Tuesday, September 30, 2008

When my father died...

in 1970, I had been living in Denver for about five years. I had been married for four of those years to a man my parents weren't crazy about, but his background was so similar to mine that I think they must have figured it would work out okay. And it did, mostly, and we have a great son in common.

But it was the era in which many of us in the Silent and Boomer generations were blaming our upbringing for the angst we were experiencing as young adults, both individually and as a cohort distressed by the social conditions around us, angry about the war in Vietnam, marching, protesting, distrustful of anyone over thirty, at least temporarily.

I could look at my parents and see the roots of my troubles, I thought. My dad was too conservative theologically for me and I was afraid to talk to him about it for fear of losing his respect and love, so our relationship was strained. Both of us were afraid of the conversation and so we never had it, cloaking our differences by focusing on the family relationship, which we wanted to protect. I have no idea how it might actually have turned out but I had always been the Golden Girl in the family, the one dedicated to Christian Service, and I was afraid of disappointing him.

He had been afflicted with a chronically weak heart and much of my young life was spent in an effort to keep him alive with prayer. Moving to Denver, away from the worries of his medical conditions, was a relief because I didn't see his day-to-day struggles any more. My mother's letters didn't reveal much and we rarely phoned in those days of expensive long distance.

My husband and I began to attend UU churches and my beliefs changed even more as I was exposed to theology that made better sense to me than the Bible College theology of my upbringing.

And then the call came, on April 16, 1970. "Daddy died last night", said my mother calmly into the phone. He had been in the hospital for a few days with something I didn't understand, except that it might have been related to the stroke he'd had in November of the previous year, a medical crisis that pulled us back to Washington for a Christmas visit. Or it might have been stomach cancer. Nobody really knew. But he was dead.

It came as a tremendous shock in one way and a relief in another. I hadn't known how sick he was and I was angry that I hadn't known. I wasn't sure whose fault that was, my mother's or my own, and I wasn't too sure I wanted to know. And I was relieved because now I wouldn't ever have to have "the conversation". Or so I thought.

But the truth is that I have had that conversation with my dad over and over again in the past 38 years, every time I think about ministry, every time I sit in my lectionary group and listen to my colleagues' interpretations of the Bible, every time I think about whether he is/was disappointed in me.

I know that when he died he probably was worried sick about me and my heresy. I don't know how I would have spared him that, because "the conversation" probably wouldn't have eased his fears. But at least we wouldn't have been pretending it was all okay. And I would have learned earlier the salvation inherent in honesty.

The conversation with my dad has morphed over the years, from defensive posturing and making up reasons why he should change HIS mind, to patronizing tolerance of his views, to recognizing the blessings of Bible College faith as it is deeply embedded in my DNA, to wanting to be a bridge between his faith and mine.

Because, as I wrote a few days ago when I was bemoaning the methods of a fellow chaplain, I realized that I understand that passionate point of view, because my darling dad had it. As a chaplain, he'd probably have been the same way, hoping to offer salvation out of his love for God and not seeing how this might not really be serving the patient.

I tell you all this today because losing one's father is one of the hardest losses in life. I don't know if I'd do it differently now but I would like to think I'd try. And it all comes back to me right now because somebody I love very much has just lost her father suddenly and shockingly. I hope for her and for her family that the lessons of loss will become important and meaningful as they celebrate his life and learn to live without him.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

High Holy Days and UUism

by Rev. Kit Ketcham, Sept. 28, 2008

I have had little real personal experience with Judaism over my lifetime, except through my relationships with Jewish friends, both secular and observant Jews. And it wasn't until I was a young adult, that I read James Michener's book "The Source" and was suddenly captured by this epic story of a people whose journey had been fraught with fear and persecution---and courage and survival.

I was so gripped by their journey that I read the book at least five times and even wished, on occasion, to have been born a Jew. Oh, to be part of such a tradition, I thought, so committed to service to God, so noble and true to their faith, even under the direst of threats.

Of course, to be honest, I didn't think I could possibly endure what they had endured, or observe the kinds of strictures they were willing to observe, or undergo the kinds of persecution they had experienced. I think what I desired for myself was that kind of dedication to a religious faith, a dedication that survived regardless of the terrible vulnerability it brought.

Judy Kaplan has told us a bit about her understandings of this time of the Jewish year, from Rosh Hashanah or Jewish New Year through the Days of Awe to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

And Judy Magidson has offered us her music, out of her Jewish heritage. I'm grateful to both of them and to Angela and Linda for their help with this service recognizing the lessons to be learned from one of UUism's major Sources: Jewish teachings.

I hope to be able to expand upon that theme, and tell you what I see that is significant to UUism in the observance of the High Holy Days of this time of year.

Rosh Hashanah, or the most important of the several new year occasions celebrated by the Jews, is a time for looking back over the past calendar year, examining it, planning changes for the new year, and, most importantly, recognizing the mistakes made and setting out to make amends and to be reconciled to those harmed by those mistakes, particularly seeking forgiveness from God for disobedience to God's laws.

Rituals are observed during Rosh Hashanah to cast off those sins or mistakes, to acknowledge the damage done, and to commit oneself to making the new year better.

It's interesting to me that many people I know do not feel the need to think about mistakes made and to make amends for those mistakes. It's not a theme you're going to hear about at the Rotary, for example, or the Elks or Kiwanis. It's almost entirely the bailiwick of religious communities, to call each other to self-examination, repentance, and reconciliation.

It's also a major spiritual theme in 12 step programs where admitting shortcomings and making amends is an essential step toward healing of oneself and one's relationships.

In our secular culture, we often spend time around the first of January looking back at our year, noting our successes and our failures, and making resolutions about the coming twelve months.

In September, we look back over the past school year, perhaps, and exhort our children or ourselves to do better or keep up the good work or stay out of trouble or whatever is appropriate.
In July, at least in this congregation, we begin a new fiscal year and adjust our spending to match our income, in a way acknowledging the accuracy or inaccuracy of the previous year and making corrections as necessary.

But we rarely consider sin very seriously. We don't like the word, we resent the guilty feelings it implies, and we consign it to the dungheap of religious words we don't want to use. I have seldom heard the word "sin" used in our UU congregations. We are really schitzy about certain religious words and "sin" is a biggie.

But it's a real concept, nevertheless, and one we acknowledge, because we all do things that are wrong, sometimes intentionally, sometimes accidentally, sometimes by omission. I think the word "sin" has such an accusatory and self-righteous flavor that we reject it for its tone, as much as for its meaning.

The word in Greek actually means "missing the mark", according to my studies, which is not a very accusatory or self-righteous definition. But to be accused or to accuse oneself of being a sinner does have that connotation, especially when it is accompanied by pious finger-pointing or self-righteous breast-beating.

Our rejection of the word doesn't change the fact that we make mistakes and we know we do. We are well aware of our shortcomings but it often doesn't occur to us that we would be happier if we reached out to those we've hurt and asked for reconciliation.

This isn't always possible, of course, and even in 12-step programs, the admonition is there to make amends except when to do so would injure people further.

Rosh Hashanah calls Jews to consider their shortcomings, their sins, their mistakes, and to reflect about what steps might be taken to achieve reconciliation with those who have been harmed.

All of us could doubtless spend fruitful time thinking about our relationships----with ourselves, with others, and with the universe, or God---and reflecting on what steps we might take to achieve reconciliation.

Now, it might seem backwards to consider our relationship with self, as though unselfishness demands that we always consider others' needs before our own. Yet the ancient commandment states "you must love your neighbor as yourself", implying that caring for self precedes caring for others, in the way that the airline attendant requests that we put on our own oxygen mask before trying to help others.

In what ways might we be out of step with ourselves? How might we have hurt ourselves? Do we love ourselves? Can we extend love to others if we cannot love ourselves? These questions require serious introspection and struggle with the ways we might not be caring adequately for ourselves.

The papers, TV, and the internet are full of the many ways we can harm ourselves---through poor eating habits, lack of exercise, the wrong medicines, with guns, with poor financial management, wrong political beliefs, you name it. No matter what we do, we can hurt ourselves!

I get pretty tired of all the advice and I think it actually misses the point. No matter how good our food choices are, no matter how often we go for a walk, no matter what medicine we take, no matter whether we use guns or credit cards, or who we vote for, there is a deeper issue: do we care for ourselves? do we love ourselves? can we forgive ourselves for being ourselves?

Recently I had a chance to work with a spiritual director, a person trained to explore spiritual issues with another, and we talked about a relationship I was trying to understand better and feeling frustrated by. The spiritual director, Rabbi Zari Weiss, steered the conversation toward the source of my frustration----not the relationship itself but my own inner response to it. She asked me "do you have compassion for yourself, who you are and how your life has shaped you?"

I admit I was dumbstruck. I can have all kinds of compassion for others who have had a rough road to travel but I find it difficult to have compassion for myself, for the events in my life which have shaped me. And consequently I tend to fret a lot over things I feel challenged by.

