Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Morphing Belief in the Power Beyond Human Power

“Atheism and agnosticism signify the rejection of certain images and concepts of God or of truth, which are historically conditioned and therefore inadequate. Atheism is a challenge to religion to purify its images and concepts and come nearer to the truth of divine mystery.”
― Bede Griffiths


When I encountered this quote on Facebook recently, I was struck by its application to my own evolving thoughts about God, or what I have come to call "the power beyond human power".

I have not gone so far as to think of myself as an atheist, or even agnostic, because both these terms do not describe where I am in my thinking.  To me it is undeniable that there is power beyond human power.  Some people call this power God but grant to the power a state of being that is too human-like to satisfy me.

Much atheism seems to me to be an adamant rejection of the idea of God, which implies a distaste for the very idea of an overarching power, more of an anti-theist stance.  This attitude seems as narrow-minded as the opposite stance of God as the Supreme Being who put Adam and Eve in the garden after forming them from mud.

Agnosticism implies, to me, an unwillingness to grapple with the idea of a power beyond human power;  it is undeniably true that there is a power that does control human lives.  Agnostics would just prefer not to think about it.  Which is okay, because thinking about it does produce so many currently-unanswerable questions that it is simply easier to let it go.  "To let the mystery be", as Iris DeMent so poetically puts it.

Except that as science uncovers more about the universe and its natural laws, it is hard to insist that we know nothing about this power.  We know that gravity, for example, the law of attraction, governs just about everything we have come to understand about the way the universe works.

As a side note, when I was in a 12 step program and thinking about my Higher Power, I used gravity as my HP for a long time.  It was stronger than I; it could make me stronger as I learned to work with it to achieve an upright stance, a stronger body as I used its resistance to develop my muscles, my lungs, and my heart. If I forgot to heed gravity, it hurt!  I could trust it to work the way it always did.  It governed the tides and the winds through its influence on the sun and the moon.  It was dangerous and unforgiving; it was a strict teacher.  But when I could learn to use it effectively, it contributed to my health and wellbeing.

I don't object, generally, to other concepts of God.  I see that they are comforting and offer a framework that encourages believers to act morally and wisely.  Like gravity, that God is stronger, makes its believers stronger, punishes when the believer forgets its power and stumbles, governs the universe, created the universe, is benign and helpful when the believer aligns with It.  It is trustworthy.  Many believers define God as Love.

I see Love as inherent in the universe and innate in living beings.  Many believers attribute Love as a gift from God.  I see it more as the human embodiment of the law of attraction, manifesting itself in sexual activity, nurturance of other beings, altruism, and religious expressions, as well as others.

Traditional belief in a deity (whether God or other manifestations) can become petrified, unable to change except through erosion, to use a geologic metaphor.  Many of my friends who are of the "none of the above" variety, unchurched and unapologetic, have had their traditional religious beliefs wash away in the winds and tides of their increasingly deep understandings of the universe as revealed by their experiences and by their education.

The ascendance, in recent years, of an atheistic point of view does challenge traditional believers to reconsider those ancient tenets of faith in light of new information.  To be a traditional believer, one must be willing to "suspend disbelief" and block out new realizations.  It is hardly surprising that the traditional "suspenders" have stretched and broken.




Saturday, March 21, 2015

Through my glasses darkly...

has been my experience for the past year-plus, as I've recovered slowly from five, count them, FIVE surgeries to paste down and secure the retina in my right eye.

I decided to get a pair of specs once those surgeries were behind me, so that I wouldn't be plagued with the constant need to put on different magnifications (distance, computer, book) every time I moved from one task to another.  In addition, I wanted to shed sunglasses (with or without a reading lens), so I went for the fabled Transition option, plus the line-less "one magnification fading into the next" type of correction.

But I began to realize, after wearing my new specs for awhile, that I now felt as though I'd moved into a "dowdy, practical, just-get-it-done" phase of life, less attentive to appearance and more attuned to comfort.  That's not necessarily a bad thing and the glasses did do what they were supposed to do---relieve me of constant switching of specs depending on what I was doing.

After a period of months, I noticed that they had another beneficial effect and that was to disguise the fact that my right eyelid was quite droopy.  Eventually I decided to have that droopy eyelid surgically corrected, as it was interfering with my vision rather severely, and I'm now on the other side of that surgery, mopping up the tearing and gooey ointment and explaining the bruising and slight swelling.

And I'm reflecting, as I gaze into the mirror, on the possibility that maybe it wouldn't be so bad to return to the endless switching of eyewear, just to get back some of that sense of style that accompanied my naked-eye look.  When glasses are an occasional accessory, rather than a constant necessity, I feel less burdened by my years, somehow.

My right eye suffered some lasting vision loss due to puckers in the repaired retina, normal for the repeated surgeries I had.  I see a waviness in lines of type or a slight shadow image when I read with only my right eye open.  Luckily, the brain is able to make sense of this and it's not terribly bothersome.  But the glasses don't help with it.  I don't need the glasses on my nose constantly in order to live a life of decent vision.

Years ago, I had cataract surgery which gave me perfect vision in both eyes; I still needed different magnifications for reading and computer work, but those specs were cute and could be replaced easily if I saw something cuter.  My everyday all-purpose glasses are merely utilitarian, NOT cute.  But they do work.

