Sunday, November 08, 2015

A reflection on the Arts and Spirituality

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Nov. 8, 2015
Thank you, Chris, Helen, and Allison, for sharing your creative lives with us.
         I  never used to think of myself as artistic. I’m one of those people who has always figured if I couldn’t draw a straight line, I wasn’t artistic. My sister and mother, now, they could draw pretty well. They were artistic. I wasn’t.
         I did like to sing and play the piano but I was mostly a workhorse, able to do a decent job but not particularly talented, just adequate. Oh sure, once in awhile I’d get a chance to sing by myself, mostly because I knew all the words to the old folk songs, especially the raunchy ones, and sometimes people said I sounded pretty good.
         But there were moments when something happened to me, in the music. Maybe it would be feeling myself caught up in the harmonies of the group around me. Maybe it would be the experience of improvising harmonies as I sang.
         Maybe it would be a particularly tuneful day for my vocal chords. Maybe it would be singing an old lullaby to my son when he was a baby. But it didn’t really mean much, wasn’t very important.
         Many years passed in this way and then came a time when I was asked to sing one of those folk songs I knew by heart at the memorial service of a friend. It’s a kind of philosophical, metaphorical song entitled “River” by Bill Staines and it sings about life as a river.
         The last verse is particularly poignant, with these words: “one day when the flowers are blooming still, one day when the grass is still green, my rolling waters will round the bend and flow into the open sea…”
         I was pretty sure that I would have a hard time singing that verse, that my voice would break, that I would not be able to continue. My friend Alan’s life had rounded a bend and had flowed into the open sea, unexpectedly, mingling there with all the other lives gone before him, leaving behind the lives of his wife and two teenage sons.
         I almost turned down the request, afraid I couldn’t do it properly. But Alan’s wife persisted, saying he had learned the song from me and she knew he would want me to sing it.
         The day of the memorial service, I went from my home in Denver to the church in Ft. Collins, spent a few minutes practicing with the guitarist who would accompany me, and then it was time to begin the service.
         The moment came for me to sing and I stood next to the guitarist, my stomach clenched with anxiety, wanting to do well but afraid I would falter. I made it through the first verses and choruses just fine and then the guitarist took his musical break before the final verse.
         Just as I opened my mouth to sing those most difficult words, my heart pounding, I looked out into the congregation gathered there and saw another friend, Mary, looking back at me. She smiled at me, with tears in her eyes, and all of a sudden, I felt the song begin to sing itself.
         It flowed out of me, in notes and phrasings I didn’t even recognize as mine. My voice was strong and clear and true. There was something happening that was beyond me, that was beyond my control, that was expressing my love for my friend Alan, that was receiving the love of my friend Mary, and pouring out all that sense of relationship and connection with them.
         A new understanding of my connection to others through music was born that day and left me shaken and humbled by that experience.  
Our service today has been about “The Arts” as a source of spiritual inspiration for Unitarian Universalists. But I’m not sure we’re just talking about “Art”, per se.
         The Arts, whether visual, aural, vocal, written, dance, are expressions of human creativity, a life force so powerful that we have evidence of it going back into pre-history. It is a primeval force, ecstatic and uncontrollable, and it has driven human beings beyond the requirements of daily survival as long as human memory has existed.
         Unitarian Universalist theologian, Henry Nelson Wieman, has posited that the creative force in the universe is another name for God, that this divine power exists in all of us and in all of creation.
         I find that image very meaningful. As we’ve heard our artists today, have sung our songs, looked at Helen’s paintings, listened to Chris and Allison, I think I’ve seen and heard a common thread---that there is something that pours out of us at those moments when we are caught up in creating or experiencing beauty or meaning or relationship or growth. It’s something beyond normal daily life, something so thrilling and engaging that it surely is a part of our spiritual nature.
         The creativity in human beings has brought us as a species to a place of high technology, of great beauty, and fearsome understanding of what we have done and what we may yet do.
         Today we have considered the creative experience and its relationship to spirituality. I find the creative experience to be so foundational to my spiritual nature that I have become attuned to it in other parts of my daily life, hearing it in conversations, in cooking a meal, imagining new ways of doing things, even in figuring out how to jerry-rig functional mechanisms to keep my home working properly.
         My colleague, the Rev. Rick Davis, minister of our congregation in Salem, Oregon, has proposed that we consider recognizing formally the importance of the Arts as a Source of our Unitarian Universalist faith.
         He suggests this wording: “The living tradition that we share draws from many sources (including) the Creative arts, which reveal to us the face of life’s beauty and joy, its enduring truth and meaning and which opens our hearts to feelings of awe and gratitude.” He goes on to say that creativity and spirituality are so intertwined that they cannot be separated.
         Whether or not this ever happens, we know how important the creative arts are in our own lives. I’m grateful to our artists today for speaking to us, and for bringing the creations of their hands and hearts and minds for us to experience.
         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 within each of us there is a burning spark of creativity, the spark of life that has brought forth great beauty in the world and gives us the ability to connect with each other and with the divine as we experience that creative spark in others. May we find beauty and inspiration in all of life’s ventures and may we offer our own creativity freely and lovingly. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Scrapped Sermon

