Monday, September 28, 2009

The Trumpet Vine

I've always loved this Kate Wolf song. I especially like the very last line: "You came when you were needed, I could not ask for more than to turn and find you walking through the kitchen door." I'm thankful today for all the people in my life who have come when they were needed.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Bitterness, Forgiveness and Life

I'm posting tomorrow's sermon tonight, just to get it done.

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Sept. 27, 2009

This past spring, a friend in the congregation lent me a book, “The Sunflower” by Simon Wiesenthal. It’s a small book, a short book, but I carried it with me everywhere for a few weeks, as I pored over its story and the commentary which accompanied the story.

Simon Wiesenthal, whose name you may remember as the longtime pursuer of Nazi war criminals, had had an unusual experience while imprisoned in a concentration camp and it troubled him. Let me tell you his story.

Wiesenthal had been in the camp for some time and one day, while on work detail, he was approached by a woman who seemed to be a Red Cross nurse in a nearby building, a school which had been turned into a hospital. She asked him if he was a Jew, which seemed a ridiculous question under the circumstances, but he nodded, fearing reprisals if he hesitated, and she bade him come with her.

He followed her into the hospital, hurrying to keep up with her, when she stopped and entered a room, signaling him to wait for her. Suddenly she returned, grabbed him by the arm, and propelled him into the hospital room.

There he found a pale, sick man, lying under white sheets and blankets, bloody bandages on his body, clearly a German soldier. The man looked dreadful; obviously he was dying and in terrible pain. But---a German soldier! A Nazi! Wiesenthal was terrified and fascinated at the same time, not knowing what was about to happen.

The nurse told him to “stay here” and she left. Wiesenthal sat down on the edge of the bed, hesitatingly, and waited. The man choked out, “I am dying. I shall die; there is nobody in the world to help me and nobody to mourn my death.”

“I am twenty-two,” he went on. “I know that death is everywhere. I am resigned to dying soon, but before that I want to talk about an experience which is torturing me. Otherwise I cannot die in peace.”

“I asked the nurse to bring me a Jewish prisoner. I must tell you something dreadful, something inhuman. It happened a year ago and I must tell someone about it; perhaps that will help me die in peace. I must tell YOU of this horrible deed----because you are a Jew.”

The German soldier went on to tell Wiesenthal that he had grown up a good Catholic boy but in his teens he joined the Hitler Youth and found friends and comrades there.

His parents were terrified that he would betray them, for they were against what he was doing, but he moved up in Nazi ranks and became an SS man, an officer in the Nazi army.

Fortified and made bold by lectures from Nazi leaders such as Himmler and Der Fuhrer, he participated in raids and captures of enemy prisoners and Jewish families. One day while on a mission, he had participated in the deed which now tortured him.

Soldiers, including himself, had herded several Jewish families into a house, which they then set on fire with hand grenades, and as people tried to escape the flames, they shot them dead, men, women, and children.

Wiesenthal was horrified and wanted to leave, but the soldier would not permit him to go and at the end of his terrible confession, he said, “I was wounded badly during a later battle and have been brought here to die, but that monstrous deed will not let me go. I relive it constantly. I cannot die without coming clean. In the last hours of my life, you are here with me and my guilt. I do not know who you are but you are a Jew and that is enough. I need you to forgive me,” he ended.

Wiesenthal was stunned by the man’s request and in his narrative of the event, he says this, “Now there was an uncanny silence in the room.. I looked through the window…What a contrast between the glorious sunshine outside and the shadow of this bestial age here in the death chamber. Here lay a man in bed who wished to die in peace---but he could not, because the memory of his terrible crime gave him no rest. And by him sat a man also doomed to die---but who did not want to die because he yearned to see the end of all the horror that blighted the world.

“Two men who had never known each other had been brought together for a few hours by Fate. One asks the other for help. But the other was himself helpless and able to do nothing for him….At last (said Wiesenthal) I made up my mind and without a word I left the room.”

Asked to forgive a Nazi for murdering Jews, Simon Wiesenthal could not bring himself to speak and left the room without granting the request for forgiveness. Once back in the camp, he talked with his fellow prisoners about this experience and struggled with himself endlessly. Had he done the right thing? Would his God judge him for not being compassionate enough? What does forgiveness mean, to the forgiver and to the forgiven?

