Thursday, October 29, 2009

A couple of Halloween Feghoots.

There was this haunted house on the outskirts of the town which was avoided by all the townfolk - the ghost which `lived' there was feared by all.

However, an enterprising journalist decided to get the scoop of the day by photographing the fearsome phantom. When he entered the house, armed with only his camera, the ghost descended upon him, clanking chains et al.

He told the ghost "I mean no harm - I just want your photograph". The ghost was quite happy at this chance to make the headlines - he posed for a number of ghostly shots.

The happy journalist rushed back to his dark room, and began developing the photos. Unfortunately, they turned out to be black and underexposed.

So what's the moral of the story?

The spirit was willing but the flash was weak.

Bob Hill and his wife Betty were vacationing in Europe... as it happens, near Transylvania. They were driving in a rental car along a rather deserted highway. It was late and raining very hard. Bob could barely see the road in front of the car.

Suddenly the car skids out of control! Bob attempts to control the car, but to no avail! The car swerves and smashes into a tree.

Moments later, Bob shakes his head to clear the fog. Dazed, he looks over at the passenger seat and sees his wife unconscious, with her head bleeding!

Despite the rain and unfamiliar countryside, Bob knows he has to get her medical assistance.

Bob carefully picks his wife up and begins trudging down the road. After a short while, he sees a light. He heads towards the light, which is coming from a large, old house. He approaches the door and knocks.

A minute passes. A small, hunched man opens the door. Bob immediately blurts, "Hello, my name is Bob Hill, and this is my wife Betty. We've been in a terrible accident, and my wife has been seriously hurt. Can I please use your phone?"

"I'm sorry," replied the hunchback, "but we don't have a phone. My master is a doctor; come in and I will get him!" Bob brings his wife in.

An older man comes down the stairs. "I'm afraid my assistant may have misled you. I am not a medical doctor; I am a scientist. However, it is many miles to the nearest clinic, and I have had a basic medical training. I will see what I can do. Igor, bring them down to the laboratory."

With that, Igor picks up Betty and carries her downstairs, with Bob following closely. Igor places Betty on a table in the lab. Bob collapses from exhaustion and his own injuries, so Igor places Bob on an adjoining table.

After a brief examination, Igor's master looks worried. "Things are serious, Igor. Prepare a transfusion." Igor and his master work feverishly, but to no avail. Bob and Betty Hill are no more.

The Hills' deaths upset Igor's master greatly. Wearily, he climbs the steps to his conservatory, which houses his grand piano. For it is here that he has always found solace. He begins to play, and a stirring, almost haunting melody fills the house.

Meanwhile, Igor is still in the lab tidying up. His eyes catch movement, and he notices the fingers on Betty's hand twitch, keeping time to the haunting piano music. Stunned, he watches as Bob's arm begins to rise, marking the beat! He is further amazed as Betty and Bob both sit up straight!

Unable to contain himself, he dashes up the stairs to the conservatory.

 He bursts in and shouts to his master: (wait for it!)

"Master, Master! ..... The Hills are alive with the sound of music!"

(thanks to MissCellania)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The history of evil: a sermon

By Rev. Kit Ketcham, Oct. 25, 2009
I was sitting at my computer on Tuesday morning of this past week, thinking about this sermon, hoping to set down a few lines before I went off to my first appointment of the day. I like to use the homiletic device noted by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said in his Divinity School Address, which was delivered to the senior class at Harvard, on July 15, 1838: "The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life---life passed through the fire of thought." Emerson was talking about boring preachers at the time and advising these new guys to put the fire of their own lives into their message..

Of course, Emerson had no idea that 160 years later, a “she” would be taking his advice! But I do like to share with you how I have discovered certain insights in my spiritual life, and nothing about our topic today was coming to mind last Tuesday.

So I called my sister, she of the creative memory, who tends to describe our childhood escapades in the most dramatic ways (and they’re often my fault, in her eyes), and asked her to tell me when she thought we Ketcham kids began to be aware of evil. Seriously, Jean, I said.

We talked about how right and wrong are usually taught to children by the adults in our lives and are not necessarily the same thing as good and evil. It’s wrong to cross the street without looking, but it’s not evil. There tend to be a lot of things, we noted, that are wrong without being evil; fewer, perhaps, that are right without being good. Right and wrong are influenced by culture, while good and evil have a more universal meaning.

In any case, my sister reminded me of a time when we were both teenagers, out in the generally peaceful Oregon hamlet of Athena, and the news came that a little girl named Sally, seven years old, had been raped while playing near the creek that runs through City Park. Sally was a child in our Sunday School and both Jean and I had babysat her.

The news was unthinkable. It was summer and the town was full of migrant workers so suspicion immediately jumped to that group of itinerant men who came through the town every year in search of harvest work. Though they occasionally got drunk and had to be hauled off to the town jail and often panhandled at back doors across town, sexual assault had not, to our knowledge, ever taken place at their hands.

No one was ever arrested and convicted for the assault; I don’t know whether little Sally ever received any therapy or assistance or whether she still suffers from those psychic and physical wounds. But even then, we recognized this offense as not only wrong, but evil. The fear engendered by this news infected my life for some considerable period of time after that summer and I was nervous about being around men I didn’t know for a long time, an extension of that one act which affected my life then and, to some extent, even now.

