Thursday, March 29, 2007

Unitarian Universalists: America's Holy Fools

You know how Garrison Keillor is always giving UUs a hard time with his Unitarian jokes and left-handed compliments? It's hard to know whether to laugh or be offended sometimes.

I've decided that he really doesn't like us very much and likes to twit us. He's an Episcopalian, I understand, despite his much-vaunted Lake Woebegon upbringing in the fictitious Sanctified Brethren.

It used to bother me a bit, but I've realized that he has accidentally honored us by inadvertently designating us Unitarian Universalists as America's Holy Fools.

You know what the archetype Fool is, don't you? S/he's the one who's out there ahead of the pack, doing foolish things, supporting impossible causes, unafraid of looking weird, because the Fool sees things more clearly than others. The Fool expresses what s/he sees without fear and trepidation about what others will think.

Think Don Quijote. Think the little boy who said that the emperor has no clothes. Think Unitarian Bronson Alcott, who taught sex education in his school in the 19th century and endured ridicule and financial ruin. Think abolitionists and protectors of prisoners and the insane. Think public education for all. Think religious freedom. Think marriage equality and civil rights for sexual minorities.

The foolish idealist is our religious archetype. And when Garrison Keillor ridicules us, he underlines our value---that we are out there at the far edge of the curve, advocating for causes that few others consider worthwhile. Yet.

If the price of justice is ridicule, I'm okay with that.

Whinology Inc.

I find that I have established a credential as a Whinologist, based on yesterday's post. In this morning's email, a note appeared from a Regular Reader/Commenter, suggesting that my expertise might be useful in the case of a friend who was expressing misery over a stomach ache and sleeplessness.

Here is my reply to the hapless whiner and whinee:

Dear Ones,
As the resident Whinologist, I have examined your concerns and have deduced that the complaint of stomach discomfort falls into the category of "Persons I Love Who Need to Whine for aBrief Moment Because They are Feeling the Temporary Effects of Being Overworked and Underloved".

Therefore, you may whine at will for a "Brief Moment". The parameters of "Brief Moments" will be discussed in an upcoming Ms. Kitty post. For now, assume that the recipient of the whine can determine the limits of his/her patience, given
the stressors that are currently impinging upon his/her life.

Thank you for consulting Whinology Inc. We at W.I. hope that your day gets better and that your dreadful stomach ache is quickly cured. If your symptoms are not relieved by a Brief Moment of Whining, let me offer another service of
Whinology Inc., the special "Oral Ketcham" BE HEALED treatment.

Ms. Kitty, prop.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Thou Shalt Not Whine

If there's anything I can't deal with successfully, it's whining. Luckily the leadership folks in both of my congregations are non-whiners. But in the course of my personal and professional life, I do have to spend time with a few whiny types.

I've finally managed, after years of trying to define that "fingernail on the blackboard" tone of voice that announces "major whine in process", to put it into words that satisfy me.

A whiner is saying, in word and tone, "life isn't treating me well and it ought to". To which I now can respond, "life isn't necessarily supposed to treat you well----------you're supposed to treat life well."

I think of two people with remarkably different approaches to life's challenges. One has had a really difficult life situation to deal with and this person meets it all head-on, just doing what is needed and coping. This person will talk about it and vent, but there's no whiny tone in this person's voice or look on the face. The other person has had a pretty steady and easy life in most ways; however, the tone of voice is different, childish, making people feel ill at ease with complaints.

I enjoy being with the first person, despite the challenges this person needs to talk about. I avoid the other person as much as possible. This is not a nice thing for a minister to admit. I would like to be more pastoral to the second person, but all I want to do is shake this person and say "grow up!"

A human being can outgrow whininess; I've seen it happen in my own family. My sister was a champ, when we were growing up. "Mama, Betsy's being mean to me again..." appealing to our mother to punish me for my crimes rather than saying to me "you cut it out, big sister, you're being mean!" and only invoking the mommy-law if absolutely necessary. Once we matured a good deal more, we each improved our basic natures. I'm not mean to her anymore and she doesn't whine.

I think younger sibs do feel weaker and this is their perceived weapon against bullying. But it actually only increases their weakness and vulnerability. It is essential to life to learn how to get our needs met without whining. Person number 2 has not learned this lesson yet but it may be that I will get brave enough someday to sit down with this person and discuss my whining theory of life.

So much for that rant!

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Hi, there, I'm the Tuesday volunteer chaplain...

One of my favorite pastoral experiences is volunteering at the local hospital as a chaplain. I go most Tuesdays, spend an hour or two in hospital rooms with patients and their families, mostly just chatting, occasionally praying with and for patients and families.

There's a sense of being needed and valued in this role and I feel more useful every time I go. It took awhile to get my feet on the ground because I'd heard that the nurses were so busy they couldn't be bothered with the chaplain, that it was important not to get in the way. I proceeded very gingerly when I began.

After several months now, I know nurses by name, they recognize me, give me a roster of patients right away without even blinking, even ask me to pray with them. It has changed my experience there considerably to feel so comfortable with the nursing staff.

Today in CCU, two nurses asked me to spend some time with their patients and families; two persons were in the last days of their lives, families were present and feeling stressed, and it felt like I offered something tangible and caring, beyond what a busy nurse could give.

I held the icy hand of a woman who was far away physically by now and asked God to hold her close and to let her know that her life mattered to many people. I held the feverish hand of a man who was barely conscious, in pain, held hands with his daughters and wife, and again prayed that God would hold him close and give him and his family strength and healing.

One of the things I learned in my chaplaincy training in seminary was that it's the patient who matters, not my doctrines or doubts. If the patient needs prayer, if the family needs prayer, if the nursing staff needs prayer, that's what happens----prayer. It's my calling as a pastor, as a chaplain, to give what the human being before me needs.

Some UU chaplain interns have a hard time with that at first. I wondered if I could pray an authentic prayer with folks who didn't believe as I do. But the first time an elderly Mormon woman asked me to pray with her, I found that I had the words and, more importantly, I had the desire.

It helps that I'm religiously bi-lingual, able to speak Christian fluently, but when you're in a life and death situation with another human being, the words don't matter so much. The person who is there in the bed or the chair is what matters and my presence is enough.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Thinking about sermons

Linguist Friend's comment on the sermon got me to thinking about what makes a sermon "user-friendly". And he's right about too many complicated messages making it challenging. He's careful about his language and tosses in some complimentary words to soften the critique, which I appreciate. And it's not a bad review, just a useful thought which he wants to be received in a constructive way. Thanks, LF, I understand what you're saying.

(An aside: I know of friends in seminary who refused to listen to any critique of their Sunday sermons---from spouse or friend or enemy---until at least Tuesday. At least one marriage broke up over this issue when one spouse couldn't keep it to himself.)

What makes a sermon user-friendly? When I'm listening to a sermon, it's important that it touch something personal in me. I need to relate to the topic personally. It's also helpful if the speaker reveals something about him/herself. If I get a chance to participate in some way, I go into the topic more deeply. If I have a chance to laugh or cry, that's good. For me, a sermon is successful if I am emotionally engaged. That isn't true for everyone, I know, and I wish I knew more about what makes a sermon user-friendly to people who are different from me.

Consequently, that's how I write and preach sermons. It's most important to me that my listeners stay awake and engaged, whether I gauge that by the looks on their faces, by their laughter or sighs, by their willingness to speak out if invited to speak spontaneously.

I mentioned last night that I felt deflated at the end of the day. I felt that even though the sermon (complex as it was in message) was a great success by my "engagement" standards. Lots of people wanted to share their "joy in the earth" stories; they bubbled over with sharing, so I know that touched them. I think the deflated feeling was related to missing individuals who, for whatever reason, didn't come to the service.

Parishioners probably don't realize how much the minister misses them when they're not present. In a small congregation, an absence leaves a large hole and it's not always immediately clear why someone is absent.

The minister may interpret the absence in a number of ways. Most often it's an unavoidable absence, but ego also gets in the way and throws out reasons like "something else was more important" or "they didn't like the topic" or "they're not supportive of me". None of these may be accurate, but ego throws them in there anyhow!

I try to resist the ego response. In this community of largely retired folks, many people travel in the winter. A nice day (as it was yesterday) calls people into their gardens and at 4 p.m. they're not ready to clean up and come to church. There are many logical, good reasons why people don't make it to worship on a Sunday.

But oh how I wish people would put their faith community on the top of their Sunday list, attending services even when it's not convenient, even when the topic isn't their thing, even when they're mad at the minister, even when they're tired from traveling.

How satisfying it would be to look out at the gathered community and not wonder where so and so is today, if this one is still gardening, if that one forgot about the usher responsibility, if others are disappointed in the topic or the minister, if the diminished attendance is a bad sign of something.

If you are a member of a faith community, know this: the minister misses you when you are absent. The other members of the community miss you when you are absent. The worship experience is diminished because you are not there to lend your voice, to hand out hymnals, to offer a friendly greeting.

