Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Unfinished business

    I woke up this morning about 2:30 or so, took a melatonin after going to the bathroom, but didn't go back to sleep again, so after an hour of calm wakefulness I took another melatonin.  Still no sleep, so I read my book for awhile, but it's a kind of tense story (a Gamache murder mystery) and though I yawned a bit, sleep did not come.

    What kept going through my mind was the preparation I'd done yesterday for emergency evacuation.  I got a box packed and stowed in the car (which I will now park in the driveway, just in case), and a few things were placed in another box which I will stow on the front porch.  But it needs to be finished as does my go-bag, the one I keep in the bedroom to grab and go if I have little time or warning of a tsunami.  With a little luck I'll make progress on both of those today, which may help me sleep tonight.

    But my sleeplessness, I think, is connected to my "J"personality, the piece of me that likes to have things completed, finished, behind me, not ready to pop back into my consciousness at the inconvenient time of the middle of the night.  Last night I ruminated at length about my preparations, what I still needed to do, what my family's response would be if I were in danger or missing, what to do about the cats if I have no time to take them with me, if my supplies would be accessible in the moment of reckoning.

    I need to get to the point where I can say to myself, "I've done the best I could.  The rest is in the hands of the universe.  Please help me cope" and go back to sleep secure enough to let go of the possible outcomes.

    I think that's a common theme in much of my wakeful hours.  I have mostly come to terms with Mike's life; it is in his hands and I don't need to worry, even though I do.  I can't help it, I'm his mother!  I can't do anything about my sibs' lives either, so mostly I can let go of that.  It's the things I feel I should be able to do something about  that keep me awake.  Sometimes I'll even get up and write out my concerns, make notes about possible next steps, and relieve the tension of non-completion in that way.  It works pretty well for me.

    But this morning at 4, it felt like a good time to get up and start the day, though the cats were surprised and a bit logy.  I decided I'd write about this topic for awhile and get it behind me.

    I was also, I think, affected by watching the Llewyn Davis movie.  A talented musician hobbled by his inability to think farther ahead than the moment, Davis soiled everything he touched, it appeared.  He was a personable guy and a good folksinger, but his frustration with his nonsuccess erupted into fits of temper and irretrievable insults to people who didn't deserve them.  He seemed to think that his method of living in the moment was better than the method of those who looked to the future, who took precautions, who were conventional in their lives---and successful where he wasn't.  I pitied and disliked the guy, but I loved his singing.  I thought "loser" most of the time I was watching and almost turned it off, but I paid $2.50 for the movie and didn't want to waste it.  It's been called the movie of the year, which I might dispute, but it was a Coen movie and they are always worth watching.

    But Llewyn Davis was an unfinished man.  He could never get anything really finished or done right.  It wasn't bad luck, it was his own nondoing.  In another era, he might have been taking ritalin or other ADHD drug; at least he hadn't turned to alcohol or pot or other drugs, if the movie portrayed him accurately.  He did smoke incessantly, but he was unable to find a niche and scorn was heaped upon him by family and others.  I got the feeling, at the end, that he would probably commit suicide and jump off the same bridge his duo partner did.

    I researched the story a bit and found vague parallels to the life of Dave Van Ronk, a singer I never got much acquainted with.  Llewyn Davis is a composite character and it's a fictional story, though based on some real characters and some real events. 

   Well, I feel better now.  Maybe it's time for a nap!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Love is Not a Sin!

