Sunday, May 17, 2015

Flaming Chalice Redux

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

Rev. Kit Ketcham, May 17, 2015, PUUF

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

Monday, May 11, 2015

Remembering Who We Are

Rev. Kit Ketcham
UUCWI, May 10, 2015

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

BENEDICTION:  Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place.  Let us go in peace, remembering that our work is to prepare the world for coming generations.  May we cherish the effort of others and vow to build upon their work as we continue to grow in maturity.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

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

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

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

Sunday, April 12, 2015


In the past few days, I have had to come to terms with the fact that it is not a good idea to pretend to myself that a heart that jumps around and thumps hard, then waits a few seconds to thump again, is a heart that is behaving properly.  Apparently it is not.

I had had other indicators which I chose to ignore and blithely assumed the best when I ought to be hieing myself to the doctor to request answers.  There was no pain, no fainting, no dizziness; ie., there was nothing wrong.  Right?

I turned in the aforementioned Holter monitor on Wednesday afternoon, went home and took a much-needed shower, secure in the conviction that Dr. A's assurances were right on target and that I had nothing to worry about.

Thursday about noon, the phone rang and an unfamiliar voice said "I just read the findings from your Holter test and you need a pacemaker as soon as possible."  What?  What?  What happened to the kindly doc who said "you're probably fine, but we'll do this Holter just in case"?  This wasn't he on the phone; it was somebody else.

After some back and forths of disbelief rapidly replaced by the authoritative tones of the cardiac nurse, backed up by Dr. A's affirmation of same, I went home, packed a bag, and hitched a ride with a friend up to St. V's in Portland, where I spent two nights hooked up to monitors that beeped and screeched all during the first night and were blessedly quiet during the second night----because a pacemaker had pacified my rambunctious heart.

I did not realize until the procedure was done and I was lying in bed with my book that night that a peaceful heart does not jump and throb and thump disconcertingly if it is behaving properly.

I have to think about why I would disregard and shrug off such obvious red flags as "grey-outs", where my vision would, for a second or two, dim as though I was about to faint, though I never felt dizzy or lightheaded, just briefly "greyed".  Or the thumps and hesitations that would disrupt my sleep occasionally so that I would wake up, assuming it was because I had to go to the john, but then would be very conscious of the thumpings and hesitations when I went back to bed.

I am perfectly capable of convincing myself that I have some dread malady when other kinds of symptoms crop up (what's that pain?  why am I itching there?  where did that bruise come from?) and have spent time consulting St. Google for help.  Unfortunately, St. G did not link "grey-outs" to anything resembling my thumpety-bumping heart, so I never did either.  Shows you what a great diagnostician the Goog is.

So now I am thanking my lucky stars and the universe which bequeathed me this resilient body---which didn't crap out on me in the middle of the night but woke me up and jump-started my 20 beats per minute back up to 60, at least until I went back to sleep.  I coulda crapped out, according to the docs, and who would have fed the cat then?

So happy to be alive.  So happy to have a regular heartbeat after all this time of enduring the jumping-bean ticker.  So happy to feel exhilarated by every new day.  Thanks be to the docs and the friends and the power beyond human power, which infuses us with the will to live.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Holter thoughts

I understand the reason why I'm wearing this Holter monitor and I will be glad I did, so that I can have a better picture of my heart's health, but it has been quite bothersome because of the restrictions of wearing it for 48 hours---no baths or showers, no electric heating devices nearby, and the clumsy leads and reading device attached to my chest.

I will be very glad to take it off this afternoon and return it for a readout, but until then, I am shackled to it and limited in my actions.

I have developed muscle spasms for the first time in months, probably largely because of the tension and stress around this monitoring session.  The spasms have been bad enough that I've used the heated gel pack and athletic belt all day yesterday and again this morning, after waking up about 2:30 with pain that I couldn't use a heating pad on.  I got up about 3 and heated up the gel pack after feeding Loosy, but couldn't really sleep.

