Wednesday, June 30, 2010


Am I ever feeling better! Yesterday I felt so dragged out by the demands of the previous week! I succumbed to the lure of a vanilla latte and a peach scone over at the Lighthouse Cafe, perked up a little bit but not much, and after lunch took a long nap before the wedding I was to perform at 5 p.m.

The wedding itself, a small party of lively folks and a couple of lovely young people already on their way to making a difference in the world with their careers and character, was delightful and having dinner with them after the wedding gave me a chance to get to know other family members better.

This young couple lives in the Tacoma Park area of D.C. and will be looking for a congregation, so I hope somebody in the DC area will let me know if there's a vibrant, not too huge congregation that I can refer them to. She's working on a PHD in Applied Mathematics at U. Maryland and he works for the State Department and they are just terrific.

Anyhow, I also had the good sense to bow out of our music session that evening, just to carve out a night at home by myself. I missed my friends but I went to bed at 9 oclock, read some more of the latest Stephanie Plum, and was out like a light at 10. It bothered me not a whit to wake up naturally at 5 a.m. Ahh, sleep and solitude, there's nothing like it.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A latte and a peach scone always help...

me rebound when I'm extra tired, but the remedy hasn't kicked in yet and I'm feeling the effects of a long church year, a year which got particularly stressful in its final 6 weeks or so. Actually, it could be any kind of scone, doused with butter and gently warmed, but this morning it was peach.

"Rode hard and put away wet" is a phrase I probably picked up in my eastern Oregon days, when the Pendleton RoundUp was a major event in my life and those who did the riding hard and putting away wet were to be much maligned. This was no way to treat a horse and we were careful not to make that mistake (other mistakes, yes, just not that one).

In my last post I wrote about the five week stretch of time preparing for a marathon memorial service and how important it had been to do it right. I suggested at the time that there was a second idea embedded in that post that would be dealt with later, and here it is.

I'm writing about it now because last night, after arriving home from yet a third late gathering in a row, I got a message from a mutual friend that a woman I've known since I did her wedding three years ago, a woman who has battled lethal cancer for seven years, is in her last days and we need to meet to plan her funeral/memorial service.

There's a part of me that wants to scream at the universe "NO! This is one more tragic moment in time when I am required to put on my mask of professional distance and do what is needed for this woman and her family. Professional distance SUCKS!" And there is a grateful part of me that appreciates the professional distance mask and welcomes its ability to keep me somewhat insulated from grief.

Professional distance makes it possible, if not pleasant, to fulfill the duties of my work as pastor and priest, the one who comforts and consecrates the ceremonies of death. Professional distance makes it possible to bury/memorialize people whose lives and families I cherish. It's what our mentors hope we will cultivate, as ministers, in our relationships, so that it is easier to perform the duty of helping a community say goodbye to its beloveds.

I can grieve, but I must grieve in a way that does not frighten others or make them question my ability to lead them through the valley of sorrow. That often means that I postpone grief or I keep it inside or I sublimate it in some way. Or I get whiny, which I am doing right now, I guess.
Or, of course, there's always the latte and the scone.

That I can postpone grief or deal with it in other ways may be handy in a way, but I wonder about the longterm effects of doing this. I feel sometimes as though I have developed callouses on my heart, to keep me going in the tough times without giving in to the emotion that surrounds me. I have learned to blink back the tears, clear my throat, and keep going without missing a beat.

I'd guess most of us who work in the helping professions develop a certain facility at doing this. I know when I did my CPE (clinical pastoral education) in a Denver trauma center that there were code words that distanced us from too much emotion. We'd mention a patient's "circling the drain" instead of "about to die". I can't remember others, just that there were ways of keeping ourselves from feeling too deeply when we had work to do.

It's easy for resentment to creep in, too. I find myself battling irritation at people whose responses aren't what I think they should be----too controlling, not thankful enough, too demanding of my time, that sort of thing. Grief does funny things to people and others' grieving behaviors manage to push the buttons of my grieving behaviors, I guess.

Maybe that's all that's going on. Maybe I'll go get another latte. And maybe a blueberry scone.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Requiem for a Soldier

Saturday afternoon was the culmination of five weeks of sorrow and preparation for saying a ritual goodbye to a young man who died in May of his battle wounds, the final wound self-inflicted. It has been a long process for all of us involved, from parents who saw their only child bloody and limp on a gurney from a gunshot wound, to a fiancee who witnessed the event, to those of us called upon for help in the moment and in the weeks-long process of preparing his memorial celebration.

I asked my lovely congregation to help with part of this process, providing the space, a reception, my services as officiant, and other tasks, and they marshaled their energy and came through for me and the family. I estimate that their participation involved many person-hours and more than a few bucks for food; mine, I estimate, included many hours of being with the family as they dealt with the shock and the immediate needs of the situation, hours of conversation between family and officiants (for there were two other clergy involved), emails and phone calls, adjusting of details, and finally the nine-hour slot of time on Saturday, to set up, conduct the service and its aftermath, and cleanup.

It's hard for many folks to understand grief and individuals' different ways of expressing it. This group wanted to give their beloved a final ceremony that said everything, that offered all friends and family a chance to tell stories, that somehow reproduced the important events and the growth in character of this young man over his short life. So days and weeks of planning went into this memorial service and resulted in a marathon outpouring of love and mourning.