LOVE IS NOT A SIN
By Rev. Kit Ketcham, Feb. 16, 2014
         When I was a little girl, my family lived  in SE Portland, near 39th and Steele.  There were lots of children on our block, but my particular favorite friend was a little boy about my age whose name was Milton. In those days, mothers didn’t worry too much about their children visiting other families on the block, so occasionally I was allowed to walk down the sidewalk past two or three other houses to visit Milton at his house.
         One day I came home mumbling something under my breath, a gleam of satisfaction in my eye. (I must have been about four years old at the time.) My mother’s sharp ear caught something unexpected and she asked me to speak up.
         “God damn it,” I said. “God damn it, God damn it, God damn it!”
         My mother, a good Baptist preacher’s wife, looked at her cherubic darling in horror. Blonde dutch boy haircut, blue eyes, innocent face: “God damn it, God damn it, God damn it!”
         “Sweetheart,” said my mother, “where did you learn that? Do you know what that means?”
         “Milton says it,” I answered. “And I like to say it. God damn it. God damn it. God damn it!”
         Gulping, my mother pushed on. “Honey, you are asking God to send someone to hell. Is that what you really want to do?”
         I apparently was unimpressed; my rebel ways were clearly already beginning to be established. It felt powerful to be able to tell God what to do, especially when God apparently wanted to tell me what to do a lot of the time.
         But my mother’s good heart and gentle ways eventually prevailed, and I learned to say “God bless it, God bless it, God bless it.” Not nearly as satisfyingly rebellious, but more socially acceptable, especially at Calvary Baptist Church.
            This was one of my earlier brushes with the idea that something could be wrong in God’s eyes.  I’m sure, as a toddler, that my parents’ explanations of God’s will went way over my head and that I obeyed them because I loved them and wanted to please them.
         But Sin in all its ugly desireability was a fairly familiar theme in the life of a Baptist child; the Ten Commandments were held up as a model of virtue and sinning became that thing we did even though we knew we were making God unhappy and possibly courting eternal punishment.  It was just too much temptation to resist sometimes.
         We Unitarian Universalists have a love/hate relationship with Sin.  We don’t like the word, we tend to have more of a relational ethic when it comes to wrongdoing, and yet we can be very moralistic when others are behaving in ways that we believe are wrong.
         We know right from wrong.  We just tend to avoid the word Sin.  It’s a word that seems out of date, puritanical, judgmental, considering how often people are accused of sinning when, in actuality, they have done something that is only against ancient laws of behavior which were intended for an ancient civilization entirely different from present day civilizations.
         That’s why it may seem so odd and even irrational to many of us that fundamentalist believers, whether Muslim, Jewish, or Christian—and likely others as well—consider certain behaviors to be deeply sinful and worthy of the kind of protest that we have come to regard as normal only when done by Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist church and its minions.
         Most of us are aware that the Bible has some pretty diverse views about right and wrong.  It seems okay for God to allow atrocities of human behavior and natural disaster but odd for God to frown on any number of things listed in the Bible such as planting two different crops in the same field or combining two types of fabric or eating shellfish---or, according to some folks, being in love with someone of the same gender.
         Another story:  growing up a Baptist preacher’s kid, back in the 50’s in small town
Oregon, I was pretty conversant with the Bible, if a bit confused by some
of its meanings.
         In my family, we were rewarded for every scripture verse
we learned and could recite at family meals---I think it was a penny apiece,
which in those days eventually mounted up.
Of course, there were the easy ones: “Jesus wept” was a favorite
and some of the begats were fun to say: so and so begat so and so,
including names like Enoch, Methuselah, Shem, Ham and Japheth.
         Of
course, we were just getting old enough to understand what “begat” really
implied, so it was always with a smothered giggle that we would repeat
those words.
 
         The book of Revelation was a challenge and we didn’t even try to figure it out, we just reveled, so to speak, in some of the imagery, which included
horses and a lot of the use of the word seven, which seemed cool at the
time.

         I can remember one particular occasion on which my Sunday
School class---led by me, uncharacteristically for me, then-- asked our
teacher a leading question: “Mr. Mayberry, what is circumcision and why
was it so important to the Jews?”

         Now, I expect that Bob Mayberry had seen a lot and had heard a lot
of questions in his work as the postmaster in Athena, Oregon, but he was
stumped by this question from a bunch of 11 year old girls, some of whom
had little brothers and knew darn well what the word meant, if not its ritual meaning.

         He ended up referring us to yet another scripture passage about
Jewish rituals and advised us that in the Christian scriptures, circumcision
was a ritual act that was unnecessary to be Christian.  The implication, of
course, was that the Christians knew better about such things than the
Jews, so we didn’t need to worry our pretty little heads about it.

         Hmmmm. that wasn’t the first time I’d come up against Bible
 passages that contradicted each other. and it wasn’t the last, either, So
gradually I came to believe strongly in only those passages which seemed
to make rational sense, which affirmed my own experience and emphasized greater love for God and for others, not less.

         As I matured and learned more about human beings and myself, I
encountered the disconnect between law and justice. I learned that there
were laws that were not just. I learned that there were some laws people
ignored and others which they enforced, sometimes harshly.

         When I began to realize that I had a number of friends and students
who were gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender, I encountered yet
another disconnect-----the practice of deeming certain ancient laws from
Bible texts as sacrosanct yet ignoring others which were less convenient.

         I speak, of course, about the purity laws which the radical right uses as its
weaponry in the persecution of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender
persons. and I have since then made a study of this topic.

         What does the Bible really say about sexuality? what are the
texts, from Hebrew and Christian scriptures, which are used by some
conservative groups to justify discrimination and even outright persecution
of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons?

         Here’s a brief description of several passages.  Genesis, the first book in the
Hebrew scriptures, tells the creation story of Adam and Eve, (not Steve) their
residence in and eventual expulsion from the garden of Eden, and
subsequent life beyond the garden.
 
