Monday, May 09, 2016

Our Mothers' Gifts

Rev. Kit Ketcham, May 8, 2016

Let’s pause for a time of silence, thinking of the many mothers and mother figures we know who have given of themselves to help us become the mothers and fathers, sons and daughters we are today, and opening our hearts in gratitude for their gifts.  (pause)

It’s taken me a long time since my mother’s death in 1994 to understand better my relationship with her, a relationship that often made me feel guilty that I wasn’t more patient with her, that I didn’t come to visit her more often, that I couldn’t be with her as she was dying.

And yet it was also a relationship of great joy, times spent walking down country roads in the Klickitat River valley while gazing at Mount Adams in the distance and smelling the sagebrush, times spent with her and my son on a long cross-country trip through Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, intense Scrabble and Boggle games when she would chortle gleefully over her phenomenal scores—and my pitiful ones.

As we aged, she into health crises of major significance and I into single parenthood and career changes, our roles shifted.
Her caretaking of me morphed from the normal Mom duties of wiping noses, administering aspirin, mopping up tears, reassuring teenage angst, and comforting a newly-single, once-married daughter. Eventually her caretaking was evidenced more in her willingness to weed my Denver gardens, vacuum my dusty floors, clean my grimy kitchen, and…pray for my return to the Baptist fold.

My relationship with her moved from dependence on her mothering to impatience with her lack of understanding of my life, of my religious changes, of my parenting techniques, and of my fondness for one boyfriend or another, for she never felt they were worthy of me.

It also eventually became a relationship which required me to take care of her the best I could from my faraway home in Colorado. Impatience with her became fear of losing her, a sense of obligation that I must do what I could to be present for her---and for my family members upon whose shoulders her care eventually fell. I needed to make amends to her for many lapses in my daughterly duties: that familiar impatience, resentment of her pleas that I return to my childhood faith, my own efforts to make HER see the light of truth and reason.

My relationship with my mother probably has some of the same characteristics of your relationship with your mother, whether your mother is alive or not. I invite you, for a moment or two in silence, to consider the trajectory of your relationship with your mother or the mother figure in your life, whether a biological relationship exists or not. (silence)
Mother’s Day is one of those tough holidays during the church year that causes a preacher to dig deep for a new way of observing it, for it is a holiday that has been commercialized way beyond its original meaning, a meaning stated so eloquently in our antiphonal reading of Julia Ward Howe’s Mothers’ Day Proclamation. 
In addition, some of us have had wonderful experiences with our mothers and others of us have had very painful years because of a mother who was unable to fulfill her role well.

We depend so much on those who mother us! We depend on them for all the tasks that accompany children and youths: the feeding, clothing, cleaning up, teaching, encouraging, nurturing, training, accompanying, shaping, guarding, approving, disapproving.
Though others share these tasks---thank you to big sisters, big brothers, fathers, and other adults---mothers are often the ones who do the most. And, of course, pregnancy and birth are one-woman jobs, though usually with a lot of help.

When we move into those mothering roles ourselves, whether as birth mothers, adoptive mothers, foster mothers, all those female roles of nurture and shaping, we tend to mother the way our mothers mothered us. Even men who take on nurturing roles often find themselves behaving like their own mothers on occasion.

I remember one time, when my son was small and being annoying in that sort-of-innocent little-boy way, my yelling at him, the very words my mother sometimes had yelled at me, “you ornery whelp! I’m going to rip off your leg and beat you over the head with the bloody stump!”
Astonished, he puddled up and began to cry a little bit, not knowing that I was joking, in the way my mother used to joke when she was fed to the gills with our rambunctiousness and needed to say something shocking but entirely impossible.

To young Mike, HIS mom, I must have seemed completely capable of ripping off his leg, at least in fantasy! Oh boy, did I ever have to backpedal! And now I wouldn’t be surprised if he has been in the same situation, of needing something emphatic to get his kids’ attention and make them laugh at the same time.

It has occurred to me to wonder where MY mother got that memorable and shocking phrase! It didn’t come out of her brain, I am pretty sure, as she was about 5 feet tall, slim, and gentle, and I knew she couldn’t possibly rip off anyone’s leg! When I heard it, I knew I was safe from her, but my own son wasn’t sure! Aaaaah!

But what happens when we approach our mothering job after having been raised by a mother who really couldn’t do the tasks of motherhood, whether from illness or a rotten upbringing herself or addictions or any number of the plagues of human living? 

We may have been lucky enough to have a different mother figure to learn from or we may have turned to our father for the nurture our mother couldn’t give. And we stumbled along as best we could, using our own negative experiences as guideposts for what NOT to do.

