Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Evolution of God: a sermon

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Jan. 31, 2010

It was a beautiful afternoon in fall on a Rocky Mountain hillside, where I sat enjoying the blue skies and warm sun with friends who had gathered at the home of a fellow member of Jefferson Unitarian Church, my church home there in Golden, Colorado.

I’d recently entered seminary and was beginning the school year excitedly engaged in studies of pastoral care, Old Testament, and Church History, surrounded by students from all different Christian backgrounds with a variety of doctrines and dogmas.

I felt a little like an outsider at seminary; I was one of only a handful of Unitarian Universalist students, there at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, a very liberal Methodist seminary. But I was loving my studies, feeling my brain stretch and my own theology grow clearer, as I compared it to the theology of my more traditional classmates.

Next to me in a lawn chair, was an older gentleman named Jakob, who was interested in what I was studying at Iliff, and during our conversation, he mentioned that he was a pretty staunch atheist. I’d known Jakob for many years and I knew this about him, so it occurred to me to ask him “what do you believe in, Jakob?” He paused a moment and then…

“Nature,” he said. “Nature. That’s what I believe in---the laws of nature, the way the universe works, the plants, the animals, the laws which govern life and how everything connects to everything else. I don’t believe in God. I believe in Nature.”

In my grad school-induced arrogance, I almost said to him, “but Jakob, it’s just that your God is Nature”. Luckily, I had retained enough of my mother’s teachings about respecting one’s elders to keep my mouth shut and just listen; consequently I went home that evening pondering Jakob’s words and marveling at their implications. It was another step in my own evolution of an understanding of the power beyond human power, which some call God. Or Goddess.

Some of you doubtless remember my story about having gone into a 12 step program years ago to find peace of mind after a number of experiences with alcoholic friends.

In a 12 step program, one is asked to find a Higher Power and use its strength to change one’s behavior. I’d outgrown my “old white guy on a throne” concept of God and when they told me that my Higher Power only had to be something stronger than myself, I thought of my hours of hiking up steep trails in the Rockies, defying and yet using gravity to get stronger every step of the way, and I decided to use Gravity as my Higher Power. There seemed to be a connection there.

When I had my conversation with Jakob, I was ready to grow again and his concept of Nature as Higher Power was very appealing to me. In fact, I’d already realized that gravity was only a piece of my higher power, that the entire universe seemed to be an infinite power that included much, much more, most of it mysterious and only partially understood by science.

This month we’ve been talking about “the driving force, the creative force in the universe, which many call God or Gods or Goddess”. A couple of weeks ago, we thought about one of the great religious and ethical figures of our time, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and how he might have conceived of that force, which he called God.

Today I’d like us to consider how human understanding of that power beyond human power, that which drives the universe, creates the universe, has evolved over the millennia of recorded human history.

It’s interesting to me that human history reveals, both in the larger sense and in the more personal sense, a concept of “God” that has generally evolved from a figure of parental-type authority to loving presence to independence from a fixed image.

In the earliest reaches of human history, the power beyond human power, or God or Goddess, was revealed in weather, in seasons, in drought and flood; it was a force to be appeased, bargained with, sacrified to. Whether that force was seen to be male or female, it mostly was a rule-maker, a boundary keeper, a teacher. I can almost hear Mother Earth and Father Sky giving instructions: “Now, children, wind and rain and snow can kill you; so make shelter, and, by the way, use fire when you discover it as a gift of weather.

“It will be hot for a period of time; it will then cool down; it will get much colder for a period of time (of course I’m excluding the tropical zone); then it will warm up again and the cycle will repeat endlessly. Each season will bring certain kinds of weather, mostly unpredictable; learn to cope.”

Humans tried to influence the weather, the seasons, the drought and the flood, using prayer, sacrifice, bargaining with the seen or unseen Gods and Goddesses. Some of it seemed to work; when it didn’t, it was assumed that the deities were displeased or busy elsewhere or had a different plan.

Across the globe, human beings were generally polytheistic, ascribing power to the sun and moon, earth, stars, trees and animals, considering them the beings which controlled their lives, sent the weather, governed the seasons, controlled fertility, birth and death, and were only partly predictable. Female deities were common and Mother Earth was seen by many to be the primary Deity.

So reverence for a God or Goddess figure was initially, and logically, attached to nature. Not so different from my friend Jakob’s perspective, though Jakob, as a scientist himself, had a lot more academic knowledge to make that judgment on.

Interestingly, ancient peoples often argued with their gods and goddesses, threatening to withhold sacrifice and obedience if the deities didn’t shape up. And intriguing rituals accompanied some of these interchanges. Robert Wright, in “The Evolution of God” which I’ve been reading in preparation for this sermon, recounts a ritualistic “interchange” between a Siberian native man and the wind, in which buttocks are bared to the breeze and incantations shouted at the wind, in an effort to stop the wind’s incessant and damaging blast.

Lest any of you be tempted to try this, it probably worked about as well as our own Whidbey Island hopes and prayers when a wind storm is predicted! Mother Nature, whether by indigenous or modern standards, is notoriously hard to influence. Me, I just pray that I can cope, if the power goes out. And that the Bingmans will take me in once again.

Eventually, polytheism began to lose ground to monotheism, to a powerful, all-purpose Deity who was jealous of other Gods and told his followers (for by now God was a He) to follow his commandments or he’d get mad. If they were good, he’d bless them, give them land of their own, harken to their prayers. Early scriptures bear this out but the willful Israelites were unwilling to give up their old gods and goddesses completely and frequently invoked the One God’s wrath, causing Him to threaten and punish those He called His Chosen People.

The Abrahamic religions---Judaism, Islam, and Christianity----are descendents of that God-form, having themselves evolved out of the experience and the necessities of human living in early times.

But monotheism has had its own set of problems. The God of Abraham was a top-down, moralistic, parental authority upon whom followers were to be utterly dependent. This God was male in form and in language, which has encouraged followers to assume that God intended that human males be dominant and females be submissive.

Patriarchy was the starting place for a triumvirate of Abrahamic religions that eventually dominated the early Western world. God’s attributes were measured by human attributes, making assumptions about God’s opinions, God’s preferences, and God’s marching orders.

This God was rather cruel and autocratic much of the time. This God kicked native peoples out of their lands so that the Chosen Ones could live there. This God sent an avenging angel to kill firstborn Egyptian children, among other plagues, to allow His People to escape into the desert, even though they weren’t happy once they got there.

The history of God as portrayed in the Hebrew scriptures is that of a strict and punishing male parent. Scholars like Karen Armstrong and others have posited that when God created humankind, he (like all parents) found himself with unanticipated problems on his hands. The Hebrew legends around the creation of humankind portray God’s children as independent thinkers whose curiosity landed them in trouble and eventually got them kicked out of Eden.

This God got so upset with human behavior that he decided to drown all but a few and start over. Hence the legend of Noah and the ark, with its male and female starter species.

