Friday, November 30, 2007

What do our pets mean to us?

For you Maxie-philes, here's the latest picture. Max and Loosy were caught out in a compromising position: in bed.

What do our pets mean to us? My friends, when they ask how many cats I now have, warn me against becoming a cat lady, which is, by their definition, anyone with four or more cats. I've been a cat lady in my time and know that there are good ways of being a cat lady (which is how my cyberfriend Miss Kitty seems to do it, rescuing strays, caring for them temporarily, and finding them homes) and not-so-good ways, as in the woman on TV whose house is full of cats and their less-desirable end products (so to speak), meaning that the Humane Society has to step in.

I don't have hoarding tendencies, so I'm unlikely to fall into the second category, but if my experience adopting Maxwelton is any indicator, I'd better stay away from places that offer free kittens. Actually, I probably wouldn't have taken Max home had he not been so distinctive-looking, with his white and orange face. I'm a sucker for a cat of great color. Loosy and Lily are both beauties that way. One friend said yesterday, after a gathering here, "each one of your cats is gem-like in its coloring". Very true.

So one of the things my pets mean to me is beauty. Not all the animals I've owned have been traditionally beautiful; I'm talking beauty of an additional sort as well. A beautiful nature works for me. Any part of any animal which is soft, pettable, responsive to me---I'm easy.

As I sit here at the computer with Max on my shoulder, his little pitons of claws gripping the skin through my shirt, I'm aware that another characteristic of my pets' meaning is their sacred trust in me. They are utterly dependent on me for food, water, clean litter, affection, and this is important to me. I am trustworthy, in their experience, and I take that very seriously. It's good for me to be trusted. It strengthens my character and my character often needs a little tweak of that sort.

The reason I'm thinking about this is that my household dynamic has changed since Max arrived. I've started to worry about Lily, who was the baby up until a month ago. A large, four-year-old baby, to be sure, but she was the adored and pampered youngest member of the family, secure in her relationship with me and with Loosy. Now that Max is here, she's not sure of her place and I catch her hiding out in odd places or staring wistfully at my lap---which has Max in it. Loosy is willing to share the lap; Lily is not. She's trying to figure out what it means to be a big sister, rather than the little sister.

Max is hugely entertaining to me but he causes the two adult cats a lot of anxiety. They'll go out on the deck in pouring rain just to get some respite from his leapfrog ways. Loosy has taken him down and sat on him. I stop overly rough and tumble stuff, especially when I hear cries of distress, but natural consequences are a useful thing and Max has to learn some manners.

And pets are a major source of companionship for me. They are someone to talk to, someone to take care of, someone to plan for, someone to comfort me when a human isn't available. They keep me warm on a cold night, don't talk back, don't have to be consulted if I make plans, and stay reasonably clean. Now if I could only get them to take out the garbage!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Sunday, November 25, 2007

An Alternate Salvation?

In Saturday's Post Intelligencer, the Rev. Anthony Robinson wrote a wonderful essay for his column "Articles of Faith", which you can link to here. The headline is "Quest for wellness is headed toward idolatry".

Rev. Robinson is a retired UCC pastor in Seattle and his wisdom has graced the pages of the PI for several years. I always enjoy his thoughts. He's every bit as liberal as I am, at least on the issues I'm aware of, and firmly grounded in his Christian faith. As I watch the teachings of Jesus being plowed under by theologies that seem to lean more toward anti-love and pro-prosperity, I'm thankful to read something that offers a more truly Christian outlook on our culture.

I've been thinking about this topic for a long time, as I'm bombarded by print and TV ads for drugs, for exercise programs, for diets and diet gurus, for anti-aging potions, and the like. Virtually all of these ads and much of our TV and print programming as well are focused on staving off death, subtly expressing a fear of death, a fear of aging, a fear of illness. These are normal human fears and we deal with them in a variety of ways.

If we are young or if our children are ill, we will naturally do everything we can to extend life. This is a reasonable thing to do. I think of my brother, who has battled heart disease since he was 30; it feels reasonable to me that he explores every avenue possible to extend his life. I think of the friends whose children fight cancer or other devastating illness; of course we/they will expend every effort to save their lives.

But physical health has come to be an obsession in our culture. As Rev. Robinson says, it has become idolatrous, worshipped to the point of giving over our lives to it. The media tell us that we need to be focused on our physical health all the time, watching our weight, checking our blood pressure and blood sugar, exercising a certain amount daily, taking the right vitamins, eating the right food, never letting up in our efforts to extend our physical lives. To what end? We're going to die anyhow!

But they're right, to an extent. We do need to be proactive with our health. If we have a chronic or acute condition, we need to deal with it and maintain the medication regimen prescribed by our doctor.

But we're scared to death by the ads, by the articles, by the hype on health. We read the latest research as though it were the word of God. Alzheimer's disease risk is lowered by aspirin in umpteen percent of women? Let's double our aspirin. Never mind that all the research seems to indicate conflicting results!

What if we spent the same amount of time focusing on our spiritual health? What if we spent as much time in prayer or in justice activism or meditation or other spiritual pursuit? What if our quest for physical health was only as important as our quest for spiritual health?

Which would give us a better life, make us happier? Physical health guaranteed to make us live until our creaking bodies can no longer be resuscitated by exercise, drugs, and potions? Or spiritual health guaranteed to give us peace of mind and heart until we keel over smiling?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

A Miraculous Device

Here's something I'm thankful for. This is a picture of my brother in the hospital, though wearing street clothes because he's feeling so much better, holding the Left Ventricle Assist Device that is saving his life.