        In a later chapter we find the story of the
 cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.    When the Hebrew god sent two angels to
warn Abraham’s nephew Lot about impending doom for the city of
Sodom. some of the men of Sodom came to Lot’s house to attack and,
according to some translations, to rape the angels who were assumed to be male. Lot fended them off by
offering the men of Sodom his virgin daughters instead to use sexually, an
offer which was rejected.

         The angels then protected Lot’s household from the mob by striking
the men of Sodom blind, while Lot and his family escaped the city. This is
also the story in which Lot’s wife looked back at the burning city and was
turned into a pillar of salt for her disobedience.
         The book of Leviticus contains the holiness code of the early
Hebrews, a standard of purity of behavior which is meant to distinguish the
Hebrews from the Canaanites, whose land they have been given by the
God of Israel, with permission to take the land by force and capture and enslave the Canaanites.  The holiness, or purity code of the ancient Hebrews is the major source of these so-called proofs that God rejects same sex relationships.
         The punishment for violating many clauses of the holiness code is death.
 For example, children who curse their parents are to be put to
death.  The sentence for adultery for both parties is death. The punishment
for incest or bestiality is death. and the punishment for males lying with 
males as with females is death.

         And in the Christian scriptures, in the book of Romans, the apostle Paul is quoted as saying that “behaving sexually with another man as with a woman” is a sin, as he scolds one of his fledgling Christian churches for their many sins.
         There are other passages in the holiness code which are overlooked entirely by those who would enforce certain laws and not others:  it is wrong to plant two different crops in the same field.  It is wrong to wear clothing made of two different types of fabric.  It is wrong to eat shellfish or any animal with a cloven hoof.  Cud-chewing animals are favored---unless they have cloven hooves. 
         Aside from the cherry-picking of Bible passages to justify one’s own fears and prejudices, the problem with all these Biblical laws, in my humble opinion, is that they are all the product of an ancient religious code which applied specifically to a tiny, struggling nation of people who were trying to stay alive and to retain the purity of their ethnic roots.  They needed offspring—polite and obedient ones only, apparently-- and plenty of them, to offset the losses of life normal in those dangerous, Stone Age times.
         There are numerous reasons why these restrictions need to be re-thought for the 21st century.  The Bible also allows slavery and sexual violence, forcible overthrow of weaker civilizations, and an insistence on certain religious beliefs.  We have come a long way from those times.  We have different understandings of why people fall in love with members of their own sex, why sometimes people are born into bodies that don’t match up with their gender identity.  We are revolted by sexual violence and war. 
         And so it is time to take a hard look at sin and what it really is. 
         When California first briefly allowed same-sex marriage a few years ago and when that permission was summarily yanked out from under the many couples who took advantage of the opportunity, I was actively writing a blog entitled “Ms. Kitty’s Saloon and Road Show”, a personal journal about current events which bothered or amused me.  I wrote this post at that time.  It was 2008. 
         I've been reading the news reports and watching the TV segments about the same sex couples getting married in California, some who have been together for 50 years. The joy on their faces, as well as the joy on the faces of their loved ones, is so stunning that I wonder how anyone could in good conscience deny people this joy. Clearly those who speak so viciously (and vicariously, even voyeuristically?) about same-sex love and marriage have hard hearts, which they claim are a gift from God.

         ”To say no to joy for another person, particularly joy that has been proven in the long hard years of a relationship, is incomprehensible to me. To me it suggests a joylessness on the part of those who say that no and even try to enforce it by laws that regulate against joy for others. I'm talking real joy, not sexual pleasure, but the joy that comes from being together as a partnership, facing life's challenges, raising children, being a family. That's real joy. It's wrong to deny anyone that hardwon joy, especially after they have proved themselves over the long haul.

         “It came to me suddenly in the midst of one of the many diatribes that erupted after California's justice-seeking justices declined to reconsider: LOVE IS NOT A SIN. And using the language of traditional religion, language that comes from humans saying they speak for God, here is what else I think is not sin. And I, as much as anyone, can say I speak for God:

Love is not a sin.
Commitment is not a sin.
Taking responsibility is not a sin.
Trust is not a sin.
Being honest about oneself is not a sin.
Sexual intimacy between committed, consenting adults is not a sin.

Here's what's a sin:

Injustice is a sin.
Betrayal is a sin.
Resentment is a sin.
Rape is a sin.
Faithlessness is a sin.
Unkindness is a sin.
Cruelty is a sin.”

         Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION:
         Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place.  Let us go in peace, remembering that human joy and love are two of the greatest blessings of life.  May we seek to bring joy and love to all around us and not begrudge the joy others find in honest and committed relationships.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.




Tuesday, January 28, 2014

"Don't Let the Light Go Out...

"it's lasted for so many years.  Don't let the light go out, let it shine through our love and our tears."

Though Peter Yarrow wrote "Light One Candle" and Peter, Paul, and Mary sang it most often, this chorus reminds me today of Pete Seeger, who died yesterday at age 94.

