Monday, August 31, 2009

From student to professional jazz guy to friend....

that's the progression of my relationship with internationally known Darrell Grant, jazz professor at Portland State University (OR) and incredible jazz musician and composer.

I met Darrell when he was a ninth grader at Creighton Junior High in Lakewood, Colorado and I was a guidance counselor in the same school. His musical ability was already legendary and it was clear to those of us on the faculty who had a musical bent that he had an outstanding future ahead of him.

Darrell left junior high, went on to graduate from high school forthwith and I lost track of him. This was all sometime in the 70's and lots of water flowed under the bridge before, in 1999, I opened my newspaper in Portland, Oregon, and found a familiar name and face headlining the Mt. Hood Jazz Festival that year.

I pored over the article until I found the reference to Lakewood, Colorado, that verified that, indeed, it was the same Darrell Grant who had been such an outstanding musician and student at CJHS. I doubted he'd remember me, but I wrote him an email note identifying myself and offering my congratulations and encouragement.

Within hours, I got a return phone call from him. He did remember me, was interested in what I was doing, told me he is a member at First Unitarian Church in Portland, married, happy, and doing just what he felt he was called to do----working with musicians to create a message of peace and understanding across the world.

He volunteered to do a benefit concert for my financially strapped little congregation and produced a festival of jazz, stories, and dance that wowed the entire audience as possibly the best concert they'd ever attended. He used the concert as a release event for his latest CD.

When I left Portland for more northern climes, I figured our paths wouldn't cross again but when my friend Sue came to visit last week, she brought an autographed copy of Darrell's latest CD, "Truth and Reconciliation" and a message that he would love to see me again.

I'm playing the CD as I write. And here's a note from the CD liner:

"Why Truth and Reconciliation? In addition to expressing my wonder at one of the most profound events in the history of humankind---the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa---the phrase describes my personal wish that this music express my deepest truth, and begin to reconcile the diverse facets, styles, genres and influences that through most of my professional life have run separate courses."

He's truly a remarkable guy. On his web page (linked above) you can listen to some of his work via Darrell Grant radio. I hope you will.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sunday afternoon, cat on my lap....

a busy week behind me and an open week ahead of me. Sunday afternoons are the best of the best, days-of-the-week wise. I rarely have a Sunday afternoon that requires anything more of me than a nap, a leisurely perusal of the newspapers, and choices about what or where to eat for supper.

Today is a mega-delightful Sunday afternoon because it comes at the end of an exceptionally busy, though enjoyable, week. NOTHING needs to be done this afternoon. Or tomorrow. Or the next day (except putting out the garbage). There's no sermon to write for next Sunday, no board report or newsletter submissions to crank out, nothing.

Of course, I'll be bored in there sometime next week, but right now the idea of all that unstructured time is a bright prospect lying before me. I've resisted making any lists about what I could do or plans about how to use the time. I'm hoping to be able to fritter it away completely, to the point where I feel a little frantic next Sunday about all that has to be done during the coming week.

After I posted last week's sermon, I sat back and pondered the days ahead of me. Monday my friend Sue arrived from Portland and we puttered and pottered for several days together; the most organized thing we did was go to Port Townsend for the North Olympic Ministers' cluster. She left on Thursday and Friday, the Favorite Son, Favorite Daughter-in-law, and Favorite Granddaughter and Grandson arrived for the day.

What a pleasure, to get to spend most of a day with my family! We just goofed around, had breakfast together, did a little sightseeing and shopping, played on the beach, and relaxed. I took them to the ferry about 4, so that they could get back to Seattle in time for some pre-wedding festivities for the FDiL's sister, but even that brief taste of their company was so sweet it has lasted me for days. They brought me a bell from their travels to Switzerland in June, plus a book and a candle. (Now I have to order the movie from Netflix, I guess, as I never saw it in an earlier life.)

Saturday was R's party, and he was having back spasms, so several of us went up to his hilltop hermitage and helped prepare the food. Sour cream enchiladas! Yum! It was a terrific party, but I had to leave early, having double-booked myself for the evening with a church event.

Before I left, though, I got to spend a little time singing harmony with other musicians. There is nothing like that for me, to be part of a group that is in tune with each other, singing the notes of chords that make the human voice sound like angels. With the chords filling the air, I always feel transported into another realm, as though I've entered a place where there is nothing but the music and the faces of those beloved singers.

Such a much of a muchness, as my mother used to say.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Who am I and what is humanity?

Rev. Kit Ketcham, August 23, 2009

I am a newspaper junkie. I get the SWR, the Seattle Times, the Daily Herald, the weekly Christian Science Monitor, and I almost shed real tears when the Seattle PI went out of print, to say nothing of the Rocky Mountain News which was my favorite news source in Denver. So when the New York Times offered a weekend subscription for a low rate, I signed up and have enjoyed the NYT every weekend since spring.

This past Sunday, I opened the NYT and found a slick magazine insert entitled Style: shiny bright pages welcomed me as I opened it, but after flipping past page after page after page of ads, I realized that it seemed to be virtually all ads. Ads for makeup, for clothing, for skin care, for jewelry, for home furnishings----and models, rail thin with a range of expressions that seemed to be mostly scowling or fierce or sorrowful. Scarcely a smile to be found.

The table of contents did not appear until page 74; then there was another spate of ads, and content didn’t really start for another 10 pages, at which point it all seemed to be about how important it is to look stylish and associate with stylish people.

Now, I am as interested in style as many women my age; I like pretty things, I want to look reasonably up to date, and I want good quality stuff. I also don’t want to pay an arm and a leg and so I do a lot of shopping at Good Cheer and Community Thrift.

Here on the island there isn’t a lot of demand for high style, though, and I like the casual look just fine as well. You’re more likely to see me at Payless in jeans and a sweatshirt than you are in a dress or suit. But it occurred to me that, if I believed the ads in the Style magazine that came with my NYT, I would be a basket case.

