Sunday, November 11, 2018

Where Do We Go From Here?

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?  The experience of political trauma
Nov. 11, 2018, Rev. Kit Ketcham PUUF

            Now that the recent election is mostly behind us and we are experiencing the backwash of controversies and accusations about the election process, let’s take a look at the effects of the past two years and ask this question:

What has been happening to us as individuals and as a nation these past two years?  And the reason I ask this question is this:
We have endured and continue to endure physical, moral, and psychological trauma, daily, from the ongoing assault on our sense of decency and standards of humane behavior by a ruthless, self-serving, authoritarian man whose power over us and our fellow citizens has reeked of corruption, cruelty, and coarseness of manner.
It may be that PTSD  (post-traumatic stress disorder) is too strong a label for our condition, but the spectacle of what has been happening to our country, as this man has sought revenge over his political enemies, has had its effect, whether we personally are affected by his daily behavior or whether we foresee the terrible consequences of his behaviors on all of us.
We are certainly damaged, as a nation, as communities, and as individuals by the actual or projected consequences of those behaviors, whether we are empathetic observers of others’ pain or directly affected by the cruelty of his deliberate decisions to withdraw protections from vulnerable citizens & refugees.
We have experienced terrible violence because of the recklessness of his pronouncements and decisions.  It has been like watching a dreadful train wreck with thousands, even millions of casualties. 
And there has been no end in sight to the ongoing debacle, our only hopes resting in the votes of our fellow citizens and in the hands of a criminal investigation which we hope will give definition to the exact nature of his wrongs, with consequences coming to bear on him.
What have you and I done to protect ourselves and others from the consequences of his behavior?  How have we released our anger, and fear, ---- and our shame?  (cong. Resp)
As we think about our lives during these past two years, we know why we have been angry.  We know why we have been afraid.  We ourselves may have endured abuse during our past life experience; but our national experience of abuse has also left scars.  In both situations we have felt anger, we have felt fear.  And very likely we also have felt the shame that accompanies traumatic stress experiences.
When a child has grown up in an abusive home, that child is often so angry that they act out their anger in violence against others.  When a girl or a woman or boy or man has been sexually assaulted, she is often so fearful that her future relationships are in jeopardy. 
Why do many victims feel shame after experiencing a traumatic event?   It’s generally the sense that we haven’t done enough to prevent the trauma.  We may think that our efforts were  too feeble, we didn’t speak up, we didn’t fight back hard enough, we didn’t talk to others about our concerns. 
Trauma can invite a sense of shame because we may perceive ourselves as having invited the assault or were too confident in the 2016 election.  And so we take it out on ourselves, even though we did the best we knew how under the circumstances.
            How have I kept from going crazy?  How have I expressed my anger and fear?  I often succumbed to the urge to hate him.  It scares me a lot to express this feeling of hate.  I’ve been schooled to express love and understanding since I was old enough to talk.  I remember my mother’s correction, when I came home from a neighbor child’s home one day saying enthusiastically “Goddamn you Goddamn you”.
            “Honey,” she said with a sharp tone in her voice, “It’s better to say God Bless you, God bless you.  You don’t want your friend to go to hell and that’s what “damn” means.”  And even though I don’t believe in hell any more, hateful  speech is anathema to me. And yet I’ve succumbed. 
I’ve ranted to friends, put up resistance literature and exposes of his behavior on websites and Facebook, I’ve supported progressive candidates, written postcards, gone to rallies and demonstrations, and have donated.  It has helped release the anger and combat the fear.  But I still feel shame that I haven’t done as much as others have done.
Now imagine the effect of this trauma on the most endangered of our fellow citizens:  the disabled, the elderly, the children, our veterans, the entire Q community, persons of color, women, the poor.  Nobody is left out, but certain groups are even more threatened than others.
I hope you’re seeing the parallel here, between the survivors of personal domestic cruelty and abuse and the survivors of national, even global, cruelty and abuse.  We Americans have experienced, on a national and global scale, trauma from an authority figure who has no conscience, no empathy, no care for the damage he has done to our nation’s citizens, to our nation as an entity, and to democracy as an ideal.
Survivors of abuse are often encouraged to seek therapeutic help to deal with the scars and open wounds of an abusive experience.  Because, left unhealed, left open and painful, the wounds of abuse linger unless we take steps to heal them. 
This can be a hard process, taking time, painful in its own way, as we consciously work to mend the invisible bruises and learn how to prevent new ones by seeking wisdom, healthy relationships, and understanding of our own needs.
I’ve mentioned that one of the typical responses to abuse is anger, a desire to retaliate, to take out our pain on others; we see this commonly in bullying behavior with children, resulting in a vicious cycle of anger and possible violence. 
Another typical response to abuse is fear, the dread of triggering future abuse, a withdrawal from healthy life experiences which add to the joys of partnerships, family life, and community involvement.  We see this commonly in victims of sexual assault. 
