Monday, December 28, 2009

I hadn't seen this before now....

but isn't it great?

Friday, December 25, 2009

"Wake up, it's Christmas Morning!"

Just got off the phone with the Favorite Son whose gift was on the doorstep last night after I got home from the Christmas Eve service. Since I can use my Norwegian heritage as an excuse, I opened it the minute I got in the door, rather than wait till Christmas morning.

It was the most beautiful Pendleton blanket I think I've ever seen----very colorful, reversible, with a rainbow motif overlaid with the familiar Native imagery I love on one side, the other side black with the same imagery overlaid.

He has given me many treasured gifts over the years, one of my favorites being a little wooden shelf with a mirror made in shop class decades ago and another being a wooden plaque with the words "cherish love" carved into it. Another is a framed letter to me, on nice paper and in his handwriting:

"Dear Mom" he wrote, "I wanted to handwrite you a note to thank you for all the things you have done for me these past 31 11/12ths years. While many of my actions may seem self-focused, I always am reminded of the wonderful job you did instilling in me the values and morals of a person who takes personal responsibility. Thank you for all the love and support (both emotional and financial). (FDIL) and the kids send their love. I love you. (FS)

I think he gave me this on Mother's Day 2004, if my calculations are correct. And now this beautiful blanket, a Pendleton, invoking my memories of youth and horses and rodeo, with a rainbow woven in, underscoring the importance of our human diversity and a cause for which I have been working much of my life.

Favorite Son, you are the dearest person in my life and your wife and kids are right up there with you. I love you. Merry Christmas (and it's so cool that you liked the sushi basket! just wait till you see the Pendleton cookbook!).


Thursday, December 24, 2009

Checking my Facebook page....

I see the last minute preparations my FB friends are making: fruitcake! Yule Log! wrapping presents! traveling here and there! cleaning the house! getting a head start on tomorrow's dinner! and, of course, final tweaks in the Christmas Eve service.

Me, I am waiting, in that blissful, contented state of being ready, being prepared, anticipating the evening, looking forward to the silence and the candles and the fir boughs and the singing, Santa Lucia lighting our chalice and her mother reading the chalice words, dear ones helping with the service in the beauty and stillness of our sanctuary as the light dims and the candles flare.

And here I sit, Lily on my lap purring, while music fills the air and the smell of tonight's Christmas Eve soup brings memories of my mother and father and childhood Christmases. I am with them still in spirit, though my parents are gone and my family members are far away tonight.

It's Christmas Eve and waiting is what we do on Christmas Eve. That's one of the luxuries of this time and place in my life---that I can be alone and yet feel surrounded by the love and care of friends and family. I am grateful for the blessings of this life and prayerful that all might feel the peace and joy of the season, whatever winter and babies and light may mean in others' experience. Blessings to you all.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

I've been thinking about...

what Christmas has meant to me in the past and what it means now. I don't have my thoughts completely sorted out so I hope you'll bear with me while I do that publicly.

When I was a kid, there was no pretense in our family about Santa Claus. I don't remember my cousins believing in Santa nor any gifts from Santa under the tree, unless it was clearly understood that "Santa" was really just the same as "anonymous"---a person who wanted to give somebody a little something extra. We usually drew names within our extended family and so I always knew who was giving me a present. Santa has really never been a real character in my autobiography, nor has the Tooth Fairy or Easter Bunny, though they were always part of the celebrations. They were stories, not real.

Children of an underpaid Baptist minister didn't have a lot of loot to spend at Christmas; we could earn a little bit by doing chores, but we mostly relied on handouts from the parents to purchase gifts.

I remember a birthday gift I gave my mother one year which scarred me for life because it made her cry! I gave her a library book and spent the quarter she'd given me on myself. I was so ashamed that I went overboard later in life, spending large amounts of money on my immediate family members, trying to make up for it.

And the message was clear, though it took me awhile to sort it out. I started out thinking that a gift I gave that was free to me was worth less than one I spent money on. Since then, my thinking has morphed a few times and I can see that her tears were likely because she felt she had failed to teach me to think of others before myself, not because she wanted a dimestore hanky for her birthday.