In the movie “Precious”, several years ago, the actress Mo’nique portrayed the abusive mother of the title character Precious Jones in such a violent and terrifying way that my stomach was absolutely in turmoil. And during that performance, we got a glimpse of the kind of neediness that creates a mother like Mary Jones, whose physical and emotional abuse toward her daughter stemmed from her own lifetime of poverty and mistreatment.

Some of us have been pretty angry with our mothers; we may have told them so or we may have kept it inside, only sharing the positive feelings we had or withdrawing so that we wouldn’t express our hurt. Some of us have used our mothers’ behavior to learn new ways of being in relationship with children, unwilling to risk making the same mistakes.
Some of us have been leery of motherhood and not sure we should take on the role. Some of us mother other people’s children, sometimes in addition to our own. Some of us would love to be mothers but have not yet had that chance.

Most of us, probably, can name the many gifts our mothers gave us, both the positive ones and the negative ones. For a gift’s meaning depends on how we use it. In the movie, the teenage girl Precious learned hard lessons from her mother’s abuse but she was determined to change the trajectory of her life and not let her mother’s behavior become her own behavior. And she was aided in this by other loving adult women she encountered.

Our mothers teach us self-sufficiency in many areas and many ways; some of those are the traditional roles of womanhood---housekeeping, nurturing children, dealing with relationships with men, with other women, with siblings. Some of her ways were helpful and others were not.

We learn from their example, both the good example and the bad. We may find ourselves living out our mother’s foibles and catch ourselves just in time to avoid the behaviors we deplored in her. Or not!

What have been the gifts our mothers gave us? I invite you again into a time of silence to think about the gifts our mothers offered, the gifts we received joyfully, the gifts we rejected because they were inappropriate, the gifts we have transformed from something negative into something positive. (silence)

As I think about the gifts my mother gave me, I am most struck by the gift of JOY, her firm belief that life was good, that there was plenty of love to go around, and that happiness was a natural state of being.
She also gave me the gift of scolding me for saying I was bored and teaching me to look inside myself and at the world outside myself to find interesting things to see and experience.
She gave me the negative gift of being deeply, continuously disappointed in my choice of religious beliefs, and I learned how important it is to respect others’ religious paths.

Just for a moment, I’d like to give you a chance to say your mother’s gift aloud. I’m going to ask you to just call out the name of the gift, whether it was an attitude, a material gift, a deed, a skill, whatever it was. If the gift was negative, see if you can find the silver lining there. Go ahead----say it! And it doesn’t matter if you say the same things or if you say them at the same time. It is a way of honoring our mothers and their gifts.  (go ahead)

Some of us are lucky enough to have mothers living, even living with us or close by and experiencing an entirely different kind of relationship than we did when we lived together as a young family. There is something appropriate about that cycle of living, in which the caretaker becomes the taken-care-of and the child becomes the caretaker. It’s often not a comfortable place to be, for either person, and yet great joy is available in that changed relationship.

When my mother was living in a retirement facility and then in assisted living in Longview WA, we had a chance to see her in a different way. My siblings and I wondered how she would survive the challenges of institutional living after being independent for so many years and we worried about her ability to communicate after several small strokes left her mostly wordless.

But despite her aphasia, her inability to utter intelligible speech, she found other ways of communicating. She immediately found friends at the assisted living facility, she expressed herself with hugs and touches, smiles, tears. She miraculously could remember and sing lustily all the words to the old hymns and carols, even adding her strong alto part at the Christmas concert the care facility put on.

We saw her then in a whole new way, this woman who had survived so many of life’s challenges and great sorrows: the loss of her mother at an early age, her father’s painful death from cancer, the loss of two stillborn babies before I came along, the chronic illness of her beloved husband, my father, my heretical religious beliefs and commitments, the failed marriages of all three of her children, loneliness and pain and ill health.

We saw her make joy out of almost nothing. We saw her continue to love---to love us and our children, to love her new companions also at the far edges of their lives, to love music and singing and visiting favorite places.
We saw her give thanks continuously---to her God, whom she saw as close by and accessible, to us for our love and care, to the nurses and staff members who cared for her, to the friends who visited and took her to church and made sure she was not lonely. What an example for us to follow!

And then she died. Not unexpectedly, not in great pain, but one day she was awake and responsive, the next day unconscious, almost the next day, gone.

The death of our mother is one of the greatest losses we humans endure. Whether she was a good or a notsogood parent, whether she gave us what we needed from her or failed us badly, whether she was joyous or depressed, thankful or ungrateful, nurturing or needy, her death creates a hole in our lives.