If you are a leader in a faith community, know this: the minister needs you to be there on Sunday to help meet the needs of the congregation. The other leaders need you there to feel the camaraderie of leadership. The members need you there to feel your commitment to the faith community. The worship experience is diminished because you are not there to model how Unitarian Universalists approach worship, think about human living, and take their covenant with the faith community seriously.

Okay, I did it again, turned a reflection on sermons into more of a two or three part message. Sorry, LF, but this is a blog, not a worship service!

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Faithfulness to our covenant with Earth

I'm feeling a little deflated tonight, as I often do after a service, even though things went well. People seemed to get a lot out of the sermon and the reading (an excerpt from Loren Eiseley's "The Bird and the Machine"). But attendance was a little low, which was disappointing, and others had to fill in for people who forgot they had a responsibility. Tonight it's all water under the bridge, but the sermon did go well. Here it is, as several readers hoped.

Rev. Kit Ketcham, March 25, 2007

It had been a long, hot, wet day in the Grand Canyon. My foot was hurting badly where I’d stepped on a fire ant or some other stinging desert creature. I was tired and cranky and thinking bad thoughts about my marriage, about my life, about the task of making supper out of the boxes of canned and dried food we had stowed on one of the boats.
We companions on the river---six of us, in three oar-powered rubber rafts---were lounging around on the sandy shore, talking over our day on the river. A sixpack of Coors beer was cooling in a burlap bag in the water nearby.
We’d run some big whitewater that day. Entering the Granite Gorge below Phantom Ranch, we’d run Horn Creek and Granite rapids easily, pausing only briefly to scout them. But the water had risen during the day, the result of a release from Glen Canyon Dam, and we expected rapids downstream to be bigger than usual.
We’d run the Grand the summer before, so I was familiar with the terrain and knew the relative risks of each big drop. I knew that a series of three rapids coming up the next few days (Crystal, Upset, and Lava Falls) was really treacherous. And I wasn’t sure I trusted the man at the oars of my boat. I was riding with my husband and our marriage was in trouble.
After several years of marital ups and downs, I knew we were on the brink of separating. He seemed not to understand how desperate I felt; he had taken to anesthetizing himself with various substances and we rarely talked any more. He was a good boatman, but I was uneasy at the amount of beer he was putting away.
We had stopped at a pullout place to scout one of the biggest rapids of that day, Hermit Rapid, a series of huge rollercoaster waves, building one after another, until the sixth wave was an almost unbelievable climb up one side and a steep plunge down the other. We had been the first to row out into the river and aim ourselves downstream, as directly into the V of the current as possible.
As we entered the vee, he lifted the oars out of the water, yelled “hang on”, and we headed into the waves. The first wave or two were exhilarating, but suddenly the catch of an oar set us slightly sideways, and we headed into the biggest waves at an angle, taking on water, and barely correcting in time for the number 6 wave, biggest of all. When we hit the crest of the wave, I was sure we were going over backwards, but we managed to stay upright and once through the rapid, though unnerved by our near miss, we pulled ashore to watch the other boats go through.
The second boat had no trouble with the heavy waves, but the third boat flipped on that big wave, sending oarsman and passenger into the churning water, along with some of our food supplies which were inadequately secured. We leaped into our boat and went to rescue our companions in the chilly water. Downstream we managed to bring the raft and the boaters ashore, but we were shaken by the upset, the loss of supplies, and the water conditions.
Now, in our river camp, we were hashing it all over again, reliving the excitement, the danger, and the fear. Lost in my own thoughts, I wandered up the beach, away from the campsite, away from people, away from everything but the river, the rocks, the sagebrush and yucca.
I needed to be alone. I needed to figure out what my next steps in life might be. I was angry, I was scared, I was afraid for our son who was only seven years old and visiting Grandma while we were on the river. But I felt like I was drowning in a river I couldn’t control, the river of my life. I was being drawn into currents I didn’t like, currents that were pulling me away from my ethical and moral core.
My husband wasn’t a bad man but he too was in the grip of something powerful and it was pulling him away from his best self. The river seemed like an apt metaphor, there on the sand deep in the canyon.
I remembered the advice given to novice river runners---if you fall out of the boat, depend on your life jacket, (assuming it is tightly fastened) for it will bear you up; find something to hang onto; keep your feet out in front of you to bounce you off the rocks; steer with your arms and hands toward an eddy; the river will carry you toward the shore.
I looked again toward the muddy water rolling by and watched a piece of driftwood about a foot long sail by, a dry leaf perched on top, and knew that the river had offered me a lesson. I felt at one with the river at that moment, with the slender piece of driftwood, with the leaf; I felt a degree of peace I had not had for a long time.
Now if I were speaking to a congregation of river runners, I’d have a wealth of watery metaphors to preach on for weeks----falling out of the boat as a metaphor for crisis, a life jacket of moral and ethical strength, an active way to protect oneself from crashing into the rocks headfirst and achieve a certain amount of direction, and always, the reminder, if you act in accordance with the natural way of things, the river will carry you toward the shore. But not today. There is another direction I want to go.
You know how it is when you wake up in the morning with a new idea? When you feel compelled to go straight to the tools of your trade to start expressing it? When the need to create begins to press at your breastbone and insists on expression?
In the push to write and preach several sermons in a row during this month's time, I had wondered if my creative well was going to dry up, as I started to think about what new thing I could say about "Faithfulness to our Covenant with the Earth", which is today’s topic.
It felt like climate change has been done to death, even though it will never be finished; we have talked about it, cynically and angrily and despairingly, over and over and over again, both in church and in public. I felt very resistant at broaching the subject once again in a prophetic way, especially with Earth Day looming and another treatment of it then, this time with the kids.
One night last week, getting ready to go to bed, I was seized by a random thought: what if the topic were joy, the joy of our relationship with the earth? Not just our responsibility to it, but the sheer pleasure we take in being creatures in this beautiful Eden?
What if we all thought about that for a moment today, sharing that joy with each other, sharpening our awareness of beauty, of growing things, of life itself? What if, instead of being reminded once again of our derelict behavior, we focused on our love and joy in creation? We are generous with our money because of our joy in community; might we also be generous with the earth because of our joy in it?
The next morning, I woke up early full of bursting thoughts. My "sermon notes" page was full of ideas written down over breakfast, after a workout at the gym, and then I set to work.
It occurred to me, as I pondered the idea, that we are in relationship, in covenant, with the earth in several ways. The earth is our teacher. The earth is our source of awe and joy. The earth is our home. The earth is our healer. There are doubtless others as well, but these are the ones we will focus on today.
On the earth’s side, it has nothing to do but Be. And we are learning that it could probably exist quite nicely without its human component. In a blog post written around the time of our big storms, I wrote this entitled 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 misuse me at your peril. You love me to your benefit and delight.
I asked you, in an email message earlier this week, to think about the ways you have been touched by your human partnership with the earth. I invited you to think about the joy you have experienced, the ways earth has sustained and renewed you, the moments in nature when you have been profoundly touched.
And at this moment, I would invite you to speak a few words to all of us of some experience you have had of the earth as teacher. I have told you a story of what I learned from the Colorado River, many years ago. Please tell us in a few words of what you have learned from the earth.
(congregation responds)
The earth is our source of awe and joy. For me, one such experience is always looking west, out across Admiralty inlet toward the sea. It never fails to lift my heart and give me a sense of joyful calm. What are your moments of earth’s gift of awe and joy?
(congregation responds)
The earth is our home. In my story about the river, I found a sense of connection and belonging, feeling like the driftwood, like the leaf, like the sand beneath my feet, at one with the earth. What are your moments of feeling at home on the earth?
(congregation responds)
The earth is our healer. Again, in my river story, I found healing for my tortured mind and heart as I understood that I could find direction, support, and safety, even though my life was chaotic, if I trusted my inner moral and ethical core. What are your moments of earth’s healing?
(congregation responds)
Our desire to heal and protect our home the earth springs from a heart of gratitude and joy, not from a sense of guilt and despair. We treasure our connection to the earth. We are thankful for its bounty and generosity. We do regret the wrongs we have done it and vow to redeem ourselves by protecting it, but the upwelling of awe and joy in our lives flows from that inner core of human recognition of our covenant with the earth.
We are faithful in our covenant with the earth when we love it, when we protect it, when we offer our healing to it, when we express our gratitude. Just as in our covenants with ourselves and with our faith community, our covenant with the earth inspires our desire to support and nurture it, not merely to take what we can but to value and honor it.
Unitarian Universalist minister and prophet the Rev. Kenneth Patton wrote: “We are the earth, upright and proud, in us the earth is knowing. Its winds are music in our mouths, in us its rivers flowing. The sun is our hearthfire, warm with the earth’s desire, and with its purpose strong, we sing earth’s pilgrim song; in us the earth is growing.”
Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
Hymn #163 “For the Earth Forever Turning”

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 the ways we love this earth, for its teachings, for the joy and awe it inspires, for the home it offers us, and for the ways it heals us. May we give back to this precious planet the best we have to offer as humans and may we always delight in our place in this beautiful interdependent web. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

A new Apple product

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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Up and Coming---an unofficial UU pre-teen rite of passage

I spent the afternoon with our DRE Lorie and two of our UUCWI youth, talking about UU history and our values. Lorie and I put our heads together earlier this year to try to dream up a modified "coming of age" program for our very scanty youth group.