So giving and receiving have had a few ups and downs with me. When I was married, I craved romantic presents and always got something useful instead. But we both had a practical bent and I smiled and read love into the crock pot or toaster, as he'd hoped I would. At least until he gave me something he described as warm and furry and kind of bluish grey and useful, which turned out to be a small pistol thrust into a sheepskin holster. Then I wasn't so sure.

After we divorced, there were fewer presents, so each one became extremely important. I gauged the love others had for me by the apparent thought and care given to the gifts chosen. Was it hastily picked out? Ouch. Was it a bargain basement item? Ouch again. Did it come from the grocery store? You get the picture.

Even a little boy's gifts carried risk: did dad pick it out? was it on time? was it carefully chosen? I never doubted my son's love but I most treasured the gifts that he made in shop class or scouts or were clearly picked out just for me and awkwardly bundled in bright paper. (I admit this with trepidation----Favorite Son, don't make too much out of this poor-me phase, because it didn't last that long, though you might see from my struggle how important it is to me that you remember!)

Then one year, there was no way I could be with family or friends on Christmas Day. Everyone was too far away, the passes were slick, the money was tight, and it looked like I would be all alone on Christmas. I had no place to go after the Christmas Eve service but back home, alone. It scared me to think of it.

But as it turned out, that was a turning point for my Christmas spirit. I laid in the supplies for a Christmas Day dinner of prime rib for one, asparagus, a baked potato with sour cream, and mince pie for dessert; I dug out all the John Rutter Christmas music I had plus Robert Shaw and others. I found some special book to read----I don't remember just what---and prepared to be alone and happy. It worked. It was a great Christmas, more restful than I had ever had. The gifts others gave were less important than the gift I gave myself.

In later years I've shared my Christmas Day with other orphans, people who are also alone on that day. This year I'm inviting my musician pals over for turkey and fixings and then we'll break out the instruments and have a jam session. This has become my favorite way to celebrate. Some of my friends are Jewish or Jehovah's Witnesses so it's not a Christmas-themed party. It's just fun.

But Christmas mostly means the beloved work of observing with my congregation the meaning of the birth of a child, of celebrating the winter solstice, of creating a Christmas Eve service that invites the Holy into our midst and sends us home in silence to await the morning and its gifts, both spiritual and material.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

It hurt my feelings more than anything...

when Garrison Keillor launched his diatribe against Unitarians and our penchant for degenderizing, retheologizing our hymns, in this case our Christmas hymn Silent Night. It wasn't so much that he got a lot of things about our faith or our contributions to the Christmas season wrong; it was more that I had thought he was my friend---my faraway, fellow liberal, funny friend who told good stories, sang gospel harmonies on some of my favorite songs, and poked gentle fun at everyone, including himself.

And he was so mean about his criticism. If he intended to be satirical, it didn't work---at least for me. There's a not so fine line between sarcasm and satire, and he crossed it bigtime. He said hurtful things, not just about my faith but about others whose contributions to the Christmas season were good-hearted and creative. And he said it all right after the Unitarian Universalist church in Cambridge MA had hosted a book-signing and reading for him. Talk about gratitude!

That said, I am concerned for him. He had heart surgery a couple of years ago and recently had a mild stroke. I think it's possible that he has suffered an undiagnosed traumatic brain injury that has changed his perception of things, affected his disposition and judgment, and has contributed to a loss of good sense and good writing as revealed in his recent rant.

I have known people who have had similar health events and were changed by them, physically, emotionally and mentally. They began to hurt people with their criticisms, they insulted friends and family members in their frustration with their own limitations, and they narrowed their worlds even more because of the social isolation their behavior incurred.

I hope for his sake that he takes the outpouring of hurt and rebuttal seriously and reconsiders what he has written. (And maybe sees his doc for a change of meds. Or maybe a shrink.) As one of my colleagues has suggested, Christmas is a time of inclusion, not of exclusion of anyone who is not "in the club". Keillor's remark that "if you're not in the club, buzz off" shows a remarkably narrow interpretation of Jesus' message of inclusion.

So if I were his pastor, I'd suggest a little spiritual direction, a little prayer, a little humility, a little redemption and reconciliation. After all, it's Christmas.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Speaking of taking liberties with Christmas...

