Saturday, December 30, 2006

Just to watch him die....

I couldn't do it. I clicked on the raw video button on the Comcast news page and watched a minute or so of the run-up to the execution, with the black-masked executioner showing Saddam the black scarf, tying it around his neck (what, to keep his skin from being scratched?), and then, presumably, putting the noose around his neck. I don't know, because I turned it off. I couldn't stand to watch any more.

In my work, I have seen a lot of dead bodies, some of them violently killed. I have been with people as they took their last breaths. I did not want to see any more of this death. I feel horror and pain about the evil things Saddam Hussein did but I do hear a still small voice in my ear, "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay".

Lifelong prison sentences, yes. Punishment, for sure. But I do not have the right to take even Saddam Hussein's life.

Saddam Hussein executed

Just read on a political blog (Colorado Confidential) that Saddam Hussein was executed last night. Much as I have deplored the stories of Saddam's cruelty, despotic behavior, and murderous treatment of Iraqis, I feel that his death is just one more violent event in a millennium of violent events in the Middle East. It is vengeful behavior on top of more vengeful behavior and does not end anything. It is an odd justice that kills someone for killing someone. I don't believe in the death penalty, even for someone like Saddam Hussein.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Winter Eliot Institute

I'll be leaving in a little while to attend Winter Eliot Institute, at Seabeck Conference Center over on Hood Canal. The speaker is Rev. Patrick O'Neill and I'm looking forward to meeting him and hearing what he has to say. So many old friends congregate at Winter Eliot that I'll be able to connect with again, and I'm looking forward to that as well.

There are always lots of kids, youth, and young adults, as well as us older Elioteers, so it's four days of liveliness as well, with a talent show, musical events, a big New Year's dance and celebration (when most of us elders go to bed at 10 p.m. after sneaking nibbles of the feast).

I'll be back on New Year's Day and I hope I find that they have fixed the leak in my basement! The property management team, Polly and Brad, were here this morning to let me know that the fix is underway. The cats are disgruntled because I'm not letting them go downstairs, but they'll live.

Happy New Year, dear readers!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Who do UUs reach out to?

During this Holy Day season, I have noticed, in the newspapers, many accounts of how local evangelical and nondenominational churches, both large and small, have reached out widely to serve the poor, with gifts of food, toys, clothing, and other of life's necessities. These efforts are very much appreciated by recipients, by community members, and, I suspect, even by Unitarian Universalists who, at least around here, don't make large efforts in this department.

One reason I think UUs don't do more of this kind of outreach is that we have little personal experience of deep poverty and homelessness. Many individual UUs have this experience, but most do not. I also think we are self-conscious about privileged white liberals doing something nice for the underprivileged. We've been tarred with that brush a little too often and are aware of the patronizing attitude this projects. We are also well-aware that, though feeding hungry people is absolutely necessary, it doesn't address the root causes of poverty.

So we aren't out there in the Christmas marketplace making a name for ourselves by doing good. The people who are out there tend to be the Salvation Army, the Christian Missionary Alliance, the Union Gospel Mission, Catholic religious, and other conservative religious folk who know darn well what it feels like to go without, because they've been there, have lived in poor neighborhoods, have family members who are the working poor.

This is not a diatribe about UU social uselessness; I think we are very socially useful. I also don't want to appear to undervalue the outreach of other religious folk. It seems to me that, just as there is a continuum of religious philosophy, from radical fundamentalism to radical liberalism, there is a continuum of humanitarian service, from feeding the hungry to investigating and addressing the causes of hunger.

Feeding and clothing are pretty public; they draw the photographers for cute pictures of little kids with new toys and clothes and stories about how whatever church it is has pulled together this major effort to provide a Christmas for hundreds of people. Nearly every article has quotes by one or more leaders of the church saying something like, "I remember what it was like for me...." Those leaders may preach a theology that is not very welcoming in other ways, but they sure walk their talk when it comes to feeding the hungry.