After the camps were liberated, the experience continued to haunt him and eventually he asked others, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, believers, non-believers, psychiatrists, and other teachers. Their responses form the other half of this slender book. Among those answering his question, “what would you have done?” are the Dalai Lama, Matthew Fox, Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, Desmond Tutu, and other wise notables.

Some of these men and women felt that Wiesenthal should have forgiven the SS man, though most felt that he could not forgive on behalf of the Jews, only on behalf of himself for the frightening experience the SS man had subjected him to by summoning him to his bedside.

Others felt that he had acted rightly by listening and allowing the man to unburden himself, but not giving him forgiveness. Most, too, felt that if they were confronted by such a dilemma, they would not know what else to do but simply listen.

Commentary-contributors seemed in agreement about who can forgive and who can be forgiven, who has the right to ask and of whom.
1. the offended party can forgive for self but not for others.
2. the offender can be forgiven by the offended but also needs forgiveness from a higher power, such as God.
3. the offender can ask the offended to forgive an offense to himself or herself but not for an entire group.
4. some offenses, such as murder, cannot be forgiven for the offended party is dead. Survivors can forgive the pain caused themselves by the murderer but cannot forgive for the victim.

As I think about the issue of forgiveness, I am reminded of my years in a Twelve Step program, when I was working the 12 steps to wholeness and had to make “a searching and fearless moral inventory” of myself, admit those wrongs to my Higher Power, to myself, and to another human being, and then make amends to those I’d harmed, if possible.

I’d gotten into AlAnon because of my relationship with a friend in Alcoholics Anonymous. When we were hiking one day, we were talking about our past hurts in other relationships and I blurted out, “how can I get my ex-husband to make amends to me for the hurt he caused?” and stopped short because the truth hit me between the eyes: it was not my ex-husband’s behavior that should be my concern, it was MY behavior that I needed to consider at that time. How might I have contributed to my own unhappiness?

Because of AlAnon, I’ve done a lot of admitting my wrongs and making amends as soon as possible, apologizing and asking for reconciliation. But it’s always hard to admit I’ve done wrong. It’s also hard to forgive when no apology from another has been made, when no admission of wrong-doing has been offered.

I struggle with this in my life still, when I feel lonely or distressed or misunderstood. It’s hard for me not to feel resentful when I think of the patterns I learned in an early life, patterns which I still maintain even though they aren’t very productive. And it’s then that I have to take a new tack.

In our reading today, Frank read excerpts from an essay by Rabbi Harold Kushner. Kushner’s point is that we don’t have to forgive people for doing terrible things to us; we aren’t being asked to say, “oh, it’s okay that you did this terrible thing”. Because it’s not okay when someone hurts us.

What we can do, however, is refuse to give that person the power to make us victims. For victimhood is mostly in our own minds. It is the residue of the original hurt and should not control our lives. Declaring ourselves the victim of a terrible act and carrying that anger and helplessness forward into the rest of our lives gives the offender power over us, gives the offender illegitimate power in our lives.

In an article this past spring, Shari Roan of the LA Times wrote about a common emotional problem that is so widespread that it may be classified as a mental disorder. It’s called “Post-Traumatic Embitterment Disorder” and here’s what she says about it:

You know them. I know them. And, increasingly, psychiatrists know them. People who feel they have been wronged by someone and are so bitter they can barely function other than to ruminate about their circumstances.

This behavior is so common -- and so deeply destructive -- that some psychiatrists are urging it be identified as a mental illness under the name post-traumatic embitterment disorder. The behavior was discussed before an enthusiastic audience (in May) at a meeting of the American Psychiatric Assn. in San Francisco.

The disorder is modeled after post-traumatic stress disorder because it too is a response to a trauma that endures. People with PTSD are left fearful and anxious. Embittered people are left seething for revenge.

"They feel the world has treated them unfairly. It's one step more complex than anger. They're angry plus helpless," says Dr. Michael Linden, a German psychiatrist who named the behavior.

Embittered people are typically good people who have worked hard at something important, such as a job, relationship or activity, Linden says. When something unexpectedly awful happens, a profound sense of injustice overtakes them.

Instead of dealing with the loss with the help of family and friends, they cannot let go of the feeling of being victimized. Almost immediately after the traumatic event, they become angry, pessimistic, aggressive, hopeless haters.

"Embitterment is a violation of basic beliefs," Linden says. "It causes a very severe emotional reaction. . . . We are always coping with negative life events. It's the reaction that varies."