Pete changed my life.  His songs were meaningful without being religious, at least according to my Baptist upbringing, and when I found him, I was looking (mostly subconsciously) for meaning, not doctrine.  "Washed in the blood" lyrics were dramatic and the tunes were catchy, but largely meaningless to me, for I had already figured out that blood sacrifice as salvation was not for me.

During my young adult years, his songs and ideals were my songs and ideals and gradually I found my own musical way and new, idealistic composers and singers like Peter Mayer, Libby Roderick, and others.  But Pete was a polestar, a guiding light, a model to be emulated.  "What would Pete do?" would have been a better mantra for me than "What would Jesus do?"

Pete was real, not a gussied-up icon of religious passion.  His songs were about basics:  love of natural things, love of humankind, respect for creation, healing of wounds, peace across the earth, and, most of all, how singing together can create this vision of one world.

Four years ago, realizing that Pete Seeger was about to turn 90, after years of creative work, activism, and radical advocacy for the earth, for humanity, and for the power of music, my musical friends and I pulled together an evening of Pete Seeger songs, in homage to this man who had been such an inspiration for us.

We called it "A Pete Seeger 90th Birthday Bash" and held it in the sanctuary of the church I was serving at the time, the UU Congregation of Whidbey Island.  It was a benefit concert for a local charity, Hearts and Hammers, which repairs homes for aged and disabled residents on the island.

We hoped we'd sell enough tickets to make a few hundred dollars for the charity and for the congregation.  It was a standing-room-only crowd.  People were jammed into the foyer, every available chair was shoehorned into the sanctuary, we put chairs out on the tiny patio, and the musicians were crunched into a single row at the front of the sanctuary.  The building rocked for hours, as people sang and clapped and smiled and even danced in the aisles.

What a night!  What a celebration for an iconic figure in the lives of our generation!  It was one of the proudest moments of my life, to gaze out at the packed audience and see what music and an idea can do when they come together.

Pete Seeger, you are gone, but your light won't go out, not if I can help it.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Trail of Beauty and...then Tears