A Spiritual Odyssey

One of the traditions in many UU ministers' chapters is the sharing of one's spiritual odyssey with one's colleagues, often done at one of the retreats of the chapter. Our group here in the Pacific Northwest District meets three times a year: in the fall, at the winter General Meeting of the district, and in the spring. At each retreat, one colleague shares his or her spiritual odyssey, their spiritual life's journey, during an evening reserved for that particular purpose. Whose turn it is depends on one's seniority in the district, the date when one arrived in the district; a chronological list is kept of when each person came to the PNWD to serve a congregation.

I learned last spring that my turn would be at the spring retreat in 2008. I began serving a congregation in this district on August 1, 1999, and by the time I offer my odyssey, I will have been in this district for almost nine years. I can hardly believe that it's actually my turn coming up; I still feel like such a rookie in some ways.

For me, recounting my life's history and the events and circumstances that have shaped my journey into ministry is something I am relishing for more than one reason. Not only will I present a one-hour version of my life to my colleagues next April, but I will leave my son and my siblings a detailed record of what I feel has been important about my journey, why I made the decisions I did, and how those decisions have landed me where I am---a Unitarian Universalist minister serving a small thriving island congregation.

So I started writing it on Thanksgiving Day, as I was reflecting on the many joys of my life (not the least of which was that someone else was roasting the turkey and I only had to show up with the rolls). It will be way too long to post; it's already seven single-spaced pages and I've barely gotten to my high school years.

But I will offer it to my son and sibs when it's finished, and they'll get the long version, in print. They can read it or toss it, depending on their mood. But my mother did this for us, as best she could as she got older and less able to write. For some of the earliest years, I have relied on her account of my parents' life together, and I am aiming for a document that includes some of that history plus what I think have been the most influential events and circumstances of my life.

Today I have a lunch date with a couple from the church; we are planning our upcoming service auction and I suggested we include a chili cookoff as part of the festivities, so we're getting started on that planning. And this evening, congregants will gather here at my house for our third Conversation on the UU Sources. We're playing the game Enlighten for a little while, to get people jazzed up, and then we'll discuss what we see as being the importance of world religions to Unitarian Universalism.

It's shaping up to be a good day. Loosy just gave Maxie a tentative lick with her ever-ready grooming tongue (though she quickly realized it was the despised kitten she was grooming and got a very odd look on her face); now they are both on top of me---Loosy on my lap purring away, secure in the knowledge that she usurped Maxie's place, while Maxie the Magnificent roosts on my shoulder. Lily is sleeping near the heat vent, having worn herself out by chasing Max earlier this morning. Ahh, many thanks for it all, Universe!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving Thoughts

I'm sitting at the computer, which faces an east window in my house. It's 7:17 a.m. and the sun is just turning the sky pinkish. When I went out to get the newspaper about 6, two owls were calling back and forth, one in an alto range and the other in a deeper, maybe tenor range of who-hoohoo-hoohoo. I imagined that they were telling each other about my progress up and down the long driveway.

Back in the house, I unwrapped the papers, which were so packed with ads that they were three times their normal size, even though on the island we don't have much access to most of these stores. But it's interesting to leaf through them and marvel at the effort the ad people go to to get us out there in the holiday crush. They all go in the recycle bin, as I have no intention of spending any time whatsoever in the big stores this holiday season.

My email this morning contained another encouraging report from my sister in law, who tells a crowd of friends and family that my brother is making good progress in his recovery from 8 hours of heart surgery a week ago, to implant a Ventricle Assist Device which will enable him to live fairly normally until he can get a heart transplant. He's cheerful and optimistic, though he has had his ups and downs since the surgery. This is a huge thing I'm thankful for this year, that his health will again improve and that he will have a reasonable quality of life for a time. We don't know for sure if he'll ever get a heart transplant, but the odds are fairly good that he will. And in the meantime, he does what he needs to do to stay alive.

It makes me thankful that my own heart troubles eight years ago were so well-resolved by the surgery to fix a formerly-undiagnosed congenital heart defect. My brother and I have apparently inherited our father's heart weaknesses; my brother had a heart attack at age 30, related to a congenital heart defect, and his heart has steadily deteriorated since that time, with many interventions keeping him alive and functioning during the years since that happened (about 25 years now). My saga began with a heart murmur first heard at age 12 or so, never figured out until I was getting ready to begin my first pastorate. A year after the atrial septal defect was diagnosed, I underwent surgery myself and it was repaired, with no aftereffects that I can tell.

So I'm thankful this year for the skill of doctors, the love of family, and the reprieve that my brother has received. I'm also grateful for the role model he offers us all. Determined to live as well and as long as he possibly can, my brother refuses to give up. He explores every avenue, checks out every lead. He is better informed about cardiac surgery and cardiac care than most general practitioners. Faced with a horrible choice---to give up and let nature have its way---he chooses to pursue life. Our dad died at age 62 of his heart troubles; my brother is determined to outlive him. When I passed that age 62 milestone, I felt a huge sense of triumph, that ministry wasn't going to kill me early.

Lots of thoughts this early island morning. I hope your day is as full of gratitude as mine.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Eye Spy

gURL.comI took the "If You Were a Spy..." quiz on
I am a...
harriet tubman

We bet you're the type of person who'll do anything for anybody--as long as you have a plan of attack. Since Harriet Tubman is your spy personality, it probably means that you're generous, kind and tend to use your street smarts more than brute strength when it comes to getting out of a jam.Read more...

Which spy are you?


Completely ecstatic! My son and his bride are coming to visit me for Christmas! It is the best possible Christmas gift I could get. They will arrive on Friday afternoon and leave on Christmas evening. For a couple of Christmases in a row now, I have been unable to get together with him or other family members for Christmas and have choreographed other celebratory times to stave off the inevitable "why me?" feelings that can come creeping in when everyone else is with family and I'm not.

