Friday, December 30, 2011

In the distance, by the side of the road...

one day a few weeks ago, as I took my morning walk up toward Mutiny Bay and back, I saw what looked like the body of an animal----a rabbit, maybe, or a raccoon which had been hit by a car. I cringed as I walked toward it, not wanting to look at the kind of mess a car can make of a small animal. Having accidentally hit a rabbit or possum one night earlier (it managed to run into the bushes, so I'm not sure what it was or if it was a fatal blow), I was attuned to the feelings that accompany that kind of moment in life. There's a fatalism about it, a sense of inevitability, that an animal that runs in front of a speeding car is doomed, unless it is ultra fast or the car driver ultra nimble.

But it was a cat, a large tortoiseshell, a little blood by its mouth but otherwise unmutilated outwardly by its encounter with a force faster than its four feet. I stood there for a moment thinking about my own tortie Lily, glad that it wasn't my girl, and wondering whose mama cat it might be. There's hardly anyone living along that stretch of road, so this cat had been a little ways from home. It's a busy road, too, and I worry about Max when he's out on the loose. Lily never goes beyond the deck, so she's safe, as is Loosy. But a cat in the country faces many dangers.

I continued my walk toward Mutiny Bay thinking about what a lonely death that would be for an animal. Swift, maybe, but lonely, with no one to mourn or cover its body or pet it gently as life ebbs, to talk to it quietly and witness the inevitable. No one to lift it up and carry it away and bury it, except maybe the highway cleanup guys who remove other road kill from the island's roadways.

On Mutiny Bay road, there was a mom standing with her three little boys waiting for the school bus, and I went over to her and stood talking while the bus rolled up and rolled away. "I didn't want to ask this in front of the boys," I said, "but there's a cat that's been hit by a car up the road and I wondered if you know if it belongs to anyone." She didn't know whose it might be and we both shook our heads about all the feral cats in the local woods.

The next day, I took the same walk up the road and the cat's body had been removed. I wondered if it was the county crew who had taken her or if owners had found her. Or it might have been a scavenger animal who dragged the carcass off. It was unanswerable.

But I found myself remembering the cat every time I walked by the spot where she had lain. I walk that road two and three times a week, so I did a lot of thinking about the loss sustained when an animal, beloved or not, is killed.

One day, I noticed an interesting bit of garbage, a couple of sticks that had been deposited by the latest windstorm, I figured, with a bit of white toilet paper ensnarled between them. It looked a bit like an iconic cross, but it couldn't be, I told myself; it's just a piece of trash that looks like a cross.

I forgot about it on a couple of walks but then I noticed it again, right near the place where the cat had died. I took to watching for it, still assuming it couldn't be anything but an accidental configuration of garbage.

Today, I stopped and picked it up to confirm my assumption: two pine sticks, bound into the shape of a rustic cross by plastic ribbon, tied carefully in the back and placed just so on the side of the road, half buried by dead grass, right at the site of the cat's death.

Oh. Oh. Oh.

Monday, December 26, 2011

A Life of Work, Part I

As I prepare for retirement, I've been thinking about my work life, looking back over the years since I was eleven or twelve and asked to do babysitting periodically for children in my dad's little congregation. I was born in 1942, so when I began my work-for-pay life, it was about 1954. It's now almost 2012 and that means that I have spent the last 58 years working at one thing or another. No fulltime work till I was out of college, but a combination of full-time school and part-time work is pretty significant.

So I'm planning to write a few posts about my work life over the years and what those jobs/careers were, what they meant to me, and the life lessons I received. As I reach the end of my work years, I'm gratified to see just how valuable these experiences were and how much I received from the effort I put in. I haven't always been a hard worker; in my early years, I sluffed off on the job, even got fired for that once. But overall I learned to work smarter, to do a good job without cutting corners but by being choosy about the kind of effort I made.

Those babysitting jobs were a chance for me to see how other people lived, to notice that other families had different books on their bookshelves than mine did. I used to love babysitting for the Nelsons----they had things like the Decameron and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales on their shelves, books that were, as yet, unfamiliar to me. I would pore over them, not for their erudite wisdom but to see if it was true that they had slightly dirty parts. No dirty books on the Ketcham bookshelves! I didn't find much, but I kept looking! Pay for babysitting in those days was 25 to 50 cents an hour.

At church, my sister and I were asked to help wash communion glasses and tidy up after services; we got to experience one of the perks of being preacher's kids-----swilling the leftover grape juice and munching communion bread. No pay attached, just these benefits. At home, we were expected to clean our bedroom weekly, do dishes, set the table, babysit our brother; for this we received a small allowance which grew slightly larger on each birthday.

When I turned 13, my dad taught me to drive a stick shift and I was hired as a pea truck driver in the fields of eastern Oregon. It wasn't necessary to have a driver's license, as we were only able to drive in the fields, not on the highway. We were paid 85 cents to a dollar an hour for 12 hours of work daily during pea harvest. Our job was to haul peavines from the fields being harvested to the line of peaviners stationed at one end of the field. This job was the cool thing to do for teenage girls in Athena and we had a good time. We had plenty of downtime between trips, as we'd have to wait our turn to load and then wait to dump the load back at the viners. So I always had a book or a notebook with me to pass the time.

Once I had my driver's license, I was also able to drive a wheat truck. Wheat season followed pea harvest by a few weeks and the girls' job was to drive the threshed wheat kernels from the field to the grain elevator in town. We were paid about a dollar an hour for 12 hours a day of work. There were a few hazards working in harvest jobs: once my wheat truck caught fire and burned up; in the pea fields, there were occasionally rattlesnakes in the loads so we were careful when we got up in the load to goof around. Once or twice I worked the night shift in pea harvest, which was kind of eerie, as it was hard to tell where you were in the field; you had to watch for the dim lighting on the swathers and loaders to tell where to go to get your load. And it didn't feel as safe out there at night, working with transients and other unfamiliar folks.

Lessons learned? Everybody works, you do it because it needs to be done, it feels good to be useful, it feels good to earn a paycheck. And it's boring to sit around the house all summer and do nothing!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Christmas reflection

It's Christmas Eve afternoon. The ertesuppe is ready for my supper tonight after the annual Christmas Eve service, which, thankfully, is being conducted by a super-team of worship leaders and not me. I offered to conduct tomorrow morning's service and I'm looking forward to it.

It feels important to have a service tomorrow, Sunday, because that's what we do. Who knows who might need a place to be on Christmas Sunday morning? I certainly need a place to be tomorrow morning. Christmas can be a lonely time for people, especially if they are single or far from family (I'm in both categories), and we need to be available for them (and for me!).

So I knew I'd be meeting my own needs by doing Christmas Sunday morning. And those needs included a nice holiday meal. So, with the help of a few other folks, we are going to roll out a bit of a feed. I've roasted a juicy turkey breast and a small ham, found cranberry sauce, bread, and other accoutrements, and have lugged it all over to the church refrigerator.

Our service tomorrow will be a Sharing Service. That is, I have invited folks to come casual (including pajamas for children, if that's easier), bring stories of winter holidays to share, plus something to contribute to the potluck, and we'll choose songs on the spur of the moment. We'll sit in the round, not rows, and look into each others' faces. I won't be offering a homily but will have a few stories of my own to contribute if the need arises.

I hope we'll talk together instead of my blathering on. I hope the kids will bring a new toy or two and their own impressions of the holidays. I hope our Jewish members will come, and our Muslim and Christian and atheist and agnostic members. I hope it isn't ALL about Christmas but that we look at this season through a larger lens, of welcoming the light, sharing what we have, giving gifts of kindness and affection instead of focusing on material gifts.

I've often had a hard time with Christmas because of its commercialism, the frenetic quest to do everything perfectly, the focus on one religious holy day instead of acknowledging the holy days of other faiths. I think the folks who whine their "War on Christmas" laments are stupid for their refusal to understand this immutable fact. It's not just Christmas this time of year----it's Hanukkah and Kwanzaa and Solstice and Divali. And Christmas is artificially placed at this time of year----likely because of the pagan celebration of the solstice. Jesus was probably born in the springtime.

So there. And, in case you wondered, "ertesuppe" is Norwegian for split pea soup, a Ketcham traditional Christmas Eve supper. Then I'll open my one gift (that's a Norwegian custom too) from my friend Sue, unless the FS's gift arrives later this afternoon, listen to some nice music, and go to bed early so I can be up and around in plenty of time for tomorrow's festivities.

Merry Everything, Everyone!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

One human life...

Sitting on the shuttle bus as it made its way onto the Mukilteo ferry Sunday night, all I could think about was getting home and going to bed, weighed down by cats grateful to see me, and getting a bit of rest in my own home before a busy day on Monday.

It had been a wonderful weekend in Reno, visiting the Favorite Son and Daughter in law and the One and Only Grandson, being present at the memorable ceremony in which the FS would receive his BA degree, meeting some of his friends, celebrating his achievement, and finishing off the weekend with a visit to his church, the UU Fellowship of Northern Nevada. I was tired and ready for my own routine again, grateful for the Whidbey SeaTac shuttle's service to and from the island.

We had been crossing the water for only a few minutes when the alarm sounded: blaaattt, blaaattt, blaaattt. Oh no, I thought, please don't be doing one of your interminable practice rescue routines---I just want to go home. I felt the engines and the boat slow down and I sagged. What were they doing at this time of night? It's ten o'clock, for heaven's sakes.