I offer this rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus:

The Dying of the Year...

reminds me, this year, how many people I know and care for who are in the last days, weeks, months, years of their lives. I must know at least ten people who are fighting off cancer, some successfully, some not. Other dear ones are growing very old and frail. Sunday I will offer a memorial service for a beloved member of our congregation, Hildred Cyr, who succumbed to Pickwickian Syndrome (imbalance of Co2/H2O) and other maladies. A few days ago I got a note from a friend whose cancer has been unbeatable, wanting to talk about her own memorial service.

We have an aging congregation, many approaching age 90. Others are chronically ill with one thing or another. At least one person is in the last weeks of his life, expecting to make it through Christmas and then...perhaps Death with Dignity, if he is able. My own aging is more and more apparent to me as I down my vitamins and a couple of meds to ward off this or that and decide whether today the aches are bad enough to take some ibuprofen.

As I prepare for Sunday's memorial service and consider the prospect of another one or two on its heels, I feel weighted down by this aspect of ministry, even as I feel honored by the opportunity to accompany mourners in their grief. But my grief needs to be put aside temporarily so that I have the emotional space and can be present to theirs.

So I have prepared the eulogy for Sunday with tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat, missing this woman's presence and yet relieved that her struggle is over. And on Sunday, we will light the chalice in her honor, I will tell her story, we will listen to others' stories, we'll comfort each other, and we will complete part of the important work of saying goodbye.

I love this work deeply yet I am also exhausted by it on occasion. This is one of those times, yet I would not give it up for anything. I know that the strength will be there when I need it, that I am not alone either in my grief or in my joy, and that to be present at these moments of human life is an honor and a blessing.

Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

I should be writing a eulogy, but...

this has been a momentous week, in some ways. Much of it is too confidential to reveal; it's others' story, not mine. But I have seen courage in action, I have seen the destructive force of rumor and gossip causing pain and anguish on both sides of an issue, and I have been able to be part of the solution, or at least its beginning. And that was just Monday! There are still loose ends to be dealt with, reassurances to offer, safety ensured, but a damaging situation seems to have been headed off. And I am thankful.

The eulogy is for a complicated, beloved woman in our congregation whose life story is one of heartache, illness, joy, and passion for social justice. The trick in writing a eulogy is to portray honestly the life of the person who has died; if there are warts and blemishes, serious ones, they must be revealed but lovingly, always keeping in mind that the eulogy has been written for the survivors, to acknowledge the struggles they've experienced, the anger, the joy, the muddy legacy of a human life.

That's my main job for today. The service is on Sunday afternoon; fortunately it's our Christmas music service and I don't have to speak. I want this memorial service to be beautiful, as I loved this woman very much despite her warts and blemishes. So I want to choose my words carefully and lovingly, mindful of the pain her family has experienced during her lifetime, mindful of the affection the congregation had for her, mindful that somewhere in the ether (could it be so?) she may be listening, hoping for truth and compassion.

I went up to Oak Harbor yesterday to run some errands and get the oil changed in my car. At the JiffyLube I go to regularly, the young mechanic said to me, as he was ringing up the sale, "I like your Referendum 71 sticker. My partner and I have been together for three years and we are so glad for the legislation. We feel a little safer now but we hope someday we'll have full marriage rights."

I mentioned that I'd been working for marriage equality for a long time and he asked me what agency I worked with. I told him I was a UU minister and that our denomination has been active in this civil rights issue for many years. "Oh," he said, his face lighting up, "where's your church?" I told him we're just north of Freeland and said it would be great if he and his partner would come visit. "We just might," he said, "we just might."

I felt like hugging him right there on the spot but restrained myself, not knowing what his status is at the shop. I guess I'll have to wait until he and his beloved come to church!

Like I said, what a week it's been! And now it's only Wednesday.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Herded by Cats

I am a hostage, captured, imprisoned, surrounded by creatures who govern my every move. No action in my day goes unobserved, no plan I make is unaffected, no decision I carry out is incognizant of my captivity.

I am physically harassed and tortured daily; orders to "hurry up" or "sit down" or "get out the canopener" besiege me. Flying filaments too slender to be seen, too adhesive to be removed, too annoying to ignore fill the corners of my rooms, clog my vacuum filter and air return vents, tickle my nose and litter my clothing.

