Monday, November 30, 2009

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Makes Me Proud to be a Norwegian!

If you're ever looking for a rhythm section for your band...

Sweet Georgia Brown

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Wahoo! Student loans are PAID OFF as of yesterday!

For the past ten years I have been dutifully, by auto-pay from my credit union account, making an almost $400 monthly payment to my student loan debt from seminary. And yesterday I made the final payment, of about $125. It's going to be a welcome boost to my bottom line.

Elsewhere in the blogosphere, there is a conversation going on about the financial aspects of studying for the ministry. The cost is steep and it takes a long time to work off the debt, if you borrow, as I did.

I was lucky to have retired from a 25 year position as a public school employee, so I had a small pension when I started seminary, but it wasn't enough to pay tuition and books as well, so I had to supplement that income with student loans. I also eagerly took any preaching or workshop gigs I could line up and at about $150 apiece, that helped pay the bills as well. I was so fortunate to have a member of my home congregation offer to buy my books each quarter. That dear family spent about a $1000 paying for my books over the three academic years I was at Iliff. Thank you, Wiley and Bev!

But it was hard times, as I had been a single parent for several years and the FS was barely launched, meaning that I had some credit card debt to deal with as well as a mortgage and sundry other stuff. My pension was far less than my salary had been and I needed every penny. Hence the loans.

At the end of seminary in May of 99, I had acquired over $36,000 in student debt and six months later, in December of 1999, as I began my first ministry, the monthly payment kicked in. When I decided to go into parttime ministry in 2003, it was a consideration---I needed enough income to be able to pay that monthly debt, rent, car payment, and health insurance. So I took two quarter-time positions, Vashon Island and Whidbey Island UUs, and managed pretty well, but without my pension, I would have had to go back into my former line of work. Or starve, possibly. And there were moments in the night when I pondered those very choices.

But I've managed to stay afloat financially and even prosper, though my standard of living has never been particularly inflated; I have a comfortable home, car, wardrobe, furnishings, and Medicare. And I eat well, perhaps too well sometimes. The cats are cared for and I can even afford an occasional antibiotic shot for Max, who occasionally needs one.

My situation is good because I'm older, have had time to raise my family, get my financial status solid if not affluent, and have learned what's really valuable to me. If I were a lot younger, hoping to someday have a church of my own while raising children, even with the help of a mate, seminary would have been a huge challenge.

I admire so much those younger seminarians and other students who have taken on that huge challenge out of their sense of call and are working steadily toward their goal. It isn't easy to be a student in mid-life, with family responsibilities and other volunteer activities to maintain. But you are doing it and doing it well. Congratulations!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Considering Spiritual Maturity

The Rewards of Spiritual Maturity
Rev. Kit Ketcham, Nov. 22, 2009

Sing with me if you remember this old spiritual:
"Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows my sorrow,
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, glory hallelujah.
Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down, oh yes, Lord,
Sometimes I’m almost to the ground, oh yes Lord.
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows my sorrow,
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, glory “hallelujah.

For the past several years we have been living in fearful times, haven’t we? For many of us it may have started with the events of Sept. 11, 2001. For others, the election of leaders who seemed at odds with human values and human rights. For some, it may have been a diagnosis of serious illness or job loss or forced retirement or low income. Perhaps our children have struggled with issues we could not fix. Or parents, siblings, other loved ones have been troubled or ill or needy.

Perhaps that’s actually the general human condition, just made worse by current circumstances. For who can remember a time when all was rosy, all was smiles and joy, all was positive and lighthearted? And yet, who can remember a time when all was bleak and dark, all was death and decay, all was negative and foreboding?

Life tends to be a combination of events and moods, highs and lows, at least for most of us. But there’s no getting around it----life is rarely free of struggle and difficulty. Even here today, some of us are worried about whether we will make it financially, or whether our children are going to be okay, or whether a job will come through, or whether our savings will last as long as our lives. The economic downturn across the globe has made it hard for everyone and even harder for many of us.

And yet, it’s Thanksgiving, the beginning of a plethora of holidays that celebrate the light side of life, not the dark side.

Sometimes it helps to name the worries, either aloud or to ourselves. So let’s just throw out some of the things we know that we and other folks are struggling with at this time:

Okay, so those are the worries, as many as we could think of in a short time. What are the joys? The things that are not dependent on our income or our health or our work or our elected leaders? Let’s call them out as well:

So life has its sorrows and its joys and we can name them. But despite our ability to look at life objectively, we may still be more troubled by the deficits than pleased by the rewards. We’re human, after all, and gloriously imperfect!

If you’re like me, you may pick and choose what news you take in, what TV programs you’re willing to invest time in, what books you read for deeper knowledge. There is a streak in me that worries that if I know too much about Afghanistan or torture or the latest conspiracy theory, I’ll lose my sanity. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s more that I can care so much that I lose my perspective.

And it’s then that I wake up in the night obsessing about one thing or another: will my pension be cut? Will the church have to be repossessed? Will I do something to ruin my relationships? Will my sister or brother or son or friend get desperately ill? Will someone I love start to dislike me because of something I’ve said or done?