When Jesus began his ministry centuries after the Israelites established a monotheistic tradition, he had been raised and educated in the Jewish tradition of a God who demanded that certain purities be maintained, that certain customs were required of devout Jews, and that God was a Father figure. Indeed, Jesus called his God “Father” and, in times of greatest crisis, even called God “Abba” or Daddy.

Christianity modified the portrait of God to include a male parent’s loving side and brought a female near-deity into the family constellation. Mary, the mother of Jesus, became a figure women Christians could identify with and even venerate. But as the concept of the Trinity evolved, the idea that God was Three in One---Father, Son and Holy Spirit---Mary was merely the mother, albeit the mother of a God figure. Mary was a mortal, after all, and had only been the recipient of God’s grace, not a Goddess herself.

And remember that monotheism, the idea that God is One, was at stake. Even the doctrine of the Trinity, the idea that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were identical to each other and were simply different functions of the One God, was a stretch for many.

Acceptance of the idea of the One God was pretty much universal in the world influenced by the Abrahamic religions for centuries after Jesus’ ministry. There were skeptics, to be sure, particularly around the concept of the Trinity, but belief in God was unquestioned by most. Heretics were punished, sometimes cruelly as in the case of our own religious ancestor, the young Spanish doctor Michael Servetus who was burned at the stake for his denial of Jesus as God.

But as understandings of the natural world grew and science became an influential resource to human beings, particularly to those with access to education, a period of time known as The Enlightenment in the eighteenth century brought huge wide-spread change and conflict about religious ideas and the very concept of Creation and the nature of the universe.

No longer did every facet of human living depend on belief in God. The earth revolved around the sun, not the sun around the earth. Discoveries about any number of everyday things, such as plants and seasons and the movement of the stars in the sky, created new questions in human minds.

Before this time, belief in God was taken for granted. Not to believe meant abandoning any coherent world picture. This was unthinkable to most humans in that time in history.

But emboldened by new ideas and knowledge, thinkers of many stripes took courage and began to wonder: what is the real authority of the church and to what end does the church demand human obeisance? Those who traveled observed other religious practices and saw that there was a larger world than the one which accepted the idea of One God with three manifestations; there were nontheistic religions such as Buddhism and Confucianism and there were polytheistic religions such as Hinduism.

Three different conceptions of God, through the lenses of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, called into question the idea of One God. Each of these Gods had such different characteristics----how could they be the same God? And yet again, humankind’s shaping of the idea of God was illuminated. No longer was it so clear that God had created humans in his image; perhaps humans had created the God that they wanted to create.

So---that’s a quickie rundown on the history of the concept of God up to about now. It’s not exhaustive, it’s a little irreverent, and my knowledge is far from complete, but what I think we’ve done so far is establish that as human understandings of the universe have progressed, humans have increased their questioning of the reality of God or Gods or Goddess.

Part of it is due to our increased scientific understandings and discoveries. Part of it is due to the relaxed insistence on belief in a Deity. Part of it is due to our own mystical spiritual experiences which may lead us along non-traditional paths.

I’ve collected some quotes from scholars and theologians about their own concepts of the power beyond human power.

For example, Albert Einstein said this: “It was the experience of mystery, even if mixed with fear, that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty. It is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude. In this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man. I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves. Enough for me, the mystery of the eternity of life and the inkling of the marvelous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavor to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature.”

James Luther Adams, a renowned pacifist and Unitarian theologian, said and I am paraphrasing and pulling together a couple of related ideas: “God is the power that holds the world together. We are called by God to participate in holding the world together and we are seduced to return to the task of putting the world back together again and again. God is the force in the Universe that calls us to love.”

In the 60’s, a theologian, John T. Elson, the religion editor of Time Magazine, wrote an article entitled “Is God Dead?” which illuminated the shifting sands of theology and belief as religion tried to accommodate scientific discoveries. The article stripped bare the fact that there are multiple concepts of God and that the traditional “old man in the sky” was woefully out of sync with science. Therefore, was it possible, even likely, that God as we knew God was actually dead.

Elson wrote: “Secularization, science, urbanization---all have made it comparatively easy for the modern man (and woman) to ask where God is and hard for the man (and woman) of faith to give a convincing answer, even to him or her self.”

Henry Nelson Weiman, another Unitarian theologian and philosopher, offered this definition of God: “God is an event, a Creative Event, an event of Creative Interchange. God is Creativity. God is trustworthy, reliable, and sustaining. God is that which can transform and save humans in ways in which we cannot transform ourselves, provided that we understand and fulfill the requisite conditions.”

Feminist theologians have illuminated the feminine face of the power beyond human power. They cite the earliest evidence of deity worship as being the worship of Mother Earth, for female powers of reproduction, of community, and nurture, and many religious people today honor and revere the feminine attributes of the Goddess, rather than a male figure of God.

Atheist writers who have become popular in recent years have primarily stated their rejection of the traditional view of God as an anthropomorphic figure, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent. I have not heard much from them about other concepts of God or Goddess and wonder if they too are out of sync with new ideas of God.

Yet quantum physics has revealed an entirely new possibility about the power beyond human power. As the Large Hadron Collider lurches toward its grand experiment of recreating a smaller version of the Big Bang, the event which appears to have set the universe in motion, it is possible that science may unveil the deepest roots of the universe yet explored.

And will they find God? Well, probably not the God most people assume is the Ruler of the Cosmos.

So where are we? Here’s what I think.

I’ve noticed that the power beyond human power, which some call God or Goddess, can be viewed through many lenses. Even as a parent or guardian can be called a mother or a father or a chauffeur or a cook or a teacher or a cruel tyrant or any number of other names, so can God and Goddess.

There is the lens of religion: God as a personal servant and ruler. There’s the lens of physics: God as energy. Of psychology: God as emotional need. Of biology: God as creator, God as mere brain chemistry. Of evolution: God as an orderly, purposeful system. Of Love: God as human connection and nurture. Of parent: God as protector, caretaker. Of child: God as rule-maker, guidance giver. Of art: God as designer, creator of beauty. Of indigenous person: God as nature and ancestral wisdom. Of poetry: God as metaphor and simile. Of fear: God as the punisher. Of ethics: God as source of the moral order. Of the abstract: God as ground of being, Ultimate Reality. Of the concrete: God as old white guy in the sky.

I’ve probably missed your favorite lens and you can tell me later what yours might be or if you disagree. But I think it all comes back to the recognition that there are so many ways to think of the power beyond human power, so many ways we have found to use that power both for secular and spiritual and religious meaning, so many names and faces for God and Goddess, that it is useless to argue about whose version is right.

Ken Merrell spoke to us last September about a discovery he had made in his religious journey: that when we encounter different language and ideas from our own, rather than dismissing them as useless or offensive, we might try translating those words and ideas into our own language and worldview, to see if we and those who are different from us have any common ground. And I would reiterate Ken’s wisdom: we all have different ideas about what God or Goddess means. Let’s share those ideas, rather than reject each other because we don’t speak the same language.