I am hostage, I tell you, and a victim of the Stockholm syndrome. I feed my captors, offer them medical care even when they don't desire it, get others to care for them when I am away, and worry about them the whole time.

Loosy, the elder of the three yet not the alpha cat except in her own mind, pesters me for lap time, licks my hand subserviently without actually acceding domination points, gazes benignly into my eyes though I know she is plotting how she can land a tongue on my face. When company arrives, she complains loudly about my behavior, accusing me of never petting her, never paying any attention to her, never letting her get on my lap. She continues this charade until the visitor, charmed (or revolted) by her plaints, sits down and makes a lap. Then she's in that lap in a flash, especially if the visitor has black slacks on or hates cat hair. She circles the lap, presenting her posterior in the most obscene way, until the visitor is forced to pay attention and either shoo her away or pet her and remark on her unbelievably blue eyes. What a con artist!

Lily, the heavyweight tortoiseshell wuss, considers it her duty to patrol the house at all hours yowling loudly. Nobody knows what she's yowling about but cat whisperers locally think it may be a safety valve for her pent-up anxieties, namely keeping all the denizens of the household in her sights. She worries about where Loosy is. She watches the window for Max. She sits outside my closed bedroom door at 5 a.m., ready to give the signal that it's time for me to get up and pay attention to my jailers. She goes out, she comes in, she goes out, she comes in, she cringes when I speak sharply to her on the umpteenth time; she goes out, she comes in, she wants to go out again and cringes when I yell "NO, LILY!" at her in exasperation. Then she slinks around the house looking at me like an abuse victim might look at the abuser, scared but hopeful for love.

Max the Magnificent (aka Murderer and Maimer of Many) blithely conducts his life as a conqueror in absentia. Max is gone most of the time, out killing things, sometimes bringing them home as proof that he is not being idle or catting around with losers. He comes home only long enough to eat everything in the catfood dish, sleep like a rock for several hours, eat again, and go out on his rounds, occasionally waiting until everyone is sound asleep to come scratching at the window for re-entry. He bullies Loosy when he's inside yet sides with Lily on the bed, lying back to back with her as though to guard the perimeters. Nightly he comes to my bed for love, nuzzling and purring and closing his eyes in ecstasy; I am inevitably taken in by this ploy and forgive him the next time he comes home at 4 a.m.

My sister tells me that you have to have four cats to be a real Cat Lady, so I am safe right now. But this morning in the local paper I noticed an ad for black and white kittens who need a good home. Luckily somebody barfed on it before I had a chance to cut the ad out. Judging by the size of the hairball, it must have been....?

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

A reflection on the diversity of UU congregations

In my years of being active in UU churches, both here and in Colorado, I have noticed great differences regionally between UU churches. As an active participant on the UUMA ministers' chat, I've observed the differences in attitude between UU ministers, to some extent related to the region of the country they are serving. Reading blogs and Facebook entries from contributors and friends across the country, I notice the same thing: churches and staff members and ministers have widely different experiences, depending on the region of our nation they serve.

Recently I had a chance to ask a friend who travels extensively for the UUA this question: if you were a fly on the ceiling, looking down on the US and the various geographic/cultural regions of the country, how might you characterize the differences between districts of the UUA, in attitude, in growth patterns, that sort of thing.

I won't try to reproduce the answer here because I didn't take notes, but I was left with a few impressions which seem to underscore my own observations. And those I will try to describe.

New England UU congregations are numerous but they are not growing in numbers or strength. It is from those ministers and members that I hear a lot of "UUism is dying" complaints. One informal trend my friend noted was that when one church in a given population strip (say between Boston and its outlying areas) starts to grow, the others tend to lose membership. Churches in New England are only a few miles apart, so distance is not much of a factor; the suspicion is that the growth is due to people leaving one UU church for another. My friend also had noticed that churches in a region don't know much about what's going on with the other UU churches nearby. My friend noted, too, that New England churches tend to be either pretty solidly Christian or non-Christian in flavor. Most have big old buildings to maintain, which is a heavy financial obligation, especially with historical buildings.

