Monday, November 29, 2010

Hard to say goodbye forever...

to a young woman who died suddenly and unexpectedly just before Thanksgiving.

I'd never memorialized such a young person before and was not well-prepared for the emotionality of the service, although in retrospect it makes sense. How can you lose someone who is only 39, who has a child not yet grown, a husband of only a few years, a family who had counted on her to be around forever, or at least for the rest of their lives. And in such a tragic way----of a sudden blood clot to the lungs, with no premonition of danger.

I traveled to Vashon Island at the request of the family, whom I have known for many years and in several different ways. I'd known the father and his second wife through UU events in Colorado; I'd known the mother through my Vashon days; I'd known the young woman and her daughter through the Vashon congregation and learned then that she had been an acquaintance of my son in our Colorado days.

The little sanctuary was packed with friends and family members. The service itself was memorable for its wonderful stories and all the tears. I met her husband, her brothers, her best friends, her many relatives and acquaintances. The "community sharing" (aka "open mic") time was heartfelt and teary and lengthy.

But the question remains: how can such a thing happen to a young, vibrant, passionate, giving woman as Spring Cole Stuhlman? There is no reason, no explaining it adequately, no platitudes that give comfort. She is dead, gone, and only memories and love---and ashes---remain.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A minor rant

Some days it's more minor than others, but I really feel concerned sometimes about the grammar and spelling skills of people I love. I used to worry a lot about the Favorite Son's eventual transit into adulthood with the kind of skills he had in high school, but his dad, the English major, took him in hand---or maybe spellcheck did or his own good sense, who knows---and he's quite skilled these days. He's actually writing a thesis, and though his dad the English major or his sweet wife may be proofing it occasionally, I have no doubt but what it will look pretty good under the university's microscope.

But other people I love! Those unnecessary or misplaced apostrophes! Those run-on sentences! Those barely-phonetic spellings of words! People! Don't be careless when you're posting on FB or MS----get it right! Please.

Some folks are great. They know what they're doing and if they make a mistake, they go back and fix it. Others are just typing too fast and don't proofread. Others don't give a darn and never proof anything. Others? I hate to say it, but it looks like they flunked English. Now maybe that's forgivable if a person has a learning disability or some other handicap. But people who are writing for publication or emailing colleagues about a professional matter or drumming up support for a cause-----you really need to have a proofreader if you can't do it yourself! Or refrain from putting things in writing if you can't do it right.

We aren't going to quit loving you or donating to your cause or dealing with you professionally just because you don't know the difference between it's and its or your and you're, but we who know better cringe when we see your goofups, especially when we know personally how really smart you are.

But how hard can it be to re-scan what you've written and correct the glaring ones at least? Or ask someone else to look it over?

I realize I'm asking too much. That's why it's only a minor rant. And, of course, I have been known to make a mistake or two myself!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Ministers are asked to do some interesting things...

and today I am facing one of those challenges. Actually, it's a reasonable conversation to have with someone, but it was unexpected. Let me give you some background.

Years ago in a congregation far far away, a sweet little old lady who was (I realized) struggling with issues of too-high intelligence, too-advanced dementia, and very few social skills asked me outright on one of my visits to her little home if I would please give her an enema. She was having some problems in that area, couldn't manage it herself and it didn't feel right to ask her middle-aged son, who lived with her, if he would do it. I said no as gently as I could and suggested she needed a medically-oriented person to do that kind of thing for her. I don't remember the outcome of the situation, but I escaped with my composure intact, mostly.

This afternoon I am having a conversation with a gentleman who asked, at our recent Peace Vigil with the Interfaith Amigos (a local group of three clergy---a Sufi Muslim, a Christian pastor, and a Rabbi), what their position is on the justice of circumcision. Needless to say, the Rabbi had no problem with it, but the other two had to admit that they had not ever discussed it. Perhaps it will become a topic for their consideration at some point, but I'll bet the most immediate thing that happened was that the planners of the Vigil decided never to have a Q & A period again.

Anyhow, a week or so ago, the same fellow called me up and asked if I had a position on circumcision and would I please meet with him to discuss how my congregation might get involved in his campaign to outlaw it. I was feeling benevolent at the moment and agreed to meet----in a public place, this afternoon, for a little chat. Now I'm wishing the snow were more of an obstacle, but it's not, and so I will do what I said I'd do.

He's a nice older guy, but, like my former parishioner, with rusty (or few) social skills and earnest about his convictions. And I think it's a worthwhile conversation to have, but I really don't want to ask my congregation to get involved in this matter. And I probably will tell him that, at half-time, I don't have the energy or time to do it myself but will refer it to our Social Responsibility Council. They might well want to consider the issue, but I'm sure it will initially raise everyone's eyebrows.

Circumcision is a growing concern among folks who now wish they were not circumcised or who wish they'd never circumcised their sons or who are trying to make the decision about a newborn or a future son. And, one has to admit, there are creepy similarities between even the most hygienic and carefully-performed circumcisions and the genital mutilation of little girls. They aren't done for the same reasons, but why should they be done at all?

I may have an addendum to this post later today. Maybe I will get more interested in it than I think.