A familiar relationship, a long-lived pattern has ended, at least in physical form. How do we deal with that loss? How do we make it as meaningful as possible? How do we cope with the fact that so much still needs to be repaired or acknowledged between us, though time has run out?

I invite us to take another few moments of silence to consider this important moment in all of our lives. For some of us it has occurred; for others, it is yet to be. And before the silence, let me offer these ideas:

If there is pain because of unresolved issues, if there is relief at her release from illness and old age, if there is fear about the future, if there is joy about her life, if there is a desire to make things better, let these feelings and thoughts come to mind, acknowledge them, and let them go, for the present. You can come back to them later.

If there is guilt because we were not the best possible sons and daughters, if there is satisfaction because we know we did the best we could, if there is anger, if there is grief, if there is hope for reconciliation, let these feelings and thoughts come to mind, acknowledge them and let them go, for the present. You can come back to them later.

Let us be still together as we consider the loss of our mothers. (Silence)

We are who we are, in great part, because of our mothers, because of who they were and who their mothers were. We are who we are because of who our mothers chose to be our fathers; we are who we are because of the genetic makeup we inherited, the family constellation in which we grew up, the communities we inhabited.

We do with our own true natures what we have learned from our mothers and fathers. And where those lessons were negative, we have the ability to turn those dark times into silver linings.

As a friend and I were talking, as I prepared for this service, we shared what it had felt like since our mothers died, and she used the word “anchorless”. “She’s our connection to the beginning of our lives”, my friend said. And I thought of the stories my mother had told me of my birth and early childhood, things I could not remember without her help.

I no longer have my mother’s presence, but I have my mother’s spirit deeply embedded in my heart. She influences my behavior even now, as I understand how hard it is to parent an adult child without impinging upon his selfhood as a father, husband, and friend.

And I have become the anchor for myself, for my son, and for others who need me to be that anchor. I look to some of you for anchoring as well, those of you whose years or experience are greater than mine, whose lives reflect wisdom and strength received over all the years of your lives. Thank you for that contribution.

Let me speak to you as an anchor-person myself now: if there are unresolved issues between you and your living mother, do what you can to resolve them, kindly and with the understanding gained from your years of experience. For she will not always be alive but she will always be part of your life.
If she is already gone, consider writing her a letter, perhaps forgiving her lapses, perhaps accepting the gifts she was able to give, perhaps apologizing for your own mistakes and reassuring her and yourself of your love for each other. Then keep that letter and reread it occasionally to remind yourself of the many gifts of the life she gave you.

These actions can bring peace if your heart is troubled by your relationship with your mother; you will have done what you can do and then you can let go of some of that sorrow. It may be worth the effort.

In closing, I’d like to share with you an ode to motherhood that expresses some of the gifts our mothers bestowed. It appeared in my email, so be forewarned. We’ve been awfully serious this morning; let’s laugh.

My mother taught me TO APPRECIATE A JOB WELL DONE .

"If you're going to kill each other, do it outside. I just finished cleaning." 

My mother taught me RELIGION. 
"You better pray that will come out of the carpet."

My mother taught me LOGIC. 
" Because I said so, that's why."
My mother taught me FORESIGHT. 
"Make sure you wear clean underwear, in case you're in an accident."

My mother taught me about GARDENING.
“You could grow potatoes in those ears of yours!”
My mother taught me about WEATHER. 
"This room of yours looks as if a tornado went through it." 

My mother taught me OPHTHALMOLOGY. 
"If you don't stop crossing your eyes, they are going to get stuck that way." 

My mother taught me HOW TO BECOME AN ADULT . 
"If you don't eat your vegetables, you'll never grow up." 

My mother taught me WISDOM. 
"When you get to be my age, you'll understand."

And finally, my mother taught me about JUSTICE. 

"Honey," she said, "you deserve that kid."

Let’s pause for a time of silent laughter and remembrance!
CLOSING HYMN  #131 “Love will guide us”  (see insert for complete words, by permission of Sally Rogers!)
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 our mothers with love and forgiveness, remembering our own efforts to offer mothering to those who need it and forgiving ourselves our lapses. Let us remember as well the many women and men who want children of their own and do not yet have them. May their hearts be eased. May we find joy and growth in the lessons learned from our many, many mothers and may we give our own gifts to the children in our lives. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.


Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Heart of Democracy redux

Rev. Kit Ketcham, April 10, 2016

We had launched our boat trip down the Grand Canyon at the Vermillion Cliffs, at Lee's Ferry, Arizona. It was about noon on that first day when we pushed out into the Colorado River and headed downstream, past the tall cliffs that mark the entrance to this 300 mile long geology lesson.