To call them youth is to stretch the definition a bit, since they are not yet teenagers, but they are the oldest kids in our RE program and were getting pretty short shrift, as most of our kids are primary age and younger.

So we dreamed up a very modified COA program, shortened because of my available hours and Lorie's other jobs. Two adults from the congregation have agreed to serve as mentors; parents have been part of the process and we are pleased with the cooperation and interest of the two youth.

We have had two sessions so far, plus meetings with parents and mentors. Today's session consisted of watching the FOCUS video produced by the Rockford IL UU Church, discussing it a bit, and talking about values and how they play out in our daily lives.

The youth have been great! Both of them are fairly willing to talk about their experiences and yet they are very different. Both are bright and creative, in different ways. And each of them shows maturity in different ways.

Tomorrow one of them will act as my layleader/celebrant for the church service. In April, the other will act as layleader/celebrant for the intergenerational Earth Day service. At that service, they both will offer musical performances as well.

Upcoming sessions will cover theological questions from a 12 year old standpoint, so that they can develop a personal credo to present at a service in June; we will also arrange a very minimal Vision Quest for them, where they spend a couple of hours totally alone, writing or drawing in a journal about their beliefs. And I want them to help me design the June service at which they will present their credos.

We are really just dipping our toe in the COA process with them, but it has been a lot of fun. I hope that in coming years we will be able to offer these two youth (and maybe more kids their age) a more advanced COA experience, but this year's attention is (I think) helping them feel more at home in the congregation. They are both getting lots of positive attention from mentors and Lorie and me, which has helped us understand them better, and, I hope, helped them know us better.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Risking sacrilege

Found this on Mr.

Prepare to laugh in a slightly horrified way.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Finding Joy in Faithfulness

You know how it is when you wake up in the morning with a new idea? When you feel compelled to go straight to the tools of your trade to start expressing it? When the need to create begins to press at your breastbone and insists on expression?

In the push to write four sermons in a row and preach five (don't ask) in a month's time, I earlier felt like my creative well was drying up, as I started to think about what new thing I could say about "Faithfulness to our Covenant with the Earth", which is this Sunday's topic.

It feels like climate change has been done to death, even though it will never be finished; we have talked about it, cynically and angrily and despairingly, over and over and over again, both in church and in public. I felt very resistant at broaching the subject once again, especially with Earth Day looming and another treatment of it then, this time with the kids' participation.

Last night, getting ready to go to bed, I was seized by a random thought: what if the topic was joy, the joy of our relationship with the earth? Not just our responsibility to it, but the sheer pleasure we take in being creatures in this beautiful Eden?

What if we all thought about that for a moment this Sunday, sharing that joy with each other, sharpening our awareness of beauty, growing things, life itself? What if, instead of being reminded once again of our derelict behavior, we focused on our love and joy in creation? We are generous with our money because of our joy in community; might we also be generous with the earth because of our joy in it?

This morning, I woke up early full of bursting thoughts. My "sermon notes" page is full of ideas written down over breakfast, after a workout at the gym, and now I'm releasing a little more here at the blog.

I can hardly wait to start writing and figuring out how to give everyone at worship a chance to share their moments of joy.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Sunday Retrospective

Sunday was quite a day. I was up early to catch the 8 a.m. ferry, had breakfast on the mainland, and then drove in spitting rain north to Mt. Vernon (WA) to preach for the Skagit UU Fellowship.

The sermon, which is reprinted in an earlier post, was about authority--------what is it, what are our UU and individual sources of authority, that sort of thing. Folks seemed to like it a lot, and I left with a good feeling about my time there.

Hopped in the car and drove north a little farther to catch Rt. 20 west onto Whidbey Island, over the Deception Pass Bridge. No traffic to speak of, a mild day, beautiful water, and in a little over an hour, I was home again, to get a little rest before preaching again for UUCWI at 4 p.m.

The chapel where we meet for worship has poor ventilation and, even in the winter, the sanctuary can be stiflingly hot. It didn't help that the outdoor temp was in the high 50's and the sun had come out, but we had a decent crowd of folks, even after the Canvass dinner the night before.

I was about halfway through the sermon when I noticed that many, perhaps most, people seemed to be dozing off. Not a preacher's finest moment! After deliberating for about a second, I stopped the show, told everyone to stand up, turn around, laugh at something, anything, open the windows, open the doors, get some fresh air into the room. The combination of a late night, a warm day, a hot room superceded the message of the sermon!

But you know what? I got more compliments on that sermon than I have gotten on any sermon this year. I don't think it was guilt for falling asleep. Several people told me that they really like it when I put my personal story into a sermon. One woman said she thought it was the best stewardship sermon she'd ever heard. Wow! Quite a compliment.

This month, I've felt a lot of creative energy bubbling up in the sermon department, and I think it's because I've had to write three new sermons for Whidbey just this month.

Most preachers will tell you that they recycle sermons often. I spent four years preaching 32 sermons a year in another pulpit. That's 32 DIFFERENT sermons. When I came to another congregation, I had a reservoir of over 120 sermons to use in my new settlement.

Some of them were too pointedly written for the former congregation, but many of them were applicable to another time and place, with a little tweaking, and over the past four years, I haven't had to write many sermons from scratch. And I eventually got pretty stale, in my opinion.

Some of my best-liked sermons I have used for extra preaching gigs around the district. It's hard to write a sermon from scratch for a congregation I hardly know, but I do know what other congregations have seemed to like, so I do recycle the best ones.

But this month of writing from scratch has been exhilarating, even as it is demanding. I have to make sure I save enough time in the week to pull notes and thoughts together, find the readings, the hymns, and so on. I've loved being back on the sermon-writing track, with the sense of urgency it produces in me.

Looking at my calendar, I notice that I am preaching every Sunday between now and April 22. My first Sunday off will be April 29. And all but one of those sermons will be written during that stretch of time. The exception is when I return to Skagit on April 15 to preach about God, the 4th question in the series, "Who or What is in Charge?" the question of cosmology.

I love the challenge and thrive on it. It pulls the best writing out of me, I think. It's also been useful to spend time writing on the blog. The more writing I do, the better I feel about my writing.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

I am not a pacifist but...

In a little while, I am going over to the Bayview Park and Ride to join other war protesters in a day of anti-war events.

I am not a pacifist. I do believe there may be such a thing as a just war. But Iraq is not it. Nor was Vietnam. Nor Korea. Nor any of the many "turf wars" that occur constantly around the globe.

My faith tradition, Unitarian Universalism, is not specifically a peace tradition, though we have many pacifists and conscientious objectors within our congregations. What UUs generally believe is that Truth is important and that Honesty must be at the heart of politics, that human life is not casually expendable, and that both sides bleed when the shots are fired.

I believe that the Iraq war was started because of deliberate misrepresentations about WMDs and about 9/11, that Congress was misled into believing the misrepresentations, that a pre-emptive strike was immoral, that the thousands of Iraqi citizens who have died at our hands are not "collateral damage" but are our human brothers and sisters, that we have made a bad situation in Iraq worse with our insistence that our form of democracy be instituted there, and that American lives are being foolishly expended.

I believe that the war is an outgrowth of American hubris and privilege and that our military personnel, who are being required to shoot and kill other humans at our behest and are in grave danger of dying themselves, are, in many if not most cases, trapped by their loyalty to a system which is using them. They have no real choice but to serve the system, for their families, their sense of honor, and their personal moral code demand that they fulfill the service they signed up for. I do not condemn them; I understand what it means to be in such a position.

At the root of the hubris and privilege that have instigated the war is an addiction to the fruits of domination. That is, in this case, energy. Oil. In other wars it has been control of land masses and their natural resources.

Addictions have been described as an effort to fill up a spiritual vacuum, a self-medicating of the pain of being out of relationship with God. Traditional religion has not done the trick in filling up that vacuum; instead, it seems to have increased the compulsion to feed the addiction with ever more power and greedy consumption. Religion must shift its emphasis from dominion to cooperation.

Addictions kill human beings, whether it is an individual death from alcoholism or a national, even global, death from war.

Friday, March 16, 2007

How do I know what I know? The question of epistemology.