UPDATE: Well, I am far better informed and full of information. I had not thought much about the ethical issues involved and now I have. And all he wanted (and he was very much NOT some wingnut) was to give me info to share with congregants who might ask about the issue. I am glad I went.

Monday, November 22, 2010


Western Washington rarely gets much snow, but this year we are predicted to get much more than usual, because of a strong La Nina factor in the Pacific. And all day today, this early in the year, it has snowed like a sonofagun. We have several inches piled up on the deck. My only foray out of the house has been down the driveway on foot to pick up the mail.

The girl cats are curious about the snow but not desperate to go outside. Max is a different breed of cat; he MUST be out, but then he MUST come back in because it's so cold. He has been in and out at least ten times this evening, going from one door to another to see if the weather is any better out back than out front. Every time he comes in, he's covered in snow, so I wipe him down, warm him up a bit, and then he wants out again.

I tried refusing him, but he started to beat up on Loosy, so out he went again. Finally he has given up and is snoozing on the cabinet next to the window here in the study, with one eye open to keep tabs on the weather.

It's too late to let him go back out now, as I'm off to bed soon. I hope the predicted winds don't kick up, as it would be pretty serious to lose power tonight.

I tried watching DWTS but couldn't stomach the glitz or the posturing. How do people actually dance in those outfits? I hadn't watched it before but felt like giving poor Bristol a looksee. It wasn't much fun.

Maybe I'll get inspired tomorrow and write more of a blog post. I feel like I'm not keeping up very well.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

We Gather Together

By Rev. Kit Ketcham, Nov. 21, 2010
It was late November of 1989 when my sister called me in Denver with the awful words, "Mom's had a stroke, it doesn't look good, can you come home for Thanksgiving early?" I flew home here to the Pacific Northwest with my heart in my mouth. My brother and his family, my sister and hers, our cousins, aunts and uncles all converged that November afternoon in Vancouver, Washington, where my mother, Mona Elizabeth Larson Ketcham, was hospitalized with a major stroke.

We had been planning to have Thanksgiving at cousin Katie's anyhow, with my mother and all the family who could come. And as it turned out, we did have Thanksgiving there, but immediately after our meal, we all trooped over to the hospital, formed a conga line outside my mother’s room, and danced in, singing "over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother's bed we go", much to her delight and the open mouths of the nurses.
 She couldn't speak.

One side of her body was floppy and loose, but half of her face could smile, and smile she did! We were all scared to death but more scared to show it than anything. So when she smiled and laughed at our antics, it was the reprieve we'd hoped for. We knew she wouldn't be leaving us just yet.

We Gather Together. This is the time of year when we make plans to gather together with family members and friends. We may have seen them just yesterday, but this holiday marks a time in our lives when we purposely come together to spend time in each other’s company, to see how much the children have grown, to sample the familiar foods, perhaps watch a game or two, sing a few songs, and celebrate Thanksgiving in the company of family and friends.

Unless we don’t. Many of us don’t have family nearby or we can’t get there or we wouldn’t want to go there, and so we find other ways, but we gather together. Maybe we invite folks over; maybe we invite ourselves to someone’s gathering or suggest that friends gather at our house on that fourth Thursday afternoon in a family of choice.

Gathering together is the theme of our service today, during a month in which we are considering, as inspirational sources of our Unitarian Universalist faith, family and relationships. When Libby and I were planning the service and thinking how to meld Joann’s story, Guest at Your Table, and Thanksgiving celebrations into a coherent whole, we looked through our hymnal for hymns appropriate to the season.

And in our thinking about what to offer to you today, we realized that the hymns we sing at this time of year---before Christmas carols and Hanukkah songs become more appropriate---these songs are all about “gathering together”.

Our first hymn “We Sing Now Together” speaks of the many joys and challenges of human living---gratitude for freedom, for the commitment of those who defend our freedom, for the service of those who teach, who prophesy, who lead, who dream and create.

And the final verse reminds us of this: “we sing of community now in the making, in every far continent, region and land. With those of all races, all times and names and places, we pledge ourselves in covenant firmly to stand.”

We are reminded at this time of year that all human beings desire and need community. We need each other. We need someone to say, “yes, I have a generator and you can come over and have a hot shower!” We need to hear “of course you can come for Thanksgiving----I didn’t realize you might be available.” We might be fine in our solitude for a long time, but there comes a moment when we crave the sound of another voice. We may not be lonely, but we value the presence of another person.

Tuesday morning, when I woke up realizing that the power had not yet come back on and I was going to have to figure out a game plan for light, for coffee and for warmth, my instinctive reaction was to get in the car and go find someplace that was open, someplace where others had gathered.

The Texaco station was all I could find, where several of us huddled around the coffee pot, reached for the batteries, and listened to each other’s news bulletins. What? The power might not be back on everywhere until Thursday? What? And we shared our collective groans about the promises of Puget Sound Energy to serve the island efficiently and quickly.

Hmph, said one, that wasn’t hardly even a big blow last night at my place. Well, said another, guess we got a day off anyhow. And I came home with my cup of coffee, warmed by the knowledge that there were others in the same fix and figuring out how early I could see to start work on the sermon.