The Evolution of God is a journey of countless millennia, from prehistory to the present. The Evolution of our personal understandings of the concept of God has taken our whole lifetimes and continues to offer opportunities to change our minds. Whether we are theists, nontheists, atheists or agnostics, we can learn from each other and respect each other’s language and experiences, both here and in the larger community. As Ken has said, the key is to translate! You too can be religiously bi-lingual!
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 all humankind shares a reliance on the faithfulness of that power beyond human power, which we call by many names. May we respect one another’s language and thoughts, listening carefully that we might learn from one another. And may we offer to our children, our grandchildren, friends and family the opportunity to think large about what it means to have faith in these troubled times. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Radical Reflection...

was the name of the class Sarah and I taught today. She'd gotten all motivated by the reflection posts I'd put up earlier this month and wanted to try it herself. And while we were at it, how about if we asked others in the congregation if they wanted to get together and do some writing about the past year? I said sure and we were off.

Our session was today. We met from noon to 3 at the church (with much competition from the custodian, a music class, and some mic practice by a couple of guys) with three others (Malcolm, Effie, and Christine). We did some warmup activities, I explained my process, answered questions, and then we set them to writing, while I retired to another room to read my book. I'd already done the work; now I was the teacher who got to sit and goof off while they worked.

One of the feedback items from this group (which generally approved heartily of the class and want it to be repeated every year) was that I should post my process, which I mostly hinted at when I posted it here at Ms. Kitty's.

So here it is. It took me several hours, spread over about five days so that it wasn't too demanding at any particular time. And I didn't get burned out.

First, I started at page 1 of my 2009 daybook and began to list all the important events of my year, all 365 days of it. I wrote down in a list about a page and a half of events that were important enough to be listed.

Second, I put each item in my list into a category. The categories I used were developed from the list of events: music, physicality and health, personal, church ministry, larger community ministry.

Third, I went back over each category and rated each item with one, two, or three stars, depending on how important I felt it had been in my life. One item, which had given me days and weeks of angst, rated three stars and a plus sign because it turned out so well.

Fourth, I looked at the items in each category and extracted what I felt I'd learned from each item, stated the general lesson(s) of the category and stated a "to do" item, something I'd try to accomplish within that category.

Fifth, I reviewed the lessons of each category and the possible plan considered and then examined the spiritual aspects of each category, the ways my spiritual nature had been fed (or not). In addition, I wrote down what I felt were the elements of my spiritual nature and the spiritual practices I most commonly use.

At the end of the three hour session, all reflectors seemed to feel pretty satisfied and eager to continue what they'd started. Nobody seemed to complete the whole assessment for themselves but felt they could carve out time to finish it. A couple of them might want to get together with me when they finish.

So Sarah and I felt very good about the afternoon. And I feel very happy that what I started out to do has had a further application. It fits right into my spiritual practice of "generativity".

Tomorrow's sermon is "The Evolution of God". See you in church! Somewhere, anyhow.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Science and Spirit

I'm getting kind of excited about a lecture series I'm dreaming up for this spring and next fall. Not sermons or worship services, but a series of presentations by local people about issues of science and spirit.

A couple of months ago, a friend who is a retired anthropology professor said she'd been thinking about putting together a presentation on Darwin and "The Origin of Species" and offering it to the larger community. I immediately volunteered our space as a venue for her presentation, which was intended to be a one-time offering, but then I got to thinking about how we might offer something more extensive than a one-shot.

So I've been mentioning it to people I get together with, both in the music world and in the congregation, and my excitement has grown. Our community, South Whidbey Island, is very heavily into music and art; the science we hear about is environmental science and there's nothing wrong with that at all, none of it. But there's never been any other scientific offering that I'm aware of.

I'm kind of a science bug, even though my studies in science have been limited to the requirements of school graduations. I love reading science mags, learning more about the universe, geology, biology, all that kind of stuff. I'm strictly an armchair scientist, though a congregant years ago told me that I had a biological approach to my theology. And I think he was right. I do---I see life and spirit and religion through a lens of biological life.

So here's what I've concocted so far. We'll start out this spring with MK's Darwin night and then we'll offer other evenings as well. At a recent gathering, we dreamed up "Planet Eden" by biologist Sarah, "Physics and Philosophy: Lifting the Veil" by philosopher Andrew, something on marine biology and dendrology by Ranger Rick, and brainstormed other possible topics.

What I'd like to do is connect the broad category of Scientific Inquiry with Spirituality, seeing where science and religion and ethics interface. I'd like to avoid "woowoo" spirituality and focus on ethical issues rather than metaphysical issues. I think there might be an audience for science-related topics. It might even be something teenagers would find interesting---extra credit! Yay!

Anyhow, I'm going to help MK pull hers together and then see what we might schedule for the next one, depending on the feedback we get from the community. Wish me luck!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

It's been an interesting weekend...

starting with Friday morning at the lectionary group, when the four of us who attended discussed the disheartening condition of the world in general, the treachery of assorted leaders, both those we liked and those we loathed, the ambivalence we felt about the whole peace movement these days, the state of local politics and social conditions, and what our congregations were doing to effect change in the world, state, local community. We never did get to the scripture readings for the week, instead chewing on the dismalness of human life in general and what we couldn't do about it.

Sunk in gloom as we left the gathering, one other pastor and I looked at each other out on the street and said, essentially, "the hell with it, I'm going to enjoy the life I've got and take some time out from dithering". So I went home, ate lunch, and went out in the garden, my first task to eliminate the annoying oriental poppies that sprout every spring from a decrepit whiskey half-barrel and leave limp brown fronds and empty seed heads in their wake, after a blooming season too brief to be enjoyed fully.

In a way, I felt guilty about it, but that damned barrel of weedy floppy greens and blooms has given me so little pleasure over the four years I've lived here, that it was time to say goodbye. I thought about transplanting them, but I couldn't get enough of the roots out. So after dismantling the barrel and removing the rocks that had been placed underneath the soil, I spread the soil around the nearby tree and headed off to see what else I could fix.

Later in the afternoon, I went to Langley to do a little browsing and ran into a gentleman I've known slightly through his wife, a lovely woman who died several months ago but who, before she died, helped me think through some puzzling situations at my congregation. Barbara was a friend and a mentor, a retired Presbyterian pastor whose administrative skills were how she ministered to the world; her widower, John, is still struggling with her death, which came after a sudden recurrence of cancer. But he was volunteering at the local Good Cheer store and said hello, then came to sit with a group of us at the annual Youth Connection salmon dinner an hour later. I enjoyed talking with him and think I would like to know him better, both personally and pastorally. John is also a retired Presbyterian pastor, accustomed to helping others with their grief and hit very hard by Barbara's death.