I'm preaching on Sunday at the Skagit UUF, the third in a series on five theological questions. This sermon is about "authority" and I reprint it here, in case you're interested. I intended to offer excerpts for the latest UU blog carnival but didn't get it done.

by Rev. Kit Ketcham, March 18 2007

This poem is entitled “Lament for a Wavering Viewpoint” and is by the late poet, Phyllis McGinley.
I want to be a Tory
and with the Tories stand,
Elect and bound for glory with a proud, congenial band.
Or in the Leftist hallways, I gladly would abide,
But from my youth I always could see the Other Side.

How comfortable to rest with the safe and armored folk
Congenitally blest with opinions stout as oak!
Assured that every question one single answer hath,
They keep a good digestion and they whistle in their bath.

But all my views are plastic, with neither form nor pride,
They stretch, like new elastic, around the Other Side,
And I grow lean and haggard with searching out the taint
Of hero in the blackguard or of villain in the saint.

Ah, snug lie those that slumber beneath conviction’s roof.
Their floors are sturdy lumber, their windows weatherproof.
But I sleep cold forever, and cold sleep all my kind,
For I was born to shiver in the draft from an open mind.
Born nakedly to shiver in the draft of an open mind.

My conservative Baptist minister dad used to say to me, “Honey, don’t be so openminded that your brains fall out.” He’d say this on the many occasions when I’d defend some--to him--indefensible act or position, such as my summer crushes on the handsome young men who came to town for pea harvest. Or that living with one’s future mate before marriage might be a good idea. Or that the war in Vietnam was crazy.

I never brought up my religious opinions, because I was pretty sure I’d get the same response, and yet it seemed to me that there was something worse than being so openminded that my brains fell out. It seemed to me that being so closed-minded that my brains dried up was worse. But saying so seemed tantamount to accusing him of dried up brains, and that didn’t feel so good either.

As a child, I depended on my parents and other trusted adults to tell me the truth, whether that truth was about religious beliefs or grammar principles or historical facts or Spanish vocabulary. They knew more than I did, it was clear, and I trusted their knowledge. I trusted them to be right.

As I grew older, I gradually began to realize that my parents and other adults were telling me the truth ONLY AS THEY SAW IT. Though I knew that they had my wellbeing in mind, I also began to understand that they had received their version of the truth from still other persons. Filtering this received truth through their own experience, they had passed it along to me. How many people were there in this line of truth-telling? Where did the original people get the truth?

You know how adolescent minds work--always questioning, wondering, considering alternative answers. Despite all the good advice available for free from parents, teachers, police, doctors,--- adolescents prefer to work out their own truth. “ Yeah, but, I’d rather figure it out myself” became my refrain, as I sorted through the sources of wisdom that I knew about and searched for others that made more sense. Which of course gave my dad a chance to use his other favorite stock phrase--”a yeah but is a half-brother to a halibut...”

I loved the romance and the tragedy of the ancient Christian stories: Mary’s anointing of Jesus’s feet and Jesus’ acceptance of this loving act; the commandeering of a donkey for a triumphal ride into Jerusalem; the overturning of the greedy vendors’ stalls in the temple; the clever answer to the trick question, “is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar?” the chilling words spoken at the Passover supper with his disciples--”this do in remembrance of me”; the betrayal by a kiss from Judas, a trusted disciple; the arrest in the garden and the subsequent series of denials from Peter, another trusted disciple; a kangaroo court, a condemnation, a beating, a savage public execution in front of Mary, Jesus’ mother, and all his friends.

This was all completely believable to me. As thrillers go, it ranks right up there with some of our best modern stuff. It displayed human nobility and human frailty in extremely clear detail. Shakespeare had nothing on the Gospel writers when it came to drama and tragic endings.

But that famous story as told in the Gospels of the Christian scriptures ends with a twist--a twist which turns a human tale into a ghost story. Jesus’ body disappears from the tomb in which it is placed. Angels appear to the women who are searching for his body to cleanse and wrap it. Jesus the living person reappears to his friends in several places, vanishes, and then reappears to offer them advice about evangelizing the world, building an institutional church, and living what he has taught them.

This part of that story bothered me. A lot. I didn’t know what to think about it. All the ghost stories of my youth notwithstanding, I didn’t believe people could rise from the dead. Surely there was another explanation.

In studying the Bible as literature in college, I discovered that there were actually several different versions of this story in the Gospels. Either it happened several different ways or it didn’t happen at all or somebody made it up or at least embellished it. Or maybe people dreamed it. In any case, the entire Christian tradition in all its many variants seemed to be built on a supernatural foundation. Never mind the perfectly sensible and inspiring events of Jesus’ life.

My sources of authority--how I knew what I knew--began to shift dramatically as I dealt with the ramifications of a possibly-fictional Easter.

I met non-theistic friends who told me that Easter was proof that the concept of God is absurd. What loving parent would send a beloved child to be killed as a sacrifice? This God didn’t make sense.

Nor did the Hebrew Bible seem any less fantastic in its authority. Laws which mandated that wool and cotton not be combined in fabric? Which recommended death for a myriad of seemingly minor offenses? Which dictated laws of diet that collided with modern science?

“You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free...”--one of Jesus’ most famous sayings. We want to find truth, to believe the truth, to be able to trust the truth we hear. We want to find reliable sources of authority. But we are hard pressed to find those reliable resources.

In the daily news, we hear conflicting reports about international events, domestic issues, political situations. Even the best medical research offers us thousands of studies proving both sides of any given subject: that butter is bad and butter is good, organic is good, organic is bad, estrogen works, estrogen harms, fiber is good, fiber doesn’t work.

If we followed all the studies available, we’d go nuts. So we sort things out according to our own experience. Uncle Bill had a heart attack and ate lots of red meat and dairy products; therefore, too much of that kind of stuff is probably not so good. We grow our vegetables organically and have few pests or diseases and all we have to wash off is the dirt, therefore organic is probably good.

The jury is still out on many issues, but we’re wary--if the market says it’s good, they’re probably saying so out of economic self-interest. Therefore, it might not be so wonderful.

Religion is a little tougher subject to sort out. Many of us were raised to revere certain texts and authority figures as sacrosanct, infallible, or at least true, if not factual. The Hebrew Bible, the Christian scriptures, the Koran, the Bhagavad-Gita, Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths--these are all sacred bodies of knowledge, revered by humans world-wide, accepted by many humans world-wide as absolutely true.

Now we have come to Unitarian Universalism at least partly because we have a problem with accepting a sacred written text or body of knowledge as absolutely true. We have come to Unitarian Universalism because we believe that our actions toward each other and toward the universe are more important than certain beliefs about God or the creation of the earth or the lives of the Buddha or Jesus, or Muhammed.

Yet we still need authoritative sources of knowledge. What will they be? How will we decide?

As a religious humanist, I am convinced that human experience and wisdom can be an authoritative source of my knowledge. My own experience and wisdom are authoritative for me, but may not be authoritative for others. I am willing to accept the experience and wisdom of credible others, but I insist on filtering it through my own experience and wisdom.

I accept certain texts as authoritative--the Declaration of Independence is, for me, an authoritative text, as is the Bill of Rights--imperfect as they may be, they establish principles of democracy that I believe to be right. The Constitution---with the challenges it’s getting these days and the current membership of the US Supreme Court---well, who knows?

As a Unitarian Universalist, I find great wisdom and credibility within most sacred texts. I do not consider them historical documents and would not use them as the basis for a history lesson. Yet, these poetic literary works offer me a great deal of universal wisdom: to treat others as I would be treated; to act with justice and mercy toward others; to be generous with the poor and downtrodden; to love freely and unconditionally; to express compassion and to work for freedom.

Our Unitarian Universalist principles are based upon the universal wisdom of many religious and many secular thinkers.

My friend and colleague, the Rev. Harold Rosen of Vancouver, his book “Universal Questions: Exploring the Mysteries of Existence”, lists his methods for arriving at useful truth and declares that each balances and complements the others.

He lists as his sources of authority, how he knows what he knows, the following methods: See what you think.
The scientific method, the combination of reason and experience applied to an idea.
Common sense--a personal and practical understanding of reality.
Tradition-- accumulated patterns of thought and behavior, often of enduring usefulness and patterns which define a culture.
Intuition--a sense about the way things are that leaps ahead of ordinarily available information.
Artistic expression--a way of seeing, hearing, and feeling that is different from ordinary knowing.
Wisdom teachings--useful axioms and spiritual principles that can improve the human condition.
Revelation--direct communication of insights by prophetic personalities such as Martin Luther King Jr. and others, both ancient and modern.

In addition, Rev. Rosen believes that we are morally obligated to follow the laws of our government, except when those laws violate universal standards of justice.

So what do we use as our sources of authority? How do we sort out truth from fiction, hype from reality, ethical direction from self-serving manipulation?

Living in a multicultural world, we are always called upon to interpret and evaluate the sources of authority that bombard us. We are forced to rely upon media reports of national and international events that seem hysterical, inaccurate, and often evasive. We hear rumors and stories from friends and family about other friends and family.