Our second hymn, “Gather the Spirit”, the one we sang a few minutes ago, is one of my favorites. If I had my druthers, we’d sing it every couple of weeks, because it is an eloquent description of what a spiritual community offers to us human beings.

And though we have a mission in this congregation to serve our larger community with love and justice, we derive strength to accomplish these goals from our time together in community, both on Sunday morning and at other gathering times.

(here’s the chorus) “Gather in peace, gather in thanks, gather in sympathy now and then, gather in hope, compassion, and strength, gather to celebrate once again.”

For me, this invokes the experience of our worship service together. Worship in our midst does not mean bowing down in adoration before a deity. The word worship comes from two ancient Anglo Saxon words: weorth, which means worth or worthiness, and schippe, which means to shape. When we speak of worship and our services of worship, we mean that time when we shape worth together, when we gather together to find meaning and inspiration from the sources that we value.

Gather the spirit, harvest the power, our separate fires will kindle one flame. Witness the mystery of this hour, our trials in this light appear all the same.

The song speaks of the mystery of this worship hour, this time when we come together to gain strength and inspiration from each other, when we laugh together, share our joys and sorrows and perhaps learn something new or hear a story that speaks of shared experience. We sing together, one of humankind’s most basic ways to share our lives.

When we sing together, we blend our voices----not just the tuneful ones but the wavery ones too, the voices that might not work in a choir but are an important part of our shared song. Blended voices are beautiful, even when they don’t all sing quite the same tune. So take heart, those of you who were once told to just mouth the words. Your song too is beautiful.

Gather the spirit of heart and mind, seeds for the sowing are laid in store, nurtured in love and conscience refined, with body and spirit united once more.

Poetry, for that’s what hymn lyrics are, poetry tells a story in figurative language. What are the seeds we lay in store, when we come together? Perhaps the memories, perhaps the inspiration, perhaps the stories that emerge from our shared experience? Perhaps we lay these in store to bring out again on a dark night, or when we need to be recalled to our best selves, or when the love we’ve experienced here and the collective conscience we’ve developed merge and we find strength to meet life’s demands, to go beyond our fears and our sorrows.

Gather the spirit growing in all, drawn by the moon and fed by the sun, winter to spring and summer to fall, the chorus of life resounding as one.

Experiencing the seasons of life as we go through them together, watching the moon through the trees and framed by our circular window, feeling the sunshine stream into this place on a lovely day, watching the leaves fall from the alder and madrona trees in the fall and awaiting their return in the spring, hearing the frogs and squirrels and eagles voices nearby, and seeing coyote and deer mosey across the land---we also experience the cycles of human life together.

The birth of a new child, the chatter of babies and toddlers, the watchful care of parents, the rambunctious boys and reflective girls, the rambunctious girls and reflective boys. Our youth growing taller and more beautiful every week, adding their experiences and their thoughts to our community.

And we experience, too, the mellowings of life---the wisdom of our older parents as they shepherd teens and young adults through their maturation process, the depth and sagacity of our elders in their maturity, the aging of all of us, the many needs of our diverse community.

All these we experience together—the joy, the pleasure, the life that flows through our time together. And the concerns for those whose health is dwindling, who may be hungry both physically and spiritually, those who are jobless, those who are discouraged, those who are tired of living and those who wish for just one more day.

Gather in peace, gather in thanks, gather in sympathy now and then, gather in hope, compassion and strength, gather to celebrate once again.

I invite you to close your eyes for a moment. Settle yourself in your chair and take a few deep breaths and let’s be silent for a time to let our hearts relax. (silence) (chime)

I believe that there are persons here today who have great joy and love in their lives, who smile because they are genuinely happy, who want to reach out with the abundance in their lives and share it with others.

I believe also that there are those here today who have a deep grief in their hearts, who come here looking for compassion and understanding. I believe that there are those who are struggling with some dilemma---how to make the best, the wisest, the most realistic choice about an issue, be it health, career, children, spouse, education, even life and death.

I believe that there are people here today who are lonely, looking for friends, people who are in search of new ideas and new meaningful work. I believe that there are people in this room who are hurting and looking for relief.

I believe that there are men and women in this room who are grateful for a smile, hoping for a hug, needing someone to talk to for awhile. I believe that there are folks in this room who are confused and anxious, needing hope.

Many of us both need nurture and hope and also have nurture and hope to share. That is sort of the human condition in a nutshell, isn’t it? How can we be helped and help others? Let’s consider this for a moment. (silence/chime)

When we come together in community, we receive nurture and hope and we have opportunities to give it as well. When we turn our collective gaze to the world beyond these walls, we see that our individual opportunities to serve others are limitless; also we see that we as a community can offer strength and hope to countless others in a variety of ways.

And we begin to recognize that it is our responsibility to do so, not to hang on so tightly to our comfortable lives within this community but to invite others in, to reach out with our resources to support others who need us, both within these walls and outside of them. If you are lonely or confused or anxious or looking for friends, we are here for you. If you are happy and generous, we are here for you. And you, we hope, are here for us.

