Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Grief and Loss and Going Home

It's the day I go home from Reno and I'm ready. Not because I haven't had a good time, which I have, but because three days is about all I can handle of being away from my regular routines.

This has been a very nice visit, with just the right amount of time spent with the FS's inlaws and a goodly amount of time spent with the FS, the FDIL, and the FGKs. We have eaten gargantuan meals, I have spent (or charged) moderately, and we have talked and talked and talked. It's been good, intimate conversation, both with people I know well and people I'm just coming to know.

The aura of grief is heavy, though, for this is the first Christmas without the patriarch of the family, and it's a painful time for all. Grief is never an easy time and it's always complicated by family dynamics, which are more pronounced and more painful during a time like Christmas. It's been quite a life lesson for me to see how very difficult it is. It's been a long time since I was part of a grieving family that was struggling to stay connected while trying to be honest and yet sensitive to the many tendrils of grief that can ensnare one by surprise.

My dad died early too, at age 60, and though I have no way of gauging how bad it was for my mother, it was plenty bad for us kids, who had relied on Dad as the patriarch. We had to redefine our relationships with each other, with our mother, and with our own mates and children, now that we had lost this human pivot point in our lives. And it's terribly hard.

We did our best, but we were just as "insensitive" as human beings naturally are, as we try to acknowledge our own grief while being aware that others are also grieving and trying not to step on toes but doing it anyway, because we simply can't help it.

It's a time for huge doses of understanding and sympathy but it's often impossible for those within the family circle to supply them adequately when they are themselves so bereft. It's a very painful time for all who are part of the circle, whether blood relatives or more distantly related.

I have come to care for these new family members very much and they are in my prayers always, that their faith and love for each other will help them come through this tough time. I hope that gradually the pain will lessen and they can again experience joy in life, with memories that lighten the grief a bit and sweeten their time together.

Friday, December 26, 2008

And a couple of pix from yesterday's jam

Maxie Madness!

One last set of Maxie pix before I leave for Reno:

There must be a mouse down here somewhere!

Should I stay or should I go?

Max managed to overcome his distaste for the white stuff when he realized there might be buried treasure underneath it.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas is different this year...

It's not so hectic, for one thing, as everything Christmassy in any way has been cancelled and I have had almost a week of pure rest, with the only thing in my mind being "will we have to cancel _____?" Though I was looking forward very much to our first Christmas in our new building, when we had to cancel last night's service because of the road conditions I was almost relieved to have it be a clean sweep.

I'm not much for prolonging my regrets, so once the decision had been made to cancel Christmas Eve's service, I moved on and found myself teetering on the edge of "after Christmas"---which is a place I didn't want to be quite yet.

I hadn't planned to go anywhere for the holidays because of the Christmas Eve service, though I'll leave for Reno and the FS, FDIL, and FGKs on Saturday. So what to do to stay in Christmas mode, even though none of the traditional celebrations were occuring because of weather. A person who lives alone has to figure out her own way of being celebratory in private.

Luckily, a church family who lives nearby had invited me to share supper after the (now cancelled) Christmas Eve service. I had thought I couldn't go because Richard and Debbie and I needed to use the afternoon to record, but then Richard couldn't make it because of the ice on his road, so I did get to join them, along with some other neighbors. We had a marvelous evening together and when I got home, I turned on the PBS broadcast of Luther College's choirs singing carols. Boy, those Lutherans really know how to sing! It was beautiful and I went to bed with a new song or two in my head.

This morning, the snow is steadily melting away, unable to withstand a chinook wind out of the west, gentle rain and temps in the mid 30's. Max is outside, rejoicing in his greater freedom, Loosy is on my lap as I type, and Lily is sacked out in the big chair.

And I'm remembering Christmases past: the FS being dedicated at Jefferson Unitarian Church by the Rev. Leon Hopper on Dec. 24, 1972, squalling loudly as his dad and I jiggled him in our arms to quiet him (to no avail) long enough to receive the traditional rosebud and certificate; the FS finally walking by the next Christmas, having learned to talk in full sentences already (do you see a pattern emerging here? you'd be right); Christmas mornings with all the Colorado relatives--grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins; the first Christmas after our separation and how hard it was to celebrate separately--we gave up and had Christmas morning together; learning about the Holiday Project and thereafter spending Christmas morning singing carols at hospitals, nursing homes, and prisons.

It used to be that I felt very ambivalent about Christmas. I needed lots of presents to be happy and they needed to be the right sort of present; I gave a lot of expensive presents and needed the recipients to give the right kind of appreciation and gratitude in return. I didn't experience much joy or peace of mind. I loved and hated Christmas at the same time. I hoped for so much and was always a little bit disappointed.

It's different now. I'm not sure when it changed, maybe the year not that long ago when I couldn't be with family members and would be alone the whole long 48 hours of that officially sacred time. I'd never been all alone on Christmas before. I was scared, so I decided to make it a deliberate spiritual retreat, spending the time with music and carefully selected reading and, of course, my favorite holiday foods.

I went to Christmas Eve at a nearby UU church and then came home, opened one present, went to bed, and the next day spent the whole day in solitude, reading a little bit, and, for dinner, a small prime rib roast, baked potato, and mince pie. It was lovely, peaceful, joyful even though I was all alone for the first time at Christmas.

Since that time, my expectations have diminished and my joy has increased. I have learned to be grateful for everything that happens, not to hang onto any hope that something wonderful will happen but to view as wonderful the things that do happen and reframe negatives into something more uplifting. Even sorrow has its hidden meaning, its invisible-as-yet joy.

Right now, I need to get busy making preparations for my 4 p.m. onslaught of dinner guests, musicians coming to share a meal and make a joyful noise. Even though it's Christmas Day for many, it feels right to let Christmas be past and celebrate being together as friends. We'll light the Hanukkah candles, toast the Winter Solstice, and look ahead to a New Year of friendship.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Imagine my delight to find Leonard Cohen's hymn to humility and honor this morning at James Ford's MonkeyMind.

I'm very much in a Hallelujah frame of mind today, having woken in the night to hear rain falling and a soft breeze blowing across the bamboo wood chime outside my window. I rolled over and went back to sleep knowing that I would almost certainly be able to get my car dug out and go to the grocery store today.

When I went out to get the paper, I scuffed through soggy, rapidly melting snow, assessed the condition of the main road (sanded and smooth), and rejoiced to think that I would not be stuck another day.

I've been getting rides from musician friend Richard in his 4 wheel drive pickup, which is nice because R is one of these shy guys who doesn't open up in crowds but can carry on a perfectly fine conversation in a small group. I'm coming to appreciate very much his quiet manner as we navigate the snowy island roads. He's a sweetie who plays innumerable instruments AND builds them as well.

But this morning I was able to get my car shoveled out, pointed down the driveway, and out onto the main road into town, where I beat the crowds at the grocery store and stocked up for tomorrow's WinterJam, here at my house, where a bunch of us who often sing together will feast on turkey and the trimmings, pie, and sing our hearts out in a non-Christmassy way, since several are Jewish or Jehovah's Witness.

There's no Christmas Eve service tonight here for us, since our parking lot will still be a mess by tonight and drivers getting stuck would tear it up pretty badly. We're not exactly used to having Christmas Eve services in our own space, but I will miss the quiet magic of the candles and the carols, which we have almost completely let go of this season because of the weather. Next year, we hope to have a better experience.

This afternoon, Richard and Debbie and I will get together again and continue the recording session we began yesterday. We nailed about half of our songs and will finish today. It feels like a weird thing to be doing on Christmas Eve afternoon, but nothing about this Christmas has gone according to tradition.

Hallelujah anyhow!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Melissa Etheridge on Pastor Rick Warren

You might be surprised to read what Melissa Etheridge, one of my favorite singers, has to say about this controversial man and Mr. Obama's choice to give the invocation at the inauguration. Here's the link: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/melissa-etheridge/the-choice-is-ours-now_b_152947.html

Monday, December 22, 2008

One more shot of Max and one of the snow

Here's what we're dealing with this morning.

Here's Max's opinion.

A Maxie Monday

For Tim, Miss Kitty, Pixie and all those other Maxiefans (the captions are at the bottom of the photos):

You want me to what? Max

Sackout Max

Maxie the Magnificent

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Being in the right place at the right time

Last Tuesday I went up to Coupeville for my regular volunteer chaplaincy stint, a pleasant duty that usually takes no longer than an hour or so, as the hospital is small and often isn't very busy. And last Tuesday seemed to be one of those days---until I walked into a room where an old woman lay comatose and two middle-aged daughters sat by her bed.