It can be done, but it's not my favorite way of spending Christmas, though it has been bearable, even pleasant. One year I took a "sabbath" on Christmas Day, reading only meaningful literature or non-fiction (saving the latest Stephanie Plum hootfest for Dec. 26), writing meaningful thoughts in my journal, eating a meaningful meal of exactly what I think of as a proper Christmas dinner---prime rib, mashed potatoes, salad, and mince pie---, and opening presents in the middle of the day, not at 5 a.m. as we used to do when the Favorite Son was small and not so hard to get out of bed.

This year will be such a pleasure! I was just over at the grocery store, getting the rolls for the T'giving dinner I'm invited to tomorrow, and I wandered through the aisles looking at all the things available and plotting what I would serve while they're here. On the phone Monday night, the FS described a recipe he wants to make for us and it sounds delicious, involving fish and tomatoes and other delights. He's a great cook and I love it when he does meals.

Today is a beautiful day on the island, clear blue skies, sunshine slanting in the windows, cats basking in the warm spots. Max is stretched out on the window sill above the computer desk, his eyes half-closed in drowsy contentment, soaking up a few rays. Lily is outside, safe from the depredations of small cat leapings, and Loosy is hiding out somewhere else, getting a few Maxie-free moments herself.

I noticed that Maxie is making his mark on all of us: I have many slight scratches on my legs from the many times he has launched himself at me and hooked into both flesh and denim on the freefall trajectory. Such a small price to pay for the kind of entertainment he offers, however. And I can't wait for the FS and FDIL to meet him!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

How do I love this job? Let me count the miles...

In a few minutes, I'll be off to Clinton, 10 miles south, to join the South End Koffee Klatch for a couple of hours. At noon, I'll head for Coupeville for lunch at the hospital cafeteria and to do my chaplaincy rounds. At 2:30 or thereabouts, it's farther north to Oak Harbor to visit a shut-in member and give her the memorial service info that I gave to others Saturday, plus the latest edition of Quest, the newsletter of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, and last Sunday's sermon manuscript. After visiting her for an hour or so, I've got to hit the Oak Harbor Safeway or Albertson's for cat food, as the price at my local grocery store is much higher than it is at a chain store. And tonight is the book club, if I can find out where it's meeting.

I figure I'll log about 100 highway miles on the job today. At current IRS rates, that's almost $50 of job-related car expense, unreimbursed. Good thing I have a fuel-efficient car.

But I'm looking forward to the day. The Koffee Klatch is always great, lunch at the hospital is delicious and free to volunteers, our shut-in member is a hoot and I love visiting her, and it will be good to be able to throw in a grocery trip at the same time. Since Maxie came to live here, my catfood bill has gone up by another 5.5 ounces per day, so it makes sense to get it on sale. Here in Freeland, the price is 55 cents per 5.5 ounce can; at Fred Meyer, Safeway, and Albertson's, it ranges from 40-50 cents per can.

But they're worth it. They are all thriving and healthy, and the two older cats are running it off as Maxie chases them and does his tricks to get their attention. Max has turned into quite the lovebug, wanting his human mama to hold him when he gets tired of chasing and wants to purr instead. I love the lovey-dovey stuff, but not the snags it puts in my sweaters!

Monday, November 19, 2007

What does this mean?

I must be getting more erudite. I think the last vocab rating I got was junior high or high school.

cash advance

Cash Advance Loans

Source #3: Wisdom from the World's Religions

Rev. Kit Ketcham
Nov. 18, 2007

I invite you to turn in your hymnal to the pages just before the hymns start and let’s read together the wording of the Third Source of Unitarian Universalism, including the introductory phrase: The Living Tradition we share draws from many sources: and scrolling down the page to the third sentence, Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life.

We Unitarian Universalists draw our religious ideals and values from many sources, one of which is the wisdom of the world’s religions. We use this wisdom to inspire our ethical and spiritual lives.

I remember, as a youngster growing up in a small Baptist church under the tutelage of my preacher dad and teacher mom, hearing in Sunday School one day that members of other non-Christian religions were going to hell.

I could hardly believe my ears! Little children were going to go to hell because they were born into a family which was Jewish? My Catholic classmates were going to hell? My Sunday School teacher was pretty adamant----yes, they were going to hell, unless…… Unless what?

Unless a missionary or other person told them about Jesus and how Jesus had died for their sins and that they only had to believe this and then they would go to heaven. That’s why we have missionaries and why we are supposed to witness to everyone we meet, he said.

But what if they didn’t want to change religions? Well, then, they had had their chance and God would send them to hell. Little kids too? Adults ----I could see the logic there. But little kids?

What if they were too young to understand? My teacher wasn’t sure but he said “God knows best” with a look in his eye which said pretty clearly that he thought I ought to be out there witnessing to my Catholic and Jewish acquaintances, though there were few of either in our little town.

I went to my mother with this conundrum and she was somewhat more comforting. No, she said, little tiny children who can’t make that decision won’t go to hell; God will take them to heaven if they die. But adults, if they hear and reject Jesus’ message, they will go to hell, she said. Jesus said “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father but by me”. In other words, she assured me, Jesus is the only way to heaven.

I was only in elementary school at the time, maybe 9 or 10, and this didn’t sit right with me. Being a well-brought-up little girl and nervous about rocking the religion boat, I didn’t question her much further, but the injustice of it all stayed in my mind.

I didn’t even know anyone who was identifiably of another religion, unless you did count Catholics. I knew about Jews and a little about the Holocaust and that added more questions. Hadn’t the Jews suffered enough? They should also go to hell? in addition to the concentration camps?

