Monday, June 30, 2008

A disturbing phone call...

to the church voice mail over the weekend prompted me to make a phone call or two of my own. The call was from a man who wanted to visit the congregation but had a problematic past he needed to discuss. So I called him, determined that he is a Level II sex offender, and listened to what he had to say about his crime and his progress in changing his behavior.

I took the name and phone number of his parole officer, told him I would be calling the parole officer to discuss his situation, and also that I would be talking with the leadership of our congregation about him. I warned him that one step we would definitely take, if he were to be able to visit, was that the entire congregation would have to know about him, that we would set up conditions for his time with us and enforce those conditions, that the safety of our children and our adult survivors was paramount. He understood all this, I believe.

So this morning, I called his parole officer and had an informative conversation with her, learning that the conditions of his parole state that he must not go to locations where children and youth tend to congregate. That means he is not allowed to visit a church. Even his calling to inquire was a near-violation, though I'm glad he called, rather than drop in.

So the situation has changed somewhat, but I plan to attend the upcoming July board meeting (even though I'm on vacation in July) because I want them to start a process to put measures in place that will protect the congregation from known and unknown predators. We already do a background check on all those who work with the kids but that's not necessarily enough.

I've had enough experience with sexual predators, both personally and professionally, to know that it's an insidious, identity-damaging crime. I agree with the Supremes that it doesn't warrant the death penalty, but it does so much damage to a person's identity that it should be considered a huge offense against humanity. I believe a victim can be healed, with enough time and treatment; I'm not sure about a predator for whom the behavior has become addictive.

But the question of how to provide a spiritual home for both an offender (of many types, not just sexual) and a potential victim is one that faces many faith traditions. Our desire to be compassionate must be balanced by our ability to be protective of potential victims and of adult survivors of sexual assault.

We've seen this handled very badly over the years. It has happened in every faith tradition and we UUs are no exception. We are slowly developing an understanding of how to protect our congregations and how to make offenders accountable for their actions.

I'm grateful to my colleague the Rev. Debra Haffner at her Sexuality and Religion blog. She has offered me and our colleagues a good deal of assistance in dealing with sexuality issues in our congregations.

I've written a note to my lectionary group colleagues suggesting that we offer, in the fall, a seminar to all the clergy and their layleaders on the island, led by the parole officer I talked with today, and have received very favorable responses. I hope that we will be able to bring this non-doctrinal yet moral issue to the table and provide some real-time answers.

The officer I talked with was frank and very helpful to me; she has worked with churches in the past to help them understand the nature of sexual predation and to help them develop processes to address it. We'll see what happens.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Integrity: what does it look like?

A local religious columnist, the Rev. Anthony Robinson, has written today in the Seattle P.I. that he thinks integrity is more valuable than compassion; he notes that he disagrees with the Dalai Lama in this regard but he makes a good point. This may be a matter of semantics, for surely integrity and compassion work together to make human life most humane.

Rev. Robinson delineates what he see as the marks of integrity; he's got a Top Ten that is quite substantive. But what does each quality say about a person? Here is his list, which I've paraphrased and added to. Italics are mine. See what you think.

1. What you see is what you get. A person of integrity doesn't say one thing and do another.

2. S/He honors commitments and keeps promises. And that would include not making promises or commitments one doesn't want to keep.

3. S/He is truthful. The person of integrity doesn't lie or embroider the truth to make it more dramatic or less painful.

4. S/He is consistent. You can count on this person to be reliable in her/his behavior.

5. S/He takes responsibility for her/his mistakes. This person doesn't weasel out on blame and s/he makes amends when s/he hurts someone.

6. S/He doesn't whine when things go wrong. This person doesn't blame others or make excuses for the problems s/he faces.

7. S/He cares about the work, the mission, the product, and a job well done. This person isn't in it for the money or the recognition or the advancement but for the satisfaction of having done it well.

8. S/He is skeptical of simple answers to complex problems. The person of integrity looks below the surface of a problem to find its source and avoids stopgap measures as much as possible, preferring to deal with a problem close to its source.

9. S/He minds her/his own business. This person focuses on her/his own work and avoids getting drawn into the responsibilities of another.

10. S/He knows it's not possible to go through life without making mistakes or hurting others inadvertently. This person is able to forgive him/herself for mistakes and to extend that forgiveness to others, giving encouragement rather than blame.

I don't know about you, but I see a lot of compassion weaving in and out of these characteristics of a person of integrity. Do you mind if I invent the word "integritous"? I think we need it.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

What I've learned about blogging in the past two years

Today is the second anniversary of the birth of Ms. Kitty's Saloon and Road Show. When I started writing the blog, I wasn't sure what to expect. I'd only gotten a screen name so that I could comment on the several blogs I had discovered through some now long-forgotten process. I think I must have read something in the UU World that alerted me to the fact that some interesting things were going on in cyberland and that it might be fun to watch.

Well, if you're an extrovert like me, it's hard to just watch. Extroverts almost always feel as though they have something to contribute, even if it's just affirming somebody else's idea. We know what that feels like and so we often chime in with the "me too" comment, just to keep the other person company. There's something about that "Comments: 0" that feels a little sad.

My style here has evolved from those early days. I've learned a few things, made a lot of friends, admired dozens of beautifully written posts and gotten new ideas from a bunch of people. It's been a great two years. Reading blogs has become a valued part of my day and I often get ideas for my own work from what others share. Writing posts has become a discipline I enjoy.

I tried to write a long list of "what I have learned about blogging in the past two years", but so far I only have a few items:

1. It is unwise to suck up to sycophants or to damn the dissenters. Hey, everybody has a right to his/her own opinion and it's wise to let them be and not try to change their minds. I've learned more by listening than by arguing.

2. Civil is as civil does. Being nasty to dissenters just makes the dissenter look better than the dissentee (does that make sense?). If you want civil dialogue, be civil to those who challenge your ideas.

3. These are real friends, not imaginary. I have met many of my blogging friends in person, not just online. It is important to be good to them. These friends have expanded my own world by what they post on their blogs.

4. I have a responsibility to be careful about what I post. I have had a couple of occasions when someone was hurt by something I'd written and I have had to backtrack and make amends.

5. In some ways, my readers are a cyber-congregation and I am a cyber-preacher and pastor. I am honored by this relationship and want to nurture it, not harm it.

I'm sure I've learned more, but it would be interesting to me to know what others are learning from their blogging. I wouldn't mind adding to my list.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Did you know...

that there are two Mesdames Kitty? There's me, of course, and then there's the other one. I'm Ms. and she's Miss, though we both have approximately the same marital status---non. We both love our cats, though she outdoes me in that category, being a world-class rescuer of abandoned animals. Miss K has a hen, too, named Myrtle Mae, and I don't. She has a much better touch with photos than I do and posts many pictures of her animals. Miss K lives in Georgia, where she tells me it is going to be up toward 100 degrees today and reassures me that I should be glad I'm not in Florida. Miss K is a college English professor and makes her living by teaching a wide range of students (lamebrain to genius) how to use the English language well.

I don't remember how I found Miss Kitty's blog, Educated & Poor, but I've been a faithful reader for over a year. Her sister, Mile High Pixie, lives in Denver, where I used to live, so I read her blog too, Why Architects Drink. Both these bloggerinas are funny and smart and I recommend them to you heartily.

But I digress. Miss Kitty just asked how my brother is doing and I intended to tell her, but I got sidetracked.

My brother is doing extremely well! Not that I expected anything else, but you never know. He will probably go home from the hospital this week. When I saw him last week, he was already planning the next thirty years of his life, something he has not been able to do for the past several years. His optimism is over the top, deservedly so. He has done everything possible to stay alive for 25 years and it's paying off, because he is an ideal transplant patient.