We all have these moments in life, I think. It’s part of the human condition. And yet some of us seem to be more resilient than others of us. It’s either that they have strong positive optimist genes or they have learned ways of coping with sorrow and joy that transcend instinctive responses. I think it’s called maturity. We all can grow and mature, but it can be hard.

Also, there is more than one kind of maturity, isn’t there? We know all about physical maturation-----the development from fetus to infant to toddler to older child to adolescent to young adult to adult. This process has its own timeline and is helped along by proper nutrition and health care.

There’s also emotional maturity, the ability to cope with a loss or crisis that does not result in damage to oneself or to others. Emotional maturity is helped to develop by loving and trustworthy relationships with others, particularly in childhood.

Mental maturity is related to cognitive processes, the ability to think clearly, to evaluate a situation and to make choices based on a critical thought process. Mental maturity is developed through mental stimulation and learning, observation of cause and effect.

But there’s another kind of maturity that intrigues me and has occupied my thoughts ever since Lois mentioned it in her November president’s column. She wrote about “spiritual maturity” and her hope that we as a congregation might strive for spiritual maturity in our own individual lives and in the life of this congregation.

We talked about it a bit one day at our monthly meeting and I got more intrigued myself and decided to investigate it more deeply. Since then, Sara and I have talked about what it might mean to be spiritually mature and how the idea might relate to our theme today of Abundance in Fearful Times.

Because perhaps that’s what we need to experience abundance in fearful times---a spiritual maturity (in addition to all the physical, emotional and mental maturity we can muster), a spiritual maturity that helps us be resilient, that helps us use all our maturity to enhance our own lives and make the lives of others better as well. Spiritual maturity implies the ability to reach out to others in compassion and with a desire to be of service.

What might be the characteristics of a spiritually mature person? I brainstormed that a bit myself and also with Sara and some other UU friends and came up with a long list of desirable traits. A very long list. A list of the requirements for being able to walk on water!

One reference from the Christian scriptures seemed concise enough to summarize many of them, and that was Galatians 5, verses 22 and 23, where Paul the apostle is writing to the church in Galatia, centuries ago:

“But the fruit of the Spirit is Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control.” That says a lot right there, but it doesn’t say it all.

It’s interesting to me that Paul never mentions gratitude, which I think is foundational to a spiritual life. He also doesn’t mention wisdom, perhaps thinking that only he had the wisdom new Christians required! And he doesn’t mention a desire to learn, also a pre-requisite, in my book, to a fulfilling spiritual life.

Of course, his horizons were limited by political boundaries, by Roman and Hebrew culture, and by his own interpretation of what Jesus’ followers should do. Mostly he thought they should do what he said---he being Paul, not necessarily Jesus! Paul thought pretty highly of himself, because he was a Roman citizen, and ego was a big part of his struggle to be a good person. He knew this about himself and prayed mightily for self-control, but he was human, just we are.

There are a few other qualities, however, that are the mark of a spiritually mature person, things Paul probably never dreamed of, that we have learned over the past centuries of human life and self-understanding, seeing the pitfalls of a limited religious life, a life which has only one path, only one set of guidelines, only one way to achieve salvation---which was for Paul the only goal, getting to heaven.

I had made a list of the qualities that Sara and I and other UU pals had mentioned that weren’t associated with Paul’s list in his letter to the Galatian church, so I tried lining them up with our seven principles to see if there were any patterns.

And here are some characteristics of spiritually mature persons that go beyond Paul’s list and reflect our 7 Principles.

Openness and an understanding and acceptance of others’ values and ideas is a hallmark of a spiritually mature Unitarian Universalist. Openness makes each of our principles more accessible because each of them requires us to stretch our thinking beyond the old ways we might have grown up with. When we are open-minded, open-hearted, openly-welcoming, we invite into our lives the wisdom others offer.

Courage to change our minds and our behavior is another mark of spiritual maturity in our tradition. Over the years of evolution of UUism we have moved from liberal Christianity to scientific humanism to a blend of spirituality and rationality, the primary flavor of our religious theology today.

Along this journey, we all have had to let new ideas in; Christians learned the value of science and rationality in scouting out a religious path and humanists learned the value of spiritual awareness. As a consequence, though we follow a typical Christian-type order of service in our worship and use many traditional words such as worship, God, faith, that sort of thing, we have found new understandings for some of those words because the old ones don’t say what we mean. Yet we know that these words are valuable because of their history and weight and we have learned to translate them when we hear them, rather than getting offended.

Another characteristic connected to spiritual maturity and related to courage, I think, is the willingness to be self-critical, to look at our beliefs, our behaviors, our thoughts, our abilities, and strive for integrity between our actions and our values. When we are wrong, we must be willing to admit it and make amends if we have hurt someone else. If we can escape the trap of defensiveness and excuse-making OR the trap of needing excessive praise to stroke our egos, we are on the way to greater spiritual maturity.

A desire for continuous learning is another facet of spiritual maturity. We can’t just quit growing; we have to keep learning, in order to deepen our human experience and open ourselves wider to life. We learn from all our life’s experiences, whether they are joyous or sorrowful, boring or exciting. Staying open to new learnings is essential to our maturity.