And what about other Christians who weren’t Baptist? Were they going to hell too? How come everyone was supposed to believe the way we did? And did I really want to believe all this anyhow?

Well, you can see how I’ve answered some of those questions as an adult and why I am particularly appreciative of Unitarian Universalism’s recognition that the world’s religions have great wisdom to offer for our lives.

I knew from an early age that to draw exclusionary boxes around people and religious faith felt wrong and that is one of the threads that has drawn me to this unusual and accepting faith.

What are the religions of the world that have particularly contributed to the theology and values of Unitarian Universalism? Most of us have Judaism or Christianity in our religious heritage, whether or not we were raised as observant Jews or Christians, and we definitely live in a Judeo-Christian milieu. We will explore those roots in December, for the Fourth Source of Unitarian Universalism is the wisdom of Jewish and Christian thought.

Today we will take a look at our Abrahamic cousin, Islam, and the traditions of China and India. If you are not familiar with the idea that Islam is our Abrahamic cousin, let me expound briefly.

The Abrahamic religions are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, because all three grew out of the original monotheistic religion of the early patriarchal figure of Abraham who lived in about 2000 bce, and is considered the father of the Israelites.

Islam was founded in the seventh century of the common era by the prophet Muhammad, who is said to have received the holy book of Islam, known as the Koran, directly from God, known as Allah.

Muhammad is not considered the founder of a new religion, at least by Muslims, but as the restorer of the original monotheistic faith of Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other prophets. Islamic tradition holds that Judaism and Christianity distorted the messages of these prophets over time either in interpretation, in text, or both.

The scholar Huston Smith, who has written extensively on the religions of the world, has an interesting theory about the origins of each of the world’s religions.

Just as we are interested in the Sources of our faith, he is interested in the sources of the Abrahamic or Western, Chinese, and Indian religious traditions and his theory connects each of these very different religious paths to the natural environment from which they sprang.

The scholar Bertrand Russell has pointed out that human beings are perennially engaged in three basic conflicts: against Nature, against others, and against themselves. These are humanity’s natural, social, and psychological challenges and, according to Huston Smith, Western religion has accented the natural challenge, China the social, and India the psychological, all based on their relationship with their “cradle environments” or the part of the earth where they originated.

Because the Abrahamic traditions grew up in the Fertile Crescent, where nature was more hospitable, these traditions, Smith asserts, have an underlying and strong connection with nature, using the seasons, the stars, the moon, and other naturally occurring cycles to develop religious doctrine.

Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, see God as creator of the goodness of heaven and earth and that God has given dominion over the earth to humankind.

Chinese religion, on the other hand, became the social philosopher. Chinese culture was founded on the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, but these rivers are unpredictable and devastating in their behavior, coming to be symbolized in early China by the figure of the unmanageable dragon. Therefore nature came to be revered and respected but not to be used and mastered.

Chinese religious thought developed in times which were tumultuous socially, a period of endemic warfare and anarchy. Therefore the question for philosophers and scholars was “how can we live together without destroying one another?” Chinese philosophy and religion emphasize how humans may be best helped to live together in harmony.

The teachings of Confucius, then, became widespread in China, with the ideal human relationship being thought of as benevolence or simple goodness. This idea was developed into a cultural expectation that society will be held together by the power of moral example. Rulers are to inspire their subjects to want to live together decently and in harmony.

Though today Chinese religious thought has morphed into a variety of expressions, the character of Chinese society and culture has historically emphasized a life of reasonable enjoyment and has rejected the destructive. Chinese religion is, despite the changes it has experienced over the past decades, based on the teachings of Confucius and subsequent philosophers, which emphasize harmonious relationships.

The third great tradition---Indian---also springs from an unfriendly natural environment, the Ganges tropics with its thick vegetation, unbearable humidity and burning heat, plagued by drought and monsoon. The Indian could not govern nature either and it was impossible to understand. And so the Indian relationship with nature became one of mystery, magic, unreality.

At the same time, India was challenged by racism which grew out of language differences and skin color differences between northern Indians and southern Indians. This resulted in the caste system which further perpetuated the problem, and India abandoned hope of solving life’s problems socially. Instead India turned inward, according to Smith, and centered her attention on the psychological, the inner self.

We might remember how, in the 60’s and 70’s, that New Age of Enlightenment, according to some, pilgrims of various sorts---hippies, celebrities, ordinary people---flocked to India to sit at the feet of yogic gurus, seen to be holders of mystic wisdom from the Hindu scriptures, the Bhagavad Gita and other texts. These scriptures and gurus urged seekers to find peace within themselves, not in externals.

The differing world views of each religion have been problematic in a global society where to believe anything implies that one’s own belief is right and everyone else wrong. You’ll rarely catch any firm believer saying “this is right for me and it might not be right for you”, meaning that my beliefs support my world view and I understand that yours support your world view---and that’s okay.

Yet that is exactly what Unitarian Universalism is all about. Our principles state, in part, that we accept each other, encourage each other’s spiritual growth, support each other’s free and responsible search for truth and meaning, and acknowledge each other’s right of conscience. And we strive toward the goal of world community which offers peace, liberty and justice for all.

There’s a wonderful analogy in a small book entitled “Our Chosen Faith”, written by two of our primary preachers and teachers, the Rev. John Buehrens and the Rev. Forrest Church. They use the visual imagery of a beautiful cathedral, the cathedral of the world, ancient, in a state of constant creation, destruction, and re-creation.

In this cathedral there are windows without number. Some are long forgotten, covered over, others are revered by millions as shrines. Each window is, in its own way, beautiful. Some are abstract, others clearly representational, some dark and meditative, some bright and glimmering.