I've always been a person who likes diving down to the heart of things, in this case, the layers of rock laid down over millions of years of geologic history. Over the next three weeks, as the river took us deeper and deeper into the heart of the Canyon, our small party of boaters watched Earth's physical history revealed in the layers of rock that striped and colored the cliffs.

We had started out on the Kaibab Plateau, where the dusty white layer of sandy limestone looks much like a pesky bathtub ring, and during the next few days, descended through layers of time: the Toroweap Formation, Coconino, Hermit, and Supai layers, and the brilliant Redwall Limestone which is responsible for so much of the color that stains the walls of the Grand Canyon.

By the time we reached the Inner Gorge of the Canyon, we had traversed in our little rafts millions of years of Earth's formation and we still were far from the Center of the Earth.

Jules Verne, in his classic 1864 science fiction novel, depicted the Center of the Earth as a hollow place full of prehistoric animals and natural hazards, reachable through the interior passages of an Icelandic volcano.

This novel, "Journey to the Center of the Earth", written about the time that geologists were abandoning the literal biblical account of the creation of the earth, had the educational purpose of showing how the world looked millions of years ago, from the Ice Age to the dinosaurs, for Verne had carefully taken his explorers down through the layers of rock, showing the different creatures which inhabited each period in geologic history.

Humans have always speculated about the true heart of the earth and our scientists' investigations have revealed it as a molten core of liquid iron and other minerals, alive and acting upon the body of the earth keeping it in a state of constant metamorphosis, with earthquakes, eruptions, and other seismic events, affecting weather patterns through its effect on sea currents, and thereby impacting our lives every day.

All living organisms seem to have a living core which keeps the organism going, keeps its internal systems healthy, makes it possible for the organism to interact with other organisms and produce communities--of bacteria, of families, of forests and pods and gardens and the myriad of beings co-existing interdependently on the earth.
You and I have hearts as our living core, the most important organ in our bodies, for without it we die. When my brother was so ill a few years ago, living on the energy produced by a battery pack which he lugged around with him constantly as his own heart deteriorated, his family and friends became deeply aware of how essential a healthy heart is. And his heart transplant in 2008 has meant the return of his life. Without that new heart, he doubtless would be dead by now.

It's easy to see what keeps a living organism going---its heart is that mechanism which powers a body or a collection of cells which are shaped into diverse forms, from the smallest bacterium to the largest being.

It's not as easy to see what powers a living concept. Our theme today is "The Heart of Democracy" and I invite you to go with me as we follow the threads that lead us deeper and deeper into this concept which is so important in our lives, both as Americans on the brink of an election and as Unitarian Universalists who consider democracy to be a religious principle for us.

Our human bodies are the visible manifestation that something lies at our core. We feel, we bleed, we breathe, we think, we clearly are powered by some energy that is not visible on the surface. Our senses may go, we may lose much of our blood supply and even our intelligence but we are still alive. Even when we cease to breathe, we may still be alive. Even when our heart has stopped, it may sometimes be re-started.
What is the most visible manifestation of democracy? I would say that it is probably the vote, the expression of one's opinion in an election, when the majority rules, when the greater body of voters decides how issues will be resolved or which candidates will take power or what ordinances will become law.

Yet we all suspect, I'd guess, that there is more to democracy than voting. So let's look for the layers beneath that visible manifestation of one person, one vote.

As a sidebar, let me mention that it's a feature of our representative democracy that we do not vote directly on every issue that confronts us as Americans. We instead vote for our representatives, those women and men whom we expect to do their best to provide a stable and just nation for us to live in. We expect them to have the best interests of our nation in mind as they do their work. We are, because of that, a (small R) republican democracy.

Because we are at least one step out in the process for many issues that directly affect us, we can hardly consider our representatives in Congress to be the heart of democracy. They are a feature which makes it easier to get things done, like the kidneys or the liver, but democracy would not die without elected representatives.

 Going back to the idea of "one person, one vote" let's look more deeply at this feature of democracy. What is underneath this particular feature? It showcases the real or purported power and influence of one person and one person's conscience and ability to speak one's own truth. Where does this power come from? Is there a pathway here to the heart of democracy, like Jules Verne's passage through that Icelandic volcano to the center of the earth?

This powerful feature is right in line with our UU principles, particularly our first principle, the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

Yet we have seen the very public corruption of this facet of the democratic process. We have seen the immoral character of some of our representatives smeared across the headlines of our media. We have seen people accused fairly and unfairly of heinous acts. We have seen the votes of our representatives bought and paid for by corporate interests. We have seen individuals in our communities talked into voting against their own best interests by leaders who have only personal self-interest in mind.

