Wednesday, March 31, 2010
But when I went to seminary at a United Methodist school, I was challenged every year by the immense importance it seemed to have for my fellow scholars, at least those from mainline denominations. The whole season of Lent was meaningful to them and I had to stop and think about how I would respond to the Iliff scenario of Lenten sacrifices, meditations on redemption of sin, the whole Ash Wednesday ceremony, the re-enactment of certain events during Holy Week, and a Tenebrae service on Friday night of Holy Week. I rarely took part in any of it; I just wasn't comfortable doing something that seemed over-amped already.
Now that I've been in ministry for more than a decade and have designed Easter services for at least ten years, the challenge is somewhat muted but still there. I never know whether to revert to ignoring the Jesus story and focusing on springtime renewal or dealing with Passover instead or if I should just go ahead and see what I can find to say about Easter that will be meaningful to my flock, many of whom (maybe most) are come-outers from conservative traditions and who arbitrarily reject the supernaturalism of a physical resurrection.
This year, I'm just grabbing the bull by the horns and speaking on "What Easter Can Mean to Unitarian Universalists". We are going to sing "In the Garden" in harmony and we are going to hear the Easter morning story as it is portrayed in John 20: 1-18. And we're going to do one of those hymns with all the alleluias. We're going to have a bit of a mash-up of literal and metaphoric Easter message in the sermon. Because it seems to me that's what Easter is---a mash-up of a historical event that was written down years after the fact, dealt with from several different perspectives by several different authors, mysterious, poignant, joyful, and crazy.
It's crazy because it's both believable and unbelievable, this story. We often put ourselves in the place of the men and women who were nuts about this man Jesus and devastated by his death. We might want to believe that he was risen too and might imagine seeing him alongside us as we walk to Emmaus. We might, at last, come to understand that "He Lives" because he brought something into our lives that we will never lose. In the scriptures it's called the Kingdom of Heaven, but in our lives we call it a new way of living, a way we found when we discovered a new way of behaving, a new concern and compassion for others, a new resolve to do something to make the world a little better, a little more just.
So I've gotten a few pages into the sermon and am kind of getting warmed up now. I'm starting to see the trajectory of the message and where we might end up. Sermons often end up writing themselves, you know. Yeah, you can call it the Holy Spirit if you want to. I do.
Thursday, March 25, 2010
I have been increasingly appalled by the lack of interest and understanding of the scientific method, the outcomes of science and their impact on human life, and the outright denial of clear and unequivocal knowledge which science has produced. It's one thing for people to have different interpretations of facts; it's quite another to deny the facts that are staring one in the face.
Rachel Maddow said recently on her show, in arguing with a denier, "This is not a difference of opinion, sir, this is empirical knowledge. This is fact." Go, Rachel!
What I see happening in many sectors of American thinking is a desire to return to an age where we didn't have to face the facts of life, we didn't have to contemplate a shifting paradigm of legend vs. science, we didn't have to consider the consequences of our behavior on future generations. We don't want to think about global climate change, we don't want to think about humans not being God's "special" creation, we don't want to think about sharing DNA with nearly every species, some of them (gasp!) chimpanzees.
MK's presentation last night was so clear and understandable---and gripping----that we were all glued to our seats. Her manner of speaking is gentle and wise and funny; she answered every question sympathetically and without sarcasm, even the challenging ones. She answered them in clear scientific language, but without jargon.
And she gave us a rejoinder to use when we are challenged by those who deny evolution as the way the earth and its creatures have changed over time, when they say, "do you really believe in evolution?" (implying, "you atheistic fool"). It's "I accept the evidence of science."
The evidence of science is solid, well-documented, replicable; evolution is not "just" a theory, as some would say. It has a century and more of solid, well-documented, replicable evidence to bolster it. It is the foundation of all biology and physical anthropology. Genesis is beautiful but not testable, not measurable.
So our little task force of scientists and science buffs will be meeting soon to decide on parameters for continuing this community outreach, a series of presentations on such topics as Bioethics, Technology, End of Life, Brain Science, Physics and Philosophy. It is my dream to include a conversation about the ethics and meaning of each issue, perhaps even having a local religious leader (including me) offer thoughts about the religious meaning of the topic.