Let me shift direction a bit now.

This past Wednesday night, our Lyceum 2.0 speaker Lauren Hartzell spoke to us eloquently of the dire situation our planet is facing because of drastic climate changes. She challenged us to think deeply about the ethics of our behavior as we marshal our defenses and prepare our adaptations to the predicted shifts in weather patterns and the results of melting ice caps.

She told us that she as an ethicist sees three possible responses to climate change: despite the mounting evidence, we can decide everything is fine and do nothing to prepare; or we can decide that nothing we can do will help, so we decide not to do anything; or we can decide to do what we can where we can. None of these responses is perfect, but it’s what we’ve got to work with.

According to Dr. Hartzell, the truth is that the problem is so big that only massive global intervention can change it in time to avert major problems. But massive global intervention is not possible at this point. Perhaps the major players, such as the US, Canada, Europe, Brazil and a few others, can agree to do something to diminish the effects somewhat and adapt to the changes which come. But there are enough deniers of the problem that this probably won’t happen as effectively as it might, at least until major global disaster is evident.

In a conversation I had later with friends, one person said, “I just have a hard time believing that it’s as bad as it sounds”, and another said, “well, I’m of the opinion that nothing I can do will change things, so I’m inclined to not do anything.” To which another replied, “Gee, I’m of the opinion that nothing I can do will change things but I’m inclined to do what I can where I can.”

Why? Reasons offered in that brief moment ranged from disbelief and mistrust of the scientific research, to fatalistic acceptance of the inevitable, to taking care of self though concerned about future generations, to making self feel better about the situation by doing something, anything.

But as I thought about my own spontaneous response, which was more of the “do something, anything, and make myself feel better” variety, I began to be more coherent about my reasons.

And I thought about what I believe is my moral duty to the universe, what I think I must do to keep my conscience clear and to keep from making a bad situation worse.

It would be easy to say, “yeah, it’s bad but I can’t change it, so I’m not going to go to the recycle center or thrift shop anymore. I’ll just have the best, most convenient life I can have until it all falls apart.”

But that would go so against the grain for me---and perhaps for you---that, despite my recognition that my efforts will be puny and not change things very much, I will not go that direction.

My own creed of behavior includes a strong commitment to future generations. My own creed of behavior includes a strong commitment to the community in which I live. My own creed of behavior includes a strong commitment to living in accordance with my conscience, not ignoring its proddings in favor of convenience.

So I’ve been thinking about what I might say to my denier friends and my fatalistic friends, whose opinions I respect but strongly disagree with.

And I think it will be something like this: I believe that I have a moral obligation to future generations and am doing the best I can not to make their world uninhabitable; I believe that my behavior serves as an example to others and that it needs to be a good example, not a bad one; I believe that this planet is an interdependent system and that I must act with the understanding that my behavior affects others, both directly and indirectly; I believe that it is a moral act to avoid wastefulness of resources.

I don’t know if that statement will change my friends’ minds, but I need to make it. I need to ask myself and them this question: “who does your action or non-action affect besides yourself?” For our actions do affect one another, now and in the future.

Our actions toward each other in this community affect the health of the community and require our vigilance, our compassion, and our care.

This faith community is not just a warm and fuzzy place to get together spiritually and lovingly. It is also a place where we do the hard work of acting on our commitments---to ourselves and each other and to the larger world beyond these walls. I ask you to share this work with me and with all of us.

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

HYMN #318: As we sing our closing hymn, I invite you to consider the words we sing. “we would be one….we would build for tomorrow…we seek a nobler world than our world today…and we pledge ourselves to greater service…for this will make us free.”

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 the ways we have been nurtured and supported by others and committing ourselves to nurturing and supporting the many folks around us who need our help. May we consider our actions in light of the effect they have on ourselves, those around us, and future generations and may we heed the proddings of our conscience, both individually and collectively, that the world will be the best place we can make it. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Seeing Straight

Today is the first day in maybe all of my life that I have been able to see straight with both eyes.

I don't remember having poor vision early in life, but at age 6, I got my first pair of glasses and wore them constantly up until my senior year of college, when I got contact lenses. That was in 1962 and I have used hard or gas-permeable contacts all that time until this week, when miraculous cataract surgery gave me 20/20 vision in both eyes.

It was always just something I coped with---the wetting and cleansing and soaking solutions, the eyelash under the lens, the cloudiness when I'd fall asleep wearing them, the worry about losing one or dislodging one or forgetting to put the plug in the sink before rinsing one off under the faucet.

I felt kinda ugly in my glasses, even when they had cute or colorful frames. My high school graduation picture, taken at age 16, with my swooped-up pointy rhinestoned frames make me look like a young old person. There were times I had to wear my glasses because my eyes had changed enough that the contacts were uncomfortable and couldn't be worn; we weren't able to afford a new prescription right away and anyhow, they might change back. Birth control pills and pregnancy somehow changed the shape of my eyes.

I thought about getting my eyes lazixed, but I would have had to go contact-free for months to allow the corneas to go back to their original shape. So I didn't do that. It was too expensive anyhow.