We were World War II babies, born during the last years of the second War we hoped would End All War. We knew nothing of the Holocaust until we were of an age to understand that millions of innocent people had been deliberately killed at the hands of the Nazis and that millions more citizens of countries around the world had died during that conflict.

As Peggy and I talked about this service, we exchanged our early memories, discovering that both of us had received advice about right and wrong, good and evil, from our church. Both our sets of parents were devout Christians---hers were Methodist, mine were Baptist. We learned the 10 Commandments in Sunday School and the story of the Garden of Eden and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

The Holocaust turned out to be a turning point for each of us. How could human beings do this to each other? And how could anyone stand by and watch? The specter of war conflicted with the specter of moral evil in that moment. Could we U.S. citizens remain neutral as a nation under these circumstances? And then, of course, we found out we could not.

What seems to be the difference between natural evil and moral evil? Here’s one definition: Moral evil results from a perpetrator, one who intentionally inflicts the evil. Natural evil has only victims, and is generally taken to be the result of natural processes. The "evil" thus identified is evil only from the perspective of those affected and who perceive it as an affliction. Examples include cancer, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and other phenomena which inflict suffering... Such phenomena inflict "evil" on victims, but with no human perpetrator to blame for it.

Of course, as our knowledge of cause and effect grows, we have come to understand that human failings and misdeeds often contribute to natural evil: pesticides and harmful chemicals contribute to cancer; poorly constructed buildings fall in earthquakes, taking human lives; overuse of resources and inattention to climate change has resulted in devastating wildfires and drought. So, though natural disaster inflicts damage upon human lives and property, human ignorance and willfulness also contribute to that damage and increase the sense of outrage among victims.

What is the origin of evil in human life? Let me read to you the words from the Hebrew scriptures which tell the legend of the creation of humankind and the awareness of evil: this is excerpted from Genesis 2/3.

In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, 5 when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up--… 7 then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. 8 And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed.

9 Out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 And the LORD God commanded the man, "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die."
(In between these two passages, the first woman is created, according to the legend.)

(Genesis 3) Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God say, 'You shall not eat from any tree in the garden'?" 2 The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3 but God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.'"

4 But the serpent said to the woman, "You will not die; 5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."
6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.

7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. 8 They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.

9 But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, "Where are you?" 10 Adam said, "I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself." 11 God said, "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?"

12 The man said, "The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate." 13 Then the LORD God said to the woman, "What is this that you have done?" The woman said, "The serpent tricked me, and I ate."

14 The LORD God said to the serpent, "Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. 15 I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel."

16 To the woman he said, "I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you."
17 And to the man he said, "Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you… cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

From this ancient story, one of many creation stories that abound in cultures worldwide, has come the longstanding Christian doctrine of original sin, that human beings in the Garden of Eden disobeyed God, as a result of their own willfulness, and therefore were condemned to lifelong punishment in the form of endless work for the man, painful childbirth for the woman, and expulsion from the beautiful garden of Eden.

Their rebellious response to a warning by the Lord God caused the legendary “Fall of Man”, the original deed which, according to traditional Christian doctrine, started humankind down the primrose path of wrongdoing.

What do Unitarian Universalists do with this story? Our Christian and Judaic roots invite us to take it seriously but our knowledge of science and our devotion to reason cause us to run it through the filters of deeper understanding that science and reason offer and help us see it through the lens of metaphor.

We see that human beings do have to work to survive, do have to endure painful childbirth, must struggle to maintain a place to live, and we are rebellious by nature. (And we tend to distrust snakes!)

If you and I were Adam and Eve in the garden, chances are we’d do the same thing, being as how we crave knowledge and understanding. In fact, it would occur to us to wonder later if God set us up for a test, wondering if we’d succumb to the temptation. If He didn’t, you have to wonder how much He knew about human nature, even as He created it. Blame it on Free Will, I guess.

And what is Free Will? Well, in the religious realm, free will implies that an omnipotent God does not assert its power over individual will and choices. In ethics, it implies that individuals can be held morally accountable for their actions. So are we to blame for our own actions of evil or can we blame someone else?

Enter Satan, the serpent, the “Twinkie” defense. And out of the mélange of good excuses and bad ones, we humans struggle to sort out reasons why human beings often behave in inhumane ways.

I’ll tell you what I think. And your experience and reasoning may lead you to different results. Goodness knows, there are hundreds of scholarly and popular books and essays which deal with the problem of evil in the world and a myriad of questions and issues to consider: why do bad things happen to good people? Does evil human behavior come from genetic causes or from upbringing? What should be our response to evil acts by others? How can we resist the temptation to hurt others when we’re angry?

How can we help repair the damage done by evil acts? Are good and evil found in equal measure within our own psyches? Are atheists more likely to commit evil acts? Why has so much evil been perpetrated by religious groups? It wouldn’t be surprising if we do reach different conclusions on the many questions of evil.

But here’s what I think and I realize that I can’t possibly cover the whole waterfront in one sermon! Or even in 1000!

I see a continuum of wrongdoing that stretches from minor misdeeds on the one hand to major catastrophic actions on the other, from swiping a candy bar at the grocery story to assuage a physical or emotional hunger pang to killing one or more persons out of anger or greed or revenge. And on this continuum there are thousands of stopping places, degrees of wrong-doing that crescendo into violence toward others.