To many, it may have seemed over-the-top and certainly it was exhausting for all who participated in the service. But it was important to these parents, I think, to make a statement to the community and to other veterans-----the lives of our soldiers are important, they are changed drastically by the violence of war, and some are so badly wounded that they cannot survive in civilian life.

I've never done a memorial service for a suicide or for a veteran and this one included both elements. Each of us clergy addressed the method of death in some way, without judgment. And at the end of the service, a two-man Honor Guard conducted a flag ceremony, unfolding the ceremonial flag, shaking it to release the spirit of the dead soldier, and re-folding it before offering it to the soldier's mother. At that time, we stood and the soft tones of "Taps" floated through the open door.

I felt very privileged to work with the two other clergy, one an Episcopal priest who is a spiritual director on the island and the other a Navy chaplain at NAS Whidbey. Together I believe we offered family and friends a healing experience and I think we all learned something important in our working together. I certainly made two new colleague-friends.

What I hope the family will receive from this experience: a sense that many hands reached out to offer them support in their grief, a recognition of the many hours spent working on their behalf to help them create the kind of experience they wanted, a welling-up of gratitude from them toward those who did so much for them, and a desire to give back in some way.

When we are in great pain and others reach out to help, spending many hours and financial resources, we may not be able to recognize our debt to them at first nor may we have the strength to do anything about it for awhile, but when we do, those who have served us will benefit from our appreciation and our sincere thanks. I hope I remember my own advice if I am ever in this situation! Those who serve are nourished by the appreciation of those who are served.

There's another topic in this story as well, but I'll save that for another post. It's about professional "distance" and the need not to succumb to one's own grief as one helps others mourn.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Thinking about anger and pain...

after reading a small book entitled "Healing Back Pain: the Mind-Body Connection", by John Sarno, MD. After I had complained a few times on Facebook about the muscle spasms that plague me every once in awhile, somebody pointed me toward this book and I bit. It arrived yesterday and I sat down and read the whole thing.

Interesting. I've long recognized the connection in me between anger, anxiety, resentment, and physical symptoms like presyncope, heartburn, and vertigo, but I hadn't extended that connection to include the tendinitis that often flares in me at awkward times.

Sarno makes that connection and more. His theory, which is not a popular one in the allopathic world, is that stress of various kinds (particularly the negative emotions which we squelch so that we can keep going) reveals itself in painful complaints like muscle spasms, tendinitis, even fibromyalgia and other chronic pain afflictions.

I'm not sure how much I buy into this theory BUT I have to admit that my muscle spasms tend to arrive during or shortly after a period of time when I feel rushed, overburdened, and a little angry about it all, a little self-pitying, yet carrying on heroically because I expect myself to do so.

He claims miraculous cures, which I am a bit skeptical about, but I'm going to give it a whirl by documenting the things I feel angry and resentful about, just to let off the steam and direct myself to a resolution rather than a squelching of emotion.

I'm not a very angry person, but I'm in a position where I have to be steady, patient, tolerant of others' foibles, ready to serve others' needs before my own on occasion. This means, often, that my emotional reactions---of irritation, resentment, outright anger and frustration---have to be put on hold and I have often kept them on hold endlessly. I never want to pop off at a congregant or friend, because that would do more harm than good. But I do want to release the negative emotion in a safe way, rather than storing it in my body.

I'll let you know how it goes. Right now I have no pain of any kind. But I did get a tight throat recently when I had to deal with different views on a particular issue and wasn't sure I could do so without expressing irritation. So while I was ruminating, I put it all down in a document that is entitled "peeved" in which I expressed all the irritation and frustration that I would not ever want to vent on anyone else. And then I felt much better, having released it without hurting anyone else.

There may be something to this Tension Myositis Syndrome of Dr. Sardo's. Perhaps I will be able to stave off chronic pain indefinitely by scores of little TextEdit documents stored on my laptop! We shall see.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

I worry...

about people who worry. It's the mother in me, I suspect. I used to worry a lot about my son, as he was growing up: would he ever be finished with high school? would he get so hooked on D&D that he'd become one of those fantasy-game zombies I'd read about? would he ever find a girl who was just right for him? would he always live at home? would he still be alive when I was old and needed taking care of? (i.e., would he ever stop smoking?)

As time has gone on and he moved far enough away from me that I didn't have to watch, I learned that he was trustworthy, that he was normal (well, not completely because he's a Ketcham, but enough to get by on), that his brain was more than adequate to the task of learning and that he would excel in school eventually, that the love of gaming turned into a love of historical re-enactment, that a lovely young woman discovered him and began to love him, that he would establish a home with her and become a husband and father. I stop short of letting go of the worry about smoking, but I have learned that my worry doesn't do a thing to change him.

I think ministry has helped me let go of much of my worrywart tendencies. It's simply not possible to change anything by worrying about it. I used to wake up in the night and mentally sort through all the things I was concerned about, sometimes to the point of having to get up, get out my journal, and write down all the stuff I was worrying about. Somehow that helped me put the worries away, as if, when they were on paper, they could be saved for another time.

I still have my middle of the night worry moments, but the journal-entry tactic is always available and, if I've been faithful in my prayer practice, I can remember to "let go and let God", in the 12-step vernacular. I rarely stay awake worrying for long any more.

In ministry, I see people who are agonizing over a multitude of decisions or events. I listen to a woman on the phone who is so tired of chemo, so tired of pain, so tired of struggling, yet not willing to let go of life and not knowing what to do next. Now there's real middle of the night stuff. I can't do much for her by worrying, but I can help by listening.