About 18 months ago, a retinal detachment put me back in glasses for an extended period, which turned out to be not so bad, except that I couldn't see as well in glasses as in contacts. The retina business also caused a bit of a crinkle in my vision, distorting letters slightly, so I figured I was doomed to wear glasses the rest of my life.

But then cataracts intervened, Medicare stepped up to the plate, and voila! I can see. I need reading glasses for close-up work and computer glasses (less magnification) for computer and pulpit (and music stand) work. But that's all.

I wake up in the night and can read the clock without squinting. I can see the shapes of the leaves on the trees. I saw the red sunrise this morning without having to put on glasses or contacts. The colors are beautiful without the film that cataracts impose.

It was easy surgery, fast and painless. I am blessed.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Hope Has Human Hands

by Rev. Kit Ketcham, Nov. 7, 2010

In the late 40’s, early 50’s, there was a song which, when it came on the radio, would make my dad groan and move as if to turn it off, muttering “that darn song, it’s so sticky!”, and my mother and I would cry out, “no, we want to hear it!” It was a terrifically sentimental song and its words could even be said to be sappy, schmaltzy, syrupy. And I’ll bet you haven’t heard it for years, but if you remember it and feel like joining in, sing with me.

“Soft as the voice of an angel, breathing a lesson unheard, HOPE with a gentle persuasion whispers her comforting word: Wait till the darkness is over, Wait till the tempest is done, Hope for the sunshine tomorrow, after the shower is gone. Whispering Hope, oh how welcome thy voice, making my heart, in its sorrow, rejoice.”

In those days, hope--to me--meant miracles; it meant a sort of Pollyanna-ish optimism that “everything will be fine in the morning”. It meant that no matter how desperate the financial situation of our family, we would have food on the table; someone from my dad’s little Baptist congregation would deposit a freshly killed Canada goose or venison roast or string of fish on our doorstep.

Hope, in my young mind, was a kind of insurance policy, a belief that God would not desert us if we were faithful. Hope provided for miraculous recoveries, last-minute rescues. It meant that the sun would always rise, that spring would follow winter, that seeds would grow, that birth would produce new life, that the Lone Ranger WOULD arrive on time!

I’m not sure how I reconciled my beliefs with my experience in those days. Though I knew at some level that Hope as a technique didn’t always work, I continued to profess my belief that it would and did produce miracles.

But I guess I figured that even Hope had to take a few days off occasionally; that was probably why my friend Lynn did not recover completely from an unusually serious bout with mononucleosis, why my dad, who was a Baptist minister, sometimes couldn’t make it all the way through his sermon and had to sit down to catch his breath, scaring us all to death. Hope was on break those days. And, of course, it wasn’t Hope’s fault that I didn’t make straight A’s in school; I hoped I would, but obviously Hope wasn’t enough.

What does Hope mean to Unitarian Universalists? We are kind of past the miracle stage. If we are ill, we may hope for a rapid recovery; if a loved one is dying, we may hope for an unexpected sudden cure or a peaceful death. We may hope, as I often do, that the rattle in the car will turn out to be harmless, that the problem ahead of us is not really as bad as it looks, that the grocery line will not be too long, that we can pay the bills, that the kids will be home soon. Our daily hopes are usually simple and focused on our immediate needs and desires.

Over the years, as I’ve examined my religious faith in light of my own experience, I have gradually revamped my thoughts about Hope as a religious concept.

It seems to me that the Hope that is innate in the human spirit is more than simply a wish for good outcomes, for peace on earth, a politically correct holiday greeting. Hope is far more than cliches or a wish for miracles. It is not trivial or sentimental.

The definition I’ve come up with after many years of observing my own need for hope and the moments which seem to create hope, for me and for others, is this: HOPE IS MY AWARENESS, MY DEEP UNDERSTANDING, THAT I AM CONNECTED TO THE INEXTIN-GUISHABLE STREAM OF LIFE, THAT I AM PART OF THE WHOLE.

Let me repeat that definition and ask you to compare your own experiences to it. For me, HOPE is the clear sense that I am a part of the inextinguishable, inexhaustible stream of life. For me, it is a tangible sense of my place in the universe. It is the fiber of the interdependent web of all existence, the connection I have to all else in life.

When I have lost HOPE, I have lost my sense that I belong to the universe, to the web, to life itself. But HOPE is strengthened in me with every reminder I receive of that connection. It may start when I first see the tomato seedling pop up in the seed tray on my windowsill. It may be triggered by the purring of the fuzzy kitten on my lap as I read. Even a stranger’s greeting on the sidewalk or beach may evoke a warmth that reminds me that I do belong here, I am a part of life.

Hope is found in relationship, whether it is in my relationship with my pets, with my friends and family, with strangers, with all of nature or God, if you are comfortable with that word.

If religion is defined as the expression of human relationships with self, with others, and with the universe, then Hope is a manifestation of that relationship and a valuable piece of our active faith. Unitarian Universalists mostly do not hope for a heavenly home; we hope for an earthly home that is heavenly and we know that is our job.