Thanks for asking, Miss K, and keep on being your entertaining, hilarious, loving self!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Looks like a slow week here...

while everybody else seems to be headed to General Assembly. We on the upper far West Coast had to think hard about whether we could afford to hop a plane and cross the country diagonally so that we could be with all the other kids at Ft. Lauderdale for a week.

I decided to save my pennies so I could attend next summer in Salt Lake City, on the tenth anniversary of my attaining Preliminary Fellowship and walking that long aisle with my collegial cohort, to receive the blessing of the elders and a handshake from the UUA Prez, John Buehrens and other notables. That was an exciting week!

The controversy about Ft. Lauderdale's convention center didn't particularly interest me; I had already made the decision not to go when it came up. The thought of being in muggy Florida in June certainly didn't appeal either. All in all, I'm glad I'm not there.

But I am missing the chatter on the ministers' listserv. They are getting to see each other in person and I am missing my friends and colleagues! They aren't posting on the chat because they are sitting next to each other talking. Or they are seeing each other at the airport and hugging and exchanging the news, as they make their way to the Ministry Days site.

It's been several years since I was able to attend Ministry Days events and I miss that gathering. There are a number of colleagues I only know by reputation---good reputation, that is---and I'd love to meet them. UU ministers are extremely approachable, I've found, even the shy ones, even the highly popular ones. Nearly every one of them seems willing to say a friendly hello, even if they can't stop to talk or get acquainted. Very few seem aloof and distant.

I haven't heard any scuttlebutt about whether there will be a UU Blogger dinner. I organized it last year in Portland, and I don't know if anyone has stepped forward to pull it together in Ft. L. I hope so---it was a lot of fun and not a lot of work. I also don't know if there's any effort to get bloggers together to talk about UU blogging. I have noticed several new UU bloggers popping up and that seems like a sign that UU blogging is getting stronger and better developed.

I'm betting that GA this year is a less well-attended event than it has been in the past. With prices up and controversy sharp, it seems to me that many will opt out this year. I'm guessing there will be an effort to change the mind of the UUA board, which had cancelled the connections of affiliated organizations in favor of congregational connections only. I'm guessing there will be a lot of political fervor over the presidential (that's USA, as well as UUA) election(s).

My presidential candidate is Undecided at this point, at least in the UUA presidential election. I know both Peter Morales, who is currently minister at my home congregation in Colorado, and Laurel Hallman, who has been minister at First Church Dallas for many years. Either of them would do a great job. By next year, I expect I'll have made up my mind, but right now I'm reserving judgment. It's interesting to see that in our election, we too have a man of color and a strong woman as our choices. I wonder how the campaigning will go----will Laurel supporters have the same challenges as Hillary supporters? Will Peter supporters have the same challenges as Barack supporters?

My experience with UUA election campaigns is that they are quite civil, at least on the surface, though I may not be on the inside track with the rumor mill. I doubt that two ministers would use dirty tactics to win the race; at least, I hope not.

If you are going to GA, I hope you'll blog about your experiences and give us homebound folks the benefit of your wisdom. Let us know what you pick up.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Afternoon services coming to an end

My Sunday morning routine, for the past nine years, has been to get up, laze around reading the newspapers, go out for breakfast and maybe a leisurely grocery shopping trip, do a chore or two around the house, and, about 2 p.m., start getting ready for a church service. Except for the weekends I spent serving the Vashon Island fellowship, which met at 9:30 a.m., all of my parish service has been with congregations which rented space in other churches and had to meet in the afternoon.

That's about to change. Today and next Sunday are the last times we will meet at 4 p.m. We will meet for worship outdoors on the lawn of our new building in August and, as soon as we can get the occupancy permit, we will move into our new home and begin holding year-round services at 10 a.m. or thereabouts. (This congregation goes on hiatus in July.)

I wonder what kinds of changes this will mean. Most of our folks are eager to begin meeting in the mornings, though a few confess to liking 4 p.m. as a meeting time because they can begin work in their gardens early in the day, at least during the warmer months. Some are just accustomed to the later time and not eager to shift their routines.

So we may lose a few people when we begin meeting at a more traditional time, but overall I think we'll gain many more. Meeting at a non-traditional time sounds cool, sounds radical, sounds like it will attract just the kind of unique folks we're looking for, but the truth is, it doesn't. It's hard to attract families with children to a 4 p.m. service. It's hard to attract any but the most determined to an afternoon service, even though it sounds feasible.

Changing our meeting time is a no-brainer, because of the new building. We have to grow beyond our 75 current adult members, in order to grow our programming and reach out into the community more effectively. But I've seen it become a real point of conflict in a congregation.

In a former church I served, it was a bone of contention that could hardly be discussed. In fact, one woman, a relative newcomer to the congregation, stood up in the annual meeting and cried because changing times meant that her family could not attend all together, since her husband was a member of a local sangha which met at 10 a.m. So the issue went back under the table and didn't come up again until a subsequent minister discovered a rental place that could be used in the mornings. I wonder how it will turn out!

Anyhow, though we UUs often diverge strongly and proudly from tradition, this is one area where tradition serves us well. People expect to go to church on Sunday mornings, not on Saturday or Sunday afternoon. Churches that meet at those times do not tend to grow very rapidly; they quickly reach a point where they've exhausted the pool of people who like a non-traditional time and they are unable to retain families with small children because that's not a good time of day for small ones.

So how will my routine change when we have morning services? Well, I'll have less time in the morning for breakfast at a restaurant or to do my grocery shopping or laundry. I'll have just enough time to give the sermon a final polish, to spend a little centering time before going over to the church, to get out of the jeans and into the pantyhose. And instead of coming home after the service and social hour and collapsing in front of America's Funniest Home Videos and Tom Bergeron's attempts at humor, I'll have an afternoon of rest and recuperation ahead of me, with an evening in which I could even go to a movie or a concert. I have not had this opportunity for nine years!

I sympathize with folks for whom a change in routine is difficult, but I've never been too fazed by changes. I tend to look at a situation, say to myself, "well, that's how it is; how shall I approach it?" and then move on. I'm pretty pragmatic about change, even the scariest ones. But lots of folks aren't that way and I understand that. I'm looking forward to whatever the new meeting time brings. I'm especially looking forward to meeting all those new UUs out there on the island who haven't made it to a service yet because they are already busy at 4 p.m.!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Thank you to the donors of a heart...

for my brother who received it on June 8, 2008. Recipients of donated organs get almost no information about the organ donor initially, though long after the donation (a matter of several months), some information may be obtained, with the permission of the donor's family.

So we may never know who saved my brother's life that Sunday. We may only ever know that somebody somewhere said yes, when the hospital who was treating a dying patient asked them to donate his/her organs. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

It is impossible to express adequately the relief and joy our family felt when the yes was spoken, the papers signed, the call made to my brother at 3 a.m. Sunday morning.

"It's a good heart," said the surgeon. That meant that it was going to be a good fit for my "baby" brother, who is 6'4" and weighs accordingly. That meant that it was probably a big man or woman (probably a man), with B type blood. The flight to and from the donor's hospital took an hour and a bit, so that meant it's probably west of the Rockies. We know nothing more.

And so this is a thank you to all organ donors out there, a thank you to everyone who has checked that box on your driver's license or ID card, a thank you to families who have faced the issue of organ donation and have said yes. Your generosity has produced a miracle of new life for someone who was desperately ill.

My brother has been ill with a crumbling physical heart for 25 plus years. He has endured two lengthy (12 hour) open heart surgeries to make stopgap repairs. He has not been free of health-related anxiety for those many years, nor have we been free of that anxiety. Heart ailments seem to run in our family and though we are philosophical about it for the most part, there's always a question in our minds---will I be next?

