Saturday, June 20, 2015

On the Eve of General Assembly 2015

I used to be a GA junkie.  For those of you not in the alphabet-soup "know" of Unitarian Universalism, GA stands for General Assembly, the annual gathering of the tribe from all over its habitat.  Mostly we're Americans, US residents, and have a deep interest in the affairs of the tribe, from its inner politics to its celebrities and justice issues.  We who attend regularly have UU friends we only see at General Assembly and we tend to keep track of each other through Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.

When I left settled ministry in favor of part-time work in small congregations, I let go of the advantage of a professional expense account and had to subsidize my own attendance at GA, which can get costly when you're talking almost a week of housing, meals, and other conference expenses.  So I also let go of junkie-hood and the most recent GA I attended was within close range---Portland in ??? So long ago.

But it's in Portland again this year and I am in the midst of moving from one North Coast town to another, so I can only spare one day to attend.  I chose to register for Saturday's events, which include our annual district meeting (another expensive annual event I have not attended recently).  There I will see many of the colleagues I've missed since I retired and that will be a real treat.

When I started blogging at Ms. Kitty's Saloon and Road Show in 2006, I got acquainted with other UU bloggers and became part of a group of men and women I only knew by their online names.  Because blogging is a way to share ideas and concerns with each other, some of the blogs I most liked were doorways into others' personal and professional lives.

We learned about the scary times of illnesses and the lessons of those scary times.  We shared thoughts about current events in our world, the triumphs and the tragedies of a world in turmoil, and we reached out in friendship to share good books, ideas about appropriate behavior (and beauty!) for ministers and other religious professionals, nurtured the young colleagues just learning the ropes, and laughed and cried over the normal everyday events of our lives and those of our blogger friends.

Now we mostly connect through social media, though many of us still maintain a certain blog presence.  My own contributions have subsided quite a bit and I don't read as many blogs as I once did.  That era of online journaling has seemed to fade a bit in favor of the handy availability of Facebook, the enormous ongoing conversation between me and 480 or so of my best friends---and their best friends.

So next Saturday, I will leave my Gearhart home for the day, drive up to the Portland Convention Center in time for worship (I hope) and spend the day connecting and reconnecting briefly with longtime friends I've never met.  Hope to see you there!

Sunday, June 14, 2015

A Spiritual Journey: lessons from 20 years of ministry

Rev. Kit Ketcham, June 14, 2015
It was my turn to speak that day in September of 1992, our homecoming service at the beginning of the new church year at Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden, CO. As a member of the Committee on Ministry, I’d volunteered to give a brief homily or sermonette on the ups and downs of the past year and our dreams for the new church year. I figured I could handle a bunch of Unitarians; after all, I’d been rasslin’ junior high kids in classrooms and lunchrooms for a couple of decades.

So I got up in the pulpit, delivered my remarks with a couple of stories and reminders of what our congregation’s year had meant to us and to the community, and returned to my seat. I figured I’d done all right---people paid attention, I saw a few nods, even a few smiles and maybe some tears.

Our minister, the Rev. Robert Latham, was next in the pulpit and when he got up there, he turned to where I was sitting in the choir and said to me, “Kit, you missed your calling. You ought to be a minister.”

It was like the proverbial thunderbolt: I was stunned and sat for the rest of the service with Robert’s words echoing in my ears. I ought to be a minister? I ought to be a minister? I ought to be a minister!
Reviewing 50 years of my life so far as I sat there, I realized that I had accumulated a number of the skills I could see that a minister needed: counseling, teaching, music, writing, herding cats---or rather junior high kids---, even public speaking, if you count lunchroom duty and the use of a bullhorn on a playground. Maybe I could be a minister! Maybe I could do it! Yes, I think I could!

But over the next months, reality set in. I wasn’t very close to retirement; my son was barely out of high school and still living at home and I was pretty well loaded down with the responsibilities of a single parent household. So it didn’t make any sense at all to quit my job as a school counselor and start studying at the local theological school. My calling was put on the back burner and eventually even set aside.

But in 1995, three years later, the thunderbolt took a second swing. I had been elected a delegate to the UU General Assembly which was meeting in Spokane that year, and it was impossible to ignore the deeply buried desire in me to someday be one of the ministers participating in those events. I had been able to retire that year, unexpectedly, would be receiving an early-retirement bonus from the school district, and my son was living on his own.

After a long conversation with one of the women ministers I knew best, I went straight back to Colorado and enrolled at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, a very liberal United Methodist seminary. And in May of 1999, I graduated from Iliff and was ordained to the UU ministry by JUC, all in the same weekend.

Now, twenty years after that decision was made, I’ve been looking back over that stretch of time, from the thunderbolt that called me into ministry those many years ago to this moment today, here in this room, with this congregation of loving people, and have been thinking about all I’ve learned about ministry that might mean something to you all, as a congregation and as individuals.

Because ministry is about service to others; it’s about bringing one’s experiences, learning, and compassion together in one desire—to bring hope and courage to one’s fellow humans, acting with integrity and purpose in creating positive change in the world.

Learning about ministry started for me at a very early age, as the eldest child of an American Baptist minister. From my dad, the Rev. Merritt Bernhardt Ketcham, I learned the importance of public service. I saw my dad serve on the library board of his small town, do electrical work for needy parishioners, drive migrant workers to their jobs in eastern Oregon fields, and serve his community in countless small ways.

I also learned from him that sermons should never be boring! My dad wasn’t a particularly gifted preacher, but he wasn’t boring! And I learned that ministry is very stressful work, that you can be the lightning rod for disgruntled members, and that you MUST take good care of your health because the stresses of ministry were a factor in my dad’s early death at age 60.
I learned from being a member of the Ketcham family how valuable a faith community is. Our family was literally supported by our congregations at times, since my dad’s salary was probably never much more than $400 a month and on this he made sure his kids went to college. And I learned well the value of membership in a faith community and have been a member of a congregation almost ever since I was a child.
In the congregations I joined, whether it was Baptist or Unitarian Universalist, I watched the politics of “church” unfold. I saw how easy it was to criticize and that it can have hurtful, permanent consequences. As a member of the Committee on Ministry at JUC, I saw the pain of petty criticism and the value of constructive, kind critique that took place face to face, not as an anonymous comment on a survey or in the parking lot after a worship service.