Southern UU congregations are pretty juicy and interesting places to be. In the South and Southwest areas, aka the Bible Belt, UU congregations are often the local oasis of liberal thought and tend to attract a lot of people who are eager to associate with other like-minded folks and offset the heavily fundamentalist atmosphere of the area. However, this atmosphere meant that most folks were familiar with Christian language and able to speak it as necessary.

Pacific Southwest congregations are "California" in nature, reflecting the West Coast atmosphere of experimentation, new age spirituality, pop culture, growing steadily. Mountain Desert congregations are also juicy and energetic, with new congregations emerging in less-populous areas to serve local UUs and make it less necessary for them to travel to larger cities for their religious fix.

Midwest congregations are solidly Midwestern, with all the qualities we think of as native to the Midwest: strong, steady, working to overcome local problems, perhaps growing slowly, hit very hard by the recession.

Pacific Northwest congregations are growing pretty steadily. Our district has been dubbed "the district that does" and many other districts look to us for programming and to pilot new programs. Many ministers in this district have been in the same congregation for ten and more years. Few want to re-locate elsewhere.

When I hear my colleagues say that "UUism is dying" and that we will be extinct in a matter of years if we don't get on the stick, I always want to find out where they're serving. My experience of UUism is that we are growing strongly, at least in the regions I'm most familiar with, and that we are far from dead.

I'd be interested in hearing from folks who live in other areas. How do you think your region of the country differs in its UU nature from other regions? (I haven't included Canada in this, as I haven't formed an opinion, though the BC congregations and ministers I know seem to be positive about their growth.)

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Who Was Jesus?

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Dec. 6, 2009

The dreadful tragedy a week ago of the four Lakewood police officers gunned down in cold blood, on top of another heartless killing of a Seattle officer a month earlier, on top of the many other incidences over the years of men and women whose jobs or ideals or commitments have led them into dangerous places---all these have resulted in our calling these men and women heroes. And they are.

The hero figure in our culture may emerge from a variety of circumstances: Shane, for example, who came to a prairie homestead in the movie High Noon to fight bad guys and then ride off into the sunset; the warrior who throws himself on a grenade to save his comrades; the President-elect who seems to fulfill all the dreams of his constituents; the prophet who speaks a new language of resistance without violence; the woman who starts a new kind of agency---nursing, social work, environmental awareness; the woman who breaks social barriers to make her way in space exploration, music and art, labor relations.

But the primary characteristic of hero figures, I’ve noticed, is their courage, a courage that sometimes appears to come out of nowhere but is instead the result of an inner resolve to put others’ wellbeing ahead of ones’ own.

This past week, I met with the North Olympic Ministers Cluster, a group of UU ministers representing Bremerton, Port Townsend, Port Angeles, Bainbridge Island, and Whidbey Island. We get together every few months to spend the day in talking about ministry issues, considering some theological or pastoral concern, worshiping together, and having some fun at the same time.

It was my turn to bring the worship service to my colleagues and as I have been wrestling with issues of courage myself, thinking about how courage is a facet of spiritual maturity, and linking all this thinking to today’s message about spiritual and religious heroes, I decided that the theme of my worship would be “courage”, moral and spiritual courage.

Let me read you the story that was the foundation of our worship time together. It’s by Kaaren Solveig Anderson and is entitled “The Kindness of Lo Mein”.

My friend Marcy and her boyfriend Brian recently ate dinner at a local Chinese restaurant. As they enjoyed a plate of lo mein, engrossed in conversation, a hand reached down and ushered away their platter of noodles. A voice quick and agitated mumbled “Sorry!” and a thin, poorly dressed woman left the restaurant with their plate of lo mein.

In astonishment, they watched her walk down the street, holding the plate with the flat of her hand as she stuffed noodles into her mouth, slapping sharply against her face. The owner realized what had happened and darted out the front door, chasing after the noodle thief. He stood firmly in front of her, blocking her way and grabbing a side of the plate. A struggle ensued, noodles slid uneasily from one side to the other, slopping over the edge. He surged forward and pulled with a heroic strongarm attempt to retrieve his plate. The woman’s fingers slid from the plate. Noodles flew, then flopped pathetically on the sidewalk.