We cringe at the proclamations of truth that we hear from certain groups--creation scientists, big corporations, cults and many political organizations, fundamentalist religions. We step carefully through our lives trying to live by our ethical and moral principles but always knowing we don’t have enough accurate information to know for sure.

And so we often become like Phyllis McGinley in her poem--chilled by the draft from our open minds, hoping that our brains won’t fall out but hoping just as much that our brains won’t dry up from too little openness.

How do I know what I know? I find it helpful to look at the things that I know for sure and tease out from them the reasons that I know them with such certainty. And I find that almost invariably there are common roots to my sense of certainty.

For example, I believe with all my heart that Easter is a season to celebrate, that it is deeply meaningful, that its meaning has profound consequences for my life, and that I neglect its meaning to my detriment.

Fifty years ago, my conviction was based on my Christian upbringing. I believed that it was the day that Jesus rose from the dead. My parents and teachers had told me that this was the truth, and I believed them. I found the story inspiring and the great love and sacrifice it portrayed thrilled me to the core.

But picture Kit the teenager, sitting on a windy bluff early one gray Easter morning with other youth as a single ray of sunlight pierces the clouds, singing an old hymn: “ His robe is the light, his canopy space, his chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form and bright is his path on the wings of the storm.” and then..”It breathes in the air, it shines in the light, It streams from the hills, it descends to the plain and sweetly distills in the dew and the rain.”

My understanding of the truth of the Easter message changed at that moment, from a concentration on the death and resurrection of Jesus to the ever-present, all-embracing sense of the Infinite Divine which I saw at that instant portrayed in nature to be bigger than Jesus, bigger than I was, bigger than all the doctrine I’d ever heard. With its boundary-less, inclusive power, the Living Universe subsumed the Christian message. And I would never again be satisfied by a doctrine or a creed as my source of authority.

Today I find the truth of the Easter season even more embracing as I understand the true source of its meaning and power, the Living Universe that enfolds and connects us.
Our celebrations in the spring of the year, of the Vernal Equinox, of Passover, of Easter, all come to us out of the same source of universal truth, LIFE, the life which infuses us with strength and power and inspiration and is revealed most fully in nature.

Because we are human, we have developed specific ceremonies to celebrate our sense of mystery, of gratitude, of incredible awe at the meaning of life. We celebrate the renewal of the earth in Spring, we celebrate deliverance from our enemies, we celebrate the rebirth of love.

But all our celebrations, all our joy and passion flow from a common source--our recognition that life is sacred, in all its pain and all its triumph, that living things all die and yet continue to live, whether in the fertile soil, within our hearts, within works of creativity which outlive us, in our families.

Yes, we do use our reason to determine truth; yes, we do rely on human tradition for continuity and connection. We trust our intuition, we respect our artists’ work, we use our common sense and our knowledge of wise words from various texts, and we pay attention to the prophets we hear, to discern what truth they may offer us, even when we disagree. And we trust most of the laws of our land.

But I believe that for virtually all of us, LIFE is our final authority. If it is life-giving, we can trust it. Even when it hurts, if it enhances life in its greatest form, we can believe in it. We sometimes get sidetracked by the needs of daily living--money, possessions, luxuries, are these not life? No--they are only what we accumulate in our day to day living. They are not life itself.

Life itself is in the threads that connect us, in the relationships we have with one another, with our own souls, and with the Living Universe or God as we understand God. Life is indestructible, but it can be nurtured into a greater profusion of joy and passion by our careful attending to its growth, its needs.

And we will goof up! We will make mistakes about what is lifegiving, life-enhancing. So will those around us. In the 2004 election, our nation voted to continue the efforts of the Bush administration to force controversial US policies on the world. In the 2006 election, we rectified that mistake, to some degree.

We live in a democratic society, where the will of the majority calls the shots. During the earlier election, the majority chose a path which has not proved to be life-enhancing, life-giving. Many of us thought it was a terrible, destructive path and in the recent election have tried to mitigate the damage and protest the injustices in process.

Life continues, but in a somewhat different direction because of that choice. How will our choices spin out in the coming years and the coming elections? The political scene tends to be cyclical. When it is our turn to be the majority---which it is now for awhile---how will we respond? Can we help those who disagree with us see our point of view? Can we see theirs? Can we forgive each other for the mistakes we each have made?

For forgiveness is life giving. It is never easy to let go of hurt and anger, and in many ways, the ancient human dramas of Easter and Passover are not ended. Jesus set an example on the cross when he prayed for his killers’ forgiveness. Can the Jews forgive the enemies who have persecuted them for centuries? Can the Palestinians forgive the Jews? Can the Christians forgive those who refuse to believe and do things their way? Can the earth forgive the torture it has endured? Can we forgive those who have hurt us?

As we get ready to celebrate spring in all its glory, let us consider how well we use our sources of authority, whether we are true to LIFE and its gifts, or whether we ignore its call. May we rededicate ourselves in love to LIFE, for ourselves, for each other, and for the Living Universe of which we are a part. Let's pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Work Party and Koffee Klatch serve as covers for collecting sermon data

In a little while I'll be going off to work with other Whidbey folks on our forested lot, where soon a new UU church building will rise, thanks to the hands-on efforts and the financial support of the UUCWI congregation.

We will soon sign mortgage papers, hold a groundbreaking ceremony, and start pounding nails, but today's work will be clearing ground a little more, getting rid of slash (PNW term for cleared brush and limb piles), and trading jokes with the assembled crew of folks from the congregation.

Also this morning, I will go to SEKK (South End Koffee Klatch) down by the ferry dock and spend a couple of hours chatting with whoever shows up, including the barista, Rene, at Rockhoppers coffee shop. Rene is a UU and we meet at her folk-art-bedecked shop every month.

But today is also the day I need to write the sermon for Sunday and I've been looking for the right way to start it out. My work on the land and attending the koffee klatch are actually secret missions to look for what is at the heart of this congregation, this community.

The sermon title is "Faithfulness to our covenant with our commmunity" and you'll hear more about it later in the week.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Faithfulness: Our Covenant with Self

A sermon preached at the UU Congregation of Whidbey Island, March 11, 2007.