My brother has always had the family commitment to public service; he has served his community as a volunteer ever since I can remember. We kids were raised that way. My sister has volunteered hundreds and hundreds of hours herself to adoption causes and to CASA (court appointed support of children in the foster care system), as well as to her church and a local hospice. I have been involved in BGLT civil rights issues and as a chaplain for much of my adult life, as well as working in the non-profit human relations/public education field. It's a thing with our family. Our parents modeled this life of public service for us.

And all during his years of illness, my brother has not flagged in his work in the community, whether as a Rotarian, as a Public Utilities Commissioner, or as an envoy from his church to various missionary outposts to build housing and schools. He has accomplished an enormous amount in his 57 years, including, most recently and during his most fragile years, the construction of a platinum-standard-green building to house the Washington State PUD commission.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, donors of a size XL heart to a man out in Washington State who will go on to give even more to the world because of your gift. He gives it in your loved one's name, out of gratitude.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Love is NOT a Sin.

I've been reading the news reports and watching the TV segments about the same sex couples getting married in California, some who have been together for 50 years. The joy on their faces, as well as the joy on the faces of their loved ones, is so stunning that I wonder how anyone could in good conscience deny people this joy. Clearly those who speak so viciously (and vicariously, even voyeuristically?) about same-sex love and marriage have hard hearts, which they claim are a gift from God.

To say no to joy for another person, even joy that has been proven in the long hard years of a relationship, is incomprehensible to me. To me it suggests a joylessness on the part of those who say that no and even try to enforce it by laws that regulate against joy for others. I'm talking real joy, not sexual pleasure, but the joy that comes from being together as a partnership, facing life's challenges, raising children, being a family. That's real joy. It's wrong to deny anyone that hardwon joy, especially after they have proved themselves over the long haul.

It came to me suddenly in the midst of one of the many diatribes that erupted after California's justice-seeking justices declined to reconsider: LOVE IS NOT A SIN. And using the language of traditional religion, language that comes from humans saying they speak for God, here is what else I think is not sin. And I, as much as anyone, can say I speak for God:

Love is not a sin.
Commitment is not a sin.
Taking responsibility is not a sin.
Trust is not a sin.
Being honest about oneself is not a sin.
Sexual intimacy between committed, consenting adults is not a sin.

Here's what's a sin:
Injustice is a sin.
Betrayal is a sin.
Resentment is a sin.
Rape is a sin.
Faithlessness is a sin.
Unkindness is a sin.
Cruelty is a sin.

What does this say about the situation? It seems pretty clear to me.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Notes to Barack

There is an opportunity to write a note to Barack Obama at this website. Here's what I wrote:
Please don't let us down, Mr. Obama. We're counting on you to be your best self, as you run for the Presidency, as you serve as a Senator, as you are a husband and father, as you are a son, a son in law, a brother, and as you are a human being.
We're counting on you to be a champion of justice, a friend to the "little guy", and above all, a man of integrity.
Please don't let us down. We're counting on you to bring this country back to a place of integrity and good repute.
Rev. Kit Ketcham
Freeland, Washington

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Belief Divides; Doubt Unites

Rev. Kit Ketcham, June 15, 2008

In February of 2006, at our annual auction, our well-loved friend and neighbor John Adams purchased the right to choose a topic for me to speak on at a worship service. He thought it might take him awhile to decide what it might be, but that fall, John and Gail attended a performance of the play “Doubt”, by John Patrick Shanley.

On the walls of the theatre lobby were a number of posters with quotes by a wide range of wellknown folks, and the one that caught John’s eye that night was by Sir Peter Ustinov, the actor: “Beliefs are what divide people. Doubt unites them.”

John decided that he would ask me to preach on this idea and we agreed that I would do so. Tragically, John died suddenly only weeks later, leaving us all bereft and missing this dear friend who was so much a part of the life of this congregation.

But John’s idea did not die, nor did any of the work he began in this congregation. As we see our building go up, as we use the model he built and the art work he supplied to display how it would look in actuality, we are reminded of John and his legacy on a daily basis.

This sermon is part of John’s contribution to the life of this congregation and I think it is significant that on this Father’s Day, 2008, some of his family has come to be with Gail and to attend our service. This is not a second memorial service for John Adams, but it is a recognition of the intelligence and creativity that this dear man brought to our midst.

Belief is a word that has become so embedded in our culture that its meaning has been stretched and broadened to include religious creeds, self-affirmations, personal opinion, scientific and non-scientific knowledge. The word is even used as a figure of speech: I believe I’ll have another cup of coffee. For the most part its meanings are intended to be positive.

On the other hand, the word Doubt has become almost pejorative, negative in its associations. “I doubt it” says the parent whose child is saying that she/he has no homework. Doubting Thomas, in the Christian gospels, had to be convinced of Jesus’ resurrection by seeing the wounds on Jesus’ body. Doubt has gotten a bad reputation over the centuries, seeming only to represent negativity of thought and a lack of trust in someone.

And so Peter Ustinov’s wisdom might seem counterintuitive. Wouldn’t belief tend to unite people? Doesn’t doubt throw up barriers between people?

I remember a moment a few years ago, when I was candidating with my first congregation and having lunch with members of one of the church committees. They were asking me about my approach to a variety of issues and at one point, one woman said, “ah, Kit, I knew it, you’re a believer!”

As she was a fervent atheist, it was clear that what she meant was that I am a theist---and it put us on two different sides of an issue of belief, as she saw it. All of a sudden, however, I saw the negative side of belief in her mind. It was definitely not a compliment, but rather a statement of our difference. I doubt she meant anything unkind by it, but it struck me that it put me in a category that I was not completely comfortable with.

My American Heritage dictionary defines “believer” as one who has firm faith in something. And there are things I have firm faith in, but the traditional concept of God isn’t one of them!
Belief has been at the heart of many a religious debate. My own religious background, Baptist, has been fraught with arguments about doctrine and true belief. Baptists are firm believers in soul liberty, which means, essentially, freedom of conscience. The way it plays out, in actuality, is that Baptist churches have frequently split over doctrinal issues. That’s why there are so many different groups which call themselves Baptist and each of them considers their doctrine, the only doctrine, the only way to heaven, at least in the more conservative Baptist congregations.

A story that made the rounds when I was in seminary illustrates this point in a humorous way. And it was told by my Baptist colleagues!

Narrator: I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. I immediately ran over and said, "Stop! Don't
do it!"
"Why shouldn't I?" he said.
I said, "Well, there's so much to live for!"
"Like what?"
"Well ... are you religious or atheist?"
"Me too! Are you Christian or Jewish?"
"Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?"
"Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?"
"Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?"
"Baptist Church of God."
"Me too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed
Baptist Church of God?"
"Reformed Baptist Church of God."
"Wow! Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?"
"Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915!"
To which I said, "Die, heretic scum!" and pushed him off.

There’s a part of me that thinks this is pretty funny because it’s so outlandish and yet, having been labeled a heretic myself by conservative folks, it also gives me a twinge of alarm and I tend to stay away from religious conversations when I’m on bridges! It’s my experience that belief unites right up until a difference of opinion is detected!

Belief does have its upside: optimism and unambiguous rhetoric. It comes naturally and quickly, whereas doubt is slower and not so easily obtained, according to Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine. Shermer cites a study in the December 2007 Annals of Neurology which supports the conjecture of the 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, that most people have a low tolerance for ambiguity and prefer not to work too hard sorting out claims and counterclaims.

The scientific principle of the null hypothesis---that a claim is untrue unless proved otherwise---challenges humans to think harder and more deeply about their beliefs, but many of us would rather not.

Why are people attracted to rigid belief systems? I’m inclined to think that there are many reasons, including family or cultural heritage, trust in the authority figures of that belief system, lack of energy to investigate its claims, lack of time or interest in change, a desire to be part of an in-group, the list goes on.