When my eye looks normal again, I'm going to see what it feels like to shed the utilitarian look and go for cute.  At least till I can see whether comfort and practicality are worth the slightly dowdy.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Loosing Lily

Almost exactly a week ago, I heard an unsettling "scrabbling" noise from the den where Lily and Loosy, the cats, were taking yet another nap.  It was the same noise I'd heard five days earlier when I'd responded---to find Lily in the throes of a violent seizure.

I'd stayed by her, talking to her quietly and reassuringly, a hand ready to move furniture or other obstacles out of the way, should her thrashings take her too close.  It was only a couple of minutes long, but it seemed endless.  Her mouth was dripping with foam, the odor of urine was strong in the room, and her eyes were blackly dilated.  Disoriented, she tried to stand up but couldn't make her legs work for a few minutes and she howled in her misery. 

Of course, it was after the local vet's hours,  but St. Google was able to reassure me that taking her in the next morning was probably okay, as long as she had come out of the seizure and was beginning to feel better.  That seemed to be the case and the next morning, Dr. R examined her, declined to give her anti-seizure medication just yet, and advised me to let him know if a pattern developed.

So when I heard the ominous noise again, after five days of fairly normal behavior on Lily's part, my heart sank.  Sure enough, she was sprawled and jerking violently, yowling, foaming, peeing.  And this time, it didn't stop.

I ran for the carrier, put her shaking body inside, and called the vet.  "I'm coming over right now" I told the tech who answered, and I ran out the door with Lily still convulsing in the carrier.

The vet took her to his back room for blood work and to inject her with medication to stop the seizures, telling me to go home and come back in an hour.  Twenty minutes later he called and said, "I have some bad news.  We couldn't stop the seizures, the kitty valium we tried to inject didn't help, and she died."

At that moment I felt a rush of both relief and sorrow.  Relief that seizures were not going to be part of our ongoing life together and sorrow that my cranky, needy Lilycat would no longer be following me around the house requesting something---catnip, food, petting, brushing, while complaining about her sister Loosy and anything else that didn't suit her.  She was a mess and I loved her.

But I'm glad she's gone, even though the hole she left is 18 pounds large.  I was not surprised that the seizures were fatal.  A dog I once cared for had a seizure and within a few months, that dog had died.  Older animals develop epilepsy for a variety of reasons and the seizures are disabling and often fatal.  Medication can stave off the end for awhile, but not forever.

I went back to the vet to say goodbye to her and arrange for cremation.  Her mouth was frozen in a grimace, a tooth had broken off from the force of the tremors, and it was clear she had died hard.  If the seizure hadn't taken her, chances are I would have had to make that Big Decision about her quality of life.  She was 12 years old, a big girl at 18 pounds, and her crankiness might have been evidence of declining health. It's hard to say.

I'd had Lily since she was a kitten.  I got her in 2003, when I first moved from Portland to Puget Sound.  I had the name for her before I had the cat; I'd hoped to find a nice little white kitten to wear the Lily moniker, but all the Vashon Island Pet Protectors had available was this feral kitten of a yearling mother who had been rescued by Deirdre and Frank, members of my Vashon congregation.

She'd had a good life, her sister Loosy and little brother Max were more or less her boon companions, and she'd adapted to each of the several places she'd lived with us.  She was a one-woman cat, disdaining the overtures of visitors.  When Max had to go live with another family when we left Whidbey, she mourned and only grudgingly tolerated Loosy after that.  Now Loosy has me all to herself and she seems to be glad of it, only occasionally looking around to see if the tortoiseshell hulk threatens to chase her.

Goodnight, Lily, see you in the morning.  I will take your ashes to Whidbey Island and leave them in the garden there.

This afternoon, the mail brought a little note of sympathy from the vet's office; they had made a donation to the Oregon Animal Health Foundation in Lily's memory.  Enclosed in the card was a paw print, a reminder of the imprint she left on my life.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Gifts of Silence and Solitude