They needed to talk. Their mother had had her health concerns but until this sudden stroke, she'd always recovered and been back on her feet. This time was different, they said, and they were trying to be hopeful but it looked like things would never be the same. Would they have to quit jobs and move closer, to take care of her? Would their lives ever be the same? Would she die suddenly and everything would change in a different, no less sorrowful, way? She had always been there for them, she was only in her 70s, what would they do without her guiding hand?

We talked for over an hour, the two sisters trying to come to terms with this impending loss, trying to decide what they should do, trying to be positive though nothing felt good at that point. I offered to pray with them and we all went back to their mother's room, where she lay unconscious, and we prayed together for strength to cope with the losses which loomed, that this beloved mother's life would now continue in whatever way was best for her, even if that meant that she did not recover consciousness.

When I left, I was struck by how casually sometimes I take this chaplaincy, because it is often just a matter of chatting up bored patients. It's often not "real" ministry, because it's hard to count swapping jokes about TV "ministry". But ever so often, something makes me realize that every moment spent with people who are in pain is real ministry, no matter what the topic.

This morning, our board president came up to my house with his 4 wheel drive and we went together up to the church. Going up to unlock the front door, I found a note to me, pinned down by a board, a bit damp from having been out in the weather for a day.

It said, in essence: "Rev. Kit, you visited us in Whidbey General Hospital last week and spoke with my sister and I and you prayed with my mom. Can we talk to you again? We have no prayer or spiritual support. Can you help? Here are our phone numbers."

If we hadn't gone up to the church today, chances are I wouldn't have found this note at all, as it was in danger of being obliterated by the weather. Talk about being in the right place at the right time.

Excuse me while I make a phone call.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Well, NOAA has clinched the decision---no church tomorrow.

I will try to struggle over there by 10 a.m., to greet anyone who didn't get the message that we are closed, but a PowerPoint from NOAA has caused us (me and the church prez) to pre-emptively cancel. It just sounds awful, at least by Western Washington standards.

Here's the NOAA link: http://www.wrh.noaa.gov/sew/Dec20-21WinterStorm/player.html

Friday, December 19, 2008

Now I know what it feels like

to be one of the school authorities who has to decide whether to cancel school and give kids a snow day. When I was an educator in Jeffco Schools in Colorado, I loved snow days and reviled any superintendent who was chary with them. I had a fairly long drive to school, up I-70 to Ward Road and then up and down a few hills to get to Oberon Middle School, and the freeway was often a scary place to be. I did not want to be out on the roads if the snow was bad and it can get very bad indeed out there on the west edge of Denver. The kids were squirrely as all get out too, and that made lunch duty more onerous than usual.

Anyhow, today we have had numerous conversations about what to do about our Sunday service. The kids' pageant has been scheduled for this Sunday, with their major rehearsal tomorrow morning. Problem: the RE staff and their children can't get out of their houses because of steep driveways and icy terrain. Some of the families live in equally difficult places.

After many phone calls and emails, we have finally decided to cancel the pageant and its rehearsal. We are expecting another big storm to come in tomorrow afternoon and inundate us again by Sunday morning, so it seems very wise to cancel now and face the possible embarrassment of clear skies and warm temps on Sunday. As a back up plan, we will have a brief service and carol singing for anyone who shows up at church.

It is so hard to know what to do sometimes! But I think we've done the best we can. We'll send out an email Sunday morning (we've already notified the participants of the cancelation) to let folks know whether we will have a service. Luckily virtually everyone here uses email. If I can get over there and am not stuck at home, I'll welcome anyone who arrives expecting to find church in session. (I feel like the principal of the middle school who has to go to school even on a snow day!)

But it seems to me that, though we have an obligation to keep folks safe, we also have an obligation to be available as much as possible. If that means that I am the only person there when a stranger comes looking for a spiritual experience, so be it. "Where two or three are gathered together..." and all that.

I did get out and about this afternoon. Richard had transported me to the jam last night and broken a trail down the driveway, so it wasn't too bad. I got the last snowshovel at ACE and a new mailbox, as mine has lost the back panel and is open to the elements. When the snow melts a bit more, I'll replace it.

We've had to cancel tonight's Young Adult activity as well as our Trilogy rehearsal. Richard called a little while ago to say that his road was blocked by an accident, so he can't get out yet and has to cancel today's rehearsal. We have a Bayview Sound rehearsal tomorrow---we think. Who knows? This is such weird weather for Whidbey Island!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

I understand why my BGLT friends are hurt but...

from a public speaker's point of view, the person who gives the benediction has the last word and is far more likely to be remembered than the person who gives the invocation. I know it has been a shock and a disappointment to learn that Rick Warren will give the invocation at Obama's inauguration.

Anger and calling for a reversal are very normal responses to a loss. So is sadness. But at some point it is important to look at the fact that the staunch pro-gay civil rights leader Joseph Lowery will have the last word.

I understand the outcry from the BGLT community and I support their right to holler loudly. I hope they will come to terms with their grief and, instead of continuing to feel betrayed, recognize that Lowery is in the better position. Warren is only a warm-up act, not the main event.

I see the inauguration as analogous to a worship service, in a way. The opening words are benign, mild, encouraging people to listen. There are other ceremonies involved but the climactic event is the inaugural address (or sermon) and the benediction wraps it up and sends people out fired up to go out and do something positive.

You can call it a political maneuver, and it doubtless is a payback for the support of those evangelicals who just couldn't stomach McCain/Palin. Obama has called it a bridge, an outstretched arm to those with whom he differs. That makes good sense. I'll bet Abraham Lincoln is chuckling right now: "To get rid of your enemies, make them friends" he said long ago.

I'm sorry for the pain it is causing people I love. I hope they will find hope on the other side of the pain.

Five inches and counting

When I went out to get the newspaper this morning about 5:30, it hadn't yet arrived and the mailbox was so frozen I could hardly open it to put my Netflix envelopes in and raise the flag. Max, who normally is undaunted by weather, stayed on the deck rather than accompany me down the driveway and clamored to come back in once I returned to the house. (Later he got his nerve up and went back out again and when I went down a second time to see if the paper was here, I could see his tracks bounding across the landscape.)

Dang! We have got to get in a rehearsal for our Trilogy performance in a few weeks. We had planned to get together today at 1 p.m., but I'm not sure we'll be able to do that. Richard wants to record us so that we have CDs to give people for Christmas and we had scheduled it for this afternoon. He does have 4-wheel drive but for him to come over and pick me up means lots of miles out of his way. I'm not sure what we'll do.

Tomorrow night is---I hope---our first Young Adult activity, a meal and get-together at the church, with child care. I hope the weather allows it. I hope the weather allows the pageant rehearsal Saturday morning and the BVS rehearsal Saturday afternoon. I hope it allows church on Sunday! Surely it will be better by Christmas Eve. By Dec. 27, when I fly to Reno? Please?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

It's been a quiet day here...

as the snow continues to come down. It let up this morning and actually warmed up a bit, so that I did get out to the grocery store and post office. Amazingly, I walked into the post office in Freeland and NOBODY was waiting in line. In fact, nobody else but post office ladies was even there. I mailed off my packages to friends and family in a few minutes and was back home right away.

The weather has made every church activity this week somewhat unpredictable. Last Sunday we woke up to snow on the ground and very slippery roads; our RE department couldn't get out of their driveways, so RE was canceled. We considered canceling church but it turned out not to be necessary. Our music service was able to go on as scheduled, with a few substitute choir members (me included) and a fair turnout, considering the roads.

But it's been icy cold and snowy ever since. Today we canceled a Bayview Sound rehearsal because, though we might have been able to get there, we weren't sure we could get home again.
Who knows if we'll be able to rehearse tomorrow?

It's funny---PNW snow is different from any other snow I've experienced. It's heavy and wet and packs into sheets of ice rapidly when driven on. Colorado snow was a snap compared to this. I have gotten very wary of driving in PNW snow. I'd rather stay inside with cabin fever than go out and take my chances on the ice.

But today was productive---I've about got the O/S for Christmas Eve put together and it's a whole week away! For our RE pageant this Sunday (for which we will be lucky to get a practice in), I have very little to do and it's already written out. Of course, the weather forecast for Sunday is more snow, so we may not even have a pageant!

I'm looking ahead to my Dec. 27 flight to Reno to visit the FS and his family, wondering if the weather will cooperate. We'll see! Usually it wouldn't be a question in my mind, but this spate of cold and snow has me wondering.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

An idea I'm incubating...

has to do with showing active support and ministry for those same sex couples who were planning to go to California to be married---until the Grinch stole the marriage licenses and burned them.

What if our congregation did something really kind of drastic and announced to the community that, in defiance of Prop 8 in CA, we are enacting Proposition 2009 and during the year 2009, we at UUCWI will donate the use of our sanctuary and the services of our minister (me) to celebrate the life commitment and marriage of same sex couples in our community.