So no matter how inherently worthy and dignified we may be as individuals, the truth is that our power and influence as individuals is limited in its sphere. We are free to vote as we will, but our influence and power are negligible unless we form coalitions and associations with others to strengthen our position.

The history of democracy is a checkered one at best. Non-democratic or quasi-democratic nations hold elections, yes, in lip service to the idea of "one person, one vote", but in reality, there is often no choice of candidates, no real way to effect change in the nation. There may be only one party of candidates. There may be threatened violence to dissenters.

There may be coups which overthrow one elected regime in favor of another. This is especially true in formerly colonized nations. And there is a great deal of controversy world-wide about how to bring about a better democratic process in non-democratic and quasi-democratic nations.

There is controversy in our nation about whether our voting process is corruption-proof and a good deal of concern about how to include every eligible voter, how to handle voter fraud, and how to increase voter participation. If "one person, one vote" is to be meaningful, every voice must be heard and counted. When millions of people face losing their vote because of faulty procedures or outright corruption, "one person, one vote" doesn't mean much.

An informed and fully-enfranchised electorate is not the heart of democracy, though we are making progress in our journey to the center of the earth, excuse me, the center of democracy.

 The layer beneath the electorate is conscience, I believe, a sure sense of right and wrong, a desire to speak one's truth and not to be "bought", not to be inveigled into wrong thinking, not to give in to selfish interests, but rather focused on the greater good.

Our conscience, at its best, looks past its own point of view, looks for what will maintain not only healthy humane life for all beings but health for communities as well. Conscience is aware of both one's privilege and one's responsibility.

But however keen our conscience may be, it is not easy to exercise conscience if one does not have the freedom to do so.

Perhaps the layer beneath conscience might be individual freedom and next to it, a recognition and acknowledgement of that freedom. If we are unaware of our individual freedom or if we are prevented from acknowledging it, like those in oppressed conditions, we are not free.

So freedom may be the heart of democracy, and recognition and acknowledgement of that freedom may be its activating force. Without individual freedom and awareness of that freedom, democracy will surely expire, as it has time and again in oppressive regimes.
Now, we may have dived down to the Heart of Democracy, but I don't want to stay there. An active and healthy body does not strictly rely on heart function.

It relies on the interdependence of organs, tendons, bones, blood, the many body parts which together make our bodies fully functional. Like our physical bodies, Democracy relies on more than individual freedom.

At a ministers’ retreat awhile back, I spent three days with my UU colleagues in ministry, a little R&R time for sure but also an opportunity to talk about how we are together, how we support each other, how we care for each other and for each other's ministries with respect and assistance.

Our purpose was to create a collegial covenant together and we spent hours talking about what it means to have a covenant. And this is where I want to draw our attention today because it relates to the heart of democracy.

A commonly spoken UU affirmation—which I have referred to in the past and have used in the service today— contains the word "covenant" as does the charter of the UUA. "This is our great covenant", it proclaims, "to dwell together in peace, to seek truth in love, and to help one another." And our denomination is founded upon principles that we covenant to affirm and promote.

A covenant is not a contract. It is not a business arrangement. Instead, it is an act of mutuality, of consent and promise, of obligation to one another, of shared destination, of shared affection.

It is living, renewable, sustainable, reciprocal. It empowers us to reach out to one another. It clarifies assumptions about our roles within the community.

When we created our mutual covenant as colleagues, it read like this: 
Mindful of our common calling,
conscious of our need for one another,
and faithful to our liberal religious tradition,
reverently we covenant to walk together
in a sacred manner—
nurturing one another,
honoring our diverse ministries,
and strengthening our capacity to serve.
This is a covenant among ministers. It says, in effect, that we will take care of each other, that we will cherish our time together, that we understand what it means to have a calling to ministry, that we are mutually committed to our faith, and that our relationships with each other are important and worthy of nurture.

Just as democracy is less than healthy if all its parts are not working well or are not working together, a community's health is enhanced by a covenant which speaks to our life together.

The late Unitarian Universalist minister Napoleon Lovely once wrote: "The bonds of love keep open the gates of freedom". A covenant based on shared affection helps to insure the freedom of all in the community.
When we are in a covenantal relationship, we promise to each other that we will care for one another, that we wish to live in peace with one another, that we will give and receive freely, that we will speak our truth with love and respect, that we will say yes when asked for help. These are all religious acts, spiritual disciplines, the promise of a covenantal relationship.