I saw how easily a promising career can be derailed by a vindictive person. And I saw how important, no, essential, it is to expect and demand ethical behavior from a minister. I saw people, both women and men, damaged by a sexual relationship with a minister who exploited their neediness.

But the negative side of ministry did not deter me. I knew I had learned a great deal from being a preacher’s kid and from being an active layperson in several congregations. I thought I knew where most of the potholes were and vowed to avoid them. So off I went to seminary.
I loved this experience of scholarship, writing, exploring Biblical literature, designing worship. I was not so crazy about the emphasis on doctrine which is a normal byproduct of a Christian seminary, however liberal.
There were times I thought I would scream if I heard another word about Paul the Apostle! And the Trinity, for most of my fellow students, was a given; a Unitarian view was exotic and as one of about a dozen UU students at Iliff, I felt like the yeast in a loaf of bread dough! It had never occurred to many of my Christian peers to question the concept of Trinity!

Nevertheless, I loved my seminary experience, finally learning what the word “theology” meant in practical terms. A chaplaincy internship and a full year of parish internship at the Boulder UU Fellowship with my mentor Catharine Harris led me to believe that I was pretty hot stuff!

I was a top student at Iliff, did well in my chaplaincy and parish experiences, and when I got ready to go to the Ministerial Fellowship Committee in April of 1998, I was pretty sure they’d pat me on the back and give me an A Plus Plus and send me back to seminary for my final year as the best candidate for UU ministry they’d ever seen.

You can probably see what’s coming here, can’t you? And it was from the MFC that I began to learn probably the most important lesson a minister can learn: humility. Instead of the A Plus Plus I expected, they told me I was too intense (I think they might have preferred the word “cocky” but were too polite to use it) and needed to undertake a year of spiritual direction before they would grant me preliminary fellowship status.

A year of spiritual direction----that meant sessions with someone who could help me figure out some of the spiritual issues I was struggling with—like humility, for example, or spiritual practice, or how to be in right relationship with family members who were very conservative and were sure I was doomed to hell.

It was one of the most valuable years of my entire life. I learned how important an active spiritual life and a regular spiritual practice are to me. I learned to pray, to pray to a Power I couldn’t describe or name or see or touch, yet who felt like a second skin, part of myself.

After graduation and ordination, in Colorado, I packed all my stuff, my cats, and headed for Portland, where I would be the first fulltime minister for a small congregation named Wy’east. And there my real education about ministry began to take shape. Everything else, it turned out, had been preliminaries.

During the four years I spent serving Wy’east, a congregation which had been formed out of conflict with a minister in another church, I encountered some of the typical problems of a small group undergoing dramatic change: disagreements about worship style, power struggles with each other about a multitude of issues, deep deep fear that a minister would try to change everything they loved, even the time of day the congregation met.
And I was a rookie! I was a rookie who had recently undergone quite a shock, learning that I didn’t know everything there was to know about ministry. Many mistakes later, on the part of the congregation and myself, we patched things up and I made preparations to move on.

But the lessons learned from that experience made me a much better, much wiser minister. I learned that too much ego is very dangerous; when one thinks too highly of oneself, one becomes a target! I learned to listen to and learn from criticism but to let go of unkind or anonymous criticism.

I learned that my strengths can also be my weaknesses, when I push them too far. My friendliness and warmth can become intrusive or too personal; my leadership can be seen as bulldozing; my way with words can lead me into eloquent defensiveness!

I learned how important it is to say that I am sorry for a mistake, for a remark that seemed unkind or insensitive, for an action taken in haste. I learned that I needed to atone for mistakes, to make amends, to repair damaged relationships. And I learned, perhaps most importantly of all, that I am only human, that I will make mistakes, that I need to listen when called to account, and that my behavior as a minister speaks far more loudly than any sermon.

These are personal lessons, as well as ministerial lessons. These are things I needed to learn as a human being. All of the lessons I’ve mentioned can be useful in ordinary life, the life of a retiree, for example, or a teacher or a parent or a musician or a cook or spouse.
We’ve each of us experienced these kinds of learnings over our own lifespans. Some of the lessons have “taken”; some of them we may have ignored, preferring not to look too hard at our own lives.

Many of us, I suspect, myself included, have looked at other persons in judgment and said to ourselves, “boy, that person really needs to learn a thing or two!” Negative judgment of others may be one of the hardest lessons to learn and I confess I’m still working on it, every day. It may be that the best I can ever achieve is learning to keep my mouth shut, instead of speaking my negative judgments out loud!

So what does this all have to do with you and me and our relationships with each other, in this congregation? Or in any congregation or group that we may belong to in the future?

Here are a few lessons I believe are valuable for us as a congregation now and in the future to take to heart and keep in our memory banks, in our history, in our everyday work together. They are in no particular order and I rather imagine they are not the only lessons we need to learn! They are just the ones I’ve come up with as I thought about this sermon.

#1. Conflict is a product of living together. Conflict will always arise when people work and play together. It is normal. But it doesn’t have to hurt people if it’s handled thoughtfully. And by thoughtfully, I mean that differences of opinion must be stated tactfully, without conveying scorn or impatience with the other person. Conflict builds up in an unhealthy way when it’s handled secretively, with mean words and actions.

Talking about someone critically behind their back is not helpful; speaking face to face with someone, tactfully and caringly, is much more effective. And I always remember my dad’s admonition at this point. When I think about criticizing someone, I must ask myself “is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary?”

#2. Human beings sometimes act out the pain in their personal lives by disrupting congregational life, causing heartache and pain in others by stirring up trouble in the congregation. This is a time for others to act with compassion and love, not by taking sides but by understanding the pain that has come forth in an inappropriate way and helping to alleviate that pain, if possible. And, if not, taking steps to protect the community by creating policies to deal with disruptive behavior. This kind of covenanting is better done during peaceful times, by the way, not in anger.