Locally, the pastor of the CMA church refused to show me the ropes as a volunteer chaplain because he didn't agree with my UU theology; however, he and his congregation offer a free lunch twice a week to anyone who wants to come to the CMA church and eat. When I visited there, with our social action team, the lunch bunch was an assorted group of apparent vagrants and well-dressed business people.

Unitarian Universalists, I think, are best suited to figuring out what causes hunger and poverty and then looking for ways to address that at the roots. I read in the UU World of the efforts of UU congregations around the country to help people provide their own food, to teach energy-saving techniques, to increase use of public transportation and that sort of thing. It's not very public work. The photo ops tend to feature older people grubbing in the dirt or pounding nails or registering voters, not cute little kids.

But darn it, I think it's important and it's the kind of social action we do best; it fits with our education level, our world view, and our abilities. And somebody's got to do it or it won't get done.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Happy Holy Days and one particularly memorable

Doh! As Homer Simpson might say. In a brief article this morning in the newspaper, someone noted that "holiday" is, in fact, a short cut to "holy day", meaning that the whole "war on Christmas" kerfuffle is an uneducated, irrelevant rant, since to wish someone Happy Holidays is to honor the whole spectrum of religious observance. Of course. It's quite churlish of folks like Bill O'whoever and other oh-so-benighted neo-Christian talking heads to want to narrow the focus of this time of year down to their particular holy day, scorning the legitimacy of others' holy days. Ah well, I suspect we'll fight this battle for some time to come. It just seems so stupid.

Last night's Christmas Eve service was wonderful! Because we were dedicating 8 children, every family brought all the nearby grandparents and assorted friends, most of the regulars showed up as well, and the place was packed. We had to set up several rows of the uncomfortable metal folding chairs but no one complained, everyone sang with gusto, substituting the familiar words of the carols for the degenderized words of the SLT hymnal. We sang Silent Night as our two youth lit the candles for each row and the light grew brighter. There were lots of visitors who may come back, several out-of-towners here on a winter break, and thrilled parents at the dedication ceremony. And the bereaved wife of our beloved congregant was there, teary but present.

Our ceremony is that I tell what dedication means to a congregation and the symbolism of the rose and the water; our DRE explains what is in the tiny bags that she will give each child (a lump of sugar, bitter herbs, a Susan B. Anthony dollar, and seeds) and the significance of each item (you can probably figure it out yourself). Then each family steps forward, I ask "what is this young person's name?", the parents answer (or the kid, if s/he is willing), and I dip the rose bud in the water, which comes from our Water Communion ceremony, and say "I touch your head that you might learn to think clearly; I touch your lips that you might learn to speak truth; I touch your heart that you might learn to love deeply; I touch your hands that you might learn to serve others; and I touch your parents (or mom, or dad, or whoever) that they may always remind you how deeply you are loved. Welcome to the UU Congregation of Whidbey Island."

It never fails to evoke great joy in the sanctuary to see the children so welcomed. One little boy kissed the rose as it touched his lips; a soft sigh ran through the room. One tiny girl piped up with her whole full name before her folks even opened their mouths-----soft laughter. It was a wonderful evening.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Christmas 2006

This is the first Christmas Eve that I have been able to celebrate with a congregation of my own since 2002. Serving two small congregations parttime has always meant that I was not on duty on that particular date. This year I suggested to the Whidbey folks that, since Dec. 24 is a Sunday and we meet at 4 p.m. anyhow, we have a bang-up celebration, complete with candlelight carols and a child dedication.

Many thought it would be a poorly attended, throwaway service and some thought we oughtn't meet at all. I'm glad to have changed their minds and, with the help of our DRE and a local seminary student, UUCWI will meet in a candlelit space, sing the old songs, hear some good stories and a short intergenerationally-friendly homily, welcome 8 children into the congregation, and sing Silent Night as two teenage boys solemnly pass the light down the rows. We'll enjoy holiday goodies afterwards and disperse to our homes, warmed by friendship and engaged by the mystery that seems to accompany darkness pierced by candlelight.