Saturday afternoon a bunch of newbies (13 of them!) assembled at the meeting hall to learn about Unitarian Universalism. Teaching this course is always fun; we get to hear each other's spiritual journey stories, exchange views on various experiences we've had, and be impassioned about what we're looking for in a faith community. We're hoping several of these folks will join the congregation; one woman was already ready and signed the membership book then and there.

Last night, eight of us gathered at The Cove, a newish Thai restaurant in Coupeville for a fabulous dinner and conversation, a pleasure all the way around for the companionship, ambiance, and THE FOOD. The waiter got my order wrong, but it didn't matter; what he served me was delicious! Whatever it was----fried rice with seafood, I think, but definitely not panang curry!

This morning, I went over to the Freeland Cafe as usual for a blueberry pancake and sausage and now I'm home again, feeling much restored after a couple of days in which I quit worrying about the world situation, let go of some of that jadedness by not watching the news or reading the front page, sticking to the comics and the features pages in the paper, and doing something to improve my little corner of the world. I'll go back to changing the world in general after I've gotten my strength back. I cannot imagine what it would be like to be a world leader and never be able to take a sabbatical from crisis. I cannot imagine. Ordinary life is tough enough!

Anyhow, this morning is church and I don't have to do it but can just enjoy it. This evening is the North End dine out and that's always a delight. Tomorrow it's time to take up the cudgels again and dope out next Sunday's service. To paraphrase my favorite prophet, "the world you have always with you" and I can turn my energies elsewhere for a little time.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Another pleasure for you in hard times

Isn't this delightful?

Friday, January 22, 2010

This is such a good song!

I love Johnny Cash and this is a great song I hadn't heard before.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Dang! In spite of the fact that I have hyacinths...

poking up out of the ground in my sloppily-maintained little flower bed, I AM JADED! Usually the spring's first shoots are a welcome sight, but it's January, for heaven's sake, and they are not supposed to be here this early---even in the Pacific Northwest where we can legitimately brag about them in February.

I am jaded, I tell you! Jaded by the incessant messages about climate change and how that relates to too-early green shoots! Jaded by the criticism of the poor Obama administration which has been working its heart out to get things done in the past year, cleaning up the god-awful mess the Bushies left behind and still can't please the critics who think things should be done quicker and better even though the Re-pubs refuse to help.

I am jaded by the endless debates about one thing or another: Haitian relief---too little too late? Wall Street bail-outs---too little? too much? too unregulated? too foolish? too co-dependent? I am jaded by the nightly news which spews the latest murders, robberies, lootings, abuses, and other forms of bleeding in tones which ought to be reserved for birthday parties and such, instead of suspected scandals or other mayhem. I am jaded by the HuffPost, whose headlines scream "looky here, everyone, another big possible mess!"

I am jaded by the casual cruelty of celebrities who trash each other publicly for publicity's sake, or trash ordinary people for the sake of a joke. I am jaded by public figures whose embarrassing private lives are trumpeted by others as long as the "looky-loo factor" can be prolonged. I am jaded by jadedness! And don't you all dare to tell me why I shouldn't be jaded about these things or tell me your opinion about one or another of them. Because I am jaded and sick of it all!

Here's what I'm NOT jaded about: friends who confide their personal struggles; singing together; grins across a room; earnest conversation about things that matter; hugging; laughing; taking a walk; petting the cats; planning a worship service; loving my friends and my congregants and my family; being alive.

I've been feeling jaded about writing a blog post. Nothing seemed worth commenting on; my brain was resisting putting two thoughts together. Even reading others' blog posts seemed uninviting; I'd scan the list on UUpdates and think---naw, not that one, not that one, not that one. Oh, there's CC posting or Chalice Spark or CUUMBAYA---not jaded by those folks. But an appalling number of swear words and "stupid" were falling from my lips as I'd read one rant or another about things I was already jaded about and didn't need to be jadeder.

So what do I do? I write a post about feeling jaded. What else could I do?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Martin Luther King, Jr.: the reading

The reading for today's service, found on the internet and posted by an anonymous author:

What made me question the salvation of Martin Luther King, Jr.?

Early this year (1998), my little sister asked me to look up some stuff on the 'net for a paper she was doing on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As I surfed, the Lord put a thought in my mind, "Did this man ever testify of Me?" I thought to myself, "Mmmmm. The world loved this man. If he was preaching the gospel, the world would have hated him." I started looking up Martin Luther King's writings. As I read, I realized that he was a stranger, a foreigner to me. Whenever he mentioned Jesus, it was along with mere mortals like Socrates or Ghandi. In his jailhouse letter, King lumped all religions into the same class. I could not find one "sermon" where he preached Jesus Christ and Him crucified. What I saw is that this man "preached" a social gospel using Black churches as his springboard.

King's philosophy is rather reminiscent of the Catholic Liberation Theology in South America. After several hours of reading of him on the 'net, I told my husband that this man was not our brother in Christ. Someone who called himself "Reverend" and preached in churches was obviously not saved. For 32 years, I'd heard great and favorable things about Martin Luther King, Jr. His name was, and is, synonymous with civil rights. But in 1998, the Lord Jesus Christ has shown me that "Reverend" Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was nothing short of an heretick. It was a strange revelation.

Well, all these months have passed and I thought my meditation on this was over--I was wrong. The Lord wanted me to see something else. Last night, my husband gave me some papers that my sister wanted me to have. It was the stuff that I had printed out for her on Martin Luther King, Jr. I didn't need that stuff back but the Lord wanted my mind to go back to this subject. Lo and behold, yesterday (it is about 3:30 am now) 10-7-98, I was surfing the 'net for information on King Charles I (son of King James VI & I) when I came upon an article for Martin Luther King, Jr. I clicked on the link, and amazingly, I was taken to Stanford University's repository for Martin Luther King, Jr.'s writings--they are on line. Their repository is a work in progress, but there is more than enough there for any human being to see that Martin Luther King, Jr. denied the most basic tenets of the Christian faith.

(Find the link to the entire article here.)

Martin Luther King, Jr.: not a real Christian?

Rev Kit Ketcham, Jan. 17, 2010

Thanks, Gladys. Wow! A Baptist preacher? Not a Christian? Not going to heaven? When I found the words of this reading on the internet recently and read the entire article that contained them, I was struck by two things: first, the research that had been done to develop the thesis and second, the conclusion that King was not going to be there to greet his followers when they reached heaven.

I couldn’t help but wonder at the motivation of the writer, who had taken the time and trouble to read nearly all of King’s published works, who seemed skilled in internet research, and could put words together quite succinctly.

This was an educated person, familiar with scholarly language and research techniques, not boggled by the wealth of materials that must be read carefully, and a writer with some real ability. But she was unable to come to the conclusion that the civil rights hero was as good as she was, that he had pleased God, that he was eligible to join the elect in the Kingdom of Heaven, as she saw it.

In the rest of the article she and those who responded publicly to her article praised Dr. King’s work on behalf of the African-Americans who have been so badly oppressed for centuries in this country. But she criticized his work as mere “social gospel”, not real Christian witness, and asserted strongly that Dr. King and all those who agreed with him were not real Christians and would not be going to heaven.