#3. And great turmoil can open us up to great joy, if we remember our mistakes and learn from them, rather than shoving them underground, refusing to deal with them or to make amends. You may remember the movie “Love Story” in which a favorite line for many couples was “Love is never having to say you’re sorry”. Unfortunately, this romantic line is untrue.

Love means saying sorry whenever it’s appropriate, not glossing over mistakes but owning up to them, making amends if necessary. Many couples carried that line right into the marriage counseling office and left it there, sadder and wiser.

Let’s go back in time again, to that moment at the General Assembly in Spokane in 1995 when the call to ministry came again to me. I woke up the next morning in my hotel room with an old song running through my head.

On my way back to Colorado, after deciding I would enroll at Iliff as soon as possible, I stopped by my parents’ gravesite in Goldendale and sat at their headstone to sing this old song. For me at that moment, it was a personal commitment of myself to the journey of ministry, a moment when I understood that I was taking steps which would change my life forever, giving me a responsibility that I would never shed, that would shape my character in ways I could not predict, and give me challenges that I could only hope to meet.

I’m just going to read the words of the song, as my voice gets wobbly at times, but it occurs to me that these are good values for a congregation as well, that if we can strive to be together in these ways, we will continue to be the healthy, growing faith community that we have become over the past few years.

I would be true, for there are those who trust me;
I would be pure, for there are those who care.
I would be strong, for there is much to suffer;
I would be brave, for there is much to dare (2x).

I would be friend of all, the foe, the friendless;
I would be giving and forget the gift.
I would be humble for I know my weakness;
I would look up, and laugh and love and lift (2x).

Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
Hymn #298, “Wake Now My Senses”

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 our lives are a series of lessons, no matter what our circumstances have been. We can learn positive ways of being in the world from these lessons or we can retreat into misery and unhappiness, causing unhappiness in others around us. May we as individuals and as a congregation strive to use the lessons of our lives in helpful, not hurtful ways, seeking always to give love and justice and compassion to each other and to the larger community. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Flaming Chalice Redux

I've revamped an oldie-but-goodie for today's sermon, updating it a bit.