Worry eats away at our lives; we spend time agonizing about things that will very likely turn out just fine. But it's hard to stop worrying unless we can find a systematic way of setting things aside and saving them for later.

I've discovered that journaling and prayer do it for me. In my journal, I can write down all my anger and grief in words that no one else will ever see, saying all the things I would never say aloud to anyone, spilling all the vitriol and venom that roil my gut and adrenalize my brain. I can put it all down, go back to it later and even add to it, and then, when finished, let it go. Later I can come back to it and write more, if necessary, or laugh at how upset I was.

Prayer is talking to a Higher Power about my concerns, confessing my fear and my inadequacy, admitting the mistakes I've made which exacerbated the situation, and making a decision about what to do next---or not. It might be just a plea for the ability to cope and then believing that I can cope, that when the need arises, I will be okay.

In all of my worries, the thing that has helped me most has been that old prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

So for all the worriers this June morning, whether it's because you're financially distressed, worried about your kids or your job or your partner, worried about the oil spill and what it means to the environment and people's lives, whatever it is, I'm thinking about you and hoping that you can find a way to let go of the worry, turn it into action, do what you can to relieve your own anxiety about it, and find joy in the daily round.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

My last sermon until August 8!

By Rev. Kit Ketcham, June 13, 2010

Do you have a favorite Bible story? If so, toss it out there; let’s see what the stories are that stick in our minds. Now, is there a story or other passage in the Bible that bothers you a lot? Let’s get those out there too.

We Unitarian Universalists, as well as many other liberally religious folk, often have a love-hate relationship with the Bible. On the one hand, we love its wise stories, we revere much of its wisdom and poetry, and we have so many Biblical references that have taken root in our culture that it would be hard NOT to have some familiarity with the Bible.

On the other hand, there are a whole heap of stories and references that seem cruel, nonsensical in our day and age, and too puzzling to be meaningful in a good way.

When I started seminary in 1995, I felt a little wary about studying the Bible. Iliff was a United Methodist seminary and Methodists are big on the Bible, so it was a requirement at Iliff---a full year of Bible, one half of it being on the Hebrew Scriptures and one half on the Christian Scriptures. And I needed it to qualify as a Unitarian Universalist minister, as well.

I was pretty sure I didn’t know everything there was to know about the Bible, but though I liked some of what I knew, I was very uneasy about other passages and stories. And it bothered me a lot that many people whom I loved dearly believed the Bible was the literal, inerrant, totally true Word of God, straight from the mouth and heart of the Creator who put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

I was there, at one time. As a young child in a devout Christian home where Bible reading and devotional time was the order of every day, I heard the stories endlessly, was told they were true, and had no reason to believe otherwise. I knew my parents considered them true and that was good enough for me.

But as time went on, like many of you, I suspect, I began to wonder how they could possibly be factually true and eventually decided to just quietly wonder, commit myself to the passages that made sense to me, and see what I might discover as time went on.

So, getting ready to enter seminary, I was both excited to have scholarly men and women unfolding the meaning of such passages as a 6-day creation story, a water into wine story, and a bodily resurrection story and worried that perhaps even these learned professors would say that the stories were literally true.

I need not have been concerned. My Hebrew Bible professor was a top scholar in his field, a master of both the Hebrew and Greek languages, skilled in presenting the research that has gone on for centuries to reveal the culture and history of those ancient times, and a funny man to boot.

He unfolded for our class the mysteries of a set of books, supposedly written by Moses yet bearing evidence of several different authors and editors. For example, in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, the writing style, the use of different terms for God, chunks of text that seem to have been inserted later by an editor, all betray different minds working to set down in writing the worldview of an ancient people of prehistory who knew nothing of science but did know how to shape a creation story into something meaningful for that culture.

We learned that there were actually two very different creation stories, one in which it took 6 days to set the universe and earth and living creatures in place, and another in which humans are created first. In this second story, the first man and woman receive names: Adam, which signifies “everyman” and Eve, which means “Mother of all living”. These then were symbolic names, not actual monikers. And the two stories seemed to indicate that there were at least two different story-tellers.

We learned about the context in which the purity laws in Hebrew scripture are distinctly apropos to those ancient times and reflect the ways by which a beleaguered people maintained their distinctiveness as a community and discouraged any act which did not further this cohesiveness.

The punitive nature of these laws, which have been so often used against sexual minorities, women, and children, was a factor of the times in which those early people lived and clearly out of place in our culture today. At the same time, other laws reflected universal human moral precepts: don’t steal, don’t covet others’ property or partners, don’t murder, take time to rest, honor your elders.

We learned to “unpack” the passages of the Bible to reveal the culture and mores of the writer, to find the original meanings of words and put them together to understand what the author meant by his or her words, to reveal the structure of the society in which the author lived, and to find meaning in it for our time, where possible.

We learned to look at scripture metaphorically, not literally, and I have to tell you, this was hard for some of our more conservative classmates, some of whom bailed out and went down the street to the Southern Baptist seminary nearby.

When we had completed our term of study of the Hebrew Bible, we turned to the Christian New Testament. Our professor was a young woman, an observant Conservative Jew whose doctoral thesis had been on the years linking the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian scriptures.

She too was a challenging and stimulating teacher, unfolding the differences in theology within the first four books of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).

We learned that these books had been written up to 100 years after Jesus died, that they were similar in some places and very different in others, that the names of their authors were probably not actually Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John but that these names had been given to lend their stories credibility.