Gosh, ma’am, with all due respect, I think you’re not the one who will be deciding this.

Fascinated by her article, I reread the passages in King’s published works which bothered her. She had made it easy by copying many segments of them into her article: there’s one about literal interpretation of the Bible, another about where the doctrine of Jesus’ being God had come from, still another about his doubts about the virgin birth and the physical resurrection of Jesus.

And then to top it all off in her mind, Dr. King describes fundamentalism as promoting and preserving supernatural doctrines which are contrary to science and open to skepticism and ridicule.

Even before he died, Dr. King was unrepentant, the author says, and lumped Jesus in with other thinkers such as Aristotle and Socrates and Gandhi, in his speech in Memphis, the very night before he died. She says he died a heretic and was doubtless consigned to the flames of hell.

Well! I felt grateful to the anonymous author of the article because she had outlined quite clearly the very premises that brought me to Unitarian Universalism many decades ago: that it is impossible for me to consider the Bible infallible and the literal words of God; that Jesus did not consider himself God---and neither do I; that the virgin birth is a story, not literal fact, a story told long after his life ended to emphasize the special person he was; and that the physical resurrection is also a story, a metaphor for a life transformed by insight and experience, and in that way immortal.

In a story in the UU World magazine a few years ago, my colleague and friend the Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt wrote an article about an interview she had with Coretta Scott King a few years before Mrs. King died. In it, Mrs. King is quoted as saying that before the civil rights movement began in earnest, she and Dr. King had considered becoming Unitarians because of their preference for Unitarian thought and theology.

But the couple returned to the South to do their important work of leading the civil rights movement because they knew that only a huge, passionate, emotional body of followers like beleaguered and oppressed African American Christians would have the impetus and the effectiveness to create long-lasting social change, in the heated environment of the segregated South. The victims of discrimination needed to be the ones to end that discrimination, with the help of their allies outside that community.

So here we have an educated, liberal, Unitarian-leaning black pastor who has stepped up to the plate to provide leadership to a throng of followers whose religious beliefs probably do include literal belief in supernatural doctrines and are praying for miracles to relieve their misery.

And what does Martin Luther King Jr. do in this situation? Does he try to convert his followers to his liberal, Unitarianish theology? No, he doesn’t. He’d lose them if he did. And that’s not the important issue here anyhow.

Dr. King probably knew that there would be those who would criticize him for not preaching the doctrine of Christ crucified, as other black Baptist preachers were doing at the time. He probably wouldn’t be surprised by our anonymous author’s words.

But I suspect he would shrug it off and agree with me. Christ crucified was not the issue. In the terminology of popularized religious thought these days, “what would Jesus do?” Black people lynched and intimidated and impoverished---that was the issue. And it seemed pretty clear what Jesus would do under those circumstances.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a deeply religious man and acted on his inner faith WITHIN the venue of the African American theology of the day, which generally was fairly fundamentalist---literal interpretation of the Bible, a deep belief in the supernatural events depicted in the Bible, “washed in the blood” salvation, and belief in a new life in heaven after death.

But overlaid on this theology was the great misery of oppression, oppression which had lasted for centuries, oppression that denied human rights ranging from slavery, physical and psychological cruelty, citizenship, even the right to live.

Instead of freedom, our African American brothers and sisters were obliged to rely on the promises of religion, a faith tradition which combined ancient African ancestor veneration and the Christianity that was forced upon them by slaveholders, a Christianity that said that slaves should obey their masters. For them, religion promised a better life after death, which helped to mitigate some of the pain of oppression, at least temporarily.

But Martin Luther King Jr. saw that this was no easy solution. His understandings of the Christian gospel gave him the perspective to see another, better way---the way of non-violent resistance.

He saw it work in the life of Mahatma Gandhi, as Gandhi resisted the colonization and oppression of India by the British Empire. He saw it in Jesus’ instruction to “love your enemies, do good to those who misuse you” and he thought it could be the way out of slavery (for even in the 20th century, treatment of African Americans has had its overtones of enslavement.

But how was he to walk that fine line of liberal thinker, speaking in love to non-liberal, frightened, angry, oppressed people? How was he to maintain his religious integrity and also speak the language of the people he came to serve?

I remember an incident many years ago, when I was a home missionary in the Denver Christian Center, coming home to Goldendale where my parents lived and being asked to speak to my dad’s little Baptist congregation.

I had been schooled all my life in conservative theology, going to elementary school in the Portland Christian School system, which my parents had helped to start. I had attended Sunday School every week of my life since I could walk, at least until I went to college. I was baptized by my dad at the very early age of 6.

My parents were a little nervous about my going to Linfield College in 1959, even though it was a Baptist college, because of the threat they saw from “modernism”, the teachings of science and anthropology having wrought upheaval in the religious status quo. But I had scholarships there, it was close to home, and I was eager to go.

Those college years had opened my eyes in a lot of ways, especially about religion. I had studied other religions, I had learned more about Christianity, and those old Sunday School teachings didn’t seem particularly relevant any more. So when I went off to Denver to be an American Baptist Home Missionary, I was ready for new insights and understandings.

Several months after beginning my work at the Christian Center and standing in the pulpit that Sunday morning, I told the congregation about the Christian Center and the kind of good works we were offering the inner city of Denver----a preschool, an optometric clinic, teen activities, after-school programming, food pantry, clothing bank, personal and employment counseling.

But I ran out of things to say and let people ask questions. Eventually one man asked “how many souls have you saved for Christ?” and turned a Sunday morning service into a crisis of faith for me.

If that was what Christianity needed from me, I wasn’t willing to give it. And I walked out after the service wondering how I could tell my folks that I wasn’t a Christian any more.

Luckily, after some soul-searching, I realized that I just wasn’t “that kind” of Christian anymore and that there might be more to Christianity than the narrow viewpoint of my questioner.

I have wondered if Martin Luther King Jr., himself the son of a Baptist preacher, probably a conservative Baptist preacher in the old style like my dad, ever had that same crisis of faith.

If so, how did he hang onto his religious integrity and yet move so many people whose beliefs were likely more like his dad’s than his own?

As I’ve read MLK’s writings and written many sermons about him and his life, I’m inclined to believe that MLK Jr. saw that there were more important issues to be dealt with than whether or not Jesus was born of a virgin and rose from the dead.

Perhaps he came to the same conclusion I have come to over the years, that Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness and non-violence is the real miracle, that water turned into wine and children and adults healed of illness, a bodily resurrection from the dead---these can have alternative explanations. But love and forgiveness and non-violence stand alone in their beauty and their ability to produce the unbelievable.

Jesus’ message translated, for MLK Jr., into a way of life that could transform oppression into full citizenship, into peace of mind, into confidence and a sense of self worth.