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A GIFT FROM EASTERN RELIGIONS:  SILENCE and SOLITUDE
Rev. Kit Ketcham, PUUF
March 15, 2015
         I invite you to spend a few minutes in silence before I begin.  
         What was that like for you?   How do we humans tend to respond when it’s been silent for a while?  Does it matter where we are?  Who we’re with?  These are questions to consider this morning as we look at some of the contributions of World Religions to UUism.
         I’ve had a couple of formative experiences with silence.  The first one was embarrassing, the second was revelatory.
         When I lived in Denver, I had a big old Dodge van that I went camping in.  One summer I attended the Unitarian Universalist family camp at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, a place not far from Abiquiu, the home of the well known artist Georgia O’Keefe.    I drove down from Denver in my van and camped in the Ghost Ranch campground.
         The choir at my home congregation, Jefferson Unitarian Church, had just performed selections from the Lord Nelson Mass and I brought the CD with me, to play while I drove.  The Lord Nelson Mass is a marvelous composition by Franz Joseph Haydn, full of majestic crescendos and melodic (but loud) themes  and written during Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign in the late 18th century.
         You may be able to see where this is going. 
         My first morning in the campground, I’d gone up to the dining room for breakfast and when I returned to my campsite, I decided to do a little housekeeping inside the van before the morning program began. 
So I turned on the CD player, cranked up the volume, and let ‘er rip.  Something about the majestic chords of the music echoing among the sandstone cliffs and sagebrush paths just enlivened my extrovert energies and I was singing along to the alto part of one of the sections when a neighboring camper approached me and said politely, “you know, the silence really feels better here than even the most beautiful music.”
         Chastened and enlightened, I apologized, turned off the CD, and went silently about my tidying up.  And I thought about her courteous words, how I might feel about seeing her later, and letting the meaning of her words sink into my consciousness.
         A couple of years later, I signed up for a special class through the seminary where I was attending.  I didn’t know if I would be successful in this three-day winter seminar which was at a Catholic retreat center south of Denver.  It was to be a silent retreat.  Silence for three days.  No talking except in the daily short instructional sessions.  I couldn’t imagine how I would do it.
         At the time I signed up for the class, I had had very little experience with silence, except for that memorable time at Ghost Ranch.  Over my career as a counselor, I’d gotten good at listening and encouraging other people to talk,  but at least one of us was always making a sound!  My radio was always turned on at home and the neighborhood sounds came right through the thin walls and windows of my home.
         So I wasn’t sure how I would respond to prescribed silence.  I’m a bit of a rebel and like to set my own limits, not let others tell me what to do.  When I’d had laryngitis, as a teacher, I just croaked on. 
         I thought three days of silence would be really hard.  It would be awkward and I’d goof up.  But I remembered how embarrassed I’d been when someone had told me she liked silence even better than beautiful music.  I figured I had something I needed to learn about silence.
        It turned out that eating silent meals with others at the retreat meant gestures toward salt and pepper and butter, smiles instead of please and thank you.  It meant walking quietly with others, not exclaiming aloud about the beauty of our surroundings. 
       It meant social gatherings over a bottle of wine where we sat quietly and listened to birds, watched for wildlife, and marveled in silence at the blue skies and wintry landscape.  It meant no music from the next door room as I wrote in my journal.  It meant few distractions from my surroundings and thus more depth in my introspection.  I was amazed at how often I wanted to fill silence with words or music or other sounds.
      When I went home after the retreat, I had a new appreciation for silence and solitude.  I learned to do things alone, rather than with others.  I began to understand my own extroversion more clearly and how easy it can be for an exuberant person to overshadow, even overpower, a quieter person.  I began to see that my strengths, taken to an extreme, could be handicaps and could affect my relationships.
      As I continued my preparation for ministry, these lessons became more and more useful.  My exuberance gradually morphed from enjoyment of my own ideas into enthusiasm for others’ ideas. 
      My witticisms became less about showing off my own punni-ness and more about appreciating others’ ability to provide laughter.  I hope my judgments became less biting and a lot more compassionate.
      You know me well enough by now to realize that I have not become a perfect person.  I still get kind of loud at times, I am not as kind as I might be in my critiques, and I still love my own jokes, whether others agree or not.  But the gifts of silence, as I come to understand them, have given me a perspective that I had not had before.
      A couple of weeks ago, a friend mentioned a book that he’d been reading.  It had given him insight into his own introversion and how it has shaped his life.  I was intrigued and got a copy of the book myself, “Quiet” by Susan Cain.  And I learned while working with Bree on this service that she too has read and appreciated this book and she told me a bit about her own experience as an introvert who loves theatre and singing.
      And as I perused it, I began to think of Quietness, Stillness, Silence, as a window for appreciating  the contributions of several World Religions to Unitarian Universalism, for Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism, in addition to Judaism and Christianity, advocate silence and solitude as pathways to spiritual growth and enlightenment.
      Many Unitarian Universalist thinkers also encourage silence and solitude as possible pathways to a deeper spiritual life.  Unitarian Universalist poet May Sarton wrote this passage:
“Begin here. (she wrote) It is raining. I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my ‘real’ life again at last. That is what is strange – that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened.  Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone here and the house and I resume old conversations.”