A friend talked with me about her second biopsy for breast cancer. “I was scared to death,” she said. “I’d already had one surgery and was terrified that this was the beginning of the end. I felt loose from my moorings, adrift, disconnected, hopeless. And I knew I couldn’t bear it without help. The nurse started to move away from me after the test, and I said to her, ‘I need you to hold on to me’. She took my hand and I felt myself re-connect with life. She gave me more hope than a negative biopsy.”

Hope does not rely on Divine Intervention, but on human hands. Hope is our job, not God’s, despite nature’s constant and faithful supply of hopefulness. The sun always rises, spring always comes, the snow always melts, the cycles of creation go on and on. We derive great hope from that faithful repetition of nature’s patterns. But nature also socks us in the teeth: hurricanes demolish whole coastlines, avalanches wipe out homes and travelers, the wind whips fire through dry underbrush, the sun burns our skin, disease wipes out millions, rains bring flooding and mud slides.

We can’t control it but we can respond to it.

“Hope springs eternal in the human breast”, according to the poet Alexander Pope because human beings have an innate gift for hope. When disaster strikes, other human beings immediately reach out to victims. It seems inherent in human nature to give aid in times of trouble. An old Judy Collins song says “Friends are like diamonds, and trouble is a diamond mine.”

That doesn’t mean all human beings give aid, just that we’re all capable of it. Some of us have so squelched our natural inclination to help that we will walk right by, ignoring trouble or fearing the consequences to ourselves. Sometimes it is truly dangerous to offer help; it’s not always easy to know right help from wrong. But sometimes we withhold our help because we see no benefit to ourselves from it, we see no reason to help because our goal in giving help is so we’ll get something back later on .

Like love, hope is active. We can give hope to ourselves and one another. In fact, I believe, we have a responsibility to do so. And our new president is counting on us to offer hope to one another, isn’t he?

I believe that it is in everyday human acts of kindness and respect that we find our own hope rekindled and that others’ hope is also reborn when we reach out to them.

I believe that hope is not passive, something we wait around for, but that it is created and recreated daily in ourselves and others.

I believe that hope comes in many forms--hugs, smiles, acceptance, kindness, respect, patience, thoughtfulness, listening, generosity, appreciation, forgiveness, working for justice.

I believe that we need to recognize our own capacity for giving hope and increase our efforts to do so. And I believe that we must recognize our own need for hope and actively seek it out.

I believe that hope is at the heart of liberal religion, of Unitarian Universalism. We give it to ourselves and to others as we live out our UU principles and purposes. It is the sinew that links us with the interdependent web of existence, the fiber that binds us to one another. Without it, we cannot resist evil. It is our daily work, to give and receive hope.

Hope is our human response to tragedy, whether it is evil brought by perverted human nature or the damage of natural disaster. When another human being is injured, it is up to fellow humans to mend the damage. We might wish that a vengeful God would strike down evildoers or quell natural forces, but it is up to human hands to offer hope.

What does it mean that we are responsible for giving hope? It means that we have a job to do. We don’t know, always, in our daily lives, just who needs hope at any given moment. We have to assume that everyone does. We have to be ready to offer hope to everyone we meet, whether that’s the crabby clerk at the store, the multi-colored, multiply-pierced teens in the park, the stray cat or dog, the frustrated parent with a toddler, the nursing home patient who can no longer remember our name, the homeless man camping in the woods, the beleaguered teacher, our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender neighbors, the victim of domestic violence.

We ourselves also need hope and we can seek it out for ourselves, whether we do it by taking a walk, talking to a friend, giving money to UUSC or the Red Cross for disaster relief, listening to music, pulling weeds, reading poetry, asking for a hug or a listening ear, starting seedlings, feeding the birds, cleaning out a drawer, greeting a stranger, or spending time in prayer or meditation. We give ourselves and others hope every time we reach out to those who need justice and love.

Several years ago in Denver, a young woman named Jeannie Van Velkinburgh ran to help Oumar Dia, a West African man who was shot at a downtown bus stop just because he was black. She got a bullet in the back for her efforts and is now a paraplegic. A cynic might say she should have left well enough alone, that she shouldn’t have gotten involved, because look what it got her.

Jeannie VanVelkinburgh doesn’t think so; she knows that not only did she offer hope to Oumar Dia, she has also given hope to us AND to the murderer, who--though he may never understand it--has received a powerful lesson in human nature. Human beings are supposed to care for one another.

Let’s revisit the definition of Hope I am using this morning: Hope is the conviction, the reassurance that I am connected to, am part of, the inexhaustible, unquenchable stream of life. It is my knowledge that I am supported and nurtured by my place in the interdependent web of existence and it is my job to give it to others.

I’d like to close with a story from my own life.

It was June, a few years ago when I was still living in Colorado. I’d been driving Interstate 80 since dawn, from Farewell Bend on the Snake River in eastern Oregon where I’d camped in my van the night before. I was returning to Colorado after burying my mother, crossing the hot dry deserts of southern Idaho and over the border into Utah, pondering the lessons of her life and death and crying as I drove, my tears drying almost as soon as they appeared, in the hot blast coming through the open window. And now I was beyond tiredness, in that late afternoon state of mind where rational thought and fantasy merge, and reality has a fuzzy edge.