Sunday, March 21, 2010
Rev. Kit Ketcham, March 21, 2010
So we’re sitting in the worship committee meeting a few months ago, working out the schedule of speakers for the spring, and it turns out that it would be helpful if I were willing to shuffle my preaching dates around and speak today, March 21, instead of last Sunday, the 14th, being as how the Social Responsibility Council needed the 14th for Justice Sunday, meaning that our service today would deal with both the theological question of the month and the Vernal Equinox.
Our theological topic this month is the question of epistemology---in other words, how do we know what we know? Who do we trust to tell us the truth? Is any source infallible? And at first glance, you might think that the vernal equinox has little to do with who and what we believe, what we consider to be truthful sources, and how that shapes our way of being in the world. But you’d be wrong---it is deeply embedded in our issues of authority.
Because that’s what we’re talking about----authority. Who has the authority to tell us what to believe? What credentials does that person or source need? Why do some of us (on both ends of the religious and political spectrums) become True Believers and others become Skeptics?
When I was a senior in college, extremely wet behind the ears, having come from a small town Baptist preacher’s family and never having been exposed to much beyond my own personal family life, I was invited by a faculty committee to be a member of a senior seminar entitled Freedom and Authority.
This was a big deal, if you were a Linfield senior, because you had to have good grades and be nominated by a professor. I’m not sure who nominated me but it was probably Dr. Malone, my grouchy Spanish prof, since I was just about the only student on campus who liked him so he thought highly of me. I guess.
Anyhow, I eagerly joined the class and for a semester rubbed elbows with a dozen other so-called distinguished students---all of whom seemed to “get it”, to get the conflict between freedom and authority. I guess. I’m still not totally clear.
This is not to downgrade the intent or content of the class, because I had a great time in it. But I didn’t do very well. I never really understood until many years later what the essential issue was. Because I’d never personally experienced a conflict between freedom and authority. At least I didn’t think so.
My fellow students were pretty up on the latest current events, the issues of freedom and authority in real life, like civil rights and science vs religion and totalitarian political systems. I just wasn’t. My brain hadn’t yet gone there. And I had a nagging sense that I ought not act on an issue just because someone else thought I should.
But I faked it as well as I could, choosing as my term project the topic of the Theatre of the Absurd and analyzing the play “Rhinoceros” by Eugene Ionesco.
Rhinoceros, of course, is a play which satirizes and metaphorizes the advent of Nazism, Fascism, and Communism. I just thought it was a play about a weird town full of people who were turning into rhinoceroses.
But the commentaries I read about the play broadened my horizons considerably and by the end of the semester I had a better idea of just what misplaced authority could do to individual and national freedom. But not much. I think I was pretty dim in those days, more interested in socializing than thinking. And, of course, I wasn’t eager to believe something just because someone else told me to.
I was a late bloomer on this issue and am thankful that I finally got it and started making up time on issues of freedom and authority, but I am most passionate when authority starts stepping on my rights and those of people I know or know about. I am cautious about investing a lot of passion in fighting something I don’t understand if my only option is to take someone else’s word for it.
Which brings us back to that important point: who has the right or the credentials to tell us what to believe? How do we know what we know?
Many religions have their sacred texts, such as the Koran, the Torah, the Christian scriptures, the Bhagavad Gita, the Book of Mormon, the Vedas, the Sutras; poets from many religions have added their human wisdom to the weighty tomes of prophets such as Mohammed, Moses, the Buddha, and the disciples of Jesus. There have been long council meetings in the history of religion to decide what writings belong in the sacred library of each faith and what writings should be set aside as heretical or misleading or fantastical.
We Unitarian Universalists use a lot of different written texts as inspiration, but we tend to interpret those texts in ways that suit our own understandings of life, whether good or bad. Sometimes we choose texts for their feel-good outcome rather than for their kick-in-the-pants motivation, but that’s not always a bad thing. The point is, we choose the texts, the texts are not forced upon us by others who chose them for us.
Which makes us fall generally into the category of Skeptic, as opposed to True Believer----though there can be True Believers on both sides of the fence, men and women whose thinking is so fixed about a topic that they are unable to see the other side of an issue.