I’ve always been someone who looks underneath the surface facts to figure out why something happens, and the bedrock I find underneath acts of wrongdoing, whether minor or major, that bedrock is self-preservation, the will to survive, the will to put one’s own survival above that of others.

And that will to survive is shaped by our early experiences AND our genetic makeup. Whether by early violence in one’s life or negative teachings or lack of emotionality, it can be shaped in such a way that fear for survival is one’s first reaction to the events of one’s life.

Who knows what Hitler’s early life was like? Whatever it might have been, whether violent or neglectful or any other shaping kind of experience, it did not justify his actions toward the Jews, the homosexuals, the gypsies, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the disabled, the trade unionists, the many other nationalities who were imprisoned and killed during the Holocaust. The final toll of the Holocaust was closer to 25 million people, including six million Jews.

Something motivated Hitler to act as he did, seeking to exterminate all those who threatened his idea of a safe society, a society in which he alone had the power, a society in which there were no threats to his survival. The Holocaust is our gold standard for pure evil and the motivations of people like Hitler and his minions will never be fully understood.

As for Unitarian Universalists generally, we tend not to believe that a person is born and enslaved in the manner that the doctrine of Original Sin teaches. We believe that people are born innocent and that life shapes them for good or evil. We believe that all humans have inherent worth and dignity and that it is our job to respect and protect that worth and dignity. That’s our motivation for our social justice efforts, as well.

We have no quick doctrine-based answers to explain evil, pain and suffering, and the fact that life can be hellish at times. We’re optimistic about human nature, but most of us acknowledge there is a broken, fragmented or fallen side to humanity, and in each of our lives. We know it’s there and we try not to give in to it but to mitigate its effects on human lives.

In closing, I’d like to read something Peggy gave me from the work entitled “Spoon River Anthology” by Edgar Lee Masters. The character whose words these are is Seth Compton, the sponsor of the small library in Spoon River, a library which caused much controversy because of its selection of reading material, a common affliction for libraries which continues even today.


WHEN I died, the circulating library
Which I built up for Spoon River,
And managed for the good of inquiring minds,
Was sold at auction on the public square,
As if to destroy the last vestige
Of my memory and influence.
For those of you who could not see the virtue
Of knowing Volney's "Ruins" as well as Butler's "Analogy"
And "Faust" as well as "Evangeline,"
Were really the power in the village,
And often you asked me
"What is the use of knowing the evil in the world?"
I am out of your way now, Spoon River,
Choose your own good and call it good.
For I could never make you see
That no one knows what is good
Who knows not what is evil;
And no one knows what is true
Who knows not what is false.

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, as we obey our instinct for self-preservation, as all animals do, we also have a higher, a human obligation to preserve the lives of others, for we do not live within a vacuum. We are not separate from others and when we affect others’ lives for altruistic or for selfish reasons, we affect our own lives as well. May we seek to do good, not evil in the world. May we examine our deeds and atone for those which have hurt others, while rejoicing at those which have helped others. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Fall Retreat coming up!

The first couple of months of the new church year are always crammed full of activities and start-up events. I estimated that in September, I put in 120 hours, a full 40 above and beyond the 80 a half-time person should be working. It was an exciting time, with lots happening in the church, a UU 101 class to organize and teach, visitors' dinner, a new board to help shape, that sort of thing. In October it has been somewhat less busy, but not much. I'm sure I will have put in at least 100 hours by the end of the month.

Because of all the time spent on ministry, on stuff that really needed to be done and needed me to do it, I have not had as much time for music or other fun stuff and I've been feeling it. I even had a very brief episode of BPPV (benign paroxysmal positional vertigo) and realized that this only happens when I've stretched myself too thin. Fortunately a little meclizine always takes care of it fairly promptly and I haven't had a serious episode since I was in seminary, over ten years ago.

But it underscores my need for a time of rest, so I'm ever so glad that tonight I will be with colleagues at Palisades for our fall retreat. I'm looking forward to sleeping without cats, without having to shoo them off the bed when I can't stand being pinned down any longer, without having to get up at 5 a.m. to feed them so they'll quit whining. I love them, but gee whiz! I need a break.

The plan is to let Max be outside while I'm gone; the catsitting crew will let him in or out depending on his request, will feed him on the deck if necessary, and my hope is that he will be less crazed by the time I get back on Wednesday afternoon. (And that no beds will have been peed upon. I'm going to put the tarps over the beds anyhow, just in case.)

I will post today's sermon later on today but may not post again for a few days.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

An Ode to Charles Darwin in this 150th year since "The Origin of Species" hit the streets.


(to the tune of "Battle Hymn of the Republic")

words © 2008 R. L. Smith

Mine eyes have seen the glory of Charles Darwin, born today.

(He is buried in the Abbey of Westminster, by the way,)

He was greeted by the fundamentalists with much dismay,

His theory marches on!

Glory, glory evolution!

Darwin's elegant solution!

This is Darwin's contribution,

His theory marches on!

On the poop deck of the Beagle, Charles was borne across the sea,

And he found in the Galapagos, a new discovery.

The finches helped Charles Darwin have a new epiphany,

His theory marches on!


He started out at Edinburgh, and then to Cambridge, too,

Then his "natural selection" was a theory that was new.

