Believe in the impossible

I was in the third grade when President John F. Kennedy announced before a joint session of Congress the goal of sending an American safely to the Moon and back before the end of the decade. I had just completed my sophomore year in high school (grade 10) when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon. He and Buzz Aldrin not only arrived in the lander Eagle, but returned to the earth safely. I connect these events with my own personal life, because I attended elementary school in the era of believing in the impossible. The goal set by the president wasn’t, of course, impossible. It just seemed that way to many people at the time that it was set.

I grew up in an atmosphere of believing that things that had previously been declared impossible could be achieved. I grew up with parents who were both pilots. I can’t remember my first ride in an airplane, but it took place when I was a tiny infant. But I knew well the history of aviation. We had a book in our home that reported that in 1895 Lord Kelvin declared that heavier-than-air flying machines were impossible. In October of 1903, the prevailing opinion of expert aerodynamicists was that it would take 10 million years for humans to build an airplane that would fly. They were wrong. Two months later on December 17, 1903, Orville Wright piloted the first airplane. It flew 120 feet. I have a picture of that flight hanging on the wall of my library. The plane is maybe three feet off of the ground in that picture. By the time I was born, my father was routinely flying at altitudes up to 12,000 feet at speeds of over 150 mph. That kind of low and slow flying seems ancient today. We hop on jet airliners that transport hundreds of people at a time and fly from continent to continent in less than a day. In fact before I was born, on Tuesday, October 14, 1947, Chuck Yeager flew faster than the speed of sound in the Bell X-1. Today the term supersonic is old hat. Now engineers are talking about hypersonic flight. At Mach 20, an aircraft will go from New York to Long Beach in less than 12 minutes. Engineers have achieved fully-controlled, aerodynamic flight at Mach 20 in unmanned vehicles.

Believing in the impossible is more than an option for those of us who live in these times. Believing in the impossible is how our future is unfolding. It isn’t just in the fields of science and engineering where believing in the impossible is helping human beings to move into our future. A few examples from the year ending today serve to illustrate.

I first heard of Teresita Gaviria in 2013. She had started a protest in front of a church in Columbia. The first event drew five mothers who had lost children in the 50 year war in Columbia. They began to gather every week. Soon there were hundreds. Then they went to prisons to speak with fighters. They lobbied the government to begin peace talks. They insisted that victims be included in high level negotiations. They were told that peace was impossible.

Teresita Gaviria believed in the impossible. And in 2016, a peace deal was reached. It has been described as groundbreaking in part because of the contributions of victims to the negotiations. Yes, there are plenty of critics, but when President Santos and Farc leader Londono shook hands after inking the deal, the crowd cheered “Yes we could!”

Sophien Kamoun is from Tunisia. He has seen first-hand the effects of pesticides in developing countries. Every year thousands die after using pesticides on diseased crops. Professor Kamoun believed that there had to be another way to produce food. He was told that it was impossible to have plants that were no longer susceptible to disease. He had the courage to believe the impossible. “Every year we lose enough food to feed hundreds of millions of people to pathogens and parasites,” he declared. In 2016, professor Kamoun successfully used gene editing to produce a tomato that is resilient to fungal disease. There is a long road ahead for plant scientists to produce plants to feed millions without the use of pesticides, but the first “impossible” step has been taken.

Dr. Hemantha Herath saw the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War in 2009 as an opportunity for the government to do something that would significantly improve the lives of the citizens of his country. He got the government to set an impossible goal - the elimination of Malaria in less than five years. Prior to the 2009 peace agreement, health workers couldn’t even get to the worst affected areas without risking their lives. In 2009 the country instituted the bold strategy of testing every patient who came to a hospital who had had a fever in the past. In 2016, it was declared official: Sri Lanka is now malaria-free.

When he was 40, Bertrand Picard traveled non-stop around the world in a hot air balloon. He made history. But after achieving that milestone, he made an impossible promise: the next time he flew around the world it would be with no fuel. He wanted to prove that clean energy was practical. Seventeen years later, on March 9, 2015, Picard took off from Abu Dhabi airport in Solar Impulse 2, an airplane with over 17,000 solar cells on its exterior. His journey was powered by nothing other than the sun. Picard took turns with co-pilot Andre Borschberg. There were a lot of challenges. The weather did not always cooperate. There were diplomatic issues obtaining clearances to land at certain airports. On July 26 of 2016, Picard landed backing Abu Dhabi, after 23 days of flight. A solar-powered airplane had flown all the way around the world.