Take God, for example: there is a continuum of belief about God, from an old white guy in the sky persona to an anti-God stance, with adherents on either end equally vociferous about their position. Most of us here are likely still working on our definition of the power beyond human power and may never finish working on it!
As Skeptics, we tend to be careful about what we believe; we are normally willing to change our minds if credible proof is offered that we are wrong. We tend to be pretty open-minded, though my dad once warned me, as he saw me heading down one primrose path after another as a teenager: “Honey, don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out.” We tend to use Science as our yardstick for credibility or, if Science doesn’t shine a light on a particular path, we use our own reasoning ability to sort out the believable from the unbelievable.
The True Believer often has a personal stake in the belief they hold, whether religious or political. For some, the personal stake is fear---they are afraid of losing something if they shift their stance: a friend, a family member, a job, an opportunity, a spot in heaven.
For others, the personal stake is loyalty----they’ve always been part of the community attached to the belief and don’t mind the disconnect between the community belief and their own understandings.
For still others, the personal stake is money. The more people one can get to watch one’s TV performances, the less likely a personality like Glenn Beck or Ann Coulter is to change his/her mind. And it’s no good arguing with them---it just makes the money pour in faster.
There are a great many current issues facing us---of belief or understanding---and most of them are not found in the Bible or any other sacred text. So where do we find our trustworthy information about health care or banking or housing or climate change or the latest conspiracy theory? To confuse the issue even more, some issues are covered in sacred texts and come out in opposition to our personal and community social justice values.
These are all issues with ethical implications and we need ethical sources of information. One would think that religion would point us in an ethical direction and yet religion cannot do so without invoking its own particular prejudices and doctrines.
Consequently, we see religions withdrawing much-needed social services in a city because of a community law that forbids discrimination against certain kinds of families. Or we see religious lobbyists funneling large sums of money into a referendum which contradicts their particular doctrine on a marginalized social group.
Does Science offer a credible authority in these issues? It can and does, but its reputation has been tainted to some extent by those who would pay for a certain research outcome and have doctored research reports to reflect the desired outcome, rather than the actual outcome.
Science has offered conflicting information in a number of instances, some of which have led to a variety of conspiracy theories based on results touted as scientific but skewed in some way so as to override the public’s doubts and inflame the public’s suspicions in situations which dismay and anger them.
What makes us want to believe the worst about people or about social issues which anger or scare us? Why do we often believe rumors and gossip and even spread them? Why are we willing to believe the worst about some former and present national leaders?
We are very susceptible ourselves---to fear of being betrayed, looking foolish, misplacing our trust. And we are cautious, suspicious, skeptical to the point of outright disbelief, always poised to grab our dignity, turn tail, and run from the potential betrayer.
And when we are disappointed in some hero-leader, some of us are so disappointed that we withdraw our trust entirely, turn our anger on that person, and look for someone else less flawed.
The truth is that no human source is totally credible. All humans have to negotiate the minefields of culture and heritage in order to produce answers, even scientific answers. Those humans whose lack of integrity allows them to circumvent ethics and honesty get quick results, temporarily.
As with the banking industry, the credibility of leaders who touted risky mortgages and were willing to sell clients down the river for big profits, their credibility is gone and we are mopping up the flood of broken dreams that their falsehoods produced and trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Betrayal of trust is the bugaboo of authority figures, the thing all leaders, parents, teachers, priests and preachers, police and fire fighters, doctors, lawyers, stockbrokers, politicians, anyone who dispenses or enforces wisdom or rules has to be aware of the dangers of betrayal of trust. We who serve in these positions do not always recognize how important our integrity is to those we serve; we can be slow to understand that people look to us for wisdom, for help, for honesty and reassurance.
When a teacher or preacher abuses a child or a congregant, when a cop or firefighter misuses his or her uniform to bully or injure a person, innocent or not, when a lawyer or stockbroker inflates fees and hours spent on a case to squeeze extra cash out of a client, when a parent models wrong behavior, when a politician lies or is unfaithful to a spouse, they lose credibility in our eyes. For good reason! They have damaged someone who trusted them and, in doing so, they damage themselves.
What makes a human source credible and trustworthy? Well, time helps, the length of time we’ve known someone and known them to be honest. So does experience, the years they’ve spent studying or practicing in the field of expertise. In scientific matters, the ability to duplicate the touted results of an experiment. In personal relationships, deeper knowledge of the person.