Then the captain came on the horn: "We have just learned that a person has witnessed someone jumping from the vessel. We are launching a rescue boat immediately, have notified the authorities, and will begin a search. I ask our passengers to go to the rails and assist crew members in watching the waters for the person who may have jumped."

My fellow passengers in the shuttle and I looked at each other in shock. Those who were warmly dressed went out on the deck to see if they could help. Others of us stayed inside the bus. I went out for a brief time but wasn't dressed warmly and my coat was inside my luggage, so I didn't stay long.

The roiling water around the boat seemed too cold and rough for anyone to survive in it long, but I watched the circles from the ferry searchlights, looking for anything that might resemble a human form. Nothing.

Back in the bus, we were all in that state of mind that follows the announcement of a human crisis: how do we react to this? can we help? if we can't help, what do we do? what was this person thinking, feeling, doing? And---how long is this going to take to resolve? what is the human obligation in a crisis like this?

I am not proud to tell you that I just wanted to go home. I wanted to do the right thing, but I just wanted to go home, not prowl the waters for a person who was probably dead by now, who wanted to be dead, who hadn't considered the effect of his act on his fellow passengers or his loved ones or the crew of the Cathlamet ferry who would be asked to rescue him or recover his body.

As time passed and we crisscrossed the waters between Mukilteo and Clinton, the captain would update us on the situation: "We are waiting for the Coast Guard to arrive." "We have word that the State Patrol will be involved." "We are beginning a systematic search of the waters, in a grid pattern, so the vessel will be making many turns and reversals." "Will the person who left a black leather computer case in the passenger compartment please come and pick it up?" (At that one, we passengers exchanged glances----this sounded ominously like the warnings you hear in airport security zones. We realized that it probably was an effort to discover if the case belonged to the missing person.)

And finally, after 90 minutes of circling and recircling the waters between the two ferry docks, as search boats and helicopter began to arrive and take over the search, the captain informed us that the State Patrol and Coast Guard had released us from our part in the search and we headed for the Clinton dock. "Thank you for your patience and your assistance," said the captain, and he signed off.

I phoned the friend who was going to pick me up at the Freeland Shell station, which is the shuttle's drop point, and let her know that we'd be there about 12:15. My gratitude for her willingness to come get me, even though it was way past her bedtime as well, got me thinking.

And I realized that the conveniences of ferry and shuttle and willing friends, the joys of celebratory weekends, all these are secondary to what happened that icy, moonlit night on Saratoga Passage: one human life was worth more than all of the conveniences we'd arranged for ourselves. One human life----an as-yet-unidentified and desperate soul who leapt into the frigid waters of the Sound---was more important than my busy Monday or my warm bed or the schedules of any of us there that night. One human life.

There's a quote from Rabbi Tarfon that speaks to me, as I reflect on this experience:

"Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it."

We are not free to abandon the work. We are not free to abandon the work. We may not be obligated to complete it, but we are not free to abandon it. Those who put the value of one human life above the convenience of others model behavior that inspires me.

Sunday, December 04, 2011


MAGNIFICAT: Our response to our Call
Rev. Kit Ketcham, Dec. 4, 2011

Lest those of you who are recovering Catholics seize up in response to the Latin word which is the title of this sermon, let me reassure you that I have a different slant on the phrase “Magnificat anima mea Dominum”, which means, in translation, “my soul magnifies the Lord”.

I respond, not literally but metaphorically, to this phrase in a different way than perhaps a devout traditionalist would. It’s one of my favorite things about Unitarian Universalism, the heretical idea that there is more than one way to interpret the Bible, more than one way to find meaning in it, more than one way to make that meaning significant in our lives.

The story in the gospel of Luke, where the song of Mary uses this language, comes out of the legends surrounding the birth of Jesus. Mary, the mother of Jesus, as you may recall, has been visited by an angel who has told her that she will conceive and bear a special child, the son of God.

This is a pretty big deal, obviously, but Mary has a couple of questions: why me, for starters? and she’s not married yet, so how does the angel propose to solve that problem?

The angel tells her that she has found favor with God and has been chosen to be the mother of his child, that God will come to her and will make it possible for her, a virgin, to bear a child. For proof, the angel reminds her that her cousin Elizabeth, who is past childbearing age and was thought to be barren, has now conceived and will also bear a son in a few months.

Because of this more or less convincing evidence, Mary says yes, okay, here am I, let it be with me as you have explained it, she says. And in her song, she expresses her gratitude and her acceptance of this new direction for her life.

In Christian legend, Mary has been “called” by God to bear the Son of God, to bring the Messiah into the world. She is apparently expected to receive this call with grace, without fear, and to bend her will to the will of God, despite the obvious challenges and even outrage that her unmarried pregnancy will inspire. And she responds with a hymn of joy that she has been chosen for this unimaginable responsibility.

Mary’s not the only human being to feel called to an immense responsibility, a life of challenge and perhaps difficulty. Many of us may have felt this same call, though we may not have responded to it with Mary’s grace and acceptance.

What is a “Call”? Recently, I met with my fellow ministers from Bainbridge and Vashon Islands and Port Townsend. It was my job during this quarterly meeting to bring the program, an hour of conversation or some theological challenge that would give us new fodder for our ministries, catch us up on each others’ lives, and send us home again refreshed and energized.

I’ve been thinking a lot about being called to the ministry and what that means now that I have decided to retire in a few months. My original call to the ministry was clear and unambiguous; parish ministry was what I felt God was calling me to do. But now I’m going to retire! How will my call change, once I am no longer the minister of a congregation? Am I excused from it, once and for all? Have I done all I was supposed to do?

So I asked my colleagues----Barbara and Jaco Ten Hove from Bainbridge, Liz Stephens from Vashon, and Bruce Bode and Debra Thorne from Pt. Townsend, plus retired colleague Barry Andrews----to share their sense of call with our group.

I asked these questions: what does it mean to be called to a particular life work? What has been your experience of being called? Who were the people who were part of your call process? Were there encouragers? Discouragers? How has your sense of call changed over the years? How do you think it might change?

We sat in silence for a few moments and then shared our stories. I could sense the significance of each person’s experience; we shared tears, laughter, frustration, all in an effort to express what it meant to us to be called to the ministry.

We defined “the Call” as an inner urging, shaped by our discoveries about ourselves. One person saw himself as specifically called to teach, to offer religious education rather than to preach. Another had experienced a growing understanding of himself as a generalist, capable in many areas of ministry but always with a need to be out in the community inspiring others to work together to solve common problems. 

One person had spent all her adult life in the ministry and had changed her style and her expectations of herself over the years, as her life experiences expanded. Another had been stymied by life in pursuing her call and was only now able to complete the training she had longed for, in order to fulfill her sense of call.

Yet another had been badly hurt by her first experience and had almost called it quits completely but was now back in school to complete a Doctor of Ministry degree and was in search for a new ministry. I found these stories revealing and poignant; I shared many of their experiences.

I realized that I had first felt that inner urging way back in my early school days, when one of the songs we often sang in youth group or even in school music groups was the old song “Follow the Gleam”. Does anyone remember that old song? Let me sing the words of the first verse to you and join in if you remember it:

“To the knights in the days of old, keeping watch on the mountain height,
Came a vision of Holy Grail and a voice through the waiting night:
Follow, follow, follow the gleam, banners unfurled o’er all the world;
Follow, follow, follow the gleam of the chalice that is the Grail.”

The words of the second verse are pretty old-fashioned and I have to translate pretty hard to turn them into metaphors that work for me, but the message is clear:

“And we would serve the King and loyally him obey,
In the consecrate silence know that the challenge still holds today.
Follow, follow, follow the gleam, standards of worth o’er all the earth;
Follow, follow, follow the gleam of the Light that shall bring the dawn.”

At the time, I had no idea how I would follow any gleam. I had no desire to be a foreign missionary and contend with snakes or bugs or be far from home in a hot, jungly environment. But following the gleam seemed like a good idea, so I cherished it and thought about it. A lot.

As a preacher’s kid, I had a strong identification with my dad; I was proud of him, wanted to please him, and looked for opportunities to make him proud. School was doing the trick at the time; I was a good student.

But in the months after college graduation, I was at a loss. Casting about for a job, I briefly entertained the idea of entering seminary, but all the Baptists were training women to do was to be directors of Christian Education and that didn’t appeal to me. It never occurred to me I could actually be a minister.

My first real career was as a welfare worker for Washington State. This was eye-opening work, as I dealt with people in extreme poverty. Living with my parents was a temporary necessity but it wasn’t easy, as my worldview had shifted drastically, with a college education and now the desperate circumstances of the clients I worked with.

After awhile, I landed a job in Denver as an American Baptist Home Missionary (whew, no snakes or hot jungles for me!), making my parents very proud and giving me further experience in providing service to the desperately poor of the inner city, at the Denver Christian Center.

Marriage meant that eventually I left the Denver Christian Center and went back to school for teaching credentials. I taught Spanish for a few years but was about one page ahead of the kids in the book and soon realized that I was better at listening compassionately to troubled students than at teaching them to conjugate verbs. So more education, this time a Master’s degree in Guidance and Counseling which prepared me for a long career as a junior high school counselor in a large Denver area school district.

Marriage to a UU man also meant that I discovered a good religious fit in UUism and became active in a UU congregation. My experiences as a teacher and counselor felt good; I was living a life of service helping kids. And my family was pleased with me, at least about the education part, if not about the change in my religious perspective.