I can spend long blocks of time rehearsing imaginary conversations with people about matters which somehow sting me. At the time, I see it as somebody else's behavior that is problematic. But when I am honest with myself, I see it as my own behavior which springs from a hurt place within me.

This doesn't mean we should just chill out, go easy on ourselves, quit fretting. It doesn't mean self-pity. It doesn't mean letting ourselves off the hook. It means self-understanding and acknowledging who we are and how we came to be ourselves today. And it means loving ourselves enough to make loving choices for ourselves, however that might play out in real life.

Because when we can love ourselves, forgive ourselves, we have the insight to see how we may have hurt others.

Our relationships with others are as important as our relationships with ourselves. Our relationships with those around us affect our daily lives and are largely responsible for how happy we are. If we are in conflict with others, our happiness and our spiritual lives are endangered. It is worth looking at our conflicted relationships and finding a pathway, if possible, to reconciliation.

As I mentioned earlier, not all relationships which go awry can be redeemed, of course. Sometimes the hurt is too deep. Sometimes the potential for future hurt is too great. And always, for complete reconciliation, there must be an acknowledgement of responsibility for the hurt, in order for reconciliation to proceed. And this isn't always possible, for many reasons.

Sometimes the person with whom we are in conflict is dead. Sometimes the mental state of the person makes it hard to communicate. Sometimes we have to let go of the relationship without reconciling it because of things we can't control. But we can strive for understanding of the other even without their cooperation.

What we can't do, morally and ethically, is ignore the situation. We need to take stock of it and make the best decision we can about whether it is possible to pursue reconciliation. We must do this with honesty and with a willingness to take responsibility for however we may have caused harm.

I don't know about you but I am offended by the hollow apologies offered on occasion by public figures who have caused harm and want to be let off the hook. Sincere contrition is essential, not trite apologies that do not promise a change of heart or direction.

The ten days which follow Rosh Hashanah, beginning tomorrow night, in the Jewish tradition are known as the Days of Awe and are to be spent in contemplation of the past year, planning for reconciliation with other humans, and serious introspection leading to repentance and reconciliation with God.

How can we take inspiration from the Jewish practice of finding reconciliation with God? Most of us, though not all, have a fairly non-traditional interpretation of God; some of us are atheist and do not consider the idea of God to be useful.

But most of us can see that there is power beyond human power, there are forces at work in the universe which we cannot control and must learn to live with, to adjust to, to work with if we are to survive and thrive. Early peoples called it God or the Gods and most still do. Many of us here call it Nature or Natural Law.

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, this year on October 9, is the most important day of the Jewish year. It is a day of atonement for sins against God. Prayer for forgiveness is the order of the day, with fasting and other restrictions designed to make oneself uncomfortable and mindful of the essential relationship between humankind and the power called God.

What parallel might there be for us? How might we be out of sync with the Power Beyond Human Power, whatever we might call it? What can we do to restore the balance between ourselves and this Power? How does this imbalance manifest itself?

When we are affected by the wild weather patterns of climate change, when we have slurped up so many of the natural resources of this planet that prices skyrocket and living conditions decline, when nations are at war over those resources and the conflict is aggravated by religious differences----we are out of right relationship with the power beyond human power. We are in conflict with the spirit of life. We are using anger, rather than love, to get what we need.

Many of the teachings of Judaism express universal truths and those truths are most evident at this time of year, when reflection, repentance, and reconciliation, three of the building blocks of healthy human life, are emphasized and observed. Unitarian Universalism is indebted to the sages and prophets of Jewish history and understandings for this wisdom which offers so much to our own religious experience.

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

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that our health and happiness as individuals and as a community is deeply affected by the kinds of relationships we have, to ourselves, to each other, and to the world beyond these doors. May we spend time in reflection; may we find repentance within ourselves for our errors, and may we seek reconciliation where we find it lacking. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Great Quiz to distract you from the "debate"

Thanks to Miss Cellania!
How to Win a Fight With a Conservative is the ultimate survival guide for political arguments

My Liberal Identity:

You are an Eco-Avenger, also known as an environmentalist or tree hugger. You believe in saving the planet from the clutches of air-fouling, oil-drilling, earth-raping conservative fossil fools.

What is a chaplain's responsibility?

At Whidbey General, a volunteer corps of local ministers, ordained and not ordained, cover the spiritual waterfront, spending one day or more per month visiting the patients in the hospital. The volunteer coordinator supervises this corps of well-meaning pastors, which is primarily made up of male pastors of nondenominational congregations. There are three women who volunteer as well: me, S, and M. S and I are UUs; M is Catholic but is locally affiliated with a Baptist church.

It's interesting that only the three women have any Clinical Pastoral Education hours among our transcripts. I would guess, from my observations at our quarterly meetings, that none of the men have any CPE training. They rely on their evangelical training to help them offer comfort and care to patients. Unfortunately, some of them clearly think, as revealed in our most recent group discussion, that they are entitled to try to lead patients and their families to Jesus, as part of their care and comfort routine.

The volunteer coordinator has become aware of this, over the time she has supervised the group, and yesterday's meeting (after our scheduled speaker on "Best Practices" cancelled on us) was a battle, though politely waged on both sides.

Now, if I learned anything in CPE those many years ago, it is that bedside spiritual care is all about the patient, not the chaplain, that any agenda is strictly confined to the needs of the patient as s/he defines them. This is not a lesson that these guys have learned. The opinions I heard yesterday curled my hair.

The most unethical I heard was probably "I go into that room to deliver the love of Jesus and by gum I'm going to do it. If that person objects, s/he is probably "under conviction" by the Holy Spirit and just ready to give him/herself to Jesus. And no, I won't put away the cross after I finish using the Quiet Room even though it might offend a Jewish person who enters the room after me. Those people need to recognize their need for Jesus."

Obviously I'm clumping statements and putting my own spin on them. But when I objected to the last statement by reminding the speaker that Jews have a very good reason to be offended by the cross, he countered by telling me that there were Messianic Jews who have seen the light and that no Jew should be offended. Excuse me? I was thunderstruck and couldn't conjure up a good response.

Fortunately, one of the hospital nurses, a young man who works in the ER, was there because of his interest in spiritual care, and his contributions were invaluable, as he took the issue out of the theological realm and put it in the power realm by saying "when a patient is in the hospital, s/he is in the least powerful position s/he may have ever been and you, as a chaplain or a nurse or doctor, have incredible power over what happens to him/her. There is a power differential here that must not be exploited. When you proselytize in the hospital room, you are wielding unfair power."

Nothing daunted, the pastor in question (who is doubtless a good and loving man but passionate about his relationship to Jesus) reiterated that he was going to pray for people anyway, even if they asked him not to. He would go outside the room and pray for this lost soul. And he wasn't going to put the cross and Bible away when he was leaving the Quiet Room; another volunteer would have to do that because for him it would be a slap in Jesus' face. And if the hospital didn't like it, he wouldn't serve as a chaplain anymore.

The blood pressure was pretty high in the room, as you can imagine. Afterwards, the VC, the nurse, and S & I talked about what we'd been part of and brainstormed some next steps. She's going to see about getting a CPE supervisor to come talk about the philosophy of chaplaincy at our next meeting.

What gets me is that most pastors trained evangelically have Christian Privilege so deeply engrained in their psyches that they can't see that any other religion has any credibility at all. They don't see that this kind of behavior is arrogant and disrespectful and actually causes more anxiety than it dispels.

Well, that's off my chest. Guess I'd better go back to the sermon now.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Preaching on UUism and the High Holy Days

This week I've been working on a sermon about what UUs can learn from the High Holy Days observed by our Jewish friends and neighbors during the autumn of the year. Judaism is one of our Sources and we take important lessons from that tradition.

We have a small Jewish community on the island and are lucky to have a few Jewish folks as part of our congregation. I've asked a couple of them to take part in this service because, beyond having read Michener's "The Source" at least five times and having many Jewish friends, I have little first-hand knowledge of Judaism. My admiration for the Jewish people has been strong, to the point where, during one reading of Michener, I wished I had been born a Jew, out of my admiration for their courage and fortitude.

The question that arises for me from my work on this sermon is "what is sin and how do we address it in ourselves, as UUs?" Since I have seldom heard the word "sin" used in our congregations, it has a certain thrill of being an almost-taboo question! We are really schitzy about certain religious words and "sin" is a biggie.

But it's a real question nevertheless because we all do things that are wrong, sometimes intentionally, sometimes accidentally, sometimes by omission. I think the word "sin" has such an accusatory and self-righteous flavor that we reject it for its tone, rather than its meaning.

The word in Hebrew actually means "missing the mark", according to my studies, which is not a very accusatory/self-righteous definition. But to be accused or to accuse oneself of being a sinner does have that connotation, especially when it is accompanied by pious finger-pointing or breast-beating.

The High Holy Days are a time of looking back over the past year, considering the wrongs one has done, deciding how to make amends for those wrongs, making amends to the humans wronged and asking for God's forgiveness for the wrongs done against God.

