Sunday, September 07, 2014

The Rivers of Our Lives

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Sept. 7, 2014
Pacific UU Fellowship

         “I’ve known rivers”, wrote Langston Hughes, “ancient, dusky rivers.  My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”

        Growing up in Oregon, I mark several of the stages of my life (and maybe you do too) by the presence of the Columbia River, the river to whose shores Astoria and much of Clatsop County are anchored.

         As kids, driving with our parents from Athena down the Columbia River Gorge to Portland, we’d compete to see who would be the first person to spot the river as we got closer to Boardman.  The first one of us to see it would burst into “Oh Columbia the gem of the ocean…” knowing full well that the song didn’t refer to “our” river but needing to herald its presence in some majestic way.

         As a young adult in my first real job, living in Stevenson in the Gorge and watching the river rise and fall with the spring runoff, held back by Bonneville Dam, I looked across the river at night to try to spot the campfire of a hermit who reportedly lived in the forest above Cascade Locks, wondering if he was watching it too. 

         When I moved to Denver in the mid-60’s, I joined up with the Denver Friends of Folk Music partly so I could sing “Roll On Columbia” with others who liked intoning the names of that river and its tributaries:  Woody Guthrie sang “Other great rivers add power to you, the Yakima, Snake, and the Klickitat too, Sandy, Willamette, and the Hood River too, it’s roll on, Columbia, roll on”.

         Other rivers, however powerful, paled in comparison to this River of the West, the Columbia.  The Colorado rolled through some pretty beautiful country like the Grand Canyon, but I always yearned to come back to the Columbia River and my homeland.

         Are there rivers that have shaped your lifetime?  What might they be?
Call them out.

         Rivers have been analogies for some important ideas.  The UU song writer Peter Mayer has a song with the theme of “God” as a river.  And I like Bill Staines’ song River whose chorus  says it this way:  “River, take me along, in your sunshine, sing me your song, ever moving and winding and free, you rollin’ old river, you changin’ old river, let’s you and me river run down to the sea.”  In this song, the sea represents the vast pool of souls who have gone before us.

         I like the analogy of a river as representing Life and its constant movement, its changeability by tides, by weather, by obstacles in the channel.  Rivers can get dammed up, choked with debris, just like life.           Rivers need to run clear and clean but they’re often laden with silt, fallen logs, beaver dams, and the clutter so common in nature---and in life.

         Many of us have brought deep hurts and ecstatic joys to share today, important insights to ponder.  We share all these experiences as we share these waters, as we begin a new year together as a community.  We will use these pooled waters, during the year, to bless our children and dedicate ourselves to their wellbeing; we may also use these waters to say goodbye to beloved members of this congregation.

         I always save the water from year to year, purify it, and add a small amount of it to the common vessel, in acknowledgement that this community, represented by this shared water, is an ongoing thing.  In past years, our friends Michael Link and Ruth Jensen brought their waters to this ceremony.  They are still a part of this community, in this way.

         In gathering these waters every fall, we commemorate the ways our lives have changed during the past months and share those changes with this community.  Water is the basic stuff of life and, like community, we need it for our very survival.

         All over the United States and even the world today, Unitarian Universalists in many congregations are bringing water representing the rivers of their life experience.  We join our waters together today in memory and celebration.

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

 BENEDICTION:   As Veja extinguishes our chalice, I will close with these words.  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 affect one another, for our experiences shape us and thereby shape our relationships.  May we remember this and share ourselves and our lives in ways that enhance our time together, for this is how we heal ourselves and each other and knit up the rips and tears in the interdependent web of existence, of which we are a part.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Flowers For our Fathers