There’s a predictable outcome of the relentless, ongoing abuse which produces anger and fear in human beings.   That outcome is Hate, hate for the perceived abuser and anyone who sides with that person.  We see it happening in our nation today, as the divide between political alliances widens.
As I’ve revealed about myself, I have struggled with the urge to hate this man and his cronies.  That hate is a product of the anger and fear I have felt over the past two years, following my deep disappointment and shame that we were too confident that a better candidate would win the presidency.  I have blamed, silently and not so silently, family members who blindly voted for him, for the change he might bring.  And I struggle to stay in relationship with them.
Dr. Gabor Mate’ has done important work on the addictive qualities of the hate that follows abusive behavior toward a victim.  Here’s what he says: 
"The more inequality in a society:   the more hate, the more dysfunction, the more mental illness, the more physical illness." It should come as no surprise, then, that we see more addiction and more mass shootings since "the inequality is rising all the time." Violence against racial, ethnic, or religious groups "is a manifestation of a society that foments division amongst people and sets people against each other.”
Both hate and addiction are a manifestation of a society that is ill, disconnected, and traumatized. It is an indictment of American culture and society that anyone finds relief by picking up a rifle and driving to a synagogue. To fight hate, we need to change our culture and society.”
Now that the election is past and we are dealing with its outcomes, both its positives and its negatives, we have new choices to make.  If we have lost significantly, we can lick our wounds and withdraw or we can buckle down to continue the Resistance.  If we have won significantly, we can celebrate the wins and continue to hate the losers.  I think there is a better path.
I try to go to hear Seth Tichenor and Gad Perez’s  Philosofarian presentations every month.  October’s gathering was about the pros and cons of Tolerance.  I learned a lot that night and I believe that as we examine the precepts of Tolerance, what this philosophy entails, its strengths and its drawbacks, we can learn something useful in the aftermath of a traumatic two years, with an unclear path ahead of us.
Tolerance gets a bad rap at times, with much misunderstanding of the concept as a wishy-washy way of getting along with people we don’t agree with:  the old “agree to disagree” tactic.  The question “should we tolerate intolerance?” causes us to examine the limits of tolerance and question its effectiveness.
When this administration came into power, after the inauguration in 2017, many of us perhaps thought maybe we could just agree to disagree with those who had voted for him.  It turns out that this became impossible as the actions and policy decisions of this administration became more than disagreeable; they were clearly immoral and inhumane, with little regard for consequences to our nation. 
We realized that we were unable to tolerate intolerance, that we had to change the direction of our nation using the Rule of Law and figuring out our most effective strategies.
Some observations about Tolerance, from Seth’s presentation:
Tolerance makes democracy possible, but it’s hard.
Tolerance is personally demanding, requiring a person not to reject someone or something objectionable voluntarily.
The expectations of what is “tolerable” are always changing.
It’s easy to make mistakes.
It is a morally ambiguous condition, a paradox with shifting limits.
And what is Tolerance?  It is an ability to respond with acceptance to beliefs and ideas that are not our own.  But tolerance in practice has levels of intensity.
Its lowest level is the act of granting permission for some behavior, with the grantor of permission having more power than the grantee, such as the Roman Empire allowing other religions to exist as long as they did not disrupt the Empire.
The next level is Co-existence, as where in a family group one person is very conservative and another is very liberal.  This level requires a lot of compromise and is difficult to sustain.
The next level up is Respect, which is based on legitimate rules of behavior and an understanding of the common good, as in a family or friendship setting where one person is gay/lesbian/bisexual/ transgender or other rainbow designation and other family members are generally accepting, if not completely comfortable.
The highest level of Tolerance is Esteem, in which norms of behavior are appreciated and valued, as in feeling the freedom to express public affection between same sex partners and/or a welcoming approach to members of a different culture.
How do we decide whether Tolerance, in a given situation, is appropriate? 
1.     We understand situations by degrees; familiarity gives us the benefit of new information as we observe the development of a relationship or unfamiliar culture.
2.     When people are generous, helpful to others, and lenient in judgment, a reciprocity of relationship is created.
3.     We ask ourselves “what are the moral issues here?” and think about what our own moral standards require of ourselves.
4.     We learn to recognize that tolerance is a moving target, that our own standards are often flexible, but that there may be common ground.
5.     We do not tolerate intolerance.
So how do we approach this upcoming season of adjustment and further resistance to inhumane treatment by an immoral, perhaps criminal, federal administration?
Short answer for me:  I am tired of being angry and fearful and instead of cultivating hate in my heart for anyone, whether it’s a president or congress or a family member, I pledge to conquer any impulse to hate by substituting Love, by giving love everywhere possible and letting the hate float away, as the love abides.  That is a gift I have to give to my community and my family, and that love can affect our traumatized nation.
In closing, I offer this reflection from Rebecca Parker:

Choose to Bless the World, by Rebecca Parker

Your gifts—whatever you discover them to be—
can be used to bless or curse the world.

The mind's power,
The strength of the hands,
The reaches of the heart,
The gift of speaking, listening, imagining, seeing, waiting

Any of these can serve to feed the hungry,
Bind up wounds,
Welcome the stranger,
Praise what is sacred,
Do the work of justice
Or offer love.

Any of these can draw down the prison door,
Hoard bread,
Abandon the poor,
Obscure what is holy,
Comply with injustice
Or withhold love.

You must answer this question:
What will you do with your gifts?

Choose to bless the world.

The choice to bless the world is more than an act of will,
A moving forward into the world
With the intention to do good.

It is an act of recognition,
a confession of surprise,
a grateful acknowledgment
That in the midst of a broken world
Unspeakable beauty, grace and mystery abide.

There is an embrace of kindness that encompasses all life, even yours.
And while there is injustice, anesthetization, or evil
There moves
A holy disturbance,
A benevolent rage,
A revolutionary love,

Protesting, urging, insisting
That which is sacred will not be defiled.

Those who bless the world live their life as a gesture of thanks
For this beauty
And this rage.

The choice to bless the world can take you into solitude
To search for the sources of power and grace;
Native wisdom, healing, and liberation.

More, the choice will draw you into community,
The endeavor shared,
The heritage passed on,
The companionship of struggle,
The importance of keeping faith,
The life of ritual and praise,
The comfort of human friendship,
The company of earth
The chorus of life welcoming you.

None of us alone can save the world.
Together—that is another possibility waiting.

CLOSING HYMN # 349 “Gather the Spirit”
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 with love in our hearts casting out hate and may we remember that every little kindness changes the world.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Shaping Things of Worth