Each author had a particular bias about Jesus’ life and told the story with a certain slant, emphasizing certain aspects over others. In some, there is no birth story or the birth story is very different from the others; in some there is a resurrection story; in each book, some details are identical to the other books and other details are different.

During our yearlong journey in understanding the Bible not only as traditionally sacred literature but also as a guide to early religious and social culture, we learned the skill of “exegesis”, a term that refers to the critical analysis or interpretation of a word or a passage, particularly of religious texts.

There are several lenses to use in analyzing a text. I went back into my files from seminary looking for examples of some of these and was reminded of just how complex this task can be, dissecting a text for its historical context, its original sources, its setting and the traditions of that setting, its unique message, the meaning of its story and who its author might be, the ethical implications of the text and the comparison of it to our own time and place in history.

Whew! Just writing it all down again reminded me of how hard it can be to really understand all the factors that create a text----and how human it is to put our own spin on the text, whether we are reading and using it today or whether we were ancient people who revered a story.

Each term, we were assigned the task of “exegeting” a passage from the scripture canon we were studying. And in my excavating of my Iliff years, I ran across a paper I wrote at that time. We had been assigned to choose one of the methods of exegesis we’d studied, take one of the Psalms, and explain it, amplify it, unpack it using that method.

It was my first experience of feeling enraptured, enclosed, embodied in a Biblical text. I’d like to share part of it with you.

I’d been sitting at my kitchen table with books and journal articles piled around me, studying Psalm 121. I’d read it over and over:
1I lift up my eyes to the hills—
 from where will my help come?

2My help comes from the Lord,
 who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;
 he who keeps you will not slumber. 

4He who keeps Israel
 will neither slumber nor sleep.
5The Lord is your keeper;
 the Lord is your shade at your right hand. 

6The sun shall not strike you by day,
 nor the moon by night.

7The Lord will keep you from all evil;
 he will keep your life.

8The Lord will keep
 your going out and your coming in

from this time on and for evermore.

I’d always thought these words were beautiful yet in my post-modern skeptical frame of mind, I’d dismissed their literal meaning, and then …

As I sat at the kitchen table, looking over my stack of articles and notes, trying to find the right approach, one that was scholarly but also meaningful to me, unbidden music came into my thoughts, as it often does when I’m pondering. An old Sunday School song: “Safe am I, safe am I, in the hollow of his hand; sheltered o’er, sheltered o’er, with his love forevermore. No ill can harm me, no foe alarm me, for he keeps both day and night. Safe am I, safe am I, in the hollow of his hand.”

The song sang itself over and over. I closed my eyes and tried to let myself feel where it was coming from.

Noise in my ears, a roaring. Rain down the back of my neck, my wet sneakers desperately trying to find a toehold on the steep slope. A long way down to the rocky beach beneath me, the sound of sobbing, and a deep voice----“hang on, honey, Daddy’s coming”.

My father’s gasping breaths, his anxious face, and then his strong arm scooping me up and carrying me bodily up the ocean cliff to the safety of the path, as the rest of my family hurried up the trail to us.

We had been walking on an isolated scallop of shoreline near Cannon Beach, Oregon, when someone commented that we needed to be careful because the tide was coming in and we could easily be cut off and stranded by the rising water. I had panicked, as six-year-olds will, and had, in my fright, climbed halfway up a steep, grassy cliff before getting stuck--unable to go up or down--and clinging precariously to wet hummocks of slippery seagrass. My father’s quick action and strength had rescued me from terror and possibly serious injury, and as he held me tight, once we were safe, it seemed as though a miracle had occurred.

At the top of the headland, my mother scolded and hugged me, while my sister looked on wide-eyed. My father leaned against a tree and tried to breathe. The desperate trip had cost him dearly. “Merritt, are you all right?” my mother was alarmed.

“I’m not sure--let me rest a minute. I can hardly breathe and my chest hurts. But Betsy's okay, that’s the important thing.”
Psalm 121, a child’s version

“I lift up my eyes to the hills,
Where is someone to help me?
My help comes from my father who is coming for me,
He will not let me slip from the cliff,
He is always alert to his child,
He who keeps me will neither slumber nor sleep.
He will keep me safe,
He will protect me from the terrors of the day and of the night.
He will protect me from all evil, he will save my life.
He will carry me to the path, he will be my help forevermore.”

Psalm 121 to me will always be a cry for rescue and comfort, though as I examined others’ arguments on this text, which have to do with warrior prayer and pilgrim journey poetics, certainly Psalm 121 has a broader, earlier application than to a little girl trapped by her fear on a steep cliff. But this is a psalm that has had a good deal of personal meaning to its readers over many centuries, and its meaning to me has endured these many years.

In fact, as I thought about my own choice of this Psalm, I realized that I have thought about its words as I puffed my way up steep slopes in the Cascades and the Rockies or pondered my life after some experience which shook my equilibrium and sent me reeling into the mountains for comfort.

“I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where will my help come?” is a question, a prayer that many of us express in troubled times.

As Vicky and I were preparing this service together, we talked about our own misgivings about the Bible, our lack of trust in translations that leave women out of its history, that support cruelty toward minority groups, women, and children, that seem to be taken so literally by so many believers.

Jesus felt like a true prophet but were his words written down faithfully? Wasn’t it possible that the authors of the gospels, relying on oral versions of Jesus’ life, wrote their stories with a less-than-factual slant? How could we possibly know what is true and what is legend?