Rev. Kit Ketcham, June 15, 2014

            On Fathers’ Day and Mothers’ Day, we honor the parents who gave us life, whether those parents are our kin by blood, by adoption, by marriage, by affinity, such as a favored teacher, or by preference for a beloved adult.
            When my son was a toddler, he received child care from a family in our church, Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden, Colorado.  Bruce and Judy Douglass had a little boy about Mike’s age and a baby girl on the way, so Mike had a playmate in their son Scott and a baby on the horizon. 
            We weren’t sure what Mike should call these friends who took such a prominent role in his young life, but the boys quickly figured out that they had a Mama Kit and a Mama Judy and a Daddy Larry and a Daddy Bruce.  To this day, these pet names continue; everyone in these two families knows who Mamas Judy and Kit are and, likewise, Daddies Larry and Bruce.
            As Mike got older and began to bring friends around, I became Mumsy to Aaron and a couple of other boys, and we all graduated to being Mom Kit, Mom Judy, Dad Bruce, Dad Larry.  This, of course, was about the time Mike started walking 15 feet ahead of me or behind me when we had to go shopping for school clothes and he disappeared entirely when we entered the underwear department.
            Being Mom Kit and Mumsy to young boys made me acutely aware of my responsibilities as a parent.  And as single parents, my former husband and I took very seriously the fracture in our family and tried to shield our son from the worst of it.  But it changed our roles to some extent.  We had to stand in for the other parent on many occasions, particularly with discipline, and it was tough. 
            I like to think we managed about as well as it could be done; we lived in houses within walking or biking distance and Mike saw each of us just about daily.  But it wasn’t at all easy and I got a whole new appreciation for what fathers contribute to a child’s growth and maturity.  I could see clearly what my own father had done for me.
            When I started seminary in 1995, I was faced with the need to come to terms with many of the religious ideas I’d been brought up with, as well as the roles that had been instilled in me with that religious upbringing.  I needed to find my own ways of interpreting the gifts of that upbringing and discarding the ones I could no longer use.
            Many of my understandings of religion and sacred texts came from my father, the Baptist minister.  I strove to please him and, as the first surviving child in our branch of the Ketcham family, I enjoyed a close relationship with him. 
            My dad had grown up in northern Missouri with parents who had little education.  His father had had a hunting accident that destroyed his left hand, where he wore a steel hook for the rest of his life.  This injury made it impossible for him to continue to work as a railroad gandy dancer, but he had seven children and no other means of support.  So in about 1920, he turned to moonshine, commandeering my dad and his older brother into being delivery boys.
            My grandmother got nervous about her 12 year old son tangling with the revenooers and wangled my grandfather’s permission for my father, at this young age, to take a three day train ride, all alone, from Missouri to Pinedale, Wyoming, where he went to high school and learned to be a cowboy on a ranch in the Green River valley. 
             To me, my dad was a romantic figure, leaving a life of poverty and making a new life for himself and, later, for  the whole Ketcham family, who eventually came to Wyoming to join him.  To be my dad’s “pal” and go fishing and to learn from him to saddle and ride a horse was the highest of honors for me.
            By the time I went to seminary, however, he had been dead for 25 years and I had diverged seriously from that early Baptist path.  I had never discussed my changes of belief with him before his death and had had to make peace with our differences without any conversation to struggle through. 
            My mother had expressed her concern for my changes, my aunt was sure my dad was spinning in his grave, and I had a lot of baggage around religion and family when I entered Iliff School of Theology in 1995.
            So I felt a little wary about studying the Bible, which was a required course of study for all students.  I was pretty sure I didn’t know everything there was to know about the Bible, but though I liked some of what I knew, I was very uneasy about other passages and stories. 
            And it bothered me a lot that many people whom I loved dearly believed the Bible was the literal, inerrant, totally true Word of God, straight from the mouth and heart of the Creator who put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.  Like My Dear Dad.
            Getting ready to enter seminary, I was both excited to have scholarly men and women unfolding the meaning of such passages as a 6-day creation story, a water into wine story, and a bodily resurrection story and worried that perhaps even these learned professors would say that the stories were literally true. 
             I need not have been concerned. My Hebrew Bible professor was a top scholar in his field, a master of both the Hebrew and Greek languages, skilled in presenting the research that has gone on for centuries to reveal the culture and history of those ancient times, and a really funny man to boot.
            He unfolded for our class the mysteries of this set of books, supposedly sent by God yet bearing evidence of several different very human authors and editors.
            For example, in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, the writing style, the use of different terms for God, chunks of text that seem to have been inserted later by an editor, all betray different minds working to set down in writing the worldview of a prehistoric people who knew nothing of science but did know how to shape a creation story into something meaningful for that culture.
            We learned that there were actually two very different creation stories, one in which it took 6 days to set the universe and earth and living creatures in place, and another in which humans are created first. In this second story, the first man and woman receive names: Adam, which signifies “everyman” and Eve, which means “Mother of all living”. These then were symbolic names, not actual monikers. And the two stories seemed to indicate that there were at least two different story-tellers.
            We learned about the context in which the purity laws in Hebrew scripture are distinctly apropos to those ancient times and reflect the ways by which a beleaguered people maintained their distinctiveness as a community and discouraged any act which did not further this cohesiveness.
            The punitive nature of these purity laws, which have often been used against sexual minorities, women, and children, was a factor of the times in which those early people lived and clearly out of place in our culture today.             At the same time, other laws reflected universal human moral precepts: don’t steal, don’t covet others’ property or partners, don’t murder, take time to rest, honor your elders.
            We learned to “unpack” the passages of the Bible to reveal the culture and mores of the writer, to find the original meanings of words and put them together to understand what the author meant by his or her words, to reveal the structure of the society in which the author lived, and to find meaning in it for our time, where possible.
            We learned to look at scripture metaphorically, not literally, and I have to tell you, this was hard for some of our more conservative classmates, some of whom bailed out and went down the street to the Southern Baptist seminary nearby.
            When we had completed our term of study of the Hebrew Bible, we turned to the Christian New Testament. Our professor was a young woman, an observant Conservative Jew whose doctoral thesis had been on the years linking the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian scriptures.
            She too was a challenging and stimulating teacher, unfolding the differences in theology within the first four books of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).
            We learned that these books had been written up to 100 years after Jesus died, that they were similar in some places and very different in others, that the names of their authors were probably not actually Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John but that these names had been given to lend their stories credibility.
            Each author had a particular bias about Jesus’ life and told the story with a certain slant, emphasizing certain aspects over others. In some, there is no birth story or the birth story is very different from the others; in some there is a resurrection story; in each book, some details are identical to the other books and other details are different.
            During our yearlong journey in understanding the Bible not only as traditionally sacred literature but also as a guide to early religious and social culture, we learned the skill of “exegesis”, a term that refers to the critical analysis or interpretation of a word or a passage, particularly of religious texts.
            There are several lenses to use in analyzing a text. I was reminded while writing this of just how complex this task can be, dissecting a text for its historical context, its original sources, its setting and the traditions of that setting, its unique message, the meaning of its story and who its author might be, the ethical implications of the text and the comparison of it to our own time and place in history.
            Each term, we were assigned the task of “exegeting” a passage from the scripture we were studying.   At the end of one term, we had been assigned to choose one of the methods of exegesis we’d studied, take one of the Psalms, and explain it, amplify it, unpack it using that method.
            Because this particular assignment became very important to me, I’d like to share part of it with you because it affected my sense of my father and his meaning in my life.  I had chosen the “personal” method of exegesis, relating a text to my own personal life.  (PAUSE)
            I’d been sitting at my kitchen table with books and journal articles piled around me, studying Psalm 121. I’d read it over and over, enjoying the poetry of the King James version instead of our more prosaic study RSV.
            Let me read it to you in the KJV text:
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.
My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.
He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber.
Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is thy keeper: the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand.
The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul.   
The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.