Rev. Kit Ketcham, May 17, 2015, PUUF

            Hey, remember when we’d go to summer camp and sit around a big bonfire at night, make googly eyes at each other across the flames, and sing goofy songs like this:  Sing with me if you remember it:
            One dark night, when we were all in bed, old Missus O’Leary put a lantern in the shed.  The cow kicked it over and winked her eye and said “There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight!  Fire, fire, fire, fire!”
            Whether we experience it in a friendly way, around a campfire or in front of a fireplace in a cozy room, or as a frightening event in our lives, there’s something compelling about fire.  We seem drawn to its light, its warmth, its flickering magic, the smoke that rises into the skies.  And we may also shrink froom its glare, its inferno-like heat, the caustic fumes it can generate, and we fear its destructive power even as we kindle a small cooking fire.
            We light candles for our own quiet times, or when we desire a sense of the holy—or the romantic!  We take care not to let fire get out of control, we keep fire extinguishers handy in our kitchen, by the hearth, and at the campsite. 
            We gaze in horror at times at the destructive nature of fire upon homes, landscapes, forests, and we also marvel at its regenerative powers when the ravaged land begins to bloom again.
            A cup, too, a goblet, a container for lifegiving liquids, has significance to us.  How many mugs with funny sayings on them have you received over your lifetime?  We give and receive gifts of containers, from silly mugs to beautiful wine glasses to beer steins and even pasta bowls.
            All of these gifts are intended to hold something we value---our morning cup of coffee or tea, a glass of wine, a cold brew, a hearty meal.  We look at the goofy mug and think of its giver---our child who tells us we’re the best mom or dad ever, our sister or brother who can’t resist making one more joke about the difference in our ages.
            We raise our glasses high and drink a toast to the bond between newlyweds.  We look at the etching on a crystalline commemorative  stein and remember occasions of joy.  We pour savory sauce over the pasta in the wide bowl and anticipate its delicious flavors.
            Our flaming chalice is a combination of these two things:  a bit of fire and a container to hold it.  A flame and a safe environment for that flame.
            Today we’re going to consider how our flaming chalice came to be important to Unitarian Universalists, the variety of meanings ascribed to it, a bit about its history, and what it means that we light it at the beginning of every worship service and even at board meetings and other gatherings.  And I’m going to ask you for your thoughts a few times.
            The flaming chalice was not always the iconic symbol of UUism.  It came into being at least twenty years before Unitarians joined forces with Universalists to become the religious movement we are today, and it took 20 more years to become the symbol by which we are identified.
            The flaming chalice design was the creative idea of an Austrian artist named Hans Deutsch, in 1941.  Deutsch had been living in Paris but ran afoul of Nazi authorities for his critical cartoons of Adolf Hitler.  When the Nazis invaded Paris in 1940, he fled, with an altered passport, into Portugal where he met the Rev. Charles Joy, who was the director of the Unitarian Service Committee.
            The Service Committee had been founded in Boston to assist Eastern Europeans, among them Unitarians as well as Jews and homosexuals, people who needed to escape Nazi persecution.  From Lisbon, Rev. Joy oversaw a secret network of couriers and agents.
            Deutsch was impressed by the work of the Service Committee and wrote to Rev. Joy:  There is something that urges me to tell you…how much I admire your utter self-denial (and) readiness to serve, to sacrifice all, your time, your health, your well-being, to help, help, help.”
            The USC (Unitarian Service Committee) was an unknown entity in 1941, which was a huge disadvantage in wartime, when establishing trust quickly across barriers of language, nationality, and faith could mean life instead of death.  Disguises, signs and countersigns, and midnight runs across guarded borders were how refugees found freedom in those days.
            So Rev. Joy asked Hans Deutsch to create a symbol for the USC’s papers, as he said, “to make them look official, to give dignity and importance to them, and at the same time to symbolize the spirit of our work…When a document may keep a man out of jail, give him standing with governments and police, it is important that it look important.”
            So Hans Deutsch drew a simple design, and Rev. Joy wrote to his colleagues in Boston that it was “a chalice with a flame, the kind of chalice which the Greeks and Romans put on their altars.  The holy oil burning in it is a symbol of helpfulness and sacrifice…”
            Joy noted that the chalice suggests, to some extent, a cross, and he emphasized that for Christians the cross represents its central theme of sacrificial love.
            The flaming chalice design was made into a seal for papers and a badge for agents moving refugees to freedom.  In time it became a symbol of Unitarian Universalism all around the world and of the humanitarian call to action by people of faith who were willing to risk all for others in a time of urgent need.
            Every Sunday UUs all over the world light the chalice as a time-honored ritual---in huge congregations and tiny ones, big historical sanctuaries, rented strip mall spaces, and even home living rooms.
            I’m wondering---what does lighting the chalice mean to you all, when we kindle this flame at the beginning of our service time?  Let’s pause for a time of silence while we consider this question.  And then we’ll take a few moments to share our thoughts.  I know that folks who are newer to UUism may have a different perspective than longer-time UUs.  All perspectives are valued.
            What does our lighting of the chalice say to you?  How do you see it?  (cong resp)
            I’ve listened to many people reveal what the lighting of the flame means to them, at the beginning of our service or at a gathering of some sort.  The chalice lighting is often preceded by words of dedication or poetry or the wisdom of some sage, chosen to focus on the event beginning, whether that is a time of reflection, of memorializing, of honoring, or other sacred work.
            The lighting of the chalice signifies, to many, the moment at which we move into another realm, into a sacred time, into a time in which we consider matters of worth and value, a time in which we find wisdom and strength,  a time of being together in community.
            It focuses our attention on the work at hand, when we light the chalice before a board or committee meeting, and it reminds us that the work of the religious community is sacred work.
            I  used these words last Sunday as I lit the chalice in the Whidbey Island sanctuary: The chalice holds a flame during our times together.  For us, the flame stands for all that we hold dear and keep burning in our hearts:  devotion to truth, gratitude for blessings, humility in the face of our limitations and folly, courage and compassion, and the generosity of spirit it is always ours to exercise.  We gather on Sundays to nurture our understanding of who we are and what we may become.  These words were followed by an invitation to join in a collective response:  “May Love reign among us here, in this hour of community.”  (adapted from Alice Blair Wesley)
            Now let’s think about the possible meanings of combining the vessel of the chalice with the living, breathing flame.  Here is a container for nourishment—the chalice---and here is an ever-changing, comforting yet dangerous element---the flame.  What spiritual significance might be found in this juxtaposition of these two disparate element?  (place lit candle in chalice)  Let’s think about this idea.  (chime, silence, chime)  What are your thoughts?  (cong resp)
            Not long ago, our UU ministers’ email chatline considered the significance of the flaming chalice and how that meaning has developed in our own understandings since the custom began, sometime in the 80’s, introduced by the youth’s and women’s caucuses at a long-ago General Assembly, when youth and women were beginning to have a profound effect on the direction of UUism.
            You have named some of the very things they named.  Here are some of their thoughts:  the chalice is a container for the holy; the chalice signifies openhearted community where all are welcome; the chalice is a poetic, visual metaphor for community; the chalice bowl is deep and wide, big enough to contain many paths and ideas, hopes, and intentions.
            Some of the ministers said that to them, the flame is a conduit to the transcendent, ever-changing, alive, untouchable, dangerous.  It can tempt and also heal.  The flame is a symbol of spiritual transformation; it reminds us of the ancient fires of sacrifice.  It is a light in the darkness, bringing change, creation, and rebirth.  It is a purifying element.
            The flaming chalice, as our symbol of UUism, came into being at a time of great global turmoil.  The forces of oppression and tyranny were strong across the earth.  Few were able to withstand and survive that assault, but underground, beneath the surface, there was constant clandestine activity by those who resisted, those who dedicated themselves to saving others who were in danger, regardless of the personal cost.
            Interestingly, a chalice design similar to our original design by Hans Deutsch mysteriously appears on the cover of a book entitled “The Ideal Gay Man:  the Story of Der Kreis” or the story of “The Circle”, the international gay literary journal  published from 1932-67.  Except for a slight difference in the curve of the flame, the two drawings might be the same.  Did Deutsch draw both symbols?  I don’t know, but I find it intriguing that UUs were one of the first religions t advocates for gay and lesbian civil rights, including marriage.
            For me, the significance of a chalice and a flame adorning official-looking documents enabling refugees to leave Nazi Germany and serving as the symbol of a journal which published gay European writers---that’s more than just interesting.
            It makes me ask, what does the flaming chalice stand for?  And what might it challenge us to do?  Let’s take another time of silence to think about this symbol and its challenge. (cong. resp)
            Many songs in pop culture reveal our human desire for passion and commitment in our lives by invoking the image of a flame:  “Come on baby, light my fire” and “Ring of Fire” are classics in the country rock world, making no secret of the heat of passion that drives us mammals to find each other and make new mammals.
            But passion drives us in many ways, not just sexually, and it is this passion for action that the flame of the chalice expresses to me.  Your thoughts just now seem to reflect your desire for passion, for fire in your lives as well as the comfort of the sacred space we create with our community.
            During this church year, we have gotten all fired up about social justice work and have begun to work actively to support the environment as well as to reach out to the needy in our community.  Thanks to the passion and energy of several of our newer members, we’re looking at how we can make a real difference in our larger communities.
            We’re looking at how we can better serve the needs of our children and adults, find more space for our expanding congregation, and make social responsibility work a centerpiece of congregational life, so that our neighbors and friends in the Columbia/Pacific region may be able to live lives that are healthy, safe, and happy, at least in part because of what we can offer.
            We may talk about aligning with other congregations and groups to improve housing for those who are homeless, who perhaps live in the woods in tents in the rain or in vans in isolated parking lots and tiny waysides.  We may find ways to support local warming centers and food banks. 
            I like the symbolism of our congregation, our sanctuary, being a sort of chalice, a community that is safe, healing, and nourishing, welcoming all into its circle.  I like the symbolism of our passion to help our community being the flame set inside the chalice, warming us, inspiring us, moving us to action.
            I like to think of the lighting of our chalice on Sundays and other times as a visual and heartfelt reminder that we are together in love and commitment, safe within these walls but eager and ready to move out into the community to be of service to those who need us.
            And I like to think that each of us embodies the message of the chalice, that each of us can be that safe haven, that healing presence, that source of nourishment to those we meet on life’s path.  And each of us can offer the passion nourished within these walls to those beyond these walls.
            As one of my heroes, the late Dag Hammersjold, once famously wrote:  Each morning we must hold out the chalice of our being, to receive, to carry, and to give back.”  
            Let’s pause once more for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
CLOSING HYMN #118, This Little Light of Mine
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 we carry within us the same fire that lights our chalice flame.  May we carry our passion and fire into our daily lives, committed to doing whatever we can to serve our neighbors and friends as we live out the symbol of our flaming chalice.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Remembering Who We Are