Here's the sermon PUUF would have heard yesterday, had it not been set aside in favor of a conversation on the events of the past eleven days since the mass murder at Umpqua CC.

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Oct. 11, 2015

            What do you already know about October 11?  Do you know why it’s important to a lot of people?  And why it might be important to Unitarian Universalists?
            Let’s start with the easy one first.  What do we commemorate on Oct. 11?   Here’s what I discovered by consulting  Google:
            In 1975, it was the first Saturday Night Live Show and its host was the late George Carlin, one of the forerunners of the comedy and politics shtick.
            It’s also Bald and Free Day, for those of you who wanted to know that.  It’s World Egg Day and National Sausage Pizza Day.  It’s also Face Your Fears Day, and here locally it’s the day of the Columbia Crossing and the last day for Astoria’s Sunday Market.  It’s also my friend Sue Ayer’s 80th birthday!  But there are a few even more important reasons to observe Oct. 11 as a special day on our calendar.
            For one thing, Oct. 11 has been designated the United Nations’ Day of the Girl Child, to raise awareness regarding gender inequality world-wide.  This special day was established in 2012 and  has a different theme every year:  in 2012, it was “ending child marriage”; in 2013, it was “innovating for girls’ education” and in 2014 it was “ending the cycle of violence”.    
This year’s theme is “the power of the adolescent girl” and was selected because teenage girls are at risk all over the world from the challenges of puberty, and their reproductive health is in danger, as they need help in protecting themselves against rape and unwanted pregnancies, STDs and gender-based violence.
            Those of us who have raised or are raising daughters and granddaughters can only imagine the difficulties of raising healthy girls under some of the world’s conditions, where kidnapping and rape in war-torn countries are commonplace and where many young women are still being held captive by the Boko Horam in Nigeria.  Can we even imagine what that must be like for them and for their families?  And we think we’ve had it tough when our girls decide their parents are old-fashioned and uncool! 
            This is one of the three October 11th commemorations that I want to think about with you this morning.  The others are similar in some ways, in that all of them share commonalities with our social justice mission as Unitarian Universalists.
            Some of you may know that Oct. 11 is also National Coming Out Day. Its purpose is to encourage lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, and questioning  people to come out of the closet to their friends and family members. 
 Over the years, so many members of the gay/lesbian/bi/trans community have bravely revealed publicly their sexual orientation or gender identity, and have told their stories and experiences, daring to take that step despite the danger, and,  that, I think, has created the possibility for the many changes in our national attitude toward sexual minorities.
            The second Monday of October which often falls on the 11th,  has commonly been known as Columbus Day, the day Christopher Columbus stumbled across the islands of the Caribbean and thought he’d found the West Indies.  That occasion, though important in the history of the Western Hemisphere, was the beginning of the demise of many indigenous peoples in the Americas. 
            Several cities in our nation have eliminated Columbus Day celebrations and instead recognize that genocidal period of history by instituting Indigenous Peoples Day instead.  Several states do not recognize Columbus Day at all any more and point to the infamous papal bull published by the Vatican in the 15th century which (and I quote):
gave Christian explorers the right to claim lands they "discovered" and lay claim to those lands for their Christian Monarchs. Any land that was not inhabited by Christians was available to be "discovered", claimed, and exploited. If the "pagan" inhabitants could be converted, they might be spared. If not, they could be enslaved or killed.
             This statement of religious arrogance and cruelty established a precedent which even the United States government enshrined  into law in the early years of our nation, and which has incited a groundswell of indignation and demands to both the church and the US government to repeal and repudiate its damning effect on the indigenous peoples of the globe.
            But I digress a bit to express my own indignation at this heinous  policy, known as the Doctrine of Discovery, which justified the treatment of native peoples in this country as Europeans considered themselves the true inheritors of the riches of this land and despised the original inhabitants as subhuman.
            Let’s look at how these three issues---the treatment of teenage girls, the struggles of sexual and gender minority persons,  and the oppression of native peoples, all of which are issues across the globe---team up with another human rights conflict which has taken center stage in the past few years here---the Black Lives Matter campaign, in which UUs have been deeply involved across the nation.
            Allison spoke to us recently about this campaign and shortly after the Sunday she spoke, I found in my own research for today a set of statements created by the group called the “Organizing Collective of Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism” which outlines pretty clearly how our Seven Principles, the philosophical statements on which our faith is founded, enable us as UUs to address the multiple threads of oppression, no matter who are the victims, and to sort out a personal and a community approach to the everyday struggle of those who are marginalized and oppressed.
