the piano recruited relatives to help. Another young family in our church lived across the street from the house fire that left the family in need of items that had been moved from the home. They provided a couple of people for our crew as well.

It was a bit tricky backing the trailer through all of the landscaping in the back yard, but we got it in place and the piano fit (barely) through the sliding screen door on the lower level of the building it was leaving. We were soon loaded and on our way. The destination presented several challenges. We had to maneuver the trailer in a very narrow area. It was so narrow I had to fold in the mirrors of the truck and I am used to backing trailers using my mirrors, but we got it in place. Then there were the six steps up to the deck. There was no way to make that part of the move except by lifting that piano. It was a good thing we had a big crew. Soon the piano was in its new home and shortly afterward there were pictures on Facebook posted by the delighted new owner.

I commented that they don’t teach you about moving pianos in theological seminary. It is true. But moving pianos isn’t what we do best at all. What we do is build community. Without the church, there would be no connection between the mother of the retired minister and the 8-month-old little girl who will practice her first piano lessons on that instrument. Without the church the gift of music shared on Christmas Eve wouldn’t get connected to the gift of a piano to a young family. Without the church, the victims of the fire would never have made connections with panicked members of the sandwich generation struggling to sort through all of their parents’ possessions in a harried holiday week. What we do is build community and make connections.

By the way, we also move pianos.

Copyright © 2012 by Ted Huffman. I wrote this. If you want to copy it, please ask for permission. There is a contact me button at the bottom of this page. If you want to share my blog a friend, please direct your friend to my web site.

Growing in Faith

In the United States, the average 12-year-old boy is about 5 feet tall, weighs in the area of one hundred to one hundred fifteen pounds, and has developed little muscle mass. Most 12-year-olds have significant growth yet to come. We consider them to be children even though they are experiencing a distinct increase in strength and personal power.

For many generations, the tradition of celebrating the coming of age for Jewish boys, or Bar Mitzvah has been celebrated when the boy is 13 years of age. The tradition, firmly rooted in scriptural law, relates to an individual’s accountability under the law. Prior to Bar Mitzvah (or Bat Mitzvah for a girl) a child is the responsibility of the parents. If the child violates the law, the parents are held responsible. After a child comes “under the bar” or “under the law” that child is held personally responsible for adherence to the law.

The choice of the age 13 has to do with an approximate age of the onset of puberty. That was, for many generations, a reasonable age to consider someone an adult. But things are changing. Research indicates that boys and girls are reaching puberty at earlier ages. In the U.S. signs of puberty have been found at an average age of 9 for African American boys, 10 for whites and Hispanics. That is up to two years earlier than previous studies. Last October a study published in Pediatrics to coincide with the American Academy of Pediatrics’ national conference, reported on over 4,000 boys who were followed from age 6 to 16 with regular check-ups. The group was racially mixed. The study found strong evidence that boys are maturing earlier.

Currently doctors generally consider puberty to be early if it begins before age 8 in girls and before age 9 in boys. The age of puberty isn’t really the topic of today’s reflection, but it does affect how we look at the distinction between a child and an adult. At what age does a boy become a man? At what age does a girl become a woman?

Our contemporary society has quite a few different rituals that mark a gradual transition from childhood to adulthood. In South Dakota, the usual age for a driver’s license is 16, but a restricted minor’s permit is available for those who are 14 and meet certain requirements. Obtaining a driver’s license is seen as one transition into the world of adults.

We also name high school graduation as a transition point. In our state a person can purchase lottery tickets and cigarettes when that person turns 18. 21 is the minimum age for the legal purchase of alcohol. We also note college graduation, the obtaining of a first job and even marriage as points of entry into adult life.

It is not uncommon to call the entire period between the onset of puberty and marriage adolescence and see it as a time of transition. With the age of puberty getting younger and the age of first marriage getting older, that period of transition is stretching out in our society. 2010 is the most recent year in which we have accurate statistics. In 2010 the median age for a man’s first marriage was 28.2 years. The median age for women was 26.1. We are approaching two decades of adolescence in our society.