The ads tell me I should spend an arm and a leg for a dress, that I should redecorate my home every couple of years or whenever the walls need painting, that I need to have the latest fashion in four inch heels, and that if my dress isn’t Armani, then it’s frumpy.

Celebrity life seemed also to be an important feature in Style, particularly the clothing, the diets, and the stylists used to achieve the celebrity look, not to mention the price tags!

It’s all kind of amusing from the perspective of Whidbey Island, but I’m aware that there are some people who really think that it’s more important to look good and to have the right friends than it is to be good and to be the right kind of friend.

Somehow, there are people out there who didn’t learn what I think most of us learned very early in life, that who we are and what we do with our lives matters a whole lot. Or maybe we just learned it a different way than they did; we learned that our inner selves are more important to work on than our outer selves.

When you were a kid, did you ever hear the phrase, “just be yourself, honey, and you’ll be okay”? It might have been on the first day of 7th grade or before a job interview or a date but it was a scary prescription, offered at a time of our lives when we weren’t too sure who our real selves were and whether we had much to offer.

In addition to the newspaper junkie persona, I am also a list maker. And there came a time in my teen years when I needed to figure out who I was so that I COULD be myself. I’d checked out the ads in Seventeen magazine and didn’t see myself there; I was pretty sure I’d never have a 24 inch waistline and there wasn’t any point in fretting about it!

So I sat down one day and thought about what I knew about myself and made a list: I was tall, big-boned (that’s what we called it in those days), female, smart, musical, witty (or so I thought), religious, mostly Scandinavian, a preacher’s kid, and the oldest child. At my age, which was about 16, this is about what I could come up with.

I didn’t know enough about life or about humanity or about my own potential, to go farther. It was a bit discouraging because I didn’t seem to have enough “self” to be, but my mother said to just keep my eyes open and I’d learn more about myself from my friends and teachers and family.

Like most teenage girls, I wasn’t very happy about her advice because there was a particular boy I wanted to notice me and I just didn’t have the right kind of “self” to make a favorable impression on him. And it didn’t help that his favorite thing to call me was Catgut, a take-off on my last name of Ketcham, having evolved there from such monikers as Ketchup Bottle, Ketchy Belchum, you get the picture.

We’ve all had those identity crises as kids and we’ve mostly managed to work our way through them. Along the way, we have probably picked up conflicting ideas about ourselves and it can be hard to sort out truth from not-so-kind fiction.
In my case, there were the things others told me about myself: my parents were proud of my wanting to be baptized at age 6, so I must be religious. People laughed at my cute remarks, so I must be funny. People sneered at my not-so-cute remarks, so I must be weird. I was bigger than most of my friends, so I must be fat. I didn’t have a boyfriend in high school, so I must be ugly.

But I did have doubts about what others told me. Sometimes their beliefs about who I really was didn’t tally with my experience. Sometimes I was so confused that I gave up and gave in to their perceptions. Okay, they think I’m clumsy, I’ll quit trying to do cartwheels. My self-image was often shaped by others’ opinions about me.

As I gained in years and wisdom, I began to sort out the meanings of my life and experience, to discern my own truth and quit letting others do it for me. Making my own meaning began to be very important to me.

Meaning-making never stops for human beings, and this is part of human nature. As children, we learn standards of behavior, right and wrong, cool and uncool, from adults and other kids; we compare those standards to what we want, what we have learned about how the world works, and we adopt or adapt or discard those standards.

Our understandings of our selfhood are always growing and changing. We employ many tools in this process. We’ve used astrology, tarot, runestones and other somewhat metaphysical tools, including all those quizzes on Facebook.

We’ve investigated various tests--the Meyers Briggs to find our personality traits, the Strengths Deployment Inventory to discover our leadership skills, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, to see if we were pyromaniacs. And from all these we’ve gained a certain knowledge to add to the perspective we were gaining on ourselves.

In addition, we began to see that there were things we were NOT. Some of them seemed to be connected to what others told us about ourselves (I still cringe at the stories I hear from people who were told they weren’t musical or artistic--I think that human beings are intrinsically musical and artistic, whether they can carry a tune or draw a straight line).

Yet we knew we were different from others in some ways. Perhaps we knew we were not heterosexual. Perhaps we were not white. Perhaps we were differently abled. Perhaps we were atheists. Perhaps we experienced crushing depression or heard voices. Perhaps we disagreed strongly with public policies. Our thoughts seemed to go different directions from others’. We puzzled over these differences and sometimes kept them secret.

As young adults, on the strength of what we thought we knew, we took jobs or continued our education. We entered the work world or became fulltime parents, in the belief that this was what life would always be like for us. And for many of us, this became problematic.

Sometimes our soul-searching was precipitated by world events. For my generation, the Vietnam War was a flash point. The assassination of John F. Kennedy shattered the dreams of a postwar Camelot; subsequent administrations illustrated the questionable ethics of our elected leaders.

We idealistic young folks, many of us sheltered by our World War II generation parents who had seen the horrors of the Holocaust and a world war, had to come to terms with human evil.

For the first time in our lives, we had to confront human evil on a worldwide and national basis, but we also had to acknowledge that we ourselves, as human beings, were susceptible to the same weaknesses that all humankind shares: greed, rage, disease, oppression of others and more.

We struggled to understand what it meant to be human. Were we born good or evil? Or both? Why did we make the choices we made? Why was it often so hard to choose good? What did heredity and environment bring to bear on our human nature?

Were we responsible for the consequences of our own behavior or should we blame it on our parents, our teachers, our friends? Could we hide from the awful realizations of the despair that could visit human beings? We often tried, using and abusing drugs, alcohol, tobacco, relationships, money, to protect ourselves from the reality of our growing unhappiness.