But as I studied church history in my path to ministry, I became acutely aware of how much fear was engendered by early religious doctrines and teachers. A culture of fear drives people toward rigid belief as they seek structure and a sense of strength and solidity.

What happens to our place in a group of believers when doubt creeps in? Well, we stand to lose a sense of belonging; we may feel dishonest; we may hide our feelings; we may pretend or go through the motions of belief in order to maintain a connection; we may choose belonging over an honest facing of doubts.

Sometimes when our doubts become too strong to hide, we may try to override them and convert them into passionate belief, becoming what’s commonly called “A True Believer”, a person whose belief seems so strong that it rules his or her life in an addictive kind of way, causing the person to take positions that seem incomprehensible to others and changing his/her relationships.

We see how difficult and dangerous this can be when we witness the fall of some of culture’s prominent religious figures, such as Jimmy Bakker, Ted Haggard, and others, whose secret doubts were their undoing and they were revealed as hypocritical and dishonest. Some of them proclaimed their opposition to certain so-called sins, only to be unveiled as practitioners of those particular sins.

We Unitarian Universalists are advocates of freedom of belief and, though we may not agree with the beliefs of others, we support others’ rights to their own thoughts. However, freedom of belief means freedom of non-belief as well, and skepticism, we think, prevents too-hasty bandwagon behavior!

In recent years, there has been a proliferation of anti-belief literature, pitting atheist writers against theistic writers. The diatribes and ridicule flying back and forth on the Internet occasionally reach a pitch so feverish that it’s hard to take any of it seriously.

When did “doubt” become acceptable? For most of the past millennium, everybody in the Western world believed in God. It didn’t occur to anyone not to believe that there was a physical supernatural being in the heavens who ran the universe, who required humans to behave in certain ways, to give money to authority figures such as landowners and the Church, and to fear hell as punishment for any independent action which might diverge from church law.

In the 18th century, a philosophical shift began to occur as a result of the Enlightenment, that period in history when scientific exploration and discovery began to infiltrate culture. It produced considerable skepticism towards the doctrines of the church, encouraged individualism, advocated a belief in science, the experimental method, and the use of reason, and declared that education could be a catalyst of social and political change. It began to be okay to doubt the church, to doubt the laws of the land which discriminated against the poor, to doubt even whether there was a God.

Doubt became an act of courage. We may remember the courage of our Unitarian ancestor, Michael Servetus, who dared to challenge the doctrine of the Trinity and was burned at the stake for his doubts. Countless heretics suffered at the hands of the early church when their doubt was discovered and punished.

But the act of doubt, questioning the established norms, the established conclusions of doctrine, the established understandings of how the universe works, became a driving force. Our scientific knowledge comes directly from our questions about whether or not accepted theories (that the sun revolves around the earth, for example) are accurate.

As scientific knowledge grew and more and more established dogma was called into question, conflict between orthodoxy and rationality increased until it began to appear as though religion and science had no common meeting ground.

Doubt’s approach to knowledge became “be patient, welcome the questions, don’t fight them, don’t assume that others have the answer unless they can show you why. Believing is different from knowing.”

Now, I’m not implying that True Believers are all fundamentalist Christians, or Muslims, or Jews, or Buddhists. Because we UUs are susceptible to the same syndrome----our way is right! It’s very easy to become a True Believer just by refusing to listen to other points of view, refusing to understand how and why others think the way they do. I can imagine a die-hard atheist, for example, so convinced of the rightness of his or her logical understandings that he/she is unable to understand the rightness of another’s intuitive knowledge.

So how does doubt unite people? I think the “uniting” aspect of doubt has a different quality to it than that of belief. It’s looser, less rigid, more permeable, more open to new information. It’s not easy to doubt. One has to be willing to risk looking foolish, being wrong, losing relationships, even being ostracized.

But what we have to gain is inestimable. When we shift to a more openminded stance in our thinking, we find ourselves flooded with new ideas, new lenses with which to observe the world around us, new directions for our creative urges.

When Effie and I were discussing this topic, as we designed today’s service together, she made an observation that I’d like to share with you because I feel it expresses very clearly the role of doubt in our spiritual lives.

Effie had used the analogy of the physical body, with its skeletal framework, to describe her concept of the roles of doubt and belief.

She wrote: “Concretized beliefs can become limiting and close down our spiritual growth as well as shut off communication with those who have differing beliefs….Exploring the questions prompted by our doubts can expand our spiritual boundaries and encourage exchange of ideas with others.
“…Belief and doubt are actually complementary to one another and can very effectively dance together… For me, it is my beliefs that form the supporting bone structure of my spiritual life, but those bones cannot move—let alone dance---without the tendons and muscles. One of the things that keeps my spiritual tendons and muscles strong and supple is stretching them by exploring the questions that arise from my doubts, especially in the context of a caring community. This is a dynamic process that keeps my beliefs alive and congruent with my life experience and encourages relationships that are vital and nourishing.
“If I don’t exercise my physical body, the bones and muscles become weak and my joints become stiff and painful to move. In the same way, my spiritual life would become static and stale if I became stuck in old beliefs and fail to acknowledge, let alone love, the questions that arise from following my doubts.”

Thank you, Effie, for letting me quote your eloquent words. I think Effie is right, that we need both belief and doubt in our human lives.

The way I see it is as though our lives are like gardens planted in the warm, dark earth. If we use and re-use the same soil constantly without replenishing the nutrients that have been infused into our plants, the soil gets tired, is worn out, doesn’t produce good strong healthy plants. In a similar way, beliefs which are merely rehashed repeatedly become stale and lack much needed nutrition. Doubt is like compost, re-enriching the soil, re-enriching the soul.

What does this all mean to us as Unitarian Universalists? Here’s what I think. As we grow and reach out into the Whidbey Island community, if we want to work with others to make life better for the poor and homeless, we will need to learn to work with people whose beliefs are very strong and may be very different from ours. How will we do that?

If we have family members whose beliefs are very strong and very different from ours, this can be an uncomfortable challenge for both us and our family members. How can we achieve a sense of peace and unity together?

If we see things happening in our community that seem to run counter to ethical government or environmental stewardship, things that seem to emerge from a strong belief system that seeks to impose itself on a community, we need to take action. How can we do this in an effective way?

Our mission as a congregation includes Spirituality and Service. Our values have emerged from the combination of our beliefs and our doubts. How can we live out our mission while respecting the beliefs and doubts of others?

Our journey together as a congregation can be a passionate effort to increase our ability to work with others to enact compassionate government, compassionate social action, and compassionate living in our neighborhoods.

I’d like to end with a quote Mavis sent me that seems to answer the question of “how can we do this?” Margaret Wheatley made this observation:
“We have the opportunity many times a day, every day, to be the one who listens to others, curious rather than certain. But the greatest benefit of all is that listening moves us closer. When we listen with less judgment, we always develop better relationships with each other. It’s not differences that divide us. It’s our judgments about each other that do. Curiosity and good listening bring us back together.”

Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering to listen to each other, especially when we disagree with the beliefs expressed. May we be patient, may we welcome the questions that arise, and may we always be ready to show compassion and understanding for those who are different from us. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

A Cool Trick!

I'm experimenting with embedding video and found this cool trick on YouTube.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Postponing the sermon in honor of my Dad

I'll bet my Dad did the same thing, postponing work on his sermon until he had finished something that seemed more interesting and more important to him than his Sunday sermon, though he loved his work and gave it his all during his too-short life. I want to tell you his story, as I remember it, though some details don't necessarily agree with the way others remember it.