The Bible is only one of the many sources of inspiration we Unitarian Universalists use in our spiritual journeys. Some of us have shunned the Bible as a source because of the difficulty in finding modern meaning in it, because of the supernatural aspects of some of its stories, because of the war-like attitudes that permeate so many of its passages.

So what can the Bible mean to us Unitarian Universalists, spiritual seekers who have deep reservations about beliefs in the supernatural, who need a rational approach to truth, who reject cruel advice and rules, and who may have been badly hurt by religions that enforce punitive religious laws.

Here’s what I think:

I find meaning in the Bible when I read between the lines, when I look for the deeper message in the puzzling stories, find the passages that speak to me, and let go of the ones that do not. Perhaps someday I will find meaning there; for now, I will leave them to others.

There are parts of the Bible I find inspiring and parts I reject. In all of those parts, the good ones and the bad, I am reminded that these are the words and deeds of an entirely different time and culture and these are the responses of people who were very different from me. But they are human and we share many of the same struggles.

Many others before us have doubted the traditional interpretations of the Bible. Thomas Jefferson took a King James Version of the gospels and examined it closely, cutting out the parts that he felt were not really Jesus’ words, that were in conflict with the lessons Jesus was teaching during his ministry.

He then published a small book which we call nowadays the Jefferson Bible, containing only those words and stories which seemed to him consistent with Jesus’ message. He felt that the Christianity of his time had diverged tragically from Jesus’ message and intent.

The Bible contains so many cultural references, in Shakespeare’s plays, Renaissance art, Milton’s poetry, in countless songs and symphonies, so that not to know something about the Bible can make us culturally impoverished.

The Bible can help us understand ancient peoples and their culture. It offers us timeless wisdom via its stories and historical themes. It offers us insights into early religious history and practices. It reveals the origins of the now badly-battered foundations of Christianity and gives insight into the life and philosophy of one of history’s most influential teachers, the man Jesus. And it offers many universal and timeless moral precepts.

The Bible in all its human imperfection, its portrayal of human joys and cruelties, its stories of timeless human struggle and heroism, its drama and poetry and legend, the Bible is worth our attention, our study, our respect, and our judicious acceptance.

Its cruel passages do not negate its loving passages, just as our own human wrongdoing does not negate our own ability to love and nurture. It is as human as we are and as worthy of our love.

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, reconsidering the wisdom of a set of books we may have previously rejected. May we be open to the ancient wisdom of the Bible, finding new insights and understandings in its timeless stories and precepts. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

A week of birthdaying

I have never been so well "birthdayed" in my life. It is June 12, four days past the big day, and I am still astounded by the attention. It was a little bit overwhelming, even for this extrovert. And I really didn't expect any of it.

That was a little naive because I did put it on the blog several days ago. But I only have about 40 hits a day, very few of them from local people, so I didn't expect more than a few comments. The biggest group of HBs came from Facebook friends, and now I know how tickled a person can get when a whole bunch of people respond to that little "events" notation in the upper right corner of one's page.

So electronic greetings flooded in, but last Sunday, as I was closing the service, I noticed a furtive movement by one of my dearest members and suddenly the whole church burst into song. I stood in the pulpit blushing while they sang. And there was cake!

On the actual date, two friends took me to dinner at a nice place in Freeland and there was a sinful chocolate dessert with a candle in the middle at the end of the meal.

All week long, the greetings flowed in and on Thursday night at the jam, another cake appeared and another raucous version of Happy Birthday, this time the version John McCutcheon sings about "you sure grew out of your baby ways, Happy Birthday to you!"

On top of it all, my sister gave me twelve bars of fancy (REALLY fancy) soaps, all of which smell lovely and way too pretty to actually use. I asked her if she was trying to tell me something, but apparently not. I now have a lifetime supply of soap, if I decide to use them and I probably will. They definitely outclass the Coast and Ivory bars currently in the bathrooms.

The Favorite Son and Daughter-in-law gave me a gorgeous Sepphora gift pack, with Lotus Garden fragrance body butter, candle, solid perfume, and bath salts. Heavens! It's like a spa treatment, and I plan to slather myself with the stuff on every appropriate occasion.

The thing is, I've never been big on celebrating birthdays, never counted on getting sung to or receiving tons of cards or greetings. Birthdays have mostly slid on by with a minimum of fuss. I'm not perturbed about getting older, but I just didn't need much fuss.

I realized, when things were going on, that I have conditioned myself over the years not to hope too much for this kind of appreciative attention. It feels dangerous to want it because if I get too hooked on it, the negative attention becomes harder to be philosophical about. If I expect to be put on a pedestal, I can also expect the pedestal to be a target for people to chip away at.

It's an ego thing for me. I know I am susceptible to getting hooked on being a so-called "rockstar" and I try not to let it happen. I was never one of the "popular girls" in school, though pretty well liked. I could see how flimsy a status that could be, though I probably would have soaked it up had I had a chance.

I was absolutely blown away by the attention and was a little embarrassed, even as I loved every minute of it. What a thing to have happen for one's 68th birthday! Thanks to any of you who participated in this week of wonderfulness!

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Is "8 things I'd really rather you didn't do" a sacred text?

by Rev. Kit Ketcham, June 6, 2010

Do you find wisdom in the Bible or other traditional sacred texts? If not there, where do you find your wisdom? What are the sources you use? Do you have favorite sayings that sum up some of your acquired wisdom? How about throwing some of those sayings out there? Something that encapsulates some of your acquired wisdom?