In 2016 we have seen the impossible achieved.

In 2017 as well we’ve got to believe in the impossible.

Copyright (c) 2016 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!

Pondering the shepherds

Only one of the four gospels, Luke, reports of the appearance of angels to shepherds. It is told in a couple of paragraphs in the midst of a consistently brief narrative of the birth of the Christ child:

“And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, ‘Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,’Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!’”

The Gospel goes on to tell of the shepherds going to Bethlehem and finding Mary, Joseph and the baby lying in the manger. It also reports that when the shepherds reported what had happened to them, “All who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.”

It is a very curious encounter.

One assumes that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event, that the shepherds had no prior experiences that helped them to understand what was happening to them. Their usual routines were dramatically interrupted. Then after all of that heavenly glory, which had filled them with fear what they discovered was a baby lying in a manger - a rather humble and common set of circumstances.

Babies are nice. They are fascinating. Looking at a baby can fill one with awe that is beyond the power of language to express. They are also very common. In 2013, UNICEF estimated that an average of 353,000 babies are born each day around the world. Of course world population is much greater than it was in the time of Jesus’ birth, so the birth of a child would have been much less common. Still it was an everyday occurrence.

Thinking of the Gospel story, I can’t help but wonder if the Shepherds had any idea what the angel meant when announcing “a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Assuming that the shepherds were Jewish, which seems likely, they would have had some familiarity with the prophetic statements concerning a messiah. They might even have heard rabbis extolling a vision of the coming of someone who would restore Israel to its place of world prominence and liberate them from the oppressive powers of the Roman empire that was a constant drain on the local economy and resulted in significant suffering and premature death for many common people.

The lot of shepherds, however, probably wasn’t that much different under Roman imperial rule than it had been in the times of the Israeli monarchy. The shepherds probably knew the stories of King David, who started out his life as a simple shepherd boy, but who was chosen and anointed to become king of the people. they probably knew stories of Solomon, son of David, who amassed a huge fortune and lived a life of luxury in the midst of the people. But they probably knew that even if there were to be a huge political upheaval, the lot of shepherds was likely to remain a very humble life indeed.

From what evils do you think the shepherds felt they needed to be saved? What would a savior mean in their lives? Higher wages? Personal security? Better health? More food? Before their encounter with the angel, what do you think they were praying for in their lives? After seeing the baby in the manger, how were their lives different?

One thing, of course, is obvious. They had a story to tell, not that many people would believe what had happened to them. It would be three decades before Jesus called disciples from the ranks of a generation younger than the original shepherds. And there is no specific record of Jesus calling a shepherd to be a disciple anyway. It would be nearly a century before the story of the encounter between the angel and the shepherds would become a part of Luke’s gospel. It would be three centuries before the religion that arose in the wake of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus to become mainstream in the region. The descendants of the shepherds who eventually became Christian might not even have known their personal relationship to those shepherds.

Angel song and a baby in the manger might have remained the high point, but still a mystery, to the shepherds for all of their lives.

For those of us who ponder the lot of the shepherds these millennia later, it is worthwhile to ponder our own lot. Do we believe in a savior of the world? If so what would salvation look like? Political change? World peace? A change in the gap between the rich and the poor of the world? Food enough for all? Healthcare for all babies born? How do we imagine salvation? For what do we pray?

And, there is an even more perplexing question. Would we recognize the savior of the world even if angels sang the song and we were allowed to see the tiny baby? Or would we simply tell a lot of stories that left those who heard them wondering?

Christmas is a season of pondering questions, most of which are rhetorical. I don’t know the answers, but it still seems meaningful to ponder the questions.

This particular season of our lives seems to be notably dark, with many people expressing a sense of hopelessness that I have not previously witnessed in my time as a minister. The timing seems right for us to pray for a savior.

Like those shepherds of old, however, we aren’t sure what we are praying for.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

We won't be going back

I’ve been reading Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” lately. I know, I should have read that book when I was in college. I have owned it for some time and I have referred to at a lot of times. It was easy to read short sections of the book and even extract quotes and concepts for other writing that I have done over the years. The book has a very clear table of contents and is thoroughly researched with an excellent bibliography and footnotes. I knew the basic flow and concepts of the book before I started reading it word for word, cover to cover. The result, I admit, is that reading the book is a bit of a “slog.” It is quite a bit more boring to read than would have been the case had I not familiarized myself with its concepts before getting around to reading it.