And finally, perhaps, spiritually mature folks need a healthy sense of humor, even when the humor is directed at ourselves. Can we laugh at ourselves? Is it painful to see our foibles out there in plain sight? Of course it is! But this quality may, of all the qualities, be one of the most valuable. It is a mark of our authenticity, our realness, to see the humor in our lives, use it as a springboard for self-examination, and make changes if we need to.

This is not an intensive treatment, obviously. You could add other ideas, I’m sure. But now let’s think about the spiritual maturity of our congregation.

Unitarian Universalist author Michael Durall has written a good deal about the role of Unitarian Universalist congregations in the larger community and his challenge to us here today is to take the journey toward spiritual maturity not only as individuals but as a congregation.

Durall suggests that if we individuals become more spiritually mature, our congregation will mature as well. It takes courage to become spiritually mature as individuals; it requires us to look at our attitudes and behavior and change those that are not directed toward making ourselves better people and the world a better place.

Courage is required of congregations as well and Durall states that we must have courage to act on our principles. We are not here just to make ourselves and each other happy. We are here to use our common commitment to our ideals to reach out into the world and to make others’ lives better. We are here to empower each other, to challenge each other to live more purposeful lives, and provide each other the courage to make the world a better place in which to live.

These ideas resonate with me. I believe that spiritually mature people act upon a congregation in ways that inspire and encourage everyone. When people within these walls get excited about something like healing for vets or civil rights for sexual minorities or torture abolishment, we all get drawn in by their enthusiasm, and as we know more about their concerns, we learn how we ourselves might become involved.

So how do we go about developing a more spiritual life as individuals so that we might inspire and encourage our congregation’s maturity? Here’s what I think.

First of all, we who want to become spiritually mature must make a definite commitment to doing so, setting a goal of constant growth toward greater spiritual maturity. It will be a lifelong goal, not something we achieve overnight.

Second, a spiritual path is always enhanced by a spiritual practice, such as reading and study or prayer, or journaling.

Third, we can arrange a life of greater simplicity, letting go of extravagance and excess in favor of paring life down to its essentials.

Fourth, we can strive to be as generous as possible to the congregation and to the causes we support, letting giving become more important in our lives.

Fifth, creating a Sabbath or deliberate rest day in our schedules can enhance a life of spiritual development.

Sixth, gathering regularly with other seekers, whether that’s in a small conversation group or at Sunday services or in study and reflection, can help us stay focused on maturity.

Seventh, reducing the input of the chaotic world into our homes by limiting TV use and internet access will provide quiet time and solitude in which to reflect and consider our own growth.

Eighth, reaching out in the community through church or other agency to provide services to the community is another step. And finally, welcoming the newcomer, sharing the journey, learning from others.

As I consider these steps I’m offering you today, I have to be self-critical about my own progress toward spiritual maturity. And I fall short in many ways. But perfection is not the goal; progress toward the goal matters more.

I would invite you to consider your own spiritual maturity. Do you yearn for a more fulfilling spiritual life? Do you wish that this congregation offered more opportunity for study and reflection, for discussion of spiritual matters? You are likely not alone! I believe that many of us yearn for deeper spiritual lives.

As we go into the holiday season, let us reflect on these ideas. Let’s discuss them when we get together, whether that’s over a meal or a cup of coffee or at our upcoming Conversation next Saturday night.

Let’s consider how we might offer more opportunity for spiritual growth in ourselves and in our congregation.

And let’s consider the exciting possibility of our own individual spiritual growth, becoming people whose lives have great depth and meaning because of our desire to grow.

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 when we are together we are growing in wisdom and commitment and dedication to our ideals. May we live our ideals in the larger community and may we strive for deeper spiritual meaning in our lives, that our congregation might grow spiritually as well. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

SING TOGETHER: Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in human care, The fellowship of kindred minds is precious for us to share.

Singing my obsessing away

I have the most annoying way of waking up in the night when it's too early to get up but too late to go back to sleep for any decent period of time and letting old worries enter my mind. It might be the fact that the FS has carpal tunnel or that Max seems to be off his feed or that an upcoming sermon topic has not begun to flesh itself out in my thoughts or that a situation in the congregation needs to be addressed and I don't know how. It's hard, when you're the minister and you're worried about a situation and you have been schooled to be the resident "non-anxious presence". You know that's what you've got to do, but it's hard, and this middle of the night obsessing doesn't make it easier.

That happened to me again this morning about 4 a.m. My mind immediately went to a situation I've been struggling with for a couple of months now and I began the hamster-wheel of reviewing possible approaches: say this, do that, whine, fret, get frustrated. You get the picture.

And then (not miraculously, because I had asked for serenity the night before in my prayer time) a song popped into my head, a song I'm singing lead on for Bayview Sound, a song I dearly love, which expresses for me many images of serenity and wellbeing. It's a Karla Bonoff song, which I have added to the bottom of this post.