I’d been seeing a lot of hawks poised on telephone poles or circling overhead, their broad wings barely flickering to stay afloat. My mother had loved birds, and hawks and eagles were interesting to both of us. Each bird felt like a message, but in my emotional state, I couldn’t quite figure it out.

Every redtail or northern harrier caused me a fresh pang, and by the time I reached the outskirts of Salt Lake City, I had exhausted my tear ducts and my brain.

I wanted to be back in Colorado as soon as I could. I wanted to drive a favorite route through the mountains, but I had no idea how to find it in the maze of interstates, beltways, and smaller roads that interlace the Salt Lake valley.

I drove south into SLC, peering through my foggy contact lenses at unintelligible signs, looking for landmarks. Nothing. I realized I was in the far left lane of a 6-lane interstate and, in my weariness, nearly sideswiped another car as I tried to pull the huge van over so I could read my map.

At last came a break in traffic, and I eased over to the shoulder, cringing for fear I had missed seeing some hapless little car in my mirror, and half-expecting to feel a sickening crunch. But I made it, stopped the van, and, once again, the tears came. I was safe, I hadn’t hit anyone, but I was exhausted and bereft.

Suddenly, in my rearview mirror, I saw the ominous blink--blue and red, blue and red. “Oh no,” I thought, and hastily mopped my eyes as I fumbled for my car registration.

There appeared at the driverside window a short stocky cop, his hat pushed back on his head, his face serious and concerned. I braced myself for the worst, assuming he’d seen my near-accident, but in a voice of infinite kindness, he just asked, “Lady, are you lost?”

That man could not have known just how lost I was. I couldn’t find myself on any map--neither the map of Utah nor the map of my life. I didn’t know where I was after my mother’s death; I only knew I needed to go home.

I don’t know what I said to him, besides asking how to find route 40, but he neither remarked on my tears nor ticketed me, and within a few minutes I was on my way again.

As I topped the last long hill up out of Salt Lake City, my eye fell upon the broad winged silhouette of another redtailed hawk, soaring just above the horizon.

And all the confused, jumbled thinking that I’d been doing all day--the memories of my mother, my grief at losing her, my anger at myself for all the years I’d felt motherless because of my own rejection of her religious beliefs and because of her illness, the link to birds and mountains and all of nature, the incandescent flame of her unconditional love for me---all these coalesced into one single thought.


Emily Dickinson wrote: “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.”

When we offer hope to ourselves and to one another, with each smile, each touch, each act of kindness and understanding, we knit up the rips and tears in the interdependent web of existence and bring each other closer to spiritual wholeness.

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

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 no act of kindness is in vain, that our efforts to bring hope to each other and to the larger community will bring us hope as well. May we find ways to minister to the community in which we live, ways which will foster Unitarian Universalism in the world, ways which will address some of the systemic problems that plague society, and ways which will bring us the peace of mind of knowing that together we have offered hope to a hurting world. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Running Lava Falls...

in the Grand Canyon is one of those lifetime events that you look forward to with mixed anticipation and dread, knowing that you're probably not going to drown but that the possibility is there. And even if you don't get thrown out of the boat, it's going to be a big challenging experience, especially if you're in small boats with a private trip. Which is the only way I've ever run any river.

I woke up in the night recently thinking about the upcoming weekend (the one that started last night, actually) with the same kind of anticipatory dread that two runs through Lava many years ago inspired in me: will I make it through? will anything go wrong? have I considered all the logistics, the people involved, the needs of others in the boat? is the equipment solid? what if we lose an oar? or the food goes overboard? or, heaven forfend, if the boat flips?

When we put in at Lee's Ferry for both those trips, Lava loomed big. It was way down the river, days and days away from the starting point of the trip, but it was The Rapid, the one that---successfully run---marked an outstanding trip. You wanted to hit it just right, good water level even though that meant that the holes were big and the waves bigger, riding the tongue down into the first drop, keeping the boat pointed downstream, not sideways, and being spit out on the other side of the maelstrom upright, with all passengers aboard, and no loss of cargo.

This weekend has loomed like that for me ever since circumstances dictated that we have Baird's memorial service tomorrow right after church. Family needs came first in planning the service, not anything else, and that's as it should be. It just meant that the weekend was jammed with both professional and personal events for me, none of which I could easily jettison.

All my usual mechanisms came into play, the good ones and the not-so-good ones. First of all, it was clear that since I would be preaching at 10 a.m. and officiating the memorial at 1 p.m., I would have to set priorities about which was more important. I'd planned to preach on DADT, since it was pre-Veterans Day, but the thought of writing a sermon on that gloomy topic while grieving the loss of one of our dearest members-----I didn't think I could do it. So the topic was the first to go and I pulled out one of my favorite oldies, "Hope Has Human Hands". (It will go up here on Sunday.)

That decision made, it was clear I could let go of anxiety about the worship service, at least once I had checked the church website listing of sermons preached during the past years. I don't think I've offered this one for years. But it's a good one to precede the farewells to be said during the memorial service.