It is not always easy to be in a covenantal relationship, as those of you who have been married, who are still married or in a longterm loving relationship, can attest. Very few covenants, even marriage covenants, are written down anywhere but in our hearts, and the assumptions about the covenant between partners or in a community can be wildly inaccurate. Those of us who are no longer married can attest to that one!

A covenant is dependent on trust, on a shared sense of purpose, shared affection, and a mutuality of obligation. It is most successful when it is publicly affirmed and written down somewhere besides just our hearts.  And it works for the benefit of all within the covenant.

Let me end with a story out of my past experiences: 
One spring a few years ago, leaders in the Whidbey congregation became interested in taking a stand on an important issue in our world: the issue of torture and its illegality, its cruelty, and its uselessness. This is a First Principle issue, for torture degrades and abases human worth and dignity.

To determine the level of support in the congregation for placing a banner on our property stating "Torture is a Moral Issue", a poll was taken via email and many positive responses were received.

No negative responses emerged at that time, but after the banner went up, we discovered that several people in the congregation had not been aware that there was a poll and a few were unhappy---not because they believed torture was a good thing but because they felt it unwittingly sent an anti-military message and this was hurtful to our Navy families who also hated the idea of torture and would likely discourage new military families from feeling welcome here.

It wasn't immediately possible to resolve this situation but we vowed to do so as soon as we could schedule a meeting  and a couple of weeks later, 15 or so people met to talk about how to address the issue of the banner.

The conversation was respectful, passionate, and gradually a mutual understanding emerged: that the language of the banner was the sticking point, that a new banner's language would read: "Torture: End it Now!". I was in awe as I saw this happen. I hadn't known what to expect. I had hoped for a peaceful outcome, but to find this level of cooperation and understanding of other points of view was remarkable.

 I saw our dissenters speaking their truth in love. I saw our supporters of the original banner hearing the pain of the dissenters.
I saw the group striving for a mutual resolution that met the needs of both sides. I saw two sides come together in respect and affection. I saw people who had been uncomfortable expressing dissent speaking freely, no longer so afraid that their truth was not welcome.

I heard and saw love in the room, a caring for others, a desire for peace, a sharing of purpose. I saw a sense of freedom and of relief that we can create growth out of differences of opinion.

We affirmed our spoken and unspoken covenant together that night. And I was pleased. And those attending were pleased. And I believe the Universe may have been pleased as well.

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 we are here together in love, that we shape our lives by giving and receiving love, and that we share a common purpose, to increase love and justice in our world. May we find ways to do this in our everyday lives, in our work, and in our play. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Monday, March 14, 2016

What's Love Got to Do With It?