All of this has relevance in this time of the year for Christians, because the Bible is very short of stories about Jesus’ childhood and adolescence. It simply is not the subject of Biblical reporting. There is just one story about Jesus from this part of his life and it appears in only one of the Gospels. Luke 2:41-52 reports that the twelve-year-old Jesus goes with his family to the temple. On their return trip it is discovered that the boy is missing. After some panicked searching he is found in the temple. After a brief conversation, he is obedient to his parents and returns to his home. In the very next verse of the gospel, Jesus is 30 years old. We simply don’t have any reports of his adolescence.

There are some ancient extrabiblical texts that do include stories of Jesus’ childhood. The Gospel of Thomas has several stories, including miracle stories about the infant and child. But for readers of the Bible, stories about Jesus’ childhood are missing and in the one story that we do have Jesus is missing, at least for a little while.

This means that ministries to and with youth and children have to be based on principles extracted from stories about Jesus’ adulthood. We do have stories about Jesus welcoming children. We have a story about a young boy offering his lunch that is blessed and used to feed a multitude. But there is very little direct Biblical teaching about children and youth and their role in the community. These we have drawn from traditions, from educational theory, from developmental psychology and a host of other sources.

Those of us who are actively engaged in ministry, however, know how important children and youth are in the evaluation of a community. We regularly hear that the choice of a particular congregation is based on the programs for children and youth. Increasingly in the last couple of decades we hear reports of families that allow youth and children to lead the decisions about family participation in churches. “Our kids are happier at this or that church,” we hear. Families change churches based on the size of youth groups, the perceived popularity of the church’s programs among youth and the personality of the ministers. The call to ministry is a great leap of faith. Later we find out we are being judged not so much on our faith as on our marketing skills.

As a result, the tendency to over analyze this simple story from Luke is very understandable. But the story is really simple. The boy Jesus, as he made his transition from childhood to adulthood was at home in the temple. He was comfortable with an adult faith and the adults who lived lives of faith from an early age. The stories of his childhood report that his parents had faith.

Perhaps we, too, would do well to concentrate a bit more effort on helping adults to grow into mature faith.

Copyright © 2012 by Ted Huffman. I wrote this. If you want to copy it, please ask for permission. There is a contact me button at the bottom of this page. If you want to share my blog a friend, please direct your friend to my web site.

New Years Resolutions

I’m not a huge fan of New Year’s Resolutions. I guess that I have seen too many instances where they are undertaken in a somewhat less than serious manner. I believe in setting goals. I believe in making commitments. I just don’t see anything particularly meaningful about connecting the process with a particular day of the year. According to the Statistic Brain website about 45% of Americans usually make New Year’s Resolutions. Only 8% are successful in achieving their resolutions. The problem isn’t initial commitment, but keeping the commitment over time. About 75% keep their resolution for a week, but after that the commitments begin to fade. Less than half are keeping their resolution at six months and less than 10% by the end of a year. Making New Year’s Resolutions are not an effective way to make permanent life changes.

According to the website, the most popular New Year’s Resolutions are these:
  • Drink Less Alcohol
    • Eat Healthy Food
    • Get a Better Education
    • Get a Better Job
    • Get Fit
    • Lose Weight
    • Manage Debt
    • Manage Stress
    • Quit Smoking
    • Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle
    • Save Money
    • Take a Trip
    • Volunteer to Help Others
They are all worthy goals. It seems to me that they could contribute to making people live lives that are happier and more meaningful. So I don’t want to encourage people to stop making New Year’s Resolutions. I just want to find and promote ways in which people can make more meaningful commitments. I’d like to see them succeed in their resolutions instead of expressing good intentions, but failing to make meaningful changes in their lives.

The roots of New Year’s Resolutions don’t like in Christianity. In the early church they were seen as vestiges of Roman polytheism. Janus was the Roman god of beginnings. The month January gets its name from the god. Janus was also the god of gates and doors. In most depictions, Janus is pictured with two faces: one looking forward, the other looking back. Such a feature was probably handy in guarding gates and doors where the traffic goes both ways. Janus was believed to represent beginnings. People saw passing through a gate or a door as a symbolic action. It could represent a new beginning – the coming into a new place in one’s life. In ancient days, Janus was honored on the first day of each month. Temples around Rome were dedicated to Janus, the most well-known of which was the Ianus Geminus, a double-gated structure. The temple had one door facing the rising sun and another facing the setting sun. When the gates of the temple were closed, it meant that Rome was at peace. When the gates were open, it meant that Rome was at war. Between the reigns of Numa and Augustus, the gates were shut only once.