We find wisdom in a lot of places, it seems to me. Some of it comes out of our experiences; some of it is visible on the bumpers of cars or on t-shirts. We find it in novels, in non-fiction, in textbooks, in memoirs, in a lot of different kinds of writings. Poetry. Murder mysteries. Comic books. We find it in Art works. Theater productions. Songs and Symphonies. We find it in The Bible. The Bhagavad Gita. The Tanakh. The Koran.

Some of these sources of wisdom are said to be divinely inspired, right out of the heart of God and written down by human beings. Most of them are human creations; it’s a little hard to say for sure about the ones attributed to God, but I suspect editors over the millennia since their publication have altered texts here and there, either deliberately to reflect their own views or by copying a mistake made by a previous copier.

Recently I came across a book entitled “The Language God Talks”, a memoir by the author Herman Wouk, a treatise on his efforts to link science and religion. And because it seemed to relate both to our service today and also to the Science/Ethics/and Meaning symposium we are hoping to begin next fall, I bought it and settled in to enlighten myself and hopefully find a few ideas. I was especially interested in learning about the language God talks.

One traditional take on the language God talks has been either the ancient languages of the Hebrew Scriptures or the King James Version or other translations of the Christian Bible. Of course, other religions see it differently: the Koran was the voice of Allah spoken through the mouth of Mohammed; the Bhagavad Gita is the dialogue between Krishna the god and Arjuna the human on the eve of a climactic battle and lays down Hindu theology in this context; Confucianism relies on the writings and teachings of Confucius, who set forth a moral and philosophical code for his followers, though no Deity is involved.

But what makes a text----or any object or teaching---sacred? Since our rational minds can’t know for sure whether God actually spoke to Moses, David, Jesus, Mohammed, and others, we have to make some assumptions about texts and other things purported to be sacred.

Somebody clearly thought that the voice in his or her head was divine. And the voice offered wisdom, guidance, prophesy, or warning. Sometimes the listener argued with the voice, as so many of the Psalms seem to do, lamenting human fate and helplessness before the chaos of human living.

So is it the hearer of the voice, the transcriber of those words who decides if a text, for example, is sacred? Or is it the reader of the text, the receiver of the wisdom who decides? In our faith, where reason is such an important ingredient of our religious practices, we want to know why something is considered sacred, not just take others’ word for it.

My friend Dr. Donald Cooper, a linguistics scholar formerly of Bowling Green State University in Ohio, responded to my question about sacred texts in this way:
“The idea of a sacred text is uncertain. Some groups of readers consider some texts sacred; others approach them as historical documents or literary works…The idea of the beauty of sacred texts is also uncertain. They are effective, but sometimes they are horrible.
“When a text in the Psalms recommends the killing of the babies of one’s enemies,… that is not beauty, but it gets to the heart of anyone who has ever loved a child.”

Dr. Cooper goes on to assert that people are the ones who make texts sacred, whether they are the scribes and accountants and priests of the early periods of human history or, I might add, the new readers who welcomed the advent of the printing press, which made written texts available to everyone who was literate or had someone who could read aloud from the printed page.

For our purposes today, we will consider primarily written texts. Our service is chock full of writings that Thomas and I considered to be sacred to us. Together we chose hymns that are meaningful to us. Our choir today is using a number of lovely texts as their musical offerings to us.

These writings came out of human hearts. Were they inspired by God? Not in the traditional way of thinking, perhaps, but certainly they sprang from hearts overflowing with joy, with beauty, with contemplative wisdom, with sorrow, with anger.

I get mailings from a company called The Teaching Company, having bought a few of their courses, and in thumbing through one of their recent catalogs I found a course entitled “Life Lessons from the Great Books”. Its description struck me. Here is some of it:

“…Four characteristics define a Great Book: its focus on great themes such as love, courage, and (true) patriotism; its composition in a noble language; its ability to speak to readers across the ages; its ability to speak to readers not as groups, but as individuals…”

Categories of Great Books, according to the catalog, are these: the unconquerable human spirit, youth and old age, romance and love, adventure and courage, laughter and irony, and the true meaning of patriotism.

Books and authors mentioned in the guide are such things as the gospel of John, “The Brothers Karamazov” by Dostoevsky, works by Albert Schweitzer, Shakespeare, Homer, even the journals of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark of the famed Expedition.

Here, in humanly-produced texts, are some of the predominant lessons of human living: where wisdom can be found in life’s experiences, the meaning of evil, suffering, and death, reverence for all of life, the idea that great strength can contribute to great evil when pushed too far, the ideals that undergird true patriotism and democracy, that war brings devastation, yes, but also an opportunity for wisdom and redemption.

What is the difference between these books and the body of texts that are generally considered sacred today? I note that traditional sacred texts focus on lessons learned from God or the power beyond human power, rather than human experience. We Unitarian Universalists are apt to name texts which are human products, rather than divinely inspired works.

I often ask my UU colleagues for their thoughts when I’m preparing a sermon, and when I threw the question about sacred texts out to them, I got a variety of answers. Somebody mentioned Moby Dick and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Another mentioned Darwin’s Origin of Species and Emerson’s Essays.

And another colleague warned me thus: “The caution that I would offer about our approach (of naming our own sacred texts) is that there's a danger of naming "sacred" any text that seems to confirm our existing biases. A text that only reassures us that our perspective is the "right" one is a dangerous thing.”