by Rev. Kit Ketcham, March 11, 2007

In this first of three sermons on the linked ideas of faithfulness and covenant, I want to check and see if we’re all on the same page when it comes to the definition of these ideas.
What’s a one-word definition, for you, of covenant?
Of faithfulness?
In this series, I want to expand on our understandings of those two familiar words and help us think about them in terms of our religious faith as Unitarian Universalists. We will consider three covenants in our lives that have particular significance in our free faith: our covenant with our selves, our covenant with our faith community, and our covenant with the universe, or God as you understand God.
What is a covenant, and what does it mean to us? Your definitions reflect much of what my American Heritage dictionary says: a covenant is a formal, binding agreement, a compact, a contract, a bargain, a deal. Religious covenants are a little different from this; a religious covenant is often unspoken and resonates with expectations and hopes about how the religious community will be together. Covenants, in religious life, mean promises, commitments, vows, pledges. We think of a marriage covenant, of a pledge to love, honor, and cherish.
Faithfulness, too, has dual implications, from mundane meanings such as “accurate” and “true” and “firm adherence to a policy” to meanings with a more reverent or ethical essence: loyalty, devotion, fidelity, trustworthiness, reliability.
One of my favorite old hymns from my Baptist upbringing was “Great is Thy Faithfulness”. We sang it a lot and when my mother died, we chose it as a hymn for her memorial service. And as I led that singing, on that beautiful June afternoon, the words suddenly meant something new to me.
Some of those old words go like this: “Great is thy faithfulness, great is thy faithfulness, there is no shadow of turning with thee, thou changest not, thy compassions, they fail not. As thou hast been, thou forever will be.” And “morning by morning, new mercies I see. All I have needed thy hand has provided, great is thy faithfulness unto me.”
My mother’s face filled my mind as we all sang these words. If ever there was an example of faithfulness, it was my mother, I realized. All these words applied to her as well as to the God she felt so close to.
My mother and I had had our differences. She died in 1994, a lady with an uncommon amount of spirit and life, a lover of nature, of people, of God. A wife loyal beyond death, she never remarried after my father died, though the twinkle in her eye still attracted many an elderly swain.
As an oversensitive teenager, I vividly remember walking with my mother on an Oregon beach and cringing as she flung her arms wide to the grey sky with a line from Edna St. Vincent Millay, “O world, I cannot hold thee close enough”. Without a concern in her head about how cute guys might view the daughter of such a maniac, she loudly sang her joy to God, she smiled and talked to every passerby, she clasped my hand to her cheek in saltwatery ecstasy.
When I grew older and moved away from home, her letters exhorting me to remember my childhood faith annoyed and troubled me. My childhood faith had metamorphosed drastically and her insistence was embarrassing. In vain, I exhorted her in return. She should examine the inconsistencies in her own beliefs! She should see how honest and true I was in my reworked faith! She should leave me alone!
Twenty years of infrequent visits ended in November of 1990, when the call came from my sister, “Mom’s had a stroke, it doesn’t look good. Can you come home?”
When I walked into the hospital room in Vancouver, WA, her snowy hair was tousled on the pillow and she was paler than I thought possible. One side of her body was floppy-looking, as though the starch were gone. Green, unfocused eyes regarded my approach and then snapped to attention. A brilliant half-smile illuminated her pale face: “Oh, Betsy” was all she could muster.
She wanted to die. Over the next few days, with gestures and tears, she told me wordlessly of her anguish. She could not talk intelligibly. Three or four words might emerge before nonsense syllables elbowed meaning aside. She was embarrassed by her weakness, ashamed of her need for constant supervision.
And my father, her lover, was waiting for her. Beyond her crippled human form, she knew that his long arms were outstretched, ready to enfold her again. Impatience and frustration flashed from eyes which could see him there, just beyond the bar.
But as days passed and she got stronger and more able to care for herself, my mother gradually conceded her defeat. This was, apparently, not “it”. And she began to take delight in life again, roaring with surprised laughter on Thanksgiving night as kids and grandkids and nieces and nephews conga-ed into her room to the tune of “Over the River and Through the Woods, to Grandmother’s house we go”.
Again, tears and gestures and, this time, a determined set of the jaw communicated her intent: God hadn’t wanted her to come yet; He must have more work for her to do here on earth.
My mother was my lesson in faithfulness to the covenant with self.
What is the very first covenant we experience at our birth? I think we are born into a covenant with life. We are born with the will to live; instinctively we struggle to stay alive, against all odds. No matter how tiny the baby, once it is born alive, its mission is to live, to continue to breathe, to request what it needs through that most poignant of expressions, the cry of a tiny child.
Concurrent with this covenant are other innate and involuntary agreements---to learn what one must do to live, beyond breathing; to be a member of a family group; and, possibly, to be a participant in a religious group. These covenants we inherit at birth; living is instinctual and we learn, as children, without thinking much about it. Our family group, whatever it might look like, we manage with the learned behaviors that have kept us fed and comfortable as we grew. And our religious group, if our family is so inclined, is inherited at birth. We are born into Catholicism, or Hinduism, or atheism or whatever our parents’ belief system might be.
We discover our covenants with life and their meanings and consequences gradually and we may move in and out of them as we grow older.
In our reading by Wendell Berry, the protagonist, Jayber Crow, confides that his being taken in at age three by Aunt Cordie and Uncle Othy after his young parents died was a blessing he did not fully know until later. Their faithfulness to him forged in him an unbreakable connection to living fully.
And Theodora, in our story for all ages, lets go, for awhile, of her covenant with life because of the chilling effects of the magic mirror, which had convinced her that she was worthless. When she relinquished the mirror, her faithfulness to her covenant with life was restored.
My mother, even with grief and worry over a recalcitrant daughter, was faithful to her covenant with life, living out of her innate drive to love, to use the talents she was born with, to express her joy and gratitude for life in a thousand ways, whether those ways were wild and demonstrative or sedate and proper.
How are we doing with our own personal covenants with life? By now, our covenant with life has grown beyond the breathing, eating, drinking, and eliminating stage. We have taken all we’ve learned and we’ve made some conscious choices.
We may have consciously diverged from the early patterns that we inherited at our birth, our learnings about surviving in the world, our family expectations, and our religious upbringing. But the grooves are worn deep from those early years and we may still be affected by them.
It’s been pretty well established by science that patterns in families tend to be present over several generations. Family systems theory holds that addictions, for example, may be present in a family going back several generations. The evidence points not to genetics as a cause but toward patterns of deeply ingrained behavior, inculcated over generations, that encourage repetition of a harmful behavior.
Additional research shows that traumatic events in a person’s life can create wounds that take years to heal and may never heal unless the person is able to acknowledge the wound and take steps to heal the hurt.
Even more interesting is that traumatic events in a parent’s life will likely, unless treated, cause children and grandchildren to reflect the pain that occurred in their elders’ lives, perhaps decades ago.
Unexpressed grief, for example, grief for which there has been no comforting compassion, no outlet, goes underground and emerges again in the lives of children yet to be born. Some of us may know someone, or may have experienced personally, the loss of a parent in childhood. Such a loss leaves a hole in the heart and, unless grieved adequately, can affect one’s relationship with one’s own children, because one’s covenant with life has been violated, one’s trust in the goodness of living has been shaken.
We as Unitarian Universalists have as our first guiding principle the affirmation of that covenant with life, when we say to each other and to the world that we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We as a religious tradition are committed to assisting individuals live out of their inherent worth and dignity.
We recognize that many persons with inherent worth and dignity squander that essential resource over a lifetime, and yet we believe that it is there at birth, and we are committed to lifting it up, helping others see it, and repairing that damaged sense of worth and dignity if at all possible.
Where others may see hopeless, sinful behavior and exhort the sinner to repent of whatever it is---homosexuality, for example---we find acceptance to be more promising, more life-giving, more loving.
As individuals, we each strive to maintain the healthiest covenant with life we can attain. We eat well, we exercise, we nurture our relationships, we get therapy if we need it. And we do what we can to heal ourselves from old wounds. We look for ways to find wholeness.
One of the old wounds many of us have deep inside concerns money. Our attitude toward money is often conflicted, uncomfortable, anxious. I know of people who stay home from church when it’s canvass season! Obviously, nobody here at UUCWI would do such a thing! But money is a touchy subject.
Take, for example, the adult who grew up with parents shaped by the Depression. I've seen this go several different ways. One may feel desperate to hoard resources, treating others stingily out of fear of deprivation. Another discovers credit card heaven and, afraid that gratification will never come if s/he waits, dives into the world of excessive spending and huge debt.
Most of us fall somewhere in between these two extremes, but many of us bring this kind of experience into our adult lives and struggle with it as we try to navigate our way through the many requests for our cash.
We know our churches need to be financed adequately. We know we can’t successfully carry out our mission without folks’ generosity and yet we don’t want to hear about the congregation’s budget needs because it touches something really tender and sensitive inside us. We feel badgered about money even if it only comes up once in awhile. Our personal finances are also a touchy subject; we don’t advertise how much we make nor do we tell people how much our possessions or our enjoyments cost us. We’re always looking for a bargain or feeling guilty if we don’t get something at the best price.
I spoke a few moments ago about how old, even historic, wounds can cause pain generations later. And I’d like to invite us all to take a moment of silence and think back to our earliest experiences with money, how our parents and other elders treated money, talked about it, used it, or even abused it.
When I thought about my history with money, I remembered how little there was of it when I was growing up, the produce and other gifts of food that subbed for a paycheck sometimes for my dad. And then I went farther back in my family history and remembered that my paternal grandfather had been a railroad worker who shot his hand off while hunting near his Missouri home. That ended his prospects with the railroad, so my granddad turned to moonshining as a way of supporting his wife and seven children.
My dad, when he was 13, got caught up in his dad’s moonshining and might have been arrested or even killed while making his deliveries. But his mother wisely shipped him off to Wyoming to live with family friends and work on a ranch, to get him out of the moonshine business.
When my parents met, my mother was a schoolteacher near Payette ID, scraping by on a tiny salary. After their marriage they went to Chicago to attend Moody Bible Institute and train for the ministry, just as the Depression was hitting. The Depression hit this young couple hard. My parents had come from slim pickings already and were thrown into the Depression with nothing to spare.
Surviving seminary on dented canned pears and mashed potato sandwiches, blackening white underwear with shoe polish to hide holes in the seat of their britches, my parents struggled to contain their desire for nice things and found credit awfully tempting when they returned to the Northwest to go into the ministry, though gratitude for their survival was expressed in their regular pattern of tithing.
They managed to provide well for us kids and I grew up not consciously realizing the extent of their anxiety about money, though I quickly came to see that anxiety in myself as my vulnerability to easy credit became evident. It took me a long time to come to the point where debt did not rule my life. And even today, I feel anxious about having enough.
So canvass season is hard for many of us, and I am no exception. I confess to continued (mostly subconscious) anxiety about money and whether I will have enough to live on, even though I know I am pretty much okay, financially.
One of the reasons I am telling you this today is that I want to face my own fears about money, for as our comfort level with money improves, we feel less fearful about money talk; we can ask for what we need; and we can be compassionate about others’ fears.
In closing I want to add that I learned, over a period of several years, as I paid off credit card debt and a second mortgage, that when I gave my money generously to the causes I supported, I felt healthier, less fearful about whether I could make it or not financially. An attitude of generosity and gratitude became my tool for healing my anxiety, my overspending, and my need for instant gratification. Being generous makes me feel rich!
Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
HYMN # 295 “Sing Out Praises for the Journey”

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 to be mindful of our covenant with life, nurturing and taking care of ourselves, considering our anxieties, and finding healing in generosity to ourselves and to each other. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Covenants and Money

Yesterday's sermon went over pretty well and I was pleased by the response of those who attended the service. The sermon segued from our involuntary covenant with life, to the choices we make about which early covenants we will keep and how, to the deep grooves worn in our hearts by the experiences we've had in our lives, and on to how our early experiences with money have made us touchy about money.