         And another Unitarian poet, Walt Whitman, wrote this:
“When I heard the learn’d astronomer; When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me; When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide and measure them; When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room, How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick; Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself, In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”
         We Unitarian Universalists have taken this wisdom of other religions and our own sages and have incorporated silence in small ways into our religious practices, though somewhat sparsely.  We pause for a few moments in our religious service and are invited into a time of prayer and meditation; we listen to our musicians and restrain ourselves from applauding (if possible).  But those of us who are more extroverted UUs do love to talk and are not always as comfortable with silence as our more introverted folks.
         We are sometimes oblivious to the needs of our more introverted members and friends.  We forget that it can be uncomfortable for a shy person to stand up and introduce herself; we can get so excited by our own thoughts that we forget to ask others for theirs; extroversion has so often been considered the “right” way to be that we may neglect the gifts of silence and solitude, so important to quieter people and vital to a balanced life.      
      As I’ve mentioned, Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism, as well as Judaism and Christianity, all include, in their spiritual roadmaps, a reminder to seek times of silence and solitude,  for reflection, for self-examination, and for rest from the intrusions of daily life, a time to be absorbed by the natural world, to find wonderment and healing in the vastness of the sky, the sea, the mountains.
         Monastic communities have long offered the relief of silence and solitude to spiritual seekers, and Quakers invoke silence in worship to allow the still small voice of the Divine to be heard.  In comparison, we UU extroverts tend to be a much more verbally inclined bunch and forget that silence can be more profound than the most erudite lecture.
         “Silence is not the absence of something,
 but the presence of everything.” says Gordon Hempton, Founder of the project, One Square Inch of Silence. He writes: “One Square Inch of Silence is very possibly the quietest place in the United States. It is an independent research project located in the Hoh Rain Forest of Olympic National Park, which is one of the most pristine, untouched, and ecologically diverse environments in the United States.   (He goes on) If nothing is done to preserve and protect this quiet place from human noise intrusions, natural quiet may be non-existent in our world in the next 10 years. Silence is a part of our human nature, which can no longer be heard by most people." 
         It may be that silence and solitude have so often been used to hurt people, deliberately or thoughtlessly, that we have become a little afraid of it.  I know that I, in the past, have had to deal with old memories of being separated from my father by his silence in response to something I’d done that he didn’t approve of.
         His intentions---since he was determined not to act like his own father and paddle me for my mistakes---were honorable, but I feared the silence every bit as much as a spanking because I didn’t always know what it meant; I didn’t always know if I’d might lose him by my actions.  For that very reason, I did not talk with him about my becoming a Unitarian way back in the days before he died.  I just didn’t have the courage.  I didn’t know how he would respond and I was afraid to take the chance.
         Solitary confinement for prisoners has been shown to be damaging to mental and physical health, yet ascetics and hermits have cloistered themselves for centuries without apparent ill effects.  What, then, is the difference?
         What makes one kind of silence positive and healing and another kind of silence poisonous and hurtful?  Why does one  kind of solitude give stress relief and another kind of solitude foster deep loneliness and separation?
         I would call the one “open silence” and the other “closed silence”.  I would call one kind of solitude “open solitude” and the other kind “closed solitude”.
         I don’t know these things for sure, but when we are silent and open, I think we may be more receptive to our own insights and reflections.  When we are silent and closed, we may block out self-awareness and the knowledge of what our silence may inflict on others.  When we are open in our solitude, perhaps we are more mindful of our surroundings, our unique setting; when we are closed off in our solitude, perhaps that is when loneliness comes.
         A practice of open silence and solitude brings gifts, I’ve discovered:  opportunity for self-reflection, for examining one’s relationships in light of one’s insights about self, for considering the ways we might be helpful to another person, a chance to let creative juices flow.  It can be a time of prayer and meditation, or journaling, or writing poetry or song.
         It can be a time of idleness and rest, of chores that require little thought but bring greater harmony, of listening for a still small voice of wisdom, some solution becoming evident.  It can be a way of unsnarling the anger that visits us occasionally, focusing our thoughts on what we CAN do instead of what we can’t.  Open silence and solitude can bring us peace of heart and mind, giving us some distance from our daily lives and a sense of balance and wholeness.  Open silence and solitude can ground us and give us serenity and clarity.          
      What would happen if we each vowed intentionally to bring more open silence and solitude into our lives?  As a person who lives alone, I ought to be able to do this easily, but I still find myself chattering away to my cat or myself about my daily worries.  I still turn the radio on every morning to listen to KMUN and its classical melodies and sing along with the folk songs at 10 a.m.
         But when I go out onto the beach where the only sound is that of the breakers and the gulls, my thoughts turn away from news of wars and the latest petty crises in town and toward the immensity of the ocean and the sky, and the wind seems to sweep my mind clear of the blather of our noisy world.
         There’s a poem that I often read when I am anguished about the events of our human life, and I’d like to read it to you in closing today.  “Choose Something Like a Star” by Robert Frost, written in 1916. 