Listen to this from Dr. King:
“…The non-violent resister does not seek to humiliate or defeat the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding…(He) seeks to attack the evil system rather than individuals who happen to be caught up in the system.”
“…Love in its highest sense is not a sentimental sort of thing…(It is expressed by) the Greek word agape. Agape is understanding, creative, redemptive good will for all…It is the love of God working in the minds of men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return.”
“…I think every person who believes in nonviolent resistance believes somehow that the universe in some form is on the side of justice. That there is something unfolding in the universe whether one speaks of it as an unconscious process, or whether one speaks of it as some unmoved mover, or whether someone speaks of it as a personal God. There is something in the universe that unfolds for justice and so in Montgomery we felt somehow that as we struggled, we had cosmic companionship. And this was one of the things that kept the people together, the belief that the universe is on the side of justice.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., did not call upon God to deliver African American captives from oppression. He believed that those captives had power and strength of their own and could work with the dynamic love inherent in the universe and in human hearts to relieve that oppression without using force against the oppressors, without becoming bullies themselves out of their anger and resentment, without losing their humanity by denying others’ theirs.

Martin Luther King, Jr., believed in a God of love, a universe of balance in which wrong action would be overcome by right action, a Christian message of brotherly and sisterly love, a simple rule of treating one’s neighbor with respect and compassion.

Martin Luther King Jr has become an icon of transformational social action. As his life and ministry progressed, his awareness of injustice went beyond the struggles of African American civil liberties and he spoke out about the war in Vietnam and in support of underpaid, overworked laborers.

Our esteemed member and my colleague, the Rev. Mitchell Howard, when Gladys and I were working on this service at their house last week, sent me a copy of a sermon he had given in San Mateo CA 21 years ago, on MLK’s birthday, describing an immense anti-Vietnam war rally in NYC he had attended, in 1967,at which MLK had spoken. I’d like to quote him here.
“I am mindful,” he wrote, “of the lesson that long-ago April day held about the mysteries of leadership and sobering fragility of life in the shadow of violent power. I also remember being awed by Dr. King’s eloquent voice and magnetic spirit, and thinking how poignantly right and wonderful it seemed to me, that the greatest American of my time had arisen from out of a people long held in contempt and bondage by the powers that ruled this land.”

Our worship theme this month is “the God question”---who or what is the creative force, the driving force, the energy which moves the universe. And since the anonymous writer who decried MLK as not a real Christian has had her say, I’d like to tell you what I think about Martin Luther King Jr. and his relationship with God, Higher Power, whatever you may call the power beyond human power.

I think that Martin Luther King Jr. saw God as mystery, as love, as the Creator who gave freedom to all, a force which worked through nature and history to change lives. MLK mentions the arc of the universe which bends toward justice; in that arc, he saw Divinity. He felt a cosmic companionship as he and his followers marched endlessly for equal rights. He saw God as the Creative spirit, the master of the cosmic order who shaped the universe to be an instrument of equality and justice. He saw the image of that Divine Creative force in every person, even his enemies, and it calls for compassion, understanding and love.

And in his last speech, the night before he died, he spoke of “only wanting to do God’s will”. What might that mean? Looking at his life, I believe that doing God’s will meant to continue to preach love and justice, forgiveness and compassion; to strive for equality between human beings; and to act non-violently, with love, toward those who would treat him badly.

Martin Luther King Jr. said all these things repeatedly to those who listened, always using language that all could claim and understand, not decrying other definitions of God but gathering and defining them together in common, encouraging, strengthening language.

Martin Luther King Jr. was only human. We know he had his lapses and his faults. Like us, he hurt people by his actions on occasion and repented of those actions. But to me, he was a Christian who actually “got it”, “got” the message of Jesus as few others have.

His message of non-violent resistance has inspired generations of social activists and has given language and strategy for solving conflicts, big and small. Those who use those skills are able to foster positive changes in their own lives and in the lives of their communities.

In keeping with the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr’s life and ministry, this congregation is sponsoring, along with several other faith groups on the island, a workshop to teach non-violent communication skills. You’ll hear more about it in the weeks to come; it’s a wonderful opportunity to learn the skills of non-violent communication and resolution of conflict, drawn from the very methods that Gandhi and MLK and others have used to effect tremendous social change. It’ll be March 5 & 6, here in this building. It’s inexpensive, there’ll be child care and LUNCH!

And in that same spirit, our board of trustees and our committee on ministry are collaborating to help us all develop a covenant of right relations, a covenant of how we are with one another, using non-violent communication language and methods. It will be a worthwhile effort and you’ll be hearing more about that soon as well.

I’d like to close with this prayer from MLK:
“Oh God, help us in our lives and in all of our attitudes, to work out this controlling force of love, this controlling power that can solve every problem that we confront in all areas. Oh, we talk about politics; we talk about the problems facing our atomic civilization. Grant that all men will come together and discover that as we solve the crisis and solve these problems "the international problems, the problems of atomic energy, the problems of nuclear energy, and yes, even the race problem" let us join together in a great fellowship of love and bow down at the feet of Jesus. Give us this strong determination. In the name and spirit of this Christ, we pray. Amen.

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, committed to the ideals of love, forgiveness, and compassion and ready to bring them to bear upon the injustices we see around us. May we strive to live without violence, either in deed or language, and may we offer the light we bear to all we meet. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

What is driving this explosion...

of people and technology and information? (Thanks to congregant Jelcy for sending it to me after a conversation at the recent Dine-Out about "the driving force in the universe, aka "God".)

Monday, January 11, 2010

Characterizations of God...

are on my mind this month, as our worship theme for the month is "What is the driving force/creative force/power beyond human power force in the universe?" This beautiful old song from "Lost in the Stars", the stage adaptation of "Cry the Beloved Country" offers one poetic glimpse of that power.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

And now for something completely different:

I was quoted in a WSJ column by Jeffrey Zaslow: click here

Monday, January 04, 2010


In the post preceding this one, I outlined the elements of my spiritual experience and my regular spiritual practices. In this post, I want to examine my spiritual life during the past year as it was manifested in the five areas of music, physicality/health, personal life, ministry to my current congregation, and ministry in the larger community.

1. Music and spiritual experience: when I sing with others, I am transported by the sound of voices blending in harmonic patterns, the way it fills me with a sensation beyond pleasure, a sense of connectedness with my fellow musicians; the words of certain songs are thrilling and meaningful. Presenting the Pete Seeger concert last May was an experience of connectedness and outreach to the larger community; hampered as I was by vision problems, I had an even more enhanced sense of mission, that, through no effort of my own I was enabled to be there and sing in that event, in a way I had never expected. In that larger setting, I was meshing my voice and energy with others to produce harmonies with people I didn't know well or like much; it didn't matter---the harmonies were the message.