            Our own denomination has had its less than heroic moments as we have struggled to live out our principles in a society where institutional racism and our own non-recognition of how our white, straight, gender privilege has often blinded us to the despair of those we perceive as “other”---be they teenage girls in sexual slavery, the torture and murder of transgender persons, the stealing of land and resources from First Nations people, or the black person killed by police policies about deadly force coupled with racism. 
            I haven’t yet figured out how to fold in the atrocities of gun violence and the difficulty of finding effective ways to reduce the misuse of guns for violent actions against the innocent.  Another day, perhaps.
            Because the document of the 7 principles of Black Lives is so powerful, let me read from the statement that has been published.  In a historic gathering of Black Leadership in July, the Caucus of Black UUs codified the direct link between our 7 UU principles and the movement for black lives, in this document which underscores the principle that Black Lives Matter.  (read document)
            When the movement “Black Lives Matter” began to gather steam, its very momentum caused anxiety among many observers.  “ALL Lives Matter” as a slogan appeared in protests; some BLM banners were defaced and the word BLACK replaced by the word ALL. 
But the movement itself was in response to the many incidences of black men and women and children being cut down by police policies, some of the victims dying needlessly, dying unarmed, dying of so-called suicides, dying for being children with water guns, thrown on the ground or beaten for no apparent reason.
            So I do not want to come across as diluting  or appropriating the message of the 7 principles of Black Lives.  I want to take the wisdom hammered out by the Organizing Collective and apply it to our own social justice efforts, whether we are working with homeless people in Astoria, growing food for the food pantry, cleaning up our roads, and just being in relationship with others in our community.
            Here’s some of what I’ve found in this manifesto that applies broadly to our work as social activists and provides a framework for searching our own hearts and minds.  We don’t want to be just do-gooder liberals, the bleeding hearts who talk about a problem, throw money at it, but don’t really get involved.  That’s not me and I hope it’s not you.
            The First Principle of UUism, our guiding philosophical principle, is that we “affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person”.  To me this means that all flavors of human beings, in every or any category, matter.  All are worthy of respect and dignity, even if we are scared or repelled.
            Our second principle affirms and promotes justice, equity and compassion in human relations.  To me, this means that LOVE is the driver of our social justice work, that we reach out in our efforts to heal the world with a sincere desire to offer compassion, justice, and fairness to all persons.
           Our third principle affirms and promotes acceptance and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.  To me, this means that we, in love, strive to understand and to accept those in our congregation and in the world who are different, whose path may be different from our own, and to open our hearts to them.
            Our fourth principle affirms and promotes a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.  How can we find the best ways to practice our work, evaluate our progress, and examine our own motives and efforts?
            Our fifth principle affirms and promotes our right of conscience and the use of the democratic process in our congregations and in society.  Let us not assume that we straight white liberals of either gender know what non-straight, non-white, gender-fluid people need.  They are the experts, not us.  Let their experience guide us.
            Our sixth principle affirms and promotes the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.  What is the world we want?  For ourselves, for all other humans, for all living creatures, for our environment?  We work for transformation, that all may thrive.
            Our seventh principle, which wraps it all up, affirms and promotes respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.  Let us honor the wisdom and work of our elders, as we work to build foundations.  And let us recognize the impact of our work on future generations.  It’s not just for today.
            To summarize---the words “all persons”, “compassionate love”, “equality and justice”, “leadership, “evaluation”, “transformation” and “all existence” jump out at me.
            They create a concept that could be our mission statement, our reason for being, our goal to achieve, small bit by small bit, until the world around us has been transformed in some positive way.
            Giving compassionate love to all persons in the name of equality, we seek to support the cause of justice by respecting the leadership of oppressed groups and carefully evaluating our motives and process, in the quest for transformation  for all existence.
            Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
HYMN# 170  “We are a gentle angry people”
            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, ready to give compassionate love to all, committed to equality and justice, respecting the leadership of those who are fighting the battle of oppression, keeping our motives honest and clean, as we bring transformation to ourselves and all existence.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Scrapping the Sermon...

is something I've never done before, but it's going to happen today.