This journey through self-understanding and coming to terms with the pluses and minuses of being born human, rather than some other less responsible species, is common to all of us, no matter what our generation.

Our young people today are confronting their own versions of the struggle between good and evil. Technology has increased the options for communication and has opened up the field of communication to huge abuses, in addition to its huge benefits to us all.

As Sandy and I shared our own observations and questions about human nature, we tossed around a number of ideas about what makes humans human----what are the characteristics of humankind, the bedrock on which cultural, civic, religious, and personal individuality rests?

Sandy had done a lot of thinking about human nature in preparation for our service today and she offered some important insights: for example, humans use our ability with language to reason with one another, sort things out intellectually, not just instinctively, though Michael Dowd’s words the other night emphasized how instinctual our behavior is.

In addition, humans are able to express and understand symbols. Also, at an early age, we discover that we are separate individuals and that that means a different, more complicated life than that of other animals.

We humans are able to step out of the present moment and consider both our history, our collective memory, and where our actions may take us in future time.
We can take a larger view of life, even though we may seize the day. In fact, “carpe diem”, seize the day, is more meaningful to us because we can take a larger view.

We humans can explain our actions---to ourselves and others—because we have consciousness, of ourselves and of our motivations. And our conscience, that always developing sense of right and wrong, gives us guidance as we make decisions about our actions. Our conscience is what makes us blush with shame at times. It’s been said that humans are the only species which blushes, or needs to.

We humans have the reasoning power to make judgments, accurately or not, life-enhancing or not, relationship-building or not. We also have moved, at least in Western life, far enough from the survival mode of hunting and gathering to have leisure time and to wonder how to use that time. We have many ways of distracting ourselves from dealing with the realities of human life, its opportunities, its hazards, and its responsibilities.

We seem to have a hunger to be entertained, to rest temporarily from the daily round and to be free for a time from human realities.

These thoughts are only a partial consideration of the facets of human nature. The question of ontology, or being, has been a favorite topic for philosophers both ancient and modern, for centuries.

But I think it’s enough to get us to the point of asking the theological question: where is the sacred in my life, your life, in human life?

Let’s think about that for a moment. Sacredness is generally considered to be defined as worthy of spiritual respect or devotion; a quality inspiring awe or reverence. What do you think? In one word can you name something that is sacred to you about human nature? About human life? (One or two word answers, please.)

I’m guessing that many of us agree with some of each other’s answers and many of us disagree with others. And it occurs to me that perhaps we are the factor that determines what is sacred about human nature, about human life.

If we decide that our ability to Love is sacred, then it will be sacred to us. If we decide that our Conscience is a gift from the Universe, from God, then we will treat it as sacred and we will pay attention to it.

We don’t all have to agree on what is sacred, but it does matter that we stay open to it, as beings who are both rational and spiritual, and on life’s quest of self-discovery.

This question about our human nature is one which has puzzled and excited human beings since our species appeared on the earth. It will probably never be fully answered, as we are always learning more about ourselves and our humanity.

We have asked more questions about this idea than we have answered today. And that is a reality about human nature, that we are eternally curious.

The Hebrew scriptures state, in Psalm 8: 4-6, the same question: “ What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals, that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.”

Virtually all religions have some answer to this question. In Unitarian Universalism, we invite you to find your own answer. What is the value of human life? What is our responsibility to the Universe, to God, to one another and ourselves?

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 what we know about ourselves and about our human nature. May we strive to see the sacred in our everyday lives and in the daily miracles of life that surround us and may we be open to the many possibilities that human life presents. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

One of the more spectacular weddings of my career...

is behind me now, having concluded last night at a wedding dinner of lamb chops and halibut (vegs and pasta included) at a mansion overlooking Useless Bay here on Whidbey.

It might also have been the most embarrassing wedding of my career. But I'll let my mother tell her story, which has enough similarities to help you figure out the scenario. Here's Mona, channeling from the Great Beyond:

"I was just out of my teens, I think, and getting ready to go to my first teaching job out on the Oregon Slope, but I needed to do some shopping. So I dressed nicely and went to Meier and Frank in downtown Portland. I especially needed underwear, since the elastic in my old unmentionables was getting unreliable.

"I'd bought myself several pairs of nice sturdy underpinnings and was walking through the displays on the first floor, going toward the street so I could catch the bus home, when I felt a distinct shift in my underclothes. Oh no, I thought, and quickly clasped my knees together so that I could prevent further sliding of the garment. This made me walk strangely, so I stopped at a nearby counter, pretending to examine the display of goods there, waited till other shoppers and salespersons had passed by, then let the offending article drop to the floor, stepped out of it, kicked it under the counter, and walked on."

Yesterday's wedding was on the beach, which entailed a long processional walk down through the 100+ chairs set up in the sand. Beach walking makes one walk funny anyhow and it was all I could do to stay upright as I tried to walk dignifiedly toward the driftwood arbor which had been set up just out of reach of the high tide. But I managed, we got through the ceremony in fine shape, and it wasn't until we had safely recessed and I was on my way to my car that my wardrobe malfunction occurred.

Fortunately, I could hurry to my car to fix the situation as best I could, and then I hurried home quickly before driving to the dinner. This gave me plenty of time to offer grateful prayers to the Cosmos for its timing. The alternative was beyond my comprehension. I'm sure you understand. Next time, next time, I will succumb and wear pantyhose. Just in case.

Friday, August 21, 2009

I confess, I am tickled by this contribution from a faithful reader.

I am turning into a curmudgeonette.

I find myself uncommonly crusty these days. I don't know how long it's been developing in me, whether it's a sign of age or incipient moral breakdown or just what, but certain kinds of people irritate the heck out of me.