2. Physicality and health: I face an ongoing, intensifying need to accept my aging and to recognize my own transition (over 15 years) from a one-time party girl to a person without a public sexual persona. The responsibilities of ministry and of being a spiritual leader within a community required a separation from that former persona and have changed my perspective and self-image. Consequently, saying goodbye to old ways has become a part of my spiritual experience. As I age, I have come to understand the importance of self-care and of letting others take care of me, as well as the dangers of self-sacrifice. I've experienced great gratitude for those who have held me up when I've been helpless. I've come to trust that aging will be okay, however it goes, though I still feel some frustration with the limits imposed by age. I also experience joy in seeing my body's ability to heal itself.

3. Personal Life: There is great joy in reconnecting with friends once gone from my life and in the freshness of those resurrected relationships; finding common religious ground with conservative family members despite our differences has increased my sense of connection with them and intensified the love I feel for them. I feel gratitude for my son and his family and their love for me; I am awed by the ability my son has shown as he's matured and gone through life stages. The time I am able to spend with friends with whom I can freely talk about deeper things, the regret of fading friendships, the pleasure of growing friendships---joy and gratitude are the fruits of these experiences. The freedom of being almost completely debt-free is almost euphoric. And I experience the joy of loving someone who doesn't even know it---and being satisfied with that.

4. Ministry to my congregation: Because of our practice of "theming" the church year, I have dug deeply into my own theology and ethical standards and understandings to find what may be most meaningful to the congregation; this has been the source of a great deal of insight. Shaping worship with weekly worship leaders and teaching them about finding the coherent thread that makes worship more than just a show has offered me the opportunity to be generative, to aid another in finding deeper understanding. Taking a stand with the congregation in support of others' worth and dignity has fed my need for active social justice and connectedness with a beleaguered group. Recounting the lives of beloved members who have died has caused me to reflect on how these persons were my teachers; I am better able then to shape services which are loving and honest and satisfying. Being with a dying person and reassuring him that I will be present when his life ends has opened a doorway into a new spiritual realm. Facing my fears about a person I thought was scary and a potential danger based on gossip and rumors, I had the illuminating experience of seeing that person as a real human being and found my fear dropping away. And then, capping the year, the holy moment of Christmas Eve, shared with a fellow celebrant, offering its silence, its music, its lights, and its symbolism.

5. Ministry in the larger community: The awareness of bringing a message to another congregation without a strong sense of connection to that community stretched me to find a way to connect OR to let go of that responsibility. I found in myself a strong sense of compassion and empathy for our returning vets and their families and realized that, despite my strong anti-war opinions, we have a ministry, a responsibility, to care for those who go to war and those who are left behind to fend for themselves. Enjoying meeting engaged couples and working with them on their weddings brings a sense of temporary connectedness, followed by the harsh realization that I am really only a hired hand in this process and coming to terms with that. I've felt sorrow about my lackluster chaplaincy performance, feeling as though I'm letting down those I've made a commitment to and determining to change that in the new year. Always the joy and stimulation of being with trusted colleagues and friends, both local and farflung, delights me, whether we are on retreat together or in a weekly ecumenical lectionary study group.

As I've reflected and compiled my reflections, I've also noticed that these posts have a certain flavor of 12 step "moral inventory" and "admitting to God, to myself and to another person" the places I've grown and the places I need to address. Though I haven't attended an AlAnon meeting for several years, I find myself still living by those precepts: relying on a Higher Power for assistance; an ongoing moral inventory; taking responsibility for my actions and making amends for the wrongs I've done; seeking through prayer to strengthen my connection with the power beyond human power and asking for guidance.

As a minister, I've learned that people expect me to be an example of a life lived responsibly and with honesty. I've been astounded to learn that some people learn from my example, take my actions seriously, and even are encouraged to try to emulate some of my actions.

I've also learned that ministry is work that is hard on one's ego, partly because we are in the spotlight so much, can be placed on pedestals, receive many compliments and expressions of gratitude. This, in turn, sets us up for disappointment and self-recrimination when we are criticized, because we have come to depend on the ego-strokes to keep us going. When the ego-blows come, we have a hard time deflecting them.

I've gradually learned to let go of both the praise and the criticism and find satisfaction more in the connectedness than in the momentary pleasure or sorrow that ego receives. Doing this inventory of the past year and putting it out there is part of that. I hope it has been meaningful to somebody besides me, but I did it for my own growth.

Thank you for taking time to read this.


As I began to post the events and learnings of the past year, I realized that I had not included the spiritual learnings which emerged from those events, so I went back over my year and have done that thinking as well. As Robin and Miss Kitty have mentioned in their comments, every event in a human life may have a spiritual component. But they aren't always immediately obvious. So, okay, here it goes (OHIG).

First, though, I want to note the elements of my spiritual experience, as I have come to understand them. These characteristics may not be the same for others; that's okay. You may think of some I have missed; that's okay too.

I find spiritual experience in connectedness, whether that is in worship, or grief, or meaningful conversation or excitement, or just plain goofy fun. I find it too in solitude, a sorrow explored alone, a moment of journaling when I dare to put down something that is hard for me to admit. I find it in harmony, literally---the sound of voices singing, or chords from an instrument, interactions between people which involve listening and finding common ground; I find it also in dissonance, literally----the resolve from a hard-to-hear chord into a place of harmony, the conflict of sound or views or voices that open me up and make me wait for the resolve into a new place. I find it in the completion of tasks, when a book is read and I can reflect on it. Or when the patio is cleaned up and I can use it. Or when a cobbler is made out of the blackberries along the edge of the property and its smell permeates the kitchen. The mundane is full of spiritual significance.

From these experiences, I receive joy and pleasure, gratitude for the gifts which come so frequently, hope that I may continue to be able to see the gifts and not disregard them because they are mundane. I treasure the peace of mind that my spiritual experiences provide, even when I am waiting for the resolve, waiting for the new understanding that conflict brings, getting used to the changes that aging brings---because I know it will come and that I will find the gift waiting for me.

And I have developed spiritual practices which help to remind me of the spiritual nature of human life: a regular prayer time at night and spontaneous prayers of gratitude all day; being with animals and plants, whether tame or wild; voicing love---telling people that I care for them, showing that care by my actions; singing, by myself or with others; encouraging others as they go through life; passing along my learnings and strengths to those who are just starting out---being generative, at this time of my life.

I'm going to stop here; I have a longer post about the spiritual moments of the past year and I'll put that up later.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Okay, here it goes, part II

Fresh from church this morning, my thoughts revolve around my ministry to my current congregation, a group I've served for most of seven years now, officially working half-time. It's been a very good seven years and I have no desire to serve anywhere else, nor do I really want to work more than half-time.