As I was going over what I'd written for today, it just didn't feel right.  It wasn't bad, but it felt inarticulate and inadequate, considering what has gone down in the world---and in Oregon---over the past eleven days, since Oct. 1, when a student at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg opened fire on his classmates and teacher, killing nine of them before he killed himself.

This was followed a few days later by two more school shootings in the US, in which others died, and the horrible specter of Roseburg citizens protesting the arrival of President Obama in Roseburg to visit the families of the victims, angry with him and his concerns about gun violence.

I was afraid for him all day, afraid that one of these misguided souls might haul off and shoot our President because of their anger and fear, afraid of what that would mean for our nation and for Oregon, afraid of the ricochet of a metaphorical bullet as it brought down hopes and dreams in a bloody heap.

So we are going to spend the 20 minutes of sermon time in a conversation about guns and hate, two topics that have reared their ugly heads in several ways in the past eleven days.  I intended to tie together, cleverly of course, the observances of the UN's Day of the Girl Child, Indigenous People's Day, and National Coming Out Day, including the work of the Organizing Collective of Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism, which penned a thoughtful document about how our 7 principles are expressed through the BLM campaign.

In the end, it just wasn't going to work.  So here we are with Plan B.

Monday, September 14, 2015

A Tribute to Our Friend John


            One of the most poignant parts, for me, of preparing for a memorial service is the time I am able to spend with the family, listening to their memories of their loved one.  On the afternoon I spent with Sandy, Debbie, and Ross, I was able to ask some questions and hear their answers, as they thought about their lives with John.
            Tell me what you’ll most remember, I asked, and Debbie mentioned her sense of connection with her big brother, his help with her homework, the paper route she helped him with and their many times together at Sand Lake as kids.  Ross remembered John’s dry sense of humor and John’s service in Viet Nam where he received the Purple Heart.  Sandy spoke of John’s extended family, the Carpenters, and how the two of them, when they married, expanded their families beyond their own biological families.
            We talked about that empty seat in the bakery, where John held down the “locals” table and offered his perspective on a wide range of topics, volunteered his help with every project, giving generously of his time and expertise to anyone who needed it. 
I was so grateful for his help when I was moving two months ago, for John offered his pickup, his time, his expertise in packing the storage locker, and then driving the huge UHaul truck through downtown Astoria and the narrow streets of Alderbrook to my new home.
            There were river trips and fishing trips, golf and boating, building things and tearing things apart to fix them.  John helped every neighbor on the block in their Portland neighborhood with the myriad of household repairs that always crop up—water heaters, toilets, kitchen sinks---he knew how to fix them all and when he and Sandy moved to Gearhart permanently, he continued his generous donations of time and talent.
            He loved to play games, to hear a good story and tell another.  I remember how carefully he’d think through his explanations, striving for just the right word to describe what he was thinking.  It was important to him to be right on the mark.  He presided over the barbecue pit at many neighborhood gatherings, as he and Sandy invited neighbors and friends to eat fried clams and barbecue.
            John Duncan was a generous man who strove to be fair to all; he was honest and ethical, a moral man who believed in doing the right thing.  A God and Country guy, loyal, law-abiding, exacting, an engineer to the bone, John was a Scot---thrifty but not stingy, accepting of all people.  He loved to distribute lottery tickets to his friends at holiday times and was tickled if somebody won something.
            John and Sandy were a good pair.  They enjoyed being together and I was tickled by his always referring to Sandy as his bride.  He depended on her, loved her deeply, and lit up when she came into the room on those mornings at the bakery.
            John had very high standards, for himself and for others.  He was frugal, sometimes to the point of missing the big picture in order to save a few bucks.  We laughed about the story Ross told about John’s giving him a certain tool for his birthday and then immediately borrowing it so he could use it on one of his own projects.
            Sandy said she met John when he came to fix her sink, and her friend Sherry quipped---“he fixed your sink and he didn’t swear once!  You’d better marry him!”
            John’s pride in his grandson Marcus, son of Nicola and Michael, was strong.  He and Sandy regularly attended Marcus’s athletic events and were involved in Marcus’s life.  Marcus, Michael, and Nicola were important in John’s life, and they will carry forth the values they learned from John and Sandy.
            When I talked with Nicola, she spoke about her Dad’s great intelligence and his sense of humor---which lots of people didn’t get!  She felt so well-loved, that her Dad’s love for her was deep and endless.  “He was always teaching me,” she said.  “Before I could drive the family car, I had to prove that I could change the oil, change a tire, know what was going on under the hood.  He taught me to drive a stick shift, and through all the ups and downs of the teenage years, he was laid back, calm, even-tempered even when I was furious about something.”  “Life’s a giggle”, he would say. 
            Nicola’s partner Michael and John were close---and very similar in personality, intelligence.  The two of them were good friends and understood each other well.
            Marcus told Nicola, ”Papa did everything he could for me; he wanted to make me happy.  He always supported me in all my activities, my ball games, plays, school activities.  He always supported me in everything.  He played catch with me, taught me to golf, and he took me to work with him on the Ridge Path.”  Marcus always wanted to tell John about his life; they shared a strong bond.
            John’s generosity and commitment to community service are well known in Gearhart.  He was proud of what he’d done to extend the Ridge Path, and it is in his honor that the John Duncan Fund for the Gearhart Ridge Path has been established.  You will have a chance to donate in John’s name when we meet at the Firehouse after this service for a reception.
            In closing, as we thought about our loss of this dear man, we just wished we could have had him with us a longer time and that we hoped he knew how we loved him.  And Nicola confided that she wished her Dad had been able to meet the new puppy; John pretended he didn’t much like pets, but she knew better. 
            It’s hard to lose someone who has been such an integral part of our lives.  But I found a quote by A.A. Milne, the author of the Winnie the Pooh stories that fits here:
If ever there is a tomorrow
When we’re not together,
There is something you must always remember.
You are braver than you believe,
Stronger than you seem,
And Smarter than you think.
But the most important thing is
Even if we are apart,
I’ll always be with you.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Being Prepared