O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud,
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says "I burn."
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats' Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid. 

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

BENEDICTION:  As Bree extinguishes the chalice, let’s pause for our 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 times of silence and solitude can bring us peace and purpose.  May we use silence and solitude to heal ourselves and quiet our minds and actions for the benefit of ourselves and others.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.
CLOSING CIRCLE

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Standing on the Side of Love


STANDING ON THE SIDE OF LOVE
Rev. Kit Ketcham, February 15, 2015
With Michael Rowe

            Thanks, Michael.  I have loved hearing your story and how your experiences with love have shaped you as a human being and as a spouse.  I’m so glad you have come to Astoria and our congregation.
            The story of Unitarian Universalist advocacy for civil rights for sexual minorities and Marriage Equality for all couples started many years ago, in the 70’s, as we began to question many of traditional religions’ homophobia and outright discrimination toward sexual minorities---and our own shortcomings in that area. 
            The Source of UUism we are considering today is the one that states that we draw from Jewish and Christian teachings, which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves. 
            However, as we considered this deeply, it became abundantly clear that we as a religion were NOT loving our neighbors as ourselves.  At least not those neighbors whom we perceived as different, as having sexual attractions that were not “normal”, that were hidden and somehow worthy of ridicule or even persecution.  We had no right to cast stones at other traditions.
            We had ordained ministers serving congregations who lost their jobs because of their sexual orientation.   Not because we had church policies against homosexuality, but because we were afraid.  We had fears about being perceived ourselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, if we defended or befriended certain people. 
We were afraid we’d become known as “the gay church or the transgender church”.  Even though we knew intellectually that there was nothing intrinsically wrong with being gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender, there was still a lot of fear and confusion about homosexuality and gender. 
            We felt uncomfortable knowing that there were human beings whose sexual attraction or gender identity was different from our own.  Sometimes we questioned whether we ourselves might be gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender.  We weren’t completely comfortable with our own sexuality.  Somebody else’s sexuality---well, that was more comfortable to obsess about.
            We often didn’t think twice about using derogatory terms to describe people whose sexuality made us squirm.  We joked and laughed, even when we had friends who were openly gay and lesbian. 
We were baffled by males who felt female and wanted to change their gender and females who felt male and went to the extent of having surgery to transform their bodies.  It was scary!   What did it all mean?
            It rapidly became clear that we had a job to do—on ourselves.  We had ministers and members desperately unhappy because they could not be themselves, who even committed suicide rather than deal with the prejudice they were facing, even from their own congregations.
Some Jewish and Christian groups were refusing to allow them to join congregations, to serve as leaders, and to ordain them, they said, was totally against God’s law.    Marriage, of course, was impossible!    
What did it really mean to love our neighbor as ourselves? 
            I remember my first introduction to the idea that I actually knew people who were gay and lesbian.  I was about 35, living in Denver with my husband and small son, when one of my best friends from Linfield wrote me a letter.
            “Kit,” she wrote.  “I don’t know how you’ll feel about this, but I am tired of hiding who I am.  I recently attempted suicide by driving into a steel beam on the Hawthorne Bridge but paramedics patched me up and I’ve decided to be honest about myself.  I’m lesbian, I love women, not men, and I’m telling the people that I can trust.  I hope we can still be friends….  And by the way, I’m going to be in Colorado in a few weeks.  Can I visit you?”
            Well, I was definitely in the “fear” stage at that time.  I was scared to see her but couldn’t bring myself to jettison somebody I cared for because of my fear.  So, Fern came to visit and it was fine.  She was the same person I knew in college, still funny, still an artist, still my friend.  And the honest way she answered my questions opened a door in my heart.
            In the years after that experience, I was a teacher and school counselor, where I met teenage students who were desperately unhappy because of their attraction to the “wrong” people, whose churches preached openly against same sex attraction.  Some of these kids attempted suicide.  Some just endured the bullying and the public ridicule.  Some I didn’t find out about until years later, when they wrote me notes and told me their news.
            This became my personal civil rights cause.  In 1994, I asked our minister at Jefferson Unitarian Church, the Rev. Robert Latham, to help me put on a service about gay/lesbian rights.  As far as I know, it was the first time ever that homosexuality and the pain of injustice had been linked at JUC. 
A group from the local Rainbow Harmony chorale, a mixed group of Denver men and women, performed selections from “Boys and Girls with Stories”, composed by David Maddux .   And, my knees knocking, I offered a reflection on my own experience entitled “My Friend Fern”.
The sanctuary was packed that morning.  I saw people there who I didn’t know were gay or lesbian, friends who had never dared say who they really were.  A teacher from a school I’d served—and his partner; the parent of three of my students; a colleague who was a counselor at a local high school.  The extent of my ignorance felt overwhelming.
As a minister, in the next few years, I had chances to extend my knowledge and my experience and my group of friends.  My friend Fern had given me a great gift that continues to affect my life today and, I hope, all my days.