As I'm considering how to carry this idea out (after running it by the board and congregation), I think I could write an editorial for the local paper announcing our opposition to marriage INequality and our invitation to same sex couples who live in our county to celebrate their marriages (because they are married in their hearts, whether the county clerk agrees or not) in our sanctuary, with the blessing of our congregation and the use of my services as officiant.

I don't know if we'd get any takers, but the lesbian couple I ran the idea by this morning liked it a lot. One young couple's plan to marry next August is what got me taking this brainstorm seriously. I think I'd need to limit it to Island county residents, to keep it manageable. But we have a very large, strong BGLT community on the south end of the island and I would like us to reach out to them.

We are already a Welcoming Congregation and have always been supportive of civil rights for sexual minorities, but I'd like to see us do something really concrete, both as a statement and as a service.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Pete Seeger is my hero...

and on May 1, which is two days before his 90th birthday, we are having a "Pete Seeger 90th Birthday Bash" concert, as a benefit fundraiser for a local nonprofit, Hearts and Hammers, which repairs homes for the elderly and needy on the island. My congregation will also get some of the proceeds.

Last night we held our fourth organizing meeting and had the help of Bob Dalton of H&H, who will spearhead our publicity efforts. We're talking about a setting where all the performers (there are about 20, we think) will be onstage together and, as our narrator describes the life and causes Pete has worked for, will group themselves at the mics to perform songs related to the relevant period of his life.

Our major order of business right now is putting together the artwork for the publicity, so we're all charged with rooting through our old folkie stuff and finding pictures, etc., that we can send to Bob, who will put together the publicity posters.

Second in priority is the set list. We figure we'll have about three hours worth of narration and song, with an intermission. We want to include old favorites so that the audience can sing along and we want a couple of all-ensemble numbers at the beginning and the end.

On the following Sunday, May 3, my music director and I are continuing the theme with a Pete Seeger worship (no, not worshiping Pete) theme, using his songs.

It's a lot of fun to work on this. Fortunately, the Vicodin knocked my back pain for a loop and today I am pain-free and have not had a pain pill since 4 p.m. yesterday. I hope it lasts. I'm ferrying over to Port Townsend this morning for our ministers' cluster meeting, so I'd better get on with it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Following my own advice...

is often the hardest thing for me to do. What did I tell the congregation on Sunday? That when our spiritual reservoirs are drawn way down, we often get signals that we need to heed (hmmm, there's a useful pairing of words---tuck those away for future use as a title of something: "needing heeding"). One of those signals was "getting sick".

I'm not sick, exactly, but one of my classic signals (and I hate to get it because it is so hard to ignore) is muscle spasms in my back. I have one area that begins to warn me a day or so in advance---an upper back "tiredness", a feeling of having sat at the computer too long or hunched over something working. I have been fending off a real attack for days with ibuprofen, hot and cold packs, that sort of thing, but last night, after a day on the mainland shopping for catfood, litter, and those great chocolate covered caramels at Trader Joe's, I couldn't ignore it or put it off any longer and I succumbed to the heating pad and cyclobenzaprine.

This morning I still have it, only it's harder now to consciously relax and let the muscle go. The pain makes me clench up, which makes it worse. I may have to go to the doctor for a renewed prescription, but I hate to do that, knowing that it will subside on its own if I wait it out. The cyclo is over two years old and doesn't seem all that effective, though it did help me sleep.

The thing is, I have tons of stuff to do today and don't want to put any of them on hold. There are some that I can let go but we have a Pete Seeger concert meeting tonight here and that really does need to occur, if possible, as we only meet once a month. So I'm going to scan my to-do list and see what can wait, what I can skip entirely, and go back and lie down. I did take one Vicodin, in hopes that would deal with the pain, because ibuprofen and other NSAIDs just don't do it. But, of course, the big V has other effects which I don't like---sleepiness and trouble focusing.

Anyhow, I am going to take my own advice, look for the message in this trustworthy red flag, and let go of what I can. At least the cats didn't wake me up this morning----I think they may have learned that scratching at the door at 4:45 a.m. doesn't exactly endear them to Mama, what with all the shouted "NOs" and bangings and throwing things that it incurs.

So ta ta for now. Back later.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Still Small Voice: a sermon

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Dec. 7, 2008

Every year about this time, I become much more deeply aware of my craving for spiritual experience. It's a time of year when my own reservoirs have often been drawn down by the desire to serve others, to rise to the occasion once again when another person needs my help, to find new meaning in my life so that I can share it with others.

This experience of needing to refill one's spiritual reservoirs is common to ministers and others in helping professions. It's also common to caretakers, to people in transition, moving from one stage of life to another, to people who are grieving, to anyone who needs new meaning in life.

We get the message in a variety of ways----some of us withdraw from others, some of us get sick, some of us go into therapy or spiritual direction, some take up a hobby, some may even become addicted to one thing or another.

When we find ourselves craving solitude or cringing when someone needs us to do something, when we find our behavior out of bounds for some reason, being more irritable, more tired, more overwhelmed, more needy, these are often signals that our spiritual reservoirs are low and we need to replenish them.

Recently someone mentioned to me her yearning for more spiritual connection and experience during worship. And I suspect many of us come to worship hoping to find a place where we are not only intellectually stimulated but also emotionally touched, where in the quiet times or in the music, we hope for a sense of something bigger than ourselves, a sense of connection to others, a moment we can carry away into our workaday week.

The need for spirituality in our lives is a common but tricky thing because it is such a personal experience. For one person, it might be an insight triggered by a poem or a speaker's words or the music; for another, it might be an emotional sense of gratitude for an act of kindness. For others, these might not be particularly significant at all.

But I have noticed over the years that we can become more attuned to the moments in our lives which offer spiritual experience, whether they come during worship or during an ordinary day. We often have to train ourselves to recognize them. We may even have to re-structure our lives to be more open to them. We may have to go looking for them. But we learn that we can't usually expect them to be administered by someone else, like a dose of medicine; we have to be open, within ourselves, to the experience.

Paula sent me a little vignette that I think fits here, recounted by the late French author Andre Gide. while he was in Africa years ago. He wrote:
"My party had been pushing ahead at a fast pace for a number of days and one morning when we were ready to set out, our native bearers, who carried the food and equipment, were found sitting about without any preparations made for starting the day.
Upon being questioned, they said quite simply, that they had been traveling so fast in these last days that they had gotten ahead of their souls and were going to stay quietly in camp for the day in order for their souls to catch up with them. So they came to a complete stop."

We human beings are constantly in a state of movement of some kind---in our life stages, as parents, in marriage or singleness, in job changes, just to name a few. It's important to recognize that the changes in our daily lives affect our spiritual lives, just as the African workers knew and addressed, when they needed to.

We are sometimes so busy and preoccupied with those changes, both big and little, that we are not able to be as mindful of or open to spiritual experience as we might be at a different time.

Just recognizing our hunger for spiritual experience is a positive step. Just realizing that something that gave us spiritual sustenance at one time is no longer so powerful---that's a huge insight in itself. It may not feel good but it's a sign that a person is ready to grow and is starting to look around for ways to nurture that growth.

It can be helpful to look back over our lives and recognize the times in our lives when we had an experience we might call a spiritual experience.

For some people, it's the birth of a child; for others, a deep love felt for another being. It can be a moment in the woods or on a mountain top or in deep snow or on a stormy beach. It's a time when we experience a sense of connection that may be new or familiar but gives us a chill of recognition---so this is part of what it means to be alive.

Let's take a moment together to reflect on those moments in our lives. I invite us to enter into a time of silence, to look back in our lives to a time that was particularly meaningful in a way that felt bigger than ordinary moments. It might have triggered goose bumps or a sense of recognition of something important. Let's be silent for a little while.

One of my earliest spiritual experiences was sitting on a cold, windy hilltop out in far eastern Oregon with friends from our Baptist Youth Fellowship, singing the old hymn "O Worship the King", as I watched the sun come up on a stormy early spring morning singing these words:

"O tell of his might, o sing of his grace,
whose robe is the light, whose canopy space;
his chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form,
and dark is his path on the wings of the storm.

Thy bountiful care, what tongue can recite?
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."

I know that my experience may mystify some of you. I can't adequately explain this experience to anyone else, which is very typical for spiritual experience. And I recognize that music has long been a spiritual pathway for me, whereas it may not be so for others.

So I've been thinking this past week about how to help people notice the signal that they need to replenish their spiritual reservoirs and then to help them find a pathway to spiritual experience that is meaningful to them. I have learned that one thing that has helped me has been to have a regular spiritual practice. Like going to the gym every morning helps me stay fit for my physical life, a spiritual practice helps me stay in shape for my spiritual life.