"The Origin of Species" can explain both me and you,

His theory marches on!


*A change within the White House now that we can toast with drink,

Just because we have a President who actually can think.

The previous inhabitant was just a missing link.

And Darwin marches on!


*Note: Consistent with evolutionary process, the last verse of this song is 
meant to be periodically re-written to evolve to fit a changing world.

*Original 2008 verse: 

George Bush is now the President, 
whom we should not malign,

Also, now we know he has a 
purpose practically divine:

The Ultimate in proof 
against "intelligent design"!

And Darwin marches on!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Beyond the red boots...

Kimc's question on the red boots post recently initially made me feel a little defensive when all I wanted to do was to enjoy my red boots and underscore the Western tradition of wearing one's pants legs OUTSIDE the boots. But s/he got me thinking about costumes and how virtually everything we choose to put on our bodies represents something in our lives, whether that's a conscious decision or not. Thanks, Kimc, for that nudge and for being a catalyst to deeper thinking, even though I wasn't ready to do it at the time.

Yesterday was a long, challenging day, ending late (for me) at night with my having volunteered to be the congregational host at a Zikr which followed an interfaith peace event. I had never attended any Sufi dancing, except for the variation called Dances of Universal Peace, which isn't really Sufi but incorporates many traditions in sacred dance.

I had decided that I would just watch this event, though we were all invited to participate at whatever level we wished, but I wanted to watch and think because my initial reaction, at meeting the folks who came, was that they were mostly in costume: long skirts, tunics, hats or scarves for many of the women, and for several of the men long white skirts, dark vests, and long caps.

As I sat and watched and thought about why these mostly-young men and women would dress up as they did and spend two hours chanting, moving slowly through steps and arm movements, in an ancient ritual that is not native to most of us, I had a variety of responses, beginning in a negative place and moving from that space into a bigger place.

Nearly everyone in the Zikr, except for the leader and a couple of younger folks, was of northern European stock, yet nearly all those participating consider themselves to be Sufi in their religious practice. They had come from all over Western Washington for this event, which was a demonstration of "turning", the dance of the whirling dervish. The turning occurred within the community dance circle and was startlingly beautiful.

I felt captivated by the turning, amazed that the dancers could whirl for long periods of time without dizziness or apparent weariness. I asked one woman later how she did that and learned that it is a discipline, to be still at one's core, like the center of a child's top. The long skirts of the turners (aka "whirling dervishes") flared out in graceful circles as they spun---in serene ecstasy, or so it seemed.

My discomfort at the apparent "dress-up" nature of the clothing began to fade as the evening went on. I still wonder why we humans are so attracted sometimes to religious rituals which are not native to our own heritage (Native American, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Sufi) and that's a post for another day. But I came to see the clothing in a new light, as I realized that every time I select my own clothing for the day I do it in response to the activities of the day.

Everything I wear is a costume; it is just that my costumes tend to be more conventional than others' choices! The Favorite Son and his Beloved are members of the Empire of Chivalry and Steel, a Renaissance re-enactment group, and wear costumes of the Renaissance era. They have a wonderful time at it and have learned more about medieval history than I'll ever know. In their group, they act as King and Queen of the Realm, having been duly chosen by their comrades, and their royal garb is quite attractive.

But Kimc questioned the word "affected" and I've realized that I used this word to describe my sense of disconnect between conventional costumes and costumes selected to play a role. That's probably not fair! Why should my conventional costumes and my choice of red boots be any less "affected" than a dervish's swirling skirts (or a fashionista with fancy boots and tucked-in pants)? I guess it's a continuum of choice and my judgment doesn't matter a hill of beans! Thanks, Kimc, for the shift in perspective!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Red Cowboy Boots

I have red cowboy boots, ordered from the new Norm Thompson catalog, boots which I will mostly wear for Bayview Sound gigs, since they fit our "American roots" image and repertoire, but I will also wear them to feel like the cowgirl I used to be.

When I told the band about ordering them, they insisted that if they were that purty (that's the cowgirl spelling) I should wear my pants tucked in so the decorative stitching could be seen. We had a big argument about this, as I was adamant that real cowgirls NEVER tuck their pantslegs inside their boots. I am not a dude!

They weren't convinced, so I discussed it with the Athena Pals, Mary Alice especially. She still lives in Pendleton and attends RoundUp every year and is one of the editors of the new 100th Anniversary of the RoundUp cookbook, entitled "Beyond the Bull". They wanted to see a picture, so I sent them the one you see above.

We were agreed that real cowgirls don't wear their pantslegs tucked in because it looks affected, but Mary Alice allowed as how some modern cowgirl fashionistas DO tuck, if the boots are really fancy.

I will be interested to hear what folks like Lizard Eater and other real Westerners have to say about it, but my mind is pretty well made up. Cowgirls wear their jeans OVER their boot-tops.

Here's the deal: I was born in a small town in Washington, lived in Portland OR for awhile, and then moved with my family out to the small north-eastern Oregon town of Athena, where I spent the next nine years of my life riding horses in the fields and along the unpaved streets of town, driving a truck in pea harvest and wheat harvest, and attending a high school where my graduating class numbered barely 20.