PUUF, Oct. 14, 2018
Rev. Kit Ketcham

            I play a word game called Lexulous online with my sister, just about every day, going back and forth wirelessly between my home in Astoria and hers in Moses Lake.  There’s a chat feature to Lexulous, so we swap information back and forth about who is doing what in the family, the weather there and the weather here, her work with foster kids as an advocate for families---but not my work so much.
            My sister, whom I love dearly, is a conservative Christian.  Not to the point of hating gays or being racist or those kinds of stereotypical ideas often attributed to the evangelical religions.  She deeply loves the message of Jesus and lives the life she believes is right, as do her family members.  I admire that very much.
            But when it comes to exchanging our thoughts about our own religious paths, it gets sticky.  Her religious language is different from mine.  Not in the words used, but in their meaning.  So that when we do talk about our spiritual lives, it’s often through poetry we both love.  I send her poems that express something that resonates with me and she appreciates them.  And sometimes she sends me one too.
            Our mother was a poetry lover and we both learned to recite bits of verse from her.  “O World, I cannot get thee close enough---thy winds, thy wide grey skies, thy mists that roll and rise”. 
That’s a line from one memorable poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay that our Mom could recite from beginning to end--- sometimes right out in public like on the beach where cute boys could observe our mother gesticulating at the skies, while Jean and I trailed behind her trying not to be embarrassed.  But I digress…
            Because of my conservative Baptist upbringing as a preacher’s kid, in order to maintain my connection with my family roots, I learned how to be religiously bilingual, using some of the old words to communicate about deep concepts that I see metaphorically and she sees more literally.
            When I say “God”, for example, I am using the idea I’ve developed about the power beyond human power where she is more likely thinking of a benevolent Being.  When I talk about Jesus, I am not talking about God, I am talking about a beloved human teacher; when she talks about Jesus, she is thinking about a member of the Trinity, a miracle-working deity in his own right.
            When I talk about worship, I am talking about the time I spend with you and other religious seekers exploring ideas that are important and worthwhile or being outside in the natural world feeding crows and talking to the trees.  When she thinks of “worship”, she is praising God and offering her gratitude to a Being who deserves adoration for creating the world.
            Mostly we understand each other.  We don’t have to argue about definitions in order to talk about why the concept is important and valuable to us.  I wish we could talk together more, as I think we may have more in common than she realizes.  But my journey seems to kind of worry her and I don’t push.  I do wish she understood my language better, but I can see that she is not comfortable with my definitions.
            One of the things that has been on our national plate lately has been “new” words, unfamiliar words, words straight out of technology, words which have moved from slang only, into the modern lexicon, words that used to be strictly swear words but are now in common usage.  We word game players love to see those new words appear in the Scrabble dictionary!
            Of course, then there’s “bouf” and “Devil’s Triangle”, words we might not even have wanted to know any meaning of, words that appear in publications like the NYT and WaPo in the context of accusations of sexual misconduct.
            As people learn more about their own sexual or gender identity, their cultural heritage, their historical background, their religious upbringing, many words have been redefined. 
We now use “gay” to denote men who fall in love with other men; we don’t like to hear it used as an insult.  We now understand that “redskin” and other use of ethnic monikers cause pain to members of those ethnic groups.  We are becoming aware of the insults that careless language can bring to minority groups, whether disabled or racial or sexual orientation and gender, or elderly.
But we slowly, slowly, change our habits of language.
            Words are powerful, words are influential, words can start or stop a fight or a marriage or a friendship or a family relationship.  Words are beautiful, meaningful, poetic, and hateful.  It all depends on how we use them and the meaning we choose for them.
            A common Unitarian Universalist bugaboo is the use of Christian-language words whose meaning doesn’t work for us.  I asked my Facebook colleagues to mention the most-disliked words that they hear from their congregants and it was quite a list, most of them linked to Christian theology or practice
            Interestingly, we UUs have our own concepts of these words, as I have described in telling you about my conversations with Jean.  For example, we mostly don’t use the word “sin”,  (except maybe to describe something deliciously chocolate).  We are most likely to use something less loaded:  bad behavior, crime, offense. 
Except for the deliberately punitive tone of the word sin, we are pretty much talking about the same thing.  We know when someone has done the wrong thing, we just don’t call it sin, even when we’re pretty upset about it and believe punishment should be a consequence.
            Most religious congregations, both liberal and conservative, think of what we do on Sunday mornings as “worship”.  That’s a hard word for a lot of UUs, as it seems to imply bowing down to a deity in adoration.  But the origin of the word has nothing to do with adoration of a deity.  It’s the combination of two old English words:  weorth, meaning worth, and schippe, meaning the condition or shape of worthiness.  Worship, at its root, means worthiness, dignity, distinction, and an analogous word is “honorable”, worthy of honor.
            I like the word “worship” because I like its fundamental meaning.  It has a deeper meaning than adoration of a deity, which I gave up long ago.  And yet, when we listen to each other speak about our values, about the ways we have learned to be honorable people, I feel worshipful, honoring what I learn at these times about ourselves and each other.  What we do during our worship time is specifically to honor the values which bring us together.  That’s what worship really means, as I see it, shaping things of worth, bringing them into our consciousness.
            It happens in our rituals of chalice lighting, of our water ceremony, of our summer discussions, our potlucks and social hour, of singing beautiful and loving words even though we falter on the tunes, every time we reach into our hearts to honor and lift up the values that hold us together as a congregation.