The Romans had a tradition of dedicating their intentions to change to the god Janus. They would make sacrifices to Janus. Such sacrifices could be offered at any temple, but were commonly offered in special temples dedicated to the god. It was believed that such a sacrifice was an expression of a deeper commitment and those who made such sacrifices were more likely to be able to make their changes permanent. It was traditional to offer sacrifices at the opening of new phases of life such as marriage and at the birth of a child.

New Year’s Resolutions are remnants of ancient traditions that have their roots in Roman religious practice. There is no corresponding god to Janus in Greek mythology, but some of the practices, such as offering a sacrifice to indicate a desire to change were inherited by the Romans from even more ancient religious traditions.

Some parts of the Christian church have made a practice of renewing covenants and commitments at the first of the New Year. It is common for congregations to read their covenants as a part of New Year’s celebrations.

With New Year’s approaching there will be plenty of people who are thinking about making resolutions. John Norcross, professor of psychology at the University of Scranton, has been studying how people change addictive behaviors for more than three decades. He has noted some things that enable success in keeping resolutions.
The first key to success is believing that it can be done. There is plenty of cynicism surrounding change. Those who genuinely believe that they can change are the most likely to succeed.

The second key is being realistic. Fantasy doesn’t make for a better life. Resolutions that can be kept are specific, realistic, and measurable. In his book, Norcross uses the acronym SMART, which comes from business: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time sensitive.

After believing and being realistic, keeping resolutions is all about hard work. You have to actually change your behavior. Perseverance over the long run means not giving up because you make a slip or get off track. You have to get back on track and go back to the desired behavior.

Community can be a big help in making change. That is why Alcoholics Anonymous and Weight Watchers work. People engage their peers in helping. A phone call from a friend can be a big support. Someone else who is making the same resolution can be a big help when it comes to keeping one on track. Talking about the resolution and how it is going can lead to changes in behavior.

I also believe that there is something important about timing. We can only handle so much change at one time. I really wanted to lose weight for our daughter’s wedding. I did not achieve that weight loss until a year later. The stresses of losing parents, changing our lifestyle and preparing for the wedding were all the changes I was able to absorb that year. My health took a back seat for a while and I struggled to survive all of the changes and stresses. The next year when things calmed down, I was more successful.

So make those New Year’s Resolutions. But make it more than an idle process. Don’t adopt a long list. Choose one or two goals that are realistic and go to work to achieve them.

There is no need to make a sacrifice at a temple. But a little prayer doesn’t hurt.

Copyright © 2012 by Ted Huffman. I wrote this. If you want to copy it, please ask for permission. There is a contact me button at the bottom of this page. If you want to share my blog a friend, please direct your friend to my web site.

End of the Year Observations

My thermometer is hovering around -1 F, which is the first time it has been below zero since last winter. It is officially cold out. And for some folks today is the last day of work for 2012. We, of course, have quite a bit left to accomplish before we close out the year. We have a firewood delivery on Saturday, worship on Sunday and some end-of-the-year bookkeeping to complete on Monday before we celebrate the coming of the new year.

But it is a good day for thinking about the year that is passing and anticipate the year that is to come. I’m not too big on all of the predictions that are popular in the press. I’m content to allow the future to unfold at its own pace without a need to have some kind of an inside view about what is coming. I’ve seen too many predictions turn out to be inaccurate. Just recently we noticed that the world did not end on the day predicted by some pundits. In my understanding, Biblical prophecy is more about drawing people closer to God than it is about predicting future events.

Still, it is fun to think about what changes will come with the future. The world is such a fast paced place that it is likely that the coming year will bring surprises. Things that we did not anticipate will come to pass. So, just for the fun of it this morning, here are some trends that seem to be emerging without any thought to order or relevance. They’re just some end of the year observations.