We do see very bitter people every day---in our own lives, in the media, across the globe wherever injustice has eaten away at people’s lives. Many times these sad and angry people only want a sincere apology from the person or entity which has hurt them; they want someone to take responsibility for an action which has been damaging.

But many times the person or entity which has been hurtful refuses to see the hurt caused; they react defensively and even may demonize the person who is claiming a hurt. We’ve seen this behavior between patients and insurance companies; we’ve seen it in social agencies where a person has been wrongfully accused of misdeeds; we’ve seen it in classrooms where a teacher has hurt a student in some way and has refused to see it as anything but the student’s fault. We’ve seen it in families where an abusive situation has continued unabated despite efforts to change things.

What does bitterness do to us? As individuals? As members of this community? As members of the global community? In our “Time for All Ages” this morning, we heard about a place where people had forgotten how to say “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you”. The result was a burden of unhappiness that had persisted for generations.

Tonight at sundown begins the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, the culmination of what is often called the 10 Days of Repentance, which began with Rosh Hoshanah on Sept. 18. The 10 Days of Repentance are a time when Jews are to meditate on their lives during the past year and ask for forgiveness from anyone they have wronged. At the time of Yom Kippur, Jews are expected to ask forgiveness from God for the ways they have wronged God by disobeying God’s laws.

Judaism recognizes in this way our human need to forgive and to be forgiven, so that our dealings with each other can be mutually peaceful. Christianity also requires confession of wrongs and reconciliation with those who have been harmed; Catholicism requires penance for wrongs against God’s laws. In Buddhism, forgiveness is seen as a practice to prevent harmful thoughts from causing havoc on one’s mental well-being.[10] Buddhism recognizes that feelings of hatred and ill-will leave a lasting effect on our minds.

Instead, Buddhism encourages the cultivation of thoughts that leave a wholesome effect. Compassion for all is a hallmark of most Buddhist theology.

We Unitarian Universalists look to our Seven Principles for guidance in matters of forgiveness. Our first principle asks us to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person and our second principle, to affirm and promote justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.

And yet it is so difficult to do. We are beset by resentment of those who do NOT apologize, we often have a hard time admitting our own complicity in events which bother us, and we may struggle to find compassion in our hearts for those who seem bent on hurting us, deliberately.

Over my years of life, I have been in a number of situations that required me to admit that I had hurt someone and to make amends for my behavior. It has never gotten easy; I am always tempted to deny any wrongdoing on my own part, to be defensive when called on my actions, and to avoid confrontation.

Yet every time I have let go of my defensiveness, acknowledged my own complicity in a negative situation, and asked for forgiveness, I have come away from the situation wiser, less anxious, stronger, and more compassionate. I have grown in ways I could not have imagined.

Forgiveness is tied to compassion. When we can find compassion in our hearts for someone who has hurt us, it is easier to feel forgiving. Forgiveness is tied to repentance. When we express our regret for having hurt another person, it is easier for that person to forgive us. Sometimes the other person doesn’t even know they’ve wounded us; in that case, it is valuable to have the courage to speak of our hurt to the other.

Sometimes it doesn’t happen. We apologize and the other person doesn’t accept our apology. Or we can find no compassion in our hearts for the person who has hurt us, only resentment. But as many wise women and men have pointed out, and as is stated clearly in 12 Step process, we forgive others for our own benefit, as much as theirs.

I ask us: Could the great hurts of the world be cured by the acts of taking responsibility for wrong-doing, taking steps to make amends for the hurt caused, and finding reconciliation?

Could the small and large hurts of our daily lives be healed by the acts of taking responsibility, making amends, and finding reconciliation? I’d like to think it could be so.

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

BENEDICTION: Because prayer is a common way of coping with hurt and resentment, our benediction this morning is a prayer.

Spirit of Life and Love, whom some call God, we are grateful for the many blessings of Life and Love. We are in awe of this beautiful universe and its gifts, yet we often overlook or ignore our own responsibility to the world and especially to our brothers and sisters on this planet. We remember times when we have hurt others or have been hurt by others and have not taken steps to heal those hurts.

We regret these lapses, for we know that to forgive and to be forgiven are essential actions in a world that desperately needs peace. Grant us, we pray, the courage to say we're sorry to each other and to ask for forgiveness. Grant us, too, the grace to accept apology from others and to let go of the resentments we may be harboring. In the name of all that is holy, we pray these things. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Preparing a Worship Service

Okay, this is kind of "handy hints from Ms. Kitty" about preparing a worship service, from my ministerial point of view. I have to prepare for our annual Worship Workshop on Saturday and figured it might make a decent blog post.