But it always felt like there might be something more out there. After 25 years of public education, I was getting bored, frustrated with the low morale of my fellow teachers, and alarmed by the huge problems kids had, problems that I could not resolve for them and had to watch as life inflicted its pain on my students.

But what about you? I’m guessing that many of you have felt a distinct call to a life’s work. Some of you may have gradually felt a clarity about what you wanted to do with your life. And I’ll bet some of you are still looking. Maybe you felt an urge to pursue a sense of call but were unable to satisfy that urge because of life’s circumstances; maybe you are waiting for the right moment----retirement, children raised, house finished, whatever it might be.

I’d be interested in knowing: have you felt a call to some life’s work? (raise hands) It doesn’t have to be a paying career; it could be something more basic than a job. Our life’s work doesn’t have to have a paycheck attached.

As Joann and I talked about this service, she mentioned that when she became a school librarian, even though she had resisted it initially, she found she took to it like a fish to water. It was a natural fit; she had not known it would be so. It was that “duh” moment, a serendipity of timing, being in the right place at the right time. And though she is now retired from active librarianship, we see Joann continuing to follow the call of books---telling stories to the children here, helping with the congregation’s library, and offering her skills wherever they are needed.

The rewards of finding our life’s work are many----the satisfaction of getting started in it, rising to the challenge, the stimulation of a new path that becomes more exciting as one progresses along that path.

In 1992, we had a new minister at Jefferson Unitarian Church in Colorado and I angled to be on the Committee on Ministry, mostly so I could get to work with this new guy who was charismatic and full of new ideas for our sluggish congregation.

In September, at our kickoff service of the new church year, I was asked to give a short homily about our theme, which was “Dreams dreamed; Dreams come true”. I guess they thought all my experience as a teacher and lunchroom supervisor gave me special expertise in speaking to a bunch of churchgoers.

So I got up in the pulpit that Sunday morning long ago, spoke to the group about the dreams we had dreamed as a congregation, the sorrows we’d endured, the changes we’d made, and the ways we had grown. I got some laughs, even saw a tear or two, and sat down much relieved and feeling like I’d gotten through my assigned role adequately.

As I took my seat in the front row of the choir section, our minister, the Rev. Robert Latham, got up in the pulpit, turned to where I was sitting, and said to me, in front of everyone there, “Kit, you missed your calling. You ought to be a minister.”

I swear to you it was like the proverbial two by four between the ears of the balky mule; I was stunned. For the whole rest of the service, I couldn’t think of anything else. Of course I ought to be a minister! I had been practicing for that role all my life without realizing it----working with people who needed compassion, learning about the injustices and oppression so many people in our world experience, becoming an enthusiastic, if limited, musician, honing my public speaking and my counseling skills. I could do it! I could be a minister!

It took awhile to get there. It wasn’t until 1995 and a powerful reminder of my call while I was attending General Assembly in Spokane, having recently retired from my counseling job and having become free to go back to school to follow the inner urge to serve in this new and more challenging work, the work of ministry.

It had taken me a long time to get ready to answer the call that had grown in me since childhood, even though I didn’t recognize it until I was 50 years old. When I did, my whole life fell into place. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Here’s the thing about a call to a life’s work, whether that’s music or art or teaching or law or ministry or raising happy children, whether we spend our whole lives at it or come to it later in life----answering the call to a higher purpose gives our lives significance in the face of the insignificance conferred by the universe.

A call is bound up with a sense of needing our lives to have meaning, significance. It may come to us very early in life, perhaps through the example of a parent or a teacher or coach or other leader.

It can be sidetracked, permanently or temporarily, by abuse or loss, but it can also be an opportunity for the “called” person to respond to that abuse or loss by doing something to find meaning in the awful experience.

Remember Mary and her Magnificat, at the beginning of this sermon? You might think that this is the case of a woman taken advantage of, forced into an uncomfortable situation by an unwanted pregnancy or superstition which made her interpret a mere dream as a vision of call.

My colleague the Rev. Hank Peirce has a different take on Mary’s song of praise to God. Here’s what he thinks, in an essay called “Occupy Advent”. First he quotes the Magnificat, the song of Mary:

And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.…. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away…

Hank continues: “In order to merge (the Occupy movement) and Advent I introduce to you, Mary. Yes that Mary, mother of Jesus, pregnant teenager married to a dude way older than (she), the virgin, you know who I mean. … But look at what she says in the passage known as either the Song of Mary or as the Magnificat (Luke 1: 46-55.) “My soul magnifies the Lord.” That's not a shy statement, is it? and keep reading, this lowly knocked up teenager is speaking revolution!

"God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts." "God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly." "God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty."

“ It is not the kind of thing we find printed on a Hallmark greeting card; she has connected God with revolution, a Judaean coup d'etat. No wonder people get tattoos of her; this is radical, powerful stuff. In fact its message is so subversive that for a period during the 1980's the government of Guatemala banned the reading of the Magnificat in public. Who knew?

“Today, I hope you take some time to think about how radical your beliefs are… and ask yourself. Are you living what you believe?”

And I would ask, are we living what we believe? Are we living what we are called to do with what Mary Oliver has called our “one wild and precious life”?

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

Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that we as religious folk are called to make meaning with our lives, not to spend them wastefully or superficially. May we continue to seek out the best ways to live our lives, in right relationship with others, in work which makes the world a better place, and in love for those who are our neighbors and for ourselves. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Turning Toward the Morning

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Nov. 27, 2011

I remember discovering this song that we’ve just sung with Ken at a fairly bleak time of my life. It was late fall in Colorado, the golden aspen groves on the mountain slopes were now starkly bare of their leaves, we’d had two feet of snow on Halloween, my marriage was over, my son was struggling, my paycheck barely lasted from month to month, and I was dreading the cold Rocky Mountain winter ahead.

One of my great pleasures in life then was attending the monthly acoustic music jams of the Denver Friends of Folk Music. And one Saturday night, a fellow folkie requested this song, and its words resonated with me and my anxious mood.

I was curious to know where the song came from. I was familiar with the New England composer Gordon Bok’s work and looked for something from Gordon Bok about why he wrote the song “Turning Toward the Morning”. Here’s what I found.

"One of the things that provoked this song was a letter last November from a friend who had had a very difficult year and was looking for the courage to keep on plowing into it. Those times, you lift your eyes unto the hills, as they say, but the hills of … November can be about as much comfort as a cold crowbar.

You have to look ahead a bit, then, and realize that all the hills and trees and flowers will still be there come Spring, usually more permanent than your troubles. And if your courage occasionally fails, that's okay, too: nobody expects you to be as strong (or as old) as the land." - Gordon Bok

I liked that idea, of not dwelling too much on the bleakness of today’s troubles and deliberately looking ahead to the brighter days of spring.

But I also liked another, less obvious, theme within this song and that was the idea that this man took his friend Joanie’s sorrow seriously and gave her the one gift he felt he had to give: a song that reminded her that he cared about her sorrow and, with his music, might help her lift her sight from the icy mud of her surroundings and offer her courage and support by pointing to the simple fact that the world is always turning toward the morning.

Late fall can be a hard time of year, as the days grow shorter and shorter, sunny days are few and far between, and the darkness consumes more and more of our waking hours. It’s cold and often rainy and windy; we worry when the power goes out, unsure of how long it will be out and whether we will be able to stay warm. And the season seems to grind on and on. Often the upcoming holidays just add to our anxiety and gloom.

Spring seems very far away in November. The holidays can distract us, but we need more than distraction sometimes. We need people and places we can depend on. We need to find the truths about the world that sustain us, give us hope, give us reason to keep pushing on, even when life’s troubles have overcome us and we see no easy way out.

Sometimes the only way out is through and November is like that.

I was grateful to Judy when she suggested friendship as a theme for this service which signifies the beginning of a season of waiting for the light, of celebrating, in various faith traditions, the hope inherent in the change of seasons at the winter solstice, the sustaining grace of a menorah that never goes dim, the sweet joy of a child’s birth, all occasions of growing light and diminishing darkness.

These relics of ancient legend and history represent the truth of light and warmth and survival, of the mystical and the pragmatic, of the life process that includes both birth and death, both darkness and bright splendor.

Remember that old camp song “Make new friends but keep the old, one is silver and the other gold”? Or Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” and Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”. All these songs speak of the faithfulness and kindness of friends, the human need for friendship and connection with companions, the need for friends to see us through tough times.

I used to be kind of wary of making friends, never quite sure I could count on them. Even best friends have a way of occasionally letting us down or hurting us. Sometimes we learn that a person we thought of as a friend really doesn’t like us very much or inexplicably disappears from our lives.

Sometimes there are exclusions that deliver a message---you’re not our kind of people, so we’re not inviting you to the party, to our church, to our inner circle. Ouch! I suspect we’ve all had a few moments like these. And some of them we brush off because they’re not important; others make us feel rejected at a deep level, make us wonder if we are worthy of friendship.

I was talking with a person recently about an experience she’d had in which she felt excluded---possibly unintentionally, but….she wasn’t sure. And it stirred up old feelings for her, of times when she’d felt similarly excluded or watched others being excluded. Even though she was long past those experiences, the reminders stung.

What are our experiences with friendship? Where do we find our closest friends and comrades?

How many of us here still have some contact with friends from our early days, maybe even elementary school? How long have you known your longest-term friend? (?????)