Each window tells a story about the creation of the world, the meaning of that creation, life’s purpose, human nature, death and after-death. And these windows are where the light shines in.

Fundamentalists from both the right and the left claim that the light shines only through their window. Skeptics too can make this mistake, if they conclude that, because there are so many windows, so many variations, so many ways to view the light, that there is probably no light.

But the windows are not the light, they are merely the avenue for the light. The whole light, whether it’s called God or Truth or Love or Life or whatever you choose, is beyond our perceiving.

Let me quote one passage: “Every generation has its terrorists for Truth and God, hard-bitten zealots for whom the world is large enough for only one true faith. They have been taught to worship at one window, and then to prove their faith by throwing rocks through other peoples’ windows….If you are right, I must be wrong, but I can’t be wrong, because my salvation hinges upon being right..therefore…in order to secure my salvation I am driven to ignore, convert, or destroy you.”

So what does it mean to us UUs that we are open to the wisdom of the world’s religions? How do we use the wisdom of other religions? What have we found in other religions that is valuable and contributes to our understandings of life?

I’ve given some of you short reflections to read about some of the world’s religions’ teachings. If you would, please, stand where you are and at the sound of the chime read your piece slowly, loudly, and clearly. I’ll sound the chime in between each reading. It doesn’t matter what order you read in. (These reflections are from the work of the Rev. Barbara Hamilton Holway and her curriculum about Unitarian Universalist values and ideals, from the Tapestry of Faith series, entitled "Spirit of LIfe".)
Hinduism teaches that religion cannot be religion without compassion to all living beings. To love is to know the nature of the divine.

Sikhism teaches that compassion, mercy and religion are the support of the entire world.

A Buddhist chant asks that all sentient beings be free from suffering. Buddhism teaches that the essence of Buddhahood is the great compassionate heart.

Shintoism says that the divine’s body is universal benevolence.

Chinese philosopher Mo-Tse taught a universal love to end oppression and inequality.

The Hadith, narratives of the prophet Muhammed, includes this story: A man once asked the prophet what was the best thing in Islam, and the latter replied, “It is to feed the hungry and to give the greeting of peace both to those one knows and to those one does not know.”

Gandhi modeled his teaching, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”
When we honor, respect, and use the teachings of the world’s religions in our own spiritual quest, we are acknowledging that our wisdom as middle class Westerners is not the only wisdom worth noting, that women and men of many cultures and geographies have distilled their life’s experiences into ideas and philosophies that have universal meaning and are relevant in our world today.

And many of us have created a personal theology that draws from global sources. We have studied and learned and incorporated wisdom from across the world as well as from within our own hearts and minds. We do not have a one-size-fits-all theology in Unitarian Universalism. We do not have a doctrine based on the supernatural; yet we do not “believe whatever we want to believe”.

Each of us is charged with finding a spiritual path that acknowledges and enriches our relationships with ourselves, with each other, and with the Universe. Thinking back to Huston Smith’s theory about the origins of the Abrahamic, Chinese, and Indian religions, I am struck by the parallels: Indian religion emphasizes relationship with self; Chinese religion emphasizes relationship with others, and Abrahamic religion emphasizes relationship with the Universe.

On my blog recently I put out a plea for readers to share with me how world religions had shaped their Unitarian Universalism, and one reader offered this whimsical analogy, which I will share in closing:

“My eclectic bag of theology is like a scrappy (dog) who bounds from the Humane Society in purebred pieces of glory. One day I roll in the muddy earth to scratch my pagan itches and then arise amazed and filled with awe at the beauty that surrounds me and sustains me, never failing even in my darkest hours.

“The scent of magic draws me down the next path where I find my daily bowl, my sustenance, the map of all the trails I can explore which have been trod for thousands of years in mindful practice. This grid of kibble coalesces my spinning thoughts into the quiet "thoughtless", thoughtful-ness of the moment, my diverse brand of Buddhist Taoism or Taoist Buddhism, with splashes of Judaism from my favorite Holiday, Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement where I can join with the pack annually to publicly, ritualistically, apologize and forgive myself and others for my lack of skill in living, and my muddy paws.

“My collar is the Mala bracelet which I wear to constantly remind myself to come home, home to the moment, the heart of all joy, peace, and possibility. My leash is the Sangha, my pack of other practitioners who compassionately help with my training and discipline.

“And the heart of my 
dog-eared life, my bed, is the Dharma, comprised of all that teaches me, from the mountains of Tibet, the rice paddies of Vietnam, the back roads of Canada, to just the outline of my muddy paws on the clean floor. What a lucky dog I am.”

The writer of those whimsical, yet powerful, words is Emma Macaillin, who was our visitor for several weeks here on the island in October and sends her greetings to us all.

Savoring the richness of a faith that brings such great meaning into our lives, 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 wisdom as Unitarian Universalists comes from many sources, including the world’s great religions, though their practices and rituals may be very different from ours. May we sort out the meanings that are relevant to our lives and keep that timeless wisdom fresh in our hearts and minds. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Talking about dying can be a lot of laughs

Or so it seemed at our workshop this afternoon, when a group from the congregation met to discuss memorial services and how to die well. Though our topic was supposedly morbid, we had a lot of fun and the afternoon felt well-spent. I gave them a form to fill out to make their wishes known to family members when they die, and we spent a good deal of time talking about memorial services and funerals that they had both loved and hated.

Doctrinal services were a major sticking point for most. As Unitarian Universalists, we have a celebratory approach to life and death and do not find "he's gone to be in a better place" very helpful most of the time. People both loved and hated the near-traditional "open mic" (or community sharing) time, recognizing the danger and the beauty of having a time of extemporaneous remarks.