            I’d always thought these words were beautiful yet in my post-modern skeptical frame of mind, I’d dismissed their literal meaning, and then …
            As I sat at the kitchen table, looking over my stack of articles and notes, trying to find the right approach, one that was scholarly but also personally meaningful to me, unbidden music came into my thoughts, as it often does when I’m pondering.
            An old Sunday School song: “Safe am I, safe am I, in the hollow of his hand; sheltered o’er, sheltered o’er, with his love forevermore. No ill can harm me, no foe alarm me, for he keeps both day and night. Safe am I, safe am I, in the hollow of his hand.”
            The song sang itself over and over. I closed my eyes and tried to let myself feel where it was coming from. 
            …….Noise in my ears, a roaring. Rain down the back of my neck, my wet sneakers desperately trying to find a toehold on the steep slope. A long way down to rocky Crescent beach beneath me, the sound of sobbing, and a deep voice----“hang on, honey, Daddy’s coming”.
            My father’s gasping breaths, his anxious face, and then his strong arm scooping me up and carrying me bodily up the ocean cliff to the safety of the path there at Ecola State Park, as the rest of my family hurried up the trail to us.
            We had been walking on Crescent Beach when someone commented that we needed to be careful because the tide was coming in and we could easily be cut off and stranded by the rising water. I had panicked, as six-year-olds will, and had, in my fright, climbed halfway up a steep, grassy cliff before getting stuck--unable to go up or down--and clinging precariously to wet hummocks of slippery seagrass.
            My father’s quick action and strength had rescued me from terror and possibly serious injury, and as he held me tight, once we were safe, it seemed as though a miracle had occurred.
            At the top of the headland, my mother scolded and hugged me, while my sister looked on wide-eyed. My father leaned against a tree and tried to breathe. The desperate trip had cost him dearly. “Merritt, are you all right?” my mother was alarmed.
            “I’m not sure--let me rest a minute. I can hardly breathe and my chest hurts. But Betsy's okay, that’s the important thing.”  

Psalm 121, a child’s version
“I lift up my eyes to the hills,
Where is someone to help me?
My help comes from my father who is coming for me,
He will not let me slip from the cliff,
He is always alert to his child,
He who keeps me will neither slumber nor sleep.
He will keep me safe,
He will protect me from the terrors of the day and of the night.
He will protect me from all evil, he will save my life.
He will carry me to the path, he will be my help forevermore.”

            My father acted in the same way that your own fathers were likely to act, when you were in danger.  You yourself may have had occasion to save your own child’s life, or the life of another person.  What does a child learn from this behavior from a father or a father figure?
            I believe that I learned to trust because of my father’s faithfulness to me and my family.  I learned that I was worthy of the risks he took to carry me up that steep cliff (and if you’ve ever looked over the edge at Crescent Beach below the Ecola State Park lookout, you know how steep it was).
             I learned many things from watching my father, over the years.  I learned resilience and faith in my own ability to do hard things.  I learned to love unconditionally.  I learned to emulate my father’s passion for public service.  I also learned that ministry was a hard profession and that I needed to take care of myself so that it didn’t kill me, as the stress eventually took a toll on my father.  I learned to think independently and to be my true self.
            What have you learned from your father?  We learn valuable lessons from both the positive and negative behaviors of our fathers.  My dad was the target of his angry father’s belt and he learned that he never wanted to strike his child, for any reason.  He spanked me once when I was young and it upset him so badly he never did it again.           
            I invite you to think about the learnings you received from your father or from a father figure in your life and speak them out after a few moments of reflection.  What did you learn from your father?  (Cong. response)
            Thank you.  Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
CLOSING HYMN:  #78  Color and Fragrance, one of the hymns that Norbert Capek wrote for use in the original Flower Communion.
            As Arline extinguishes the chalice, let’s pause for the benediction.
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 the lessons we received from our fathers and our father figures.  May we use the negative lessons to grow in wisdom and may we use the positive lessons to offer greater love to the world.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

A reflection upon the occasion of celebrating Marriage Equality

This coming Sunday, June 8 (my birthday, actually, and what a gift!), I will be celebrating the roots and blossoming of the Marriage Equality movement in Washington State with the lovely folks at Edmonds Unitarian Universalist Church.  My former parishioner and friend Craig Cyr and my colleague Eric Kaminetzky have invited me to take part in this commemorative service.

I'll be offering a reflection on my efforts and the efforts of the Whidbey Island contingent to bring this momentous legislation to fruition.  If you're in the neighborhood on Sunday morning at 10, at EUUC, please stop by.  If you're not, here's my contribution to the big day:

Rev. Kit Ketcham, June 8, 2014, Edmonds UUC

         My personal involvement with the issue of equal civil rights for all persons, including marriage equality, goes back a long ways, since my days as a junior high school counselor in Colorado, long before I was a minister. 

         When I moved to Seattle to serve the UU congregations on Vashon and Whidbey Islands in 2003, I quickly joined the board of the interfaith clergy organization Religious Coalition for Equality, which was part of the crowd accompanying the plaintiffs who first attempted to register for marriage licenses at the King County Clerk’s office and were denied.

         Our intent for the Coalition was to change the common perception that churches, synagogues, and mosques were all enemies of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trangender community.  We were acting in direct opposition to those religious bodies whose doctrines did oppose equality for sexual minorities. 

         We held worship services, marched at PRIDE, supported legislators as they began the process of making Marriage Equality a reality, starting with anti-discrimination laws and moving to domestic partnerships with the same rights as married couples, with the goal of attaining Marriage Equality for all committed couples.

         When I moved to Whidbey Island in 2006, I continued my activities with the Religious Coalition for Equality but once the coalition united with Equal Rights Washington, I began to concentrate my efforts on Whidbey.