I suspect it's partly because of the mood of the country these days. I am sick and tired of the media and its excesses, sick and tired of snarky remarks by pundits, sick and tired of the "I told you so" fever which chronicles every stray action or word delivered by our main public figure (yes, the President) as proof that the country is turning against him and they were right all along.

This irritation flows over into my everyday life, unfortunately. I attended a meeting recently to plan a community event with others who had also been working on it for a week or so. A first-time attender walked in, all flowing hair and scarf and makeup and elan, and within minutes she had scrambled all the circuits of planning, somehow overtaking and changing the plans made so far. In a sweet way, yes, and in a fairly positive way, but I found myself feeling dowdy and elderly and....resentful. She had no more credentials than I do, but somehow she took over. I was glad to leave the meeting early because I had a wedding rehearsal to go to!

BUT after the wedding rehearsal, I was confronted by a previously-unknown and unaccounted for wedding planner, a competent but somewhat officious person who arrived too late to scramble my carefully-rehearsed processional/recessional sequence but who insisted on repeating loudly her own set of instructions to whoever would stand still. Her instructions were very similar to mine but I still felt annoyed by her intrusion. In my opinion, wedding planners need to remember that the officiant is in charge of the wedding and they need to consult with the officiant before issuing orders about the ceremony.

It has been such a busy week, too, that I have fretted about having enough time to write the sermon for Sunday and have stolen a few minutes here and there all week. When I went back over it just now, I realized there were huge chunks that bore no relationship to each other and must be doctored and spliced in order to make sense. Arrrrggggh! I hate that!

A friend from Denver stopped by overnight mid-week and we had a grand time catching up on the olden days and the people we know in common, but the cats were anxious about her very lively dog, who at one point dashed into the woods after a rabbit, her leash flying in the wind, and got stuck in the brambles. I had to go in after her, because my friend is not mobile enough, and it turned out all right, but it was just one more anxiety in a week of anxieties.

Fortunately, though the fridge crapped out on Tuesday and had to be unloaded and defrosted for the repairman's visit (which couldn't happen till today), the news from the repairman was good. It doesn't look like a huge repair job and the quick fix he made today should last me till he can come back and do a real job on it Monday or Tuesday.

And it was lovely to go to the jam last night and sing with my sweet guy friends again. They let me sing lead on practically everything and we make such great harmony together!

So though I am turning into a curmudgeonette, I am apparently not there yet. Just the fridge repair and the lovely jam have been sufficient to overcome the effects of Flossy and Bossy, plus the sermon and the brambles. That's a relief. I'm too young for the alternative.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Too busy to write a real post but here's another photo

Can you guess who this is? Hint: it was taken in about 1992 for the Jefferson Unitarian Church photo directory.

(Can you tell I've just recently learned to use the scanner function on my printer?)

Friday, August 14, 2009

At 9:16, Mountain Daylight Time, in 1972...

the Favorite Son was born at St. Anthony Hospital in Denver, Colorado. He was early, about three weeks or so, and a little less hefty than he should have been. In addition, he developed a slight case of jaundice in his first days of life on this plane and his little tushy was under the lights for a few days, as the extra bilirubin in his system subsided.

Our first days with him were easy; he nursed well, was predictable (more or less) in his sleeping patterns, that sort of thing. But at his first appointment with the pediatrician, the doc picked up a heart murmur and sent us off to a pediatric cardiologist. Many tests later, the heart doc pronounced him sound, with what he called a right bundle branch block, an electrical irregularity which was unlikely to cause him problems.

Because he was born three weeks early, the paternal grandparents had not yet arrived, and in those days before ubiquitous cell phones and answering machines, we could not share the news until they called us from the road. Once conveyed, the news brought them straight to our doorstep.

And what a relief that was! Because, in his zeal to be growing something himself as my belly expanded, the Dad had planted 75 tomato plants and it was a hot summer. On August 14, all 75 seemed to be producing ripe fruit at the same time. The grandparents knew a thing or two about canning and about comforting babies, as well as first-time mothers, and we were saved!

The FS grew up to be quite a guy. We never bothered to try for a second child; the first one broke all the molds and it felt quite enough to raise one child like this successfully. Which I think we managed to do, more or less, even through divorce, school difficulties, work difficulties, and the like.

He has turned out to be the best "thing" that ever happened to me. He has always made me laugh, almost never made me cry, gave me things to worry about as all kids do, but always managed to learn from his challenges. And now he is married to a beautiful woman with two beautiful teenage kids, studying to be a teacher, ruling the local chapter of the re-enactment group he belongs to in Reno, and making his mother extremely proud.

I love you, FS!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The way we were...

I'm waxing nostalgic this afternoon, having been asked by a pal to send her a photo from my past for her 60's party this weekend; she's going to do a guessing game. The only one I could find was taken for the program in which I was about to be commissioned an American Baptist Home Missionary, in 1966. I was in love and was doubtless gazing soulfully at my boyfriend, whom I later married.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

In the run-up to election season...

there are some things congregations need to know about what is permissible in the promotion of issues and candidates. We've recently had occasion to explore this area as one of our members is running for office on the island and it's important to know how best to support his candidacy without running afoul of regulations that would endanger our 501(c) 3 status.

In reading a document called The Real Rules published by the UUA to help congregations sort out what's okay and what's not, I learned that, in general, it is okay to advocate and promote issues of virtually all kinds, as a congregation.

However, it is not okay to promote a candidate for office, as a congregation. I know, I know, lots of churches violate this rule, apparently without punishment. But it's not okay. It's not right. It's a distinct violation of the separation of church and state for a church to promote a political candidate. And we UUs believe in the separation of church and state, so we need to be careful about adhering to the regulation.

Issues that we promote, as congregations, tend to be social justice issues we are passionate about and we promote them as part of our religious mission. We have to be careful about how much lobbying we do with legislators, because to spend more than a certain amount of time, energy, and money lobbying also violates our 501 (c)3 status.