Rev. Kit Ketcham
UUCWI, May 10, 2015

            A couple of years ago, I decided to sign up for National Geographic’s “Genome” project and sent in  DNA samples to be analyzed.  I was curious to know more about my genetic heritage, my geographic roots, and to follow up on family stories that hinted at exotic bloodlines.
            I was fascinated by the results but, rather than confirming family stories like “am I really related to Blackjack Ketchum, the New Mexican gunfighter” and “do we have indigenous roots from Arctic ancestors like the  Saami?”, instead, the results of the two tests I took just created more questions.
            I discovered that, true to what I already knew, I am 46% northern European, in my case, probably Scandinavian.  But the surprising thing was that I am 36%  Mediterranean, 18% West Asian, and about 2% Neanderthal and 2% Denisovan. 
These latter two, as you may know, are archaic human species, our most ancient human ancestors yet discovered.   Of course, that doesn’t mean much yet except that now I know a few of my forerunners did the primeval version of the modern hook-up on their way up north.
            “Who am I?” is one of the primary theological questions of humanity.  We want to know who we are and what it means to be human.   As kids, we heard from parents and counselors the age-old advice, “Just be yourself, honey”, and we would really like to do that.  But who are we really?
            In 2013, in response to our growing desire to learn more about our Scandinavian roots, my sister Jean and I took a 12 day cruise to the Scandinavian countries, visiting Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Sweden briefly, where we were surrounded by a culture that seemed both familiar and unfamiliar. 
            It could have been all the healthy-looking blonde people or maybe the ertasopa and pickled herring served on board the ship on “Norway Day” that seemed familiar.  And it might have been the European flavor of the housing and shops, or English spoken clearly but with a Nordic lilt that seemed unfamiliar.  But it gave us a glimpse into our mother’s heritage; she is half Norwegian and half Swedish and her ancestral memory is strong in us both. 
            Of course, genetics is only part of the answer to the question “Who Am I?”  Our genetic makeup gives us a physiological foundation for our lives, shaping our appearance, our propensity for certain traits, including physical strengths and weaknesses.  What we do with what we’ve got largely depends on the environment we grow up in and the encouragement we get.     
            As I began to think about what I wanted to say to you today, on my first return to this “bully pulpit” in almost three years, I sorted through our history together, going back 12 years to our beginnings in Dave and Mavis Cauffmans’ living room, where I first met the Search Committee in 2003.
            You were looking for a minister who could give you steady service after a tumultuous time in the history of the congregation.  I was looking for a place to serve where I could use some of the lessons I’d learned in my own tumultuous experience with ministry.
            I remember being very tired that day---not sure of myself as a minister and not a bit sure about serving another island congregation in addition to working with the Vashon Island fellowship.  I preached to the Search Committee from a music stand in the Cauffmans’ living room, my first encounter with several of the pillars of this congregation:  Mavis and Dave Cauffman and Frances Wood, who are still with us today, and Peggy Bardarson, John Adams,  and Don Wollett, whose legacy lingers on.
            I came away exhilarated by their welcome, their energy, their hopes and their plans for the future.    It was the best gift I could have received at that time in my life and it launched us on a nine-year journey together that has brought us to this time and this place.
            During our nine years together, we managed to do quite a lot!  We became a Welcoming Congregation, undertook a major Capital Campaign and built this beautiful home for ourselves.  We became a presence in the community, part of interfaith efforts with other congregations, standing on the side of love and justice on issues of marriage equality and death with dignity in particular.  We learned to oppose torture while honoring the service of our military families.
            We had a lot of fun together, whether it was over lunch at China City or dinner on the North End, coffee klatches and fabulous gatherings spawned by auction items.
            And…we mourned the deaths of many of our dear ones and started a tradition of a story-telling vigil shortly after each death, a way to come together in the moment and share our shock and grief at the loss of a loved one. 
Several deaths among us, however, during an 18-month period of time took their toll on me and I found I could not bear to think of losing another beloved person from our midst. 
It was then that I realized I was going to need to retire and gain some respite from the onslaught of grief.  As you might guess, it isn’t easy to conduct memorial service after memorial service, setting aside one’s own grief in order to help others grieve, time after time.
I was looking at my 70th birthday on down the road and felt my work here was coming to an end.  I needed rest and knew you would benefit from someone with a new approach to ministry, new energy, new ideas.  And you found Dennis, my longtime friend and colleague.
            But our journeys didn’t end at that point; they morphed, you learning to trust and enjoy Dennis’s leadership, coming to love both him and Suzanne, and seeing new possibilities for this congregation.  I have followed your progress now for these three years and I feel like a proud mama!
            And on this Mothers’ Day, it feels appropriate to express to you the joy I feel as I read the newsletter and the weekly report of activities and reminders of things coming up, as well as the sense of pride and accomplishment I personally feel at your growth and maturity in ministry!
            During the past three years of my retirement, I too have grown and matured.  I have had to take stock of who I am, now that I’m in my 70’s.  Luckily, many of you have been role models for me in aging! 
            Having enjoyed excellent health nearly all of my life, with only a few semi-crises to handle, it was a surprise to me that once I had time to relax, I found myself coping with some of the unfamiliar  health challenges of aging. 
Shingles, doggone it!  Multiple retina repairs over the course of several months.  An eyelid procedure to restore my scope of vision and then a warning from an anesthesiologist to see a cardiac specialist. 
Because of that warning, I received a pacemaker a few weeks ago to regulate a slow and bumpy heart rate.  None of these health setbacks has been terribly serious or limiting, but they have served to make me aware of the fact that I, that we, are mortal.
Retirement has been a whole new education---in health, in new experiences, in self-understanding, and in coming to terms with the awareness that my life is limited.  There comes an end.
Remember Mary Oliver’s poem, A Summer Day, which ends with these words, “what will you do with your one wild and precious life?”
I remember years ago when I first felt called to the ministry.  The Rev. Robert Latham was our minister at Jefferson Unitarian Church in Colorado and one Sunday he spoke about his own sense of call.