And the song elbowed out the obsession, substituted its melody and sweet words for my fretting and anxiety: "Home sings me of sweet things, my life there has its own wings, to fly over the mountain, though I'm standing still." When the song ended in my mind, I fell asleep again and woke up an hour later still singing.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

I'm not particularly a country music fan but...

this song is a nice one, with some gorgeous pictures. The river has always been a spiritual symbol for me.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

More thoughts about Veterans Day

Though Veterans Day was a few days ago, I've continued to think about my own experiences with veterans and their needs. At a gathering on Tuesday, we were asked to consider the connections we have with military personnel and I jumped back in my mind to my Uncle Morris Larson, who was a SeaBee during World War II. He brought back from the Pacific beautiful tapa cloths which adorned my homes for many years, till they became too holey to display any more.

But I can go a bit farther back than that and name a very early friend, Bill Brown, whose father was deployed in the Pacific during and after WWII, and was sent to live with his grandparents, the Scotts, in Portland. They were members of my Dad's church and Billy Brown was the first boy who I considered a boyfriend. We were all of 10 years old, I think! But my Dad worried a little bit that Billy might get fresh someday and once warned me about boys and testosterone in a way that mystified rather than enlightened me! I would love to see Billy Brown again and swap memories of those years in Portland. I don't know if he's even alive.

Fast forward to my senior year in college, when the draft for Vietnam soldiers was heating up: several of my classmates were drafted or enlisted. Some of them died, notably the very handsome and shy Paul Eklund; others came back changed forever and either managed to pull themselves together or experienced endless grief and sorrow from their psychic and physical wounds.

In the mid-sixties, I met the man I would marry and we participated in anti-war demonstrations, shouting "LBJ, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" I could hardly bring myself to yell these words; they seemed incongruent, considering how long US forces had been in Vietnam, and how recently LBJ had been propelled into the presidency.

In my first counseling position at Creighton Junior High in Lakewood, CO, I learned of an ongoing animosity between two teachers, one of whom accosted the other in the teacher's lounge and accused him of being a babykiller. One teacher had been in the protest marches; the other had just returned from Vietnam.

Then our mutual family friend, John Roessler, went to Vietnam as an officer and fell on a grenade to protect his unit, or so I recall the story. John had re-enlisted after a painful divorce and left behind a grieving former wife and his only child, who was still a toddler. His death hardly seemed real, until I visited DC and found his name on the Wall, as well as that of Paul Eklund.

Years later, I discovered a new friend, Patrick Mendoza, a lounge singer during my post-divorce years, who would occasionally invite me to sing harmony with him during his act. Pat was receiving treatment for his PTSD and this was the first time I had ever heard "shell shock" being diagnosed as something other than something to be ashamed of. He had been in the Navy and deployed to the Mekong Delta. Pat was reticent about his war experiences but not about his recovery and I learned a great deal from his stories.

A little more time travel brings me into more recent years, when a congregant in my Wy'east congregation mentioned his struggle with PTSD and his willingness to help me with a Veterans' Day service. In preparation I read the book "Achilles in Vietnam", which finally gave me much more clarity about the scenario of war and its broader effect on soldiers as well as the culture they return to. Steve Herring was a remarkably courageous assistant in this service; he told his own story for the first time and in the congregation listening were several of his buddies, in full uniform, there to witness and support.

Here on Whidbey, we have been privileged to have in our congregation several military families over the years, as friends and as members. One notable moment a year ago came when we erected the banner suggested by the group NRCAT (National Religious Coalition Against Torture). It read "Torture is a Moral Issue". Gradually I learned that our military families were hurt, even offended, by the banner's language; because the military had been accused of fostering torture they felt they were being called immoral, even though they were innocent. In a heartfelt and honest conversation of interested folks, they made their feelings known and suggested new wording. Our sign now reads "Torture: let's end it!"

About the same time, a young Afghanistan vet in the larger community acted out violently in a drunken rage at a festival; his parents were friends of the congregation and, sensitized by the new understandings I'd found, I asked them if there were ways our congregation could be helpful. Since that time, they have founded the Veterans' Resource Center here on Whidbey to reach out to veterans and their families who are struggling with post-combat issues, and we have been an active supporter of their work.
In fact, tomorrow's service will be about serving our wounded warriors in humanitarian ways, and these parents will be part of the service. We will also take up a special offering to support the VRC.

Looking back over these many, many years, I do not change my objection to war as a way of achieving peaceful ends. I see that there have been situations where we had to defend ourselves or defend others, situations we are stuck in, at least for now, that we got drawn into unwisely; I also see that we need a strong military to be a national emergency force, to act defensively if necessary, but also to provide disaster relief and protection for our nation in dangerous times.

And we need to take care of the men and women we ask to do this for us. We need to treat them well, consider their personal and professional needs and give them ethical standards to live up to, provide training that will help them protect themselves and others without demolishing their human reticence for killing; and when they return to civilian life, we need to give them the help they need to heal physically and psychically, for they have killed in our name. We must not abandon them.

I think back to the situation at Creighton, when one man attacked another with violent words and accusations and I am embarrassed by and ashamed of the lack of compassion we displayed when our Vietnam vets came back home. My personal acquaintance with John Roessler and Paul Eklund and others called into that terrible time helped me see that it wasn't fair, but I didn't know how to oppose that treatment at the time. I am smarter and braver now, I hope.