Remember when the Kansas State Board of Education was deciding to include the Biblical story of creation in the science curriculum of Kansas schools? This alarmed a lot of people, not only in Kansas, as it seemed to be the very antithesis of science education and there was a great deal of outcry.

Among those protesting this decision (which was eventually revoked) was Concerned Citizen Bobby Henderson, who complained that if Creationism and Intelligent Design were to become part of the Kansas school curriculum, he wanted his own Deity and Creation Story to be included as well.

Henderson wrote an impassioned letter to the Kansas Board of Education, describing his Deity, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and the wonders of its creation, all performed by the Monster with his Holy Noodly Appendages.

Since that time, a cult of Flying Spaghetti Monster followers has sprung up and has issued some sacred texts of their own, notably the “8 Things I’d Really Rather You Didn’t Do” statement. Many of the 8 things are in language not fit for the pulpit, but I will quote you one of them so you can get the picture:

6. I'd Really Rather You Didn't Build MultiMillion-Dollar Churches/Temples/Mosques/ Shrines To My Noodly Goodness When The Money Could Be Better Spent (Take Your Pick): A. Ending Poverty B. Curing Diseases C. Living In Peace, Loving With Passion, And Lowering The Cost Of Cable. I Might Be A Complex Carbohydrate Omniscient Being, But I Enjoy The Simple Things In Life. I Ought To Know. I AM The Creator.

I don’t think our modest but beautiful small building goes against this stricture. We didn’t need a huge fancy building to do our work in the world, but we needed something!

Anyhow, so speaks the Flying Spaghetti Monster. And his Complex Carbohydrate Omniscient Being states ideas that have been lobbed at religious extravagance for millennia: don’t be holier-than-thou, don’t use religious language to subjugate and oppress people; don’t judge others; treat women equally; don’t take advantage of people sexually; get over yourself; and be careful when you do unto others if you have odd urges.

If you’re interested in the Flying Spaghetti Monster and think his Noodly Goodness might be right up your alley, you can google him easily on your computer.

So are the “8 Things I’d really rather you didn’t do” a sacred text? I guess I wouldn’t call them that, because they are a deliberate spoof, but then you think of Jonathan Swift’s satirical work “A Modest Proposal”, in which he suggested in 1729 that impoverished Irish parents sell their children to rich folks for culinary purposes; this, he claimed with tongue deep in cheek, would solve Ireland’s economic crisis and give rich ladies and gentlemen a new gourmet delight.

His purpose was to castigate British officialdom for their oppressive policies toward the Irish citizenry. Not too different from the proclamations issued by irate Hebrew prophets, railing against the cruelties of Rome and other conquering nations as well as against the idolatry of the Israelites. Only they weren’t using satire and irony.

My friend Donald Cooper passed along a little more about sacred texts: that oral traditions passed along wisdom by speaking it, whether it was received from God or human experience, until written language developed, making it possible to inscribe and preserve it in some way; that in the case of the Bible, a canon or set of texts has been declared sacred but that this designation has often come from the text’s usefulness in upholding some theological premise or what he calls “bestsellerness”, its ability to relate to actual human life; and that sacred texts are often misused and taken out of context, including literal interpretation.

Tell me about it! I have a few dear Jehovah’s Witness friends, women who witness to me monthly in my home. They know I’m a Unitarian Universalist minister and our relationship is based on fragile acceptance of our differences. But they earnestly tell me about the messages they receive from the Bible, about the coming apocalypse, the second coming of Jesus, what God expects of his people, that sort of thing.

And I earnestly unfold for them the deeper message I hear in those scriptures, a message that speaks to me of human life and human responsibility and love and compassion for others. We don’t argue but we are not convincing each other either!

For them, the Bible is a deeply sacred text, yet their interpretation is literal and spelled out explicitly in their publications The Watchtower and Awakening. For me too, the Bible is a deeply sacred text, and my interpretation is metaphorical, not literal. I even go so far as to say that the Bible is wrong in many ways, at least for our time and culture, that, for us, revelation is not sealed, that we learn new insights every day.

The meaning of any sacred text is something that we the readers infer from the words the writer uses and our own interpretation of those words. We don’t always or even often know the context from which the text springs, but we do have the commonality of human experience from which to extrapolate our own meanings.

So what is the nature of a sacred text? Here are a few more tidbits: a traditional sacred text comes from a divine source, may be written in a sacred or liturgical language like Sanskrit, may be most precious when inscribed in calligraphy, as are the Koran’s most holy renditions.

A non-traditional sacred text emerges from human experience and speaks wisdom to those who wish to understand and use that wisdom. What about this oddball example?

In the story of the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her companions are trying desperately to get Dorothy and Toto back home to Kansas. On their way to ask for help from the magical Wizard of Oz, who lives in the Emerald City, they survive many adventures and finally arrive in the fabled Emerald City.

The Wizard himself receives them but is hidden behind a curtain, dispensing his wisdom, and when rascally Toto the dog grabs the curtain and pulls, the Wizard is revealed to be an ordinary little man with no magical powers and only a reiteration of the lessons they have already learned from their journey. They are a little taken aback, to say the least.

Gradually they realize that though the Wizard may be a fraud, still Dorothy and company have learned what they needed to learn from the perils of their journey to Oz.