It hasn’t been too many years since our church invested in a relatively expensive telephone upgrade. Our old system could only handle two incoming lines and we had no provisions for fax. We were using an old style answering machine to attend to the phone when we were out of the office. The new phone system had lots of features that we haven’t yet fully utilized, but one of the things that was important to us at the time was that we have a good state-of-the-art voicemail system that allowed for customized messages and inboxes for each of the church’s employees, a changing message for different times of the day and different seasons of the year and the ability to check voicemail messages from any telephone. We got all of those features, but we have been noticing that the number of voicemail messages is declining.

We have already learned that leaving voicemail messages doesn’t work for some of our younger members. When asked if they got our voicemail, they will respond that they never listen to their voicemail. If we want to communicate with them, they ask us to send them a text message. We’re learning to send text from our cell phones and remembering to check for our text messages. JWT, a New-York based world-wide marketing firm predicts that voicemail will fade away in the coming year because nobody can be bothered with listening. I suspect that it will take longer than a year, but I do sense that leaving phone messages is not the trend of the future. The problem with a church is that we have members at lots of different places in the communications spectrum and we have to reach out to all of them. We have to be competent in paper mail and letters, in electronic mail, in voice messaging and text messaging and lots of other technologies to reach our people. We even used a “robo” call earlier this year to remind people of our new photo directory. Whatever else happens, I am sure that there will continue to be changes in the technologies of communication. There will continue to be people who don’t seem to get the message no matter what technique we employ. There will continue to be people who are a bit self-absorbed and even rude in their communications. Maybe there really isn’t much that is new.

One thing that I hope will happen this year is that we find alternatives to all of the usernames and passwords that are required to keep up with a digital lifestyle. All of the different PINs don’t really give that much security because we are unable to remember different passwords for all of the different accounts. Some users refer to keeping lists, which is a less-than-secure method. Others are continually asking for password prompts, and other way to demonstrate that the system isn’t completely secure. I recently read a report that was analyzing a new super-secure computer system for use in hospitals. The system issues random passwords on a regular basis and users have to keep up with regular password changes. The problem with the system is that users couldn’t remember passwords and so they tended to keep sticky notes on their monitors with the passwords written on them. In one hospital, more than a third of the monitors had paper notes with passwords attached to them. It turned out to be a less-than-secure system. I know that there are biometric identification technologies on the way. I have read predictions of bank machines and smart phones that recognize the user. They can’t come soon enough for me. I spend way too much time remembering authentication codes.

Here is a trend that I’d like to see, though I wouldn’t take it as a prediction. I’m probably wrong. I’d like to see it become more popular for people to get exercise from their everyday living. It seems like every strip mall has to have an exercise club. Places to work out are springing up all over town. With each new one I wonder how many the market could absorb. I’ve never been a health club kind of person in the first place. I see no reason to walk on a treadmill when you can go for a walk in the woods. I’m not a fan of riding a bicycle in place. I have finally become one of the consumers of exercise machines. I have a rowing machine in my library for days when the ice is too thick for rowing on the lake. And I have found that I use the machine a lot. But at least I wish that people would substitute walking for driving to get to and from their neighborhood health club.

And now my essay has exceeded its usual length and I haven’t begun to make predictions. Don’t get me started on fake foods. I hear that they even have vegetarian bacon these days. I haven’t got a clue as to what the hot toy will be next Christmas. I’d be a poor person to get to predict the next hot marketing trend.

For now I’ll stick with the prediction that 2013 will bring at least a few days that are warmer than today.

Copyright © 2012 by Ted Huffman. I wrote this. If you want to copy it, please ask for permission. There is a contact me button at the bottom of this page. If you want to share my blog a friend, please direct your friend to my web site.

Rebuilding Rwanda

Here is your political trivia question for today. Which country has the highest percentage of women in its legislature? OK, we know it isn’t the United States. The United States Senate will, for the first time, be 20% female when the new class is seated. That is the highest percentage in the history of the deliberative body. Only 39 women have ever served in the senate, so 20 at once is a significant number. Still the percentage is far short of the world’s leader.

Women hold 56% of the seats in Rwanda’s parliament, by far the highest percentage any where in the world.