I’ll write a review of the book in my books section on this website when I finish reading it, and I don’t intend to do book reviews in my journal, but one of my arguments with the book so far (at about 2/3 of the way through it) is that the push to discover commonalities in the wide variety of stories and mythologies discussed is so intense that the book lacks any specificity about the distinctions between religions and cultural beliefs. A basic assignment of teachers seeking to enable critical thinking is “compare and contrast.” Campbell got the “compare” down superbly in the book. He would have to write another volume entirely to approach the “contrast” part of the assignment. The result is that people whose core beliefs rest with one of the specific religions discussed feel that their faith has been slighted by Campbell. They approach their faith in terms of its uniqueness and what distinguishes it from other faiths. Campbell is looking for similarities and asserts that all faiths are telling the same story.

One of the areas where Campbell fails to understand the different stories by trying to make them all the same is a significant difference in the view of the nature of time. Another well-published author on the subject of mythology, Devdutt Pattanaik, focused on the fundamental differences between eastern and western thought in a TED talk a few years ago. He asserted that it makes a big difference whether you believe that history is a one-way street or that it is a loop that repeats itself. If death is a singular experience, one has to achieve what one can in this life. If it is an oft-repeated experience, what is not achieved this time around can be done in another life. I’m grossly simplifying Pattanaik’s argument here, but the distinction is important in understanding the world view of others. By asserting that there are distinctions between world views, Pattanaik offers a depth of understanding that is absent in Campbell’s book. To be fair, I haven’t finished the book and perhaps I will be surprised by its ending.

All of this is to provide a bit of background for a bit of political commentary that has been going through my head since the recent US presidential election. I’m not an accomplished political analyst, and I am not capable of explaining the results of the election, but there are many voters who have a kind of nostalgia for the past that I don’t share. The campaign slogan “Make America Great Again,” is based on the assumption that somehow our country isn not at present as great as once was the case. Several commentators and pundits have concluded that the desire of at least some of the voters is for a return of the 1950’s when our country was experiencing a post-war baby boom, a growing economy, an expanding middle class and had a sense of increasing opportunity for workers. While other commentators have observed some of the problems of the 1950’s such as embedded racism, deep set sexism and huge inequalities, I am not particularly interested in arguing whether the 1950’s were greater than the 2010’s for our country. The argument, it seems to me, is pointless.

No amount of votes and no map of red and blue states can change the fact that it is impossible for a nation to go backwards in history.

Just read the headlines in today’s paper. Debbie Reynolds died yesterday at age 84. According to her son, Todd Fisher, she suffered a stroke while discussing funeral plans for her daughter, Carrie Fisher, who had died the pervious day after suffering a heart attack during a flight to Los Angeles last Friday.

Like the people whose funerals at which I officiate, the death is real. Debbie Reynolds is not coming back. If you want to reprise “Singin’ in the Rain” you’re going to have to do it with another actress. If the 1952 musical with Debbie Reynolds and Gene Kelly is your idea of the moment when America was great, there is no way to make it happen. The world has moved on. Furthermore, I’m not a movie buff, but even I know that Singin’ in the Rain was a nostalgia movie harkening back to the “good old days” of movie making in the 1920’s.

Because we are deeply aware of the losses that come with the passage of time, our lives are compounded with grief upon grief. Like the family of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, we are not allowed to have a singe grief at a time, but our hearts are broken by many losses. We can wish for a time before we had experienced such grief, but such a wish will not change reality. In fact when grief gets hung up it can develop into a severe and debilitating mental illness that requires careful professional treatment.

History is a one-way street. There is no going back. I, for one, am grateful for that simple fact, if for no other reason that when I finish Campbell’s book, I have no plans to ever read it cover to cover again. I’ll be glad to put that one behind me.

Copyright (c) 2016 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 tragedy in our city

On December 19, our city council passed its annual Human Services Subsidy Fund Allocations. There was debate on the floor of the City Council about only one of the items in the allocations - the fact that the Front Porch Coalition, which had received allocations in previous years was not on the list of agencies to receive funding in 2017.