1. With the Worship Committee, we decide on the year's theme and how we'll approach each month's services; I choose my pulpit dates.
2. I start thinking, collecting bits of pertinent info, quotes, books, ideas; I carry a little notebook with me to write down ideas that come at odd times.
3. The newsletter deadline is during the 3rd week of the month, which means I need to submit titles and blurbs for my two services.
4. Now I'm committed and make a folder for the service and stick any info I've collected inside it.
5. 7-10 days before the service, if possible, I meet with the Worship Leader and we talk about what I'm thinking about for the service. We choose hymns, readings, discuss possible "All Ages" stories, and I make notes about the WL's thoughts on the topic of the sermon, so I can include them as appropriate (with permission, of course).
6. Monday before the upcoming service, I draft the Order of Service, using my notes from the WL conference, and send it to the WL for proofing. Then the O/S goes to our administrator, to the WL, to the musicians and/or accompanist.
7. Wednesday is my day to begin the sermon. I have already been thinking a lot about the topic and how I can make it personal, related to my own experience, because I'm crummy at preaching about things that aren't important in my own life (without making it TOO personal, of course). I think about how I can make it personal to the congregation, without embarrassing or seeming to attack anyone.
8. I make a list of all the things I want to include in the sermon and decide how I will start the sermon, as getting the immediate attention of the congregation is crucial. Usually I start with a story or something that gets people to move from their head to their heart, or startles them a bit.
9. I work on writing the sermon for as long as I can on Wednesday morning, then print what I've got and put it away. I'll take it out later in the day, read it aloud, and start jotting down what might come next, now that I can see the progression I've started.
10. Thursday morning I write until I come to a stopping point and then put it away again, returning to it later in the day to edit out the sloppy parts, reword awkward constructions, and make sure it moves smoothly when it's spoken aloud.
11. By Friday afternoon, I've pretty well got it all down and ready for its final percolation period. So I stow it in its folder and let it be until Saturday afternoon, when I review it, make final corrections, deliver it aloud to my cats, and have a fresh, clean copy ready for Sunday morning.
12. Sunday morning, I deliver it aloud again to the long-suffering but very appreciative cats, and head off to church about 9 for the service at 10.

Bear in mind that my process can be leisurely because I work half-time and preach twice a month, but I developed this process when I was working fulltime in my first parish and usually managed to be finished by Friday morning. I learned in seminary that I'd rather be done early with a project than desperate to finish it by a deadline. I hate feeling pressured by time.

If this is helpful to any budding preachers, I'll be glad. I'd be interested in hearing how others approach service preparation. I'm gifted with a wonderful Worship Committee which really "gets it" about worship. For a small congregation, our worship services are extremely high quality. Almost no duds for the past several years, and that's not because of me---it's because of their commitment.

Monday, September 21, 2009


This young man reminds me of what education means to this country.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Healthcare Napkins All

Borrowed from the other Kit K's Facebook post. I thought this was interesting and easier to follow than all the news rhetoric.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Saying goodbye...

As I age, become ever more conscious of my own mortality, and am affected by the mortality of others, little things begin to mean a great deal to me. I notice significances more, spend more time thinking about those significances, and go deeper into their larger meaning.

It's probably a good year for us to be engaging theological issues in our worship time at UUCWI because I'm thinking more about meaning. And meaning is what theology is all about. My own mental meanderings start with "someone I care about is very ill and I feel compassion for her", move on to "what will it be like for me if and when she dies?", and wind up in "what does it mean that I will die, that we all will die, that these deaths are a natural outcome of human life, and where is the Sacred in this natural occurrence?"

Recently an email from an acquaintance reached my inbox. The sender was someone I'd met when I performed her wedding ceremony a couple of years ago, whose first message to me included the line that she wanted to wear her wedding dress before she had to go in for her next round of chemo.

This time it was a plea to be with her and her husband as they put their beloved dog to rest. Mac, who had been a member of the wedding party, was declining fast; his illness too was cancer and it had struck hard, taking him downhill almost overnight. Would I say a few words over his little grave? Of course I would.