Going to small liberal arts Linfield College south of Portland was a huge shift in consciousness for me because of the wide world of thought it opened up, but never ever did I lose my sense of being a small-town Western girl.

When I had a chance to choose which American Baptist Home Mission field I wanted to serve after college graduation, I asked for Denver, unable to fathom a home where I couldn't see real mountains, even though the Rockies didn't look like the mountains I was used to. Real mountains were formed by volcanos, not accidents of geology.

When I studied for the ministry and had a chance to choose the geographical location I wanted, I specified Oregon or Washington, again unable to fathom a home without mountains or water. Colorado had pretty well dried me out and I needed to re-hydrate, both literally and figuratively.

It's always been clear to me that the Pacific Northwest is different from all other areas of the country. It's Western, for sure, but it's also unique in its attitude toward life. Ways of being on the East Coast sometimes seem ridiculous in the PNW. I get the New York Times, and I love it for its news coverage but am astounded at what I see culturally. It would just seem so affected out here.

Many people who relocate to the Pacific Northwest from areas east of the Rockies need to recalibrate who they are in this country which challenges the landlocked midwesterner and the cultural attitudes of the eastern and southern states. The water, the rain, the ocean, the Sound, the trees, the underbrush, the volcanos, the adventurous spirit this land requires: if you grow up here, you will rarely be truly happy anywhere else.

For all the years of my marriage to a midwesterner who adopted Colorado as his home, I wanted to come back to my birthplace. When we divorced, I considered moving then, but it would not have been fair to him or to the Favorite Son. But when ministry called, it was my ticket home.

So back to the red cowboy boots: I think I'll wear them today.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A letter to the editor of the South Whidbey Record

To the Editor of the South Whidbey Record:

Our ballots have begun to arrive in mailboxes all over our area and at this critical time in our history, I ask all voters to consider carefully the significance of their vote, the meaning of the act of voting, and the importance of considering the outcomes of this act.

Our individual votes mean a great deal; together, they shape the trajectory of this country, this state, this county. Though one vote in itself may not seem important, together we make the decisions that empower and distinguish us as a democratic nation. Therefore, I urge us all to VOTE.

When we cast our ballots, we take each others’ lives in our hands, in a sense. Successful and unsuccessful candidates for office find their lives and responsibilities changed. Referenda and initiatives also change people’s lives. If we vote one way, we may better our own lives but trash someone else’s. If we vote another, we may improve others’ lives but may have to adjust to changes in society. Therefore, I urge us all to VOTE TO IMPROVE OTHERS’ LIVES.

As we consider the possible outcomes of this year’s election issues, we need to realize that we have the power, through our votes, to hurt people, to diminish their standard of living, to declare them unequal under the law, to debase their relationships, to deny them compensation for their commitment to each other, to call them second-class citizens. A democratic society is committed to equal rights for all citizens. Therefore, I urge us all to VOTE TO APPROVE REFERENDUM 71 and ensure the safety and legitimacy of domestic partnerships, both same sex and senior couples.


Rev. Elizabeth “Kit” Ketcham
Minister, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Whidbey Island

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Chinese Food for Breakfast...

is a favorite treat but that I am having it on a Tuesday morning instead of Monday shows you just how atypical my life has been lately. It means that I went over to the Chinese place for supper last night instead of Sunday night. Sunday night I just stayed home and ate leftovers because I didn't have the energy to go anywhere else; a chunk of lasagna that had languished in the freezer for several weeks and apple salad that needed to be consumed or dumped--that was the menu.

Monday I had only one scheduled thing on my calendar, a meeting with J who is the instigator of the local Veterans Resource Center. J wanted to brainstorm about ways she might connect with the community and the congregation and share a cuppa. That was to be at noonish, which left me time to make a hasty run afterwards overtown to the big mall and do a little retail therapy.

Since moving to the island three and a half years ago, I have slipped into a pattern of wearing makeup only on Sundays (or when I might see someone cute at a gathering), being most comfortable in jeans and a sweatshirt (except for church biz when I do spruce up--well, usually), and wearing things till they're threadbare and falling apart or stained badly. Right now for example, I am wearing an ancient sweatshirt that I got at the 1995 General Assembly; its cuffs are just about gone, the design (Celebrate Diversity) is only half-there, and it's got bleach spots down the sleeve. It's paired with sweat pants that are equally shabby.

Of course, I don't go ANYWHERE but to the newspaper box down the driveway in this outfit; I do have some sense. And when I go down the drive to get the paper, it's 5:30 a.m. Not too many people out and about at that point, except for the drivers hurtling down the road to get to an early ferry. They're not interested in my sartorial sense and neither am I.

But last year I started growing out my hair and working to achieve a softer look. When I had eye problems and stopped wearing contacts, I noticed that the frames of my specs were actually very becoming, and decided that my wardrobe needed a little boost as well. Hence the retail therapy.

There aren't many places on the island where one can find what I was looking for (basic long-sleeved tees with a scoop neck), so I hied myself over to Lynnwood's Alderwood Mall and Coldwater Creek, where they have exactly what I was looking for, in deep purple, hot pink, white and black.

This may not seem very exciting to you, but they are just what I need right now to work with other stuff I've collected over the past few months. I've been haunting the thrift and consignment stores around here and picking up a few things, trying to move beyond the sloppy shirt and jeans motif that has been my fall-back position recently. I read "Beauty Tips for Ministers" sometimes, but the differences between PeaceBang's world and mine are vast. Still, her reminder that we clergywomen need to be attentive to the message we send with our appearance is a valuable one.