Left empty-handed, with soggy, contaminated noodles at her feet, the woman stood with arms hung dejectedly at her side. The owner walked victoriously back to the restaurant with the soiled plate in hand. My friends were given a new heaping plate of lo mein, although they had already consumed half of the stolen plate. A stream of apology in Chinese came from the proprietor. Unable to eat anymore, they asked to have the noodles wrapped up and set off to see their movie.

A block later, they happened upon the lo mein thief. The woman was hypercharged. She simultaneously cried, convulsed, and shouted at a man, who rapidly retreated from her side. My friend, unsure about what to do, listened to her boyfriend’s plea to just walk away. But she didn’t. Instead, she walked over to the thief and said, “Ah, we haven’t formally met, but about ten minutes ago, you were interested in our noodles. They gave us some new ones, are you still hungry?” The woman nodded and extended her bony arms. She took the styrofoam container in her hands, bowed ever so slightly, and murmured, “Thank you, you’re very kind.”

What makes us walk away from discomfort? Or stay? You could say a lot about my friend’s story—a lot about generosity, kindness, attention, and thievery. I’m more interested in what motivates us to confront that which makes us uncomfortable and makes us look at the guts and grit of decisions, the choices to… address things that are uncomfortable, uneasy, unbalanced, unnatural, unbelievable. When our foundations start to shake, we can feel the tremors move up our legs and into our torsos. And we want more than anything to make it stop. Any how. Any way.

My friend Marcy could feel herself shake. I know because she told me so. But she chose not to walk away, she dealt with (her discomfort). She held firm in the muck. Sometimes, that’s all we need or can do to get to the other side—the side where generosity, comfort, and kindness reside, the side where foundations are firm and stable. Where one’s shaking walks back to the other side.

I asked my colleagues, after the story, to take a few moments in silence to think about their own experiences of courage---what makes them shake in their boots, as ministers?

After the silence we swapped experiences for a few moments; it turned out that most of us felt fearful about times when we were in conflict with someone. None of us had gone into the ministry to fight battles, yet we often dealt with conflict---our own conflict with someone who disagreed with us or the conflict between others within our congregations or even in our families. We’re lovers, not fighters. Yet in order to be effective leaders, we have to have the courage to face conflict and deal with it.

Some mentioned the courage of taking a prophetic stand on an unpopular issue; others spoke of leaving a familiar career behind in order to enter the challenging field of ministry. Someone mentioned the wellknown question of leaders in every field: “is this a hill I’m willing to die on?”, meaning “is this issue and my stand on it something I’m willing to risk my career for?”

Another mentioned the loneliness and strain of being the confidential ear for the many struggles of beloved congregants and the daily courage required to be pastoral when we have few solutions to those problems except for our presence.

So where does that courage come from, I asked them. Where do we find it when we need it? Where did we learn it? From what depths does it arise? Why do we do the courageous things we do? As ministers, yes, but also as human beings?

More silence and then, slowly, came the thoughts: I do it because it’s the right thing to do. I do it because the consequences of NOT doing it are too great. I do it because the issue is too important to ignore. I do it because I watched my dad or my mom or my grandparent or my friend, my mentor do it.

Others said: my courage comes from a lifetime of observing others’ courage and wondering what I would do under the same circumstances; or, my courage comes from a foundation of past experiences and my commitment to act in compassionate and loving ways.

At the end of the worship service, I closed with a quick benediction and then it was time for lunch. But the conversation stuck with me and when I sat down at the computer to write, it was still there.

I tell you all this today because our theme for this holiday month of December is related to religious and spiritual heroism. Jesus was and is the hero of Christianity; Moses, of Judaism; Siddhartha Gautama, of Buddhism; Mohammed, of Islam.

These ancient heroes had the courage to follow their own convictions and consciences and founded new religious paths, in the face of danger and banishment by the traditional religious authorities of their time.

Moses left the comforts of Pharaoh’s palace as his adopted son and joined forces with his people, the Hebrews, who were slaves. He made this decision when he saw a slave-master beating a man; he killed the slave master and fled for his life, back to his people. He was the leader who brought the Hebrew peoples together and led them out of Egypt.