It came at the end of a pleasant day with my sister across the water. Sitting in the ferry line, I got the call. Could I come to the house as soon as I got off the boat? The vet would be there and we would be together during these moments of goodbye, the little grave would be dug, and we would bury Mac with his toys and collar, wrapped in his favorite blanket. And I would pray.

It happened just that way, with many tears and stories of Mac's bravery and protectiveness toward his family and other animal friends. We wrapped him and carried him to the grave, where he was laid. And my words went something like this:

"Spirit of Life and Love, God in our midst, we are grateful for the unconditional love of our animal friends. They give it so unstintingly and we give our care and devotion in return. But our lives are longer than their lives and there sometimes comes a time when we must repay their love and friendship by giving them a peaceful, painfree death. We are grateful for the bright spirit of little Mac, who gave so freely to his humans of his companionship, his protection, his playfulness, his loyalty. May his spirit be always with his humans and may he rest here in peace. Amen and Blessed Be."

And we threw clods of dirt upon the small packet in the bottom of the grave and said goodbye.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The missing post

By Rev. Kit Ketcham, Sept. 13, 2009

Picture this, if you will: seven young women, all teachers or about-to-be teachers, standing on the shores of Dillon Lake, a huge reservoir in the Front Range of Colorado which supplies the Denver metropolis with water, seven young women gazing with mixed fear and anticipation upon seven small Sunfish sailboats pulled up on the shore.

None of us had ever sailed before and the prospect ahead of us was daunting. We were going to have a race across the reservoir in two days, each of us alone in a boat, sailing to three different checkpoints where our leader would note our time of arrival and send each of us back out again on the course.

Dillon is big----over 3000 acres---and it’s at about 9000 feet of elevation. We were small, and on our Outward Bound rations of cheese and hardtack and raisins, we were getting smaller. But we were also getting stronger and we were past the point of believing we were weaklings who would fold at any challenge. When our leader told us we could do this, we almost believed her!

But first we had to learn to sail! Luckily, the weather was fine---warm and sunny---and we quickly became fairly proficient at the tiller, at dodging the mast as it swung about, and even at tacking to take advantage of the mild breeze. Two days of this and we were ready for anything!

The morning of the race dawned bright and clear and we snarfed down our instant oatmeal and did our morning routines of cleaning up camp and getting ready to go. We figured we had plenty of time; the race would take about 4 hours and we ought to be back at camp by mid-afternoon.

But we hadn’t considered that the weather might change and in those days before cell phones or mini-computers, we had to rely on our own observations for a forecast. As we launched our tiny boats, a light breeze sprang up, ruffling the limp sails and somebody said, “oh goodie, there’s going to be a little wind” not knowing that just behind the mountain ridge loomed dark thunderheads, clouds we couldn’t yet see.

Isn’t this just the way life goes? There’s always something just behind the metaphorical mountain ridge that we can’t see, throwing us a curve that will surprise and alarm and challenge us to meet it.

We launched in a small cove and as we rounded the shoreline and headed out into the main body of the lake, the wind picked up---and picked up and picked up. Now we could see the clouds building but they didn’t look too bad and we didn’t want to be wimps, so we continued across the lake toward our first checkpoint, the distances between boats widening as the wind strengthened and white caps on the water splashed over our bow.

Storms come up awfully fast in the Colorado Rockies and this one, which seemed tame enough at first, quickly turned into a doozy. Here we were, seven young women in seven small Sunfish boats, with metal masts, and lightning beginning to strike the ridgetops around us.

Now this story doesn’t have heroic rescues or tragic endings to heighten the drama. It’s just a story of how seven young women, who had been together in Outward Bound about ten days at that point with a few adventures under our belts, looked at each other from the cramped safety of the smelly park service outhouse and thanked our lucky stars that we were alive, that none of us had capsized in that stormy water, that nobody had been struck by lightning, that our boats had conveyed us through the wind and waves to safety on the shore of the first race checkpoint.

The significance of the story has to do with the growing sense of community and camaraderie among seven young women on a challenging and unfamiliar journey because of their shared experience.

That’s what we have here at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Whidbey Island: shared experience. Our connections, both here within these walls and in the larger community, form a bond between us that makes us more than just fellow residents of the island or members of the same gym or service organizations. We are a community in and of ourselves.

When we pool the waters that represent our personal lives and the important experiences of our lives, we signify that we are bringing our deepest selves to this place, that we are willing to share the meaning of our experiences and our being with one another.