It's a very valuable thing, to have a Unitarian Universalist elected to public office, because that person is in the position of bringing UU ideals and principles to his or her public service. So how to be helpful to the candidate without violating the rules? That's a little complicated, but it's not really hard.

Rather than my outlining the "how-to's" of candidate advocacy, I suggest you download the pdf from the UUA. You'll find it extremely helpful. Click here to access it.

As a colleague of mine has suggested, however, the even more important issue than tax status is inclusivity. When we advocate for one candidate over others, we are making the assumption that everyone in the congregation agrees about this person as the best choice. To do so excludes anyone who doesn't agree and that's not okay in a whole other way.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

"I want my church back!"...

complained a small group of people in one church I know well. They were upset because the congregation had moved from being the complacent, anti-growth "mom 'n pop" organization run by a few to a church staffed by a fulltime extension minister who had been chosen because of the congregation's need to grow--in order to survive.

"I want my country back" is the rallying cry of those who find it difficult to adapt to the changes being proposed by a new, more progressive government. There are similarities between our nation's situation and the situation of congregations who are being urged by a new leader to grow beyond the old ways of doing things, to relinquish old, less-healthy patterns, and adopt new ones.

In both situations, a small group of people threatens to hijack the democratic process by introducing innuendo, rumor, falsehood and threats. In the church, parking lot complainers diss the minister's sermons, his/her chance remarks, his/her failure to be all things to all people, and threaten to withdraw financial support. Their complaints and even lies are given credence by their loud voices even though the threat of cutting off the money feels like blackmail.

In the nation, "tea baggers", "birthers" and others who have been convinced by the noisy rhetoric spouted by Fox News are feeding on innuendo, rumor, falsehood and threats. So-called "conservatives" (a term whose meaning has been distorted by the current political scene, just as has "liberal") hang around town hall meetings with their scared-to-death adherents, whipping up fear and resentment with lies and rumors.

In the church, the minister often leaves under a cloud, having done nothing wrong except to introduce change. The church suffers badly because it is divided by anger; loyal members look for another, less angry church to attend; dissenters, having "won", inherit a church that often spirals down into chaos and bankruptcy. And the minister's career has suffered a setback because a negotiated settlement doesn't look too great in a candidacy packet.

In the nation, a president elected by popular vote who promised to bring change in positive ways is subjected to hateful rhetoric, suspicious "birthers" who want to get rid of him, town hall complainers who scream and heckle and disrupt the democratic process. The nation suffers badly because it is divided by anger; that anger erupts in violence, death threats, and big bucks changing hands to keep the ugliness going---a blow at the integrity of the United States of America.

Is the stubborn church at war with itself the true picture of religious faith? Is the nation at war with itself the true picture of democracy? There is an inherent right to dissent, both in our churches and in our nation. The danger comes when that dissent is fueled by lies and paranoia.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Rest in Peace, dear Tim

I've known Tim since 1999, when we met while passing the baton of ministership of my first congregation, Wy'east UUC in Portland. He had taken that little band of folks a long way in the year or more he spent with them, for which I was grateful. When he moved to the East Coast a few years later, I missed his presence at retreats and district gatherings but found his emails to the ministers' chat and posts on his blog to be a way of keeping in touch.

When I learned that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer, my heart sank, but I was sure he would beat it. How could that spark be put out?

But it has been. Yet, somehow it still is here. Tim also served the congregation where I am right now, during a very tough year of growth and learning for them. He encouraged them in their work and helped them take steps forward. It may be true that our work in the world is how we are immortal.

Tim Jensen lives on, in my heart and in the hearts of all those he served and befriended.

A Monday chuckle

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Thinking about the Great Questions of Human Existence

Rev. Kit Ketcham, August 2009

When I was a kid, growing up in a pretty strict Baptist minister’s household with my very devout parents, every religious question seemed to already have an answer, an answer that never changed much.

Who is God? Well, of course, God is Jesus’ father and is everywhere, sees everything, controls everything, and will punish anyone who does bad things. And, oh by the way, God is love, also.

What is the Bible? Well, it’s God’s message to us, his people, and every word is true. It is a history book and tells us all the important events of Jesus’ life, as well as what came before Jesus arrived.

Who was Jesus? Jesus was the son of God, born to a human mother. He was perfect, never did anything wrong (unlike me), and he was God too, in a way. And he died on the cross to save us from our sins.

What’s a sin? It’s anything you do, deliberately or accidentally, that makes God mad at you.

What should I do with my life? Well, as a Christian, you are expected to give your life to God in service. You can be anything you feel capable of being, but your primary mission in life is to serve God and teach about Jesus and salvation.

There were slight variations on the theme, every time the questions were asked, but there was always an answer, always pretty much the same. And questioning those answers was frowned upon, even though the answers were delivered lovingly and sincerely. And I want to emphasize that the language I've used in the answers I gave just now are my language, not that of my parents or Sunday School teachers!

Of course, it was pretty soothing to know that there were answers to everything, that no question about God or life or good and evil was unanswerable. At least when I was 10 years old.

At age 10 I knew better than to ask a second time, knew better than to argue with the answers, knew better than to voice my own opinions, as they began to come along, with education and with the advent of my own ability to think critically. By the time I was in college, though, the answers to my questions were beginning to shift. I wasn’t so comfortable anymore with the old answers.

And over the years I came to understand that there were questions underneath these questions. That my question about God and what or who God was could be stated another way: who or what is in charge of the universe. Or is anything or anyone in charge? What runs the universe? How did the universe come to be? What is the power beyond human power?

My question about the Bible could be rephrased too: how do I know what to believe? Who can I trust, when it comes to spiritual teachings? If the Bible was written by humans, and humans aren’t perfect, how could the Bible be perfect? Are there other writings that are inspirational and that I can trust?