So Veterans Day has come to have a new meaning to me over the years and I am glad to see that we as a culture/society have also learned from our past mistakes. We may not have learned how to wage peace instead of war, but we have learned that our veterans' loyalty and willingness to serve are worth celebrating and that they are serving our country in invaluable ways.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Ending the day without the blues...

because sadness can almost always be allayed by action. After writing this morning's blue post, I was mournfully knocking around the house without much to do, so I went over to the local coffeeshop for my favorite drink, a 12 oz. sugar-free vanilla latte, ran into friends there and spent a lovely hour kicking back and having a great getting-to-know-you conversation with a person I have not known well before this.

From there, I headed up to the church for an organizational meeting of a group I hope will turn into an "Island-wide Interfaith Association" of some kind. We are joining together to offer a Compassionate Communication workshop ala MLK, Gandhi, and Marshall Rosenberg in the spring. The co-sponsors of the workshop are us UUs, the Unity congregation, the Methodists, Episcopalians, and the Quakers, as well as some non-affiliated folks. We hope to help reduce the "us vs. them" atmosphere that separates the conservative North end of the island, with its Navy base, from the artsy progressive South end.

Home for a little lunch and a nap, then off to set up for the first of several gatherings of the Veterans Resource Center, an effort to help the 2000 returning vets on the island find healing and re-entry into civilian life more easily. We had 14 people come to this first gathering; we all had stories to tell about the vets we knew or the vets we were/are and some were heart-wrenching. Interestingly, it's the Vietnam vets who showed up most strongly; no Iraq or Afghanistan vets were there. It's the Nam guys who are at a point of being able to deal with their ptsd; the younger ones mostly aren't ready.

What a day it's turned out to be, from sorrow to exhilaration!

Woke up this mornin'...

with the blues on my mind. All I could figure out was that I just felt sad, cumulatively sad---about the world, the sorrow and grief that dominate the front pages of the media, the frustration and anger that generate so much of that sorrow and grief, and the weak though passionate efforts we make to change the world's pain into joy.

And then I had my cup of coffee and realized that every headline, every news broadcast, every Facebook cause that implores me to join it, reminds me of every other grief and sorrow I've ever experienced. I am cumulatively (though not terminally) sad.

I am sad for the victims and the perpetrator at Ft. Hood, sad for the Seattle cops who lost a comrade and sad for his killer whose anger may never be understood. I am sad because my dear congregant Hildred died two weeks ago, sad because Jerry Davidoff just died yesterday, sad because more troops are going to Afghanistan and sad because the alternative is no better. I'm sad that dear friends are sick, some with cancer, some with flu, some with minor ailments, some with chronic illnesses that will never go away. I'm sad because people are afraid of one another, sad because people are angry with one another, sad because so many people don't know how or are afraid to use their anger productively, not violently. I'm sad for all those whose lives are touched directly or indirectly by murder, natural death, illness, and violence.

I'm not depressed. I'm sad. The sadness that is part and parcel of human life doesn't go away; it forms a foundation upon which we build our lives, recognizing that sadness is not necessarily bad. Sadness makes me think. Sadness makes me appreciate the dear ones whose lives are ended. Sadness helps me recognize how valuable people are, how much they have given me and others. Sadness reminds me that we are all in this together, that the only way out is through, that out of sadness can come action.

It helps to put it down on "paper". It helps to know that you all feel sad sometimes too. It helps to sing the blues. At least I haven't wrecked my pickup, lost my dog or my good man, or had a daughter go bad. The Corolla's still running, the cats are mostly well-behaved (except for Max who continues to pee when pissed), the good man is still unaware of himself, and the Favorite Son is a continuing joy to me.

I have lots to feel good about but I'm still sad. Just give me time. The action will start again soon.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

What must I do (if anything) to be Saved?

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Nov. 8, 2009

Sitting over at the Lighthouse CafĂ© in Freeland the other day, waiting for someone, I noticed on the windowsill a small tract entitled “What is Meant by Salvation?”. I had just pulled out my handy-dandy pocket notebook to jot down ideas for this very sermon, so I opened the tract to see what the author’s definition of “salvation” might be.

Woowee!-----I felt as if I had been teleported back in time to a small church in Goldendale, Washington, where my Dad had invited me to speak one Sunday while I was visiting my parents during the holidays, over 40 years ago.

I was serving as an American Baptist Home Missionary out in Denver at the time, my days filled with working in a food bank, teaching a preschool class, holding after-school activities for elementary students, supervising teens in our weekly Teen Canteen on Saturday nights, and playing the piano for Good Shepherd Baptist Church, which met in the Center on Sunday mornings.

I had been there, at the Denver Christian Center, for several months at that time, getting a whole new look at what religious service might mean and the very glaring needs of people in the inner city during those tumultuous times of the Vietnam war and the Civil Rights Movement.

This was the mid-60’s and states across the country, including Colorado, were experiencing unrest and violence over both war issues and the needs of minority Americans. Our little neighborhood at 29th and Curtis in the heart of the inner city was beginning to simmer with unrest over racial and economic issues as de facto segregation in the schools resulted in mandatory cross-town bussing for students.