Today was Water Communion and Homecoming Day, the first Sunday after Labor Day, when we begin the new church year.  We had forty-five folks in the service, with several new visitors, some of whom are already ready to join!  I had doubts about this homily, but it seemed to go over all right.  And they loved singing:  
          “Be prepared, that’s the Boy Scouts’ marching song,

            Be prepared, as through life you march along,

            Be prepared to hold your liquor pretty well,

            Don’t write naughty words on walls if you can’t spell”…

            The next few lines might be considered NSFC, not safe for church, so I won’t go farther; you can go and look them up later!

            Many of you may recognize those words as the first lines of a rather bawdy song by Tom Lehrer, the musical social critic of the 50’s, who wrote such other “interesting” songs as “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”, “The Vatican Rag” and “We Will All Go Together When We Go”—the latter a tribute to the Cold War’s nuclear nightmares.

            A few weeks ago, a New Yorker article by Katherine Schultz, entitled “The Really Big One”, sent the rest of the US into a frenzy and we denizens of the Pacific Northwest yawned and said “we already know all that stuff”, whether we did or not.   The topic, of course, was our Cascadia subduction zone, which will someday let fly and cause an earthquake and tsunami on the West Coast.

Some of what riled locals up was her suggestion that people come to the coast but spend the night outside the tsunami zone.  As if that would protect them from an earthquake.   But it does give new meaning to Tom Lehrer’s nightmare title:  We will all go together when we go---as if we will have a choice. 
            But being prepared is important, whether it’s for surviving a cataclysmic natural disaster or some other crisis.  There are a lot of things we can barely prepare for---a sudden accident or illness, the death of a loved one; in life, unusual circumstances can pop up at any time.  How do we prepare for those kinds of things?  Or can we?

            I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially as I packed my go bags and survival-proofed my car.  And it made me remember something my dad said when I got my first job as a teenage pea bum, driving truck in the  Athena pea harvest, in the late 50’s.  I got some good advice from my dad at that time and it made me think about this particular bit, which seems to apply in other situations as well. 

How many of us, in our wild and crazy youth, had the need or the opportunity to ride in the back of a moving pickup truck.  Did you ever do that?  Do you remember how we did it?  Did we stand with legs akimbo, not holding on to anything?  Did we hang over the side and try to grab things off the ground going 50 miles an hour?  Did we jump up and down as the truck roared down the road?