         The UU Congregation of Whidbey Island had already become a Welcoming Congregation and we made this a public part of our presence in the community. 
         In 2008, when California’s Prop 8 passed so disappointingly, my congregation and I invited gay couples to hold their own wedding and holy union ceremonies in our sanctuary, free of charge, using my services as officiant, with the promise of signing marriage certificates when Marriage Equality became a reality in Washington, because we believed it would happen.

         A few years later, while the exciting marriage equality legislation was before the WA state Senate, just barely short of the requisite 25 yea votes needed to pass it into law, our Island County Senator, the renowned Mary Margaret Haugen scheduled a Town Hall meeting on the island, at the Bayview Senior Center.

            The hall was packed for the 2 p.m. Saturday meeting, and early topics included education, ferry policies, and budgetary issues.  But the hall's occupants were largely gay and lesbian citizens who had come to ask her to be the 25th "yes" vote on legislation before the Senate which would give all loving couples the right to marry, regardless of gender.
         I had scribbled a few notes because it felt important, as the UU minister in town, to make a religious statement about the issue.  I didn't know if there would be detractors or other ministers opposing marriage equality, but I wanted to support my friends in the gay/lesbian community.  So when the topic arose, I asked to be recognized and stood to speak.  The response from the gathered body was unexpected and gratifying.  (See the video if you’re interested, which may be posted somewhere on a screen here in the church.)

          I don’t remember everything I said that afternoon, but the term “moral courage” popped into my mind because Senator Haugen had shown moral courage many times in her deliberations as a Senator and I hoped she would find the personal and professional strength to take this step, for it would be controversial and challenging for her.
         To our great delight and admiration, Senator Haugen, later in the legislative session, did become the 25th senator to sign onto the legislation, which became law, was challenged, survived a referendum vote in November 2012, and became Washington State Law.

         And since that time, I have had the wonderful opportunity to say, at the end of a marriage ceremony, “and now, by the authority invested in me by the State of Washington, I pronounce you husband and husband, partners for life”.

         Senator Haugen, I thank you for your moral courage and for the discernment process you entered in order to make the right decision about your vote.  I know that you thought long and hard about it; I know that you talked with family and friends; I appreciated your careful listening that day at the Bayview Senior Center and your respectful approach to the concerns being voiced.

         Thank you, thank you, thank you.  We are all grateful.


Sunday, May 18, 2014

A Golden Oldie: Hope Has Human Hands

It's been more than ten years since I preached this sermon at the Pacific UU Fellowship.  I wonder if anyone will remember it from those long ago days!  I still like it myself and find that it still expresses my theology of Hope.  I hope others do too. 
Rev. Kit Ketcham, May 18, 2014

         In the late 40’s, early 50’s, there was a song which, when it came on the radio, would make my dad  groan and move as if to turn it off, muttering “that darn song, it’s so sticky!”, and my mother and I would cry out, “no, we want to hear it!”  It was a sentimental song and its words could even be said to be a bit schmaltzy.  And I’ll bet you haven’t heard it for years, but if you remember it and feel like joining in, sing with me.

         “Soft as the voice of an angel, breathing a lesson unheard, HOPE with a gentle persuasion whispers her comforting word:  Wait till the darkness is over, Wait till the tempest is done, Hope for the sunshine tomorrow, after the shower is gone.  Whispering Hope, oh how welcome thy voice, making my heart, in its sorrow, rejoice.”

         In those days, hope--to me--meant miracles; it meant a sort of Pollyanna-ish optimism that “everything will be fine in the morning”.  It meant that no matter how desperate the financial situation of our family, we would have food on the table; someone from my dad’s little Baptist congregation would deposit a freshly killed Canada goose  or venison roast or string of fish on our doorstep. 

         Hope, in my young mind, was a kind of insurance policy, a belief that God would not desert us if we were faithful.  Hope provided for miraculous recoveries, last-minute rescues.  It meant that the sun would always rise, that spring would follow winter, that seeds would grow, that birth would produce new life, that Superman WOULD arrive on time! 

          I’m not sure how I reconciled my beliefs with my experience in those days.  Though I knew at some level that Hope as a technique didn’t always work, I continued to profess my belief that it would and did produce miracles.         

         But I guess I figured that even Hope had to take a few days off occasionally; that was probably why my friend Lynn did not recover completely from an unusually serious bout with mononucleosis,  why my dad, who was a Baptist minister, sometimes couldn’t make it all the way through his sermon and had to sit down to catch his breath, scaring us all to death.   Hope was on break those days.  And, of course, it wasn’t Hope’s fault that I didn’t make straight A’s in school; I hoped I would, but obviously Hope wasn’t enough.

          What does Hope mean to Unitarian Universalists?  We are kind of past the miracle stage.  If we are ill, we may hope for a rapid recovery; if a loved one is dying, we may hope for an unexpected sudden cure or a peaceful death.  We may hope, as I often do, that the rattle in the car will turn out to be harmless, that the problem ahead of us is not really as bad as it looks, that the grocery line will not be too long, that we can pay the bills, that the kids will  be home soon.   Our daily hopes are usually simple and focused on our immediate needs and desires.  

        Over the years, as I’ve examined my religious faith in light of my own experience, I have gradually revamped my thoughts about Hope as a religious concept.

         It seems to me that the Hope that is innate in the human spirit is more than simply a wish for good outcomes, for peace on earth, a politically correct holiday greeting.  Hope is far more than cliches or a wish for miracles.  It is not trivial or sentimental.

           The definition I’ve come up with after many years of observing my own need for hope and the moments which seem to create hope, for me and for others, is this:  HOPE IS MY AWARENESS, MY DEEP UNDERSTANDING,  THAT I AM CONNECTED TO THE INEXTINGUISHABLE STREAM OF LIFE, THAT I AM PART OF THE WHOLE.