Siddhartha Gautama left behind his old life as a prince in the ancient kingdom of Kapilvastu, now Nepal, living as an ascetic, in poverty, to discover the true meaning of life. Buddhism, founded on an ethic of compassion for human suffering and eradication of that suffering by a path of Four Noble Truths, was a reform movement of Hinduism and consequently would have put Gautama, in conflict with the traditional path of his countrymen. Little is written about the consequences to this spiritual hero of his radical transformation. Buddhism is a non-theistic religion, for the most part, though the Buddha is sometimes worshipped as a god; but Hinduism is a poly-theistic religion. And I don’t suppose people were any more open to huge religious changes then than they are now!

Mohammed is seen to be a reformer as well, reforming the traditional monotheistic path of Judaism with its purity laws and traditional views of the Divine. His radical call to complete surrender to Allah met with hostility from his countrymen, initially, and the persecution that followed caused Mohammed and his few followers to flee. Utter surrender to Allah and the wishes of Allah as revealed in the Koran engender another kind of conflict within Islam even today.

And Jesus, whose birth we celebrate this month (even though he was probably born in the springtime), was a revolutionary hero, steeped in both the laws of the Torah and in the wisdom he had gained through contemplation and study and experience probably gained outside of traditional Judaism. As a revolutionary, Jesus encountered turmoil and opposition to his teachings from the entrenched religious and political leaders of his day, both Jewish and Roman.

But Jesus was not a revolutionary in the mold of Lenin or Stalin or Che; he was different. Though religion and politics share many issues, Jesus was a religious revolutionary. Who was he, in the eyes of a non-Christian historian of the first century? Here’s a quote from Josephus, written about the year 90, of the common era, otherwise known as Anno. Domini., the year of our lord:

At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who received the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin (that is, Gentile). And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. And up until this very day, the tribe of Christians (named after him) has not died out.

These are the comments of a man who was not a follower of Jesus yet admired him for his personal strength and the strength of the love of his followers.

Marcus Borg, a scholar who participates in the controversial “Jesus Seminar”, which attempts to sort out Jesus’s life as a historical figure, as a prophet and as the founder of a new religion, has summarized Josephus’s opinion this way:

Jesus was a “wise man”, a teacher of wisdom. He did “startling deeds”, a reference to his reputation as a healer. He gained a following among both Jews and Gentiles. He was crucified by order of the Roman governor after he was accused by “leading men” among the Jews. His followers continued to love him after his death. His followers became known as Christians and continued to exist when Josephus wrote this passage near the end of the first century.

As a historian, Josephus chronicled the turbulence of the first century under Roman rule. He was a devout, observant Jew, with priestly and royal blood, who survived and recorded the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 of the common era.

Josephus’s reference to Jesus is the only non-Christian reference to him from the first century. Everything else written about him in the first century and later comes from his followers, whose lives had been changed by following him. They saw Jesus as the revelation of God, of what can be seen of God in a human life and of what a life filled with God looks like.

Our Unitarian Universalist roots are deeply embedded in Christianity and many of us consider ourselves Christian Unitarian Universalists, just as others consider themselves Buddhist UUs or Sufi UUs or Jewish UUs or Pagan UUs.

But we diverged as a spiritual path when we began to disagree with the institutional church which developed out of the Apostle Paul’s teachings, perhaps most decisively when the institutional church declared that Jesus was indeed God, even though he did not himself claim that distinction.

Many early dissenters from traditional theological positions were persecuted and even martyred for their beliefs, including our forefather the Spanish doctor Michael Servetus who died at the direction of John Calvin in Geneva, Switzerland in the 16th century.

And there are many ways that we diverge from institutional Christianity today, yet honor the teachings of Jesus as prophet, teacher, and radical revolutionary.

As I made the journey from traditional Christianity to a more radical religious view, one in which I honor and attempt to follow Jesus’ teachings, I realized that there are at least two varieties of the religion Jesus inspired. There is the religion “about Jesus”, focused on his supposedly perfect life, his membership in the Trinity, and the startling deeds of which Josephus speaks. A religion “about Jesus” takes the Gospel stories as history, as fact, and denies validity to those who do not.

Another variety is the religion “of Jesus”, focused on his teachings of compassion, of justice, and of a metaphorical Kingdom of Heaven which is within each person’s heart.