Rev. Kit Ketcham, March 13, 2016

Part I (After the offering/Spirit of Life)
            I was thinking about the sermon the other morning, getting ready to sit down and write, a little pensive because my own experiences with romantic love, at least, have been a little erratic, a little unsatisfactory, and quite a lot painful at times.  I bet I’m not the only one here in that position!
            And as I was reflecting that morning, I realized that though I may not have a lot of great romantic experience, I (and maybe we) have had plenty of experience with deep love, a wider love than romantic love, and an old hymn, written by George Matheson and published in 1882, popped into my head.  I’ll read you the words of part of it.
            O Love that will not let me go, I rest my weary soul in thee,
            I give thee back the life I owe, that in thine ocean depths its flow
            May richer, fuller be.
            O Joy that seekest me through pain, I cannot close my heart to thee;
            I trace the rainbow through the rain and feel the promise is not vain
            That morn shall fearless be.”
            This is a very old hymn out of what I think of as the mystical tradition of Christianity, far removed from the literality of much of today’s traditional doctrine, and set firmly in a faith that recognizes the depth and breadth and universality of Love, linking to the depth and breadth and universality of Joy, its sister.
            I offer you this vision of Love to set the path for our reflection today.  We’re going to look at Love in three ways:  the way of our most intimate relationships with beloved individuals; the way of our relationships within this congregation; and the way of our relationships with the wider world beyond these walls.  And we’ll link it to Joy, its ultimate reward.
            I want us to look at Love---and Joy---as bigger than temporary romantic thrills.   I want us to look at these two life forces as essential to our lives as individuals, our lives as a community, and our lives as contributors to society.
            I invite you to close your eyes for a moment or two and let yourself think about the love in your life, particularly the love you receive and give to the persons and creatures in your life, now and back as far as you care to go.  (moments of silence)
            With your eyes still closed, answer this question either quietly to yourself or aloud:  “Who do you love?”  (say names silently or out loud, as you wish).  And then this question:  “Who loves you?”  (again, silently or aloud, as you wish)
            What are the features of that love?  Deep love may be physically intimate or not; it may be painful at times, it may be exuberant or serene.  It may be all of these things.  Much of it depends on the nature of our interactions with the persons or creatures we love.  It takes thought to express love in ways that the other person or creature can receive.
            How do we express our love to a dear person or a dear creature?  You notice I’m including non-human beings in my wonderings.  Many of us live with a mate but almost as many of us live with other creatures---pets or wildlife or growing things.  What tenderness do we offer to the living beings in our lives?  How does that tenderness and affection freely given enhance our life together?
            I don’t have a mate, at least currently!, but I have always had cats.  Cats who thrive on my attention and care, cats who purr noisily in my lap, who gobble down the expensive special diet food I spoon into their bowls, cats who  are sort of glad to see me when I come home, cats who receive the best care and affection I can give them.
 And what do we receive from those living beings?  We can’t order our beloved ones to treat us in certain ways; we generally have to learn how our mates or children or pets or other beings give love.
As my son grew up, his ways of expressing his love grew up too.  From a child who was openly affectionate as a toddler, he morphed into a teenager who walked 20 feet behind me in the mall when we went to buy school clothes but who produced a wooden plaque with the phrase “Cherish Love” carved into it for my birthday. 
As an independent adult, he has stood with open arms, laughing as I rushed to hug him as tight as I possibly could when he arrived for a vist.  Gifts were literal expressions of love, like the handwritten parchment on my wall saying thank you for a life of love.  He has learned to express love in ways that I deeply appreciate.  And he listens to me, which is a huge gift.  He doesn’t necessarily agree, but he listens and responds thoughtfully.
When we are in relationship with those closest and dearest to us, we usually make a strong effort to keep those relationships warm and rewarding for both parties.  It isn’t always easy.  Sometimes dear ones are estranged from us; sometimes it takes a lot of work not to throw up our hands in frustration and give up, especially when there are major points of disagreement or dissatisfaction.
But if it’s worth it, if there are many years invested, if there are others to consider, we tend to make the effort as long as we can, not wanting to let go of a love that has been sustaining in the past and might be again.  We are instinctively, I think, committed to love as long as we can manage it.
Our desire and instinct to love those closest to us does not die just because we are angry with each other.  It takes a betrayal or serious injury of some kind to discourage that instinctive behavior.  Chances are we have all been there.  Chances are we, right now, have a great deal of love to give the beloved ones in our lives, a great deal of love to give away.
One of our UU composers, the late Malvina Reynolds, wrote “Love is something if you give it away, you end up having more.  It’s just like a magic penny; hold it tight and you won’t have any.  Lend it, spend it and you’ll have so many they’ll roll all over the floor.”
And Fred Small, another UU composer, writes in his song “Everything Possible”:  “You can live by yourself, you can gather friends around, you can choose one special one, and the only measure of your words and your deeds will be the love you leave behind when you’re done.”  With those words in mind, let’s continue with our service.
Part Two  (after Candles of the Heart)
            Let’s sit for a few moments in silence and consider what the experience of Candles of the Heart means to us (silence).  As we have listened to the joys and sorrows of our gathered community, I’m wondering what thoughts and feelings arose for you as our fellow congregants spoke of their lives.
            This time during our service gives us a chance to learn what’s going on in others’ lives, their struggles, their griefs, their hopes, their joys.  As we listen, we may have a myriad of varied reactions.
            We may feel compassion or sorrow at hearing of a loss, eager to help if we hear of a need, tickled by a triumph, joyful at a birth or achievement.  But Candles of the Heart is a snapshot, a bird’s eye view of  our Fellowship.  In these moments we have a chance to see the humanity, the much-varied lives of our fellow seekers.  It can feel sweetly sentimental or jarringly tragic.  But our lighting of candles at this time always invites us into a place of shared life—and love—with our community.