Prayer is part of my spiritual practice, but mindfulness is an even more important part of it. When I pray that I will be a good minister, a good person, my prayer reminds me to be mindful to look for the meaning in my life, because it is there that I find my spiritual sustenance. Mindfulness means listening for the still small voice that comes when I am touched by the spirit, the inner wisdom that comes when I am open to it.

In our story for all ages today, I told about an ancient prophet who needed wisdom and guidance in a troubled situation. He prayed for the spirit he called God to advise him; he believed he would know what to do if he just listened.

And as if to test himself, when a great wind came and swept through the trees, damaging them and causing rockslides, he wondered if his answer was in the wind. But it didn't seem to be there. Nor was the answer in the earthquake which shook the mountain where he was standing, or in the fire which swept through the brush and rocks around him.

But he kept listening and after the fire, in this ancient Bible story, there came a still small voice. And in that still small voice he found his wisdom and guidance.

We often hope to find our spiritual experiences in big moments, in times of great drama and tension. And often we do find spiritual meaning in those moments. But even more can be found in the moments when we are still, when we take time to contemplate our lives, when we are alone, when we are able to be honest with ourselves, when we are open to hearing a still small voice.

Let's return to the silence for a few moments and let the quiet of this room seep into our minds and hearts. Even though there may be slight sounds coming from outside the room, let's enjoy the peace of this time and allow ourselves to listen, just listen.

We may each discover some personal way that spiritual meaning comes to us. I've mentioned that music is particularly helpful to me. One way that music manifests itself in my spiritual life is that I often wake up in the morning with a song in my mind and heart. I have learned to pay attention to that song because if it's there in the morning, I know it's a manifestation of my inner life and possibly a guidepost, a trail marker for where my spiritual life needs to go.

Because spiritual experiences are not, in my humble opinion, just nice things to have happen to us. They are trail markers, they are guideposts, they are telling us something.

One of the most powerful spiritual experiences of my life was the morning I woke up in Spokane during the big annual meeting of all UUs in the nation in 1995, singing to myself an old Sunday School song.

I know, those of you who were not raised in conservative Christian homes may not be attuned to my examples, but these old hymns are truly guideposts for me, not leading me back to an old way of thinking but leading me forward into using my old life as a resource.

The day before, I had publicly acknowledged to friends that I felt a strong call to ministry and intended to enter seminary as soon as I got back home. That night as I thought about what a life as a minister would require of me, remembering my Dad's life as a Baptist minister, I fell asleep and woke up the next morning singing this song:
I would be true, for there are those who trust me;
I would be pure, for there are those who care;
I would be strong, for there is much to suffer;
I would be brave, for there is much to dare;

I would be friend of all—the foe, the friendless;
I would be giving, and forget the gift;
I would be humble, for I know my weakness;
I would look up, and laugh, and love and lift.

For the first time I really realized that what I had been called to was not an easy life of public speaking and ego gratification because of my great preaching skill and wisdom. I don't know that I had ever considered what it might mean to go into the ministry. I knew my dad had died from a combination of physical disability and the great stress of ministry.

I knew that I was older than most ministerial candidates. I knew that women were just beginning to become a strong force in UU ministry. I knew that seminary would be expensive. And I knew that the responsibilities of ministry were much greater than the responsibilities I had had as a junior high school teacher and counselor. But the sense of direction inherent in the song gave me courage to take that scary yet compelling step.

In taking that step, which was bolstered by the messages in the song, I became a new person in many ways. I turned my eyes from my comfortable retired existence, where I was free to read all the murder mysteries I wanted, to four years of hard study reading dense theological and historical tomes; I moved from a life in which I had dated freely and often, to a life in which I had to be very careful about my social life; I watched my relationships change as I became more comfortable in my ministerial identity, for many of my friends were not comfortable with my changes.

Coming to terms with this new life wasn't easy but it has felt like the right thing to do. I have never been tempted to quit. I have never felt it was the wrong thing to do. I have never regretted the money I've repaid in student loans. I have never felt sorry for myself, even though there were some very tough times. Every moment I spend in ministry, even the ones that draw down my spiritual reservoirs, feels like a great gift.

Let's spend some more time in silence together and this time I invite us to think about the times we may have heard that still small voice of wisdom and guidance and what our response to it may have been.

Recognizing our need for spiritual sustenance, listening for the still small voice, and responding to its call----these are the elements of spiritual growth.

I mentioned earlier that someone had spoken to me about her desire for more spiritual experience during worship. She recognized that she needed to replenish her spiritual reservoirs and wasn't always finding it in worship. Her still small voice prompted her to tell me about her need and when we talked, she responded to our conversation with some ideas of her own, which will become part of our congregational life.

And it's interesting to note that when she wanted to talk with me, I felt a little uneasy, a little nervous that more might be asked of me than I had to offer. But as we talked, her still small voice spoke to my still small voice and said "we can do this!" and her ideas and my ideas came together to create something new.

My introduction of periods of silence during the sermon are a partial response to the urging of that still small voice, because silence works for many of us. We may not have much silent time to spend listening for a still small voice. Worship services may be that important chance to be still and listen, even though these periods of silence are very brief.

Let's enter into one more period of silence and I invite us to listen for that still small voice again and to hear what it may be calling us to do. How might we respond to the guiding voice within that offers a light on our path?

As we go our separate ways today, I hope we will return in our hearts to that place of stillness where we can listen for the still small voice of wisdom and guidance that lives inside of us. We may call it God, we may call it our inner self, we may call it human nature----it doesn't matter what the words are. But that still small voice represents our best selves, guiding us to goodness, not evil; guiding us toward life, not death; guiding us to growth, not stagnation; guiding us to health, not sickness.

We are in the season of the year called Advent, in the Christian world. Advent means beginnings. May we find in times of stillness the beginnings of new spiritual life. And in that mode, let's sing together the Advent hymn "People Look East" recognizing the importance of a new life beginning.

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that mindfulness of the spiritual meaning in every moment of our lives is a key to growing as spiritual beings. May we listen for the still small voice, may we heed its wisdom, and may we grow in spirit as we move forward in our lives. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Thinking more about spiritual experience

I finished the sermon this morning and, as always, I found that, though I had some specific ideas about what I wanted to say, the sermon had a mind of its own and pretty much wrote itself. I checked back over the brainstorming I'd done earlier and tucked away in the folder for Dec. 7 and saw that most of my ideas had made it into the text, but in a different way than I had expected.

I think this is a manifestation of the still small voice, that we can't always state our wisdom in the terms that we might want to use. Sometimes another source guides the words. I don't know what to call that---I don't believe that "everything happens for a reason"and therefore it's God writing the sermon. I do believe that we give meaning to what happens, we learn to look for the unexpected outcomes of what happens, to look beyond the event for its consequences on down the line.

Coming back to the actual topic of this post---I regularly discover that if I let go of my specific ideas and let the sermon write itself it turns out better than if I agonize over every word and sentence structure. I tend to write out of my heart, then go back and "deliver" what I've written orally and see if it is true to my experience and coherent from beginning to end. It takes me most of the week to do this. If I saved my sermon writing for Saturday morning, for example, it would not work for me. I need cogitation time---not just thinking time but percolating time, time for the ideas to coalesce and become something more than just words.

I'm happy with my method and I'm usually happy with my writing. It took me aback once to get a message from another blogger, who shall remain nameless, that my writing turned her stomach. It made me think about my style and the topics I choose for posts, which was useful, but her need to insult me stung and I quickly lost any respect for her as a voice, for I saw her do the same thing to others and realized that this was not a voice I needed to heed. I think that kind of experience is useful, for it causes us to take stock, to develop our own voice, and to think hard about the feedback we get.

I'm looking forward to delivering this sermon tomorrow. I'm including several periods of silence, once again, for I am starting to believe that we need more silence in worship, that we need not fill every space with words, that in the interstices there is opportunity for growth. I'll post it tomorrow afternoon. See you then.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

My Wonderful Committee on Ministry...

met today and tussled with a few issues that COMs always have to tussle with----what is the minister's job and what is the job of volunteers, for example. And how do we encourage more programming in the congregation without taking it on ourselves? And should "it" be a goal for the minister or for others?

I love these folks---each of them has a definite and different perspective on my role as minister and I am educated and aided by each of them. Today one had brought some fruit crisp and ice cream, totally unexpectedly, and we conducted our business while enjoying this treat.

It was my responsibility to set forth the goals I have for this church year. We are a little late getting to that because of a variety of things---notably opening the new building and dealing with those issues---but they were appreciative of the goals I have set for myself this year:
1. to initiate programming to serve veterans in the community and to serve our Young Adults in the congregation
2. to re-connect with the issues of bi/gay/lesbian/trans civil rights, as I have felt very out of the loop since I left the board of the Religious Coalition for Equality.
3. to seek regular spiritual direction, using the opportunities offered by the Whidbey Institute's First Mondays.