When I moved to Portland in 1999, to serve Wy’east UU Congregation, Oregon was debating Lou Mabon’s hateful ballot issue, a measure to forbid any mention of homosexuality in the schools and to discipline teachers who dared to discuss the topic with students.
We UUs and other progressives fought back and defeated that referendum and turned our sights on civil rights legislation to protect sexual minorities from job and housing and insurance and inheritance discrimination.
In 2003, I moved to the Puget Sound area to serve the Vashon and Whidbey Island congregations and immediately became involved in an interfaith clergy group we named the Religious Coalition for Equality. 
As a clergy group of Jews, mainline progressive Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, pagans, and UUs, we accompanied four couples who went in a group one day to the King County Clerk’s office to apply for marriage licenses, kicking off a years’ long campaign to secure increased civil rights for all couples, starting with anti-discrimination laws and domestic partnerships for same sex and older unmarried couples, culminating in legislative action approving Marriage Equality.
Marriage Equality legislation was approved in Washington in 2011, when the legislature passed a bill granting the right of civil marriage to same sex couples, after a tense session on Whidbey Island in which our Island County senator, Mary Margaret Haugen, was persuaded by an impassioned group of Whidbey Island citizens to be the 25th “yes” vote on the legislation in the divided Senate, forging the final link in the chain of progress.
The legislation was, of course, challenged and then survived a vote statewide , becoming the law of the land in 2012.  I had moved here by that time and could neither vote on the issue nor take part in the celebrations, except at a distance, but, as is always true, it doesn’t matter who gets the credit as long as the work gets done.
As the opposition dominoes have begun to fall, one after another, as state and federal judges nation-wide have recognized the terrible injustice of denying equality to loving couples on the basis of sexual attraction, marriage equality has now become a reality in 37 of our United States, including Oregon. 
And the Supreme Court has even hinted, through Justice Clarence Thomas’s published dissenting rant, that it’s about to become a reality across the land. 
Even Alabama, once the stronghold of George Wallace and the attempted fortress of dissent of Justice Roy Moore, is now granting marriage licenses to same sex couples in Alabama.
None of the horrific consequences predicted by opponents has come true.  Instead, women who have been loyal partners to each other for 50 and more years are now married.  Men who grew old together, caring for one another through sorrow and illness, no longer hide their relationship but sport their wedding rings.
I’ve had the joyful opportunity to marry women and men whose relationships have survived the insults, the discrimination, and the fear of discovery.  Being part of this remarkable sea change in our nation has been one of the greatest satisfactions of my life.
Love and Marriage, love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage, as the old song goes, but we UUs gradually recognized that this wave of social change meant that our slogan “standing on the side of love” didn’t just mean romantic and marital love.  And we began to realize that loving our neighbor means more than just our gay neighbor.
What about homelessness?  What about immigration and the treatment of families split up by troubling deportation policies?  What about racial profiling and the treatment of young black men who are presumed to be thugs?  What about economic injustice, the fearful prospect of oligarchy, the rule by the wealthy, as corporations wield more influence than individual voters?  Where does love stand then?
As we here at the Pacific UU Fellowship renew our efforts to contribute to the larger society in loving ways, we are asking ourselves these questions.
In the questionnaire we compiled recently, we learned that everyone who participated in that survey is serving in the community in a variety of ways and as we talked at the board meeting last week about the results of that survey and where the preferences lie, we noted that one of the  two top vote-getters was environmental work.
We talked about the many ways we can contribute to environmental causes, how the congregation could be part of road cleanup and tree planting and that sort of thing, waxing enthusiastic about all the possibilities.
And then one voice brought us back to the other top vote-getter:  (Paraphrasing here).  “Environmental work is fine, but I really want us to be involved in actual social justice work.  I want us to have an impact on people’s lives.  We have homeless people, hungry people, out of work people, mentally ill people, all in this area, who need our help.  Let’s not forget them.”
In the next weeks, we will make some decisions about the direction we want to go with our social action work, and I’m hoping we will decide to choose projects that will serve the environment as well as the humanitarian needs of our community.
Unitarian Universalism has, as a faith tradition, grown strongly in the years since we decided to stand on the side of love.  I think of the closing words of the song we sang together a little while ago:
 “We are standing on the side of love, hands joined together, as hearts beat as one.  Emboldened by faith, we dare to proclaim we are standing on the side of love.”
We have set forth on this course, to defend and protect those who need love, those persons who are hungry, exhausted, lonely, homeless, and sorrowful.  They need our love.  And we, as fellow human beings, have the ability to provide that love.  We may not be sure yet what this decision, what this ability means, but we are ready to serve.
And, because we also love this planet, our home, we stand on the side of love for our natural world, ready to defend and protect it, ready to stand against harmful practices toward the land, water, and air which provide us with life, the animals and vegetation which depend on us for their care, as we fulfill our place in the interdependent web of life, of which we humans are only one part.
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, thinking deeply about what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves, as we have learned from our Jewish and Christian spiritual ancestors.  May we find in ourselves the resources to act in love toward one another, toward the universe, and toward ourselves.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Deeds, Not Creeds