A TRAIL OF BEAUTY AND OF TEARS
Rev. Kit Ketcham, January 19, 2014
         A couple of years ago, I spoke to my Whidbey congregation on the topic of current civil rights issues in America, mentioning several different groups needing expanded civil rights, particularly our gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender/intersex friends and neighbors.  I felt pretty good about what Unitarian Universalists have historically done to support civil rights for oppressed groups.
         After the service, a member came to me and said something like, “you listed a lot of groups that need expanded civil rights, but you left out Native Americans.  What about Native peoples?”
         I confess I was embarrassed, because it simply hadn’t occurred to me to include Native Americans, First Nations peoples, in the litany of those whose human rights have been neglected by our country and other countries.  As we talked, she shared some of her story and I apologized, probably feebly, for my oversight.  And I promised that I would speak about the issues of indigenous peoples.  I did so then and now I would like to offer those thoughts to you, updated to reflect my new, more recent insights.
         It’s not as though I didn’t believe that native peoples have any problems.  It’s more that the needs of native peoples had become invisible to me.  I had not been as conscious of the oppression they’ve endured, even though I’ve had native friends who lived on reservations, whose family members have died of alcohol related disease, who’ve been accused of being “dirty Indians” because of reservation conditions and genetic disposition to some diseases and addiction.
         My own white privilege had kept me from acknowledging my complicity in the conditions which affect native peoples, not only here in America but across the globe. 
         For indigenous peoples have gotten a raw deal in virtually every country invaded by foreign explorers centuries ago and policies enacted in those times continue to oppress native peoples to this day. 
         In speaking about this, I realized I was taking on a big topic, one which affects many areas of our comfortable lives and is related to historical policies and acts of our U.S. government, whether the party in power was Republican or Democrat.
         Author Steve Newcomb is a Native American of Shawnee & Lenape ancestry. For several years, he has studied the origins of United States federal Indian law and international law dating back to the early days of Christendom. He has written a book on his findings entitled, Pagans In the Promised Land: Religion, Law, and the American Indian.
         In an essay entitled “Five Hundred Years of Injustice”, he writes this:
         When Christopher Columbus first set foot on the white sands of Guanahani island, he performed a ceremony to "take possession" of the land for the king and queen of Spain, acting under the international laws of Western Christendom. Although the story of Columbus' "discovery" has taken on mythological proportions in most of the Western world, few people are aware that his act of "possession" was based on a religious doctrine now known in history as the Doctrine of Discovery. Even fewer people realize that today - five centuries later - the United States government still uses this archaic Judeo-Christian doctrine to deny the rights of Native American Indians.
         Newcomb goes on to explain the origins of the Doctrine of Discovery.  In the year 1452, 40 years before Columbus made his journey to the Americas, a statement, or papal bull, was issued by the reigning Catholic pope, Pope Nicholas, declaring war against all non Christians, sanctioning and promoting conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christian nations and territories.  He goes on:
         Under various theological and legal doctrines formulated during and after the Crusades, non-Christians were considered enemies of the Catholic faith and, as such, less than human. Accordingly, in the bull of 1452, Pope Nicholas directed King Alfonso to ‘capture, vanquish, and subdue the saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ,’ to ‘put them into perpetual slavery," and "to take all their possessions and property.’”
          This action was taken to expand and strengthen the so-called Christian Empire.  And it affects, even today, the actions of the United States government toward Native Americans, including Mexican immigrants, and the resources of the lands native peoples occupied at the time of conquest and which they occupy today.
         We’ve all watched the immigration battles along the US/Mexico border and the crackdowns on so-called illegal border crossings that have displaced dual-citizenship families, have punished US born children for the efforts of their non-US-born parents to give their children a better life, and have painted an ugly picture of the governments of those states.
         But it has seemed like a problem that didn’t affect our area much so far, even though the problem of Mexican citizens crossing the border without permission has surfaced in the Pacific Northwest.
         But consider this:  Centuries ago, the United States was the homeland of native peoples who roamed freely throughout the continent.  Borders were fluid and even nonexistent---until European conquerors moved in, using the Doctrine of Discovery to claim the native lands of those indigenous peoples and to subjugate them, to Christianize those who were willing to convert, and to kill or enslave those who were not willing to leave their indigenous religion and embrace Christianity.
         Guess what happened because of this religious enactment in the 15th century?  Again from Newcomb’s essay:
         In 1823, the Christian Doctrine of Discovery was quietly adopted into U.S. law by the Supreme Court in the celebrated case, Johnson v. McIntosh (8 Wheat., 543). Writing for a unanimous court, Chief Justice John Marshall observed that Christian European nations had assumed "ultimate dominion" over the lands of America during the Age of Discovery, and that - upon "discovery" - the Indians had lost "their rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations," and only retained a right of "occupancy" in their lands. In other words, Indian nations were subject to the ultimate authority of the first nation of Christendom to claim possession of a given region of Indian lands.
         Yes, that’s right.  U.S. law concerning native American rights to peaceful existence in this, their native land, is based on a 500 year old religious dictum which authorized capture, conversion, killing, enslavement, and displacement of peoples whose misfortune it was to have been here first. 
         Since that enactment of U.S. law by the Supreme Court nearly 200 years ago, native peoples have been herded onto reservations, forced to sign treaties to maintain some semblance of existence, massacred if they dared to oppose this treatment, caricatured by popular culture, and robbed of sacred rituals and practices which have been misappropriated by the dominant culture and used for commercial gain.
         The concept which came to be known as Manifest Destiny has been a hallmark of U.S. policy toward the expansion of European-born peoples across the Americas, upheld by politicians of every stripe, ostensibly to promote democracy across the continent and to declare it a moral law that superseded all other law.
         In other words, it was considered the destiny of American democracy to eradicate and subdue, in this country, non-democratic forms of government.  Historian William E. Weeks has noted that three key themes were usually touched upon by advocates of Manifest Destiny:
1.    the virtue of the American people and their institutions;
2.    the mission to spread these institutions, thereby redeeming and remaking the world in the image of the U.S.; and
3.    the destiny under God to do this work.
         Since that time, many of us have come to understand what terrible wrongs have been committed against indigenous peoples, both here and abroad, and slowly the tide has turned, our thinking has evolved, and there is a growing undercurrent of support to repeal laws which fly in the face of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, proclaimed and published by the United Nations in September of 2007.
         The Doctrine of Discovery was used to justify the conquest of Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and the Americas.  It was the justification for the appropriation of lands and resources and the domination of native nations and usurpation of their sovereignty.  It formed the basis for the slave trade, the partition and colonization of the Near East, the colonization of the Americas, and the genocides of the indigenous peoples of Africa and the Americas.
         The Doctrine of Discovery codified, put into law, made legal the oppression of others and it may be the invisible attitude that gives tacit permission to all the bullying behavior we see in society, from the playground to the boardroom and marketplace, and ultimately to the battlefield.
         As a consequence of my recent inquiry into my own ethnic roots, I have learned that I may have blood ties to the indigenous peoples of northern Scandinavia----once called Laplanders and now known by their own name:  the Saami.
         The Saami have occupied the northern tier of Scandinavia, up into the Arctic Circle, for many centuries, and with changes in the political boundaries of the Scandinavian countries (Norway, Sweden, and Finland, particularly), the fortunes of the Saami have depended on the benevolence of the governments of these nations.
 