According to Jewish theology, God does not forgive the wrongs we do to each other; we have to ask each other for that forgiveness. And that makes perfect sense to me. If I hurt someone, God cannot grant me absolution---only the person I've hurt can do that. And if that person is unwilling to forgive me, I have to let that be okay and move on. God/the Universe/Nature's forgiveness is not guaranteed, either, without some evidence that there is true remorse in me, proven by some act of recompense.

My concept of God has more to do with the Cosmos than with a supernatural being, so my sense of having wronged God mostly revolves around my relationship with the earth; if I damage the earth, pollute the skies, hurt a creature needlessly, I am missing the mark with God and I need to behave differently. I also need to do something to atone for my errors, like stopping a hurtful behavior, repairing damage, healing a creature if possible.

During the Days of Awe, between Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), Jews are expected to consider the past year, seek reconciliation with those they've offended, plan for a better New Year, and seek reconciliation with God for the wrongs against God's law. It is a serious business, conducted every year with thousands of years of observance signifying its importance.

It seems to me that it is a worthwhile tradition for all human beings to undertake----acknowledging the things we've done wrong, seeking reconciliation with those persons we've hurt, adjusting our behavior to avoid hurting others or the world, and actively working to avoid future harm to others or the world.

We often dismiss the practices of other religions because they're "Other", not us, without considering the very real benefits of those rituals. Would not our planet be in better shape if more human societies practiced the rituals of reflection, reconciliation, and redemption?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Praying for Peace; Loving the Warrior

On Oct. 19, Whidbey congregations will hold a Peace Vigil. My congregation has participated in this for the last few years. Last year I read a piece by the Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, president of Starr King School for the Ministry. This year I have written the following as my closing words and benediction.

Rev. Kit Ketcham, UUCWI, Oct. 19, 2008

We who are passionate for peace, spending a good deal of our energy praying for peace, marching for peace, advocating peaceful solutions to conflict, often are accused of not supporting our military, those whose task it is to defend our country against enemies.

"Of course we do," we cry indignantly. "We care so much that we want them to come home, out of harm's way. We do not want them engaged in a preemptive strike against another country, without provocation, where their lives are sacrificed and the lives of countless civilians are ruined, in what may be simply a quest for power."

This is the dark side of our peaceful mission, that our prayers for peace are not enough, that our marches and our vigils do not address the very real paradox of our needing the services of our national armed forces to protect us and rescue us in time of natural disaster or attack and on the other hand, our distaste for what their commanders require them to do.

Many of our young people volunteer for military duty out of a desire to serve our country and find themselves in situations where their personal values and ethics are challenged. Then they are torn between loyalty to their vows and leaders and loyalty to their own integrity.

This is often an impossible choice. Loyalty to their vows of service pushes them in the direction of following orders. Loyalty to their families for the financial support which derives from their work in the armed forces makes it difficult to opt out, even when their integrity is at stake.

Those who do drop out are often subject to public humiliation and accusations of disloyalty and criminality. Testimony from many a warrior reveals deep misgivings about the task of war. And the psychic chaos that results when integrity and survival are in conflict is damaging beyond our civilian understanding.

What does "supporting our troops" mean when we recognize the often-tragic and disconnected lives of the men and women who are sworn to protect our nation? Whether or not we feel that their task is honorable, we only compound their distress when we do not offer them real, visible, tangible support and love when they return home.

Our young women and men are returning from war with terrible psychic and physical wounds. Whether or not we feel they should have volunteered, we must reach out to them. To offer humanitarian aid to the wounded of war is a longstanding religious task.

The recent occasion of a young veteran's violence at a summertime festival here on our island points up the lack of services available to vets on this end of the island. Those suffering from PTSD or physical injury have few resources that are easily accessed. They have to go to Seattle for specialized treatment and many find this impossible, either psychologically or physically or financially.

Families are strained and weakened by the stresses of disability and struggle to meet the needs of their desperate family members.

We in the religious community here on Whidbey have more to do than simply pray or march or sit vigil for peace. We have an opportunity to serve our country by reaching out in love and service to those who have done what their country asked of them, right or wrong, and to change the perception in many minds that peace-loving people are military-hating people.

So I challenge us here tonight to think about what our congregations might do to ease the burden of returning vets, rather than distancing ourselves from them, rather than simply holding our rallies on one side of the highway while others hold theirs on the other side.

Let's go talk to the other side, let's understand what our commonalities are, rather than our differences. We are all for peace, in our own ways. Our military men and women are not our enemy; they are doing what their country has asked them to do, even at the expense of their own lives. We don't have to love war to love our warriors; we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, and some of our neighbors have given their lives, rightly or wrongly, in service to their love of country.

Can we find understanding and compassion for the victims of war? not only the civilians who are displaced, injured, and killed in wartime but also those who are asked to do the killing, believing that they are serving a larger purpose?

To be men and women of faith means to risk our own comfort for the sake of others. If this issue makes us uncomfortable, let us take our discomfort in hand and see what we can do to make the lives of our veterans healthier, happier, and healed from the wounds of war. In this way, we can offer real love and support to those whose loyalty to country has put them in harm's way and we can find the peace of mind that comes from serving others.

Will you join me in an attitude of prayer for our benediction?

Our vigil for peace is coming to an end, but our work for peace begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that we have more to do than simply voice our opinions. We have work to do, healing attitudes, healing bodies, healing souls. May we take our work for peace to a new level, serving those whose lives have been radically changed by the push to war, not judgmentally but in love, praying for peace and giving love to our warriors. May we have strength to live in this paradox. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Beloved Community

Here's the sermon I offered at the Woodinville UU Church today. It was fun to meet one of my new readers, Kelly, who came to the service. Welcome, Kelly, to UU possibilities.

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Sept. 21, 2008

In 1968, I was offered what I then considered a dubious opportunity-----to be one of the six women in the first Colorado Outward Bound course designed for teachers. I say dubious because I’d never been much of an outdoorswoman, my camping skills were practically nil, and the prospect of spending several weeks in the wilderness, living on cheese and raisins, didn’t thrill me.

My husband and I had been married only 18 months when he was asked to head up a wilderness camping experience for juvenile offenders in Denver. To prepare, he was to take part in this new Outward Bound course, a wilderness experience which included long backpack hikes, rock climbing, white water rafting, and a 3 day solo without food or shelter. All his expenses would be paid by Denver Juvenile Court, and he accepted with alacrity, with one stipulation, that I also be subsidized to attend Outward Bound with him.

Outwardly, I pretended to be thrilled. Inwardly, I quailed. And when confirmation came for him but not for me, I was inwardly delighted. “Oh,” I said, “they must not have had enough money to cover my scholarship. Too bad, I’m so sorry.” Not a hint of sarcasm escaped my lips, but my heart was greatly relieved.

The first day of the course came, and Larry headed off to his orientation. At noon he called. “You’re supposed to be here,” he said. “Your stuff got lost in the mail.”

My husband had been running two and three miles a day to get in shape. I had been eating bonbons and swilling Cokes. Exercise was not my strong suit in those days.

So with visions of blisters and twenty mile hikes and C-rations in my head, I packed up my jeans and t-shirts, my nearly-virgin hiking boots, and my resolve, and headed off to Outward Bound.

We were divided up into patrols of 5 or 6 persons. The women were all in one patrol; in those days, they separated males and females and there were only six of us. At least my husband would not witness my shame, I rationalized as I trudged off.

Our first exercise was to hike from a point near Vail, Colorado, over a 10,000 foot pass in the Gore Range of the Rockies, about a 25 mile loop in three days, a piece of cake, according to our instructors. The six of us women were in varying conditions of fitness, and I found I wasn’t the worst off. Another woman, Sara, a teacher in Denver Public Schools, was also very out of shape and her hiking boots were brand new.

The blisters she acquired the first day caused her to change into her Keds, her slicksoled little tennis shoes, not the best footwear for hiking the Rockies, and about noon on the second day, it happened. Sara, struggling up a steep, muddy incline, lost her footing and fell heavily on her right ankle. We all heard the awful “pop” it made as it gave way.

Sara sat and cried while we gathered around to decide what to do. She had either broken her ankle or had torn ligaments; it was hugely swollen and it was clear she wasn’t walking anywhere.

We were about 12 miles from any kind of help and it was already afternoon. We treated Sara for shock, and, armed with flashlights and without their packs, two women headed for help. We knew that another patrol was on a trail about two drainages away. Our hope was that we could intercept them and get their help in evacuating Sara.

Sara had been injured about halfway up the pass, so once she was splinted and given some aspirin for the pain, we began to work our way up the trail. At first, we tried to support her in a standing position, but to hop uphill on one leg is no easy thing to do, and eventually, we took turns helping Sara scoot up the steep pass trail backwards, on her bottom, while we held her injured ankle up off the ground by her pants leg.