DEEDS, NOT CREEDS:  Words and Deeds of Prophetic Women and Men
Rev. Kit Ketcham, PUUF, Jan. 18, 2015
            This fall and winter I’m speaking most months about one of the six Sources of Unitarian Universalism, part of what makes us so different from most other religious traditions, which basically have one source (the Bible or other sacred text) and one doctrine, dependent on the rules derived from the words and deeds of a particular deity or set of deities.
            To begin today, I ask you to turn in the grey hymnal to the 5th or 6th page from the front, before the hymns begin, and let’s read together the second source, which is our topic today.  Let’s read the headline first and then the wording of the source:  The Living Tradition we share draws from many sources:
            Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.
            Our service today includes quotations from many sources, women and men of vision and courage.  In honor of the life of Martin Luther King Jr., we consider today the wisdom of those who for millennia have called humanity to our best selves.
            I’ve been a fan of the Great Courses program for some time; they advertise in many popular magazines and are a great way to do some extra learning outside of a classroom.  Once you’ve bought a course from them, of course, you’ll receive catalogs weekly and they’re always enticing. 
I’ve bought several of their offerings, ranging from musical comedy and classical music to the wonders of the universe and I’ve learned about many sacred places revealed in depth by archaeological digs.  I’ve eyed several other courses covetously and when I could get two sets of DVD lectures for less than half the price of one, I succumbed.
            So for several weeks I’ve been watching a renowned Jewish scholar, Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, explain the Old Testament in literary and cultural terms.   This way of looking at a written text does not involve theological speculation or devotional usage.   It is a method of critiquing the text in a literary way, the Bible as literature, if you will, and as a mirror of ancient culture. 
            Her lectures were fascinating, as she used archaeological and ancient literary finds like the Dead Sea Scrolls, to illuminate some of the historical questions that pop up in the Bible:  was there such a person as King David?  Did he really kill Goliath with a slingshot when he was a boy?  Probably not, she says, and she gave the archaeological and historical evidence for her conclusion, which, of course, creates a new question---what was the purpose and the origin of these familiar characters and their stories?  Another sermon for another day!
            A lot of these tidbits I knew because of my seminary studies in the  90’s, but I was a little hazy on the Major and Minor Prophets, the ones whose diatribes and laments make up the last third of the compilation of the Old Testament, also known as the Hebrew Scriptures.
            I’m kind of a Bible geek anyhow, probably because I was raised a Baptist preacher’s kid and always suspected there was more to those ancient stories than I was learning in Sunday School.  I love finding out the real historical stories only hinted at or even ignored in those ancient texts.
            And I like looking at the patterns of human behavior that seem to be consistent across the millennia:  betrayal, anger, revenge, over and over; the efforts of prophet after prophet to get those early Israelites to pay attention to a God they’d never heard of before, whose commandments were strict and refused to allow them their private family deities.
            So, in preparation for this service, I listened really hard when she talked about what a prophet was, in those ancient times.  And basically, a prophet in the ancient world was not a foreteller of the future or an ancient wizard of some kind.  This prophet or prophetess, because there were both male and female prophets, had the difficult job of calling the tribe or the nation back to its moral and ethical center, back to the tasks of thriving as a healthy interdependent community.
            And the early Israelite prophets had a tough job.  They were attempting to enforce the idea of One God, not many, and to implore their flock to obey that God’s commandments.  This was a tough task, as you might suspect.
Prophets held an early leadership role in Israelite culture, a role that developed as the tribes of Israel struggled to survive, before Judaism became codified as a religion.    For hundreds of years, they were a tiny cult, overpowered and enslaved by larger and more powerful nations, until (according to the Bible book of Exodus) they escaped miraculously from Egypt and went in search of the Promised Land.
            And it’s still tough to be a prophet today, though our contemporary prophets are still trying to fulfill that role of reminding us that justice, compassion, and humility are our best chance of attaining a sustainable and peaceful world.
            There’s an ancient OT text, Micah 6:verses 6-8, a passage in the Hebrew scripture which is so well-known and well-loved that it appears in our hymnal as a selected reading, #572.  I like it a lot and feel a personal connection to it.
In the passage, a Hebrew seeker for truth is questioning the prophet Micah, and the guy sounds a bit annoyed at the complicated rituals of pleasing this God:  “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God? Shall I come before God with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will God be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression? The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
And the Hebrew prophet Micah answers the seeker almost tenderly: “God has told you, o mortal, what is good… and what is required of you (is) but to do justice and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
            Now, when I was a young girl in the 50’s, struggling to figure out what I believed---the fantastic stories of Jesus’s miracles or the Ten Commandments, or the small town norms prohibiting nice Baptist girls from dancing and movies---these words came as a huge relief when I discovered them. Even a teenager beset by boy troubles and zits could understand them: be fair, be kind, be humble. 
It was what I needed---in a nutshell: a guide for living a moral and ethical life. I’m reminded these many years later of Unitarian Universalist minister Robert Fulghum’s small essay, “All I ever needed to know I learned in kindergarten”.
I didn’t know at the time any of the historical or literary significance of these prophetic words in the book of Micah. I didn’t know the Hebrew questioner had recited a prioritized list of the possible ways for the Jews to honor their God with sacrifice. I didn’t know that this was a reference to a famous judicial verdict based on a covenant between the Jews and their God. I hadn’t been listening hard enough in Sunday School up to that point to absorb the knowledge that this is a perfect summary of what prophets from many world religions, theistic and nontheistic, have said is true religion: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly.
All I knew was that it was music to my ears. It answered a good many of my questions in language that was very clear to me. It said nothing about dancing or movies, but that was okay---at the time, nobody was asking me to dance or to go to a movie. However, people were inviting me to be unfair, unkind, arrogant and egotistic.
This passage became kind of a blueprint for my life. It was the internal plumbline that I came to depend upon as I made decisions. Later I added that famous quotation from the prophet Jesus in the Christian scriptures, when Jesus says that the greatest commandment is to love our God with all our hearts and souls and minds and that the second greatest is to love our neighbor as ourselves.
This seemed to me to be a restating of Micah’s truth: that our relationships with the universe or God as we understand God, our relationships with our neighbor, and our relationships with ourselves must be of the highest and most loving quality.  Hard to beat that for good advice; hard to be that in our increasingly greedy and conflict-ridden world.
            We think differently about prophets in this day and age and often, we may only consider them weirdos or con artists, because we’ve seen plenty of gurus and other figures who are only out to make a buck with their snake oil or their deceptive religious or political practices. 