I'm coming home thereafter pooped out, having a big bowl of ertasopa (Norwegian split pea---my mother's recipe and a Christmas Eve tradition in my family) with sourdough bread, opening a couple of packages, perhaps calling my son or sibs to share the evening long distance, and quietly savoring an evening of joy.

The next morning, I'll open other packages and begin to get ready for Christmas dinner. I threw open the invitation to anyone in the congregation who didn't have family to celebrate with and I will have about 10 guests, some couples and some singles. I'll roast the turkey and they'll bring the fixings.

So it will be a perfectly lovely Christmas. I hope your celebrations, whatever they may include, are bright and memorable as well.

40 years ago...

I was getting dressed for my wedding. We made it for 13 years. Our son is proof that we did a pretty good job, even though we grew apart. Rest in peace, marriage of Kit Ketcham and Larry Gilmore. We had good times and bad times and are both much happier now.

Friday, December 22, 2006

A Wedding Anniversary

Today is the _______ anniversary of my parents' wedding. I've got the cat on my lap and can't get up to look through my boxes of memorabilia for the proper year. Maybe nephew Joel has it on the tip of his tongue and will provide it.

Even though my dad, Merritt B. Ketcham, died in 1970 and my mom, Mona Larson Ketcham, in 1994, my sister, brother, and I (and maybe others) remember that love story well and commemorate it in our hearts every year. Of course, my parents, when they were alive, commemorated it every month. Every 22nd of every month, they would say to each other "Happy Anniversary, Honey" and hug and kiss (gasp!) right in front of us kids!

She was a schoolteacher on the Oregon slope and he was a young cowboy turned orchardman in Payette, ID. They met through my dad's schoolteacher sister. My mother had been a genteelly-raised young girl in the Scandinavian community of Spokane; my dad had grown up in Missouri helping his dad run moonshine. His mother's fears for his life caused her to send him to Wyoming to work on a ranch at age 14, from whence comes our family boast "our dad was a cowboy in Wyoming". (It sort of authenticizes our other boast that we are distantly related to Black Jack Ketchum, a New Mexico gunfighter in the mid-1800s. All Ketchams are related, we think, regardless of the spelling.)

They met, they fell in love, and after their marriage, they went to Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, where both received education that would enable my dad to be a minister, a calling he felt strongly after a sister's healing. Of course, my mother was just as educated, just as capable, and she was the quintessential minister's wife, teaching Sunday School, singing in the choir, schmoozing with the Baptist ladies, a bright star in my family's crown.

They lost two babies before I was born, Jimmy and Charles, and they were scared they were going to lose me. But I survived and thrived, as did my younger sister and brother, Jean and Merritt (aka Buz). Our little family moved from Mossyrock WA to Portland OR, then out to Athena OR, and later to Goldendale WA, where my father died after about 30 years of ministry.

My mother was bereft but soldiered on, and we sent her anniversary cards every year on Dec. 22. And here we are again:
Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad. Thank you for a lesson in loving relationship that your kids have occasionally fumbled in our own lives but see bright and shining as the Christmas Star, a beacon of hope and faith.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Messages from the earth

Says the earth to humanity:
You are utterly dependent on me. You can work with me or work against me, but I will always win if we are in conflict. I can destroy you and I will destroy you if you are disrespectful. (Sometimes even if you are respectful.) I do not require you for my existence. You do require me.

I will continue to exist whether all my oil and natural gas and minerals are depleted, whether the ice caps melt, whether climate changes drastically alter my surface. You may not continue to exist if these things occur. I don't care whether you exist or not, for I do not need you. I can heal myself, even when I am scarred and wounded. I don't mind your helping to make the scars and wounds less painful, but when you are gone I will continue to exist.