What it boils down to is integrity, personal and professional integrity, an authenticity of personhood that transparency in behavior reveals. When someone we view as credible and trustworthy tells us something, we are likely to believe them. And if they let us down, their remorse and efforts to repair the damage done may help us regain our trust in them.
Is there any totally honest, reliable source of authority? Many of us would say God or Higher Power, whatever name we might give the force that drives the universe. But God has often been misquoted! Is there something else, something that is honest without words, transparent without “spin” or interpretation?
Here’s what I think: Yes, yes, there is. It is, in my opinion, the source of all our knowledge, all our culture, all our religion. Everything Science has learned, everything the philosophers have learned, every piece of music, literature, or other creative act has been the result of the knowledge we’ve gained from studying and being in relationship with this entity.
It is not supernatural, it is not intangible, it is not a person or institution, it is not imaginary. It is available, it is honest, it is real, it is a complete body of knowledge and reveals its wisdom to us every day by merely existing. It does not lie, although it spins.
Everything we humans have learned in the thousands and thousands of years of our existence we have learned from the Earth we live on and our relationship with it. And you were wondering where the Vernal Equinox would crop up!
Unfortunately, there’s no drop-down menu on the Earth’s webpage to tell us where to look for ethical answers to our great FAQs, our frequently asked questions. And the Earth is not necessarily merciful in its applications of reality. Natural disasters abound. My cat Max kills birds if he’s outdoors and pees on my bed if he’s indoors. It’s still up to us to figure out our everyday ethics and to decide how to answer the questions we have about what to believe.
As Effie and I talked about this topic, we shared how we make decisions about what we believe, and she said, in essence, “It’s important to me not to lose sight of the mystery of life and to know that we will never run out of mystery. No matter what the facts seem to be in any situation, my ultimate authority,” she said, “is that ‘yes’ inside of me that tells me I’m on the right path. I don’t want to give away my own authority to a rigid doctrine or a political stance. As for sacred texts, such as the Bible, I haven’t thrown out its wisdom, but I do re-interpret it, using Jesus’ life as a model.”
And I shared with her that I have an internal plumbline, by which I measure the rightness or wrongness of what I hear and see around me. My internal plumbline was set in place according to my own moral sense, which came not so much from God as from what I could see was kind and humane. I learned kindness and humaneness from the adults I grew up with, who mostly treated me and others respectfully and with love. And I learned the dark side of the equation from people who shared with me their terrible experiences of injustice.
Getting back to the issue of Science and the Vernal Equinox and how they are related to our sources of authority---it has begun to alarm me deeply that the lessons of the earth, as deciphered by science and poets, have been so derided and ridiculed and even outright denied. In our world, an anti-science, anti-intellect, anti-education miasma is growing and spreading. And I’ve started thinking about what we as a congregation might do to combat this in our community.
I’ve written about it in my newsletter column and have bounced my thoughts off the conversations groups I meet with; most have responded with good ideas and feedback. I’d like to share it with you as well.
You know that we have a presentation on Charles Darwin and The Origin of Species coming up this Wednesday evening, and I hope many of you will attend. It will be a great brain-stretching way for us to engage with an authoritative speaker on a topic which has been much maligned by those who would deny the evidence that the earth has presented about the origins of life and our own species.
And as I worked with our speaker, Dr. Mary Kay Sandford, this idea popped into my head: what if we sponsored, occasionally, similar kinds of presentations to our larger Whidbey Island community. Perhaps we’d look at Bioethics, or Medical Technology and End of Life issues. Perhaps we’d consider the possibilities of the Hubble Telescope and the Large Hadron Collider, or Genetic Engineering.
What if we got authoritative speakers in these kinds of cutting-edge fields, asked them to tell us about them, and then asked them about the ethics of this issue. What are the ethical challenges of Genetic Engineering, for example? And then, and then, what if we asked religious leaders in our community to comment on the religious meaning of each issue?
I am just daydreaming right now, but I have asked the board for permission to explore the possibility of a Symposium on Science, Ethics, and Meaning, and my first step is to form a task force to help me think through the parameters of such a project and a process for creating it. If you are interested in helping, I would love to hear from you.