It took us hours of struggle, but by nightfall, we had crossed the saddle of the pass and could make camp. Sara was in serious pain, and we were exhausted. We cooked our freeze-dried supper (food had never tasted so good), and collapsed into our sleeping bags. A late night thunderstorm lashed the peaks around us and whipped our light tent tarps into a frenzy, keeping us restless and anxious most of the night.

Just before dawn, we were awakened by the sounds of the other patrol rolling into our camp. They had hiked all night to get to us and were hungry and tired. But Sara was our first concern, and we made her a makeshift litter out of a sleeping bag and lodgepole pines and began our trek down the mountain immediately.

We got Sara to a clinic in Vail that day and knew she would be okay. But we had experienced something that I had never known before---what it could do for a group of individuals to meet a challenge together.

This, of course, is the philosophy of the Outward Bound adventure. Not to get someone injured so that others can rescue them, but to offer a challenge beyond day-to-day challenges, a challenge that requires people to push themselves beyond what they think they’re capable of, to find compassion for others, and to serve others unselfishly.

This was my first experience with real community, with belonging to a group that accomplished something meaningful for ourselves and others. We became close in a way that I’d never experienced before. I felt known by them, valued by them, and in return, I knew and valued my comrades. My faith in them became so strong that I was willing to back off a 150 foot cliff tied to a rope, with just a skinny little woman named Lolita, one of the women in my patrol, belaying me to keep me from falling as I did my first rappel down the cliff face.

Community is an incredible thing, an experience that calls from us our best, supports us at our weakest times, and offers to others a sense of hope and encouragement.

In the Community UU Church of Santa Monica, California, hangs a statement written by our Universalist forebear Angus MacLean.

"My idea of a church...., is based on what seems to be the natural way which people acquire goodness and wisdom and give these to each other....Probably no one can be spiritually always robust, and everyone is at times one of the little helpless ones whose life and happiness are in the hands of his (or her) neighbors. One who has not been completely dependent upon another's good will has still something to learn.”

He goes on: “The most gifted and secure will find himself at times the victim of misfortune, and he may find the one he regarded as least worthy the first to be at his door wanting to know what he can do.

“Today I am well, and the sick are glad to have me visit them; tomorrow I may look upon the world through the eyes of the suffering...., today I am young and tomorrow I am old and struggling to adjust to the fact. Today I am virtuous and tomorrow I may have done that which appalls me, and I need understanding and forgiveness.

“Every day and every hour we are sustained by others’ reactions or destroyed thereby...., a church community should be most alert to these facts. It should be the Beloved Community."

Martin Luther King Jr. also invoked the image of the Beloved Community, as he spoke of the outcome of nonviolent resistance. As early as 1956, Dr. King spoke of The Beloved Community as the end goal of nonviolent boycotts. As he said in a speech at a victory rally following the announcement of a favorable U.S. Supreme Court Decision desegregating the seats on Montgomery’s busses, “the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men (and women).”

An ardent student of the teachings of Mohandas K. Gandhi, Dr. King was much impressed with the Mahatma’s befriending of his adversaries, most of whom professed profound admiration for Gandhi’s courage and intellect. Dr. King believed that the age-old tradition of hating one’s opponents was not only immoral, but bad strategy which perpetuated the cycle of revenge and retaliation. Only nonviolence, he believed, had the power to break the cycle of retributive violence and create lasting peace through reconciliation.

In a 1957 speech, Birth of A New Nation, Dr. King said, “The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community. The aftermath of nonviolence is redemption. The aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation. The aftermath of violence is emptiness and bitterness.”

The idea of Beloved Community is a concept that fits Unitarian Universalism well. Our ideals of inherent worth and dignity, unity in diversity, world community, and the interdependent web of all existence are perfectly aligned with the construction of intentional community, with the creation of the Beloved Community.

The concept of the Beloved Community reminds us that rugged individualism is not our goal, as a congregation. Our independent wills help us to pursue our purpose, which is to weave a viable interdependent web. We individuals are embedded in communities of meaning. Our task as members of a congregation is to create a setting in which unity and love for one another is the rule.

What can be done to encourage the presence of the Beloved Community here at WUUC? I offer some thoughts about what the Beloved Community needs to flourish. And I am indebted to my colleague the Rev. Tom Owen-Towle for helping to shape my thoughts on this subject.

First, Beloved Community means facing hard times together. Authentic religion has little to do with sweetness and comfort. Rather, it is a love that holds to the difficult, attempts the dangerous, doesn’t give up in the face of adversity.

Second, Beloved Community blooms where it’s planted. There is plenty to do right here in this place. We cannot ignore the work to be done in our midst, between us, in favor of lofty goals in far-off places. We are rooted here; let’s make the most of it.

Third, Beloved Community requires constant vigilance. It requires watchfulness, to guard against behavior within the community that would undermine the shared covenant. We must wrestle, rather than fight, struggle fairly rather than draw blood, hold each other in sorrowful times and reach outward in justice-building and peace-making, rather than look narcissistically inward.

Fourth, Beloved Community honors the law of respectfulness. Respect means literally to look at something or someone again and again, to re-inspect. It is the only way we can forge a community of equality. Respect is a really big law which means that we have to treat everything with respect, the earth, the animals, the plants, the sky, each other. Everything.

Fifth, Beloved Community means that everyone is welcome, whether they are attractive or odd. Hospitality to strangers is greater than reverence for the name of God, says the Hebrew proverb, and the Christian scripture echoes it: “I was a stranger and you took me in.” This one is hard. We say we accept differences but in practice we gravitate toward homogeneity. Beloved Community stretches us and teaches us to welcome difference---and to ask all to respect and share our covenant.

Sixth, Beloved Community cares for its members, supports and celebrates the achievements of members, grieving alongside those who are bereft, lifting and embracing all within its sacred circle.

Seventh, Beloved Community means that conflicts are desirable and dealt with openly and honestly. The goal of conflict is healthy change, rather than injury or retaliation. Healthy conflict serves to sharpen issues and elicit new perspectives. The Beloved Community grows through differences of opinion that are sorted out peacefully.

Eighth, the Beloved Community offers justice balanced with joy. Authentic community-builders take their work seriously but not grimly, remembering that humor and silliness are a wonderful antidote to despair. Did you know that Martin Luther King, Jr., was a comic and a prankster, in addition to being a great moral activist? Those in his inner circle often remarked upon his zaniness and sense of humor.

Ninth, Beloved Community means constant rebirth; it is not tight and rigid but fluid and flexible, always forming and re-forming depending on the issues which confront it, not
dependent on any guru or vow, but tied to a variety of events, persons, and scriptures.

And finally, Beloved Community is ultimately eternal. Our Universalist ancestors tell us that we were created by a loving power, that we are transformed by love’s redeeming power, and that we will eventually find ourselves forever in its kindly, tender embrace. The Apostle Paul says, “Love never ends. Prophecies and languages will vanish, but love never fails.”

And this I believe is the chief hallmark of the Beloved Community, that our love for each other is unfailing. It prevails throughout the hard times, it governs our behavior toward each other, it holds us accountable for our behavior, and it stretches us into new understandings and abilities.

We welcome others into our Beloved Community and offer them love as well, asking them to join us in mutual respect for each other, in ongoing self-examination, in joy at one another’s successes and in sorrow at one another’s losses.

Let us bend ourselves to the task of creating Beloved Community here at Woodinville UU Church, in which we are safe, in which we are actively reaching out, and in which we love and are loved and are accountable to each other for our behavior. Let’s pause for a moment of silent reflection and prayer.

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 have the power to heal our world and to heal each other, as we come together in Beloved Community. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

We've named the band...

Rainshadow Drifters. It's a reflection of the fact that much of Whidbey Island lies in the rainshadow of the Olympic Range, meaning that we get somewhat less rain here than other places around Puget Sound. Not a lot less, mind you, but less. I think it's a nice name and allows for a lot of leeway in what we sing. I'm happy with it. Whew!

Dilemma of a Part-Time Minister

Whaddya do when they can only afford to pay you parttime but the work requires your full heart and most of your disposable time? It depends, is the answer.

Over the nine years I've been officially a minister, I've noticed that September is the busiest month on the church calendar. It's far busier for me than the holiday season of Thanksgiving through New Year's, which has its own special busyness.

This year, here at UUCWI, is even busier because of the opening of our new building and all the preparations that need to be made. We always have a salmon bake on Ingathering Sunday, which is the Sunday after Labor Day, but this year we also wanted to have our first service in the new sanctuary on that day, so there was a lot of extra hustle and bustle to make that happen.

I'm committed to preaching twice each month, but during September that needed to morph into three times, just to make sure that we offered homegrown worship and ministerial presence during the first few services of the year, as visitors began to increase in number. I'm not preaching at UUCWI tomorrow but we have a guest speaker who will be just great. (I'm preaching at the Woodinville church tomorrow and I'll post that sermon later.)