Merritt Bernhardt Ketcham was born Nov. 18, 1907, in northern Missouri, the second oldest son of a railroad gandy-dancer and his strong-willed wife. When he was about 12, his dad lost his arm in a hunting accident and could no longer do the heavy work of railroad maintenance, so he turned to moonshine as a way to support his family of a wife and seven children.

My dad and his older brother John became the delivery boys for Grandpa Ketcham's illicit brew until Grandma Ketcham became alarmed at the dangers of this job for a young boy and shipped my Dad off to Wyoming to live with friends on a ranch near Pinedale. This was a three day journey by mail train and he went equipped with mainly the clothes on his back and a bag of sandwiches.

Living on the Peyton Dew ranch as a teenager, attending Pinedale High School, and learning the skills of a cowboy, my Dad grew to young adulthood in the majestic setting of the Wind River and Teton mountain ranges, running cattle to and from mountain pastures. He played sports in high school and did well in his studies, but there was no money for further education and he eventually ended up an orchardman in the Snake River valley on the Oregon Slope, near the Idaho border.

Here he met my mother, who was friends with his sister Alice. The whole Ketcham family had followed my Dad from Missouri to Wyoming and then on to Idaho, where there was work for Grandpa Ketcham and his children. Merritt Ketcham and Mona Elizabeth Larson, a railroad man's daughter herself, were married Dec. 23, 1935.

My Dad had dedicated his life to God when his youngest sister Nellie Mae was desperately ill. And shortly after their marriage, my parents moved to Chicago to attend Moody Bible Institute, where they both studied for two or so years and my Dad qualified as a minister. I'm not sure when or where he was ordained, possibly at the Mossyrock Community Church, his first pastorate.

That's where I was born, in a Chehalis, Washington, hospital 30 miles or so from the tiny hamlet of Mossyrock. I was the first surviving child. My brothers Jimmy and Charles were stillborn.

This picture was taken in Mossyrock in the fall of 1942, when I was a few months old.
My Dad served the Mossyrock church for two years and then was called to Calvary Baptist Church in Portland, where he served for seven years; then it was on to Athena, Oregon for nine years and Goldendale, Washington, for the remaining eight years of his life. He died at age 62 from chronic illnesses related to heart abnormalities. Or at least that's what we have decided from knowing his health history.

And here I am in ministry, following in his footsteps, hoping that even though our theologies are/were miles apart, he understands somehow, somewhere, that I learned it all from him.

Here's what I learned from my Dad about ministry:
1. It's important to be approachable as a minister, knowing what my congregants' lives are like, being available to them as a pastor but also as a special kind of friend, someone who is not aloof or in an ivory tower of professionality but who can relate to others on a very personal level without overstepping boundaries.
2. Humor is an essential ingredient in ministry. Without it, it's too easy to be hurt by chance remarks or criticism.
3. Be serious about your values, but try to understand others' values.
4. Be friendly and welcoming to all; don't play favorites.
5. Ministers do not often receive all the appreciation they deserve, but this is just life. Don't be hurt by it.
6. Look for many ways to minister. Be involved in your community.
7. Find friends among ministers of other faiths. You can talk with them about things that your congregants might not understand. Even your spouse might not understand!
8. Your integrity is worth your life. Don't give it up. When it's questioned, examine your behavior and change anything that doesn't meet your standards. But you are the final judge of your integrity, not the world.
9. Let ministry be your passion but don't do your family the disservice of neglecting them.
10. Love people, even the ones who are radically different from you, and learn from everyone.

My Dad, the Reverend Merritt Bernhardt Ketcham, has been my role model for virtually all my life. The most treasured memories I have of him revolve around the times we spent together, especially the moment in the Dinty Moore Cafe in Biggs, Oregon, when he called me "Pal", thrilling me deeply. He lives on in me and I trust he has come to terms with the differences in our theology, if indeed there were any serious gaps.

I believe he would bravely listen to my theology, even if it was hard for him to accept. I believe he would champion my right to be true to myself. I believe he would forgive my childish slights. I believe he was pleased with me. After all, he called me Pal.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

While we're on the subject of politics

here's an article someone forwarded to me. I'm not sure how seriously to take it and would like to hear others' opinions on the topic of Karl Rove's purported manipulation of the Democratic nomination process.

Your thoughts?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Because if it ain't broke already...

we might as well break it.

Check this out:

Monday, June 09, 2008


I just got off the phone with my sister in law and have decided not to try to go down to Portland today to see Buz. She tells me he will not be really conscious for several days and wouldn't remember that I was there, even if he opened his eyes and saw me. So I'll go next week when he will be much more lucid. I'm relieved not to have to make the drive but I also want him to know that I was there. I feel vaguely uneasy that I'm not rushing to his bedside immediately.

The surgery took many hours, probably about 12, because he had had an LVAD implanted last fall and all that hardware had to be removed. But the heart was implanted in the afternoon and started to beat properly, though he remained on the bypass machine while they took out the LVAD hardware. Now he will be in ICU for several days while his body adjusts to the new heart and they regulate the anti-rejection drugs, but he will be a new man, almost literally, when he is recovered.

His doctors have told my SIL that Buz is the ideal candidate for transplant, because he is young, strong, and determined. He's also smart, in that he is willing to follow the doctor's orders and not take risks with his health.

I admire my brother for his determination and his will to live. Over the 25 years of this ordeal with heart disease, he has refused to give up, to cut back on his commitment to public service, to draw into himself in despair. He has explored every possible treatment in an intelligent and comprehensive way and has been willing to try just about anything to survive. He feels strongly that God has a plan for him and it doesn't include dying young.

In other news, my congregation was so sweet to me yesterday! They produced a birthday cake during coffee hour, with cards and flowers, and even took me out to dinner at the Chinese place after church last night. It was just perfect, not too much hype, just enough.

Sixty-six ain't such a bad age, I guess!

Sunday, June 08, 2008

The phone call just came...

and my brother is on his way to Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland to receive his new heart. It's not quite 4 a.m. here on Whidbey but there was no chance I was going to go back to sleep after that phone call, so I'm up pouring nervous energy into a blog post.

The cats are bewildered---what the heck is she doing up? Why has she fed us, though we're grateful? Is she okay? Is she going to turn on the heat? Is she going to let us out? Why is she not making that funny-smelling stuff? Is there something wrong?

My brother is almost nine years younger than I am and had his first heart attack when he was 30 years old. Ever since that time (25 years or so) he has struggled to cope with heart-related health concerns and a month ago passed all the contingencies to get on the transplant list.

He's a big guy, 6'4" and bulky, though not fat, so we all knew it was going to take an extra-large heart to sustain him. It doesn't feel very good to pray that some strapping young man will die accidentally so that my brother can live, so I could only pray "please, God, help Buz find a new heart", with the knowledge lurking that our joy will mean sorrow for someone else.

My brother is a fine man, generous and loving, with his own quirks and particularities, just as we all have. His journey with heart disease has been rough. He's had two open-heart surgeries, one which reshaped his flabby heart muscle, removed calcification, and gave him three years of improved health. That was three and a half years ago. Last fall his remodeled heart ran out of steam and the subsequent surgery implanted an LVAD, a left ventricle assist device, which would keep his heart beating at a rate that would give him some quality of life, but the implications were clear: this was just a stopgap, he had to have a new heart.

What a birthday present! Any time the phone rings in the middle of the night, one's alarm systems blare, but I've been expecting the call and my mind jumped there, not to any assumption of doom somewhere else. I'm so grateful, God, thank you so much.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Dark Side of the Interdependent Web

A couple of years ago (pre-Ms.Kitty's), I wrote a sermon with this title and, for the reading, used an excerpt from Loren Eiseley's book of essays,The Immense Journey. It's entitled "The Judgment of the Birds" and it is a grim but realistic and strangely uplifting commentary on the food chain and what it means to be prey and predator.