In my Denver life, I was reveling in being away from the humdrum of welfare casework in Goldendale, where I had been living with my parents for a year and where I was constrained by the norms of small town life with a preacher’s family! I craved the freedom of a city and new challenges. But my dad had been ill and I wanted to be home for the holidays.

So there I was, in the pulpit at the First Baptist Church of Goldendale, telling them about the many outreach services of the Christian Center, the optometric clinic we sponsored, the used clothing we handed out daily to families, the food pantry, my little preschool class (this pre-dated Head Start by about a year) and all the new songs I’d learned to teach the kids, from age 4 through age 12. The teenagers were teaching ME songs!

But I ran out of material after about 10 minutes and opened it up to questions. There were some good ones: were there a lot of single parent families? Were people working? Were the kids well-behaved? Did the center have enough money to carry on its work or were we struggling to make our budget? How much support did we get from the national denomination?

I answered all of these as well as I could, feeling pleased that I was able to tell these lovely people in my dad’s congregation how much good was being supported by their giving. And then one last hand went up: “How many souls have you saved for Christ?”

I think I’ve always been a Universalist at heart. I have never been able to swallow the notion that a loving God would punish any person who was attempting to live an honest, kind, and useful life. But this question stopped me in my tracks. How was I going to deal with centuries of religious controversy in a few short sentences when I didn’t even have my own thoughts sorted out very well?

So I didn’t even try. I just said that physical needs often had to come before spiritual needs in the inner city, and left it at that. But walking out of the church that morning after the service, I avoided talking to anyone or receiving compliments but I especially avoided discussing my theology of salvation with my questioner.

My dad was sympathetic; I think he got it, that my work as a home missionary did not necessarily include proselytizing, as it would have in a foreign mission field. My task at the Christian Center was different from his as a local pastor; he preached sin and salvation every Sunday but he didn’t have a mandate to fulfill any other needs in the community, though he often gave money and food to the needy.

So I opened this little tract and found that its first words were: “Salvation means to be rescued from sin and its punishment and set free to know, love and serve God….Left to ourselves, there is no rescue and the justice of God requires our eternal damnation in the terrors of hell.”

It’s interesting---the word salvation actually has a very broad meaning but has been circumscribed by religious doctrinaires to evoke only its narrowest definition, that of avoiding hell.

Think of all these familiar words that are related to the word salvation: salute---meaning to wish health for someone; salvage---to save from danger; salve---a healing ointment; salver---the tray used to present safe food to a monarch; salvo---a greeting to a dignitary wishing him or her good health; and salvation’s original meaning was to save from loss at sea. The Latin base word is salvus, which means healthy.

Even the word “soteriology”, which means the study of or knowledge of salvation means, in addition to its doctrinal definition, a discourse on health and deliverance from dis-ease.

You know me well enough to recognize my interest in the etymology, the origins of words, and how meanings can be conscripted, hijacked by people who only want them used in certain ways. I consider it my bounden duty to redeem words that have been imprisoned by dogma and to offer them afresh! Wait till we get to January, when we’ll be talking about (gasp) GOD!

Anyhow, I thought for a minute about the tract’s message of fear and what its intent might be. I’ve been thinking a lot about Fear these days. I see it as a major underlying condition that affects human behavior and human society. There is good, normal, healthy fear and then there’s fear that keeps us from having healthy, normal lives.

We see the results of fear in the newspapers every day. When our nation’s security was damaged on Sept. 11, 2001, we began to get daily reminders of just how endangered we were as a nation. If the orange and red-alerts weren’t enough for us, our media hyped every tremor in our evolving society, arousing additional fears: pandemics, conflicts over social issues like abortion and sexuality, the failure of any number of social institutions like education, health care and government.

Some of this fear was well placed. Some of it was pandering to inner human needs, specifically the drive to survive, which we all have, but arousing fears about each other and our safety and survival if certain conditions or freedoms were allowed.

Salvation became a social issue as well as a religious issue: what would save us from having to adapt to a society in which gay people, women, the less-abled, persons of color had the same freedoms as straight, white, male, able-bodied persons to live and act in their own best interests.

Election Day seems to underscore this desire for civic salvation. Candidates and issue advocates point out the fear factors in each others’ platforms. This candidate says that his opponent will destroy the fabric of the community if elected; heavens, she’s a liberal! (whatever that means these days.) That advocate wails that if domestic partners can be present in a hospital room with a partner, his marriage will be destroyed.

Playing on fear is an effective technique for winning elections; we’re just lucky right now and will have to keep working to overcome the fear. But I am wondering how to address the kind of fear we see when people vote to withhold human rights from their neighbors.

I think some of the problem lies in the traditional definition of “salvation”, as spelled out in the little tract I found. Deeply religious conservative people tend to be very very fearful of death and what is beyond death. They take the laws spelled out in the Bible literally, not in a contextual sense or in a metaphorical sense but in a very literal way, even though they pick and choose the laws they find most important.

So the orthodox view of salvation is salvation from sin, death, and punishment in hell; and one is saved by one’s right belief and practice.