4. Ministry at home: I made efforts to start some Young Adult programming which is now on hold because of changes in the young adults' lives; our building dedication in March was a huge milestone; as a congregation we made a public stand on South Whidbey about our stand on same-sex relationships and offered the gift of our sanctuary and my services to perform weddings for same-sex couples; we held memorial services for two members, each beloved and complex. I got a couple of new groups started, dine-out nights for members and friends who live on either end of this 55 mile long island. Conversations on theology, following the theme of the worship year, have been successful and well-attended. I've agreed to attend the death of one person who intends to use Washington's Death with Dignity act when the time comes. We have finally (I hope) peacefully solved a nagging issue of gossip and rumor that has dogged one family in the congregation. Our Christmas Eve service was lovely and reminded me how much I enjoy working hand in hand with a lay worship leader to plan and carry out this important service in the life of our congregation. My delight in this beautiful group of folks increases the longer I know them.

So: how long shall I keep being an active minister to this community? How shall I use my time most effectively, considering that I'm actually working more than half-time; it's just that they can only pay me half-time. If I were to retire, where would I go, because it would be hard to stay on the island and not be as involved with the congregation as I currently am. Uprooting myself and going elsewhere, even to the Oregon coast as I've wanted to do for years, would be very painful and yet it would be much better for the congregation and its new minister, if I were not here.

To Do: I do need to pace myself, encourage others to start new activities rather than doing it myself. This past month I have felt more stress than I've felt for years, in December, and the stress-related physical complaints I've had are proof of that. I need to make some decisions about retirement and, in consultation with my Committee on Ministry, give the congregation some general timelines, even though I'm not ready to announce a retirement for a few more years.

5. Ministry in the larger community: I've done outside preaching gigs for the Woodinville church (6 times in 2009), Skagit (twice), and Blaine (once), which gave me much appreciated extra income but also wore me out with traveling and meeting deadlines for others' newsletters and orders of service. It wasn't quite as much fun as it used to be. The Veterans' Resource Center has gotten underway, with my help, and that feels good. I performed four or five weddings over the year, which are fun but demanding of time and energy. My hospital chaplaincy volunteering isn't as satisfying right now as it was earlier; I find myself skimming hospital rooms, not spending as much time as I once did. I was the Eliot chaplain and also felt that my work there was lackluster. An island friend, Sue, is very very ill and has asked me to work with her on her memorial service, a task that feels both like an honor and an occasion of personal sorrow. I see our opportunities growing to encourage interfaith activity on the island and feel a thrill that we have Sufis, Quakers, and Jews using our building regularly. My lectionary colleagues have become very dear and my district activities are enjoyable and mostly satisfying.

So: Do I want to preach outside gigs any more? How many weddings are too many? Do I ever want to be an Eliot chaplain again? Can we increase our interfaith work without increasing my hours? What should I do about my chaplaincy volunteering at the hospital?

To Do: I think I will refuse most outside gigs from now on, perhaps limiting myself to one or two a year; it's just so much trouble to prepare, to pack, to travel, for a brief service somewhere else and I don't need the money. I will limit weddings to four or five per year and refer others to UU colleagues who live on the island. I will cut back my chaplaincy days at the hospital to two a month. I will turn down the opportunity to be Eliot chaplain in the future.

Doing this rundown on the year 2009 has been helpful to me, yet it leaves out an important foundational layer: my spiritual life, the part that doesn't appear in my daybook but is there, in every event, every encounter, every worship service. I need to do some more thinking about it and will post more when I've had a chance to do it.

So that's it for today. Tune in for part III in a few days.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Okay, here goes.

I figure if I put it in writing, I'll take it more seriously, especially if you all know about it!

"It" is the self-assessment I take time to do at the beginning of the new year. I've skipped a few years but it's been an important discipline for me most of the time. This year I scoured my daybook for significant events, listed them, grouped them in categories, summed each category up, and made a "To Do" entry (not a resolution but an idea, an unformed plan, a pre-resolution step).

The categories I've chosen are as follows: music's importance to me; my physicality and health; my personal life; my ministry at my congregation; and my ministry in the larger community. These are the areas of my life that stand out most clearly as I look at the ways I've spent my time in 2009. The categories are not listed in order of preference but in order of how they appeared in my daybook---the first item of significance in January was a Bayview Sound rehearsal.

1. Music's importance to me: I love to perform; it jazzes me up every time, especially when I feel in good form. I enjoy spending time with my musical companions and when we are rehearsing I feel frustrated if we spend too much time chit-chatting rather than actually singing. The Pete Seeger concert last May was a huge pleasure to organize and participate in; I felt we were doing something important for our community. It was scary to have a health issue interfere with my musical life two or three times duirng the year, but I was grateful to my musical companions for their help---with filling in for me, with transportation, with moral support and concern.

So: music is my number 1 personal outlet, source of fun and source of friends.

To Do: continue to do all the music I can, seek out more chances to hear good music and to participate in creating music, perhaps take voice lessons to keep my voice in good tune.

2. Physicality and health: during the year, I had a few health setbacks (temporary loss of voice, a detached retina and vision damage, and recurrent back pain) which reminded me that I'm aging and need to adapt my life to the changes of age. I grew out my hair to almost shoulder-length and have changed some of the styles of clothing I wear, in an effort to remain attractive as I age. I'm concerned that I have less interest in exercise and more interest in food indulgences. I'm also aware that I have spent less time outdoors, taking walks, because I've been aware of my vision deficits and afraid of falling.

So: what does it mean that I am aging and that in a mere 2 1/2 years I will be 70 years old? what will happen to my health as I age? what more am I willing to do to safeguard my health? what will I do if I contract some deadly affliction?

To Do: go outdoors more for walks and relaxation, at least monthly, to test the reality of my vision; be more attentive to my garden and yard; rent an RV and go camping this summer, especially to the Olympic Peninsula, my favorite spot.

3. Personal life: I am loving time with old friends and the chance to make new ones, through music, Mensa, and professional contacts. Family visits and connections continue to be very important to me. I've realized that I've "outgrown" a few old friendships yet I cherish the people even as I continue to grow away from them. Paying off my student loans has given me more financial security. I feel a yearning for an ongoing love relationship with a man who is musical, eligible, and affectionate and am wondering how to make this happen with someone. I've been making efforts to connect with a particular friend and am wondering if I'm going about it in the right ways.

So: maintaining connections with longtime friends, making new connections, adapting to the changes in connections---these are important to me, as is seeking a love relationship.

To Do: continue to be present in relationships with friends and family and find ways to grow a friendship with a man into something deeper.

This is what you're gonna get today. Next installment will deal with ministry, both local and in the larger community. I've also realized that there is a category that doesn't appear in a daybook, and that's my spiritual life and what it means to me, so I'll add that at some point.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Thinking about 2009 and what I've learned from my experiences...

is on the docket for today. Yesterday I went through my daybook for the past year and made a list of all the major events of my life, both professional and personal. Today I intend to review that list closely and see how my life has changed because of them and what that might mean for the coming year. It may take me awhile to do that, so be patient.

I used to do this every New Year's Day but I've gotten out of the habit. 2009 was a game-changing year for me in a few ways and I think that it would be good discipline to review and record those changes, mostly for myself but also for those who might be interested in thinking about how to assess the past year for themselves.

So let me get at the task. I'll be back later.