We have a lot of music and art and drama and literary events in our community but hardly any science, except for environmental science, which is itself embattled. I think we could begin to combat this creeping mentality of denial and scorn for knowledge by offering such an opportunity to Whidbey Island.
I ask you to think about it. I know of no other congregation, UU or mainline faith tradition, which is doing anything to combat this threat to a rational, logical, and humane approach to human living. I think it is sorely needed by a nation which is beset by a creeping attitude of anti-truth. And we may be just the ones to offer it to others.
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 we human beings know we have learned from the earth. May we honor the wisdom of science without letting go of the mystery which lives within each of us. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.
Thursday, March 18, 2010
OMG, this is just what I needed to hear today! You are so right on----this is what we need, not futzing around about little stuff. Heck, I might even be tempted to put (the essay she sent me) in my packet, were I going to the RSCC or MFC or some search committee anytime soon. At least put in the essence of it, if you can, and share it with your RSCC mentor if that person isn't too uptight and scary. You are so right on, sweetie, and your passion is clear-headed and infectious.
I've had it up to here (gestures toward sky) with petty chat dialogues and fussing about details of growth or non-growth. Passion is what grows us! Passion is what infuses us with love and gives us a bloom that no amount of education can stifle. What has gotten me feeling snarky today is how people place huge value on competitive kinds of things----grades at the MFC and candidacy for certain pulpits come to mind.
That's not what is important! Of course, it's important to do our best, but when we are second-best, runners-up despite our strongest efforts, we are not worth less than those who got 1's or a big church.
There's been chat on the part-timers list about feeling second-class because we work less than fulltime and it's MFC season once again, so there's some posting about that here and there. I want to tell them that it's not important! Ministry, rubber on the road, pedal to the metal, that's what's important and it won't matter in a few years who got what. What will matter is what you and I do to show our love for our ministry-ees and getting in there and working our tails off with them. That's what will make you say "jeez, they pay me to do this! I can hardly believe it!"
So there you have it---I am snarked about the competitiveness that crops up this time of year, even though I am thrilled for the ministry candidates who have gotten the go ahead from RSCC or MFC and excited to know who will be installed where, once the dust has settled. I am also distressed by the ministries I see ending sadly or being put on hold because of the heavy demands of this vocation.
I am thrilled to be a part-time minister in paradise, serving people who love me and appreciate me. I am no longer miffed because I got a 2 from the MFC many years ago; it quit mattering after the first few weeks. And I am glad to have been runner-up in a few instances of looking for a job; it quit mattering once I realized that where I am is where I am supposed to be.
I hope for that outcome for all those who are hoping to get a call from a congregation, hoping to hear encouragement from the Ministerial Fellowship Committee or RSCC. It's hard when it doesn't come out the way you hope, but you'll survive and even find yourself happier than you might have been.
And, by the way, those of you newish ministers who sit around at retreats and talk to other newish ministers about how your congregation just doesn't "get" ministry and how you're going to have to whip them into shape-----good luck with that. It tends not to work that way; you have more to learn than they do. Arrogance is not an effective tool for ministry.
Sunday, March 14, 2010
Friday, March 12, 2010
THE YAMAHA RECALL
Yamaha has recalled 20,000 pianos due to a problem with the pedal sticking, causing pianists to play faster than they normally would. This has resulted in a number of accidentals. Several near misses have also been reported in the carpal tunnel. The sticky pedal also makes it harder to come to a full stop at the end of a piece making it risky for audiences and professional reputations alike.
Although there have been many accidentals, so far there have been no reported deafs.
Currently sales are flat and analysts are waiting to see if current volumes will be sustained or dampened. Experts suggest that Yamaha's response will be the key.
Criticism of the company has been sharp, and Congress is planning hearings to find out when Yamaha first learned about the treble.
Monday, March 08, 2010
Our president, Peter Morales, announced the restructuring and a UUWorld article details some of the staff changes, but there's not a lot of information about how and why, other than a reference to budget matters. Is it due to a new administration's coming into the UUA? If so, are these political layoffs as well?
I don't suspect anyone of anything underhanded or clandestine, but I do wonder what the process was. Did the employees know this was coming? Did they have any recourse? During economic hard times, what are their options? Are they now out in the cold, figuratively speaking?