I had intended to set the goal of going through the settlement process with this congregation, moving from being a contracted minister to being a settled minister. I've decided to put that on hold during this first year in the new building; it just seems like it would be too much to ask at this point and I don't feel the same kind of urgency I did awhile back.

It's been a beautiful, though chilly, day here today and I'm sitting at the computer looking out the window at the sunset sky---all rose and blue and gold---and feeling very lucky to be here now.

Tonight I'll go over to Langley to the Thursday night jam. I'm looking forward to singing with folks again, as we reconvene after the holiday. And Richard, my favorite fellow jammer, is recovered from the creeping crud he's had for three weeks, so he'll be there again and I love singing with him.

Happy Days!

Monday, December 01, 2008

Since everyone else is doing it....

I guess this is sort of like a Bucket List for people who are thinking about creating a Bucket List. The bold print items are the things I've done so far.

Started my own blog

Slept under the stars
Played in a band
Visited Hawaii
Watched a meteor shower
Given more than I can afford to charity
Been to Disneyland/world
Climbed a mountain
Held a praying mantis
Sung a solo
Bungee jumped
Visited Paris
Watched lightning at sea
Taught myself an art from scratch
Adopted a child
Had food poisoning
Walked to the top of the Statue of Liberty
Grown my own vegetables
Seen the Mona Lisa in France
Slept on an overnight train
Had a pillow fight
Taken a sick day when not ill
Built a snow fort
Held a lamb
Gone skinny dipping
Run a marathon
Ridden in a gondola in Venice
Seen a total eclipse
Watched a sunrise or sunset
Hit a home run
Been on a cruise
Seen Niagara Falls in person
Visited the birthplace of my ancestors
Seen an Amish community
Taught myself a new language
Had enough money to be truly satisfied
Seen the Leaning Tower of Pisa in person
Gone rock climbing
Seen Michelangelo's David
Sung karaoke
Seen Old Faithful geyser erupt
Bought a stranger a meal at a restaurant
Visited Africa
Walked on a beach by moonlight
Been transported in an ambulance
Had my portrait painted
Gone deep sea fishing
Seen the Sistine Chapel in person
Been to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris
Gone scuba diving or snorkeling
Kissed in the rain
Played in the mud
Gone to a drive-in theater
Been in a movie
Visited the Great Wall of China
Started a business
Taken a martial arts class
Visited Russia
Served at a soup kitchen
Sold Camp Fire mints
Gone whale watching
Gotten flowers for no reason
Donated blood, platelets or plasma
Gone sky diving
Visited a Nazi concentration camp
Bounced a check
Flown in a helicopter
Saved a favorite childhood toy
Visited the Lincoln Memorial
Eaten caviar
Pieced a quilt
Stood in Times Square
Toured the Everglades
Been fired from a job
Seen the Changing of the Guard in London
Broken a bone
Been on a speeding motorcycle
Seen the Grand Canyon in person
Published a book (If magazines count)
Visited the Vatican
Bought a brand new car
Walked in Jerusalem
Had my picture in the newspaper
Read the entire Bible
Visited the White House
Killed and prepared an animal for eating
Had chickenpox
Saved someone's life
Sat on a jury
Met someone famous
Joined a book club
Lost a loved one
Had a baby
Seen the Alamo in person
Swam in the Great Salt Lake
Been involved in a law suit
Owned a cell phone
Been stung by a bee
Ridden an elephant

Haggis, Tatties, and Neeps

Yesterday after church, one of our elder statesmen invited me to their home for dinner last night, announcing (after I accepted) that we would be having haggis.

Now, I have read enough to know that haggis is essentially minced sheep's innards boiled in a sheep's stomach but I have never experienced it. I'm not a particularly adventurous eater but I do enjoy these folks' company and trusted that they wouldn't serve me anything noxious.

There were several other guests, among them a couple with considerable haggis-eating experience (and, coincidentally, a couple whom I married a year or so ago just before she underwent her next set of chemo---"I want to wear my wedding dress before my hair falls out again" was her statement when she asked me to officiate). So the evening promised to be exceptional, whether or not I enjoyed the meal.

But haggis, served with tatties and neeps, turned out to be quite tasty, a sort of lamb-flavored meat loaf served in a wedge with nice lumpy mashed potatoes and mild, sweet mashed rutabaga. For dessert we had meringues and berry compote plus a slice of a pie-like sweet whose name I can't recall.

I'm told that Robbie Burns Day, in January, is the normal time for serving this traditional Scots meal. But perhaps too much fanfare for such an unusual meal has the effect of turning off potential gourmands, as it does for potential lutefisk eaters around Christmas. I haven't eaten lutefisk either, despite my Scandinavian heritage, though lefse is quite palatable. Maybe if I try it at a different time of the year....

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Spiritual pathways

I've been pondering the topic of my upcoming sermon on Dec. 7. Since a parishioner mentioned to me her yearning for more spiritual connection and experience during worship, I've been thinking about how to offer more of this in our worship services. Last week I used several brief periods of silence during the sermon, which folks seemed to like, and I'll probably continue to do that in other sermons. I'm sure I talk too much sometimes.

But in preparation for this service, which comes on the second Sunday of Advent, I've been tracing back in my life to re-live the moments which have been of particular spiritual importance to me.

Of course, it's a tricky subject, because spirituality is such a personal experience. For one person, it might be an insight triggered by a poem or a speaker's words; for another, it might be the emotional expression of gratitude for an act of kindness. For others, these might not be particularly significant at all.

But I have noticed that we can become more attuned to the moments in our lives which offer spiritual experience. We may have to train ourselves to recognize them. We may have to re-structure our lives to be more open to them. We may have to go looking for them. But no matter what, we can't really expect them to be administered by someone else, like a dose of medicine; we have to be open, ourselves, to the experience.

Because we human beings are constantly in a state of transition---from childhood to adolescence, to young adulthood, to parenthood, to marriage or singleness, to job changes, whatever---we also have to recognize that the changes in our daily lives affect our spiritual lives. We are sometimes so busy and preoccupied with the changes in our lives, both big and little, that we are not able to be as mindful of or open to spiritual experience as we might have been at another time.

So just recognizing the hunger for spiritual experience is a positive step. Just knowing that something that gave spiritual sustenance at one time has lost its power for us temporarily---that's a huge insight in itself. It may not feel good but it's a sign that a person is ready to grow and is starting to look around for nurture.

One of the spiritual pathways in my life has been music. One of my earliest spiritual experiences was sitting on a cold, windy hilltop out in far eastern Oregon with friends from our Baptist Youth Fellowship, singing the old hymn "O Worship the King". If you weren't raised in a hymn-singing household, you probably won't resonate to my experience, as I watched the sun come up on a stormy early spring morning with these friends singing these words:

"O tell of his might, o sing of his grace,
whose robe is the light, whose canopy space;
his chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form,
and dark is his path on the wings of the storm.
Thy bountiful care, what tongue can recite?
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."

I can't adequately explain this experience to anyone who hasn't had the kind of life I've had. But I try! And I recognize that music has long been a spiritual pathway for me.

So I'm thinking this week about how to help people find a spiritual pathway that is meaningful to them. And I know that one thing that has helped me has been to have a regular spiritual practice. Prayer is part of my spiritual practice, but mindfulness is another part of it. When I pray that I will be a good minister, my prayer reminds me to be mindful of the meaning in my life, because it is there that I find my spiritual sustenance, in the meaning in my life.

One way that music manifests itself in my spiritual life is that I often wake up in the morning with a song in my mind. I have learned to pay attention to that song because if it's there in the morning, I know it's a manifestation of my inner life. Sometime I'll tell another story about that awareness; I may put it in the sermon.

But right now I'm trying to discern why I have been waking up with "Old Fat Naked Women for Peace" on my mind. I'll let you know.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Old Fat Naked Women for Peace

Thanks to Fausto for reminding me of this great video by a Northwest group:

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Looking forward to Thanksgiving

My sister and her husband, plus his two sons and their mates, will be here for Thanksgiving, assuming Snoqualmie Pass isn't inundated with November snow. The weather report is favorable, so I'm expecting them tomorrow about mid-afternoon. I got a ferry report this afternoon, however, that warned of long lines and they will probably have to wait a couple of hours for a boat.

Tomorrow I have almost nothing on the agenda other than getting ready for their visit. Today I got the guest room ready for J and P. The "boys" are only coming for dinner on Thursday and then heading back home or on to the next dinner.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I don't have to do much during the three days leading up to the big day; there's no sermon to prepare, no service to choose hymns for, as the post-T'giving service is usually lay-led. I can just look forward to enjoying worship, though, of course, there are always questions and issues to settle whenever I'm present.