On top of preaching, which I estimate takes at least one hour of preparation for every minute of the spoken text, there are innumerable other things that must be addressed: homebound folks need to be contacted and perhaps visited; newsletter copy sent in; pastoral care given; angst soothed as much as possible; phone calls, emails, letters responded to; conflicts averted or dealt with; and on top of it all, the constant awareness of the needs of the congregation and its members.

Ministry is never far from my mind. I am always preparing for something, seen or unseen! I try to let go of the unseen events and just trust myself to respond appropriately when necessary, rather than worry, but there is always something to be prepared.

That means that I work far more hours than the 60 I'm paid for. And I don't really mind, because it feels like an investment in the future of the congregation. However, I am still mindful that I am giving away my services to some extent. It's a dilemma. I come to a place in my mind where I'm wondering whether it's more ethical to do what needs to be done or to say no and let important things slide because they can't pay me.

All the staff members in a small congregation face this ethical dilemma, I think. I know our DRE and our Administrator are in a similar bind. Their (our) skills are absolutely essential to the life of the community but the community can't pay us for all the hours we spend, just part of them. Each of these staff members has a ministry of her own----to the children, by the DRE, and to the infrastructure and leadership, by the Administrator.

This dilemma causes us all to feel pretty stressed at times. It's not easy to say no when so much needs to be done and nobody else can do it in the way we do; but it's exhausting to be doing so much when it feels like we're doing it for free. The jobs we've agreed to do can't be done in a few hours a week. And to pare down the job description means that the ministry of the congregation has been pared down too, just at a time when it needs to be beefed up.

I've told our board that I can't afford to work so many more hours than I'm being paid for and that next year I will ask for those hours to be compensated. I will recommend the same for our Administrator and DRE; they have it even harder than I do.

I just looked at my calendar for the coming week and realize that the only thing I have to do next weekend is preach! Contrast that to this weekend: today I have a wedding consultation, a North End Koffee Klatch, a One Year anniversary party of a couple I married last year, and a First Principle conversation at my house at 7. Tomorrow I go to Woodinville to preach and, on the way home, all the shopping for necessities that are too expensive on the island.

And then comes a relatively open week, with only Sunday's sermon on the Jewish High Holidays to prepare. Luckily, I have help with that service from a lovely member who is Jewish and wants to offer her reflections about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We'll have klezmer music from another Jewish pal and then I don't have to preach again until Oct. 19!

I'm not griping, really. I'm in love with my congregation and Whidbey Island. I have enough of a private life and enough income from other sources to be very comfortable. But I know that I have a responsibility to the next minister who serves these folks to be realistic about the amount of ministry a congregation needs to thrive and grow. It may be a few years before they search for my successor, but I need to keep that in mind as we grow together.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Public Persona/Personal Values

Most of us have something like this happen in our lives: our public persona (what we are known for at work, in the PTA, among friends, in the community, that sort of thing) is in conflict with our personal values. This can happen accidentally, with a careless remark or a decision that goes wrong, but very often we do it to ourselves.

Right now, I'm trying to figure out the right thing to do about that very scenario----my public persona is in conflict with my personal values. Some of it is related to the public role of ministry; some of it is related to the public role of the band I have started to sing with. It all has to do with my personal values around alcohol use, that it should be recognized as the potential hazard it can be, and that its use should be carefully considered. My fellow band members aren't alcoholics, we don't encourage drinking by our jokes or our behavior, but the name we started out under is "Wry Whiskey".

It's a cute name. I'm just not comfortable being a lead singer for a group called "Wry Whiskey", which has now morphed to being "Wry Whiskey and the Whiskey Chicks", with the addition of us two women. Having been married to a man for many years who put away a half-gallon of Jim Beam every few days, I'm not interested in promoting whiskey. I guess I'm also not comfortable being a "Whiskey Chick", even though it hints at my favorite group, the Dixie Chicks.

Since we have only performed under this name a couple of times, both of them sparsely attended events, it seems like it's timely to change the name to something else. So I have brought it up with the other members and most are fine with it, once I explained my reasons. There is a certain amount of protest from the guy who came up with the original name, but that's probably to be expected.

Here's what bothers me: I don't know how hard-nosed to be about this if it becomes an issue. I don't want to be a "diva" and insist on my own way. I don't want to force the issue by threatening to quit (because I don't want to quit). I don't want to be overreacting to an issue that is trivial. But it's really important to me that my public persona matches my personal values. I don't want it to be an act, ever. And I don't want to throw out the "I'm a minister and have to be careful about this stuff" line, because it's not my primary reason, though it is pretty important to me too. They just aren't very likely to resonate to it like I do.

None of my fellow band members are UUs---which I am glad about---and they all have pretty solid values themselves, as far as I can tell at this point. We are becoming good friends and I care for them. It matters a lot to me how they see me, as well.

So I don't know what the outcome will be. I think it will be okay but I am not at the point of being able to let go of it. Being challenged about it arouses my defensiveness and I'll have to examine that first. Singing has quickly become very important to me and I don't want to lose this group of friends over an issue. But I also have to come to terms with the issue.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Blown Away by my favorite Jack Unitarian Universalist

The FS has, from the age of 18 or so, been very skeptical about Unitarian Universalism. Not because he isn't UU to the core, having been born and raised at Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden, Colorado, but because he (as are many young adults) is wary of any ideology where people can be hypocritical. Oh, he had lots of complaints about the various ways he saw UUs go wrong, whether it was with useless (he felt) protest vigils or church programs that didn't go anywhere. You get the picture.

When I began to study for the ministry, he was supportive but a little cynical, though as he was no longer living at home it didn't affect his life much. I used to tease him about being a Preacher's Kid but the critical period for PKism is childhood, so it wasn't quite the same.

The FS and his sweetie married a little over a year ago and she brought two beautiful pre-teen children into the marriage. The FS feels very strongly about being a good father-figure for them, as their biological dad lives many states away and they only see him on school vacations. So he and the FDIL have been going to their local UU Fellowship in Reno with the kids.

I knew that he was interested in being a youth advisor and had gotten involved with that activity, but I was truly blown away when he told me last night on the phone that he had been invited to be on the Committee on Ministry and would be serving in that capacity for awhile. They have a new minister in Reno and I had urged him to get to know the new guy, that he could be an ally in working with the youth.

It's hard to believe, that this young man who sometimes calls himself a "Jack Unitarian Universalist" (if you live in Mormon country, you know that a Jack Mormon is someone who is Mormon at heart but doesn't observe Mormon strictures) is so involved in his local congregation. Of course, if you are a UU, you know that both COM and youth advisors tend to be change agents in a congregation, not status-quo keepers. That would suit the FS just fine.

I am really proud of him, for taking such a serious interest in being a good stepdad, for seeing the value in a church community for his family, and for being willing to help out with that community. Though there were times in his younger life when both his dad and I (and other assorted friends and relatives) were ready to tear our hair out, he has grown up to be one of the finest people I know. Much of the credit goes to the Religious Education program at JUC and its director, the Rev. Lark Matis-Ruffner, who saved his bacon time after time as he flailed his way through RE classes and finally grew up in the youth program.

Thank you, FS, thank you, Lark, thank you to the lovely people at JUC.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Acting on our First Principle

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Sept. 14, 2008

There's a popular misconception out there that Unitarian Universalists are so openminded and inclusive that they might as well not hold any common beliefs at all, that if you're a UU, you can believe anything you want.

Well, not exactly. We are openminded, pluralistic, accepting of others' spiritual paths. But we do have beliefs in common. They are principles of behavior toward each other and the universe, which we consider essential and very practical if the world is to be improved.

I remember a moment in my Worship and Liturgy class in a liberal Protestant seminary several years ago, when a fellow student, after reading our Principles for the first time, said, "Gee, these are nice, but are they religious?" His experience was with creeds such as the Nicaean or Apostles Creed, recited in many mainline denominations every Sunday.

My UU student colleagues and I tried to point out that how we treat each other and the universe are certainly religious principles; they're just not stated in Biblical language. I'm not sure he was convinced, but we were!

In our time together on Sundays during this church year we are examining the principles of Unitarian Universalism, looking at how we live our lives in accordance with those principles, and considering how we might use them in our outreach to the larger community. In other words, putting our money and our energy where our principles are.

In these first couple of months, we've been thinking about our First Principle: that we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

In philosophy, a first principle is a basic, foundational proposition or assumption that cannot be deduced from any other proposition or assumption. In a formal logical system, or in other words, a set of propositions that are consistent with one another, it is probable that some of the statements can be deduced from one another. In a famous example, "All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore Socrates is mortal" the last claim can be deduced from the former two.

A first principle is one that cannot be deduced from any other. In mathematics, the classic example is that of Euclid's geometry; its hundreds of propositions can be deduced from a set of definitions, postulates, and common notions: all three of which constitute "first principles."

Aristotle formulated a definition of first principle which expressed the essentialness of consistency in western thought. A first principle cannot be doubted, as all doubting is based on inconsistency.