It felt like people needed to get some things off their chests, during the conversation, and yet it was hilarious and dark humor was the order of the day.

We're going to meet again after the holidays to talk about "pre-death" stuff, hospice, power of attorney, and that sort of stuff that we didn't have time for today.

I thought you'd like to know.

Planning your own memorial service...

is the class I'm teaching this afternoon to a small group of congregants. I'm not totally finished with the sermon on world religions as a source of our faith, but I have set it aside temporarily in order to prepare adequately for teaching the class.

In the run-up to the weekend, one person who will be attending asked if it would be possible to spend some time talking about pre-death matters, such as assisted suicide and preparing for death from a terminal illness. I had already planned to offer some material about Compassion and Choices (the former Hemlock Society), Memorial Societies, and the work of hospice, but his question made me think about the many health concerns an aging population has.

A couple of years ago, a fellow in another congregation decided, after years of very bad health, to hasten death by refusing food and water. It did not take long for his body's organs to shut down and bring the comfort of death. His family was in agreement with this decision and did not oppose his wishes; he was, after all, in his 90s and had lived a long, full, productive and loving life. He had no regrets and wanted to avoid a long drawn out death; he felt he had been dying for a year or more already, was very uncomfortable, and wished to move on to whatever the Universe might have to offer beyond life, if anything.

So I'm looking forward to the class, expecting to get to know this group of congregants better in a setting that offers them an opportunity to talk about one of the most intimate stages of life, dying. I'll let you know how it goes.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Arrrgggh! I can't find what I'm looking for!

Don't you hate that? I've been scouring the house for a book I bought from another minister some time ago, which should help me in composing this Sunday's sermon, and I CAN'T FIND IT! It's not the end of the world, because I put a note out on the ministers' chat line asking for their thoughts about how "the wisdom of the world's religions" has enhanced their personal Unitarian Universalism, and I've gotten a few responses. But one response reminded me about Peter Richardson's book "Exploring our UU Identity", so I went searching for it, knowing I have it. And I CAN'T FIND IT!

So maybe you can help, dear readers. If you are a Unitarian Universalist, can you tell me how your own personal belief system is enhanced by the wisdom of the world's religions? I have my own thoughts on it, but I would like to offer more examples than my own. And please let me know if it's okay to share it with my congregation. I'll post the sermon Sunday night.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

"Enlighten"-ed, at last!

This fall I have been preaching monthly on the Sources of Unitarian Universalism. You know, the ones listed in the front of the hymnal and on many an Order of Service and almost completely disregarded by UUs everywhere. In addition to the sermon, I've been offering an evening of conversation about the Source, a kind of "extra credit" activity that includes refreshments (both alcoholic and non) and an activity to stimulate conversation.

This coming Sunday I am preaching on the Third Source: wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life. For the activity, I found a game, "Enlighten", which is a kind of religious Trivial Pursuit board game. I had a hard time visualizing just how to play it so I enlisted a small crew of women to help me figure it out.

We met last night for a soup and salad supper and then tackled the game. I thought I might know a few answers after reading a bit of Huston Smith, but the questions were hard! Even the Christianity and Judaism questions were beyond me in many cases. But we persisted and gradually figured out the rules and started doing better on the questions.

The real bonus of the evening was the hilarity engendered as we tried to pull answers out of our aging brains, knowing that we had some knowledge about the question but not enough to be completely sure of ourselves. We'd get some right, unexpectedly, and then get something we were sure of completely wrong. And the penance for making a mistake---well, that too was a fascinating and laughter-producing exercise!

And we learned a lot! The conversation night will be the Saturday after Thanksgiving and I hope to get a few takers, even with the awkwardness of the date. What I hope people learn is how complex religion is, the incredible variety of human religious experience and thought. It doesn't matter so much whether folks know the answers to the questions or how the game turns out.

It does matter to me that we understand the strong drive to create meaning out of life, to decipher its complexities and create rituals to comfort, to communicate with the Divine, and to honor the glory of the earth. If we can find that in ourselves, we will be "enlightened" indeed.

IN OTHER NEWS: My brother Buz has had heart problems much of his adult life and has struggled to maintain his health with a variety of interventions, including massive heart surgery to repair his almost-nonfunctional heart. He has just come successfully through yet another intervention, this one lasting over 9 hours, to install a Ventricle Assist Device. The VAD will keep his failing heart pumping for another couple of years, during which time he will be awaiting a heart transplant. The problem is that he is a great big guy---6'4", 240 or so pounds, barrel-chested, not fat---and will need a great big heart to sustain him.

I often ask myself if I would have his courage and fortitude, to endure the kinds of tests and defibs and meds and implants and surgeries that he has endured. He is fortunate to have a terrific wife, my sister-in-law, who has been part of this process ever since they met and married a few years ago. He is 9 years younger than I am, way too young to have to experience all this. And yet he continues to be sweet-natured, optimistic, hopeful, and determined to live as well and as long as he possibly can. Seeing this strength in him has strengthened me and I am so happy he is my brother.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Fulfilling a long-repressed desire

Today I attended the first gathering of the local cast of the upcoming production of the (are you ready?) Vagina Monologues.

It's true. I am going to be a member of the cast of this season's local production, to be held Feb. 9 and 10. Part of me can hardly believe I have signed up for this and part of me can hardly wait to get out there on stage and say all those words out loud that for years I could barely even think!

As I sat in the session today, listening to the self-introductions of the other women in the cast, I relived all my old embarrassment about "naughty" words, got past that brief moment, and then, as we read through the script, wondered what the heck my congregation was going to think about my being up there on stage spouting "Coochie Snorcher" and "Sugar Dish" and "Cunt" and all those other euphemisms and rather questionable terms. I hope they won't be too scandalized.