He read a poem by Robert Frost, entitled “Two Tramps in Mudtime”, about the poet’s feelings when he was interrupted by a couple of jobless lumberjacks who needed work and seemed to resent his desire to chop his own wood. 
The poem closes with these words and they hit me right between the eyes that day and come back to me as I consider how I’m spending my life these days.  The last stanza goes like this:
But yield who will to their separation, 
My object in living is to unite 
My avocation and my vocation 
As my two eyes make one in sight. 
Only where love and need are one, 
And the work is play for mortal stakes, 
Is the deed ever really done 
For Heaven and the future's sakes. 
One of my reasons for moving to Oregon’s North Coast was the strong childhood memories I had of that area, playing on the beach, exploring the tide pools, splashing in the ocean---and getting my first kiss there! 
A second strong reason was that I knew there was a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Astoria.  I figured I’d join it and relax, while others carried on the ministry.
I joined that Fellowship, as well as signing up for a variety of other activities along the coast----the local land conservancy, a hiking club, and the educational opportunity for seniors through the local community college.  Making new friends, learning about my new environment as an adult rather than as a kid with a sand pail, and, just incidentally, having a place to go to church on Sundays----that was the plan.
But I found myself missing ministry.  I didn’t feel useful any where.  Yes, I could fold newsletters for the conservancy and go on hikes with the mountain club and take classes with the seniors and enjoy the services offered by the Fellowship.   I was busy all the time, enjoying myself, but I didn’t feel useful.
I didn’t expect that to happen.  I thought I would be kicking my heels up, going hither and yon with new adventures and new people.  Instead, there was something missing.
I don’t know how many of you have had that experience early in your retirement or how many of you realize that retirement is a big challenge.  Maybe, like me, you figured you’d have a blast with all that freedom.
But I quickly realized that freedom isn’t as much fun as finding a place where you can serve and getting on with it.  It might be something new, something you’ve never experienced before, or it might be something you know how to do that nobody else really has the time and ability to offer.
So after six months of sitting quietly in the beautiful little sanctuary of the layled Pacific UU Fellowship, looking out over Young’s Bay toward Saddle Mountain, I asked if I could be helpful.  “We were hoping you would ask,” their president replied.  And so I’m useful once again.  “Only when love and need are one, and the work is play for mortal stakes, is the deed ever really done for Heaven and the future’s sakes.”
Who am I?  I am an almost 73 year old woman, in good health, of mostly-sound mind, of Scandinavian, Mediterranean, and West Asian descent.  And I’m still a minister, to a tiny congregation that is now growing and maturing as a spiritual center in the community. 
This role has expanded, as well.  The land conservancy asked me to preside over their annual remembrance service in memory of their deceased donors.  I have conducted weddings and memorial services for members of the seniors group and have taught a class on “Wisdom from life’s experiences”.  I’ve written op-ed articles for the local newspaper on the issues of Marriage Equality and Death with Dignity and have been asked to write another short piece with a UU perspective.
All these needs for my ministry have challenged me and I’ve even been  rethinking some of my theology.
Last Christmas, my son and his wife came to visit and one afternoon we were talking about UUism and our satisfactions or dissatisfactions with this faith, and he mentioned something that startled me.  He has decided, on the basis of his own experience and education, that he is an atheist.
I argued with him a little bit, wanting him to expand his thinking to include other images of the divine, but in the middle of my argument, I realized that I’m no longer a traditional theist either.
Several things have contributed to this change in my thinking:  my longtime 12 step interest in finding a Higher Power that was not subject to human whims,  a growing interest in science and in learning about our universe, a deep weariness with religious doctrines that seem only good for digging holes in the sand to hide heads in.
At the same time, because of my family’s traditional faith, I was not ready to throw God overboard.  And I pray.  I pray despite asking myself “who am I praying to?”
So I’ve been working on these challenges. I’ve found real peace in letting go of the pretense that I am basically a theistic Christian at heart.  I have no sympathy for a religious faith that excludes and condemns those who are different, though progressive Christianity has become much more enlightened.
I’m too old not to say what I think and when I’m honest with myself, I can’t help but remember that Thor and Freya and Odin and Zeus and Diana and all those ancient gods and goddesses have slipped into the mists of legend.  How long before the traditional image of the God of Abraham, Moses, and Mohammed is left beside a road that leads not to a heaven or a hell but to the stars?
As we learn more about the expanding wonders of the universe, I see that the old gods, the old ways of understanding the miracle of life,
 are losing momentum and the old prophets, the ones who have tried to tell us to turn our backs on justice and equality for all, are being rapidly proved wrong.
So what do we have left, if the gods and goddesses are becoming legends?  How can we, as individuals and congregations, come to grips with this reality, honoring new concepts of the Holy, the power beyond human power which many still call God and Goddess but which others are beginning to see as our ever-expanding, ever-present, beautiful and fierce mysterious universe, the source of all we know as human creatures, the Truth which we can only learn from and not deny.
Who are we really?  We have eaten of the fruit of the tree of life, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, according to the ancient legend.  We are nourished by this fruit and challenged to know the difference between good and evil.
My former colleague and friend, the Rev. Dr. Peter Raible, has given us these prophetic words:
“We build on foundations we did not lay.  We warm ourselves by fires we did not light.  We sit in the shade of trees we did not plant.  We drink from wells we did not dig.  We profit from persons we did not know.  We are ever bound in community.”
            And I think Peter’s words offer us an answer.  We are bound forever in community, a community of love and justice in which we strive to better each others’ lives and thereby bring forward the foundations that have been laid for us in the past, the fires which were already lit when we arrived, the trees that someone else planted, the wells from which we drink.  All our existence has been made possible by others who prepared the way for us.
It is our work to continue, not to abandon.  We are the ones whose work it is to prepare for those who will follow us.
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 our work is to prepare the world for coming generations.  May we cherish the effort of others and vow to build upon their work as we continue to grow in maturity.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Original Sacred Text and the Language It's Written In