            We are reminded during this time of our shared life, of the losses we have faced and may still face, of the joys we have experienced and have yet to experience.  We grieve and rejoice together for a few moments during our service.  It’s important to know of the struggles and victories that we individually are facing.  The kind words and hugs that follow these sharings are one way we can help each other. 
            Our life experiences help to create the atmosphere of our community.  And just as in a family, discomfort and conflict can arise among us, just as a result of our own experiences and the challenges of being together as a community.
            If we are grieving, we may feel a bit cranky or short-tempered.  If we are rejoicing, we may be impatient with another’s grumpiness.  We can’t always understand where another person is coming from.  For example, if I am grieving some loss and am just trying to make it through the day, I may misinterpret someone else’s words as hurtful, when they are not intended to be.  If I am joyful about some event, I may not realize that my excitement may be seen as a slight to someone else.
            Life together can be complicated, can’t it?
            When I first went to Whidbey Island to serve that congregation, we both had been through tough congregational experiences.  I had made some rookie type mistakes when I was at Wy’east  and though we settled our differences amicably, I decided to move to another congregation after a few years.  The Whidbey Island folks had had to ask a disruptive person to leave the congregation and had lost members in the process.         
            We were both in need of some healing, and as we learned to trust each other, we began to use an affirmation every Sunday to remind ourselves of our ties and our commitment to the health of the congregation. 
That affirmation went like this:  “Love is the spirit of this
congregation and service is its practice.  This is our great covenant, to dwell together in peace, to speak truth in love, and to help one another.”  That affirmation became a part of our worship ritual and led  eventually, to the development of a Covenant of Right Relations, best practices for maintaining the spiritual health of the congregation.
            In voting on acceptance of the Covenant, members and friends were acknowledging how tricky it can be to get along with each other all of the time, especially in times of growth and times of decision-making.  Even the most serene among friends can get testy and crabby if their toes are stepped on, even accidentally.
            Here at PUUF, we are in a process of discernment:  we have grown more in the past couple of years than we have for a long time and we are apparently outgrowing this space, particularly when we are all assembled downstairs after the service.
            We have a Facilities committee that is evaluating this building and other possible locations for their suitability as we continue to grow.  A change of location can be a very stressful challenge for anyone---a single person, a family, a congregation.  We want to do this in a democratic way and there will be decisions to make during the next several months.
            This can be a difficult time for us and it is valuable to remember our unspoken agreement to stay on good terms with one another .  I say unspoken because we don’t have a written Covenant or even a ritually spoken one.  However, our daily behavior with one another implies that agreement; we want to get along. 
            Let’s consider these ideas as we move forward now in our service.
PART III  (after anthem)
            The Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, president of Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, has written:
Your gifts---whatever you discover them to be—
Can be used to bless or curse the world.
The mind’s power
The strength of the hands,
The reaches of the heart,
The gift of speaking, listening, imagining, seeing, waiting,
Any of these can serve to feed the hungry,
Bind up wounds,
Welcome the stranger,
Praise what is sacred,
Do the work of justice
Or offer love.
Any of these can drawn down the prison door,
Hoard bread,
Abandon the poor,
Obscure what is holy,
Comply with injustice,
Or withhold love.
Choose to bless the world.
The choice to bless the world can take you into solitude,
To search for the source of power and grace,
Native wisdom, healing and liberation.
More, the choice will draw you into community,
The endeavor shared,
The heritage passed on,
The companionship of struggle,
The importance of keeping faith,
The life of ritual and praise,
The comfort of human friendship,
The company of earth,
The chorus of life welcoming you.
None of us alone can save the world.
Together---that is another possibility.
            How are we as a community blessing the world?  Let’s reflect silently for a few moments on this thought.  (silence)
            I noticed a church marquee sign not long ago, which stated “Do the Math!  Count Your Blessing!”  I think they might have left off the “s” at the end of the word Blessing, but I kind of like the way it turned out, because my reaction was “Yes!  My blessing counts, in this world!  I can bless the world, with my every action.
            Those of us who grew up in strict Bible-based churches might have gotten the notion that only God---or a clergyperson---could give blessing, that ordinary people were not “blessed” with that ability.
            But I disagree.  We are all capable of giving blessing.  Our every act of kindness, of giving love, is giving blessing.  When we raise our arms in an arch over our children as they leave for their classes, we are giving them our blessing as a community.
            When we offer love to any living thing, we are giving blessing.  When we take care of our own health and needs, we are blessing.  When we offer kindness to mates, kids, friends, we bless them.  When we care for the earth, whether by refraining from hurting it, whether by a garden or indoor plants or watching protectively for wildlife on the roads, we are blessing the earth and its creatures.
            So circling back around to the title of this sermon, “What’s Love Got to Do with It?”, here’s what I think:  Love has everything to do with it.  Love is our super power.  It affects every aspect of our lives and can be used to heal or….if warped and maimed into falseness, it can be used to destroy.
            We can choose to bless or to curse each other, our community, and the world.  If we bless, the outcome is Joy; if we curse, the outcome is Despair.  What will we choose?
            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 the power of love is our power, our strength, our opportunity.  May we go forth in love to bless the world, to bless our community, and to bless all those we love.  And in so doing, may we reap the blessing of Love, which is Joy.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.