I am reminded of this essay (as well as another, less grim one, "The Bird and the Machine") by last night's encounter with the food chain, when Max leaped back onto the deck with the chewed-up hindquarters of a small bunny in his mouth, marching proudly into the living room as I watched my movie.

I shrieked, he dropped it and ran to hide, and I gingerly picked it up and deposited it in the garbage can, scrubbing my hands furiously and then moving quickly to shut the deck door so that he couldn't go out again. I watched him sniff the floor to pick up its scent until he finally realized that it was gone and gave up.

But Max is predator and the bunny is prey. It's in his nature to hunt and in the bunny's nature to avoid being caught and eaten. It's in my nature to try to prevent this and I may put a bell on him to warn potential victims, though this may alert predators to his presence as well. Short of keeping him inside forever, this is a scenario that is difficult to manage. One of life's little dilemmas---to me, anyhow, though a bigger one to Max and to the bunny.

A second issue on the Dark Side is that of ageing, generally. Tomorrow I will be 66 years old. I don't mind being 66; it's pretty cool to hear from folks that I don't look my age. I am aware that many 66 year olds don't fare as well and sometimes I am surprised to hear that someone is younger than I because in my mind, I am young and others are older, not me.

My son's protectiveness is both a comfort and a concern, for because of it, I have an awareness that I am actually in that age group which needs more protection, in some ways. The senior discounts are lovely, but they are there for a reason---reduced economic circumstances, reduced mobility, and, of course, deference to an elder. My economic circumstances are okay right now and my mobility is fine, unless the tendinitis happens to kick in and slow me down.

I think I was reflecting about this last year at this time as well. Every year I tend to assess what the passing years mean and assess my condition. This year I am pleased to say that though I am not dieting nor do I intend to, I am working out for 30 minutes five days a week at the gym. It's painless and I've made friends there and I'll continue to do so. So my physical health is sustained by exercise and relatively healthy eating. I'm also singing regularly, one of my most favorite things in the world to do. I'm productive in my work and more prolific in my writing. My group of friends grows and those connections deepen.

At the same time, there are increased sorrows---friends'/congregants' health issues, families moving away, children with troubles, occasional conflicts between those I love. The economic, environmental, and social woes of our nation and the huge challenges our new President will face are depressing, to say the least.

And yet I feel optimistic that the universe is unfolding as it will and we will rise to the challenges of tomorrow with whatever resources we have. Sometimes we are predator and sometimes we are prey. Death happens, sorrow is part of life, and new life springs abundant daily.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Reflections on a Thursday morning

It was nice, the other day, to get a call from the Favorite Son, who was a bit worried because I hadn't posted since Sunday or sent him any nagging emails about my favorite worries about him. I told him I'd been waiting for readers to have a chance to read the sermon on Sunday before I posted about my friend in Colorado who is dealing with Parkinsons.

He was suitably sympathetic and concerned, though his experience of my friend was through the eyes of a teenager. I have vivid memories of the two of them wrestling on my kitchen floor---the symbolism of this is not lost on me either, though I don't want to read too much into it. My friend G had helped me pick out the FS's first car, a 70's era Plymouth Duster---a steel cage that didn't go very fast, to be blunt. G was definitely part of the FS's history as well.

But it's nice to have a son who thinks about me in that way, as I become increasingly aware of what it means to be almost 66 (my birthday is Sunday the 8th) and living alone with three cats, none of whom know how to call 911. He wanted the phone numbers of some of my friends and neighbors here on Whidbey, just in case, so I have given him a few numbers and email addresses to use if I fail to post or email for a worrisome piece of time.

It's certainly handy to have a blog, as a means of communication. But it also means that I want to be careful about what I say and about whom I write. I was reminded of how much security and privacy issues figure in our American life these days, as I applied for an Enhanced Driver's License yesterday at the DOL. I had to provide a birth certificate, my SSN, my old license, and proof of residence and then answer questions, have my birth certificate verified by the Health Department, and during this vetting maintain my composure.

All this for an enhanced ID/Driver's License which will enable me to cross the Canadian border without a passport. Mexico too, I think, but I'm not sure. We are so close to the border that it makes sense to do this. And I enjoy visiting Victoria BC particularly----high tea at the Empress! Yum!

I was supposed to go over to Port Townsend for a ministers' cluster meeting, but the wind is picking up and the small ferry they have covering that route across the Strait often gets cancelled because of the wind, so I've decided not to go. That gives me much more of the day to spend at home, which I'm glad to have.

So relax, FS, I'm not lying in a crumpled heap somewhere in the house. Life is good, even for this almost-66 semi-free-radical.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Reflections on a Wednesday morning

Since Sunday, I've spent a good deal of time reflecting about the trajectory of my life so far and what the next twenty years or so might bring. Events and insights of the past week, particularly, have led me in this direction.

On Sunday, I learned that a longtime friend, a man who was an important part of my life for many years in Colorado, has been forced to go to an assisted living facility because of the debilitating effects of Parkinson's Disease. He's been living with PD for several years, gradually losing his strength, his coordination, and some of his cognitive abilities. I last saw him about three years ago when I visited Colorado to preach at my home church there and was dismayed by how disabled he'd become.

This is a man whose companionship and love I have cherished for many years, a banjo player, a man whose journey in recovery was an inspiration to me and helped me find my own way in a 12-step program, a die-hard conservative whose fears often came between us but which we managed to navigate without too much trouble, a man of integrity and hope who once wrote a note to the singer Tom Paxton for public criticisms of Dan Quayle---and got a courteous note back from Paxton. A kind man, a loving man, a funny man, a fearful man, a very dear man, a man who hurt me and whom I hurt as well, but a man who has stayed in my heart all these years, even so.

He is clearly approaching the end of his life; part of it has already ended, with his having to give up so much independence. It has made me think about how lives end and how little we can do to prepare for our lives' ending, except to be open to the changes and find meaning in them.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Science and Unitarian Universalism

The following is the sermon presented at the UU Congregation of Whidbey Island, June 1, 2008, by the Rev. Kit Ketcham, minister of the congregation, and Dr. David Cauffman, former Chief Scientist at the DOE Lab in Idaho Falls, ID. The introduction to the sermon has already been posted; the rest follows.

Science as a Source for Unitarian Universalism
D. Cauffman 6/1/08

Thank you, Kit. Good afternoon. This morning, as I often do, I read the New York Times online as I sipped my tea. To my delight I found there an excellent editorial by Brian Greene, author and professor of physics at Columbia, entitled “Put a Little Science in Your Life”. I’d like to share a bit of it with you: “Science is a way of life. Science is a perspective. Science is the process that takes us from confusion to understanding in a manner that’s precise, predictive and reliable — a transformation, for those lucky enough to experience it, that is empowering and emotional. To be able to think through and grasp explanations — for everything from why the sky is blue to how life formed on earth — not because they are declared dogma but rather because they reveal patterns confirmed by experiment and observation, is one of the most precious of human experiences.” Greene concludes: “It’s the birthright of every child, it’s a necessity for every adult, to look out on the world… and see that the wonder of the cosmos transcends everything that divides us.” Well said!

We are all born explorers. Even now, I revel in the “play” aspects of science and analysis. Just as an infant inspects an object and turns it over and tastes it and hits the floor with it, I like to look at questions or ideas from a variety of angles and knock them about a bit to see if I can learn something when I put try to put together everything I have observed.

Today the idea we shall knock about is “How science influences Unitarian Universalism.” To highlight these influences, we’ll compare and contrast three different cultural traditions, or “ways of knowing” that have matured since the Enlightenment. These three are: (1) science; (2) Unitarian Universalism; and (3) what I shall call “traditional religion [TR]” – an eclectic mix of Western Christian denominations that have moved with glacial speed to reconcile their beliefs with science, although even those glaciers are moving faster these days. While I don’t know enough to talk about Eastern and nontraditional religion, I will share with you an enlightened quote from the Dalai Lama: “My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation: if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.”