            No, well, maybe some of us did!  But those of us who were more cautious found a place to stand where we could hang onto something and face forward.  And we kept our knees bent, to absorb any shock waves from the bumpy road.
           That’s how you ride in the back of a pickup truck out on the road or in the field.  It isn’t really safe and it’s probably against the law now, but in those days, it was just fun and a handy way of getting from one place to another on the farm or the ranch or in the small town.  And that was the advice I got from my dad, and maybe you did too----hang on tight, face forward, and keep your knees bent.  This is useful advice for life, if you think about it.
In our Summer Sunday forums this year, we had three, count them, three discussions about end-of-life issues.  Each discussion seemed to cover new ground, as though we had endless stories to tell about our own needs, the needs of our loved ones who had died, and the need for dignity and as much self-determination as possible in those last months of life.

For me, the issue of “being prepared”, or rather not being prepared, came sharply to a head this summer when a friend died suddenly and unexpectedly and with absolutely no apparent forethought about preparing for the future inevitability.  

We survivors, her friends, were angry.  How could someone so smart, so organized, so apparently on top of her life, do this to herself or her small circle of friends?  We  had no answers for that, and so “being prepared” took on great meaning for us and is probably one reason why I spent so much time thinking about this topic this summer. 

My friend needed to prepare for a moment in time when a sudden mishap might make it impossible for her to help herself, when others would need to come to her aid.

            What, in your experience, do we humans need to prepare for?  (cong resp, repeat aloud)

            Your thoughts and mine have some similarities:  when I made a list in my journal recently, I listed:

 the earthquake/tsunami event that might come in our lifetime;

the challenges of aging and changing health that affect all ages;

deaths (expected and unexpected);  

changes in the old ways, the old social patterns that cause societal unrest when disrupted;

changes in friends’ and families’ lives;

disappointments in jobs or in relationships;

and always, our children’s lives.

            How do you prepare for these changes?  (cong resp, repeat aloud)

            Again, we’re on the same wavelength: 

we have our go-bags poised by the back door;

we have the best insurance we can afford;

we have written out our wills or our POLST documents or talked to our families about our wishes, if we’re getting old or ill

---and have talked to our parents if we’re young;

we’ve stayed informed about changes in the social climate and have thought through our responses;

we’ve taken the temperature of our own relationships and made amends when we need to;

and we resign ourselves to the inevitable consequences of raising our children to think for themselves and not panicking when they do.

            In all of life’s challenges, I have come to the conclusion that our greatest survival mechanism, the best way we can survive crises of all kinds is to be resilient.

            Resilience is not a magic wand or a miracle-working drug.  It’s not the universe changing a law of nature to give us a break.  And whereas it might be considered an answer to prayer, chances are the answer actually comes from inside our own hearts and minds.

            Resilience is the quality of being able to recover from whatever difficulty life throws at us and move ahead.  It’s not being halted permanently in one’s tracks by a sudden turn of events.  It’s not denial; it’s acceptance and a determination to take the present, make the best of it, and move on.

We’ve seen countless examples of this human ability as we’ve lived through our years on this planet.

            Jimmy Carter, our former President, whose health has taken a turn for the worst, spoke about what sustains him in this time before his death.  And he said that for him, the invisible qualities of justice, truth, humility, service, compassion, and love are the guiding lights of his life.  He has relied on them all his 90 years and we have learned that they form the backbone of his resilient character.

            A Facebook quote from an author named L.R. Knost struck me the other day as also appropriate:

            She writes:

Life is amazing.  And then it’s awful.

And then it’s amazing again.

And in between the amazing and the awful

 it’s ordinary and mundane and routine.

Breathe in the amazing, hold on through the awful,

and relax and exhale during the ordinary. 

That’s just living heartbreaking, soul-healing,

amazing, awful, ordinary life.

And it’s breathtakingly beautiful.


            I like that.  And I love Jimmy Carter and will be sad when death claims him.  But I’m inclined to think that my dad also had it right when he told me to hang on tight, face forward, and bend my knees.

            Hang on tight to those around you and to your values and find a firm place to stand, face forward so that you can see what’s coming down the road, at least as far as you are able, and bend your knees to absorb the shocks as they come along.

            Life isn’t safe and the law won’t always protect us.  Sometimes we can’t control what happens and we have to deal with whatever we get.

            So when those times come, hold on tight, face forward, and bend your knees.

            And, I think my dad might add, if you can, help others do the same.

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

HYMN# 1064, “Blue Boat Home”


BENEDICTION:  Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place.  Let us go in peace, thinking about how we might increase our ability to be resilient in an ever-changing world, committing ourselves to helping others make it through, and preparing our children to thrive as they enter the future.  Amen, shalom, salaam, and blessed be.


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.