Our City Council Meetings are recorded and available for the public to watch. I watched the debate after the meeting and tried to listen carefully to the positions of various council members.

The discussion of the item reflected a basic reality: The city has limited funds and there are always requests for more funding than the amount of funds available. Decisions need to be made every year about whether or not and how much to fund the agencies that apply. On the other hand the subsidy for the 211 help line was doubled in the bill that passed. Other agencies were completely left out of the funding list. The Council clearly decided to change its priorities for funding. Unfortunately, however, the bill and debate also reflected some misunderstandings on the part of city council members. The proposal was brought to the Council without recommendation.

I know that there is little to no chance of changing the thinking of the members of the Council, but I am concerned about some of the mistaken assumptions behind the change.

For example, it was noted that the number of people affected by suicide in our community is lower than other issues confronting our community. The error with that thinking is that it is based in the practice of counting bodies. If you only count the number of people who die, you simply fail to count the number of people who are affected. Every suicide affects dozes of people. Furthermore other issues such as homelessness, chronic mental illness and addiction are directly related to suicide - you cannot separate them into different categories.

Councilman Richie Nordstrom noted that he had visited with the Front Porch Coalition and that the Coalition had not taken his advice. I wish he could see his paternalism. His attitude that he wants to fund only agencies that he can control defies the way cities operate. The Front Porch Coalition is an independent non-profit agency that operates in our community precisely because the city’s official government has no services for those who have experienced suicide in their families. The City Council is not involved in suicide prevention in any way. The Coalition is a way for the city to partner with others in our community, not a way for the city to direct the efforts of its citizens.

It was also noted that some of the volunteers who serve on the LOSS (Local Outreach to Survivors of Suicide) Team are tired. This may be true, but I seems hard to argue that a team of nine persons with seven in training, for a total of 16 people who maintain the ability to dispatch a team of two or more people 24 hours a day, seven days a week are tired. There is a lot of energy involved in the process of maintaining the LOSS team that has been named by national leaders as “the nations’s most fully integrated with law enforcement team.” Tired, however isn’t the reason I cringe when I receive a call in the middle of the night. It is the knowledge that some family has been struck by a tragedy.

Another huge misunderstanding that was perpetrated by the Council debate was the statement that response after a suicide is not prevention. Statistics show that a survivor (one who has lost a loved one to suicide) is at more than double the risk of dying by suicide if they do not receive proper support. When a quick response is made following a suicide, those rates can be significantly lower. In Suicide Prevention, the phrase is “postvention is prevention.” What we do after a suicide has a direct impact on the number of people. Furthermore, the Front Porch Coalition is the community’s primary source of prevention education, offering ASIST training, Safe Talk training, hosting workshops as a part of Freshman Impact, and providing speakers for groups across the city. There is absolutely no agency in our community that even comes close to the work that the Front Porch Coalition does.

As has been true in other debates, there are members of the City Council who fail to distinguish between investment and expense. There is absolutely no question that the LOSS team saves the city tens of thousands of dollars each year in decreased law enforcement costs. Preventing one suicide saves the city more than the $3,000 the city invested in the Coalition in 2016. Having a team respond to a suicide saves time for city police and allows them to focus on their other responsibilities. Saying the City can’t afford to participate is the failure to see how much more it costs for the city not to participate.

One council member seemed to think that churches are already providing adequate suicide prevention services to the community. That member seems to forget that it was churches who were primary partners in forming the Front Porch Coalition.

I could argue for hours about what I see to be a major error in judgment on the part of the Council, but there is another point that seems to me to be more important.

The Front Porch Coalition is a group of agencies and individuals in our community who have decided to bring the discussion of mental illness and suicide out into the public. We are aware of the stigma attached to the discussion of suicide, but we know that open discussion and coordinated action can make a difference. We have decided to band together - to form a coalition to work together for suicide prevention. By working together we have formed one of the nation’s most effective LOSS teams. We are providing suicide awareness and prevention education of the highest quality in our city.

We won’t cease our work because of the loss of city funding. We’ll make up that loss through more fund-raising events.

It is a tragedy that the city has chosen to say that it doesn’t want to belong to the coalition.

Copyright (c) 2016 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!

What's with all the birds?