Why do we maintain contact with some of our earliest friends? What keeps us coming back to them?

Judy and I talked a bit about the common characteristics of our favorite friendships: there’s a comradeship, a sense of being able to be ourselves with a person; we have actual conversations, not just gossip or monologues; it’s nice to have somebody to float an idea by, a person who will understand, critique maybe, but not censure. With the very best of friends, we felt we were able to think at a higher level, especially with someone who could listen as well as converse.

I’ve noticed that shared loss can create a bond. Long years ago, one of my best high school friends, Audrea Montee, died of liver cancer. Audrea and I had palled around all during grade school and high school; she was a crackerjack softball player, smacking that ball way out into left field and then trotting leisurely around the bases as fielders scrambled after the ball which was often lost in the weeds of the far outskirts of the diamond. Audrea was pretty chubby, which slowed her down a bit as she rounded the bases, but she was the home run queen of our class.

She and I were friends partly because we were both kind of teenage misfits, me because I was a preacher’s kid and a brainiac and she because she was quite heavy and had to wear matronly clothes, instead of the popular Pendleton reversible skirts that were a hot item in high school. I didn’t have such a skirt either, so we had that in common, but mainly we just liked each other. She was funny and smart and shrugged off the teasing she got because of her weight; I learned how to do that from her.

When she died at about age 50, a consciousness of mortality seemed to hit some of us McEwen High School grads hard. Out of our tiny graduating class of 20 or so, eight had died young, some in farm accidents or car wrecks, some by cancer or other disease. And so it became important to us who still lived to find each other and hang on.

When I moved back to the PNW in 1999, we started getting together, sometimes in Athena, sometimes at each others’ homes. And a core group of six women formed that has become one of the most important friendship groups I’ve ever experienced.

The interesting thing is that we weren’t close friends in high school, though we knew each other well. All of the other women in the group were part of a different crowd. They could date and go to the movies or go dancing; they had boyfriends and were cheerleaders. I didn’t and I wasn’t. My social life consisted of Baptist Youth Fellowship and other church activities. My school achievements were Honor Roll and Student Body treasurer. Not the stuff of high school dreams!

But in our later years, when we were all in our fifties, we needed each other because our world was changing. No matter where we lived, what our careers meant to us, whatever our different circumstances had been in high school, the people who had been part of our lives for such a long time were dying.

We couldn’t keep that from happening, but we could forge bonds of friendship that honored our long association and the common memories of growing up together in our small community.

Not long after Audrea’s death, another friend, Donna Myers, died suddenly of a massive heart attack. And what had been just a vague idea in our minds became a project. Donna’s grandson, Riley, was in Doernbecher Children’s hospital in Portland with leukemia and the family had no health insurance. Could we help Donna’s family?

Somebody discovered that a softball tournament in Pendleton was being organized as a fundraiser. Maybe we could participate! How long had it been since any of us played softball? How good would we be without our slugger, Audrea? It didn’t matter.

So on a chilly November Saturday almost ten years ago, “Donna’s Team” formed and played the crummiest softball you ever saw. But luckily, it was one of those jokester games where all you had to do was pay off the umpire and get a re-do on your strike-out or your being tagged at home plate. We played with toy bats and hollow plastic softballs. We actually won one game, thanks to my son Mike’s willingness to play and be one of the goofier, more entertaining players on the field.

I still have my Donna’s team t-shirt and hat, mementos of a time when friends fought back the dark for a little boy whose Grandma had been one of us.

We need each other, sometimes, to fight back the dark. Sometimes friends come to our aid when we have an emergency; they take us in when the power goes out; they cover for us when we are ill. They buck us up by listening understandingly (or just by listening, whether they understand us or not!), even if they can’t do a thing to help.

We receive countless gifts from our friends, intangibles we can hardly name. And what do we give, what can we give, in return for this kindness and support?

The thing is, friends give their presence and their aid without any expectation of return. It’s not a you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, much of the time. It’s somebody stepping in when there are few other alternatives; it’s somebody seeing our need when we are reluctant to admit our neediness.

It’s not, usually, a “calling in of a chip” as we hear in the gangster movies on TV. “He owes me a favor” seems more like a business deal than an act of friendship, though I imagine sometimes that’s what we need.

What have been some of the gifts you’ve received this past Thanksgiving week? This national holiday has become a time to express our gratitude for blessings received. Because of the economic crisis in our country, our blessings may have morphed from material things to generosity measured in a different way.

What are the gifts you have received recently from others? Let’s take a moment to reflect and then share some of those gifts. (think, share)

The generosity of both friends and strangers, plus our family members, is a sweet thing to consider. These gifts of time and energy fill our hearts and give us strength for the cold days ahead.

But gratitude is a two way street. We receive gratefully from others, cherishing the thought and the generosity that those gifts of spirit entail. And we also give those gifts to others, grateful for the opportunity to be a giver of gifts of spirit.

You and I have doubtless encountered many people who give only so they can receive something in return. There’s something uncomfortable about being either the giver or receiver with a person like that. The best gifts are given with no expectation of return; the best gifts are received with no expectation of payback. These are gifts of the spirit.

What are the spiritual gifts you have to give to others? Let’s take a moment to reflect, once again, and then share some of those thoughts. (think, share)

The gifts of the spirit are numerous and have often been incorporated as pillars of some of the world’s great religions. They are universal values and we all have them to impart and to receive.

Here’s what I think, after considering how we might both give and receive the gifts of the spirit. I’ve selected seven from the long lists available out there on St. Google.

One of them is wisdom. We seek wisdom from others and we are able to offer our own wisdom to those who seek it from us. Wisdom is the result of our own life experiences and can be both general and specific.

Another is understanding. We strive to understand another’s life circumstances and to extend that understanding to those we meet. When someone really understands us and we know it, that gift is priceless.

How about the ability to make good decisions? This comes from conscience, the ability to differentiate between right and wrong. We support others who make good decisions, who choose for the right instead of the wrong; and we receive from those who make right decisions, because we are better able to choose right behavior ourselves because of them.

Then there’s courage, revealed in the strength of character that develops when we don’t back away from situations that scare us, when we accompany a friend on a journey through terminal illness, when we encourage another to do the hard, fearsome thing because it’s right.

Knowledge is another gift. Our knowledge of the universe and of a life of integrity offer us a way to find meaning in life despite its apparent randomness. We can share knowledge when appropriate and we can receive knowledge gracefully, even when it contradicts a fondly held belief.

Wonder and awe are a gift that is sometimes lacking in us worldly adults. We often let go of our ability to stand struck with awe at the beauty of the universe and of the human creation; children give us back this gift, many times over. But this is a gift we can give ourselves, as well as others, if we just take the time.

Reverence is the final gift on my list. Our desire for rationality and empirical experience sometimes makes it hard to be reverent in the face of our knowledge of good and evil, especially when evil seems so much more in evidence than good. But reverence has the ability to infuse daily life with deeper meaning, like water on a withered plant.

Gordon Bok sings his gift of spirit to his friend Joanie, “oh, my Joanie, don’t you know that the stars are swinging slow, and the seas are rolling easy, as they did so long ago, if I had a thing to give you, I would tell you one more time, that the world is always turning toward the morning.”

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

Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that we have gifts of the spirit to offer to each other and spiritual gifts to receive as well. May we reflect upon the gifts we have to give; may we receive gratefully the gifts that others hold out; and may we hold fast to the truth, that the world, both literally and metaphorically, is always turning toward the morning. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Horrified and Outraged

That's me---by the news unfolding this week about the authorities at Penn State who allowed obvious sexual abuse of children to occur, abuse which was observed directly and could have been stopped in the moment by those who saw it. Abuse which was not reported in a timely way and which resulted in the blackened reputation of Penn State authorities and the university itself, to say nothing of the untold damage it did to its victims.

It took me back to my days as a junior high school counselor who blew the whistle on two colleagues who were revealed as sexual predators and who victimized two of my students. Both of these men were people I had worked with on a variety of projects; one was a high school principal and one was a teacher in my own school. I liked both of them very much and it never occurred to me that either would prey on children.

I turned them both in and suffered the numbing realization that men I liked and had trusted could betray children, their parents, me, and other colleagues in this dreadful way. They, in fact, betrayed a whole community of school district employees and residents of the district, as well as their own families.

These weren't scummy guys on the surface---they were well-thought of, highly trusted employees. Neither of them looked suspiciously deviant; both were well liked by students and fellow employees.

Yet the naked high school principal attempted to lure a teenage student of mine into his bedroom one afternoon, on the pretext of giving him a tip for mowing his lawn. The boy said no thanks and left, went home and told his dad, who told him to notify me the next day. I told my principal, as the law required, and waited in his office while my principal called the district superintendent. The offense was followed up internally, the man was reassigned to a job where he was not in contact with students, but he was not prosecuted, to the best of my knowledge. I have never felt comfortable about the resolution of this situation; it was handled more as a personnel matter than as a prosecutable offense. But the boy had not been touched, just invited into a creepy situation. I suppose that was their rationale and, at that time, the parents had the right not to press charges, which they did not do.

While I was serving the same small junior high, a group of girls came to my office to say that they were uncomfortable with the way a teacher was treating one of their friends, inviting her into a locked teacher's workroom for a long spell of time from which she would emerge with her hair and makeup mussed up. I invited the girl in for a conversation in which she admitted that the relationship with the teacher was intimate and that she was in love with him. Risking her trust, I notified my principal, who went farther this time and notified the police; her parents pressed charges and the man lost his job. He was eventually deprived of his teaching certificate, but not until he had gone to another district and done it again, befriending a 13 year old girl who was vulnerable to his attention and then becoming intimate with her.