         These indigenous people have not always been treated well by the ruling nation.  Though Scandinavia is considered to be a bulwark of egalitarianism, the truth is that the Saami have always been considered outsiders and as primitive peoples, they were considered “less fit”, both emotionally and intellectually. 
         Over the centuries, my Scandinavian forebears treated the Saami people differently and enacted policies that had racist overtones and outcomes.  I’ve had to consider what it means that my ancestral kin may have both been treated badly OR have treated indigenous peoples badly.
         Here’s what I’ve been thinking, as I’ve researched and considered the implications of this challenging information:  First of all, DUH!  How could I miss this?  How can native peoples have been subjected to this without my recognizing it?  How could they become invisible to me? 
         Just knowing that I may have Saami blood kin eliminates my ability to overlook this miscarriage of justice.  And since we are ALL related, according to what science is learning about how ancient humans traveled from continent to continent, we cannot, in conscience, turn a blind eye.  I may never know for sure whether I am part Saami, but it has changed me to know of this connection.
         When I think of my high school friends, Joyce and Belva Hoptowit, who lived on the nearby Umatilla reservation and went to my high school, I remember that they were both beautiful, both of them were honored as Indian princesses in the Happy Canyon show that was part of the Pendleton RoundUp every year.
         Their pictures were in our high school yearbook---on horseback, dressed in white deerskin, feathers in their hair, looking regal.
         There were two boys, Peter and Paul Quaempts, who were basketball stars at St. Joseph’s Academy in Pendleton.  We all had crushes on these two guys.  I even wrote them an anonymous note one time, at the height of my starry-eyed phase.  What became of these beautiful young men and women?
         Sadly, as I researched the names of these friends and admired ones, I found death notice after death notice----all of these four had died too young, between ages 50 and 60.  Why?  I couldn’t find out why, but knowing the bleak history of health vulnerabilities among indigenous peoples who have been overrun by European conquerors, I could hazard a guess.
         Was it alcoholism taking advantage of the genetic make-up of Native Americans?  Or their high susceptibility to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity?  Did poverty and depression contribute to their deaths? 
         These are questions I had never before thought to ask.  Has the treatment of Native peoples by their conquerors over the centuries resulted in such poor living conditions that their emotional and physical health has been damaged?  That their history from the day Europeans set foot on their lands has been one of death and displacement?  My answer to these questions is Yes.
         And my next question is, logically, what---500 years later---can we do about any of this?
         As Kate and I talked about this service, we had to face the questions that were raised by this issue:  why do we not think of the rights of native people?  Why do we still treat them as the invisible inconvenience of white colonialism?  What is it about human nature that allows us to dehumanize others of our species to the extent that we have?
         We acknowledge that we have within each of us the capacity for both good and evil.  Why do we so often choose hurtful behavior over compassion?  How do we begin to examine our own tendencies to dominate and to oppress?  How do we change our sense of entitlement so that it no longer impinges on the rights of others? 
         Native peoples in this country and others have contributed hugely to our arts and cultural heritage.  We in return have often misappropriated their art, spiritual practices, music, and other contributions, using them for our own material gain.  We do so without understanding their history, the heritage that they represent, and we may even callously adapt those rituals and items to better meet our needs, not caring or even knowing that their originators might feel resentful and hurt.  The beauty they have offered----in art, in music, in ritual, in culture---has often been stolen and misused for financial gain.
         Native lands are always under the gun.  Awhile back, I received notices about proposed mining in Alaska that threatens native fishing rights and  a deal in North Dakota that sold the Fort Berthold Indian reservation’s oil and gas rights.  Large corporations were behind both these acquisitions.          
         In addition, a recent story in the Oregonian revealed that $32 million dollars are owed to Native Americans, the result of negligence on the part of the Interior Department to pay for the many leases of Native lands for mining, grazing and other uses, by both corporations and individuals.  Royalties were to be placed into accounts set up for tribal members.  Mismanagement of these funds has resulted in this large non-payment.  So it is still happening to our Native friends and neighbors.
         Clearly, we must act.  What can we do?  The Unitarian Universalist Peace Ministry Network repudiates the Doctrine of Discovery and in 2012, brought a resolution to the floor of our General Assembly in Phoenix,  when the related issue of immigration laws were also a focus of attention.
         The resolution states:  BE IT RESOLVED that we, the delegates of the 2012 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association, repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery as a relic of colonialism, feudalism, and religious, cultural, and racial biases having no place in the modern day treatment of indigenous peoples.  It was passed by a strong margin and is part of our Actions of Social Justice work, authorizing congregations to take action.
         Other religious traditions are also speaking out in favor of repeal of laws which are based on the Doctrine of Discovery and I would like to suggest that we as individuals and as a congregation study the issue deeply and align with other concerned congregations and humanitarian groups, including the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.
          Perhaps other congregations in our area are concerned as well and might join with us in educating ourselves and taking a stand for justice for indigenous peoples.
         In addition, we can strongly oppose legislation and corporate actions which impinge upon native lands.  We can educate ourselves and others.  We can reach out in friendship to those affected by these ancient policies and, instead of just feeling helpless and looking away, let’s seek truth, let’s question what we’ve always done, and let’s practice compassion and seek reconciliation.  We can protest the commercialization of native images and practices and refuse to participate in supporting them.
         Let’s do something together as a congregation and let’s turn our individual efforts into action to bring about repeal of unjust laws.  And let’s recognize the dangers of of our own privileged status and take steps to keep it from harming others.
         Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
#318, We Would Be One
BENEDICTION:  Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place.  Let us go in peace, but thinking hard about how our lives have been shaped by the oppressive policies of the past.  May we dedicate ourselves to doing our part to change the laws which hurt others and may we never forget that our privileged lives are, to some degree, bought by the pain of others.  We pray for strength to understand and the courage to change.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