I am what I am and I am beautiful and full of life's joys, as well as sorrows. I am here for you to enjoy and use, not to use up, not to deface, not to squander. I am here to teach you, to give you ideas, to show you my mysteries and tease you into understanding them. I am here to flood your heart with awe and wonderment, to give you a place from which you can view the stars, to challenge you to be in relationship with me.

I am the earth. I am the original Sacred Text, wordless yet holding all of the answers to life's questions. You ignore me at your peril.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

64 hours without electricity and water

The power at my house went out at about 8 pm Thursday night and came back on today about noon------64 hours, give or take a few minutes, without electricity or water, since I'm on a well. That was quite a stretch, longer than I've ever had to endure. Yesterday morning, after a second night under two down comforters and two cats, I decided to find respite housing and called friends who had gotten their power back sooner.

I packed up the cats, a change of clothes, and the Christmas turkey which was starting to thaw and moved over to my friends the Bingmans, invited to spend as long as necessary till the power came back. We had a good time, but I'm glad to be home.

I'll write more later. For now, I'm just relieved to be warm and clean!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth

I have just finished watching "An Inconvenient Truth" on DVD and found it powerful and persuasive. Gore does a terrific job of putting the facts, the statistics, the trends, the resistance, the excuses, and the consequences out there in front of everyone. It is pretty hard to continue to think "Oh well, there's plenty of time..." There's not, folks. See the movie, change your life; our kids' lives depend on it.

Deaths in the family

The past couple of weeks have been fraught with sorrow for many, many people.

Here on Whidbey, another member of the UU family died unexpectedly, a woman in her 50's, not as well known as the man who died earlier, but a part of our congregation nevertheless. I had visited her not long ago and found her in good spirits, eager to resume her life after being diagnosed with polymyalgia rheumatica. Sadly, this condition worsened into giant cell arteritis and her body just gave out. Her memorial will be after the holidays.

On Vashon, I learned, the son of a Fellowship couple died suddenly yesterday morning of a heart attack. Parents are not supposed to outlive their children and the couple is, naturally, devastated. I will not be able to travel to Vashon to be with them just yet. I will hope that at a later date, I will be helpful.

And now the news of the death of the Rev. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley, beloved colleague and friend to many, married later in life to her sweetheart, the Rev. Clyde Grubbs, who was at her bedside when she died. I knew Marjorie only briefly but was warmed by her friendly, welcoming spirit. Her influence and the love she gave so freely has altered and will continue to alter the shape of history. For a sense of the many lives she has touched and the many ways she has influenced Unitarian Universalism, google her name. You will be amazed and thrilled by her legacy.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Gratitude sets the stage for Joy...

I’ve done some thinking about the relationship of sorrow to joy and I’ve concluded that what happened to me and my sister (referring to an early post on Joy) offers some insight into how we might prepare to receive Joy.

It seems to me that the first step must be Gratitude. A recent study published in the Seattle Times describes a scientific method for being happier, and it doesn’t involve drugs. It suggests that unhappy people can become happier if they begin a discipline of gratitude, if they think every day of at least three good things that have happened to them during the day.

Feeling grateful to someone who has been kind, feeling thankful for the benefits of everyday life, saying thank you to the universe for its beauty ---gratitude is a gift we can give no matter what our circumstances.

Remember how good it feels when someone writes you a thankyou note for something you have done for them? It makes me feel great and it makes me feel grateful in return for that person’s thoughtfulness. I believe that when we give the gift of gratitude, we prepare to be surprised by Joy.

Another step in setting the stage for Joy, I think, is recognizing the connectedness we have to one another. I call this Hope, the sure knowledge that we are part of the inexhaustible stream of life, that we belong in this universe, that we are part of Creation, part of life. And when we give Hope to ourselves and to others, I believe we prepare to be surprised by Joy.

The third stage, perhaps, is Love, reaching out in kindness and support to our companions on the road, whether we agree with them theologically or politically, whether we think they’re nice people, whether we approve or disapprove, whether we receive from them what we would like to receive. Giving Love without limits is yet another way, I believe, to prepare to be surprised by Joy.