Why does the public not understand the horrific damage done to a person whose identity as a human being is warped so indelibly by sexual abuse? Our sexuality is such an integral part of our being, our identity, that to have it misused is to create a confusion that may never go away. To allow this to happen to any person, young or old, is immoral, unethical, and illegal. In my years as a counselor, I learned to ask every pre-suicidal kid "have you ever been sexually molested?" Nearly every single one of these kids had been violated sexually, in some way.

I am always concerned when I hear a male friend say that an older person initiated him sexually when he was a child or young teen; I am not surprised when that male friend has trouble with relationships, trouble with addictions, trouble with homophobia, trouble with peace of mind. For him it may have been a chance to brag about losing his virginity to someone who saw him as sexually desirable; many of these men suffer consequences that they do not associate with this experience and I feel sad about that.

If you learn that something like this is happening, please do the right thing and report it. It's worth risking the loss of trust by a child, who may well see later that you were not betraying him or her but rather intervening in a life-threatening situation.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Whose Are We?

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Nov. 6, 2011

During the past several months, Unitarian Universalist ministers across the country have been thinking together about theology. You might expect that all ministers would think about theology constantly, and we do, to some extent, but in our Unitarian Universalist Living Tradition, we explore and rethink our stances on various theological issues, separately and together, and frequently, something that distinguishes us from our fundamentalist colleagues.

And because of our pluralistic nature as a religion---that is, our acceptance of a wide variety of faith stances, from atheism to Buddhism, paganism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and beyond---because of this pluralism among us, we find great joy and sometimes consternation in tussling with theological ideas that might not resonate with each of us.

One such question before us hometown theologians right now is the title of this sermon: “Whose Are We?”

Some of our Buddhist colleagues have objected to the implication they see in this question, that somehow human beings belong to a deity. Because Buddhism is a non-theistic religion, that is an uncomfortable place to be challenged, particularly among colleagues where we are committed to be open to challenge and asked to consider hard questions that we might not find very comfortable or easily answerable.

This is one of the things I love best about Unitarian Universalism: that we are each free to build our own theology, to tussle with the big questions on our own and together with others, to find acceptance for ourselves among each other and to find acceptance for each other within our own hearts.

So let me give you a chance to chime in. I am asking you this question. Let me phrase it in three different ways: Whose Are You? Who or What do you belong to? Who or what has a claim on you? Let’s take a moment to consider this in silence and then I’ll give you a chance to call out some of your own answers. (chime, silence)

A Quaker teacher, Douglas Steere, has said that the ancient question “What am I?”, which is a fundamental theological question, inevitably leads to a deeper one, “Whose am I?” because there is no identity outside of relationships. You can’t be a person by yourself, he believes.

And my colleague the Rev. Victoria Safford writes: To ask “Whose am I?” is to extend the questions far beyond the little self-absorbed (ego), and wonder: Who needs you? Who loves you? To whom are you accountable? To whom do you answer? Whose life is altered by your choices? With whose life is your own all bound up, inextricably, in obvious or invisible ways?”

When I was a kid, goofing around outside late on a summer afternoon in our little town of Athena, Oregon, eventually I’d hear my mother’s familiar whistle: pheeoreet, wait a few beats, and pheeoreet again. When I heard it, it was time to come home and set the table for supper or do some other chore or just come in and get ready to go somewhere That whistle was a pointed reminder that I had a connection with my family that I was expected to honor. I rarely pretended not to hear the whistle; it was too important to maintain that connection. And my friends recognized it too. Some of them also had their family signals to which they were bound.

When I married and joined the Gilmore family back in 1967, I was comforted to learn that Larry my husband and his parents and brothers also used a whistle: phephoophephoopheiphoo.
The grandchildren, as they grew up with Larry’s parents and uncles nearby, responded to that whistle just as my sister and brother and I responded to our family whistle. It was a connection, a reminder, a badge that identified us as belonging to one another.

As Mary and I were designing this service, we brainstormed our own possible responses to the question “Whose Are We?” We came up with an extensive list, and you have offered many of the same ideas.

As Max Ehrmann wrote in his old poem Desiderata, “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars.” And we started with that at the head of the list: we belong to the universe.

But then it started to occur to us that there are many more things and persons and ideas that we might belong to. We might belong to the things in our lives that influence us; to the people we influence; to our culture, our education, to the media, to our addictions, our organizations.

Do we belong to the things and people we control? Do we belong to our choices or do our choices belong to us? Who or what controls us? And if those things or people control us, does that mean we belong to them?

This is a much stickier question than it might appear on the surface. No wonder a lot of religious people stick with the orthodox answer: we belong to God. And no wonder there is a considerable amount of pushback to that answer, once you look beneath the surface.

What does it mean “to belong” to someone or something? When you “belong” to someone or something, how do you know? What does that word mean? Is it a good thing, “to belong”?

Women may particularly bridle at the assumption that someone can “belong” to another, since feminists have historically fought the idea that they can be given away, traded, used as chattel.

“Belonging” was used as a prison for women and children, for centuries. Men, too, have had their times of imprisonment in slavery or indentured servitude. I still have a hard time with a lot of the popular songs of my adolescence, the “I love you, so you belong to me” variety of song which implies that love means possession.

Perhaps another lens for looking at this question might be “Who or what do I need? Who or what needs me?” I remember a painful moment when, after several months of marriage, my husband said to me, “I don’t want to need you and I don’t want you to need me.”

This set a trajectory for our marriage that was damaging. We each had our different sets of meaning for the word “need”. Because it was the 60’s and because male/female relationships were in transition in our culture, I tried to take that message with a grain of salt and not let my feelings be hurt. But it was hard. I knew there would be times when I would need him; would he be there? I knew there would be times when he would need me; should I be there for him? What did this mean? I was never sure.

Ultimately it sent us in very different directions and made the marriage difficult. We needed each other and couldn’t acknowledge it without losing face. And I, because it was in my nature to give more than I got, was there for him, whether he was there for me or not. He too came through in my times of deepest need, but we did not “belong” to each other in a positive sense, and it was a problem.

Many folks refuse to join organizations (congregations included) because they’re afraid to be needed or to need something or someone. I’ll bet many of us hate asking for help! I do, for sure. That may be a hangover from my difficult marriage or it might just be the common curse of the competent woman, but I have a hard time asking someone to help me, even in an emergency. Thank goodness that, on more than a few occasions, people in my life have been willing and even eager to step forward and provide what I needed. And I have done the same for others.

So let’s examine this new set of questions together: who or what do I need? A time of silence first and then let’s share. (chime, silence)

And how about the second of the two questions: who or what needs me? (chime, silence)

How does shared need relate to this larger question of belonging? If we need each other, is that who we belong to?

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, in The Little Prince, wrote:

"Nothing's perfect," sighed the fox. "My life is monotonous. I hunt chickens; people hunt me. All chickens are just alike, and all men are just alike. So I'm rather bored. But if you tame me, my life will be filled with sunshine. I'll know the sound of footsteps that will be different from all the rest. Other footsteps send me back underground. Yours will call me out of my burrow like music. And then, look! You see the wheat fields over there? I don't eat bread. For me, wheat is no use whatever. Wheat fields say nothing to me. Which is sad. But you have hair the color of gold. So it will be wonderful, once you've tamed me! The wheat, which is golden, will remind me of you. And I'll love the sound of the wind in the wheat..."

The fox speaks of taming as a way of establishing connection. We diehard individualists might not cotton to the idea of taming or being tamed, but what might that mean if we went deeper?

Taming can mean creating a mutual synergy, a connection between individuals or forces that creates an entity larger than either individual or force. When wolves were domesticated into dog breeds, that taming resulted in a greater strength for both animal and human.

Probably most of us have seen movies or read books like The Horse Whisperer or other stories in which something or someone wild and perceived as destructive has been brought into harmony with other creatures by careful, gentle treatment.

I think of recent news items of prisoners working with unruly dogs or other animals to help them become socialized and productive citizens of the animal kingdom. The prisoners themselves are changed by this work.

Or of unlikely mothering or friendship between unlike species: the dachshund mother who nursed the runt piglet; the sheep named Albert who became the best friend of an orphaned baby elephant; the ancient golden retriever who found a friend in a fish pond---a koi with whom he would touch noses.

What does all this have to do with us? Good question.

When our ministers’ chapter got together a couple of weeks ago to examine the question “Whose are We?”, I found it a very engaging exercise to look deep into my heart and see what I found. Since then, I have done even more thinking in preparation for this service. My thoughts are not fully formed but I will share them with you.

Following the thread of the question, looking at “whose am I?”, I started, as did Mary and I earlier, with the idea of belonging. What or whom do I belong to?

Well, I belong to my family, for one thing. I am connected by blood to men and women whose history can be traced back several centuries to towns and hamlets in Northern Europe, where they arrived after millennia of migration out of Africa. My family has a claim on me. I need them and they need me. We belong to each other.

I belong to the things in my life who need me to take care of them; these are binding relationships for me and I do not take them lightly. My pets, of course, but also my friendships, the people who depend on me for comfort, for companionship, for the services I have provided in the past and promise to provide for the foreseeable future. They need me and I need them.