As I grew older and somewhat more wise, I came to understand that there are many heroes like Jesus, that there were many stories about those heroes and heroines, and that some of them had very similar miracle stories, as in being born of a virgin or healing people or performing other other miraculous deeds.

When it came to the idea of sin, it occurred to me that maybe the question beneath the question is “what is human nature and why do humans so often behave badly toward each other?”
Our service today has as its theme “the great questions of human existence” and you will have noticed that our special musicians, Thomas and Ken, have asked some questions themselves in their songs. Evan asked us some riddles, another way of dealing with questions that have answers that stretch our brains.

Human beings question things. Human beings are even more curious, I think, than the legendary cat, the one curiosity killed. And the questions we ask as we develop our own worldview and ethical standards tend to stir up a lot of the world’s anxieties: is it ever okay to end a life? how was the universe created? who, if anyone, should be privileged over others?

When I went to seminary in 1995, I had certainly heard the word “theology” many, many times. To me, at that point, it mostly meant doctrine or dogma, beliefs by various religions that formed the backbone of their religious practice and were the standard by which people became members of that religious community.

Literally, the word theology means “study of God” and for many religions that’s what it is. But non-theistic or pluralistic religions have a different take on it; it’s more the “study of the sacred” or ultimate value and a recognition of the idea of sacredness. For people who are agnostic or atheist or Buddhist or other non-theistic religious types have reverence for the sacred but do not necessarily have a concept of God, at least not a traditional concept of God.

Yet most human beings who are introspective at all or critical thinkers do ask themselves big questions and the questions tend to be similar in nature. In seminary, I learned to think of these questions in categories:

There is the question of ontology, or being: who am I? what is the nature of humanity?
There is the question of epistemology or knowledge: how do I know what I know? What is the ultimate source of human knowledge?
There is the question of cosmology, or rulership: who or what is in charge of the universe? What is the power that infuses life with meaning?
There is the question of soteriology, or salvation: What can heal me or make me whole?
And there’s the question of eschatology, or the end of days: what does my death mean? What is the state of human beings beyond death?

These are questions of ultimate concern for humans, questions that circle around us throughout our lives, changing form, expressed as yearnings, even depression, and joggling us into attention from time to time. These are the questions that live deeply within us and, depending on the circumstances of our lives, arise to haunt us on occasion, even when we think we may have answered them once and for all.

Over time, doctrines and dogmas have developed to answer these questions in certain ways. Religious doctrines and dogmas are efforts to institutionalize thinking about the great questions of human life. Most religions expect their followers to believe in and follow the doctrines and dogmas in order to attain the blessings of the universe, or God as they understand God.

Unitarian Universalism does not have specific doctrines or dogmas that we are expected to follow. We have our seven principles, which are behavior-based, rather than belief-based. We do not test people on whether or not they adhere to the principles at every moment. But our seven principles nevertheless suggest approaches to the great questions of human life. And one unique feature of our faith tradition is that we are open to new truth and can change our thinking if compelling evidence presents itself.

During the coming church year, we will be looking at our varied ways of answering these questions as we think about Unitarian Universalist theology. We will not all answer these big questions in the same ways and that is very normal for a UU congregation.

We as individuals find our answers in our own experience of life; we are guided by the ideas of influential other humans, our own early religious learnings, science, the philosophies of many world religions, and our own knowledge of the earth and its cycles. We bring all these influences into this community and learn to live with the diversity of thought that we find here. We do not all hold the same theology and that is good.

How and why did we humans begin to think about these questions? Human beings from time immemorial have puzzled over their relationships with the world around them, recognizing that we have so little control over some of the events of our lives and wondering how to influence those powers that seem to supersede our powers.

Out of a desire to influence the uncontrollable universe, ancient human beings devised ceremonies and behaviors that might convince the universe (or the gods) to favor them: sacrifices of goods, crops, animals, even fellow humans. They learned to work in concert with the universe, planting crops at certain times, using all the materials they had at hand as tools, as fertilizer, as shelter, as food, using the stars and planets and sun as directional guides.

Out of these ancient practices grew many of today’s traditional religious practices and beliefs: baptism of humans represents cleansing---of food or bodies or clothing---or the soul; Jesus’ death on the cross is seen by many Christians as the ultimate sacrificial gift, as recompense for human sin, which was the function of sacrifice in ancient times, to appease angry gods;
prayer for mercy from the weather gods expanded to become prayer for any number of blessings, including success in the stock market or on the football field.

Still, despite our sophistication, our scientific understandings, and our differences in religious thinking, we still feel a drive to be in right relationship with the universe somehow. We study it, we want to understand it, we stand in awe at its beauty; we think about what our lives within it are like, what we’d like them to be like, what our potentialities within that universe might be. And we do what we can to influence and/or moderate the universe’s effect on our lives.

In the past decade or so, it has also become increasingly obvious that our relationship with the earth (and the universe by extension) has become toxic; we lost sight, over the centuries, of proper care of the earth and its resources. So our efforts to reclaim a right relationship with the earth have resulted in a heightened awareness of our need to befriend and care for the earth as part of our being in right relationship with the power of the universe.

What is the function of questioning in human life? What does it mean that we ask questions? In the beginning, we humans needed to learn how to survive on the planet; we asked questions of the earth, of our companions, of the animals we saw. We built upon those answers to create a body of knowledge about the earth and the universe which enabled us to live more comfortably.

Since the beginning of time, human beings have asked questions about answers that seemed incomplete or based on faulty reasoning or, as our understandings of how things work developed, too reliant on supernatural forces which could be debunked.

Even the most seemingly-solidly proven answers were open to question as humanity evolved into an organism which had a great capacity for understanding, for high levels of reasoning, for exploratory methods which could open doors to ideas never before considered.