Profoundly influenced by the mathematician Euclid, Descartes, the "father of modern philosophy", invented the foundationalist system of philosophy. He used the "method of doubt" to systematically doubt everything he could possibly doubt, until he was left with what he saw as purely indubitable truths.

Using these self-evident propositions as his "axioms", or "foundations", he went on to deduce his entire body of knowledge from them. His most famous proposition is "I think, therefore I am", or "Cogito ergo sum".

Thirteenth century theologian John Duns Scotus brought Christianity's First Principle to bear on philosophy, writing "A Treatise On God As First Principle" which is about the First Cause, or the Prime Mover, a force which is eternal, and exists, prior to the order of beings, and prior to creation.

In religion, a first principle is based on what is considered to be basic Reality. For most of the religious world, that basic Reality is God. For Buddhists, however, it is the Reality of the existing world. For Unitarian Universalists, that Reality is the essence of life, the Spirit of Life, the life that resides in all beings, animate and inanimate.

When we consider our First Principle, we see it as a starting point, as other religions consider God to be a starting point. To affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person means that we believe that each person was born with the qualities of worthiness, integrity, goodness, and beauty and that each person has an innate dignity which merits respect. For us, this is inarguable.

Some of us call it God or the Spirit of Life, some of us call it the Mystery, some don't give it any name at all because it can't be expressed for them in others' words, but we do see the expression of life in every person and, for some by extension, in all beings. For this reason, we believe our religious mission is to offer acceptance and love to all persons, honoring their inherent worth and dignity.

Our belief in our First Principle has often gotten us into trouble. We have sometimes been civilly disobedient in upholding our First Principle. We have opposed slavery, marched for civil rights for oppressed groups, resisted arrest when protesting wars and inhumane acts, supported agencies like the ACLU which insist on equal protections for all.

The problem with First Principles, sometimes, is that others don't agree with them! Sometimes laws have been written which override human worth and dignity. Yet we have made progress in this area by consistently opposing inhumane laws and practices in society.

How do we define worth? and dignity? And why is this recognition foundational to Unitarian Universalism?
To answer this question, I believe it's important to think about the several Sources of Unitarian Universalism, which are rich and varied and set us apart as a religion from most traditional belief systems.

We value direct personal spiritual experience; we draw on the words and deeds of our spiritual ancestors; we find wisdom in the world's religions; we have a strong Jewish and Christian heritage which calls us to respond to the force of love in our lives; we have a rational approach to religion which comes from our Humanist forebears; we are influenced by earth-based religious paths; we use science as a touchstone for determining reality and we use the creative arts as an expression of our sense of reality.

Because of these several sources, we do not have a creed we must all subscribe to. But we do find that our values, both personal and communal, are very similar. And because of our Sources, we have come to understand that human worth and dignity is so basic for us that it undergirds everything we hold dear. It is the keystone of the universe for us, the essence of life.

Many other religious traditions disagree with us. They consider God to be their Ultimate Reality, their First Principle, the Holy of Holies. But because, for us, God is such a hard and personal and mysterious thing to define satisfactorily in a communal way, we choose to find that Holy of Holies in each expression of Life. We consider the innate worth and dignity of every human being to be the essence of life, to be the expression of the ultimate reality of the universe as we understand it today.

We could be wrong. But, using our understandings of how scientific inquiry works, we are willing to rethink our beliefs and values in the light of new information, which is another way we differ from other faith traditions.

What does it feel like to be respected for our inherent worth and dignity? What has that experience been for you? What does it feel like to be disrespected, even oppressed, because your worth and dignity is not recognized?

As members of our current American culture and society, we see every day instances of respect and disrespect for human worth and dignity.

We see people who have fewer civil rights because of their sexual orientation or gender identification; we see prisoners detained unfairly and perhaps mistreated or even tortured; we see racial profiling, housing difficulties, religious intolerance. We see our returning vets' medical and psychological needs ignored and denied. We see people losing jobs because they are obese or aged or disabled. We see children missing out on education because of poverty or developmental differences. We see cruelty toward those who are different and we see indifference toward that cruelty.

Some of these things may have happened to us and we have needed a champion, we have needed compassion, we have needed justice. And who has been there for us? Who is there now for those who need a champion, who need compassion, who need justice?

What have we as individuals done to fulfill this need? What have we done to offer compassion and justice to those whose worth and dignity has been compromised and trampled?

And what have we as a congregation done so far to fulfill this need? What programs have we undertaken to offer compassion and justice to those whose worth and dignity has been compromised and trampled?

I think of the study we undertook a few years ago which resulted in our being recognized as an official Welcoming Congregation, a faith community which has learned a great deal about the issues of homophobia and the challenges of lesbians, gay men, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons in our communities.

We have supported the cause for marriage equality and for anti-discrimination legislation; both of these causes have made enormous progress in our state, helping sexual minorities achieve greater civil rights.

I think of our Peace and Justice group, which works to bring peaceful solutions to our wartorn world, protesting torture and taking stands for non-violent actions.

I think of our financial contributions to local and national funds which support people in desperate circumstances from poverty or natural disaster.

I think of the recently proposed idea of a Social Responsibility Council here at UUCWI, to encourage efforts to address many issues of worth and dignity, among them immigration, health care, and poverty.

Clearly there is a great deal we can do. We have already undertaken some things. We want to do more and we will do more.

Though our first principle is the foundation of our faith community, we have to admit that there are questions and contradictions within it. Some of us who have moved away from Christianity but have not yet resolved painful early experiences, find it hard to understand that UUs can be Christian. These folks are sometimes uncomfortable with references to Jesus, God, or the Bible.

Some of us are uncomfortable with politically conservative persons and may even discourage them from participating in our congregations. But we need to examine our thoughts and actions in light of our first principle. We wonder, "how can we love our neighbor when he plans to vote for That Person? How can we tolerate That Language or That Idea when it is so repugnant to us personally? How can we welcome both Pro-Life and Pro-Choice advocates within these walls?"

We return to our first principle for the determination we need to address these sticky issues. One of our earliest spiritual ancestors, Francis David, wrote: "We need not think alike to love alike." Our religious faith asks us to be deeply respectful of others, even when we do not accept their values or theological perspectives.

On the other hand, in the name of radical respect, sometimes we find ourselves being foolishly tolerant of individual behavior that is destructive to the community. Tolerance of harmful behavior is not consistent with our first principle for it is in violation of the law of love and respect for the health of the community. A violator still has inherent worth and dignity but harmful behavior is not allowed, nevertheless.

In one of our district's largest congregations, First Unitarian in Portland awhile back, a known date rapist began to visit the church and to prey upon unsuspecting women during coffee hour. Women were warned privately to stay away from this man, but nobody questioned his right to be there.

My brave colleague, the Rev. Dr. Marilyn Sewell, decided she had to act. She writes, "Our church is private property and anyone who comes there to harm others loses his privilege of fellowship with us, to my way of thinking. I asked several of our largest men to surround him and give him the following message:
'We know why you are here. We want you to leave and never come back. If you do, we will call the police.'

Some people questioned her action as heavy-handed, for he had committed no crime on the premises. But Rev. Sewell is quick to answer: "Yes, this man has worth and dignity---and no, it doesn't follow that we should tolerate his harmful behavior."

Being true to our First Principle means that we strive to be in right relationship with others. We strive to be respectful even when we disagree with the views and behavior of another. We strive to be gentle and to offer forgiveness and the understanding that redemption is always available.

Our First Principle calls us to leave the safety of our own comfort zone and stand against hunger and injustice in the world. It calls us to examine our own thoughts and actions in light of our understanding that all beings have worth and dignity. It calls us to reach out into our surroundings and build bridges between ourselves and those who are different from us. It calls us to be compassionate even when angry and hurt.

Our First Principle serves as the foundation for our remaining principles which are derived and deduced from it, principles which call us to be compassionate and just, which call us to accept one another and encourage each other's spiritual growth. Our First Principle assures us that we have the right to follow our own conscience in a search for truth and meaning.

Our First Principle assures us that the democratic process, which is based on the conscience of each person, will give us fair and equitable outcomes. Our First Principle underlies our desire for world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.

And our First Principle makes it clear that not only is our own human worth and dignity invaluable but that the worth and dignity of all creation is precious and that we are interdependent within that creation.

In recent months and years, terrible cruel acts have been perpetrated upon innocent human beings---murders, bombings, abuse, and other violence.

In response to these acts, some victims and their relatives have sought revenge and retribution, so devastated are they by the violence that they can feel nothing but anger and hate, perhaps because they have been wounded many times in the past and have not experienced the compassion they themselves deserve.

But notably, very often in the aftermath of these events, there are other voices---voices of compassion for those who love the perpetrator, voices expressing a desire to understand why the offender might have become so twisted as to lash out, voices expressing hope and intention to pursue solutions to the underlying problems of desperate people, so that these kinds of events might be averted early.