I belong to this community of souls, you, the people with whom I have forged such strong bonds of needing and being needed, of belonging to something bigger than myself which cares for me and which I care for. You are mine and I am yours.

I am inextricably connected to the earth. I need it for sustenance, for comfort, for power. And I like to think that it needs me, for appreciation, for protection, for the actions I can take which will keep the earth healthy and productive.

I am connected to the sun, which warms and lights my life, which offers its magic to the earth, bringing forth each season in its time, each season affecting my life with its challenges and its encouragement. I don’t know if the sun needs me, but I need it!

I am connected to the moon, whose phases delight me and light up my nightward path. That moon belongs to me and I to it, in this mutuality of belonging to the earth, for the moon certainly belongs to the earth. Where would the tides be without it? Or without the sun?

But beyond sun and moon and earth and stars and people and other creatures, is there something else? Something else I belong to?

And I come around at last to an answer that satisfies me: I belong to my Source, the wellspring of life from which I came, from the desire implanted in every living thing---to create.

The Source of all which is unimaginable, unexplainable, beyond all created things, within all created things, moving in mystery and shrouded in light, from which all life has emerged. I do not use the word God very much because it is too narrow to express what I want to express. All human-created terms are inadequate to describe the Source of Life.

From the Source of Life emerge all things, all creatures, all Love and Passion, Anger and Sorrow, all natural law, all Science, all legend and myth, all consciousness and intuition. And we can understand and explain only a fraction of it.

Whose am I? Whose are we? There are multiple answers to that question, none of them exactly alike. My answer may be very different from yours, and that’s okay. We need not think alike to love alike.

And maybe that’s what it all comes down to in the end. Love Divine, all loves excelling, that dwells in each of us and makes us bearers of the Source of Life. Simple and but oh so hard to explain with human language, yet revealed in human experience through the communities of love we form, through this community of love we have here, today.

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 who we belong to and who belongs to us, those embodiments of the Source of Life which give our own lives such meaning. May we cherish and protect those persons and things in our lives to which we belong in mutuality and may we take every opportunity to strengthen the connections we feel between us. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed be.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Buying more down time

In a conversation with a friend recently, I admitted to behavior I'm not totally proud of but seem to need badly: buying down time.

As I get closer to retirement (about 8 months away), I find myself less interested in causes and projects I would have warmed to immediately, if I were in a different place in my life. Sometimes I'm open about it: "I can't attend your start-up meeting because I'm trying not to get involved in things I can't continue to work with". Other times I'm evasive: "A pastoral situation arose that I needed to schedule during the time I would have attended your gathering". Occasionally, I feel like I'm lying (call it fibbing, to lessen my sense of guilt, maybe): "I will be off-island that day" and then I go off-island, just to be off when I said I'd be off.

I don't need to say once more that I'm tired. You've heard that often enough. I notice in myself, however, that there is good reason to back off from additional causes and projects. It does make sense not to involve myself or the congregation in causes and projects that require immediate high degrees of attention or a longterm commitment. I won't be here long enough to do what's necessary and the congregation has other big issues on its plate, with the search for a new minister to occupy them; I don't want to duck out in June leaving them with a project I committed them to.

What am I doing with my extra time? Not much. Well, I guess I'm enjoying it, enjoying the freedom extra down time provides, enjoying the lessened responsibility, anticipating the anonymity of a new town and new activities. My extrovert nature seems to be taking a back seat to my introvert nature right now. I want to be alone more, want fewer expectations from others (the jam is a good example----I have become much less regular in my attendance and often leave before it's over), am uneasy when someone in the grocery store introduces me as "our minister" and the other person says, "oh, Kit, I've heard good things about you".

The major thing that I won't slack off on is my responsibility to the congregation. I don't want to be a lame duck minister for the next several months, don't want anyone to have reason to gripe that I'm not doing my job. The needs of the institution and the constituency are second only to my own health. And I'm deeply interested in what happens within the congregation because I have become so closely tied to it. It will be hard to cut those ties when the time comes. But for now it is my insurance policy, that my work with them is so meaningful and satisfying. May we all have the strength to loosen the ties when we must.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Learnings from our recent ministers' gathering

At our ministers' so-called "retreat" last week (so-called because we work hard, rather than loaf), we tackled the questions about covenant inherent in the larger question "Whose are We?" We reflected on the promises that we make to those with whom we are in relationship: our Source, our Calling, the Community we serve, and our Colleagues.

These were productive reflections for me, as we conversed in triads about these promises, the quality of the relationships and the quality of the covenants we have formed. I journalled about each session and made a list of what I saw about myself. I list some of those things here.

• I see my Source as God/Higher Power/the Power beyond human power/Love.
• I am tentative in my trust of Love---from my Source and from other humans.
• I have promised to love (Source, other humans particularly family, friends, congregants) and I am faithful to that promise, with some lapses.
• I keep on professing love even when I don't feel consumed by it. I feel grateful for the love I hope and believe is there and for the opportunity to express love.
• The promise to love my Source and to be loved by my Source in return is the foundation of my covenant with that Source, even when I am doubtful.
• I have felt called to serve others and God in that way since I was a teenager.
• I have followed that call with a sense of urgency and singlemindedness, working in a variety of helping professions from college graduation until the present time.
• My call continues to be to serve, then, now, and until my life ends.
• Even though I may rest for a time, at retirement, my ongoing call is to serve.
• I have not ever had second thoughts about my call---no doubts, very few barriers.
• I promised to love and to care for and to serve my constituents---clients, kids, congregants, church, institution---and have done so to the best of my ability.
• My relationships with the people I serve are best when I collaborate with them in service---service WITH, not just service to.
• I have promised to trust the people I serve and though there have been some disappointments, this feels right.
• My role models for collegial relationships have been up and down: my dad and the other pastor in Athena (contentious); my dad with another pastor in Goldendale (good); MDD colleagues (gossipy and tense at times); PNW colleagues (strict but kind).
• I made some serious mistakes in the area of collegial relationships, did penance, made amends, as I understood what pain I'd caused.
• I am very careful now to keep my covenant and relationships with colleagues as clean and open as possible.
• I do feel very connected to many colleagues, but not to all.
• Those to whom I feel less connected are those whose relationships are clearly more aligned with others and are less friendly to me. (Not unfriendly, just more distant.)

This was a valuable exercise. Since I'm preaching on the question "Whose Are We?" on November 6, I am figuring out how to relate my new understandings to the needs of my congregation. Wish me luck!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Stress and Ministry

Yesterday's memorial service was the third I have conducted in a year---not too big a deal for most ministers, but different somehow, in that each of the three deaths had a huge impact on me and on the congregation.

Some deaths in a congregation go largely unremarked because the person who has died has been inactive for a long time, the death was not unexpected, and their influence and leadership in the past has been largely forgotten, though it may have had a significant impact on the trajectory of the congregation at one time.

Each person who died in the past year had had a huge impact on the trajectory of the congregation within the past year, each death had special circumstances surrounding it, and each person had had a strong and vital relationship with me and others in the congregation. None of them was unknown, none was a "former" leader, each of them had been a generous contributor of financial support and leadership expertise right up until the time of death or disability.

The first person who died in this cycle was a former president, current canvass chair, constant greeter of new people who walked through our doors, a major power in the financing and building of our new meeting hall. He died five months after a terrible fall in his home, lingering in a mixed state of hope and despair for his loved ones. His memorial service brought hundreds of people into our sanctuary; it was SRO for two solid hours of memories.

The second person who died in this cycle was the widow of the man who had first died. She was found by her daughter on the floor of her bedroom, having died suddenly while getting ready for the day, nine months after her husband's death. I arrived on the scene only a short time after the daughter found her, having been called by the sheriff's deputy who didn't want to leave her alone to wait for the mortuary to arrive. She too had been a mover and shaker and contributor of financial and leadership support. Her memorial service too brought hundreds of people into our sanctuary and we revisited the loss of her husband as well.

The third person who died in this cycle was a man who had defied death for years after lethal physical health concerns first slowed him down. At last everything that could be done had been done and he decided, with his family, to quit taking the medications that had been presumably keeping him alive for years and to let nature take its course. Instead of his dying immediately, as expected, he experienced improved cognition and a mellowed personality and he enjoyed several weeks of "saying goodbye" and conversations with friends all over the map. The extra time enabled him to choose the time and place of his death, and he died peacefully at that time, with family and friends at his side. We got to say our goodbyes in the last moments of his life and then to sit quietly with his body as it became a shell instead of a living organism.

I am tired today. I am looking forward to the next few days of relaxation with colleagues at our UUMA fall retreat. I need it more this year than I ever have. I am more deeply aware of the stresses of ministry than I have ever been.

There have been unexpected blessings and lessons from the felling of these three mighty "oaks of righteousness". I have been privileged to be invited into the homes of these families, to share their sorrow and their secrets, to learn what nobody else has known about these families, to keep all these things in my heart and make decisions, with the family's sayso, about what is revealed and what remains unsaid. I feel like another family member because of these deaths and the needs of those who survive.

I have come to see death as simply another step in life; I do not experience deaths now as something to be prevented, fended off, avoided at all costs. People die. We are sorrowful but we go on. Our lives change and we adapt. There are holes in our lives and we investigate them and then walk around them or fill them in.

I, as the minister who will shepherd family and friends through the process of grief and memory, acknowledge death in these ways while watching out for the bereaved ones whose sorrow prevents them from going on, navigating the secrets and the stories-for-prime-time with an eye to protecting the privacy of the family while revealing the life of the beloved dead.