But all this study and cogitating about sacred texts has led me inevitably to another question, the one which for me lies beneath the lesser questions. And that is “is there any source of wisdom which does not require human intervention, that is intrinsically sacred, in the sense of “ultimate value”, that is not handed down from fallible human to fallible human, that is pure, truthful, perfect, and accessible to all creatures regardless of intellect?

If such a text existed, would we not protect and revere it? Well, those who recognize it DO protect and revere it. That perfect sacred text is not written, its truths not influenced by human touch, yet are discovered and rediscovered every day by those who consult it. It is the source of all human knowledge, the fount of insight that has fueled all human endeavor.

It is the Earth, one book in the ever-expanding canon of the universe. We humans and all other creatures have learned all we know from our relationship with the Earth, how we might survive most successfully, how we might use the resources of the planet most effectively, how important it is not to over-use its resources but to keep our greedy natures under control and be grateful for its bounty. It has given us beauty to love and cultivate, other species to nurture and to use, and challenges us to grow.

As quantum physicists and other explorers are discovering as they decipher the secrets of this unwritten text, its original source seems not to be the romantic scene on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, whether you see in your mind’s eye a burly Caucasian God-figure or the Noodly Appendages of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. No, it’s much bigger than that.

As Isaac Newton summed up his lifework before he died: “I know not what I seem to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

Newton, one forerunner of today’s scientific explorers, was part of a long stream of human beings who sensed that there was more to Truth than what was found in the common sacred texts of the time, no matter how valuable they were.

That Truth was accessible through study of the Earth and the Universe beyond the Earth. That Truth embodied the Divine, expressed itself in unspeakable beauty and inconceivable starkness. Its code of life and death was inexorable, unfailing. Its lessons were sweet and also harsh.

But it was true and humans learned to cope with its truth, to bargain with its rigidity, to soften its starkness with justice, mercy, and love, until eventually those lessons became a secondary sacred text and the prophet Micah was moved to write: “What does the Divine require of you but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly on the earth?”

The Earth, our original, unwritten sacred text, the one most accessible to us, will survive, I think, the damage we do and will heal itself if we let it. It will heal us too, if we allow it to do so.

And the language God talks as I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon? If the Earth is a book in the canon of the Universe and scientists are discovering the way the Universe seems to work, the language God talks must be calculus, the beautiful mathematics that outline the vectors of space and time. That’s God’s language, maybe, but we humans have contributed our language, too, as another colleague has suggested, and that is the language of beauty, love, justice, and joy.

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 experience can have a sacred dimension, if we recognize it and use it to grow. May we be mindful of the lessons all around us, in the Earth especially as well as in the words and art and music and social justice actions we experience. And may we seek to offer others a model of living in a sacred way. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Universalism Got a Hold On Me

I don't know that I've ever been anything but a Universalist. I joined our movement about ten years after the merger, having married into the clan by finding a cute Unitarian guy and leaving the Baptist missionary life in order to live a little, ride behind him on his cute little Suzuki motorbike, and find a larger faith than my American Baptist roots could provide.

I tried really hard to be a good Unitarian. That was in the days when we left off the Universalist part because it was too many syllables and too hard to explain. But the humanistic, anti-God, anti-anythingbutscience attitude of many of my co-congregants didn't really do much for me. I felt I had to keep my Baptist roots secret or at least make light of them, as though I had escaped a terrible fate when I found UUism.

But I'd secretly play "In the Garden" on my piano when I was alone in the house, sing old Sunday School songs when they'd pop into my mind, and quote comforting Bible verses to myself when I needed a comfort that science didn't provide. It felt like a closeted life, in a way, and I hated that. It might be one reason I felt such sympathy for the gay and lesbian people I knew---the closet is no fun.

But it was scary to declare myself a Christian----a Unitarian Christian, of course---back before it was safe. One day, however, I started thinking about the other half of our heritage and realized that my Baptist DNA (and the rebellious history of Baptists generally) was something to be proud of, that Baptist polity and "soul conscience" had their parallels in Universalist thought.

I'd just been confused, because the only Universalist church I knew about was in Denver, and at the time, it was THE humanistic congregation in the area. You would not come out as a Christian at First Universalist, despite the name, for though people might be polite, you'd stick out like a sore thumb if you admitted that you thought Jesus was pretty cool and that you really liked those old hymns.

Luckily, my home church was Jefferson Unitarian out in the western suburbs and though it had its scientific/humanistic contingent which could be scornful of "spirituality" and anything smacking of Christianity, it also had ministers who were inclined to preach about love and mercy and compassion, not just intellectual topics. And it was there, years ago when I first started seminary, that I came out to them as a Christian.

Because Universalism is essentially Christian in its theology, though there are no hard-edged doctrines. Universalism is about Love in all its many permutations. While Unitarianism may support marriage equality and BGLT rights because these issues are logically correct, Universalism supports them because it is in our nature to love and these are issues of love and acceptance. The program "Standing on the Side of Love" is straight out of our Universalist heart.

Once I realized that I was really a Universalist at heart, I began to explore the resources I'd gotten from my Baptist upbringing. I wanted to reach out to other people of faith and find ways to work with them, to share the love that I felt was at the heart of all religion. And it was in this way that I came to see that, whereas our Universalist forebears considered universal salvation to be the heart of their faith, I considered our being and working together in love for the betterment of humankind to be the true heart of our living tradition.

We have moved, over the centuries, from a certainty that all God's children will be saved to the understanding that all God's children are our sisters and brothers, in all their wild diversity and splendor, and that we are all in this heaven together. Now.