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.

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