When Ministry Has a Public Face

A few months ago, I applied to be on the Board of Contributors to our local five-day-a-week newspaper which was looking for writers who would contribute op-ed columns of 750 words plus photos on a topic of local interest, once or twice during the next year.  I thought that sounded like a good way for me to offer a liberal religious perspective to this very diverse community.  They liked what they read of my work and invited me to be on the B of C.

Last week I got word from the managing editor of the Daily Astorian that, if possible, he'd like me to write the column for February on a topic of my choice and I eagerly accepted, suggesting the tentative title "From Anxiety to Advocacy" about my own journey from ignorance and angst about human homosexuality to my current firm stance as an advocate and ally of sexual minorities.

I got his email in the morning and in the afternoon I opened the DA to scan the local news and found a couple of blistering letters to the editor, with two very different views on my suggested topic, each letter-writer excoriating the other for his or her vile take on the topic of marriage equality and homosexuality in general.  One quoted scripture and the other quoted science in support of his/her views.

Maybe that was why the managing editor wrote back that my topic was "brilliant" and he was looking forward to seeing it.  I can just imagine him rubbing his hands together and chuckling wickedly as he anticipated the dustup to come when my piece is published. 

I'm not a chicken-heart, but I dislike confrontation and public disagreement, so this will be a challenge for me, but I think this topic is particularly germane as Oregon ramps up its campaign to get Marriage Equality on the ballot for next fall. 

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Adventures in pastoring Fellowship congregations

One of the things I've noticed during my years of active ministry has been the atmosphere, in small layled fellowships (which are fairly common in the Unitarian Universalist world), of anti-clericalism that pervades many of these tiny groups.  These fellowships tend to be populated by folks who've been disappointed or even hurt by rigid, domineering clergy in both traditional and UU congregations.  There is often an attitude of "we don't want to be churchy or too-religious; we don't want a minister taking over the congregation; we just want to do our own thing".

Typically these congregations don't grow much and they are often dominated by leaders who feel very protective of their turf and are reluctant to share leadership.  "Worship" is not called worship; it is a program or a service or a meeting.  The "W" word is  associated with adoration of a deity and "we UUs don't do that".

Eventually, these small groups are faced with the challenge of needing to grow in order to continue to exist.  Many suffer the challenges of members who don't pledge much or at all; there is often in-fighting over issues of governance and theology.  And so leaders may quit in disgust, leaving holes in the governing body; members may drop off without saying goodbye; visitors are few and far between.

When the district executive or a local member suggests that the congregation might do better if they had a minister, even a very part-time minister, these small groups often marshal their resources and send out feelers, looking for someone to perform fulltime ministry for quarter-time compensation.

When a saint who is willing to try this is found, the conditions Rev. Saint comes up against can be daunting.  "She's trying to take over!"  "He keeps asking for money!"  "I like his wife but not the pastor himself!"  "We can't afford her!"  "I just can't take a woman minister seriously!"   "When is he going to ........?"

The first minister a small fellowship employs often takes a beating from the congregation.  These folks have no idea how to treat a minister; they resent being asked to up their pledges so that the minister can afford to provide service; they often resist even the small changes the minister suggests.  "He uses the G word and it offends me!"  "She wears a robe!" "We don't want to change joys and sorrows!"  "Ministers really only work one hour a week; we shouldn't have to pay him/her so much!"

Sometimes the fellowship is so opposed to a real minister that they continue to "sit on the franchise" and refuse to grow or to give up.  Sometimes the fellowship hires a part-time minister and harasses that person so badly that the minister quits.  Sometimes the minister fights back and gets fired.  Sometimes the part-timer is a big success and goes on to help the congregation grow and prosper.