Just as we are a community, bringing all we are and all we have into this relationship, watery places too are a community, a biological community, affected by all that it absorbs. Like a human community, the water community must be kept pure, free from pollutants, in order to bring the greatest good to the greatest number.

We depend on water to keep us healthy and functioning as individuals and as groups. We depend on water to keep the earth and all its creatures healthy and functioning. We depend on water to give us beauty and to foster growth. We depend on the cleansing power of water.

We depend on water to work for us---the tide regularly and predictably brings in food, allows us to navigate the waters of rivers and oceans, gives us energy that can be turned into power, and scours the shoreline. We use water in cooking, in medicines, to control fire, to float our boats, and to irrigate our crops.

Water plays with us, inspiring our creativity and offering us joy as we splash in it or scud before the wind as it fills our sails, or thread our way through rapids in our small boats, or depict its beauty in artistic ways.

Water has its cycles: from liquid to solid to gas, cycling from rain to ocean to clouds and again to rain or snow, becoming liquid and then freezing, melting, evaporating and condensing.

Our human community has its cycles as well; folks come and go, visitors become members, members become active leaders, we grow older and more tired and others step in to do the tasks we once performed, people die or move away and we recognize our losses while adjusting to the new circumstances of life.

And, like the human community, water needs balance: too much or too little of it is a problem. Too much means flooding, damage to the land and to its occupants. Too little means crop failure, starvation, devastation of societies.

How do we find balance in our human community? As human beings we are fallible, affected by gossip or accusations or misunderstandings. A faith community like ours makes every effort to keep our communications clear and kind. We encourage people to talk directly to each other about their concerns, not behind their backs. We give each other the benefit of the doubt as much as possible and yet we do our best to uphold standards of behavior that are exemplified in our seven principles.

We strive to keep each other safe in this community. We want to be inclusive, but we cannot overlook behavior that endangers or damages the community. This can be difficult but it is important that our children and our adults all feel safe here. We have policies to fall back on when that safety is endangered or violated.

Our seven principles are our guides to our behavior in community, as they encourage us to be mindful of the worth and dignity of each person and that each of us plays a part in the preservation of the interdependent web of existence, which supports and nurtures us.

As we have brought our contributions of water to this communal container and have listened to Mark and Ken read the words we’ve written to describe what the water means to us, we come together in another moment of shared experience.

Our life together as a community of love and justice now contains all our recent experiences of joy and sorrow, of growth and insight.

But harking back to our story of sudden storms and danger and connection, there’s an important point to be made: whatever the unexpected challenges that you and I may face in our human journey during the coming year, we are not alone. We are not alone. We are together here and that bond will serve us well. We are here to care for each other and for those beyond these walls.

And as we get ready to make our way together through another year, I am reminded of this passage from one of the publications of my first UU church, Jefferson Unitarian in Golden, Colorado:
“We have a congregation where each member is a minister and with each smile, each kindness, each word of encouragement, every offer of help, every hug and touch, every moment spent listening to another, we knit up the rips and tears in the interdependent web of existence and bring each other closer to spiritual wholeness.”
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 community is a place of safety and encouragement to spiritual growth. May we strive to live lives of integrity and kindness, speaking our truth in love and respect for each other’s inherent worth and dignity, for it is in this way that we heal ourselves and each other and knit up the rips and tears in the interdependent web of existence, of which we are a part. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Feeling a bit less wiped out now...

from a wonderful but draining weekend on beautiful Whidbey Island in Puget Sound. I tried earlier to re-post my homily from Sunday and got posted but then tried to tweak it a little bit and ended up having to delete it all again. I may try again tomorrow, because it's a good homily.

I was so pleased this morning to learn (at Worship Committee) that a couple of new folks in the congregation (temporary residents of the island, staying with members here while they deal with a health crisis) told their hosts that they thought that I was one of the most articulate preachers they had heard, and they've done a lot of traveling around in their own ministry and have heard a lot of preachers! What a compliment! I was bowled over because I was truly a bit intimidated by their presence yesterday. They themselves are among the very best speakers I've ever heard.

We're working at starting a couple of new music groups, not for performance but for enjoyment and for learning new skills. My Trilogy pals, Richard and Debbie, and I are getting together occasionally to work on our improvisational jazz stylings. I want to learn to sing more interpretively, if that makes sense, doing some of the jazzy stuff that Ella and Etta and those ladies know how to do. I'm kind of scared to take liberties with rhythm and melody because I'm afraid I'll get it wrong, but they are encouraging and it's been fun so far.