Of course, folks could have just been enthusiastic because the power went off in the middle of the service, since winds were howling across the island all day, and my "teacher voice" reached to the far corners of the room without amplification. We have a fair number of folks who have hearing deficits and can't enjoy the service unless they can hear it.

And it's a good thing we now are on daylight savings time, because we had enough daylight to read the hymnal by! We have 4 p.m. services and we wouldn't have had enough daylight to have an enjoyable service, had we not all woken up at 2 a.m. to set the clocks ahead. You did, didn't you?

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Why are many people hesitant about giving generously to their religious community?

I brainstormed a few possibilities about the fearful giver while thinking about my upcoming sermon series on Faithfulness and Covenant. Please add things I might not have thought of.

In no particular order:

--if we are angry come-outers from another tradition,
will we be deceived here?
--if we live at a fixed income,
will our giving generously cut into our ability to live comfortably?
--if we give to many causes,
is our congregation as worthy as the other causes we support?
--if we need companionship and connection,
will we find it here?
--if we have spent foolishly in the past,
will we be spending foolishly here?
--if we have been wounded by money in some way,
will that happen to us here?
--if we are generous,
will we set a standard that we may not be able to live up to later?

Many people, not just UUs, are fearful, not cheerful, givers. They may have grown up in a culture of scarcity because of the Depression, family patterns, Me First-ness, and a host of other reasons.

Instead of scolding them for their fear, it seems to me better to understand it and encourage them to deal with it effectively. I think people want to be generous but are afraid.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Dixie Chicks rule!

I liked the old Dixie Chicks better than the reconstituted version. That is, the Dixie Chicks who performed at bluegrass festivals in Colorado in the early nineties---they were oldtime country and sang old Patsy Cline and Dale Evans stuff, which I loved.

When they fired their lead singer (whose name I don't remember) and brought on Natalie Maines, their style changed, became more slick and bigtime, and their popularity soared, making them THE most popular female band in existence.

Until the eve of the Iraq war, when Natalie made her infamous comment at a London performance, "just so you know, we're ashamed that President Bush is from Texas"! Hate mail, death threats, dumped by country stations, picketed by all and sundry, the Chicks looked like goners.

I just finished watching their recently released DVD "Shut Up and Sing" after having purchased the CD "Taking the Long Way" and knowing the songs now well enough to beller along in the car, "I'm not ready to make nice, I wouldn't do it if I could...".

In the documentary, I was impressed by the Chicks and their sturdy resistance to backing down from their point of view. They were scared their careers were in the tank, but they didn't blame Natalie or kick her out, they didn't capitulate to get their country fans back, and they stuck to their guns.

And we know now that their CD won Grammys and that they are once again on top of the music heap. And they were right about the war and President Bush.

An involuntary covenant

I'm about halfway finished with this Sunday's sermon entitled "Faithfulness to Our Covenant With Self" and hope to finish it today. When I was in the cogitating phase (which for me lasts from the time the idea arrives in my mind---well before the newsletter deadline, hopefully---until I sit down to figure out hymns, readings, intergen story, and opening gambit), it occurred to me that all humans are born into involuntary covenants which we work with till we die.

This is probably old news to many folks, but it was a new thought to me. And that first involuntary covenant is with life; we involuntarily agree to preserve our life at all costs. Call it instinctual, call it evolution at work, whatever you want, but from the moment we arrive outside our mother's womb, we are involuntarily sworn to strive to live.

Babies born with an infinitisimal chance of survival often live beyond all expectations. Folks with terminal illnesses often survive long after their projected lifespan. Underwater, we struggle to reach the surface and air. Cornered, we fight or run.

The covenant we have with life has many ramifications. It undergirds our every move, and, if we are shaped by negative experience in some way early on, our will to live often morphs into something less than healthy.

Take, for example, the child who grew up with parents shaped by the Depression. I've seen this go several different ways. One child becomes miserly and greedy, desperate to hoard resources, treating others stingily out of fear of deprivation. Another child discovers credit card heaven and, afraid that gratification will never come if s/he waits, dives into the world of excessive spending and huge debt.

Most of us are probably somewhere in between. My own experience was growing up with parents who had come from slim pickings already and were thrown into the Depression with nothing to spare. Surviving seminary on dented canned pears and mashed potato sandwiches, blackening white underwear with shoe polish to hide holes in the seat of their britches, my parents struggled to contain their desire for nice things and found credit awfully tempting.

They managed to provide well for us kids and I grew up not realizing the extent of their anxiety about money, though I quickly came to understand that anxiety in myself as my vulnerability to easy credit became evident. It took me a long time to come to the point where debt did not rule my life.

One of the things I learned in that long struggle was the healing effect of generosity, that being generous with cash, as in my pledge to my church or to the charities I supported, felt different from being generous with gifts given via Master Card.

That's where I want to go with this sermon. Generosity is healing of self; it is an outgrowth of a healthy covenant with life.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Asking for what we need is scary!

This topic has been on my mind repeatedly during my ministry, in every congregation I've served. It is, for me, terrifying to put together a proposal about some shift in my work or schedule, present it, and then wait to see what the outcome will be.

I came from a profession in which the teachers' union did all the heavy lifting for us. We had professional negotiators looking out for our raises, our class sizes, our evaluation standards. And, as a preacher's kid, I didn't know how my dad handled his salary concerns with the board of trustees, so when I came into ministry, I didn't have much experience with asking for what I needed, as a minister.

In my earliest congregations, I just took what they offered and made it work. Gradually, I began to feel on more solid ground and started to set my own rates for such things as weddings and memorials. But even they weren't firm; I'd take what folks could afford. It was an "honorarium", after all, not a fee. Fees weren't religious! The ministers' professional chapter helped with this and set recommended honoraria, which gave us something to use as a reference.

But the task of asking for a new approach to a ministry is scary! I am in the waiting stage, but past the chewing my fingernails stage, of getting input about tweaking my work for next year. Changes in a small congregation need to be carefully considered, for they cause shifts in the culture of the congregation.

It's often valuable to think of changes as "experiments" or a process of discernment about the future of the congregation. It helps for people to know that changes are not necessarily carved in stone and are designed to help the congregation prosper.

My Buddhist buddies tell me to let go of the outcome and I try, I really do, but I also have such a strong drive to get completion on situations that I tend to "awfulize" if I don't get feedback right away.

Did I mention that on the Myers-Briggs I'm "J to the nth power"? That's me, ENFJto the max!

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

What classic film actress would Ms. Kitty be?

I found a great quiz on Joel the Neff's website and when I clicked the results button found out what classic film actress I would be. Ahem! Look at this! Scroll on down---I can't get it any closer to this paragraph.

Carole Lombard

You scored 19% grit, 14% wit, 42% flair, and 35% class!

You're a little bit of a fruitcake, but you always act out in style. You have a good sense of humor, are game for almost anything, but you like to have nice things about you and are attracted to the high life. You're stylish and modern, but you've got a few rough edges that keep you from attaining true sophistication. Your leading men include William Powell, Fredric March, and Clark Gable. Watch out for small planes.

Find out what kind of classic leading man you'd make by taking the
Classic Leading Man Test.

My test tracked 4 variables How you compared to other people your age and gender:
free online datingfree online dating
You scored higher than 99% on grit
free online datingfree online dating
You scored higher than 99% on wit
free online datingfree online dating
You scored higher than 99% on flair
free online datingfree online dating
You scored higher than 99% on class

Link: The Classic Dames Test written by gidgetgoes on OkCupid Free Online Dating, home of the The Dating Persona Test

Monday, March 05, 2007

Coming to the end of a weekend on Vashon Island

It's been a good, productive weekend on Vashon Island, these past few days. I arrived on Friday afternoon in time to attend the Program (aka Worship) Committee meeting. Our meeting was at the home of the chair, Beth, and part of the charm of the meeting was the view out over Quartermaster Harbor from her front room, while petting Sadie, the Rhodesian Ridgeback, and Tiber, a labbish mix, plus a couple of other dogs who were visiting. It's a good crew of folks on this committee and we always enjoy our meetings; they are putting the finishing touches on the remainder of the church year's worship services and looking ahead to next fall, though they are not sure just whether they will have a minister by then to work with.

Saturday morning, I hustled down to another member's home; she was hosting the New UU class that I was presenting with the help of the Membership committee. We had three attendees besides the M'ship committee and host. We offered a brief version of our personal spiritual journeys and spent some time talking about UU history and answering questions. I smile inwardly when I hear people say "I don't know if I'll fit here---I've got a kind of weird outlook about religion" because it's so likely that the person will discover that s/he is not so weird after all.