            So if you’ve been a person who kinda cringes at the word worship, I’d like to suggest that you try thinking of it in its original way, in a way which focuses on our life together as a congregation, rather than the way some other groups think of it.  They’re using a definition that has been handed down over centuries and it’s not really accurate. 
It was redefined in that “adoration” way by centuries of dogma enforced by other religious leaders.  It’s not a word or concept that works well for us because we have learned that our sense of awe and connection comes more from our being together and sharing our values for the betterment of humanity.
            There are some other words that we don’t use much but do have a concept of.  We go to therapists or doctors when we’re feeling unhappy or ill and we work together to be healed.  Many other religious groups call that healing salvation, or being made whole by God.  We think of it more as a natural process that we can participate in, not as a Being who touches us with its favor.
            When many religious people talk about “God’s Will” in relationship to some event in their lives, they are thinking of it as God telling them or showing them what is right for them to do.  I tend to think of it as “being in harmony with the universe, with the laws of nature”, because, boy, if you are out of sync with natural law, you’re gonna take the consequences, and that happens to everyone, whether you think of it as the will of a deity or just natural law.
            We have also been sensitized to the difficulties of certain words for certain groups.  We have learned that to stand for something leaves out those people who cannot stand because of mobility issues.  What about “see” for blind people?  “Hear” for deaf people?  “taste” for those whose sensory ability leaves them unable to savor their food?  It’s hard to know what to be careful about.  We learn.
            Going back to the list I got from colleagues via Facebook recently, let me read some of them to you and see which ones may jerk your chain!  Raise your hand if you want, when one of them comes along.  (I’ve added a possible similar concept in less loaded language.)
            SALVATION (healing).   SACRIFICE (giving selflessly).   REPENTANCE. (saying sorry).  BLESSING (wishing well).  ATONEMENT (making amends) FAITH (trust).  SPIRITUAL (mystery)   HOLY (reverent)   RITUAL (ceremony).
            These are only a few of a longer list.  I’m sure we each have words we could add to the list, because language can be a real barrier for us in understanding and accepting different religious points of view. 
            Why is it that these words bother us? 
            What is the effect on our community and the larger community around us that we dislike these words and may even seem to look down on those to whom they are important statements of value? 
Our reputation as freethinkers is pretty well established in religious circles.  And even though we may not publicly complain or disagree with another religious concept, people pick it up when they come into our midst, even when it’s subtle and not overtly visible.
            It bothers me that we often stop at disliking someone else’s religious terminology without imagining or thinking about what commonality our words and theirs might share.  That’s freethinking with a wall in the middle, a Trumpian refusal to consider another point of view and blocking something good.
            I know people who come a few times and don’t return (this has been true in every congregation I’ve served); they like us but sense that there may be a covert elitism underlying our liberalism.  The people I’m thinking of are not those Christians who are associated with the religious right but those who think of themselves as liberal Christians.  They would be comfortable among us if we did not come across occasionally as scorning their religious language.
            We as UUs pride ourselves on working on our issues of racism, homophobia, and other social justice challenges, but we tend to stop short at examining our biases against traditional religious language and concepts.  Why is that?  Why is that so hard for us to look at?  (cong resp)
            As we continue this last year of my official ministry with you, I hope that we will think about what we can do as a Fellowship to welcome others no matter what religious language they use or are accustomed to.  I hope we will strive for more understanding and acceptance, rather than rejecting others’ religious language because it is not ours.  We would never do that to a speaker of Spanish, would we, criticize another’s native tongue?
            Can we learn to be more religiously bilingual?  Can we find commonalities between our concepts and words and the concepts and words of a more traditional person?  Can we be atheists or agnostics without turning up our noses at someone else’s love of a sacred being?  Can we be non-Christians without being scornful of those who are trying to follow in the steps of the prophet and teacher Jesus, whom they think of as God?
            I think if we can learn to be multilingual in our religious language, we will be more welcoming to folks who have a different way of looking at and appreciating the same values that we have.  And being welcoming in those ways will help us in our outreach to the larger community. 
            Most UU ministers have become religiously bilingual over the course of their careers and whoever you select as your new minister will likely have that ability, to both understand and interpret those uncomfortable words in a helpful way.  I hope you’ll be aware of that characteristic in whomever you choose and welcome it, rather than being critical if he or she uses the word God or other words that make you uncomfortable. 
It’s always okay to ask me or any UU minister about words you don’t feel good about because there are multiple meanings and nuances to every one of them.  Check it out rather than complain.  And check it out with the person who uses the word, rather than gossiping about it!
This Fellowship is a haven for progressive religious values, and our outreach into the larger community needs to be welcoming to all who speak a different religious language but who share our humanitarian values.  Let’s do it!
And now, let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
CLOSING HYMN # 23. “Bring Many Names”  As we sing this hymn with its many images of what I call “the power beyond human power” but whom many call God, let’s open our hearts to the timeless roles of mother, father, old and young, and instead of resisting, let’s consider the power in these words, whether we ever use the word “God” ourselves.

BENEDICTION:  Our worship service is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place.  Let us go in peace, remembering that as human beings who care about each other, the earth, and the world outside these walls, we serve best when we understand each other. May we remember that words have many meanings and that what may be touchy for us may be deeply meaningful to another.  Amen, shalom, salaam, and blessed be.