On Friday, we'll probably go thrift-store gleaning, as that's a favorite pastime when we get together. We wouldn't go to a mall for the life of us! Boy, are those days behind me! I used to love going to the Cherry Creek mall on "Black Friday", when I lived in Denver; now I wouldn't go for love nor money. Too crowded, too frenetic, too artificial, too soul-crushing.

Friday afternoon there's a jam at N's house, but I doubt we'll go, unless it's just to stop by and say hello. I hate to miss the music, but I wouldn't go and leave J&P at home. I enjoy their company too much.

Tonight I'm kind of at loose ends. I could read a book (Marilynne Robinson's newest, "Home") but it's really more of a bedtime activity for me. I am not a TV watcher, once the news is over, except that I do enjoy Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's 8-9 p.m. replay of their 11 p.m. show from the day before. So I might do that, but really I'm not looking for anything in particular to do. If I were, I could clean up my office, which has been on my to-do list for weeks. Not interesting enough.

So I realize I'm babbling, but I felt a need to post something, even something boring. And now I have done that.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Lovely things that happened this morning at church:

1. J and P slipped in quietly during the prelude and stood up at Joys and Concerns to mention their hope for our veterans-support program.
2. E and K did a fabulous skit to kick off Guest at your Table. And E was a great worship leader.
3. Two unidentified women with two young teen girls came in a bit late and sat quietly during the service, then left immediately after the service. I think they were the lesbian couple and daughters who had contacted me earlier. I hope they liked the service.
4. We didn't have enough boxes for GAYT but it was okay.
5. There were four periods of silence during the sermon and people loved the meditative time.
6. Several people knew how to sing "Count Your Blessings".
7. The music this morning was wonderful---flute, violin, and cello. Two musicians were kids.
8. J and P found out that several people in the congregation are interested in getting a vet-support program going.
9. We welcomed several new members (13?) into the congregation.
10. We're going to the Chinese place for dinner tonight, spontaneously organized this morning.

The most joyful thing is that I see some of the positive results of my ideas and leadership taking shape.

And a cool thing that happened last night was that I went to hear some friends (Deja Blooz) perform at a local venue and they invited me to sing "Summertime" with them. It was great!

Counting our Blessings: a sermon

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Nov. 23, 2008

There's been an old song from my youth running around in my head as I think about blessings and what it means to count them. If you remember this old song and feel like singing, please join me. And if you don't know it, let us sing it to you. Let's not worry about the language----the basic idea is pretty good!
"When upon life's billows you are tempest tossed,
when you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
count your many blessings, name them one by one,
and it will surprise you what the lord has done.
Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your blessings, see what God has done,
Count your blessings, name them one by one.
Count your many blessings, see what God has done."
If I were writing this old song nowadays, I'd probably substitute the idea of "the Universe" or "Higher Power" or "Nature" for the words Lord and God, but the idea of blessings being numerous and outweighing the discouragements and storms of life is a universal one----we are blessed with life, no matter how hard it is at times.

Our reading today has reminded us of our friends and their place in our lives. Our mates, our homes, our kids, our many joys---these are all countable blessings which are pretty stable most of the time. They represent the Great Fullness of our lives.

I'd like to invite us to take a moment of silence and reflect upon the many blessings we can count. Close your eyes, if that's comfortable for you, and spend a few moments thinking about those many blessings and experience the Great Fullness of your life.
(1 minute or so of silence)

But blessings aren't always so obvious, are they? It has been a hard year so far, with financial and corporate meltdowns requiring drastic decisions on the part of our leaders, with election rhetoric heating up the airwaves and recriminations flying back and forth between politicians, with job loss looming for many folks, and even on our snug little island, the double threat of homelessness and hunger has become more and more obvious, even among our friends and family.

With the election over and our blood pressure beginning to subside as plans for the new administration seem to promise positive changes, as we pledge our support to a new vision for America---whether or not we voted for this new President---we are well aware that what may seem like a blessing to some of us may feel like a fearful event to others.

Hence the expression, "mixed blessing"! We can't be sure what is in store with any course of action. Is it right to bail out the Big Three car companies and thus save jobs or should tough love prevail and force them into bankruptcy or to make promises about what they will do with the money? Nobody knows for sure---each possible solution has its pros and cons. Many times we can't know whether events are a blessing or a curse.

There's an old story along this line that you may have heard.

A man has served as the Emperor's chef for years and is given a plot of land for a farm as a "Thank You" for noble service rendered to the Emperor. The man's friends all say, "What good luck, You have been truly blessed." But the man replies, "It may be good, it may be bad, it's too soon to tell."

The man goes out to see the property and finds that it is literally covered with rocks. His friends say, "What bad luck, you have been cursed and not blessed, with this land." The man replies, "It may be bad, it may be good. It's too soon to tell."

The man is working in the field with his team of oxen. A passerby notes that having a team of oxen is quite good fortune for a man clearing a field. The man replies, "It may be good, it may be bad. It's too soon to tell."

A few days later the ox team goes unexpectedly lame and the same passerby observes the bad fortune of the beasts' condition. The man replies, "It may be bad, it may be good. It's too soon to tell."

Without the ox team to help him, the man gets his only son into the field to help him clear the stumps and rocks. A friend drops by and observes that, "You are truly blessed to have such a strong son to help you in the field." The man replies, "It may be good, it may be bad. It's too soon to tell."

One day not long after this conversation, a large stone falls on the son, breaking his leg. Someone observes, "What bad luck has befallen you now that your son can no longer help with this hard work." The man replies, "It may be bad, it may be good. It's too soon to tell."

Before long, a terrible time of war befalls the country and all the able bodied young men are forced into the Emperor's army. Someone whose son has been drafted into service observes the good luck of the farmer whose son is still at his side since his broken leg made it impossible for him to fight. The man replies, "It may be good, it may be bad. It's too soon to tell."

Things go badly during the war and the emperor is overthrown. The new emperor takes back the gift of land that was given to the man, forcing him to return to the palace as a lowly cook. His friends observe the ill fate of having lost his farm to the new emperor. The man simply replies, "It may be bad, it may be good. It's too soon to tell."

So, though the unsettling and exciting events of the past months have got us all up in the air with both gladness and anxiety, as the man in our story has said, "It may be good, it may be bad. It's too soon to tell." Blessings come in unexpected places, at unexpected times. And sometimes they look like a curse at first.

Another way to express the idea of being blessed is the word "Grace". Grace means undeserved good fortune. It means Mercy. It means Kindness, Love, Forgiveness, Compassion, Reprieve, Thanksgiving. And we experience it most deeply when we are aware that we have done little to deserve it.

For me, sometimes the moment I dread is the moment that has the greatest gift within it: the phone call I stew about when the unexpected outcome is a new idea and a new direction; the outreach to an opponent which turns the enemy into a friend; the scary experience that becomes a passion.

I remember, when I was active in a twelve-step program, that I heard repeatedly the idea that "addiction has been the best thing that ever happened to me." By this startling phrase, the person meant that the addiction, whether to a substance or to food or to spending or to unhealthy relationships, had caused him or her to bottom out, to hit the last of his or her reserves, had forced him or her to seek help.

Blessings sometimes look like a curse at first, as they did to me when I learned during my first pastorate down in Portland that several people in the congregation had decided they wanted me to leave. But dealing with this upsetting event became a challenge that forced me to grow immeasurably. And now I can see it as a blessing---in disguise.

Let's take another moment for some silence. And in that silence, let's reflect privately, each of us, on the unexpected blessings of life, the times when a bad thing turned out to be a good thing. These too are part of the Great Fullness of life. (1 minute or more)

There's a third kind of blessing that is important to note, because it is inherent in our congregational mission. It can be misunderstood, as giving a blessing is often considered to be the duty and privilege of the clergy. But in our faith tradition, giving blessing is not limited to those who wear vestments or quote the holy books or officiate at religious ceremonies.

Blessing is something we all can do for one another---and for the world. The Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, president of Starr King School for the Ministry has written this poetic challenge to us as Unitarian Universalists:
Choose to Bless the World
Your gifts-whatever you discover them to be-
Can be used to bless or curse the world.
The mind's power,
The strength of the hands,
The reaches of the heart,
The gift of speaking, listening, imagining, seeing,

Any of these can serve to feed the hungry,
Bind up wounds,
Welcome the stranger,
Praise what is sacred,
Do the work of justice
Or offer love.

Any of these can draw down the prison door,
Hoard bread,
Abandon the poor,
Obscure what is holy,
Comply with injustice
Or withhold love.

You must answer this question:
What will you do with your gifts?

Choose to bless the world.