I'm trying to decide if I'll light a candle at Joys and Concerns in the next couple of weeks and announce my theatrical debut! Maybe I'll get a fairly tame part, but today I got to read part of the segment entitled "My Angry Vagina" and got so into it that I got cheers and guffaws when I finished. Whew! Heady stuff!

There's a lot of laughter because parts of the play are hilarious, but there are also horrifying moments about rape and violence. It was quite an experience to be part of that group today, thinking about our own experiences of love and betrayal, pain and joy. The commonality of women's experience has already begun to draw us together.

There has been criticism of the play by some who feel that it's overly critical of men, too focused on violence and brutality. I didn't get that version today, I guess, as the 40 or so scenes we read were pretty well balanced. Still, there's something initially quite shocking about women saying out loud all the slang words for vagina, boldly and without embarrassment or reticence. These words have been often used in debasing ways. The play turns that debasement into glory and honor and pride. May it be so.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Updates on Maxwelton

I came home this evening to find this little scene. Loosy has apparently been won over.

The Bad Boy of Bush Point scores another one!

A grim experience

On Wednesday, I thought I'd stop by the Everett Social Security office on my way into Seattle to straighten out a glitch in my Social Security stuff in person. I hate doing things like that on the phone, because it's so hard to make sure that the person on the other end understands completely. My experience with Big Gov has been that employees assigned to these kinds of jobs have learned to be slow to make sense of what I'm trying to tell them. (Of course, it's not that I am poor at expressing myself on the phone----never!) So it seemed that a good strategy would be to go to the office and talk to a person face to face, show him/her the mysterious letters received, update some missing information, and ask humbly for advice.

The only grim part of that experience was the long wait, not the few minutes spent with a clerk. The young woman who helped me was courteous, well-prepared to answer my questions and allay my concerns. It did take an hour of waiting for my number to be called, as there were very few clerks and each conference with a client seemed to take inordinate amounts of time.

No, the grim part was watching the room fill up with a wide assortment of people: parents there to get a social security number for a child; little kids running around the room; Russian, Asian, Latino immigrants; people on crutches or hobbling painfully; sons and daughters accompanying an aged parent; a homeless man arguing loudly with a clerk about how he had no address and had not gotten his check and had no money to live on.

The atmosphere was so dank and dreary, the people's faces so resigned and wary, the wait so long and tedious and, seemingly, unnecessary. Even though my problem seemed easily solvable, my spirits began to sink as I watched this pool of humanity grow, overhearing the tense conversations at the cubicles, cringing to hear the anger and frustration in the voices raised in protest at some bureaucratic decision, wondering about the lives represented there, dependent on Social Security for livelihood.

For I wondered about the staff as well: two beautiful young women, courteously and yet sternly doling out advice, regulations, "I"m sorry buts": an older woman arguing with a client about how she'd have to repay a good deal of what she'd received; a big blonde male security guard who swaggered around the packed room, gun, cell phone, and club on his belt; and a succession of men and women who'd pop their heads out a door, call out a name, wait for a response, and disappear again. What must it be like to work in that situation every day? What a grim way to make a living----saying no to people who are desperate? feeling beleaguered by the neediness of clients and hemmed in by regulations? finding meaning in---what? (Ms. Theologian, what do you think?)

It was grim, all right, and I only had to experience it for an hour. If my frustration grew and my sense of optimism faded in that short time, what must it have been like for those staff members and, most especially, for those who had to wait and wait and wait for their chance to argue politely (or not so politely) with those whose duty it was to serve them? I can imagine.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Eschatology? What the Hell?

What's your eschatology?
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You scored as Moltmannian Eschatology

J├╝rgen Moltmann is one of the key eschatological thinkers of the 20th Century. Eschatology is not only about heaven and hell, but God's plan to make all things new. This should spur us on to political and social action in the present.

Moltmannian Eschatology












Left Behind


Monday, November 05, 2007

A dilemma of part-time ministry

A colleague nearby wrote to the ministers' email chat recently asking about how often a half-time minister should be preaching per month. Most responses to the question dealt with the number of hours required to write a sermon, how many hours a month the minister is expected to work, and other "quantitative" issues. The logic was that if a minister is half-time, s/he should preach twice a month.

I disagree with that logic, not because it is unreasonable but because it fails to address a fundamental need of a growing (or hoping-to-grow) congregation. That need is for an ongoing, steady, informed presentation of Unitarian Universalist theology, principles, and sources from the pulpit. If our primary public outreach is our worship service, which is open to all comers, every time we open the sanctuary doors, visitors should be treated to Unitarian Universalism. They shouldn't get some off-topic speaker or clumsily-done pet cause; they should get a real UU message.

Years ago, when Robert Latham was my minister at Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden, Colorado, he was preparing to go on sabbatical for a few months and gave his sabbatical committee, of which I was a member, some very good advice, as we started thinking about how we would fill the pulpit while he was gone. He said, and I'm paraphrasing, "Every service has to have a Unitarian Universalist theme. It has to deal with our theology, our principles and sources, our values, our social justice outreach, and it has to be grounded in what we believe to be our saving message."

When I worked with the worship committee in my first pastorate, I taught them this same principle and I have emphasized it in every one of my congregations. The first one was getting ready to offer services all summer long and I insisted that each service be planned with this theme in mind. I called it protein, UU protein. Without UU protein, a UU worship service isn't much different from a Rotary meeting. It doesn't satisfy our religious mission. Protein forms the building blocks for our physical bodies; religious protein forms the building blocks for our religious selves.