All of Jesus’ teachings can be taken either literally or metaphorically. The Gospels can be read as history or as legend. If we take these ancient writings literally, we will find ourselves boxed in by the revelations of science and rationality, with a limited ability to grow spiritually. In addition, scholarly work which examines the implications of ancient language and culture often deconstructs traditional assumptions about the meaning and validity of an historical view.

If we take the writings metaphorically, we have much more room to grow spiritually, as we find the meaning of the stories in the Gospels to be applicable to our own lives today.

Was Jesus born on Dec. 25 in Bethlehem? Probably not, for shepherds would likely not have been in the fields on a cold winter’s night. Did angels appear? Was there a star? Astronomers are divided on the issue of a star or a blazing nova in the east at that moment in time. Angels? The skeptic in me says no.

But the birth of a baby, a boy child whose life and moral example gave the ancient world, and us today, a new look at how we might become close to God, close to one another, close to a sense that our lives too can be meaningful----this is a story I can relate to.

Jesus, no matter who he was historically, courageously offered humankind a new way to be in the world, a way that transcended oppression, injustice, poverty, and fear. Though his disciples didn’t get it, nor do many of us today “get it”, Jesus offered a radically inclusive, egalitarian vision of how life could be, in direct opposition to the hidebound and corrupt religions of the day.

As Gloria and I talked about this service and how we wanted to shape it, she suggested I consider the book by Deepak Chopra entitled “The Third Jesus, the Christ We Cannot Ignore”---and she loaned it to me.

I’d like to close with this thought inspired by Chopra’s work: Jesus tried to teach his followers how to reach a state of God-consciousness, a state in which a human being feels so much a part of the universe, so much a part of God’s love, so connected to his or her fellow creatures, both human and non-human, that lives would be changed, transcending the ugliness of undisciplined human nature and the depredations of a life in which others controlled every act, instilled fear of punishment and humiliation, and offered no hope for tomorrow.

For me, this is the blessing of the spiritual hero named Jesus, that he taught that we can be happier than we are, we can feel more at home in this universe, we have more to give than we can imagine, and that in giving, we receive hope.

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 own courage and how we reach out in uncomfortable moments to others who need us. May we see the prophet and teacher Jesus as a role model for moral courage and may we act upon our convictions to make this world a more just and loving place. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Friday, December 04, 2009

We Have Nothing to Fear from Love and Commitment

Senator Diane Savino speaks to the NY State Senate.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Moral Courage---who has it and what does it mean?

Our worship theme for December is "the roles of religious heroes (Jesus, the Buddha, Moses, Mohammed, etc.) and what we can learn from them; this Sunday I am specifically preaching on Jesus and his message to Unitarian Universalists.

Being as how we don't see Jesus as God, we have a different take on Jesus' message to humankind. We see Jesus as a great teacher, a radical, a reformer, a prophet, a preacher, a changer of lives. But not God. (In fact, it's long been a puzzle to me why religious traditionalists are so stuck on the idea of Jesus as God. God's son, perhaps, but also the son of a human mother. Just like I am God's daughter. But let's not stray off into that territory---my topic is moral courage.)

Moral courage, like Jesus had, like Moses had, like Siddhartha Gautama had, like Mohammed had, like the millions of human beings who have died for their ideals, their commitments, their concern for others.

As a child I was taught that Jesus never did anything wrong, that he was perfect from day one, that his little indiscretions (running away from home to go sit with the rabbis in the temple, for example, and scaring his parents to death) were in the service of a higher calling. It was a little hard to accept; all the boys I knew were naughty at times and I could hardly believe that Jesus was any different.

In seminary, I revisited the story of Jesus's meeting the Syro-Phoenician woman, who asked him to heal her daughter. He initially rejected her but she spoke so eloquently and clearly of her need that he relented and did what she asked. Jesus changed his mind about what the right thing was to do! Heavens!

That took moral courage, for sure. It meant changing his mission, from convincing the Jews that the kingdom of God was inside oneself to convincing Gentiles as well, much to the dismay and surprise of his followers.

Who has that kind of moral courage today? Who are the "Gentiles" who need a break, whose lives are of little concern to the authorities, whose civil rights are not important, whose families are not important.

Sorry, I'm off on my favorite rant. I just wish there was a little more moral courage in our world today.