        Let me repeat that definition and ask you to compare your own experiences to it.  For me, HOPE is the clear sense that I am a part of the inextinguishable, inexhaustible stream of life.  For me, it is a tangible sense of my place in the universe.  It is the fiber of the interdependent web of all existence, the connection I have to all else in life.  

        When I have lost HOPE, I have lost my sense that I belong to the universe, to the web, to life itself.  But HOPE is strengthened in me with every reminder  I receive of that connection.  It may  start when I first see the seedlings pop up in my garden.  It may be triggered by the purring of the cat on my lap as I read.  Even a stranger’s greeting on the sidewalk or beach may evoke a warmth that reminds me that I do belong here, I am a part of life.

        Hope is found in relationship, whether it is in my relationship with my pets, with my friends and family, with strangers, with all of nature or God, if you are comfortable with that idea. 

        If religion is defined as the expression of human relationships with self, with others, and with the universe, then Hope is a manifestation of that relationship and a valuable piece of our active faith.  Unitarian Universalists mostly do not hope for a heavenly home; we hope for an earthly home that is heavenly and we know that is our job.  

         A friend talked with me about her second biopsy for breast cancer.  “I was scared to death,” she said.  “I’d already had one surgery and was terrified that this was the beginning of the end.  I felt loose from my moorings, adrift, disconnected, hopeless.  And I knew I couldn’t bear it without help.  The nurse started to move away from me after the test, and I said to her, ‘I need you to hold on to me’.  She took my hand and I felt myself re-connect with life.  She gave me more hope than a negative biopsy.”

          Hope does not rely on Divine Intervention, but on human hands.  Hope is our job, not God’s, despite nature’s constant and faithful supply of hopefulness.  The sun always rises, spring always comes, the snow  always melts, the cycles of creation go on and on.  We derive great hope from that faithful repetition of nature’s patterns.  But nature also socks us in the teeth:  tsunamis and hurricanes demolish whole coastlines, avalanches wipe out homes and travelers, the wind whips fire through dry underbrush, the sun burns our skin, disease wipes out millions, rains bring flooding and mud slides.

        We can’t control it but we can respond to it.

         “Hope springs eternal in the human breast”, according to the poet Alexander Pope because human beings have an innate gift for hope.  When disaster strikes, other human beings immediately reach out to victims.  It seems inherent in human nature to give aid in times of trouble.  An old Judy Collins song says “Friends are like diamonds, and trouble is a diamond mine.”
         That doesn’t mean all human beings give aid, just that we’re all capable of it.  Some of us have so squelched our natural inclination to help that we  will walk right by, ignoring trouble or fearing the consequences to ourselves.  Sometimes it is truly dangerous to offer help; it’s not always easy to know right help from wrong.  But sometimes we withhold our help because we see no benefit to ourselves from it, we see no reason to help because our goal in giving help is so we’ll get something back later on .

             Like love, hope is active.  We can give hope to ourselves and one another.  In fact, I believe, we have a responsibility to do so.

        I believe that it is in everyday human acts of kindness and respect that we find our own hope rekindled and that others’ hope is also reborn when we reach out to them.

        I believe that hope is not passive, something we wait around for, but that it is created and recreated daily in ourselves and others.

          I believe that hope comes in many forms--hugs, smiles, acceptance, kindness, respect, patience, thoughtfulness, listening, generosity, appreciation, forgiveness, working for justice.        

        I believe that we need to recognize our own capacity for giving hope and increase our efforts to do so.  And I believe that we must recognize our own need for hope and actively seek it out.

        I believe that hope is at the heart of liberal religion, of Unitarian Universalism.    We give it to ourselves and to others as we live out our UU principles and purposes.           It is the sinew that links us with the interdependent web of existence, the fiber that binds us to one another.  Without it, we cannot resist evil.  It is our daily work, to give and receive hope.

        Hope is our human response to tragedy, whether it is evil brought by perverted human nature or the damage of natural disaster.  When another human being is injured, it is up to fellow humans to mend the damage.  We might wish that a vengeful God would strike down evildoers or quell natural forces, but it is up to human hands to offer hope.

        What does it mean that we are responsible for giving hope?  It means that we have a job to do.  We don’t know, always, in our daily lives, just who needs hope at any given moment.  We have to assume that everyone does.  We have to be ready to offer hope to everyone we meet, whether that’s the crabby clerk at  the store, the multiply-pierced and tattooed teens in the park, the stray cat or dog, the frustrated parent with a toddler, the nursing home patient who can no longer remember our name, the homeless man camping in the woods, the beleaguered teacher, our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender neighbors, or the victim of domestic violence.

        We ourselves also need hope and we can seek it out for ourselves, whether we do it by taking a walk, talking to a friend,  giving money to charity or the homeless guy on the corner, listening to music, pulling weeds, reading poetry, asking for a hug or a listening ear, starting seedlings, feeding the birds, cleaning out a drawer, greeting a stranger, or spending time in prayer or meditation.  We give ourselves and others hope every time we reach out to those who need justice and love.

        Several years ago in Denver, a young woman named Jeannie Van Velkinburgh ran to help Oumar Dia, a West African man who was shot at a downtown bus stop just because he was black.  She got a bullet in the back for her efforts and became a paraplegic.  A cynic might say she should have left well enough alone, that she shouldn’t have gotten involved, because look what it got her. 

        Jeannie VanVelkinburgh didn’t think so; she knew that not only did she offer hope to Oumar Dia, she has also given hope to us AND to the murderer, who--though he may never understand it--has received a powerful lesson in human nature.  Human beings are supposed to care for one another.  

        Let’s  revisit the definition of Hope I am using this morning:  Hope is the conviction, the reassurance that I am connected to, am part of, the inexhaustible, unquenchable stream of life.  It is my knowledge that I am supported and nurtured by my place in the interdependent web of existence and it is my job to give it to others.