Other more secular views consider salvation to be from pain, a sense of inadequacy, loneliness, poverty, boredom, illness; one is saved by medical or psychological treatment or, Oprah, the stock market and one’s favorite sports channel.

Going back to the basic meaning of salvation as indicated by its roots, let’s think about what makes a person whole, healed, healthy. What do we need to be whole, to be healed as individuals? As a community? As a society? As a world?

Mary Oliver wrote:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles
Through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile, the world goes on.
Meanwhile, the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across
The landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees,
The mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile, the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
Are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
The world offers itself to your imagination,
Calls to you like the wild geese,
Harsh and exciting---
Over and over announcing
Your place in the family of things.

Our First Principle of Unitarian Universalism states that we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. That means you and me; it means ethnic minorities; it means sexual minorities; it means Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and those whose religious beliefs are incomprehensible to others; it means criminals and the mentally ill; it means Republicans and Independents. It even means people we hate or people we fear.

We all are born with inherent worth and dignity but along life’s roadway, things happen to damage us, to make us feel less than whole, to make us behave in questionable and hurtful ways toward others, to ruin our health or mobility, to give us impulses to hurt others that are sometimes irresistible. And we develop fear because of the things that happen to us.

As Judy and I were talking about this service, sharing our ideas on the theme, we developed a concept that I’d like to share with you. We thought about the many facets of us human beings and our lives: the community we live in; our personalities and our interface with the world; our self-concept, how we see ourselves, how we relate to ourselves; our family members and friends; and the legacy we leave behind when we die. I’m sure there are other facets you could name, but it became clear to us as we talked that when we feel less than whole, it is our relationships---with ourselves, with others, and with the larger community---that show the strain.

When we are fearful, we tend to respond in a fight or flight way. We may run from the thing we fear and sometimes that is indeed the right response. We may be fleeing, however, fear that is aroused by old events in our lives. It may be that the thing we fear is not really the thing we face---but we flee anyway, which imprisons us anew, in a way. We are damaged and uncomfortable and unable to respond in a healthy way.

When we are fearful, we may respond with anger, anger left over from old events. We may be more angry about that old event than about this new one but the anger spills out anyway, perhaps onto innocent people. An adult, hurt and angered by abuse experienced at an earlier time, reacts to an event in the present by abusing others with his or her anger.

What must we do to be saved? Saved from our inappropriate fear? Saved from our inappropriate anger? Saved from the pain of hurting others out of fear and anger? Saved from our fear about ourselves, saved from our anger at ourselves? Saved from the harmful patterns that our fear and anger have engraved into our lives? Saved from a disregard or impatience with others’ needs?

What do we want our lives to look like? What do we want them to look like when we search our own minds and hearts for reassurance that we have done all we can to live by our values? What do we want our lives to look like in the eyes of our children and the kids we see around the neighborhood?

What do we want our lives to look like from the point of view of our closest friends and our family members? What do we want our lives to look like from the viewpoint of the clerk at the store? What do we want our lives to look like when our community gathers to say goodbye at our memorial service?

I’ll tell you what I think. Perhaps it is similar to what you might think. Perhaps not. Almost 2000 years ago, the philosopher Socrates said at his trial for heresy when he had been accused of leading Athenian youth astray and sentenced to death, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” He was stating, in the face of death, his conviction that he must pursue truth at any cost and share it with those who were willing to receive it.

For me, Salvation is being saved from something different than the doctrinaires would approve. For me too, the unexamined life is not worth living and to me, that means that all the time I want to examine my behavior toward others, toward myself, toward the universe, to critique my life by the standards that I have learned are most important to me. And I have some questions to ask myself in this critique.

Am I authentic? To me, authenticity means to speak my truth clearly and kindly. I need not have the same opinions and preferences as others but I need not apologize for them either. If you and I have a difference of opinion about, for example, the nature of God, authenticity requires that I am true to my truth. Our truths can be different.

Do I have integrity? To me, integrity means consistency between my values and my actions. If I say I value our Seven Principles, integrity requires that I live according to those principles.

How do I respond to my destructive impulses? We all have them---those moments when we want to strike out in anger, say something mean carelessly or deliberately, withhold love in order to punish, greedily accumulate possessions without thought for sharing our bounty with others, thoughtlessly squander the earth’s resources.

Do I take care of my health? Salvation means health, maintaining healthful habits, being strong, taking care of my physical needs so that my body can be at its best even as I age.

What am I doing to serve others? Salvation means saving others from danger, whether that is the danger of injustice or poverty or sorrow. It means wishing health for others and acting on that desire. It means putting healing salve on psychic and physical wounds.

Have I atoned or made amends for the wounds I’ve inflicted on others? If I have hurt someone, have I communicated my regret for my action and have I done something to make up for my mistakes?

How's my humility quotient? Being a public figure like a minister can give me an inflated ego and it's easy to get hooked on praise, which makes criticism extra hard to bear.

And what might be my legacy? At my memorial service, many years from now, I hope, what will others say I have left behind as my legacy? Will there be anger and resentment in their hearts because of my actions? Will there be regret that our relationship ended in discord? Will there be gratitude for my having shared my life openly?