These responsibilities are an honor, a privilege, AND a huge stressor. I am both wearied and buoyed up by the blessings and lessons. I love this work. And I am glad I am leaving it for now. (You will note that I said "for now".)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Replay of a golden oldie, to be offered on Oct. 23, 2011

Note: Because the weekend is full of a Bayview Sound gig on Friday and a huge memorial service on Saturday afternoon, I'll be reprising a service created when I was a student minister in Colorado. Hope you enjoy the printed version.

by Rev. Kit Ketcham
by Joe Rush, member of Boulder UU Fellowship, 1935

“God,” said the theologian,
“Is a triune entity
Of Holy Spirit, Father, Son,
Yet One for all eternity.”

A workman dropped his pick, and spat,
As he frowned and scratched his head.
“Why, God”--he labored with the thought--
“God saves our souls when we are dead.”

“God is a myth!” the atheist spoke
With an air of studied scorn.
“Chance rules; and man, stern nature’s joke,
Once dead, might never have been born.”

A tired old lady, bent and gray,
Closed the Book and met my eyes:
“For years I’ve trusted Him;
one day He’ll call me home beyond the skies.”

“God loves me,” smiled a little girl,
Pausing breathlessly at play.
Her father groaned, “Oh Godless world!”
The day his child was laid away.

“The Lord of Hosts is on our side!”--
And they urged men die:
Somewhere beyond the battle tide
“Gott mit uns!” echoed back the cry.

O Power that wields insensate sod
To a dim celestial plan,
Is man the image of his God,
Or God a counterpart of man?

“Children’s Letters to God”

Dear God, in Sunday School they told us what You do. Who does it when you are on vacation? Jane
Dear God, I read the Bible. What does “begat” mean? Nobody will tell me. Love, Allison
Dear God, If you watch me in church Sunday, I’ll show You my new shoes. Mickey
Dear God, Are you really invisible or is that a trick? Lucy
Dear God, Did you mean for the giraffe to look like that or was it an accident? Norma
Dear God, Please send me a pony. I never asked for anything before. You can look it up. Bruce
Dear God, Instead of letting people die and having to make new ones, why don’t You just keep the ones You have now? Jane
Dear God, Who draws the lines around countries? Nan
Dear God, I went to this wedding and they kissed right in church. Is that okay? Neil
Dear God, What does it mean You are a jealous God? I thought you had everything. Jane
Dear God, Thank you for the baby brother, but what I prayed for was a puppy. Joyce
Dear God, I think about You sometimes even when I’m not praying. Elliot
Dear God, My brother told me about being born, but it doesn’t sound right. They’re just kidding, aren’t they? Marsha
Dear God, We read Thomas Edison made light. But in Sunday School they said You did it. So I bet he stoled Your idea. Donna
Dear God, I didn’t think orange went with purple until I saw the sunset You made on Tuesday.That was cool. Eugene

“New Microsoft Product Bulletin” (from the Internet)

Microsoft Corporation today announced its intent to purchase, copyright, and upgrade God Himself. The new product would be named, predictably enough, “Microsoft God”, and would be available to consumers sometime in late 2006. “Too many people feel separated from God in today’s world,’ said Dave McCavaugh, director of Microsoft’s new Religions division. “Microsoft God will make our Lord more accessible, and will add an easy, intuitive user interface to him, making him not only easier to find, but easier to communicate with.”

The new Microsoft Religions line will be expanded to include a multitude of add-on products to Microsoft God, including: Microsoft Missionary: This conversion software will import all worshiper accounts and prayer files over from previous versions of God, or from competing products like Buddha or Allah.

Microsoft God for the World Wide Web: This product links Microsoft God with Microsoft Internet Information Server using the proprietary Omnipotent MaxiModem, making our Lord accessible from the World Wide Web using a standard Web browser interface. It also introduces several new Web technologies, including Dynamic Divine Salvation and Active Prayer Pages. Donations for the poor can be transferred via the Secure Alms Server.

Microsoft Prayer: Using a Windows-based WYSIWYG interface, this product will allow worshipers to construct effective prayers in a minimum of time. Prayer Templates will make everyday prayers, like saying grace and children’s bedtime prayers, a snap. The Guardian Angel Secure Prayer Channel and Instant Thought Transfer technologies allow guaranteed,
instantaneous deliver of the prayers to Microsoft God servers, and Prayer Wizards enable the user to construct new types of prayers with a minimum theological learning curve.

Microsoft Savior: This shareware product will allow worshipers to transfer their sins to the password protected Secure Confessional Database, free for a trial period of forty days and forty nights.

Thereafter, for unlimited eternal usage and free Born Again upgrades, sinners are required to register and remit monthly tithes and offerings. Major credit cards accepted. Future transgressions will then be atone and a clear line of secure communications to the Microsoft God Salvation Server will be provided.

Additional products to be available by spring of 2012: Gabriel’s Trumpet sound card; Revelation and Rapture, version 666, decryption software; Joyous Scepter joystick; Visions 7-D Graphics card; Gideon book “God for Dummies”; Celestial Sounds Thunderbolt 20 gigawatt speaker system; SimParadise and SimCreation software; AfterDark Flying Cherubs screensaver.
For more information, visit his web site at: or email him

“Struggling with the God Concept”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if relating to the idea of God were as easy as buying a new software product for our computers? Certainly it would be less of a hassle than figuring out whether or not Prayer fits our own belief systems or whether Salvation makes any sense in the post-modern paradigm or whether Science is our Savior or our Satan. Think of the relevance of the new Scripture: Microsoft God for Dummies.

We laugh at the very notion that Ultimate Reality can be reduced to a computer program and yet, in this age of quick-as-a-wink transmission and instantaneous feedback, we wish it were so easy. We’ve gotten spoiled by the ease with which we can communicate with other continents, with satellites on missions to outer space, with the guy on the cellphone in the next car. But the idea of God remains elusive and frustrating.

Our service today is an offbeat look at relationships between the human and the Divine-- whatever you may conceive that to be. One of our UU struggles is with the concept of God. As a pluralistic faith, we are accustomed to the idea that not everyone believes in God. Buddhism, for example, and other nonWestern faith traditions have looked to ancestors and tradition for their wisdom. Nontheists in Western countries have long felt that there is little scientific evidence for the idea of God and tend to think of God as a human invention.

Whatever your thinking may be about the idea of God, we hope that you will find food for thought in this service as we explore some of the many ways human beings have thought about God, Goddess, the Spirit of Life, the Divine Source, the Mother and Father of us all, you supply your own metaphor or expression!

Anselm, an 11th century Christian theologian, applied scholarly logic to theological controversy and speculation. He wrote a statement in which he attempted to prove the existence of God by means of logical deduction. He wrote:
“This proposition is indeed so true that its negation is inconceivable. For it is quite conceivable that there is something whose non-existence is inconceivable, and this must be greater than that whose non-existence is conceivable. Wherefore, if that thing than which no greater thing is conceivable can be conceived as non-existent; then, that very thing than which a greater is inconceivable is not that than which a greater is inconceivable; which is a contradiction. “So true is it that there exists something than which a greater is inconceivable, that its non-existence is inconceivable; and this thing art Thou, O Lord our God.”

Tough going, isn’t it? When I first read this, in my Church History class a few years ago, I burst out laughing. It seemed like a joke. However, nobody else in that Iliff classroom seemed to find it as funny as I did, so I had to do some thinking about it. And I realized that proving the existence of God has been a problem that human beings have struggled with since time immemorial.

As for me, I prefer a poetic attempt. Let me read a poem which better captures the mystery that I think human beings have been struggling with. The name of the poem is “Epiphany” and it is by Pem Kremer.
“Lynn Schmidt says
She saw you once as prairie grass,
Nebraska prairie grass.
She climbed out of her car on a hot highway,
Leaned her butt on the nose of her car,
Looked out over one great flowing field,
Stretching beyond her sight until the horizon came.
Vastness, she says,
Responsive to the slightest shift of wind,
Full of infinite change,
All One.
She says when she can’t pray,
She calls up Prairie Grass.”

When I think of moments spent on prairie grasslands, on a mountainside, at the ocean, in a midnight sky, a field of sandhill cranes, a desert shelf, an immense river canyon, God is not just a theory to me.

In our efforts to describe the force we may call God or Source of Life or Love, we often get frustrated and irritated. It’s not easy to describe something which is invisible yet sort of visible, loving yet dangerous, all powerful yet tragically bumbling, getting a lot of credit for creativity but not really measuring up to some of our own human standards. Despite humankind’s apparent complete dependence on nature, or God as some call it, we often wish that this incredible Force would get its act together and behave in a responsible and predictable way. Like we do.