The choice to bless the world
Can take you into solitude
To search for the sources
Of power and grace;
Native wisdom, healing and liberation.

More, the choice will draw you into community,
The endeavor shared,
The heritage passed on,
The companionship of struggle,
The importance of keeping faith,
The life of ritual and praise,
The comfort of human friendship,
The company of earth,
Its chorus of life
Welcoming you.

None of us alone can save the world.
Together-that is another possibility,

Within this challenge there are two opportunities---one is to discover and acknowledge the gifts, the blessings we have within us, the blessings which give us power and experience. The writer Frederick Buechner has spoken of that place where our "deep gladness meets the world's deep need."

Let's go back together into a place of silence and consider what are the gifts we have within us as individuals, the blessings which give us something valuable to offer to the world. (1 min )
And now, staying in the silence, let's consider where our deep gladness, the joy that comes from the blessings we have found, meets the world's deep need. (1 min)

Let me read Rebecca Parker's words again as we think about our gifts and how we might choose to bless the world.

Choose to Bless the World
Your gifts-whatever you discover them to be-
Can be used to bless or curse the world.
The mind's power,
The strength of the hands,
The reaches of the heart,
The gift of speaking, listening, imagining, seeing,

Any of these can serve to feed the hungry,
Bind up wounds,
Welcome the stranger,
Praise what is sacred,
Do the work of justice
Or offer love.

Any of these can draw down the prison door,
Hoard bread,
Abandon the poor,
Obscure what is holy,
Comply with injustice
Or withhold love.

You must answer this question:
What will you do with your gifts?

Choose to bless the world.

The choice to bless the world
Can take you into solitude
To search for the sources
Of power and grace;
Native wisdom, healing and liberation.

More, the choice will draw you into community,
The endeavor shared,
The heritage passed on,
The companionship of struggle,
The importance of keeping faith,
The life of ritual and praise,
The comfort of human friendship,
The company of earth,
Its chorus of life
Welcoming you.

None of us alone can save the world.
Together-that is another possibility,

Let's remain in silence for a few moments, considering the Great Fullness of our lives. As we sing our closing hymn, savoring the community we are, let us prepare to bless the world.

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world, our blessing of the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that our gifts, whatever we discover them to be, can be used to bless or curse the world. May we use our gifts to heal and not to harm, to bless and not to curse, to find the place where our deep gladness meets the world's deep need. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Random and/or Weird Book Facts about myself

Miss Kitty over at Educated and Poor has tagged me with a meme, to list seven random or weird book facts about myself. I don't know that these are weird, as I don't have much knowledge of others' reading habits, but they are random, as they just popped into my head as I'm writing.

1. I hated the book THE HUNGRY OCEAN by Linda Greenlaw, which was November's choice of book in my book club. I was uneasy with it from the beginning and when I got to the part where they set a shark on fire and let it writhe helplessly in the air, suspended by a noose from the rigging of their swordfish-fishing boat, I was totally disgusted and stopped reading. I couldn't stomach the author's casual attitude toward either fish or humans.

2. I have read all the Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh mysteries, but it has been so long ago I don't remember any of them, just that I thoroughly enjoyed these women's ability to spin a yarn.

3. Stephen White, who writes psychological thrillers set in Boulder, Colorado, is one of my favorites, largely because he describes places I know personally very well.

4. I hardly read any non-fiction now that I'm out of seminary. I find that stories are much more important to me, when it comes to revealing truth. I have read David Dunaway's biography of Pete Seeger very recently, however, and was captivated by Seeger's life story.

5. I remember the books of my childhood so fondly: Anne of Green Gables, Back of the North Wind, Little Toot, Nancy Drew, Paddle to the Sea. And I still have Tommeliten and Pannekaka, two Norwegian-language picture books that my mother painstakingly translated into English in between the printed lines. They are tattered and faded, but they are very dear to me as they reveal my mother's beautiful penmanship.

6. I always read myself to sleep at night, only giving up when I'm dozing longer than I'm reading. Right now I'm reading Robertson Davies' THE CUNNING MAN, which is meaty, funny, erudite, and lengthy---my favorite characteristics in a book. Thanks to ChaliceChick, who turned me on to Davies.

7. I practically only give books as presents. My brother in law collects old Inland Empire history books and documents, especially those which are meaningful to our family's history in eastern Oregon and Washington. My sister loves murder mysteries, especially Evanovich and George. My brother is a thriller buff and his wife enjoys a variety of kinds of books. The FS, DIL, and GKs get gift cards to local bookstores in their area.

There, Miss K, I've done it. The orders are to tag seven other people, so here goes:
Joel the Neff over at On the Other Foot
Christina his lovely wife at A Hot Carmel Sundae
Joel Monka at CUUMBAYA
Kari at Chalice Spark
Lizard Eater at The Journey
Tim at The Eclectic Cleric
Ms Theologian at Surviving the Workday

If any of you don't have time or inclination to do this, don't feel guilty. I usually skip memes myself but this one I had time for this morning, having finished the sermon!

UPDATE: I know that the links aren't working properly and I'll try to get back to correct them later today. Thanks to Ms. T for alerting me.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Testing our interfaith understandings...

can be a challenge when we don't know very much about another religion. Recently, our congregation had hoped to rent our facility to the tiny local Jewish community for one of their holiday gatherings but it turned out that several of their members refuse to attend anything in a church. (They have no facility of their own and must rent space for services and events.)

When we received the word that they were canceling their reservation, we were stunned and dismayed. Had we done anything to offend? Did they realize how much UUs have done over the years to be supportive of Jews? Did they know that we hardly even call our building a church, but rather a sanctuary, a meeting house? Why on earth would they choose not to rent from us?

So at the gym this morning, I asked H., who has been part of the local Jewish community to share her thoughts and she explained that there are Jews who, as a matter of religious principle, do not want to enter other religions' sacred spaces. It has more to do with principle and custom than with ancient wounds, there's nothing personal about it, and nothing we do is likely to change minds.

I realized as I thought more about this, this morning, that my own reaction was of intolerance for another's religious principle. I'm glad I had a chance to talk to H., for her calm explanation of a different religious way of life helped me see that my original reaction was a bit self-righteous and intolerant.

It's interesting to me that we are fine with religious principles that make sense to us, but when we encounter a principle that seems illogical, we are apt to assume the worst rather than the best. We struggle to make sense of ancient customs that don't fit our modern culture and are more likely to dismiss them rather than respect them.

I am learning gradually not to leap to conclusions without investigating further. I've re-learned that lesson today.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Happy Birthday, Daddy, wherever you are.

Today my father, Merritt Bernhardt Ketcham, would be 101 years old. He was born on November 18, 1907, and died on April 16, 1970. He was a moonshiner in Missouri at age 12, a ranch hand and cowboy in Wyoming at age 18, an orchardman in Idaho in his 20s, a husband, seminarian, and father shortly thereafter, and a preacher and public servant for the rest of his life.

I don't know what he would think of my life choices if he were still alive. But I do know that he loved me and my sister and brother and mother deeply and would have done anything he could for us. I believe he would have wanted me to be happy and fulfilled, whether we agreed theologically or not. I believe our values were similar in most ways.

My own belief about what happens when we die is that we move to a new level of understanding of life. I can't articulate that any better than I have. A physical heaven in the sky seems unlikely, but it does seem possible that there is some new place to go.

Whatever it might be, I hope that his spirit understands my choices. I know that with every choice I have made over my lifetime I have asked myself the question "how would Dad view this?". There were choices I made that I was pretty sure he wouldn't like and I took those roads anyhow. There were others that I knew he'd like and still others that I knew were right for me, whether he would approve or not. So I've lived my own life but my father's values have stayed with me.

Thanks, Dad, for being my guiding light, for marrying my mother whose love still sustains me after these many years without her, and for giving J and B and me the moral plumbline you did. Your favorite non-Biblical quote is inscribed on one chamber of my heart: "This above all, to thine own self be true, and it will follow as the night the day---thou canst not then be false to any man." And one of the Biblical quotes you loved is on the other chamber: "What does God require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?"

Every time I preach, every time I offer a prayer or a blessing, I feel your presence. As I write this Sunday's sermon, using the theme "Count Your Blessings", I'll be counting mine and you are one of the greatest (and biggest--at 6'6") in my life. Thank you.

Monday, November 17, 2008

I'm thinking about what we could do here to stand on the side of love.

I am a little ashamed to admit it...

but this morning I lost it with Lily and Max. Yesterday, though wonderful, being as how I got to get together with Kari and laugh and gossip (and plan our workshop), was a long day, being as how when I go over to the mainland I also try to cram in all the shopping I need to do (Fred Meyer, Trader Joe's and Costco, mainly for staples). I didn't get home till 5 p.m or so, dog-tired and ready to crash early.