To begin, I’d like to tell you a parable. There were three friends who liked to fish together. One was a physicist, one a Unitarian minister, and the third a minister in a traditional religious denomination – in honor of our hosts we’ll make him a Lutheran. Luther, you recall, advocated that salvation was to be achieved by faith alone, and at the time that was a great improvement over salvation by buying indulgences. Well, one day the three went out fishing in a small boat on a shallow lake they hadn’t fished before but where they could see the fish were biting. They weren’t too far from shore when they realized why the fish were biting, as the three were surrounded by swarms of insects. The physicist jumped up and said “Just wait a minute – I’ll get the insect repellent!” and he leaped out of the boat and raced to shore on the surface of the water and back with the repellent. The Lutheran minister was quite impressed, and glanced sideways at the Unitarian but the latter didn’t seem at all surprised. After an hour of fishing they began to get hungry. The Unitarian minister bumped himself on the side of the head and said, “I forgot to put the lunch knapsack in the boat – but don’t worry -- I’ll get it now!” and he too stepped out of the boat, ran across the surface of the water, and returned with the lunch. The salt on their chips soon made them thirsty. The Lutheran was supposed to bring the beer but he had forgotten to put the cooler in the boat! [You may not want to go fishing with these three.] Not to be outdone by his water-walking friends he announced, “I’ll go get the drinks!” and silently uttered a prayer: “Lord, I put my faith in You; teach me what I need to learn.” Then he, too, leaped out of the boat. With a large splash he immediately sank up to his waist. The Unitarian turned to the physicist and said, “You didn’t tell him where the rocks were, did you?” Today we will be on the lookout for the rocks of scientific truth underlying Unitarian Universalism.

Scientific knowledge is dependable because it can be used to make accurate predictions. Science has a limited goal: to understand how the world works. In fact, the word “science” is from the Latin “scientia” meaning “knowledge.” ◊ Traditional religion’s way of knowing is through divine revelation. Its goal is the salvation of souls and it values faith higher than any other virtue, including good works. ◊ How do UUs know what they know? Kit wrote a great sermon on this topic two years ago; it’s on the website. Of the various ways, I think the most powerful are our trust both in conscience and in rational thinking. Our goal is a just community of fully actualized human beings. We value results: good works matter more than faith in anything.

Let’s shift our perspective and look at the reality each tradition concerns itself with and how it evaluates that reality. ◊ Science is interested in knowledge about a physical reality that is discoverable through objective experience by test and observation. ◊ At the other end of the spectrum, traditional religion sees the world in dualistic terms, part spiritual and part material. Material reality is considered inferior to spiritual reality. Spiritual reality, the realm of the soul, is investigated through subjective experience. ◊ UUs, by contrast, allow for a range of beliefs and so a range of realities, but the humanists among us see a unity of the material and spiritual: the body houses the mind which contains our sense of self. We don’t all believe the soul to be separate from the body, although many of us do. Science has little to say about the soul because it can’t be detected or measured. However, if science were able to explain all observable phenomena without invoking the hypothetical existence of a soul, then the concept of a soul would be superfluous. Superfluous isn’t the same thing as false, but Ockham’s razor advises that the simplest theories are the most likely to be correct.

A similar triage exists for views of the supernatural, such as the omniscient, omnipotent God and Life after death. ◊ Science can’t study what there isn’t evidence for, but it has been explaining a lot that used to be considered miraculous; it has forced our concepts of God to grow up. ◊ Traditional religion, however, still embraces and defends the supernatural as an essential part of its worldview. ◊ UUs are in the middle; we honor our doubts but allow for a variety of mystical beliefs. We credit objective experience, but we want emotionally satisfying philosophies so we look for meaning in subjective experience as well. Many of us are on a spiritual path that at one time included beliefs from the traditional denominations we were brought up in – Lutheran, in my case. We have noted that the lack of definitive evidence against there being a God is pretty well balanced by the lack of any evidence for. Over time, many of us have reached the point on our paths where we conceive of the supernatural elements of religion as metaphors; useful, perhaps, but not objective reality.

Before going on I’d like to address a question that may be in your minds: “Is Science a religion?” My answer is, emphatically, NO. As our opening reading pointed out, science is concerned with knowledge; religion is concerned with meaning. Those few scientists who mix into their work meanings, which invariably come from sources other than science, do science no favors, because the results are inevitably unverifiable. Many people use the findings of science as metaphors, or quote statements by great scientists on matters of morality, to justify their own religious beliefs. In fact, I do that myself. But be clear in your minds and to your audience when you do: science is not proving your contention; it is merely providing a metaphor. If you aren’t clear about this, it’s called pseudoscience, and it is a dangerous abomination because it dulls critical thinking skills.

A related question, that many people have, concerns so-called scientific evidence of the Creator. Many of us, like Professor Greene, respond to the awe and wonder of the universe revealed through science: for example, the beauty, order, scale, and intricacy revealed by Hubble Space Telescope photos. We have an emotional response to these, and humility in the face of the revealed certainty that the world is far more complex and interesting than anything we have imagined. Some have cited this complexity as evidence for a Creator; the master watchmaker, if you will. This is called the Intelligent Design hypothesis. There are two assumptions basic to the argument: First, in our experience, complexity, such as a watch, requires a more complex creator, such as a human. Second, if you believe the biblical chronology, there wasn’t time for any other way than magic. Science has shown both assumptions to be false. Darwin’s genius was in realizing that a simple rule set – the survival of the fittest – could account for the evolution of complexity from simplicity over vast timescales. And radiocarbon dating and astronomical observations have confirmed beyond any reasonable doubt that the bible’s creation myth timetables should not be taken literally. So don’t let anybody waste your children’s classroom time on intelligent design. You’re welcome to believe in a creator if you wish, but it is a religious belief; science offers no evidence for it.

Science, and physics in particular, is famous for its high standards for rules of evidence and standards of truth. Its ideal is repeatability. A consequence is that science “knows what it doesn’t know”, at least to a specific probability. Science welcomes challenge as necessary to develop confidence in its theories. It is inherently and unapologetically skeptical. That is its salvation, because there are many ways that science can go wrong, most of them clustered around human error. Like democracy, constant vigilance is required, and doesn’t always happen. Nevertheless, if you take the time to listen to the caveats and label the extrapolations as such, you’ll find generally accepted scientific knowledge to be true. ◊ Traditional religion, by comparison, is credulous and uncritical; in place of rules of evidence it tests for conformance with orthodoxy. Traditional religion suppresses alternatives as heretical. It has no systematic way of eliminating untruth. The Reformation and the splintering of denominations resulted from this weakness; people voted with their feet. ◊ UUs again take a position in the middle, informed by the strengths and weaknesses of both of the other traditions. We look to science for knowledge but look to the subjective experience of the spiritual for meaning. As you recited in the responsive reading, we tend to trust doubt as an indicator that there’s more truth to be sought.

None of the three cultural traditions is static. What are the current trends? ◊ Science is increasing its penetration of biological, social, and psychological realms. ◊ Traditional religion is retreating to realms unaddressed by science, such as the will of their supernatural God for us to live moral lives, his concern for the salvation of our souls, and the promise of a rewarding afterlife. The need for authoritative moral voices, the conservative need for anchor points in a rapidly changing world, and the ancient but still-strong fear of death provide continued longevity for a variety of traditional religious viewpoints. ◊ Unitarian Universalism has been evolving from its traditional Christian roots by building on its strengths: a strong foundation of scientific truth, a trust in the power of human conscience, a group commitment to social justice and a caring society, and a realistic recognition that we must each make our own journey of discovery. The free and responsible search for truth and meaning, a key UU principle, has been an effective antidote for atrophy and irrelevance. We are true children of the Enlightenment, which Emmanuel Kant described simply as the freedom to use one’s own intelligence.