Okay, where was I? I've wandered off topic. Oh yes, an atypical life lately. What did I mean by that anyhow? I've been preoccupied with a different kind of life this fall, one which brings new projects and ideas but also areas of concern and anxiety. Yesterday J mentioned that Mercury is in retrograde or some such, which I don't understand except to get the message that things are in turmoil everywhere: deaths, anxieties, conflicts, uproar, dissension, moodiness, change change change.

Yep, that I do get.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

What is Human Nature?

By the Rev. Kit Ketcham, Oct. 11, 2009

What is human nature? Does anyone have a quickie definition for the term “human nature”?

Your definitions are much like the ones I found when I did a little research, rather than seat-of-the-pantsing it like I often do. And I found this rather old-fashioned but still worthy description of the term Human Nature. In 1947, authors Frank and Lydia Hammer, in their essay of the same name wrote this:

Human nature is the basis of character, the temperament and disposition; it is that indestructible matrix upon which the character is built, and whose shape it must take and keep throughout life. This we call a person's nature.

The basic nature of human beings does not and cannot change. It is only the surface that is capable of alteration, improvement and refinement; we can alter only people's customs, manners, dress and habits. A study of history reveals that the people who walked this earth in antiquity were moved by the same fundamental forces, were swayed by the same passions, and had the same aspirations as the men and women of today. The pursuit of happiness still engrosses (humankind) the world over.

Actually, when I think about it, a better statement of the question might be “What is human nature and what should we do about it?” because the question underneath the definition always seems to be the question of change: how do we deal with the cultural and personal and societal conflicts that arise when we encounter the many permutations of and opinions about so-called “human nature”?

So what are those innate characteristics of human beings that all possess permanently, that indestructible matrix? Can we agree on those? That’s a stickier question and one that is influenced by the culture we live in. Depending on which philosopher or theologian you choose, human nature may be anything from gender to race to sexual orientation and beyond, may be inherently sinful or good or both. And some things which we have historically assumed were or were not facets of human nature have been redefined during our lifetime.

Culture and experience shape our perceptions of human nature. In one cultural group, say a conservative evangelical congregation, sexual orientation is NOT a basic facet of human nature; it is a learned or chosen behavior only and the Bible says it’s bad.

These folks have been convinced by the ancient purity laws in the Old Testament and by the fact that they don’t know anybody who is BGLT. Or at least they think they don’t.
In our congregation and in many other liberal religious groups, sexual orientation is innate and unchangeable. We respect the findings of science and also our own experience----we know people who are BGLT and they are just like us in most ways. We are also pretty well aware that our sexual orientation is not changeable; why should anyone else’s be? And the truth is that most human beings seem to land somewhere on a continuum of sexual orientation.

What about gender? We are born with certain gender characteristics and plumbing that identify us on the surface as male or female, but what does that mean? Science has discovered that virtually all males have a certain amount of female hormones in their bodies and virtually all females have a certain amount of male hormones. So is gender a facet of human nature? If so, what about transgender or intersex people, who have genitals that don’t fit their self-image?

How about race? We used to think that race was innate and to some genetic extent it is, but it is also a cultural matter. Witness the situation in our US history when if you had one iota of African blood you were black.

Or how about those Caucasoids who are white but are now termed Latino or Latina? I remember when someone called my former husband a Mongolian because he has distinctive eyefolds similar to Asian eyelids. But he is Scots-Irish through and through!

Yet some characteristics of humankind are deeply embedded enough that they are seemingly unchangeable. Our genetic and chromosomal structures shape our human nature at a deep level; we inherit certain traits from our ancestors, yet even these can be diluted or strengthened as they are passed along in our children. Dominant and recessive genes intermingle in our makeup and create individuals who are similar in some ways and very different in others.

Authorities mostly agree that there are certain biological traits that separate humankind from other animals: an expanded consciousness, for one; a mind that is capable of growing infinitely. But how important is it to separate us humans from the rest of the natural world? Our 7th principle of Unitarian Universalism acknowledges that we are a part of the interdependent web of existence, not separate from it.

Human nature, whatever it may ultimately prove to be as science and philosophy struggle with its definition, acts upon our culture, our religion, and our politics. It is the indestructible matrix upon which we build our character, according to the Hammer essay I read earlier.

Character. Hmmm. Our Unitarian ancestors felt that human beings were saved by character, not by belief but by attitudes and deeds of mercy and kindness. Here’s what my colleague the Rev. Steve Edington has written about it:

This phrase meant the Unitarians believed we have the resources within ourselves, we have the strength of character, to deliver ourselves--at least to some extent in this life--from alienation and brokenness.... It’s a very positive expression of human potential and human possibility. It’s an affirmation that we carry within ourselves the wellsprings of courage and hope that allow us to be re-born any number of times during our time on earth.

So there appears to be a dividing line between human nature and character. What is truly innate and what is shaped by environment? How is character developed if our innate nature is inborn? How is our character shaped by our experiences?

We have all seen examples in our own experience of human children who grew up in abusive circumstances and became loving, productive adults. We have all seen examples of human children who grew up in apparently ideal homes and became violent and cruel. It’s hard to sort out the factors that send a child down one path or another.