There's also a bluegrass group meeting occasionally but I'm not sure I will try to be very involved in that one. I'm realizing that my spare time only stretches so far and I don't want to fall short in any of my work for the congregation. I do love bluegrass, but I may have to enjoy it only as a listener.

Tomorrow is my day in Coupeville at the hospital; I have three other visits to make up in that area, to folks who are less mobile and can't get to church very often. I love doing this kind of work. On Tuesdays I almost always come home feeling like I have done a good deed, whether it's in having a deeper conversation with a hospital patient or with one of our shut-ins. It makes Tuesday a very special day.

Interesting difficulties with Blogger

This is the first time I've had problems with Blogger and the only real downside was that I disappeared off the UUpdates aggregator. So if you haven't seen me here recently, that's the reason. It turns out that sometimes if one cuts and pastes from a Word document, Blogger has a meltdown---or something. Anyhow, UUpdates freaks (not John's fault) and you have to wait till a post cycle (20+ posts) completes before you're back on UUpdates. Bummer!

So this is a test message to see if deleting the offending post will speed things up.

Monday, September 07, 2009

An Ethic of Work

Whether it was babysitting, summer harvest work, or other kinds of typical youth employment, I have been working steadily since I was 13 years old, growing up in the wheat and pea fields of northeastern Oregon.

Babysitting for the neighbors was a minor part of my work history; I didn't particularly like taking care of kids, with one exception. Jennifer N.'s parents had some fascinating books on their living room shelves: the Boccaccio, Canterbury Tales, and other such semi-titillating non-sacred tomes. My family's shelves were particularly laden with Bibles and religious literature. The N's had no such restrictions on their choices.

But all us pre-teen girls were champing at the bit to turn 13 so that we could work for the big pea-harvest outfit in Athena: Weber and Kirk. There we would work 12 hour days for 85 cents an hour, driving huge, heavy-laden cabless trucks full of peavines from field to field, depositing these loads in front of viners manned by migrant workers who pitched the vines onto conveyor belts which carried them up inside an immense rotating drum (think cement truck type drum) where the motion would pop the pea pods open so that the peas could rattle down into boxes below.

It was filthy work and we loved it. We zoomed our trucks across the open fields raising clouds of dust, on our way out to the area we were harvesting. We didn't drive on the roads, only in the field, which is why we could do it at age 13! We'd come home at night sunburnt, dirty, blowing black boogers into equally black hankies, collapse into bed, and get up the next morning and do it all again, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week for about four or five weeks. The camaraderie of pea harvest leveled all social barriers; we were all in it together, the popular kids and the not-so popular.

Wheat harvest was a little more easy-going, with long periods of sitting in our trucks (my first one was a 42 Dodge) waiting for the combine to be ready to dump a load, and then we'd head for the grain elevator. You had to be 16 and have a license to drive in wheat harvest, because the elevators were on county roads. A much classier job, indeed.

Eventually I went off to college and struggled through the normal summer and school year jobs of the typical college student, mostly retail sales. But after college, when I had few prospects and very little actual training for anything, I landed a job as a welfare worker in Skamania County WA, in the middle of the Columbia River Gorge, and started on a trajectory of a different kind: the so-called "helping" professions.

From welfare caseworker in Washington, I went to a stint as an American Baptist Home Missionary in Denver. After marriage, I took the time to acquire teaching credentials and began a 25 year-long career as a public school educator (6 years as a Spanish teacher and then 19 as a guidance counselor). Ministry is my fifth career and everything else was preparation for it.

I am thinking about this today, Labor Day, because I realize that at age 67, I need to think about when I might retire. I'm certainly not ready yet; I'd like to put in several more years in ministry before I hang up my stole. But the congregation is starting to do some long range planning and I know this is a question that will come up eventually.

Anyhow, if I were to work till age 73 (not a bad time to hang it up), I will have worked pretty much non-stop for 60 years. That seems like a work ethic to be pleased with. And I'm happy to say that I have liked, even loved, my work for all of those years. There have been moments of great pain and stress and fear but none of it has been so daunting that I couldn't learn something important from it.

I can't imagine being idle for any extended period of time; that's the drawback to such a strong work ethic, I think. Idleness doesn't come easily. Even now, working half-time, I fill up the other times of my day with other kinds of ministry and work. I like having responsibility; I like filling needs; I like being useful.