THE ORIGINAL SACRED TEXT:  The Language “God” Really Talks
Rev. Kit Ketcham, April 19, 2015

            Over the past months, we’ve talked about the several sources of  Unitarian Universalism, which make our faith different from most other religious traditions.  Most of our wisdom sources are in writing or in stories of lives well lived.  But let’s talk a bit now about sources of wisdom as a genre and what makes a source “sacred”.
            Do you find wisdom in the Bible or other traditional sacred texts?  If not there, where do you find your wisdom?  What sources do you use?  Things your Dad or Mom used to say?  A favorite teacher or coach or other wise person?  Do you have favorite sayings that contain wisdom?  How about throwing some of those sayings out there, something that encapsulates some of your acquired wisdom?  (cong. Resp)
            We find wisdom in a lot of places.  Some of it comes out of our experiences; sometimes it is visible on bumper stickers or t-shirts.  We find it in novels, in non-fiction, in textbooks and memoirs, in a lot of different kinds of writings:  poetry, children’s books, comics.  We find it in art works, theater productions, songs and symphonies.  We find it in the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the Tanakh, the Koran.
            Some of these sources of wisdom are said to be divinely inspired, right out of the heart of God and written down by human beings.  Most of them are human creations; it’s a little hard to say for sure about the ones attributed to God, since scholars have realized that ancient and modern editors over the ages have altered texts here and there, either to reflect their own views or by copying a mistake made by an earlier copier.  And we’re not talking Xerox here.
            Awhile back, I came across a book entitled “The Language God Talks”, a memoir by the author Herman Wouk, a treatise on his efforts to link science and religion.  I bought it and settled in to enlighten myself.  I was especially interested in learning about the language God talks.
            One traditional take on the language God talks has been either the ancient languages of the Hebrew Scriptures or the King James Version of the Christian Bible.  Other religions see it differently:  the Koran was the voice of Allah spoken through the mouth of Mohammed; the Bhagavad Gita is the dialogue between Krishna the god and Arjuna the human on the eve of a climactic battle, laying down Hindu theology in this context.  Confucianism relies on the writings and teachings of Confucius, who set forth a nontheistic moral and philosophical code for his followers.
            But what makes a text—or any object or teaching—sacred?  Since our rational minds can’t know for sure whether God actually spoke to Moses, David, Jesu, Mohammed, and others, we have to make some assumptions about texts and other items said to be sacred.
            Somebody clearly thought that the voice in his or head was divine.  The voice offered wisdom, guidance, prophesy, or warning.  Sometimes the listener argued with the voice, as so many of the Psalms seem to do, lamenting human fate and helplessness before the chaos of human living.
            So is it the hearer of the voice, the transcriber of those words who decides if a text is sacred?  Or is it the reader of the text, the receiver of the wisdom who decides?  In our faith, where reason is such an important part of our religious practices, we want to know why something is considered sacred, not just take others’ word for it.
            I asked a friend, Dr. Donald Cooper, retired linguistics scholar, my questions about sacred texts and he answered in this way:
            The idea of a sacred text is uncertain.  Some groups of readers consider some text sacred; others approach them as historical documents or literary works…The idea of the beauty of sacred texts is also uncertain.  They are effective, but sometimes they are horrible.  When a text, for example, in the Psalms recommends the killing of the babies of one’s enemies…that is not beauty, but it gets to the heart of anyone who has ever loved a child.”
            He goes on to say that people are the ones who make texts sacred, whether they are the scribes and accountants and priests of early human history or the readers who welcomed the advent of the printing press, which made written texts available to everyone who was literate or knew someone who could read.
            Sacred writings come out of human hearts.  Were they inspired by God?  Not in a rational way of thinking perhaps, but certainly they sprang from minds and hearts overflowing with joy, with beauty, with contemplative wisdom, and also with sorrow and anger.
            According to the Teaching Company, which offers a course entitled “Life Lessons from the Great Books”, a great book is one whose focus is on great themes such as love, courage, and true patriotism; it is composed in a noble language; it has the ability to speak to readers across the ages; and it speaks to readers as individuals, not as groups.
            Categories of great books, by their reckoning, are these:  the unconquerable human spirit, youth and old age, romance and love, adventure and courage, laughter and irony, and the true meaning of patriotism
            Books and authors mentioned are such things as these:  the gospel of John, The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky, works by Albert Schweitzer, Shakespeare, Homer, even the journals of Lewis and Clark.
            Here, in humanly-produced texts, are some of the predominant lessons of human living:  where wisdom can be found in life’s experiences, the meaning of evil, suffering, and death, reverence for all life, the idea that great strength can contribute to great evil when pushed too far, the ideas that undergird true patriotism and democracy, that war brings devastation, yes, but also an opportunity for wisdom and redemption.
            What is the difference between these books and the body of texts that are generally considered sacred today?  I note that traditional sacred texts focus on lessons learned from God , rather than human experience.  But we UUs are apt to name texts which are human products, rather than so-called divinely inspired works.
            I often ask my UU colleagues for their thoughts when I’m preparing a sermon, and when I threw my questions out to them, I got a variety of answers.  Somebody mentioned Moby Dick and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  Another mentioned Darwin’s Origin of Species and Emerson’s Essays.
            And another colleague warned me thus:  “The caution that I would offer about our approach (to naming our own sacred texts) is that there’s a danger of naming “sacred” any text that seems to confirm our existin biases.  A text that only reassures us that our perspective is the “right” one is a dangerous thing.”
            Remember when the Kansas State Board of Education, several years ago, was deciding to include the Biblical story of creation in the science curriculum of Kansas schools?  This alarmed a lot of people, not just in Kansas, as it seem to be the very antithesis of science education and there was a great deal of outcry.
            Among those protesting this decision (which was eventually revoked) was Concerned Citizen Bobby Henderson, who complained that if Creationism and Intelligent Design were to become part of the Kansas school curriculum, he wanted his own Deity and Creation story to be included as well.
            Henderson wrote an impassioned letter to the Kansas Board of Education, describing his Deity, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and the wonders of its creation, all performed by the Monster with his Holy Noodly Appendages.