Questioners in ancient times were often seen as heretics, as sorcerers, as eccentrics whose wild ideas were dangerous to the established order. As religions became more institutionalized, questioners of the orthodox answers were often anathematized, or excommunicated, from the body of believers.
As we consider what Unitarian Universalist theology has become, as it diverged from orthodox Christianity, it is useful to draw a general timeline of our theological history.

We are a descendent of the religion established in the wake of Jesus’ ministry on earth, 2000 years ago. However, when that religion (now called Christianity) institutionalized the doctrine that the Divine was three Beings in one (now called the Trinity and defined as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit), our religious ancestors disagreed. At that time, this heretical strand of belief was called anti-Trinitarianism but gradually acquired the name Unitarian, for its understanding of the Divine as one Being.

Some years, perhaps centuries, later, Universalism as a religious idea, also heretical, formed in response to the idea of hell and eternal damnation for unbelievers. Our religious ancestors observed the nature of God and decided that if indeed God was love, then God would not condemn beloved children to eternal hellfire, even if they misbehaved badly. This too was considered a heretical idea and was an underground movement across Europe before moving to the American Colonies.

During the Enlightment period of the 18th century, when reason was advocated as the primary source and legitimacy for authority, scientific inquiry and democratic principles began to make an impact upon religious and political life, spreading rapidly across the European continent and into the fledgling United States of America.

In the mid 19th century, the rational Enlightenment Christianity of Unitarians was also modified by the thinking of the American Transcendentalist writers and philosophers, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman and Margaret Fuller. These thinkers began to see the Divine in the natural world and expanded the horizons of religious thought with their poetry, their essays, and their lectures.

In the early to mid 20th century, Humanism, having developed out of the Enlightenment period, became a strong pillar of Unitarian thought, as Unitarians diverged farther from their Christian roots. In fact, for a time, Unitarians pretty well disparaged their Christian heritage and, indeed, even today some are made uncomfortable by some of the implications of that heritage.

In 1961, the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America, seeing that their numbers were small but that their open-minded approach to theology was similar, joined forces and became the Unitarian Universalist Association.

The Universalists at this time in their history were largely Christian. The Unitarians were largely Humanists. This made things pretty exciting then and it continues to be exciting now, as the diversity within our congregations has increased.

Over the decades since the merger of these two small but influential denominations, our UU theology has been modified. Today Unitarian does not mean a belief in the Unity, the Oneness of God as much as it means a belief in the Unity, the Oneness of the human species and the understanding that all humans are related to each other and are a part of the interdependent web of all existence.

Today, Universalist does not mean a belief in heaven for all, as much as it means a dedication to acceptance and understanding of the great diversity of the earth and of the human community, seeing that diversity as essential to a healthy and productive life that must be available to all.
We here in this congregation are the product of the coming together of a Rational religious philosophy as represented by Unitarianism and a Spiritual religious philosophy as represented by Universalism. In this congregation we meld strong scientific and rational ideals with a desire to explore our inner emotional and spiritual depths, acting these out as we strive to bring love and justice to the world around us.

We work hard at respect for individual and divergent viewpoints; within this congregation we have Christians, we have Jews, we have Buddhists, we have atheists and agnostics, we have Deists and none-of-the-above. We have lifelong Unitarians and Universalists and Unitarian Universalists!

Our aim in this congregation is not to dwell on the differing theologies we may hold, for we understand at a very deep level that it is our behavior toward each other and the earth that matters. Our theologies may inform that behavior, but our principles guide us toward a common set of goals, emphasizing our responsibility to treat each other with respect, kindness, and humility.

So it promises to be an interesting year, as we look at the great questions of human existence through a Unitarian Universalist lens! There will be opportunities for discussion of each question, both informally and in a regular conversation session during the weeks to come. I hope you’ll enjoy this chance to look more deeply at the many answers to the many questions of human life.

In his book, “Letters to a Young Poet”, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote these words, with which I’d like to close:
“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day."

Well, Mr. Rilke, we are going to tussle with some of these questions this year, but we do not expect to find all the answers for every one of us. We will heed your advice and let the hardest ones rest, until we can live into the answers.
Let’s pause for a moment of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that we all have questions about what it means to be who we are and what our lives should be. May we be patient as we seek our answers, looking to each other for the emotional and spiritual and mental connections we crave, and may we strive to live with open hearts and minds, so that our answers are not rigid but loving and accepting of those with other answers. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

If you go to a town hall meeting and hecklers start to drown out the speaker...

in the time-honored tradition of Pete Seeger and other peace activists, start singing "We Shall Overcome".

What does it mean to be called to a vocation?

Masasa mentioned in a comment this week that she is struggling to describe her sense of call to the ministry and asked if I would, at some point, talk about my own sense of call. She is working on her application to seminary and as part of that process must describe this motivating experience in her life.

For me, the call to the ministry was a series of sporadic and increasingly intense moments in my life that helped me see myself in the role of parish minister. Each moment came at a time when I was struggling with some life stage. Maybe a timeline of sorts will help describe how that was.

I graduated from Linfield College in 1963, with a major in Modern Languages. I had some vague notion of becoming a translator but as I investigated those requirements, I realized that as a speaker of a language other than English, I was a dilettante. I took Spanish and French in college because they were easy for me, not because I had any burning desire to speak those languages or travel to places where they were spoken.

So as I hung around my parents' home that fall after graduation, I considered applying to seminary; graduate school would at least give me something to do and I could get a job as a Christian Education director in some church. All my friends seemed to be going to seminary and that might be fun. Of course, CE directors were glorified Sunday School teachers in my book at that time (I have since gained an enormous respect for DRE's) and I didn't want to teach Sunday School.