"She was useful" is not a very poetic epitaph and easily misconstrued. But that's what I hope my life is and has been: useful in valuable ways.

Friday, September 04, 2009

We made a difference!

I didn't blog about the offensive ad in the new UU World, but I weighed in on it in comments on others' blogs and it looks like we all made a difference. Here's a message from the World's business manager:

September 4, 2009

I’m writing regarding the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s advertisement in the Fall 2009 issue of UU World. As the UU World’s business manager, I am responsible for all aspects of advertising in the magazine. We have received emails both supporting and denouncing our publication of this advertisement, and I greatly appreciate that you took the time to write and share your concerns.

I have come to the conclusion that it was a mistake to run this particular ad. While the stated mission of the Freedom From Religion Foundation is entirely consistent with UU values, this ad seems hostile to all religion. To be more specific, I believe that I failed to help the advertiser match their message to our readers. An ad spotlighting FFRF’s purpose of “working for the separation of state and church” would have been more appropriate than one that for many appears to be condemning all religion in general.

UU World accepts paid advertisements for the same reason as any other periodical, to support the costs of publication. Advertising also makes it possible for UU and independent organizations to promote their goods and services to a UU audience—a service to our readers and to the advertisers. Our ads are often forums for differing viewpoints, and the UUA has taken a broad view of what perspectives can be included. (See UU World’s advertising policy.) In this case, FFRF needed help finding the right tone to elicit the support they were seeking from UU World readers.

As business manager, I will continue to be responsible for accepting, rejecting, or seeking to modify ads submitted to us. In the future, however, I’ll watch for the rare advertisement that needs to be modified before being accepted.

Scott Ullrich
Business Manager
advertising @

I really appreciate Scott Ullrich's prompt response to our concerns and his acceptance of responsibility. I wish everyone whose performance is critiqued sharply had the wisdom to respond in a sensitive way to the criticism, whether or not s/he changed his/her behavior as a result.

Thank you, Scott Ullrich!

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Acts of Courage and Compassion... and Phones and Milkshakes

One of the things I most appreciate about my congregation is the willingness of so many individuals to reach out to those in need. We've had experiences with elderly folk needing rides, family crises requiring food help or transportation to doctors, that sort of thing. And folks have always risen to the occasion, as best they can. Some recipients report receiving far more food or offers of help than they can possibly use!

Recently I learned about a man who was interested in making a connection to our congregation because he would soon be without family members nearby and he is approaching the end of his life with a terrible illness. I started visiting him regularly and after awhile asked members who lived nearby if they would be interested in making his acquaintance and dropping by periodically.

The response was swift and positive-----of course they would be glad to get to know him, take him for rides, help with small tasks. And so I started introducing them to him, one at a time. One person immediately offered to help him get his phone installed and has undertaken to do that for him, as he is unable to make the contacts easily himself. We don't always think, in this day and age, that we need more than a cell phone, but cell phones run out of energy and a landline is forever, even in a power outage.

The act that inspired this post occurred yesterday, when another person from the congregation suggested that the two of them go out for a milkshake sometime. The joy on the face of this worn-out man, in such discomfort, was palpable. This member knew and suggested just what a man with a permanent sore throat would relish: a milkshake and an outing with another man, someone strong enough to help him if his strength gave out, someone to talk guy-talk with. (All his caregivers recently have been female.)

I am always thrilled and moved to see the compassion in people's hearts for those who are suffering. We can give money to faraway causes and human rights struggles in our own neighborhoods, but the opportunity to give tangible comfort and companionship to someone who is very very ill, in the last months of life, doesn't come along very often or in this way. And we are often too unnerved by death to have the courage to step up and help, especially if it's a stranger.

In my regular chalice lighting words on the Sundays I preach, I offer these lines, adapted from something my colleague Alice Blair Wesley once wrote:

"The chalice holds a flame during our times together. For us, the flame stands for all that we hold dear and keep burning in our hearts: devotion to truth, gratitude for blessings, humility in the face of our limitations and folly, courage and compassion, and the generosity of spirit it is always ours to exercise. We gather on Sundays to nurture our understanding of who we are and what we may become. In the holy spirit of love for the good of all life, please join me in saying the congregational response which is printed in your order of service: 'May Love reign among us here in this hour of community.'

Courage and Compassion----that's what we're all about.