         I’d like to close with a story from my own life. 

        It was June, many years ago when I was still living in Colorado.    I’d been driving Interstate 80 since dawn, from Farewell Bend  on the Snake River in eastern Oregon where I’d camped in my van the night before.   I was returning to Colorado after burying my mother, crossing the hot dry deserts of southern Idaho and over the border into Utah, pondering the lessons of her life and death and crying as I drove, my tears drying almost as soon as they appeared, in the hot blast coming through the open window.  And now I was beyond tiredness, in that late afternoon state of mind where rational thought and fantasy merge, and reality has a fuzzy edge.

        I’d been seeing a lot of hawks poised on telephone poles or circling overhead, their broad wings barely flickering to stay afloat.  My mother had loved birds, and hawks and eagles were interesting to both of us.  Each bird felt like a message, but in my emotional state, I couldn’t quite figure it out. 

        Every redtail or northern harrier caused me a fresh pang, and by the time I reached the outskirts of Salt Lake City, I had exhausted my tear ducts and my brain.

        I wanted to be back in Colorado as soon as I could.  I wanted to drive a favorite route through the mountains, but I had no idea how to find it in the maze of interstates, beltways, and smaller roads that interlace the Salt Lake valley.

        I drove south into SLC, peering through my foggy contact lenses at unintelligible signs, looking for landmarks.  Nothing.  I realized I was in the far left lane of a 6-lane interstate and, in my weariness, nearly sideswiped another car as I tried to pull the huge van over so I could read my map.

        At last came a break in traffic, and I eased over to the shoulder, cringing for fear I had missed seeing some hapless little car in my mirror, and half-expecting to feel a sickening crunch.  But I made it, stopped the van, and, once again, the tears came.  I was safe, I hadn’t hit anyone, but I was exhausted and bereft.

        Suddenly, in my rearview mirror, I saw the ominous blink--blue and red, blue and red.  “Oh no,” I thought, and hastily mopped my eyes as I fumbled for my car registration.

        There appeared at the driverside window a short stocky cop, his hat pushed back on his head, his face serious and concerned.  I braced myself for the worst, assuming he’d seen my near-accident, but in a voice of infinite kindness, he just asked, “Lady, are you lost?”

          That man could not have known just how lost I was.  I couldn’t find myself on any map--neither the map of Utah nor the map of my life.  I didn’t know where I was after my mother’s death; I only knew I needed to go home.        

        I don’t know what I said to him, besides asking how to find route 40, but he neither remarked on my tears nor ticketed me, and within a few minutes I was on my way again.        

        As I topped the last long hill up out of Salt Lake City, my eye fell upon the broad winged silhouette of another redtailed hawk, soaring just above the horizon.

        And all the confused, jumbled thinking that I’d been doing all day--the memories of my mother, my grief at losing her, my anger at myself for all the years I’d felt motherless because of my own rejection of her religious beliefs and because of her illness, the link to birds and mountains and all of nature, the incandescent flame of her unconditional love for me---all these coalesced into one single thought. 


        Emily Dickinson wrote:  “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.”

        When we offer hope to ourselves and to one another, with each smile, each touch, each act of kindness and understanding, we knit up the rips and tears in the interdependent web of existence and bring each other closer to spiritual wholeness.

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

         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 no act of kindness is in vain, that our efforts to bring hope to each other and to the larger community will bring us hope as well.  May we find ways to minister to the community in which we live, ways which will foster lovingkindness in the world, ways which will address some of the systemic problems that plague society, and ways which will bring us the peace of mind of knowing that together we have offered hope to a hurting world.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Easter Through a Unitarian Universalist Lens

It's been awhile since I last posted, but I've been rethinking my understandings of the Easter/Passover/Solstice season and am speaking about it tomorrow.  Here it is.

By Rev. Kit Ketcham, April 20, 2014

          As Frank and I worked together on this Easter service, we noted the many ways human beings celebrate this time of year.  We recognize the Vernal Equinox, the changes in weather patterns, the shoots of plants popping up in gardens and fields, the new lambs, calves, and foals.  Rebirth, even resurrection, seems possible in the fervor of spring’s changing and sometimes tumultuous conditions.

        How do we respond to the gleeful springtime promise which also brings the uncertainties of weather and frequent natural disaster?  Looking at this religious season through a Unitarian Universalist lens tackles the problems of believability and our quest for trustworthy answers.

        Phyllis McGinley, an Oregon-born poet whose heyday was the 40’s and 50’s, wrote something I’d like to share with you as we begin.  It’s entitled “Lament for a Wavering Viewpoint”, and it’s one of my favorites.         

I want to be a Tory and with the Tories stand,
Elect and bound for glory with a proud, congenial band.
Or in the leftist hallways, I gladly would abide,
But from my youth, I always could see the Other Side.

How comfortable to rest with the safe and armored folk,
Congenitally blest with opinions stout as oak!
Assured that every question one single answer hath.
They keep a good digestion and they whistle in their bath.

But all my views are plastic, with neither form nor pride.
They stretch, like new elastic, around the Other Side.
And I grow lean and haggard with searching out the taint
Of Hero in the blackguard or of Villain in the saint.

Ah, snug lie those that slumber beneath conviction’s roof.
Their floors are sturdy lumber, their windows weatherproof.
But I sleep cold forever, and cold sleep all my kind,
For I was born to shiver in the draft of an open mind.
Born nakedly to shiver in the draft of an open mind.

         My conservative Baptist minister dad used to say to me, “Honey, don’t be so openminded that your brains fall out.”  He’d say this on the many occasions when I’d defend some---to him---indefensible act or position, such as my summer crushes on the cute boys who came to Athena for pea harvest.  Or that living with one’s future mate before marriage might be a good idea.  Or that the war in Vietnam was crazy.