But---there are skeptics who call out those guys for what they are: self-serving ideologues who do not have the best interests of humanity in mind.  And it is they whom I consider our contemporary prophets.
            It’s important to be discerning in who we listen to and what beliefs or ideas we choose to hold, and so we look for credible sources, people who have wisdom to share and a willingness to stick their necks out.  Our UU sources, those prophetic women and men who challenge us and call us to be our best selves, come from a wide variety of backgrounds and religious traditions.  Our service today honors their wisdom.
            Who would you say are the true prophets in this, our greedy and conflicted world?  Who calls our civilization, our society, our nation, the human race, back to its best self, the self that epitomizes all the good that we humans are capable of?
            Who do we tend to pay attention to?  Who are the prophets who command our respect and get us going, get us motivated to right the many wrongs in our world.  Who would you suggest putting on our list of today’s true prophets?  Let’s hear some of your thoughts.  (cong resp)   And why is that?  What quality or qualities make them our true prophets?  (cong resp)
            There is also the concept of false prophets, those who would be self-serving in their admonitions to the nation, the society.  Wanna take a shot at that, just for fun?  And why do you consider them false?  What qualities do they reveal that make them suspect in your eyes?
            Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we celebrate tomorrow, has been one of our most trusted prophetic voices of the 20th century.  For most of his life, he called us Americans to a place of greater justice and equality, asking us to leave behind old traditions which enslaved and degraded others and to rethink our part in a ill-advised conflict in Vietnam.
            You’ve mentioned several other wise women and men whose vision and wisdom you take seriously.   And a couple of them are anything but serious in their delivery, but behind the humor there is always a serious topic.  I’m speaking, of course, of the Jewish and Catholic prophets Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, whose humor is incisive and pointed and profane but inevitably draws our attention to the injustice in our nation, exhorting us to change the trajectory of our behavior toward others and toward our earth.
            A few of my favorite Jon Stewart quotes:  “Most world religions denounced war as a barbaric waste of human life. We treasured the teachings of these religions so dearly that we frequently had to wage war in order to impose them on other people.”
And:  Religion is far more of a choice than homosexuality.
And:  I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land.”
            Bill Moyers has a more somber tone.    His career as a journalist and liberal political commentator has given him a stark view of the shenanigans of our political and religious leaders and he is sharply critical of  those whose views and policies are detrimental to the world’s peoples.  As a longtime Christian, he is also credible in his criticism of fundamentalist religion.    My favorite Moyers quote is “what’s right and good doesn’t come naturally.  You have to stand up and fight for it—as if the cause depends on you.  Because it does.”
            Pema Chodron is a Buddhist nun whose writings fuse humanistic principles with her Buddhist nontheistic faith.  She has written:  “Not causing harm obviously includes not killing or robbing or lying to people. It also includes not being aggressive—not being aggressive with our actions, our speech, or our minds. Learning not to cause harm to ourselves or others is a basic Buddhist teaching on the healing power of nonaggression. Not harming ourselves or others in the beginning, not harming ourselves or others in the middle, and not harming ourselves or others in the end is the basis of enlightened society.”
            No matter what the nationality or religious tradition of our contemporary and ancient prophets, they all call us to change the world. 
            One of our Unitarian forbears, the Rev. John H. Dietrich, has written “The universe may be indifferent to our ideals and our virtues, but this is all the more reason why we must keep them alive.  They are values created by humanity in its long struggle for a satisfactory life, and we must preserve and increase them.”
            How are we responding to the call of women and men like Stewart, Moyers, Chodron, Dietrich, Micah, Jane Addams, Susan B. Anthony, and all those who have fought so hard for justice of the centuries?  As a religious community, we have strength together, greater strength than we have individually.
            If UUism is a religion of Deeds not Creeds, we need to ask ourselves what we might do as a congregation.  Most of us are involved in community action work to some extent, but PUUF isn’t just about church services with our friends, social hours and happy hours and koffee klatches.  It’s about taking action to change the world for the better.
            Recently in Moscow, ID, a shooting took place which killed members of the UU church of the Palouse, a tragedy which has shaken that congregation to the core.  You may have heard about the event in the news and thought, gosh another shooting.  What wasn’t immediately known was that the victim was an active member of that UU congregation and that the shooter was her son.  What a tragedy!  What can we do to help, was the immediate response of UUs all over the country.
            And one of my colleagues, the Rev. Lisa Presley, who serves on the UUA’s trauma team (for this isn’t the first time nor will it be the last that we suffer this personal assault), Lisa sent this note to us all:
            My suggestion, when folks ask me, is that you do something in your own community to address the problem and then, in a month or two, write to the congregation which has suffered and let them know how you worked in your own community to try to make things better, and did it in honor of them.  Heck, you could even get t-shirts made that say “I’m doing this for XX and wear those shirts while you’re doing the good work of making your local community better.”
            Well, I have plenty of t-shirts and don’t need another, but I really like the idea of doing good work in our larger community in honor and memory of those who have experienced great injustice and cruelty.
            Maybe it’s about aligning with a local agency to support their work and increasing the numbers of people involved in that effort.  It might not have anything to do with gun violence but rather is intended to address the root causes of violence---poverty, undiagnosed, uncontrolled mental illness, addiction, and lack of education.
            In the next weeks, starting with today’s service and the questionnaire you filled out earlier we are going to be investigating the many ways individuals at PUUF are involved in Social Action and how, as a congregation, we might get involved.
            Because we have this long skinny parish, from the northern Long Beach peninsula south to Tillamook county, we will be examining how to encourage our most farflung members to get involved in their own local communities, as well as a project that we mutually agreed upon to service Clatsop County’s needs.
            It’s exciting to me to see the growth in this area, as it has been awhile since PUUF actively engaged as a congregation in social action work.  The Unitarian Universalist Association has had, for the past several years, a multi-faceted social action effort that is entitled “Standing on the side of love”, which started out as an advocacy campaign for Marriage Equality and has become a way of addressing a host of social justice inequalities.
            As we make decisions about how we want to address the needs of our community,  I hope that we can look at our work in this community as a way to get better acquainted with our neighbors and also with each other.  Working together toward a common goal can help us transcend the occasional conflicts that arise in an organization, can enhance our sense of community, and make a difference in our world.
            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 as inheritors of a long tradition which advocates deeds, not creeds, we are charged with bringing light, love, and life to a hurting world.  May we faithfully carry out the work which has been entrusted to us.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.
CLOSING CIRCLE