To conclude: Science provides us with a rigorous standard of truth. It would be foolish to ignore it. Among all possible UU sources of knowing truth, you should give science priority, if science has something to say. But science by itself is not a religion and it is does not provide us the moral compass needed to be fully human, for example, to be compassionate. You can pick and choose from the other sources of wisdom what your conscience finds right, or your culture has conditioned you to believe, or you find useful in coping with the world. But know where the rocks are.

My Reflection

Thank you, Dave, for your thoughtful presentation. I appreciate the way you’ve contrasted these three approaches to the real world---science, traditional religion, and UUism. I almost felt as though I were back in the classrooms of my youth, excited by what I was learning about how the world works. Let me take it from here.

My experience has been more with the soft sciences of psychology and sociology. The physical sciences didn’t appeal to me at that time in such a way as to turn me into a physical scientist, but it did teach me the value and the thrill of curiosity, as well as a logical method for exploring what I saw around me.

It gave me an appreciation for the natural world and I extrapolated my learnings far beyond earthworm dissection and chemistry. I began to examine what I heard against the standard of “is it natural?”

This helped me sort out some of what society was telling me I needed ---cute clothes, perfumes, lotions, makeup, fancy food. It didn’t necessarily mean that I lived so simply---I was a teenage girl, after all, and I still am not quite so simple in my living. But if an early human being didn’t naturally need something, probably I didn’t either.

That was my version of scientific reasoning, at the time. And though now I am somewhat more sophisticated in the ways I view the world, I still make many value judgments based on my “is it natural” standard.

Of course, some of my thinking had to be tempered by my inner moral plumbline, that core value system by which I measured good and bad. Though my moral plumbline had been largely shaped by Christianity, there were ways that Christian ethics didn’t quite compute. How could a supernatural event be a reliable indicator for a reasonable human response?

I liked Jesus’ approach to ethics----love your God, your neighbor, and yourself. In other words, love the created world, be kind to others, and remember that you are part of the creation and therefore a good being, not a mistake.

Measuring myself by these two standards---the logic of Science and the moral code I found within myself---I came to understand that as a human being, I was innately worthy and able to sort out for myself the conflicting values of human culture.

If it was natural, surely it was part of creation and good. For example, homosexuality, I reasoned, because it is natural and is increasingly demonstrated to be natural by Science, is part of creation and therefore good. There must be something useful to the universe about a different sexual orientation if it naturally occurred on the earth.

And my moral code, that understanding within me of what is right and what is wrong, decreed that hurting beings was not good. So I developed a conscience that did not allow me to hurt others deliberately and urged me to make amends when I hurt another accidentally.

So my current day Unitarian Universalism has been shaped by my understandings of and my respect for Science, not only for what it has discovered about the natural universe but for its honesty and its resistance to the unverifiable, for its need to know, not just believe, for its reliance on proofs, and also for its admitted inability to explain everything---at least yet.

For much of my life, particularly after I had gained some education and some wider horizons than my home life as a young Christian offered, I have been wary of others telling me what to think and what to believe.

The automatic questions that would come to mind were “who told you that was true? And how do they know that it’s true?” I wanted authoritative, credible sources for what I believed. And the most credible, most reliable sources I found were those of my teachers who did research, who did experiments, who were curious enough to pursue understanding through reading about the discoveries of science.

In seminary, I learned a lot about Biblical exegesis, the process of scholarly criticism and interpretation of scripture. Exegesis of a scripture includes the analysis of significant words in the text, translating them accurately, examining the historical and cultural context of the passage, if possible knowing something about the writer of the text and his or her place in history as well as any hidden agenda in writing the passage.

Studying the Bible in this more scholarly and scientific way, attempting to gain understanding based on what had been discovered by archaeologists, linguists, carbon dating specialists and the like, was deeply satisfying and led me to understand the Bible in entirely different ways than I had been taught in the past.

Scholarly interpretation of problematic texts, such as those dealing with homosexuality, for example, reveals that these ancient writings had nothing to do with gay relationships as we know them today.

Examination of the creation and miracle stories in the Bible through a scholarly and scientific lens reveals that these stories, accepted as fact by many traditional faiths, are adaptations of far more ancient stories describing the emergence of humans on the earth, the great floods of ancient times, and even the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

As you might expect, my more traditional classmates were very uncomfortable with this new knowledge. Some of them questioned whether or not they could ever share this information with their future congregations. Some were distressed enough that they left seminary and chose other careers. Some argued with professors and fellow students, accusing them of heresy.

In Unitarian Universalism there has been little if any distress about the contributions of science and the scientific method to religious faith, except the recognition that Science has also made possible such dubious inventions as weapons of mass destruction and environmentally damaging pesticides. At the same time, we recognize that it is not the fault of Science that damage has been done; it is the responsibility of humans to use Science to further life and not destroy it. Science can be both our Savior and our Satan, and must be used wisely.

So what is the mission of a religious faith for which Science is a foundational Source? What does it mean that we want our beliefs and understandings backed up, as much as possible, by empirical evidence? What does it mean to this congregation and to each of us as individuals?

How can we use the importance of Science to reach out in a meaningful way to the larger community? What has our reverence for Science done to prepare us to meet modern day challenges to morality and to culture?

A few years ago, as a group this congregation developed a mission statement to be used in the several applications for grants we made to the UUA and District. As mission statements go, it’s pretty general, but here it is: The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Whidbey Island: “Sharing a spiritual journey of service toward a loving and interconnected world.”

How might Science figure into such a mission? Using our science-based knowledge of the earth and its systems, how can we share our understanding that Science and Spirituality are not mutually exclusive? Can we serve the larger community in ways that are based on logic and scholarship? Can we bring about a more loving and interconnected world through our use of technology and new discoveries in the fields of health, environment, and human relationships?

I can think of a few obvious ways and perhaps you have more. But if there were a move in our local school district to begin teaching creationism, I hope we would be there at the school board meeting to support science.

If there were an effort to start a Gay-friendly club at South Whidbey High School, I hope we would be there to help. And I hope we would be there always for equal civil rights for all and as supporters of our BGLT neighbors and friends, based not only on our interest in justice but also on the science that reveals sexual orientation to be innate.

When there are challenges to the purity of our water supply or the waters of Puget Sound, I hope we would be there, sharing what we know about the scientific research that reveals the dangers of damaging our Watershed, and expressing this in a religious context.

When the critics poohpooh the idea of climate change and global warming, I hope we are there to support the science behind the idea.

When others say that Science and Religion are incompatible, I hope we would challenge that assertion and speak of our own experience as UUs who respect and use the revelations of Science in our spiritual quest.

I know you can think of other ways to express our reliance on Science, in addition to the other Sources we’ve discussed over the past several months. And I hope you will offer your ideas as we envision our mission as a congregation with a home of our own.

Each of our Sources gives us a springboard from which we can offer Spirituality and Service to our larger community. Each of us here probably has our own favorite Source, the one most important in our own religious life. For some it is Science; for others, it’s the Creative Arts or Christianity or Buddhism.

For us as a community, our Sources serve as several wide-open doorways, welcoming to all who want a spiritual community that is based on reason and acceptance of others. We are building it; they will come; how will we serve them best?

Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that we are a community of many sources and many paths. May we respect and revere the wisdom of each Source, flourishing them like a bright rainbow whose colors represent multiple angles and beams of light. And may we always remember that our deepest roots lie in the warm soil of human love and compassion. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.