My father grew up one of seven children, a boy who received harsh punishment from his own father for his misdeeds, forced to participate in his dad’s moonshine business, and finally was separated from his family and sent to live with friends out West when his mother tried to save him from the danger.

Yet he became a man of great character and wisdom. The one time I can remember physical punishment from him, he experienced such remorse and horror at his own actions that I never got another spanking nor did my siblings, as far as I know. So we see human beings learning both good and bad behavior traits from both good and bad upbringings.

Our genetic blueprint embeds certain characteristics, both physical and instinctual. We are programmed to have certain drives: breathing, eating, drinking, sheltering, procreating, companionship.

Our most fundamental need of human beings is to survive, so we have an innate aggressiveness within us in order to stay alive. This innate survival instinct leads us to be wary of those who do not look like ourselves, to amass supplies of food, water, shelter, mates in order to survive.

The character we develop during our earlier lives helps us set aside our innate survival instinct in favor of a more altruistic approach to human living; we learn compassion, honesty, faithfulness, kindness, and acceptance of difference. But we’re often aware of that underlying wariness, that fear, that apprehension of danger in unfamiliar or threatening circumstances. And we always have to decide whether we will stand and face the unfamiliar or run from it.

In our current culture, many divisive issues revolve around the question of human nature. Our character determines where we fall on many of these questions: is race a matter of human nature or of culture? Is gender identity inborn or shaped by culture? Is one’s choice of love partner a response to an innate, inborn drive or to a cultural norm? Is a mentally-ill person driven by biology or by environmental factors or both? Do our criminals deserve one kind of justice because they are bad people or another kind of justice because they were treated badly as children? And what is justice for bad people or badly-treated people?

One particular and controversial issue of human nature is in my mind and heart today.

Today is National Coming Out Day across the United States. On this day, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons are encouraged to make their sexual or gender orientation known to their friends and family and neighbors. Several national organizations, such as Dignity USA, the Human Rights Campaign, Equal Rights Washington and similar groups in other states offer legal help, emotional support, even financial support in the struggle for equal rights for sexual minorities.

The quest for equal human rights in our nation and elsewhere has been going on for a very long time. Too long. And there are ardent supporters on both sides of this particular quest, those who demand fairness in civic policies and protection from violence related to sexual and gender orientation and those who protest those policies of fairness and protection on the grounds that their Bibles call it an abomination.

One of the issues of that quest is Marriage Equality, the right to civil marriage for every committed couple. Though our WA legislature has voted to extend rights for domestic partners to same-sex couples and unmarried senior couples, the issue is on the ballot this November, at the request of a requisite number of voters who said “yeah, let’s vote on this issue and see what the people say”.

On the face of it, this looks like a reasonable premise. And some who signed the petitions for the referendum doubtless just want to see what the people say. But others do not trust people they don’t know or understand and are easily influenced to believe the worst of people they don’t know or understand.

Some call this behavior hate; I think it’s really more a matter of fear. We fear people who are different because of our innate drive to protect our own survival. Fear is behind this illegitimate, though legal, effort to vote on whether or not a group should have equal rights.

So you will have a chance when our ballots arrive in the next couple of weeks to vote YES or NO on the issue of civil rights for domestic partners, most of whom are gay and lesbian.

If you vote YES, you are voting to retain the domestic partner benefits law, which gives domestic partners virtually the same rights as civilly married partners: the right to survivor benefits, the right to be with a loved one in a health crisis, the right to make arrangements for a funeral for one’s partner or child, the right of inheritance of property, the right of custody for minor children, the right to visit one’s child’s teacher at school, along with many other benefits offered currently only to civilly married couples. And offered free, whereas same sex couples must pay large legal fees to accomplish the same thing.

If you vote NO, you are voting to repeal this law which gives so many equal rights to same-sex and senior couples.

This congregation has long been what is termed in UUism a Welcoming Congregation. This means that a few years ago we undertook an effort to understand what it means to be a sexual minority and to consider the issues of homophobia.

We learned that same-sex attraction is normal and is present everywhere in the world, in the realm of living things.

We learned that perhaps 10% of the human population is sexually attracted to persons of the same sex. It is pretty well accepted by scientists of all disciplines that sexual orientation is an innate quality in humankind.

We learned that hate crimes against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons is on the rise and that fear is a near-constant companion for sexual minorities in some areas.

We also learned that it is pretty well accepted by those same scientists that gender identity is not necessarily tied to genitalia but to chemical interactions in the brain and body.

At the end of our 18 months of learning, we voted unanimously to become a Welcoming Congregation, changed our bylaws to reflect our desire to be open and welcoming to sexual minorities in all areas of congregational life, and began to think of ways to let our welcome be known.

Most of you know that after California voted to rescind the right of same sex couples to marry, we publicly declared that we would offer our sanctuary and my services to same sex couples on the island, to hold wedding ceremonies here free of charge. I have done one wedding ceremony for a couple and am looking forward to doing more. These are not civil marriages but marriages of the heart, recognizing the importance of sharing with friends and family the deep commitments humans make in marriage.

Character is the tool we use to make these kinds of decisions. Do we act in the direction of kindness and mercy or do we let our fears overrule our sense of fairness?