A stint as a welfare worker here in Washington state solved the problem initially and gave me a taste of a public service career. But living at home was the pits and I didn't make enough to live elsewhere, at least not in any kind of style, and I would still be in the same small town as my folks.

Next stop on the journey was a stint as an American Baptist Home Missionary, in Denver, which introduced me to some of the joys and challenges of working in a church setting. I was a program worker at the Denver Christian Center, in the inner city (29th and Curtis, for you Denverites), teaching preschool, after-school programs for older kids and teens, and playing the piano for Sunday services. This experience, which lasted only a year and a half till the Center morphed into a United Way agency (now Curtis Park Community Center), gave me a sense of providing a religious message that was not salvation-oriented but humanitarian in nature. And it opened my eyes to the huge problems festering in poverty-stricken city ghettos.

Marriage and starting a family changed my trajectory as it became harder to justify working so many evenings and living farther from the Christian Center than I had as a single person. So I left the CC and went back to school, working parttime at Colorado Women's College to cover tuition costs so that I could get teaching credentials.

The summer before I started teaching Spanish in a small junior high in Evergreen CO, my husband and I were part of the first Colorado Outward Bound teachers' course and I carried this experience in the wilderness into my work as a teacher for the next 25 years, moving from the classroom into a guidance and counseling position for 19 of those years.

By the time the two by four between the eyes came, I had spent many years preparing to be called to something bigger than public education. I have always been a person who takes a long time to work up to something; once I'm ready, the decision is obvious and there's no looking back to wonder if I'm doing the right thing. I've rarely been wrong in those decisions; they seem to make themselves.

The actual experience of "CALL" came in a Sunday morning service, Sept 12, 1992. It was at Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden, Colorado, and I was delivering a short homily for the Committee on Ministry's Ingathering Service. I was the one member of the committee which had much public speaking experience----largely wielding a microphone in the school lunchroom to keep order on lunch duty or to deliver a registration information session to parents of incoming sevies or to administer standardized tests----so I was volunteered to deliver the homily for the service.

The theme was our congregation's experiences over the past year and the hopes we had for the coming year: a greater sense of community, deeper spiritual life, that sort of thing. I could see that people were responding positively to what I was saying---a few laughs, even a tear or two---so I figured I'd done okay. I sat down in my place in the choir and our minister, the Rev Robert Latham stood at the pulpit. He turned to me and said, "Kit, you missed your calling. You ought to be a minister."

It was a thunderbolt. I sat stunned in my seat as all the pieces of my life fell into place. There was no doubt in my mind: I ought to be a minister.

It took awhile for me to get to seminary, from that point, and additional experiences along the way helped add to my sense of direction: a pastoral relationship with an elderly member of JUC, a deepening relationship with the clergy at JUC and with other clergy in the Denver area, an intense week at the district's Leadership School, district leadership positions, and a chance to take early retirement from my school job. I came back from General Assembly in Spokane in 1995 fully ready to enroll in seminary at Iliff School of Theology in Denver and never looked back.

I have never doubted my call to the ministry, even through very hard times in my first parish setting. It never occurred to me to quit the ministry; this is where I belong, where I am doing the most satisfying work I have ever done, and where I hope to continue until age and/or infirmity makes it impossible. Even then I will continue to be "in ministry" to the best of my ability, whether I am actively serving a congregation or not.

Masasa, I hope that gives you some idea of what it has meant to me to be called to the ministry. I'm not sure you wanted a story but that's what I have to give. Today, what it means to me is that I am involved deeply with a congregation of people whom I love sincerely and I feel their love in return. I am moved to tears when I think of the honor it is to serve them, to offer them my thoughts about a spirit-filled life, about the work we can do in our community, and to encourage them in their lives; I have been honored to offer memorial services for people I dearly love and expect to offer many more. Ministry is the culmination of my life so far and I am grateful for every day I spend in it.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Good Grief, it's been a week!

August 1 marked the beginning of the new work year for me and I have to say I'm very glad to be back, feeling productive, with projects to pursue, sermons to plan and write, discussions with congregants and board leaders. I did feel as though my July hiatus was productive in a different way, spending a good deal of time away from the island, seeing longtime friends at both my reunion and at Eliot Institute.

Last Saturday was a big deal, as Trilogy and Bayview Sound both were headline bands at the first annual WISH-AID day here in Freeland. WISH is an acronym for Whidbey Island Share a Home, a local agency that matches people with room in their homes with people who need a home and don't have much money. The event netted about $3500, not bad for a first-time event. Eleven bands donated their musical talents to the day.

Saturday night, my friend Sarah from Portland arrived for the night; she was due to preach at UUCWI the next morning. It was fun to catch up with her; we'd been at Eliot together a couple of weeks ago, both on staff, but we hadn't had much time to talk. She caught me up on the doings at my former congregation in Portland, filling me in on who was still there, who was struggling, how the congregation is doing generally (much improved, it sounds).

I haven't had much energy for blogging this week; I've been more interested in getting back in the swim of ministry. But the topic for this coming Sunday is a good one, about theology and theological questions, since the theme for our upcoming year is the great theological questions of human life.

So I'm putting together a sermon on what theology is, especially in a pluralistic congregation like ours where there is so much diversity of views. I'm looking forward to our Time for all Ages, which I've asked our youthful worship leader to do, using riddles, as an example of questions that require us to wrap our brains around an idea in a different way. It'll be interesting to see what he comes up with.

Max injured himself somehow on Monday, coming in during the day with a very painful right hind leg, so sore he hissed and bit at me when I tried to touch it. So Tuesday morning it was off to the vet, where it was discovered that he had a developing abscess, probably from a bite by another cat. We caught it before it got too bad and a shot of antibiotic has put him back in the pink today. He's nearly back to normal and I expect the carcasses to start piling up again soon.

Now that I'm back at work, I hope the ideas for blog posts begin to develop. I don't like being silent!