I've worked with several formerly lay-led congregations and have had mixed experiences, but most of it has been pretty positive.  The worst experience I remember was when I was invited to give a Martin Luther King sermon at a fellowship which shall not be named.  I had worked hard on my sermon, thought it was pretty good, selected hymns to support the theme, and suggested that a children's story to fit the theme would be great.  What did it turn out to be?  Some guy taught the kids how to make a sailor hat out of newspaper.  I never went back.

In every congregation I've served I've had my good and bad moments.  In every congregation there were people who did not want a minister, thought I was too expensive and that they could do their own thing just as well as anything I could offer.  In every congregation there were people who gave me a hard time about not deserving the compensation I received.  In every congregation there were those who bridled at the G-word, the W-word, and all the other taboo words that had stuck in their craws after negative church experiences.

But in every congregation I've served there have been people who genuinely appreciated my care, who listened to the sermons and wanted to discuss them after the service, who cared for me in return, who came to the workshops I offered, who countered my theological observations courteously, who said goodbye to me when I tendered my resignation(s) with tears and sharing of memories of the time we had spent together.  And it was lovely.  I don't regret any of it for a minute.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Pastoring a tiny congregation...

is a mix of fun and frustration.  In the months since I offered my services to the tiny fellowship near my home, I've been blessed by a sense of greater connection to these parishioners and also concerned about whether what I am doing for them is good or hopeless.

At the time I proposed to use my ministry skills to help them deal with some of the holes in their programming (pastoral care and a resident minister who would preach on occasion), I knew I was only able to offer a stopgap ministry for them.  I'm 71 years old, I'm not interested in fulltime parish ministry any more, and I don't want to go to board meetings.

But my call to ministry was persistent and wouldn't let me give up on the idea, so in March of this year I started serving up pastoral care to anyone in the congregation who needed it.  Since that time,  two desperately ill folks have  died and their memorials either conducted or in the planning stages.  Because these folks have never had a resident minister (they've had quarter-time ministers who drove down from Portland to do what they could in a long weekend), they've not been able to provide adequate pastoral care and they hardly knew what to do with someone when faced with a death.  I've felt pretty useful in the pastoral care department and have counseled many a member through lesser crises.

Preaching is one of my favorite tasks of ministry and I thought it would be easy to recycle old sermons in my once-a-month pulpit gig, but it's not.  Some of my old chestnuts are more inane now than they were five years ago.  They might have served a need at the time, but now they're just creaky vehicles of old thinking.  So I've decided I will no longer re-use any sermon which can't be personalized to the congregation, increasing my sense of satisfaction but also my time commitment.

In an effort to serve this farflung bunch of folks in a parish which extends from a small Washington coast town on the north to the bottom edge of our long, skinny Oregon coast county, I've initiated smaller local groups in coffee klatches or happy hours every month, hoping to learn more about people's lives in a smaller setting.  This has been fruitful for the most part and we now have a healthy group of 5-9 who live way south of the county line.  It meets on a Sunday morning to offer a UU opportunity to people who live too far away (more than 40 miles) to get to church regularly.  A coffee klatch in a Washington setting attracts 3 or 4 folks on a Saturday afternoon and a happy hour at a local Astoria pub attracts as many as 12 on a Thursday evening.  Folks enjoy these gatherings as time to be together outside of a Sunday social hour.  And I enjoy them too.

I am trying to just enjoy what I am able to do without overextending myself.  They pay me a small honorarium for my work and are  very appreciative, but I know that giving more than a few hours a month can set up a pattern that sets too-high expectations, leaving them in the lurch if I should need to end my service.  Because it seems unlikely to me, at this point, that I will continue this for more than a couple of years. 

Will there be someone to pick up where I leave off?  The congregation is dependent on the pledges of about 30 people; it rents space from a UCC group; it's primarily retirees and a few small families with kids.  It's not growing much and has little growth future without more ministerial leadership; its layleaders are tired, having carried the ball for many years without much support.  They can't afford to pay anyone an actual professional wage and the ministers who drove down for a long weekend in the past have been frustrated by the limitations of time, weather, and size.

I have considered how we might attempt a social action program of some kind, but with the limits of building access, travel distances, and size, I have concluded that it makes better sense to encourage people to make their individual social justice efforts in their own communities, rather than as a church body.  I've been castigated for this decision by at least one non-member who has told me he's given up on us because of this "failure".  But somebody who lives 20-40 miles away does not want to drive that distance on a rainy night (or day) to volunteer in a body, no matter how worthy the cause.  And to tacitly limit participation only to those who live close to the cause seems to skew the effort somehow.  Also, it would drastically increase the hours I'd commit to them for a pittance of an honorarium.

But we're having fun and I think they're learning what it means to have a minister, even one who can't do everything a fulltime minister might do.  And I'm serving my call, in this small way.