Twenty years ago we watched in horror as one of the most horrific genocides of the 20th Century unfolded, leaving the country decimated by the slaughter. Part of the reason for the high percentage of women in parliament is the simple fact that so many men were killed. It is a tragic legacy from one perspective. From another point of view, it is nothing short of a miracle.

The women of Rwanda are rebuilding Rwanda. It can’t be an easy task. Imagine coming to work and having to sit next to the wife of the man who killed your husband or the woman whose partner is living in exile after murdering your brother. It happens every day in Rwanda. The pain of the past is undeniable. The trauma with which the citizens of the country live daily is unimaginable. And yet they are rebuilding. Bit by bit, chore by chore, decision by decision, Rwanda is emerging as a new and different place. In the past five years, more than one million Rwandans have emerged from poverty.

There is much that remains to be done. The average wage still hovers in the $1 per day range. Life expectancy is only 50. Domestic violence still affects a huge number of women. The market streets are still muddy pathways with little infrastructure. The majority of the citizens of the nation struggle to find sufficient clean water. Sanitary sewer systems are virtually non-existent. The country has a distinct lack of engineers and teachers.

But there is a new definition for Rwanda these days. The country whose very name has become synonymous with genocide is gaining a new identity. The place where the tribes Tutsi and Hutu were so bitterly and murderously engaged is becoming a tourist destination.

The “land of a thousand hills” is being returned to the gardens and tea plantations that once dotted the landscape. Rwanda is home to a third of the remaining mountain gorillas of the world, a variety of other primates, and many brilliantly colored birds. It is a land of volcanoes, games reserves, and resorts. It is once again becoming known for its graceful dancers, artistic crafts and friendly people. Located in the heart of Central Africa, it shares borders with Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Nearly 11 million people live in Rwanda today. And they are working to bring their country back from the horrors of its history. And they are being led by men and women working together.

Still, it is an undeniably difficult place to visit if one takes a moment to consider its history. A visit to the country would be incomplete without at least a visit to the exhibition at the Kigali Memorial Centre. There are other, less known, museums and memorials also dedicated to the memory of those who died. There is a church in the small town of Kibuye where 11,000 were murdered in a single day. Nearly 10,000 more were killed the following day in a nearby football stadium. None of these visits is an easy emotional trip. The weight of what has happened hangs heavily on the country.

It is especially difficult for citizens of the United States. The simple truth is that our government did not intervene when we could have. We watched passively as the Hutu extremist regime oversaw the murder of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis. Government officials in the United States were well informed about the killings, but they refused to even utter the word genocide for fear it would oblige the US to intervene. The failure to act when we had the power to save lives is now part of our heritage and history as surely as murder and genocide is part of the history of the people of Rwanda.

It is not all sweetness and light as Rwanda emerges from the horrors of its past. The government, under President Paul Kagame has the backing of the United States and other governments. It is natural, and perhaps fueled by more than a little bit of guilt on our part. But that government has overreached by sending forces into neighboring Congo where they have become directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands. The intervention of Rwanda in Congo is contributing to political instability and suffering. And the motive isn’t purely political. The plunder of Congo’s valuable minerals is extremely lucrative. In the long term it can’t be in the best interests of Rwanda to create political instability in the region for the sake of profit.

Determining an appropriate role for the United States in Central Africa is extremely complex. There are voices that say that any intervention on our behalf is misguided policy. The people of Africa should be determining the future of Africa. But we carry with us the memory of the horrors that resulted when we didn’t intervene.

It remains to be seen whether Rwanda will continue to pull itself up from the tragedies of its past or will once again become a failed state as its government collapses under the weight of abuses of power by those in the highest positions.

A couple of weeks ago a coalition of campaign groups and think tanks wrote to President Barak Obama asking him to reconsider US policy toward the Kagame administration in Rwanda. US policy plays a big role in the future of the people of Central Africa. The news here in the United States is focused on domestic policy these days. But our foreign policies are life and death matters to millions of people around the world. The people of Rwanda are counting on us to do the right thing. I hope and pray that we will consider our actions carefully. Ignoring the situation once again will only lead to tragedy.

Copyright © 2012 by Ted Huffman. I wrote this. If you want to copy it, please ask for permission. There is a contact me button at the bottom of this page. If you want to share my blog a friend, please direct your friend to my web site.