And many times, there is forgiveness offered---a compassion for the tortured life of the offender, an understanding that this person too has worth and dignity and that healing of this person's self is more important than revenge.

Our First Principle calls us to respond in healing ways as best we can. We will not always be able to reach this highest goal right away, yet strive we can for understanding and compassion, for forgiveness if not forgetting, for healing instead of additional hurt.

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

Hymn # 131, Love Will Guide Us

BENEDICTION: (Please reach out to your neighbor, holding hands or touching someone's shoulder, and let's close our service by affirming the joy of our community.)
Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that our First Principle, our foundational belief, is that human life is inherently worthy and deserving of respect. May we strive to live that belief in our everyday lives and may we as a congregation commit ourselves to reaching out in our community to act on that belief. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Reflections from my Retreat Journal

I meant to post this several days ago but got sidetracked.

I had a good session with Z, the spiritual director at the retreat, talking about my difficulties with one specific person and it emerged that though I easily feel compassion for others, I do not have much compassion for myself.

We went from my feelings of dismay when I see this person to my defensiveness at the jabs this person seems to take at me, to why I am defensive, to my less-than-carved-in-stone sense of authority, to how the jabs affect that sense of authority, to my need to be right and fix my mistakes.

That's where the hitherto unrealized-in-me lack of compassion for myself cropped up. So I told Z. that I was going to make a list of the reasons I deserve compassion from myself.

* Only I know what my real life has been like and is today.
* I have had my share of bad experiences: molestation, rejection by admired people, public embarrassment, marriage to a difficult man, a challenging child to raise, poverty, shouldering a good deal of others' responsibility and pain, divorce, shame around body and brain, failure to attain jobs I wanted, that sort of thing.

This is an incomplete but revealing list. If I had a friend with this history, I would have compassion and empathy for her. But I find it hard to aim that compassion at myself. I'm talking real compassion, not pity; I'm talking emotion, not just letting myself off the hook for unintended mistakes.

What would compassion (not pity) look like? to me? to others? What would it feel like to me? to others? Would grieving my losses get to be a problem? Is that part of "the problem"? Do I avoid giving myself compassion because I don't want to grieve too much?

When I express compassion for another, I am offering him/her an opportunity to unburden self, to grieve a bit, to let off some of the pressure. I am good at doing this, giving the invitation, staying for the grief, the unburdening.

Can I do this for myself when I feel my self-worth and authority attacked and my defenses start to climb?

I'm looking forward to talking more with Z. about this at the next retreat.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Cogent Observation

I am hesitant to get back into the political conversations so prevalent right now but I was struck by this essay by Deepak Chopra.

Obama and the Palin Effect - Deepak Chopra

Sometimes politics has the uncanny effect of mirroring the national psyche even when nobody intended to do that. This is perfectly illustrated by the rousing effect that Gov. Sarah Palin had on the Republican convention in Minneapolis this week. On the surface, she outdoes former Vice President Dan Quayle as an unlikely choice, given her negligent parochial expertise in the complex affairs of governing. Her state of Alaska has less than 700,000 residents, which reduces the job of governor to the scale of running one-tenth of New York City. By comparison, Rudy Giuliani is a towering international figure. Palin's pluck has been admired, and her forthrightness, but her real appeal goes deeper.

She is the reverse of Barack Obama, in essence his shadow, deriding his idealism and exhorting people to obey their worst impulses. In psychological terms the shadow is that part of the psyche that hides out of sight, countering our aspirations, virtue, and vision with qualities we are ashamed to face: anger, fear, revenge, violence, selfishness, and suspicion of "the other." For millions of Americans, Obama triggers those feelings, but they don't want to express them. He is calling for us to reach for our higher selves, and frankly, that stirs up hidden reactions of an unsavory kind. (Just to be perfectly clear, I am not making a verbal play out of the fact that Sen. Obama is black. The shadow is a metaphor widely in use before his arrival on the scene.) I recognize that psychological analysis of politics is usually not welcome by the public, but I believe such a perspective can be helpful here to understand Palin's message. In her acceptance speech Gov. Palin sent a rousing call to those who want to celebrate their resistance to change and a higher vision.

Look at what she stands for:
-- Small town values -- a denial of America's global role, a return to petty, small-minded parochialism.
-- Ignorance of world affairs -- a repudiation of the need to repair America's image abroad.
-- Family values -- a code for walling out anybody who makes a claim for social justice. Such strangers, being outside the family, don't need to be heeded.
-- Rigid stands on guns and abortion -- a scornful repudiation that these issues can be negotiated with those who disagree.
-- Patriotism -- the usual fallback in a failed war.
-- Reform -- an italicized term, since in addition to cleaning out corruption and excessive spending, one also throws out anyone who doesn't fit your ideology.

Palin reinforces the overall message of the reactionary right, which has been in play since 1980, that social justice is liberal-radical, that minorities and immigrants, being different from "us" pure American types, can be ignored, that progressivism takes too much effort and globalism is a foreign threat. The radical right marches under the banners of "I'm all right, Jack," and "Why change? Everything's OK as it is." The irony, of course, is that Gov. Palin is a woman and a reactionary at the same time. She can add mom to apple pie on her resume, while blithely reversing forty years of feminist progress. The irony is superficial; there are millions of women who stand on the side of conservatism, however obviously they are voting against their own good. The Republicans have won multiple national elections by raising shadow issues based on fear, rejection, hostility to change, and narrow-mindedness.

Obama's call for higher ideals in politics can't be seen in a vacuum. The shadow is real; it was bound to respond. Not just conservatives possess a shadow -- we all do. So what comes next is a contest between the two forces of progress and inertia. Will the shadow win again, or has its furtive appeal become exhausted? No one can predict. The best thing about Gov. Palin is that she brought this conflict to light, which makes the upcoming debate honest. It would be a shame to elect another Reagan, whose smiling persona was a stalking horse for the reactionary forces that have brought us to the demoralized state we are in. We deserve to see what we are getting, without disguise.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

From my retreat journal:

In the past year, I have experienced a huge resurgence in my interest in singing. When I lived in Seattle, I occasionally attended Song Circles but felt no real sense of connection with them, never felt any more than passing interest from other musicians.

Here on the island, I found an acoustic music community that I slowly got more and more involved with, starting with J's telling me about the Thursday jams. The jams moved from one venue to another---a bar, a coffeehouse, a small business, various homes---and is now back in homes temporarily.

My interest waxed and waned but I gradually came to feel like a real part of the group and that connection grew stronger as I felt appreciated and recognized as a significant singer, despite not playing any instrument. Now it is something I schedule my life around, and this summer, being part of the jam group invited to perform really cemented my attachment to it.

Out of the wry Whiskey performance has grown a feeling of friendship and camaraderie that are new to me---or at least not recently experienced. The rehearsals together for three weeks, being a leader, learning others' skills, getting to know others at a quick dinner at the Mexican place after rehearsal, then the pleasure of really being together as a performing group--all this has meant a great deal to me. I want to do it again and again!

The jams have become important to me as something in my life that is very different from my work. None of the jammers go to my church, I'm not their minister, they don't relate to me that way. A couple of congregants have expressed some interest in the jams, but I am quietly discouraging, hopefully without being rude.

I really need to say something directly, probably: "If you're going to attend the jams (which are public, after all), I want you to know that this is my social group away from ministry and I want to keep the two as separate as possible. I don't talk church there or anything but music. Some of us perform together and that's also important to me. If you are going to come, please be aware of how important it is to me that this is my group of non-church friends and please respect my need to keep it separate."

A Wonderful Day

I picked Amanda up from the ferry dock and we were at the Whidbey Institute a few minutes later to have a little coffee, a scone, and be assigned rooms of our own for the day. There were about ten people experiencing the retreat, of whom I already knew a few. But the day wasn't about socializing, so I tried to avoid that, and it wasn't about church, so even though one of my parishioners was among the folks there, I wanted to avoid that.

We met for an hour together, reflecting on the theme of the day, "To Everything There is a Season", and then went to our individual spaces to be alone and in silence. I spent most of the morning journaling, time I rarely take to reflect on what's going on in my life. Just before lunch we had an optional Qi Gong experience in the Madrone Meadow, a circlet of grass surrounded by several old madrone trees.

Lunch was soup and salad, eaten mostly in silence. I had a spiritual direction session scheduled for early afternoon, which was a wonderful treat, as I haven't been in spiritual direction since I left Portland in 2003. I found it nourishing and helpful then and experienced the same lift this time.

After spiritual direction, I went back to my room to do some more journaling about what I'd learned and took a brief nap before the close of the day.

At the end of the day, I felt exhilarated by the chance to be still, to reflect, to be silent, to be unbusy, to write, to talk with a wise person. I'll be unpacking my day later on, sharing some of my learnings, but wanted to set the scene first.