Our seven principles of Unitarian Universalism urge us to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, not just those who look like us or who are heterosexual or who are privileged in some way by race, by gender, by age.

Our seven principles invite us into relationships with each other that are compassionate, accepting, and encouraging, with justice and equity always at the forefront.

Our seven principles guide us in finding a spiritual path that is free and responsible, that honors our own conscience, that respects the democratic process but refuses to use it to legislate against innocent people.

Our seven principles offer us the vision of a world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. And our seven principles remind us that we humans are one part of the interdependent web, that our behavior toward each other affects the balance of life on this planet, and that we have the power to enhance life for others, as well as ourselves, by our actions.

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 our commitment to leading lives of honesty and integrity and compassion. May we act out our principles in our relationships with friends, family, and community, and in this way make the world a better place. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

What a great idea!

Wouldn't this be fun?

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

"Feminists Don't Have a Sense of Humor"

by Nellie McKay.

Feminists don't have a sense of humor
Feminists just want to be alone (boo-hoo)
Feminists spread vicious lies and rumor
They have a tumor on their funny bone

They say child molestation isn't funny
Rape and degradation's just a crime (lighten up, ladies)
Rampant prostitution, sex for money (what's wrong with that)
Can't these chicks do anything but whine

Dance break
(Take it off)

They say cheap objectification isn't witty, it's hot
Equal work and wages worth the fight (sing us a new one)
On demand abortion, every city (okay, but no gun control)
Won't these women ever get a life

Feminists don't have a sense of humor (poor Hilary)
Feminists and vegetarians
Feminists spread vicious lies and rumor
They're far too sensitive to ever be a ham
That's why these feminists just need to find a man

I'm Sarah Palin, and I approve this message

It's not that I have had nothing to say...

it's that there's too much to be said and no easy way to do it. If you read the recent sermon entitled "Bitterness, Forgiveness, and Life", you might guess that this sermon represents a whole lot of soul-searching and a growing awareness that when I preach forgiveness, I darn well need to be ready to offer forgiveness. And therein lies the rub.

As I gaze back over my life, there's no way to avoid seeing the bumps in my experience that represent people who made me angry at one time or another and the ones who still make me angry, even though I have not been in contact with them for years. I still resent the behavior of a number of people who hurt or let me down over the past 67 years. Some of them are dead or almost dead. I don't know the whereabouts of some of them.

It isn't a huge number of people, probably fewer than 5 or 6, but if I'm walking my talk, I would be free, or at least working on freedom, from the resentment attached to those old relationships. Writing the sermon gave me pause.

In my lonelier times, when I'm missing the presence of a loving man in my life, I brood over the ways my marriage to a self-described "outlaw" of sorts made me react with either suspicion or exaggerated trust to men I met, dooming healthy relationships with healthy men. So I beat myself up but also beat him up with my resentment, telling the cats all the things I wish I had told him. And not letting go of my anger for ages-old acts of neglect or disrespect means that I have that little set of videos always available in my head. What I want to do is acknowledge the gifts of the marriage (the FS, for one) and accept the rough edges (my fear of another failed relationship) and go on, not blaming him for my sorrow but moving through it.

But Forgiveness has another dimension, too, and it's hard. Corporate forgiveness is a tricky thing, when members of a community have been hurt by the actions of another in the community. Who forgives who? Who holds the space for healing and forgiveness to occur? How does a community legitimately ask a member of the community to wait patiently, hold anxiety in abeyance, and stay connected, despite the anxiety? When deep fears have been roused, old memories awakened, when the community wants to be comfortable together again but there are acts of contrition and acceptance that must occur first, what is the answer?

At our worship committee meeting yesterday, our chalice lighter read a meaningful passage which likened life's ups and downs to the waves of the sea, pointing out that between the high points of the waves, there is a trough of waiting, a place between the waves where it is necessary to be alert yet still, ready yet waiting. I've never been in a small boat in heavy water on the sea, but, boy, I know what it feels like.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

"Home Sings me of Sweet Things..."

Karla Bonoff's "Home" keeps running through my mind in recent days. We're working on it for Bayview Sound's next performance, which is who knows when. We don't have a gig coming up very soon, though we're working on it.

As a renter, I don't have ownership of the place I live, except in my mind, though I am lucky enough to have landlords who want me to stay here forever. I can't afford to maintain a house on my current income so my wonderful landlords (who are moving to the island before long, from their home in California) are a true blessing. Don and Sheryl, wherever you are, I am grateful to you for your concern for this little house.

But "Home" certainly does sing me of sweet things: blackberry thickets at the edge of the property, acres of grass, big trees, lilacs, a tulip tree, an apple tree, a cherry, two plums, and a crabapple, plus what appears to be a flowering pear. Surrounded by forest on three sides, we are tucked back in here quite tidily, the little white cabin that welcomes me as I come up the drive.

Hope you enjoy the song. And sorry not to be publishing very often. Life is just plain crammed full. I head off to Blaine this afternoon to preach there tomorrow and spend time with my friends the Geers and other Blaine folks. But first I have to teach our fall UU101 class this morning, pack a few things, and figure out what to do about Max, who may be developing something, as he's rather quiet this morning, uncharacteristically.

Home, home, home again on Sunday afternoon, though.