In the afternoon, I taught the first session of Building Your Own Theology and we have twelve people signed up for the class. The activities for the first session include introductions and a brief version of religious background and thinking and we launched into a productive discussion of "theology---the word". I realized that we UUs redefine words rather cavalierly sometimes and one participant called us on it in the discussion. "Theology" does mean, literally, "study of God" or "knowledge about God", but we have softened the meaning so that it can apply more broadly to nontheists as well.

In the evening, I attended a rather loud concert with my hostess Rhoda and her family, a benefit for a sister village in Guatemala which was decimated by mud slides awhile back. The combination of weariness and loudness wore me down and I left at intermission to go home and go to bed early.

Sunday, the church service went very well, though Joys and Concerns was so lengthy and full of sorrow that before we sang the next song (Enter, Rejoice, and Come In), I felt moved to call for a time of silence to honor the several deaths and losses noted by congregants. My sermon was the annual "sermon on the amount", to kick off the canvass campaign, and it was okay, though not particularly outstanding, in my view. It did engender some positive response later, which I appreciated.

One of the Vashon longtimers is Beryl, an incredible 87 year old woman who still rides horses, hikes, travels a lot, and plays stupendous piano. She puts together a yearly recital for friends and I was invited, so I spent the afternoon in her tiny apartment listening to a phenomenal concert of Schubert, Mozart, Albeniz, and Bach piano works, with twelve others crammed into that small space. Whew!

Today, Monday, we had seven people show up for TSKK (Tea Shop Koffee Klatch) only it was really CLUUKK (Cafe Luna UU Koffee Klatch) because the Tea Shop was closed and we had to relocate to Cafe Luna for our gathering. It was a boisterous crowd that showed up, and as we were leaving, one woman at another table stopped me and said, "Your group was having a lot of fun. What group is it?" and I confessed that we were from the Unitarian Fellowship. At which point she said, "Boy, I've got to become a Unitarian again!"

At noon, we decamped to the Homegrown Cafe for our monthly Lunch Bunch, and five of us enjoyed the Homegrown's excellent grub. Afterwards I made a couple of pastoral calls and am now back at my hostess's home. The board meeting is tonight and after that, I'll come back here, get a short night's sleep, and take off on the 5:45 a.m. Southworth ferry for Port Townsend and home across the Strait. I should get home in time to get re-organized and up to Whidbey General to do my Tuesday volunteer stint.

It's been a good weekend. Full, which is how I like it best, and interesting, with plenty of folks showing up for the various events offered. I especially like teaching classes, so Saturday was really fun, though today's coffee and lunch groups were pure hilarity.

I will miss these good people but their search process is heating up and they are going to do fine.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Domestic Partnership Bill will pass in Washington State

Hot off the press! The Washington State Senate has passed a bill conferring domestic partnership rights upon same-sex couples and unmarried heterosexuals age 62 and older, giving them the right to visit a partner in the hospital, inherit their property without a will and make funeral arrangements, among other things.

Equality Day 07 was in behalf of this bill and those of us who attended ED07 lobbied legislators to vote yes, which most did.

The bill still has to pass the House, where it will easily find favor. Governor Chris Gregoire has said she supports the measure and will sign it.

This is not the same thing as marriage equality, but it is a step toward justice for same sex couples and older couples who cannot marry for financial reasons.

There were, of course, mean-spirited remarks about the homosexual agenda, etc., but I think Sen. Ed Murray, one of the bill's sponsors, put it well when he said, "You have prevented us from marrying; please do not prevent us from caring for each other."

Marriage equality is still on the Religious Coalition for Equality's agenda but this is a great first step.


An opportunity to advance action on Climate Change

Dear readers,
Rather than forward this email to everyone in my address book, it seems better to post it on my blog. That way only those who want to read it will do so. I hope you all will read it and take action.

I was thrilled when "An Inconvenient Truth" won an Oscar, as did the Melissa Etheridge song which was its theme. I'll bet many of you were too.

I received this email today with the request that Americans send Mr. Gore (our former next president) their letters and emails of support for action by Congress. I am placing it here in hopes that you will write letters and send emails in support of action by Congress on climate change.

Al Gore wrote:

From: "Al Gore" <>
To: all of us on the planet (I removed the forwarder's name)
Subject: Our Next Step
Date: Wed, 28 Feb 2007 17:00 -0500

When the producers of An Inconvenient Truth first
approached me with the concept for the film, I was
skeptical. Could we really take a slideshow about
the climate crisis and turn it into a compelling
movie? Davis Guggenheim's Oscar win for best
documentary and a second one for Melissa Etheridge's
beautiful song "I Need to Wake Up" was a testament
to their ability, but it was also a testament to

It was you who packed the theaters and got your
friends to go see this film, greatly increasing the
audience. And then this past December, it was you
who connected through and to
attend An Inconvenient Truth viewing parties. At
those parties and in the weeks that followed, nearly
200,000 of you wrote to Congress, demanding that
they address the climate crisis like the planetary
emergency that it is.

Even though I have been a life-long movie fan, I
didn't really understand how big of an audience a
movie could reach. And of course I never would have
imagined in a million years that a movie that I was
a part of would receive two Academy Awards� or one� or
would have ever been made in the first place! As
humbling as this moment is, An Inconvenient Truth
will only succeed if it drives all of us to take
action. That's why I'm asking you to join me in the
next stage of our fight. On March 21st, I'm going
testify at Congressional hearings on the climate

This is an incredible opportunity to demonstrate to
Congress that we demand immediate action. And I
need your help to really make this moment count.
Can you commit to getting 10 friends to send their
message to Congress through before March
21st? The more voices I can bring to Washington,
the more powerful our message will be.

To get your friends involved, just forward them this
note or direct them to:

There is no longer a debate about the fact that
global warming is real. We're causing it. The
consequences are serious, and could be headed
towards catastrophe if we don't fix it. And it's
not too late. I don't want to imagine a future in
which our children say, What were our parents
thinking? Why didn't they wake up when they had a
chance? And I know you don't either.

The hundreds of thousands of you who signed messages
to Congress showed me what's possible. Working
together we can unite millions of people and build
support for real action on a scale that has never
been seen before.

Help me take the first step and fill up that hearing
room with your signatures. That picture alone will
send a powerful message.

Can you commit to getting ten more people to send
messages to Congress demanding action to stop global

I'm looking forward to working with you on this
monumental task.

Thank you,

Al Gore

February went out like a lion and March...?

Yesterday morning it began to snow hard, so hard, in fact, that I called the parishioner I planned to visit and left a message that I felt I shouldn't brave the weather to get to his place several miles away. Very shortly thereafter, the snow stopped and I went to visit him anyway. The roads were clear going down but suddenly, as I came back home, the snow started up again, this time pelting down much more heavily, and by the time I got home, it had started to stick.

I felt I'd really dodged a bullet and was puttering around the house, doing this and that, when a knock came at the door. It was one of my parishioners who lives not far from me and she was stuck on the road at the bottom of my driveway. So she used the phone to call her spouse for a snow shovel (I don't have one) and left in a few minutes to meet him.

The dangerous thing about western Washington snow is that it is very wet. Living in Colorado, I wasn't so at the mercy of the elements. Rocky Mountain snow is dry and fluffy with a low moisture content. Driving on a Colorado snow-packed road isn't the same kind of thing it is here.

I remember learning that lesson when my spouse and I came to visit my family over Christmas vacation one year and decided to go to Mt. Hood to ski. He, being the experienced Colorado snow driver, got a little too confident and we skidded straight into a snowbank on our way to the mountain.

But I'd forgotten the lesson by the time I moved to Portland and the first snow on the ground quickly reminded me, as my trusty little front-wheel-drive radial-tired Toyota slid helplessly down a sloped parking lot in a couple of inches of slush.

Last night's TV news featured a pileup of dozens of vehicles on Snoqualmie Pass, which is Interstate 90 and the chute between eastern and western Washington. "Chute" it was, as freezing conditions made the road a skating rink and every car on the road did a panicky back-pedal, to no avail, upon cresting one particular hill and observing the melee on the other side.

Fortunately, few were seriously injured but the road was closed for several hours.

Coloradans I've known scoff at Northwesterners' seeming inability to handle the snow. They ridicule our shutting down schools over two inches of snow. "Heck," they chortle, "we don't close schools here unless it's two feet deep and windy!"

Yes, indeedy, they chortle----until they experience the snow from hell, one inch of packed slush virtually impervious to de-icer and sand. And then they're the ones in the SUV ricocheting wildly off the jacknifed semis in the median.

Anyhow, February went out like a lion and this morning, this March 1 morning, the sun is out and we are sparkling under blue skies. We pays our dues, we gets our rewards!