In other words, are we walking our talk, as a democratically governed association? Inquiring minds, etc.
Sunday, March 07, 2010
The hesitant, nervous participants were encouraged, supported, and praised for their courage in getting up in front of the group, baring their lives in an effort to find a way to communicate effectively with family members or friends when problems arise.
Some problems were real, others were made-up on the spot, but every response, correct or not-so-correct, was treated respectfully and with good humor. There was a lot of laughter, a few tears, a great deal of enthusiasm.
Having been through years and years of counseling training and because I was responsible for quite a few of the logistics for the workshop, I didn't participate fully in the workshop, just caught it on the fly between errands, food prep, and solving problems. I was pleased to note that many of my longtime listening and responding skills fall into the NVC pantheon of communication skills.
But I was reminded of something I've always believed: human actions all emerge from a need, whether perceived or unconscious.
When I get defensive, it's because I'm scared and need to feel safe. When my feelings are hurt, it's because I'm insecure and need to feel accepted. When I'm angry, it's because I'm hurt and need to feel comforted (or reassured, or some such).
When others are crabby, it might be because they are in physical pain and need comfort, or exhausted and need rest, or frustrated and needing appreciation and/or help.
One of the most helpful thoughts that I use to deal with those who frustrate or annoy me is to ask myself "under what circumstances might I behave the same way?" I don't know why, always, the person is so annoying, but if I can frame it in a personal way, it helps me get to a place of understanding and, hopefully, compassion. And that's the point of NVC---getting to compassion.
Friday, March 05, 2010
I've been percolating an idea about our congregation offering a Symposium on Science, Ethics, and Meaning. We are hosting a presentation on Charles Darwin and The Origin of Species later this month and my idea has grown out of that presentation, which will be offered by a noted retired anthropology professor here on the island, Dr. Mary Kay Sandford.
I am alarmed by the proliferation of anti-science, anti-intellect, anti-education mentality in the United States, which seems to underlie so much of the ultra-conservative angst in our land. It seems to me it would be a public service and even a social action effort to combat this attitude by offering community presentations on scientific issues and their effect on humankind, the ethics required by new technology and discoveries, and the impact they have on how we make meaning for ourselves.
I'm thinking things like: Bioethics; Medical Technology and the End of Life; Physics and Philosophy; the Hubble Telescope and the Large Hadron Collider---looking for the beginning and the end of the universe; the Human Brain---and the Mind of God; Trade-offs in Scientific Research---the use of lab animals.
We've got to do something to offer truthful education to people, it seems to me. That appears to be a true social justice issue.
Thursday, March 04, 2010
Having worked up a sweat toting boxes up and downstairs, I decided to look at the office closet and see what else might be better stored downstairs. Hmmm, what shall I do with all these old photos? Well, I've always said that if there were a fire, I'd want to save the photos. Better get them where I can grab them, if necessary. So now they're in the hall closet. (Quit laughing.)
All the other boxes of mementos went to the basement----my ordination video and the well-wishing cards and trinkets that came at that occasion, two heavy boxes of old sermons, an ancient desk lamp, the Coleman stove (what was that doing in there?), that sort of thing. Now all the office supplies are neatly stacked on the shelves in the closet, the computer software all in one place, only the most recent sermons still there. (It's amazing how handy old sermons are, if only to remind me where I was hermeneutically and homiletically ten years ago.)
Believe me, the office is not substantially better, but the storage closet is a miracle of organization. Somehow that really improves my sense of accomplishment and satisfaction with the job. I still have many boxes of books sent by our dear donor Linguist Friend that are soon to be ensconced in our new church library and I will probably wait until they are duly delivered to do a real job on the office.
One of these days I'm going to take this increasingly large pile of outdated financial papers and tax returns (yes, I know how many years to save) over to Office Max in Oak Harbor for shredding. I've been saving some of them for twenty years; they need to be destroyed. It's been on my to-do list for decades. That will be a huge load off my mind.
Spring cleaning has never particularly been part of my routine but there's something about the green shoots, the fragrant daphne bush outside my door, the newly mown lawn smell, that has gotten me going this morning. Now I'm looking around for the next tidying up project!