I use a flexible template for both the memorial service and for my own reflections about life and death. Though I adapt each one to the circumstances, I know what I want to cover and don't try to reinvent the wheel each time; I know what my own grief requires and I'm not a very creative thinker when I'm writing a memorial service. But I always want to include my own thoughts about the life of the deceased and that requires thought and writing time.

With extra planning and help from my wonderful worship leader T, I was able to be ready for the worship service by Tuesday. Tuesday evening I started to get the first pangs of muscle spasms in my back, signaling the tension build-up that often accompanies stress in my life. An acupuncture treatment took up some extra time but diminished the symptoms a bit. Time spent with the heating pad ate into my work schedule but I managed to get everything done by Friday morning, so that I could squeeze in a lectionary meeting and a rehearsal.

A rehearsal? Yes, because Sunday afternoon at 5 p.m. the band has a gig. We're doing a private party for friends. Fortunately, I haven't lost my voice during this run-up to The Metaphorical Rapid.

Sunday morning at 10, we head into the turbulent waters of The Big One and by 3 p.m. (since we have to be out of the building before the Quakers arrive for their service) we'll be floating into the tail of the whitewater. And then it will be jubilation time----we made it! And singing we will go into the eddy below Lava to celebrate a successful run.

I have no doubts about whether this will go well. There might be some glitches, but the planning has been adequate, I have lots of help for every hole and wave, and if the boat flips, it will be an accident that couldn't be avoided.

And, I suspect, by Monday morning my muscle spasms will be gone. I've at least learned that fighting them (just like fighting water) just makes them worse. Learning to relax consciously when they strike is the best thing I've come across for pain reduction. Sort of like letting the life jacket take over when you get thrown out of the boat. Yeah, like that.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Here's an epilogue to the "GNIP" controversy...

Or at least Epilogue I. I got the idea to write to Randy Cohen, who writes "The Ethicist" column for the NYT and is published elsewhere around the land. I figured he could give me a sense of the ethics of adapting words to a song and he did. Here is the exchange between us. (I asked for and received his permission to print our exchange.) Start at the bottom, with my letter to him, if you wish. Or not.

Mr. Cohen (after I had asked his permission to reprint):

Sure. But if you do, I'd appreciate your including the Q&A I link to so my reply doesn't seem so cursory. And I hope it's clear that what I regard as ethical may flout the law (and that I am not a lawyer and do not purport to give legal advice). RC

His answer to my original question:

Coincidentally, I was just listening to the Soul Stirrers sing "Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone," suspiciously like a revised version of "Amazing Grace," and neither the Stirrers nor I committed any transgression in doing so. How would copyright law forbid illicit singing? No government agents cruise the neighborhood and arrest a guy strolling along singing his own version, Send in the Clones. Copyright can erect a legal barrier to your altering and reproducing a work. But I see no ethical objection to anyone changing any work any way they want to when they sing a hymn or read a story aloud to their kids or perform a play for their pals. Who's hurt? What if I skip the boring bits when I read a book, thus flouting the author's design. Am I guilty of something? Remember, the central purpose of copyright law is to promote creativity not to ensure that no idea is ever transformed, the objections of an author notwithstanding. What I do think worthwhile is making it clear to the singers and listeners that the work has been altered, a matter of honesty, so nobody misattributes something to the original author. I took up these issues in the column in a related question, about a Neil Simon play. Here's the link: Stage Mother-New York Times

All best, RC

Here's my original question:

On Oct 29, 2010, at 5:49 PM, wrote:

Dear Ethicist Cohen,
As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I have encountered an ethical situation I'm not sure I know how to handle (actually, there's more than one, but this one I need your thoughts on; the others will have to wait).

A lovely little song in our hymnal is printed with its original words, which contain a phrase which is routinely changed when people in our congregations sing it. When our hymnal was in production, the editors asked for permission to change the words to the adapted and commonly sung phrase, but the composer refused to allow that change. It's such a lovely hymn that they printed it as she requested, which was fitting.

The original phrase is "may the love of God surround you" and the adapted phrase is "may the spirit of love surround you". Since we have many atheists and agnostics in our congregations, you may understand why many prefer the adapted phrase.

However, it has come to be assumed that because she requested that the original words be published, nobody should ever sing the adapted words again and there has been a certain amount of pressure exerted across the denomination either to sing only the published words or substitute another song.

Copyright laws forbid publishing adapted words without written permission of the author. They do not forbid singing adapted words, as long as they are not published. There is no evidence that I have found so far that the composer expressed any requirement that nobody ever sing the adapted words, but it has been assumed that this would be her wish.

My question would be "is it unethical to sing these adapted words, which are more theologically in line with our beliefs, if there is no documentation of any request of this kind?" If I were to hear from her heirs that this was indeed her expressed request, I would be willing to honor it. Otherwise, I am inclined to continue to use this song as adapted.

Rev. Elizabeth "Kit" Ketcham
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Whidbey Island

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"Religion is not about accepting twenty impossible propositions before breakfast, but about doing things that change you. It is a moral aesthetic, an ethical alchemy. If you behave in a certain way, you will be transformed." --Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase (270)