         I never brought up my religious opinions, because I was pretty sure I’d get the same response, and yet it seemed to me that there something worse than being so openminded that my brains fell out.  It seemed to me that being so closed-minded that my brains dried up was worse.  But saying so  seemed tantamount to accusing him of dried-up brains, and that didn’t feel so good either.

         As a child, I depended on my parents and other trusted adults to tell me the truth, whether that truth was about religious matters or grammar or history or how to conjugate a Spanish verb.  They knew more than I did, and I trusted their knowledge.  I trusted them to be right.

         As I grew older, I gradually began to realize that my parents and other adults were telling me the truth only as they saw it.  Though I knew that they had my wellbeing in mind, I also began to see that they had received their version of the truth from still other persons.  Filtering this received truth through their own experience, they had passed it along to me.  How many people were there in this line of truth-telling?  Where did the original people get their truth?

         Well, you know how adolescent minds work---always questioning, wondering, considering alternatives.  Despite all the good advice available for free from parents, teachers, police, doctors---adolescents prefer to work out their own truth. 

         “Yeah but, Mom, I’d rather do it myself” became my refrain as I sorted through the sources of wisdom that I knew about and looked for others that made more sense.  Which of course gave my dad a chance to use his other favorite stock phrase:  “A yeah but is a half-brother to a halibut”.

         I loved the romance and tragedy of the ancient Christian Easter story:  Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet and his acceptance of this act; the commandeering of a donkey for a triumphal ride into Jerusalem; the overturning of the greedy vendors’ stalls in the temple; the clever answer to the trick question “is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar?”; the chilling words spoken at the Passover Seder with his disciples—“this do in remembrance of me”; the betrayal by a kiss from Judas the disciple; the arrest in the garden and the subsequent series of denials from Peter the disciple; a kangaroo court, a condemnation, a beating, a savage public execution in front of Mary Jesus’ mother, and all his friends.

         This all felt completely believable to me.  As thrillers go, it ranks right up there with some of our best modern stuff.  It displayed human nobility and human frailty in extremely clear detail.  Shakespeare had nothing on the Gospel writers when it came to drama and tragic endings.

         But that famous story as told in the Gospels of the Christian scriptures ends with a twist---a twist which turns a human tale into a ghost story.  Jesus’ body disappears from the tomb in which it is placed.  Angels appear to the women who are searching for his body to cleanse and wrap it.  Jesus the living person appears to his friends in several places, vanishes again, and then reappears to offer them advice about evangelizing the world, building an institutional church, and living his teachings.

         This part of the story bothered me.  A lot.  I didn’t know what to think about it.  All the ghost stories of my youth notwithstanding, I didn’t believe people could rise from the dead.  Surely there was another explanation.

         In studying the Bible as literature in college, I discovered that there were actually several different versions of this story in the Gospels.  Either it happened several different ways or it didn’t happen at all or somebody made it up or at least embellished it.  Or maybe people dreamed it.  In any case, the entire Christian tradition in all its many variants seemed to be built on a supernatural foundation.  Never mind the perfectly sensible and inspiring events of Jesus’ life.

         My sources of authority---how I knew what I knew---began to shift dramatically as I dealt with the ramifications of a possibly-fictional Easter.

         I met non-theistic friends who told me that Easter was proof that the concept of God is absurd.  What loving parent would send a beloved child to be killed as a sacrifice?  This God didn’t make sense.

         Nor did the Hebrew scriptures seem any less fantastic in their authority.  Laws which mandated that wool and cotton not be combined in fabric?  Which recommended death for a myriad of seemingly minor offenses?  Which dictated laws of diet that collided with modern science?

         “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free…”  one of Jesus’ most famous sayings.  We want to find truth, to believe the truth, to be able to trust the truth we hear.  We want to find reliable sources of authority, but we are hard-pressed to find those reliable resources.
         In the daily news, we hear conflicting reports about international events, domestic issues, political situations.  Even the best medical research offers us thousands of studies proving both sides of any given subject:  butter is good, butter is bad; organic is good, organic is bad, estrogen works, estrogen harms, fiber is good, fiber is overrated.

        If we followed all the studies available, we’d go nuts.  So we sort things out according to our own experience.  Uncle Bill had a heart attack and ate lots of red meat and dairy products; therefore, too much fatty stuff is probably not so good.  We grow our vegetables organically and have few pests or diseases and all we have to wash off is the dirt; therefore organic is probably good.

        The jury is still out on many issues, but we’re wary----if the market says it’s good, they’re probably saying so out of economic self-interest.  Therefore it might not be so wonderful.

        Religion is a little tougher subject to sort out.  Many of us were raised to revere certain texts and authority figures as sacrosanct, infallible, or at least metaphorically true, if not factual.  The Hebrew Bible, the Christian scriptures, the Koran, the Bhagavad-Gita, Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths---these are all sacred bodies of knowledge, revered by humans world-wide, accepted by many humans world-wide as absolutely true.

        Now, we have come to Unitarian Universalism at least partly because we have a problem with accepting a sacred written text or body of knowledge as absolutely true.  We have come to Unitarian Universalism because we believe that our actions toward each other and toward the earth and universe are more important than certain beliefs about God or the creation of the earth or the lives of the Buddha or Jesus or Muhammed.

        Yet we still need authoritative sources of knowledge.  What will they be?  How will we decide?

        As a religious humanist, I am convinced that human experience and wisdom can be an authoritative source of my knowledge.  My own experience and wisdom are authoritative for me, but may not be authoritative for others.  I am willing to accept the experience and wisdom of credible others, but I insist on filtering it through my own experience and wisdom.