So I've been up since then, using the gel pack, and finally digging out a ThermaCare wrap to use for the dentist appointment at 8.  I feel so disheveled and scuzzy after no bathing or showering for two days that I am thinking I'll call in sick to Science Exchange and let Meg and Sue handle the whole thing. 

At least at the end of it, I'll have a better picture of what my heart is up to, if it's scar tissue causing the irregularities and palpitations (which are not frequent or bothersome, in my experience) and that the slow heart rate is not something to be concerned about at this point.

It's annoying to wear the Holter, but this afternoon I can take it off, shower, and return the device.  I have tried to follow the instructions carefully, but it may be that the gel pack was even disruptive.  I hope not.  I could not have survived without it!

Thursday, April 02, 2015

And yet I pray...

I have been thinking a lot lately about how my own credo has changed over the 72+ years of my life.

As an oldest child growing up in a Baptist preacher's family, I learned all the lessons of my family's traditional faith embodied in the historic tales of the Old Testament and in the parables and undaunted courage of Jesus in the New Testament.  My parents believed these stories were literally true and for a long time I didn't think otherwise.

With college, even at Baptist-supported Linfield College, came new perspectives and ways of interpreting the old stories.  Out of respect for my parents, I didn't say much about these new ways of thinking, though I had extrapolated, from some of their messages to me about how to behave at college, that they were aware that my choices would now be my own, not subject to their parental norms.

Skipping over many decades now, as I've told those stories many times, I have arrived at a place where I must acknowledge that I am no longer a traditional Christian; I'm not sure I'm even a radical Christian any more because I see how ineffectual the shackles of Paulean Christianity have rendered my childhood (and adult) faith.  Too many non-Jesusian items in the creeds of Christianity have moved me out of that category forever.  I pick and choose among the recorded maxims of Jesus, as I have learned that they have been edited to reflect the values that some editor chose to highlight.  What did Jesus really say?  How can we possibly know?

My reading of books and essays about early Christianity has convinced me that Jesus was not the meek and mild person portrayed in Sunday School.  He was likely a member of the Zealot movement with a firm belief that revolution against Rome would bring about the Kingdom of God.  He died as a criminal who threatened Rome.  The idea that he died for humankind's sins is a conflation of old ideas about animal sacrifice and its appeal to the God(s).  He died because he stood up for an ideal and was willing to be martyred for that ideal.  He deliberately put himself in harm's way; Judas was a confederate in his martyrdom, knowingly or unknowingly.

My fascination with the mysterious and slowly revealed Universe has led me to an understanding of the Power beyond human power that is more like natural law than like a being who twiddles the marionette strings of humankind.  There can be no such being.  Natural law fulfills all the functions of that imaginary being and does so without prejudice; we are all subject to the whims of nature and cope as best we can, using gravity to strengthen our bodies and to make our inventions work, gazing at the heavens to look beyond what we know into what we don't know, treating one another with kindness because we have learned that kindness works.

And yet I pray.

I found this relic of a recent nighttime scribbling session in which I wrote:  "I have made friends with the universe.  I have always looked to connect with and befriend the most austere and sometimes unwelcoming beings I encounter, whether human or animal.  I am curious about whether I can find a way into their crusty interior.  This has had mixed success; sometimes that penchant for the unlovable has backfired and sometimes it has brought rewards.  I've learned not to trust too far, that there are red flags I must respect.  But it has been revelatory to apply this penchant to the merciless yet beautiful universe."

And I pray because the universe has proved to be a faithful and reliable yet mysterious friend, which sometimes lashes out---not because I am a bad person but because I have not recognized or prepared for the consequences of non-mindful living.

I pray as if I am in conversation with that friend, relating the events of my life, examining them for understanding of my own needs and obligations, saying thank you for the gifts of life, asking that I might find the strength within to cope with its challenges, and seeking to be a contributor to this life I've been given, to be useful, to be kind, to be a good person.  All of these resources I call upon are within me; they are not outside of me.  The universe, through natural law, shapes my externals; I have the capacity to shape the rest.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Morphing Belief in the Power Beyond Human Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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