            Since that time, a cult of Flying Spaghetti Monster followers has sprung up and has issued some sacred texts of its own, notably the “Eight Things I’d Really Rather You Didn’t Do” statement.  Many of the eight things are in language not fit for the pulpit, but I will quote you one of them so you can get the picture:
            6.  I’d really rather you didn’t build Multimillion-dollar churches; temples/mosques/shrines to my Noodly Goodness when the money could be better spent (take your pick)  A.  Ending poverty; B. Curing disease; C. Living in Peace, Loving with passion, and Lowering the Cost of Cable.  I might be a Complex Carbohydrate Omniscient Being but I enjoy the Simple Things in Life.  I ought to know, I AM the Creator.
            So speaks the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  And his Complex Carbohydrate Omniscient Being states ideas that have been lobbed at religious extravagance for millennia:  don’t be holier-than-thou; don’t use religious language to subjugate and oppress people; don’t judge others; treat women equally; don’t take advantage of people sexually; get over yourself; and be careful when you do unto others if you have odd urges.
            If you’re interested in the Flying Spaghetti Monster and think his Noodly Goodness might be right up your alley, you can google him easily on your favorite device.
            So are the “”8 things I’d really rather you didn’t do” a sacred text?  I guess I wouldn’t call them that, because they are a deliberate spoof, but then you think of Jonathan Swift’s satirical work “A Modest Proposal”, in which he suggested in 1729 that impoverished Irish parents sell their children to rich folks for culinary purposes; this, he claimed with tongue deep in cheek, would solve Ireland’s economic crisis and give rich ladies and gentlemen a new gourmet delight.
            His purpose was to castigate British officialdom for their oppressive policies toward the Irish citizenry.  Not too different from the proclamations issued by irate Hebrew prophets, railing against the cruelties of Rome and other conquering nations as well as against the idolatry of the Israelites.  Only they weren’t using satire and irony.
            My friend Don Cooper passed along a little more about sacred texts:  that oral traditions passed along wisdom by speaking it until written language developed, making it possible to inscribe and preserve it; that in the case of the Bible, a set of texts has been declared sacred, but that this designation has often come from the text’s usefulness in upholding some theological idea; and that sacred texts are often misused and taken out of context, including literal interpretation.
            For my conservative Christian friends and family, the Bible is a deeply sacred text, yet their interpretation is usually literal and spelled out explicitly in their publications.  For me too, the Bible is a sacred text and my interpretation tends to be metaphorical, not literal.  I think, too, that the Bible is wrong in many ways for our time and culture, that, for us, revelation and understanding are constantly evolving.
            The meaning of any sacred text is something that we the readers infer from the word and tone the writer uses, making our own interpretations.  We often don’t know the context from which the text springs, but we do have the commonality of human experience from which to extrapolate our own meanings.
            So what is the nature of a sacred text? 
            A traditional sacred text, such as the Bible, comes from a divine source; it may be written in a sacred or liturgical language like Sanskrit, and may be most precious when inscribed in calligraphy, as are the Koran’s most holy renditions.
            A non-traditional sacred text emerges from human experience and speaks wisdom to those who wish to understand their own lives and challenges.
            But all this study and cogitating about sacred texts has led me inevitably to another question, the one which for me lies beneath the lesser questions.  And that is “is there any source of wisdom which does not require human intervention, that is intrinsically sacred in the sense of “ultimate value”, that is not handed down from fallible human to fallible human, that is pure, truthful, perfect, and accessible to all creatures, regardless of intellect?
            If such a text existed, would we not protect and revere it?  Well, those who recognize it DO protect and revere it.  That perfect sacred text is not written, its truths are not influenced by human touch, yet are discovered and rediscovered every day by those who consult it.  It is the source of all human knowledge, the fount of insight that has fueled all human endeavor.
            It is the Earth, one book in the ever-expanding library of the universe.  We humans and all other creatures have learned all we know from our relationship with the Earth, how we might survive most successfully, how we might use the resources of the planet most effectively, how important it is not to overuse its resources but to keep our greedy natures under control and be grateful for its bounty.  It has given us beauty to love and to cultivate, other species to nurture and to use respectfully, and challenges us to grow, to evolve.  That’s not to say that we all do this faithfully!
            As physicists and other explorers are discovering as they decipher the secrets of this unwritten text, its original source seems not to be the romantic scene on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, whether you see in your mind’s eye a burly Caucasian God figure or the Noodly Appendages of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  No, it’s much greater than that.
            Isaac Newton summed up his lifework in this way before he died:  I know not what I seem to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
            Newton, one forerunner of today’s courageous explorers, was part of a long stream of human beings who sensed that there was more to Truth than what was found in the common sacred texts of the time.
            That Truth was accessible through study of the Earth and the Universe beyond the Earth.  That Truth embodied the divine, expressed itself in unspeakable beauty and inconceivable starkness. 
Its code of life and death was inexorable, unfailing.  Its lessons were sweet and also harsh.
            But it was true and humans learned to cope with its truth, to bargain with its rigidity, to soften its harshness with justice, mercy, and love, until eventually those lessons became inscribed in human writing and the prophet Micah was moved to write:  What does the Divine require of you but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly on the earth?”
            The Earth, our original, unwritten sacred text, the one most accessible to us, will survive the damage we do and will heal itself if we let it.  It will heal us too, if we allow it to do so.
            And the language God talks, as I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon?  If the Earth is a book in the library of the Universe and we humans are discovering the way the Universe seems to work, the language God talks must be calculus, the beautiful mathematics that outline the vectors of space and time.  That’s “God’s” language and we earthly beings are invited to contribute our language too---the poetry and prose and music and art of beauty, love,  justice, and joy.
            Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.