Max had been outside since I'd gotten up that morning, about 5 a.m., so he was waiting for me at the door, snarfed down every morsel of food in the dish, and was out like a light all evening. I went to bed about 10, thinking I would at least be sleeping till 5:15 or so, which is when the cats normally come scratching at the door.

(Music changes to grim, dark minor chords) At 4:50 a.m. came the first scratching sounds. "NO!" I hollered at the door, which normally sends them packing. At 4:55 came the second event. "NONONONONO!" I shrieked, knowing as I did that there was no chance I'd go back to sleep after this outburst but hoping that Lily had gotten the message and would wait awhile longer. At 5:00 came the third scratching accompanied by a "mew" that I knew had to be Max, because Lily's mew is much more strident. She had clearly set him up for it.

This time, I threw back the covers, stomped over to the door shouting NONONONONONO at the top of my lungs, wrenched open the door, ready to chase cats as far as I needed to chase them, mentally reviewing how stupid this all looked. Of course, no cats were there, having fled at the first STOMP, and I went sourly back to bed, irritated and feeling foolish to boot, regretting it all but trying to think how I can re-train them to quit scratching at the door in the morning.

I managed to stay in bed till 5:30, at which point I got up and found Max and Lily groveling in the hallway outside my room, Lily lolling on her back in submissive (yeah, right) pretense and Max bouncing up and down embodying the "Oh boy, food food food!" message. Lily, who is the prime culprit here, is neurotic enough without my having probably sent her into a decline for the rest of the day by MY neurotic behavior. For the moment, she has assumed the fetal position next to the heater, looking fragile, if a 15 pound fat calico can look fragile.

But seriously, is there any way to address this without raising my blood pressure? I would be grateful for suggestions and would prefer not to hire the local cat whisperer just yet.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

First Blogging Workshop in the PNWD!

Kari of Chalice Spark and I are cooking up a workshop for our District's Annual General Meeting in February. We met today at the Ram in Northgate for lunch and talked about how we could introduce folks to the blogosphere, showing them how blogs can work as congregational tools, as personal journals, as political discussion forums, etc. We're kind of thinking that if we can get a room that has wireless access we will create a blog on the spot, signing up attendees as contributors, and showing them how to use UUpdates, DiscoverUU, and other existing blogs and blog-tools to find material to write about. We'll upload pictures of them onto the blog, with their own writings featured.

Doesn't that sound like fun? We think there are only a bare handful of bloggers in our district. I hope there will be lots more after February!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

It has been an excellent day!

This morning, our membership chair L. and I offered our first "UU101" class of the year, to which 10 new folks came. ALL of them are now actual, book-signed members! Three had signed before the class; seven signed today. Wow! We will be welcoming 13 new members into our midst on Nov. 23.

This afternoon, I went down to Rockhoppers to meet with K who wanted to talk about her yearning for more spiritual content in her life and in worship; K grew up in our congregation and is now a young mother of two who sees her 8 year old getting the kind of spiritual experience in RE that she longs for. We had a wonderful conversation and decided we would make an effort to bring YA's together for a regular experience of worship and friendship, with child care and food available.

This evening, we had our Conversation on Principle #6, world community. Only two people attended, but we had some good conversation and sharing of ideas about this principle and also the various experiences we had had which seemed to relate to it.

I'm tired but exhilarated by the day! And Max is home safe and it's not yet 9 o'clock! Yay!

Tomorrow I go over to Woodinville to preach and then will meet my new pal Kari of Chalice Spark to discuss the workshop on blogging that we plan to offer at our upcoming Annual General Meeting in February.

I'm looking forward to writing the sermon for the 23rd on Counting Our Blessings. I wonder if I can inveigle the congregation into singing that old hymn? Hmmmm.

I find myself bored with...

some of the topics others are dealing with in their blogs and I'm not sure why. Partly it's because I often go through an autumn slowdown creatively; there's just too much church stuff needing my attention, from growth on steroids in the congregation (we went from 10 kids enrolled in RE to 40, overnight), the need for policies about building use and rental fees enacted immediately, the acoustics in the sanctuary---you get the picture. This is hands-on stuff, immediately requiring attention, and my brain just isn't taking time to think about such things as:

"Oh no, a UU World article discussing all the ways we can/cannot eat ethically."
"Oh no, a ministers' chat discussion about the Mormons and the upcoming Salt Lake City GA and whether we should boycott (no) or stage a wedding-in (maybe) or some other pointed act of opposition to the passage of Prop 8 and its clones."

You get the picture. These are actually kind of interesting things to think about but I'm just not enthused about going there.

Here's something that does interest me: how often extremely smart, well-educated people see criticism and condemnation in places where criticism and condemnation are more in the mind of the beholder than in the intent of the creator. It seems to be one of the more negative aspects of being extremely smart, that we jump to the sort of paranoid conclusion that we are being criticized and condemned.

This is a definite failing of mine. I have learned that when I'm feeling critical of someone else's behavior (and I sometimes get so bad at this that I obsess about another's behavior) I need to recognize that it's MY behavior I'm really obsessing about.

So I'm not planning to weigh in on ethical eating, Salt Lake and the Mormons, Prop 8 and its clones, the election, Sarah Palin, Barack (well, maybe Barack). I am going to tell you something else that seems worth mentioning: the similarities between Magnificent Max the Massacrer and the Favorite Son.

Actually, it's not so much the similarities between cat and young man, it's more the similarities between my anxieties about each of them---at least when the FS was much younger, more the age of Maxie the Magnificent, who is now approximately the equivalent of 16 human years old.

Last night Max didn't come in at his regular time----dinner. I had been out and about with friends and expected he would be eagerly awaiting me when I got home about 7:00. Nope. So I fired up the teevee and watched the Colbert Report (delayed edition), got online and played some games, read a little, worked on today's UU 101 class, always expecting to hear his plaintive mew. It got to be 10 p.m. and no Max.

I just had to go to bed because I knew I'd be up early, so I hollered out the door "Max, come home, I'm going to bed now!", turned off the deck light, and went to bed, but read for awhile, assuming he'd be scratching at the window shortly. No Max. At 10:30, I turned out the light, said a little prayer that he'd be okay and home soon. At 11:30, still no Max. Hoping he wasn't dead in a ditch, I slept intermittently until 1:30 a.m., when the little mew came at my window and Max was home.

The similarity is that I used to do the same with the FS. He can attest that there were nights when he'd find me glaring out the window at 3 a.m. when I finally heard his car in the drive. When he was 16, we both found this rather appropriate. When he was 21, not so much.

Max is old enough to fend for himself, as was the FS in many ways. The FS didn't drag home headless bunnies or other dead things, fortunately, though he did have some very interesting friends. And the FS didn't come home drunk or stoned (at least that I know of---and don't tell me differently, FS, keep me innocent), while Max comes home with mouse on his breath and feathers in his whiskers on occasion.

I've learned that I can't really prevent Max (nor could I prevent the FS) from doing dangerous, obnoxious things. The consequences have to be his, though I am often needed to clean up a mess or to retrieve him from his perch overlooking the neighbor's fish pond. He's a cat; he's going to act like a cat. The FS was a boy; he acted like a boy and now acts like a man.

I'm grateful to have both of them in my life, even if it does/did mean some sleepless nights.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Doing something locally for veterans

Veterans' Day is not your typical holiday. We don't much say "Happy Veterans' Day" to our friends and neighbors because it's not an occasion for shopping or for gifts or festive meals. There's a place inside us that recognizes that an awful lot of our veterans are far from happy and the events they have witnessed are dreadful and mostly not occasions for celebration.

We go to the parade, maybe, or buy a poppy from the American Legion, or say thank you to a vet we know personally. But we don't go much beyond that.

Coincidentally, today was the day I met with J., the mother of an Afghanistan vet who came home with PTSD and is currently receiving heavyduty treatment at a VA hospital in Oregon. J has been frustrated that so few services are available for vets on our end of the island and I am interested in helping her.

We met over at Island Cafe for an hour or so and hatched a plan with short-term and long-term goals. I'm going to identify those within my congregation who have ties to the military---either on active or retired status, former military, military families, former military brats, the whole spectrum---in hopes of finding a core group of UUs to help. Then we're going to schedule a get-together to talk about how we can help, what we can offer to this budding effort.

Once we have a working group which includes folks from my congregation, possibly other congregations, secular organizations and VFW and American Legion, therapists/artists/musicians/whoever wants to help, we're going to find funding to help us set up a local alcohol-free drop-in center with a pool table, a coffee machine, some furniture, etc., where vets can hang out with each other.

We UUs often say "we support the troops---bring them home", but once they're home we aren't very realistic about what they need. I hope we'll be able to offer them something once they get here.