For me, salvation is an ongoing process, not one moment of clarity but many. If salvation is by character, as Ralph Waldo Emerson has said, our character is always in need of a tune-up.

The way I review my own need for a character tune-up is during my nightly prayer practice, the spiritual discipline I use to review my life, pray for strength, pray for healing for myself and others, and express my gratitude for the joy in my life and the opportunity to serve others.

In the past several days, we have seen the tragic results of fear turning into anger: 13 deaths, 31 wounded at Ft. Hood, a police officer killed in the line of duty in Seattle and another wounded, and one person killed and several wounded in a shooting in Orlando. People afraid they won’t survive---whether in Afghanistan, or because of a job loss, or for reasons too complicated to fathom---striking out in anger at the innocent.

I’d like to invite us into a time of silence and I’d like to suggest that during our silence, we consider the anxiety in our own lives. Is it normal healthy fear, the kind that makes us change our smoke detector batteries, or is it fear which constrains us, imprisons us? Does it hamper our relationships? Does it make us want to strike out in anger and vengeance? And is there a way to be healed from that unhealthy fear which encourages unhealthy anger?

Let’s pause for a time of silence and reflection.

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 examine our own lives, we may discover places where we too need healing and peace. May we seek out that healing, making amends to those we’ve hurt, offering forgiveness to those who have hurt us, and in so doing may we find salvation from needless fear and vengeful anger. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

An unexpected thrill...

was mine this morning when I went to the Dept. of Ed to review my student loan account and find out what my final payment would be, whether they had my current address and phone, and when I could expect to be finished with this ten year obligation. I was pretty sure I was going to be finished in December and that my final payment was slightly higher than the former 359 months' payment had been.

Imagine my surprise to discover that on Nov. 21, I will make my final payment and it will be one third of my regular payment, not more. Wow! What a shock! What a sweet surprise! What a gift!

Student loans are a huge benefit to seekers of advanced degrees and when I took out the loan to go to seminary ten years ago, I knew the monthly payments would be steep for someone on a minister's salary and that I'd pay far more than the principal of $36,000 because of the interest rate, even though it was low. I was lucky to have a medium-sized pension from my 25 years as a Colorado teacher, so it wouldn't break the bank, but for ten years it has been one of the largest monthly bills I've paid.

And in two weeks, I will have fulfilled my obligation to this government subsidized program (oh, no, socialism?) and can stick that cash into a savings CD instead. Hallelujah! And in an unrelated note, the sermon for tomorrow is finished! Yay!

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Day of All Souls...

inspires a post in me this morning, as I think about the people in my life who have been teachers, inspirations, thorns-in-the-flesh, and are now gone on before me:

My parents, Mona and Merritt Ketcham, who brought me up a good Christian girl but let me choose my own path without trying too hard to mold me into their own design.

Henry Barrett, the old patriarch in Athena who lent me Dan, an elderly Thoroughbred gelding, Prince, a huge bay gelding, Coaly, a small black mare, and Melody, an ornery white mare who defied efforts to make her predictable.

Ethelyn Whitney, the Camp Fire Girl leader who mentored me into wanting something beyond high school graduation and marriage.

Dr. Gordon Frazee, my Linfield College religion teacher who took Sunday School lessons as a starting place and quantum-leaped me into a new understanding of faith.

Dr. Robert Zimmerman, my Linfield a cappella choir director who let me sing with that wonderful choral group during my entire college career, despite a miserable audition.

Alice Frost, the wife of Dick Frost, my first school principal, who coined the term (about our household's furnishings) "Early Buffalo", as in "how nice that you've decorated in Early Buffalo" to describe our first home together in Denver.

My inlaws, Beth and Everett Gilmore, who kept me in the family and wouldn't let me feel lonely and without family at important holidays, after our divorce.

Ev Gilmore Jr., whose performance on the tuba (Dallas Symphony for 40 years) was melodic and spectacular, especially when he and a banjo player played the theme from Deliverance antiphonally one year at a family Christmas party. We should have recorded it for AFV. We'd be rich!

Vera Mulhauser, the elderly lady in Colorado who helped me learn pastoral care and gave me a way to do for someone else what I couldn't do for my own mother, who lived too far away for me to visit every week.

Nestor and Myra Perala, whose support in tough times in Portland during my first ministry gave me strength and courage to stick it out and survive, a better person for having been tested so severely.

The Rev. Dr. Peter Raible, whose informal mentorship helped me find a place in the Pacific Northwest ministers' chapter and nudged me into active membership there.

Jean Houston, the elderly Whidbey woman who gave me another little old lady to care for and eventually memorialize.

John Adams, whose presence in my life was so appreciative and supportive and giving, right up until his sudden death a few years ago. I had the honor of celebrating his life and his many gifts to UUCWI.

Marilyn Saunders, an often-prickly teacher who nevertheless knew what she was talking about and to whom I learned to listen and to consider her recommendations.

Hildred Cyr, whose unusual life and presence have been a part of my pastoral life in recent years and who died just a week ago of numerous ailments. We will celebrate her life formally in a few weeks but will light a candle for her life today.

I'm sure there are others I've left out, but these are the saints and sinners who are coming to my mind today, All Souls Day 2009.