Monday, September 08, 2008

To Everything There is a Season...

is the theme of the Whidbey Institute's "First Monday" retreat, to which I will be going in an hour or so. (I know, it's not really the first Monday, but you can probably figure out the reason.) It's a day of rest with spiritual direction available, a room with a bed and desk for naps and for journaling; there are wooded trails to walk, lunch and snacks are provided, and there will be a session of Qi Gong for those interested.

My friend Amanda and I are going and may make it a regular thing. We are both in places in our lives that need some reflection time and it's often not easy to take that time away from daily activities. Amanda is a UU minister/spiritual director/playwright/entrepreneur, funny and thoughtful and honest and I dearly love her. We have been friends since she told me at my first UUMA retreat, "I like you, Kit, you're a troublemaker too!" or some such words. I knew instantly what she meant---not a bad girl troublemaker, but a good girl troublemaker like she is, asking questions, being honest, being real. It was quite a compliment.

There are a lot of things I want to reflect on: my growing delight in making music, my relationship with this beloved congregation, my growing affection for a male friend, what it means to be the age I am with the interests I have, where I want to be in ten years. I am taking my journal, the book "Stiff", and my wellworn bird book.

I'll let you know how it goes.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

The Stream and the Desert

by Rev. Kit Ketcham
Sept. 7, 2008

Good morning! Just think, we can say that every Sunday from now on! We don't need to worry about saying "afternoon" when we have our services, we don't need to avoid songs like "Morning Has Broken" and only sing songs about "Day is Done". We can keep the chairs in the order we want them; we don't have to take down Trinity's sacred symbols and put up our own. This is OUR HOUSE! Isn't it lovely?

I want to add my own appreciation to the recognitions that Baird has offered this morning and say that there is no way we can adequately say thank you to the many men and women who have contributed the hours and days and months and years of their lives to our new home.

We are planning a bigger expression of thanks and recognition a little later on in the church year but did not want to wait another moment to recognize the many people who have worked to bring this building to completion.

Many hours of work still lie ahead because for the next several weeks, we will be learning how to use the building best, where to place our sacred symbols, how to accommodate all the new ideas and projects that want to be expressed. It will feel a bit like camping out for awhile.

We plan a Grand Opening Day on October 19, to which we hope to invite the larger community. And after the first of the year, we hope to have a Building Dedication ceremony to which we will invite all the ministers and members of other congregations, as well as district and local dignitaries, to join us in celebrating what this new building means to us and to the community of Whidbey Island. We hope that the president of the UUA, the Rev. Bill Sinkford, will be able to be our speaker!

So stay tuned! We are entering an exciting time of our lives, after a long period of working and thinking and planning and hoping and dreaming, after many obstacles and many challenges. We have surmounted most of them and expect to be able to manage the rest together. We are tired but we are also exhilarated.

I'd like to tell you a story, a story about a stream and a desert. This is a Sufi story that I like and that I have adapted from a couple of different versions that I've heard. And I think it has a message for us today, on the day when we pool the waters of our lives.

High on a far off mountain, a little spring flowed out of a hidden source. As the water from the spring flowed down the mountain, it passed through all kinds of places, rocky ravines, quiet meadows, past beaver dams and through lakes and ponds.

Sometimes the little stream leaped and danced and bubbled as it raced down a canyon or sometimes it drifted lazily through a forest meadow or even disappeared underground for a short distance. It had never encountered an obstacle that it couldn't surmount, either by leaping over it or going under it or around it or wearing away the hard rock that captured it.

But one day it reached the edge of a vast desert. "Hey, no problem," said the little stream to itself. "I've never been stopped by any obstacle before. No desert is going to stop me now!"

So the stream flung itself at the desert. And its waters disappeared, absorbed by the sand. It threw itself at the hot desert sand again and again. And every time, its waters disappeared.

"This can't be," said the stream. "If the wind can cross the desert, certainly I, a stream, can cross it too!" And it continued to fling itself at the hot sand. And every time, its waters disappeared.

"But it is my destiny to cross the desert," cried the stream, in despair. And as it rested dejectedly at the edge of the desert, getting its strength back, and wondering what to do next, it heard a small, still, whispery voice. And this is what the stream heard the desert say.

"You can't cross the desert using your old ways," said the desert. "I am not like a boulder or a tree or a rocky ledge. It is no use hurling yourself at the desert like that. You will never cross the sand this way; you will simply disappear or turn into marshland."

"But how I can get across?" cried the stream. "I don't know any new ways; I only know the old ways. The wind can get across the desert. Why can't I?"

"The wind is your new way," said the desert. "You must let the wind carry you across the hot sands."

"How can that be?" asked the stream. "How can the wind carry me?"

"You must let yourself be absorbed into the wind," said the desert. "The wind will catch you up in that way and carry you across the desert."

"No!" cried the stream. "I am a stream with a nature and an identity all my own. I don't want to lose myself by being absorbed into the wind."

"But that's what the wind does," said the desert. "The wind will catch you up and carry you across the desert and set you down again very lightly so you can become a stream again. Trust me and trust the wind."

"But I might not be the same stream on the other side of the desert, if I've been absorbed by the wind and carried a long way. I won't be myself if I let the wind carry me and set me down again in a new place."

The desert understood the stream's fear but it also understood the mystery.

"You're right," said the desert. "But you won't be the same stream, no matter what. If you stay here, you will turn into a marshland and that's not a stream either. If you let the wind carry you across the desert, the real you, the real heart of you, the essence of everything you truly are, will arise again on the other side to flow in a new course, to be a river that you can't even imagine from where you are standing now."

"How can this happen?" asked the stream, mystified by this new idea.

"The wind has always done this," said the desert. "It takes up the water and carries it over the desert and then lets it fall again. The water falls as rain and it becomes a river, joined by waters from all over the world which have crossed the deserts to come together."

"But can't I just stay the same?" asked the stream.

"You cannot in any way remain the same," whispered the desert. "Movement is your very nature. It will never cease until your true destination has been reached."

As the stream considered this, it began to remember where it had come from and it had a memory deep in its heart of a wind that could be trusted and a horizon that was always out of reach but always a new beginning.

So the stream took a deep breath and surrendered itself to the power of the wind and the wind took the vapor of the stream in strong and loving arms and took it high above the desert, far beyond the horizon, and let it fall again softly at the top of a new mountain.

And the stream began to understand who it really was and what it meant to be a stream. (Adapted from versions by All Souls UU in Washington DC and Leonard Ingram)

What does this story say to us as individual human beings?

Like the stream, movement is our very nature. We change every day, sometimes in big ways, sometimes in very small ways, but our essential humanity remains constant. One day we are children, the next it seems we are adults, we are lovers, we are parents and friends and grandparents. Yet no matter what the form of our days may be, our essence is steady.

If we do not let ourselves be transformed by the winds of life, we become stagnant. So, with great fear and yet great courage, we let life lift us, shape us, purify us, help us become who we really are.

And what does this story say to us as a congregation, a faith community of individuals who gather around this chalice, this water, these ideals?

We have been a tiny stream, having fun together, doing what we can to support each other and serve our community, but we came to the edge of a desert one day, needing to move on and not knowing quite how. Finally we took a leap of faith, trusting that our hope and love would carry us across the desert and set us down transformed into a new, larger river of life.

It's been a risky business, this leap of faith. And in the process, whether we wanted to or not, we as individuals have experienced transformation. And we as a congregation have also experienced transformation, leaving our outgrown ways behind us and learning to be a new kind of congregation with more to offer, more people to welcome into our midst, more of everything.

Those of you who are checking us out, who might consider joining us, who are interested in what these crazy Unitarian Universalists are up to back here in the woods---be forewarned. Joining this newly transformed congregation might transform your life.

Because it surely has transformed ours. We have been a small stream, doing what we can with what we have, pooling our lives, our experiences, our wisdom, our creativity, over the past many years. It was scary to trust the wind of our love and our commitment to our ideals and let ourselves be lifted by that wind into a new place, a new home.

As we rode the wind, we learned all kinds of things about ourselves. We learned that fear of change is very real and must be recognized and soothed. We learned that we have the resources to take on a huge project like this and complete it. We learned how to use the chop saw and the hammer and the paintbrush, skills many of us had never thought we might need to have!

As we rode the wind, we began to see each other in a different light. We saw that some of us had magnificent organization skills, that some of us knew how to raise the money we'd need, that some of us actually knew how to build a house, that some of us knew how to work with county officials and contractors, that some of us didn't know how to do anything but be cheerleaders but were ready to learn! Each of us has learned something new during this wild ride.

Our ride on the winds of love and commitment has changed us. We stand here on the other side of the desert, a new stream formed by the winds of change. As we explore this new world, we are eager to learn who you are and what your lives are like. We want to offer you some of what we've learned because of our transformation. We want to share our lives with you and give you the opportunity, the great daring challenge of being transformed by your place in this community.

For we are not through with our transformation. We may encounter other deserts. But now we know how to trust the wind.

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 trust the winds of change, for they have brought us to this new home. May we welcome always the challenges of our new life together and approach them in our common human spirit of love and commitment. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.