“On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me three french hens, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree.” It is what is known as a cumulative song - one in which each verse adds a new element before repeating the previous verses. Most of the time the origins of the song are assumed to be English, because it was first published in England, though some have found French roots for the song as well. There are similar songs that have appeared in Scotland and the Faroe Islands as well. In most of the versions it leaves us with the question, “What is with all of the birds, anyway?”

Modern versions of the song don’t have birds for all of the gifts. Unless you want to make obscure references to explain maids a-milking, ladies dancing, lords a-leaping, pipers piping and drummers drumming. The possibility that five golden rings might be a reference to ring-necked pheasants seems a bit less obscure. But how many people think of magpies when singing “maids a-milking” or the courting behaviors of lapwings when singing “ladies dancing?”

I’ve heard reports that the song is really a device for teaching basic Christian principles: three French hens represent the holy trinity; four calling birds are the four gospels; ten lords a-leaping are the ten commandments, etc. There is little real evidence to support this particular theory and it is likely that the extent to which the meanings are associated with the song has to do with interpretations that were later laid upon the song than with original intents of those who created the song.

There is also a theory that the song is evidence if the persistence of non-Christian traditions and ideas that persist after Christianity has become mainstream. There is a bit more evidence of this. After all the reason for 12 days in the Christmas season may come from the adaptation of a pre-existing holiday. Long before Christians came to the British Isles, ancient Celts observed twelve days of Yule. There are other holiday songs with counting to twelve that come from similar times and places: Jolly Old Hawk and The Dilly Song, which we sing as “Green Grow the Rishes-O.”

I’m certainly no music ethnologist and I am not even interested to do the work of researching the origins of a song that first appeared in printed form in the 19th century. Quite frankly, I’m not even sure of the “official” order of the gifts presented. I’ver heard the song with differing orders for the later gifts.

What interests me is that the song is one of the remnants of the celebration of Christmas stretched out throughout a season rather than being a single day. The digital calendar programmed into the datebook function of my computer shows December 25 as Christmas Day and December 26 as “Christmas observed” for 2016, suggesting that even Christmas is subject to the rather recent tradition of relegating all holidays to Monday. I prefer the practice of celebrating Christmas on December 25 regardless of which day of the week it lands, but there were some, even some in the church I serve, who asked me, “Are you going to have church on Christmas day?” the answer, of course is “Yes, we have worship on every Sunday.” The weather was a factor in church attendance, but the separation of Christmas from worship never occurred to me. And, for the record, next year when Christmas Day is a Monday, we will have morning worship and two evening Christmas Eve services on December 24. I’m old enough that I’ve been through this before.

I do, however, find it challenging to really observe 12 days of Christmas as a continuous holiday. This year I have a funeral to plan and conduct. That is not an infrequent occurrence in a congregation of our size. There is a newsletter to produce and mail. We have worship bulletins to prepare for January 1 worship. There are end of the years finances to be settled. The annual reports and annual meeting of the congregation loom as January events that require a lot of preparation. The list goes on and on.
In our home, we will be leaving our Christmas tree up at least until January 6 and we likely will not take it down until the 9th this year. In our tradition, we observe Epiphany on the Sunday between January 2 and 8, even though the actual day of Epiphany is January 6. That means that our observance is as late as it can get this year because January 1 falls on a Sunday. That will line up fine with our home holiday decorations because we were rather late in getting our tree up, so it will remain fresh. At the church, I’m not so sure. It is likely that a crew will be assembled to take down the tree on January 7. Waiting any longer might make it difficult to recruit workers for the rather large task of taking down the big sanctuary tree.

I know from experience, however, that in the secular marketing world, Christmas is already over. The only sings of Christmas in retail stores will be the bargain discount tables that were hastily filled as Christmas stock was removed from the shelves to make room for Valentines Day candies. You won’t be hearing Christmas Carols on the sound systems in the stores now that December 25 has passed. After all, they’ve been playing Christmas songs since Thanksgiving and the employees are getting tired of them. I know from experience that the same people who complain about singing Advent Carols and wonder why we don’t start singing Christmas Carols sooner are the ones who will wonder why we’re still singing Christmas carols after Christmas day. The idea of Christmas as a season that comes only at the end of four full weeks of Advent preparation is not particularly popular.

So have a happy third day of Christmas. There are still more Christmas days to come. As to the french hens, I’m probably not giving any birds as gifts this year.

Copyright (c) 2016 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!