        I accept certain texts as authoritative---the Declaration of Independence is, for me, an authoritative text, as is the Bill of Rights.  Imperfect as they may be, they establish principles of democracy that I believe to be right.  The Constitution---well, with the challenges it’s getting these days and the current membership of the US Supreme Court---well, who knows?

        As a Unitarian Universalist, I find great wisdom and credibility within many sacred texts.  I do not consider them historical documents and would not use them as the basis for a history lesson.  Yet these poetic literary works offer me a great deal of universal wisdom:  to treat others as I would be treated; to act with justice and mercy toward others; to be generous with the poor and downtrodden; to love freely and unconditionally; to express compassion and to work for freedom.

        Our UU principles are based upon the universal wisdom of many religious and secular thinkers.

        My friend and colleague the Rev. Harold Rosen of Vancouver BC, in his book “Universal Questions:  Exploring the Mysteries of Existence”, lists his methods for arriving at useful truth and declares that each balances and complements the others.

        He lists as his sources of authority, how he knows what he knows, the following methods.  See what you think.

        The scientific method, the combination of reason and experience applied to an idea.
         Common sense, a personal and practical understanding of reality.
         Tradition, accumulated patterns of thought and behavior, often of enduring usefulness and patterns which define a culture.
         Intuition, a sense about the way things are that leaps ahead of ordinarily available information.
         Artistic expression, a way of seeing, hearing, and feeling that is different from ordinary knowing.
         Wisdom teachings, useful axioms and spiritual principles that can improve the human condition.
         Revelation, direct communication of insights by prophetic persons such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, both ancient and modern.

        In addition, Rev. Rosen believes that we are morally obligated to follow the laws of our government, except when those laws violate universal standards of justice.

        So what do we use as our sources of authority?  How do we sort out truth from fiction, hype from reality, ethical direction from self-serving manipulation?

        Living in a multicultural world, we are always called upon to interpret and evaluate the sources of authority that bombard us.  We are forced to rely upon media reports of national and international events that seem hysterical, inaccurate, and often evasive.  We hear rumors and stories from friends and family about other friends and family.    And don’t even get me started on Facebook!

        We cringe at the proclamations of truth that we hear from certain groups:  creation scientists, big corporations, cults and many political organizations, fundamentalist religions and hate groups.  We step carefully through our lives trying to live by our ethical and moral principles but always knowing we don’t have enough accurate information to know for sure.

        And so we often become like Phyllis McGinley in her poem---chilled by the draft from our open minds, hoping that our brains won’t fall out but hoping just as much that our brains won’t dry up from too little openness.

        How do I know what I know?  I find it helpful to look at the things that I think I know “for sure” and tease out from them the reasons that I know them with such certainty.  And I find that almost invariably there are common roots to my sense of certainty.

        For example, I believe deeply that Easter is a season to celebrate, that it is meaningful, that its meaning has profound consequences for my life, and that I neglect that meaning to my detriment.

        Sixty years ago, my conviction was based on my Christian upbringing.  I believed that it was the day that Jesus rose from the dead.  My parents and teachers had told me that this was the truth, and I believed them.  I found the story inspiring and the great love and sacrifice it portrayed thrilled me to the core.

        But one day, Kit the teenager was sitting on a windy bluff early one gray Easter morning with other youth as a single ray of sunlight pierced the clouds, singing an old hymn about light and space and thunderclouds and storm and then the words “it breathes in the air, it shines in the light, it streams from the hills, it descends to the plain and sweetly distills in the dew and the rain.”

        My understanding of the truth of the Easter season changed at that moment, from a concentration on the death and resurrection of Jesus to the ever-present, all-embracing sense of wonder at the infinite divine which I saw at that instant portrayed in the natural world before me.  It was bigger than Jesus, bigger than I was, bigger than all the doctrine I’d ever heard.  With its boundary-less, inclusive power, the Living Universe subsumed the Christian message.  And I would never again be satisfied by a doctrine or a creed as my source of authority.

        Today I find the truth of the Easter season even more embracing as I understand the true source of its meaning and power, the Living Universe that enfolds and connects us all.

        Our celebrations in the spring of the year, of the Vernal Equinox, of Passover, of Easter, all come to us out of the same source of universal truth:  LIFE, the life which infuses us with strength and inspiration and is revealed most fully in nature as we explore its mystery and power.

        Because we are human, we have developed specific ceremonies to celebrate our sense of mystery, of gratitude, of awe at the gift of life.  We celebrate the renewal of the earth in spring, we celebrate deliverance from evil, we celebrate the rebirth of love.

        But all our celebrations, all our joy and passion flow from a common source---our recognition that life is sacred, in all its pain and all its triumph, that living things all die and yet continue to live, whether in the fertile soil, within our hearts, within works of creativity which outlive us, and in our families and culture.

         Yes, we do use our reason to determine truth; yes, we do rely on human tradition for continuity and connection.  We trust our intuition, we respect our artists’ work, we use our common sense and our knowledge of wise words from many texts, and we pay attention to the prophets we hear, to discern what truth they may offer us, even when we disagree.  And we trust most of the laws of our land.

         But I believe that for virtually all of us, LIFE is our final authority.  If it is life-giving, we can trust it.  Even when it hurts, if it enhances life in its greatest form, we can believe in it.  We sometimes get sidetracked by the needs of daily living---money, possessions, luxuries, are these not life?  No.  They are only what we accumulate in our day to day living.  They are not life itself.

         Life itself is in the threads that connect us, in the relationships we have: with one another, with ourselves, and with the Living Universe, or God as we may understand God.  Life is indestructible, and it can be nurtured into a greater profusion of joy and passion by our careful attention.

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

BENEDICTION:  Our worship service has ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place.  Let us go in peace, considering our own sense of life and its gifts.  May we rededicate ourselves in love to Life, for ourselves, for each other, and for the Living Universe of which we are a part.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.