So we prepare for Joy by expressing Gratitude, by finding Hope in our connection to others, and by giving Love wherever we can. Kind of another Trinity, maybe, one that gives legs to our sense of relationship with the Divine and our human need to do something to make that relationship real.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

And life goes on...

It has been a week today since our dear congregant died, a week of getting used to having a large hole in our lives, a week of focusing on a religious service that would somehow immortalize his memory and comfort his survivors, a week of listening and talking and writing and thinking about the man and the qualities that epitomize his character and his life. And yesterday, hundreds of folks came together to celebrate his life and mourn his death.

The family had asked friends, a musical group called Balkan Cabaret, to supply music for the memorial service and as I listened to the melodic yet minor harmonies of this plaintive music, I found it just right for the occasion. Crying and laughing in the same moment, the music mirrored the mood of the ceremony and enhanced the significance of what we were doing.

The service proceeded smoothly, many had opportunities to share stories of their friend and family member, and there was a great deal of laughter in addition to the sorrow and tears. When I left the reception hall hours later, Balkan Cabaret was playing and a long line of dancers was stepping serenely to the music, the bereaved wife in the middle, supported by her friends and family members, a look of weary calm on her face.

I am always struck by how important it is to celebrate life and all its twists and turns: as it begins, as it moves through passage after passage, and then finally, as it ends. It is how we create and preserve the meaning of our human existence, how we make connections with one another in joy and in grief, and how we perceive our relationship to the mysteries we seek to understand.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Tired tonight...

Up at 4:30 a.m., on the 5:45 a.m. ferry from Vashon to the Kitsap Peninsula, north to Port Townsend and the 8 a.m.ferry, getting home about 9 a.m. A quick unpacking of car and suitcase, scanning the mail, reassuring the cats, and then making a list of what HAS to be done today to get ready for tomorrow's memorial service, what needs to wait until that is behind me, and then plodding away at the list until now I am pretty well ready for tomorrow.

The hardest, yet most rewarding, part of preparing for a memorial service is preparing the eulogy, or Memorial Portrait, as my mentor Robert Latham calls it. To sit with the family, listening to the stories, making notes, asking questions delicately, encouraging and supporting and waiting out the tears---------this is some of the most important work I do, and it's both exhausting and exhilarating. And it heals; it gives us a chance to laugh together over the quirks and idiosyncrasies of this beloved but very human man and laughter is healing and soothing to a devastated spirit.

I'm ready for tomorrow, but I'm going to take a hot bath with lavender salts tonight, go to bed early with my current Laurie King mystery, and make up for getting too little sleep last night. See you in the morning!

Friday, December 01, 2006

In shock...

I have been in "stunned" mode since yesterday afternoon. I was expecting the Social Action committee to descend upon my house for a meeting about their exciting work on a project addressing 'An Inconvenient Truth". While I was waiting for them, about 3p.m., the phone rang. It was our church administrator giving me the terrible news that a long time, beloved, fairly young man in the congregation had died suddenly of a probable heart attack.

I knew this man well. He had been on the search committee which selected me as the minister here on Whidbey. He had been on my Committee on Ministry for three years. He was now on the board. He was the guy in the congregation who could always be counted on to step in with a scale model of our building plan, with financial support, with encouragement and energy and time. He was a man of great compassion and strength. And he is gone, just like that. His wife is in shock and family members are flying in from all over the country.

This is the moment in time when everything I am or can be has to come together, even though it means setting aside my own grief for a time so I can be present for others and help them make their way through the multitude of thoughts, feelings, plans, and the general numbness that accompanies loss.

Yesterday I was surprised by Joy. Today I am charged with helping others through the worst pain of all, but the pain that can help prepare us to receive Joy. I pray that I am able to do so.

Kahlil Gibran wrote:
“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. How else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
“Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven? And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?”
“When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful, look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”

Hard words to absorb when we are in the depths of sorrow, but wise words nevertheless.