And this is what growing congregations need to have, every single Sunday. If that means that a halftime minister preaches twice a month, the other two services need to offer just as strong a UU message as if it were the minister in the pulpit. Lay people can do this very well, if they understand the principle of protein. Guest speakers from a nearby non-profit or university can offer something nourishing if adequate effort is made to link his/her topic to UU values. If it means that the halftime minister preaches three times a month, leaving one service for a lay or outside speaker, the same principle applies. And the halftime minister who is preaching three times a month should cut back on other involvements within the congregation. This, of course, depends on the priorities of the congregation, which, in a small group, are not always growth-oriented, unfortunately. And I'm not talking growth in numbers but in strength, commitment, and UU identity.

A small congregation which can only afford parttime ministry needs to consider how important it is to their growth to have a steady UU message from the pulpit every week without fail. Otherwise, visitors who come looking for a faith community may get an erroneous message about our faith. And that is not conducive to healthy growth. We want people to get a clear picture of what UUism can mean to them.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Maxie makes headway; Loosy pouts.

Lily has relented. Loosy is still mad.

So what's yours?

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Friday, November 02, 2007

Update on Maxwelton

During the three days I was on retreat earlier in the week, I asked friends to take Maxie in, since I wasn't sure how Loosy and Lily would treat him if they were alone in the house with him, with "room service" only every twenty-four hours. I'm sure the two of them were relieved to have a reprieve from this manicky little guy and the friends were charmed. They barely let me take him back home on Wednesday.

When I returned, cat cage in hand, I could almost see the girls' eyes rolling in mock consternation, but since then they have seemed to consider Maxie their number one show. You've seen cats watching birds intently; well, this is the latest manifestation of their attitude----crouched and watching. No hissing (well, hardly), no batting at him, a little discreet chasing----Maxie is in the process of winning the girls over.

I took him to the vet yesterday for his kitten exam and he was diagnosed only with the normal fleas, earmites, and probable worms, for which cures were applied and he seems mostly flea-free now, though an occasional tiny corpse can be combed from his otherwise impeccable white and orange fur.

He has begun to be quite friendly and cuddly, now that he's not afraid of the big cats any more. He realizes that he's the master of the house----we all seem to sit and stare when he's in the room. Today I lay down with my book after lunch and all three cats joined me on the bed, lying within a few inches of each other. I'm confident I'll have a photo to share of catly togetherness soon.

Watched Sense and Sensibility tonight to get an Alan Rickman fix. Emma Thompson and Kate Winslett were quite charming as well. The whole Jane Austen thing is something I've never particularly gotten, but I do like this movie. And my little heart goes pitter-pat over Alan Rickman, even as Snape. The dark, brooding, oddly ethical hero----my kinda guy! I also watched "Snow Cake" recently. A good movie too. Sigourney Weaver was quite remarkable.

Enough for tonight.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Rebel With or Without a Cause?

It was one of the best retreats I've attended here in the PNWD. It was rather mysteriously described in the registration materials---"a look at contemplative spiritual practice" is how I think it was portrayed. Or some such.

In any case, for our first session, Monday evening, we were surprised by the presenter's saying (get that, saying?) A LOT about silence and how important it was, setting me (and probably others) up for bigtime resistance to his efforts. He must have talked non-stop for half an hour and then said "get comfortable, we're going to meditate for a half hour or more in silence". Hooray, he's going to shut up! And then he said "when we leave this room, we will go back to our rooms in silence, spend the rest of the evening in silence, and in the morning, we will return to this room at 7 a.m., do Qi Gong in silence and have a silent breakfast."

Huh? Did I sign up for this? I have plenty of silence and solitude in my life! I come here for companionship and support from my colleagues, not to be separated from them by silence! Okay, maybe some of THEM need solitude and silence, but is that fair to me? I didn't sign up for this!

I sat and squirmed during the silent meditation, uncomfortable on the floor where I'd chosen to sit instead of a chair, plotting how to get out of the rest of the retreat. The problem was I couldn't think what else I would do. I hadn't paid big bucks for the retreat to go shopping in suburban Seattle or visit the nearby park. I had a few books along but didn't relish sitting still and reading them; I had brought them to put myself to sleep with.

When he released us to leave, it wasn't even 8:30 p.m. and one person asked plaintively "but what about evening worship?", receiving the unspoken reply that "this is worship". We or maybe it was just I who sulked off to my room upset by the sudden shift in the expectations of our retreat.

Alone in my room in silence, I decided that the next morning I would NOT go to the Qi Gong session but would do my normal retreat-morning routine of getting a cup of coffee in the dining room about 7, writing in my journal for awhile, reading the paper and checking email, and appearing at 8 a.m. breakfast. I'd give the morning worship and session a try, but if it didn't work for me, I was booking it out of there, off to the delights of the nearby outlet center.

At worship, the leader said, "our service this morning will be in Quaker style, with those who are moved to speak doing so out of the fullness of their hearts." And unexpectedly it all began to work for me, because as people spoke into the quiet room, I felt connected with my colleagues in deeper ways than usual, listening to them and speaking my own truth. Despite the difference from our own carefully constructed collegial worship services, this open-ended flow of silence and spontaneous speech and song was the most refreshing communal worship I have experienced in awhile.

I ended up attending every minute of every program session that day and delighting in opportunities to sit outdoors in the crisp fall air, under trees, in the sun and fog, reflecting on my place in the natural world, looking for what the earth has to teach me, the answers to my questions about life's meanings.

I am glad to be home again but the memories of this retreat, with my initial resistance appearing comic in retrospect, will stay with me for a long time. The retreat was significant as well, in that many others had experienced the same resistance I had, had been drawn in by the silent peace of the worship experience, and stayed to reap the same benefits I had.