Ken Merrell and Frank Allen will explain further.

by Nicholas Biel, adapted by Lev Ropes

There I was, on the third day, dust, common ordinary dust
Like you see on a country road after a dry spell.
Nothing expected.
Me expecting nothing neither.
On the sixth day, HE comes along and blows,
And, “In my image” he says, like he was doing me a favor.
Sometimes I think if he’d waited a million years, then I’d be tired of being dust,
But after two, three days, what can you expect?
I wasn’t used to being even dust and he makes me into Man.
He could see right away from the look on my face, that I wasn’t so pleased,
So he’s gonna butter me up.
He puts me in this garden, only I don’t butter.
Then he brings me all the animals.
I should give them names.
What do I know, names?
“Call it something,” he says, “anything you want.”
So I make up names--bear, wolf, mouse, lion, snake...
It’s crazy, but that’s What he wants.
Later in the day, I get rummy, and I’m running out of ideas.
Peccary, platypus, emu, gnu. “I got gnus for you”, I think.
Finally I’m naming animals since 5 a.m., I’m tired, I go to bed early.
In the morning, I wake up and there SHE is, sitting by a pool admiring herself.
“Hello, Adam,” she says. “I’m your mate, I’m Eve.”
“Pleased to meet you,” I say, and we shake hands.
Actually, I’m not so pleased.
From time immemorial, nothing.
Now, rush, rush, rush; two days ago I’m dust, yesterday all day I’m naming animals,
And today I got a mate already.
Also I don’t like the way she looks at herself in the water.. or at me!
Well, you know what happened. I don’t have to tell you.
There were all those fruit trees; she took a bite, I took a bite, the snake took a bite,
and quick like a flash-- out of the garden.
Such a fuss over one lousy apple, not even ripe yet (there wasn’t time since creation.)
Now I’m not complaining.
After all, it’s his garden.
He don’t want nobody eating his apples, that’s his business.
What irritated me, is the nerve of the guy.
I don’t ask him to make me even dust; he could have left me nothing, like I was before.
Also, I didn’t ask for Cain, for Abel...
I didn’t ask for nothing, but anything goes wrong, who gets the blame?
Sodom, Gomorrah, Babel, or my kids catch it--fire, flood, pillar of salt.
“Be patient, be a little understanding,” says Eve, “look, he made it, it was his idea, it breaks down, so he’ll fix it.”
But I told him one day, “you’re in too much of a hurry.
In six days you make everything there is and you expect it to run smoothly?
Something’s always gonna happen.
If you’d thought it out more first, made a plan, asked for advice, you wouldn’t have so much trouble all the time.”
But you couldn’t tell him nothing.
He knows it all.
Like I say, he means well, but he’s a meddler and he’s careless.
For example, he coulda made that woman so she wouldn’t bite no apple.
All right, all right, so what’s done is done,
but all the same, he should’ve known better,
or at least he coulda blown on some other dust.

“Why God Never Got Tenure” (internet)
1. He had only one major publication.
2. It was written in Aramaic, not English.
3. It has no references.
4. The abstract was not published in a reputable journal.
5. There are serious doubts that he wrote the manuscript himself.
6. Though he created the world, what were his significant accomplishments since?
7. His cooperative endeavors have been quite limited.
8. The scientific community could not replicate his results.
9. He unlawfully performed not only animal, but human, testing.
10. He rarely came to class, just told his students to read the textbook.
11. He expelled his first two students for exhibiting an unusual appetite for knowledge.
12. His office hours were infrequent, and usually inaccessible, held on a mountaintop.
13. Although he only established 10 requirements to pass his course, most of his students failed the test.

“When God Doesn’t Measure Up”
As a species, we’re often disappointed in God. The Divine just doesn’t come through in the ways we think it ought to. We ask hard questions: why would a supposedly loving God send his/her children to burn in hell just for being human? why would God make some people survive an accident and others die horribly? what on earth possessed God to make a platypus? or a black widow spider?

If God is Love, why does Love often hurt so much? how come the God of the Hebrew Bible and the God of the New Testament are so different? if God wants us to swallow all this stuff about creation and miracles and dry bones rising again, how come God gave us brains? if God is all-powerful, how come there’s disease and war and famine and human beings who are evil?

We have a lot of questions. And the traditional answers aren’t satisfactory to most of us UUs. So many of us just refuse to speculate. It doesn’t do any good to ask questions that are impossible to answer. Unlike many scientific hypotheses, the theory of God seems impossible to prove.

Others of us LIKE to speculate. We think about the beauty of the earth and the glory of the skies and we are awed by the wonders surrounding us. So God doesn’t compute scientifically. What DOES make sense to us are the incredibly intricate laws of nature. They seem to be a clue of some kind to a mystery that is inexplicable.

And, we are forced to admit, human beings haven’t exactly been the most responsible bits of creation. We have used our much-vaunted free will to eliminate and despoil much of the bounty which originally existed on this planet. And we’re arrogant and self-satisfied. We fight a lot--we fight over God and whose side God is on. We invent the most incredible excuses for torturing our fellow human beings.

We are greedy and grabby and grouchy, often in the name of God. When we look at the history of humankind, it’s a little bit embarrassing to think that much of the destruction we have witnessed over the centuries has been attributed to God’s alleged promise to prefer one group or religion over all others.

I think God may have been misquoted. Let’s hear now a couple of different points of view from Mary Goolsby and Carol Bingman:

“INVENTING SIN” by George Ella Lyon
God signs to us
We cannot read.
She shouts
We take cover.
She shrugs
And trains leave the tracks.
Our schedules! we moan,
Our loved ones! God is fed up.
All the oceans she gave us,
All the fields, All the acres of steep seedful forests,
And we did what?
Invented the Great Chain of Being
And the chain saw Invented sin.
God sees us now,
Gorging ourselves and
Starving our neighbors,
Starving ourselves and
Storing our grain,
And she says I’ve had it!
You cast your trash upon the waters--
It’s rolling in,
You stuck your fine, fine finger Into the mystery of life to find death.
And you did.
You learned how to end
The world in nothing flat.
Now you come crying to your mommy,
Send us a miracle!
Prove that you exist!
Look at your hand, I say,
Listen to your scared heart.
Do you have to haul the tide in,
Sweeten the berries on the vine?
I set you down a miracle among miracles,
You want more?
It’s your turn.

“ On the Origin of Dogs and Cats” (internet)
It is reported that the following edition of the Book of Genesis was discovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls. If authentic, it would shed light on the question “where do pets come from?”

And Adam said, “Lord, when I was in the garden, you walked with me everyday. Now I do not see you any more. I am lonesome here and it is difficult for me to remember how much you love me.”

And God said, “I will create a companion for you that will be with you forever and who will be a reflection of my love for you, so that you will know I love you, even when you cannot see me. Regardless of how selfish and childish and unlovable you may be, this new companion will accept you as you are and will love you as I do, in spite of yourself.”

And God created a new animal to be a companion for Adam. And it was a good animal. And God was pleased.

And the new animal was pleased to be with Adam and he wagged his tail. And Adam said, “But Lord, I have already named all the animals in the Kingdom and all the good names are taken and I cannot think of a name for this new animal.”

And God said, “Because I have created this new animal to be a reflection of my love for you, his name will be a reflection of my own name, and you will call him DOG.”

And Dog lived with Adam and was a companion to him and loved him. And Adam was comforted. And God was pleased. And Dog was content and wagged his tail.

After awhile, it came to pass that Adam’s guardian angel came to the Lord and said, “Lord, Adam has become filled with pride. He struts and preens like a peacock and he believes he is worthy of adoration. Dog has indeed taught him that he is loved, but no one has taught him humility.”

And the Lord said, “I will create for him a companion who will be with him forever and who will see him as he is. The companion will remind him of his limitations, so he will know that he is not worthy of adoration.”

And God created CAT to be a companion to Adam. And Cat would not obey Adam. And when Adam gazed into Cat’s eyes, he was reminded that he was not the Supreme Being. And Adam learned humility.
And God was pleased.
And Adam was greatly improved.
And Cat did not care one way or the other.

“Why Humans Fail; When Humans Need More”
In the poem Mary read, God is portrayed as an irritated momma, someone who has given all she has to nurture and support her children and finds that they are ungrateful and grasping. She’s fed up, she says. This is an image parents can relate to! Have our own children been unfailingly grateful and responsible? Hardly, though we love and cherish them. God as disgusted parent is a satisfying concept, even to those of us who resist defining God. We know what it’s like to have our best work taken for granted, destroyed, unappreciated. If there were a God, we figure she’d be ticked.

And I wonder what you thought as you listened to Carol? How many of us have dogs? And how many have cats? What do we learn from our fellow inhabitants of the planet? That any creature could treat us with such unfailing and unconditional devotion as a dog is overwhelming to me.

My long-gone pal Snicker, a border collie mix who showed up at our house in Athena one day, survived all the disrespect that three kids could dish out and loved and protected us all the days of his life. When he died, he left quite a hole in our lives.

And then there were all the cats who allowed us to feed and house them. Smokey, Matkatamiba, Sam the First, Sam the Second, Kitsa the first, Kitsa the Tooth and now Loosy and Lily. When a cat loves you, it’s an honor. Cats don’t just dish out their affection to anyone, you have to earn it. Cats will leave home if they don’t like the atmosphere. When our son was born, Sam the First moved across the street until Mike was old enough to learn some manners.

Kitsa the First, on the other hand, took a motherly interest in Mike and when he had some baby illness, she’d curl up next to him in the crib where he could clutch her fur and be comforted.
A dog’s love is unconditional; a cat’s love is an gift. And both are a privilege, as we humans learn to care for the gifts of the Creator.

But human beings may cherish the idea of God for one main reason, so that we may feel that we are not utterly alone in the universe. Despite all our efforts to provide for ourselves a nurturing
and loving life within a community like this, we’re all aware that there may come a time in our lives when we are utterly alone, when no one hears us when we call, when no one comes to see if we’re okay, when, as the old hymn goes, “other helpers fail and comforts flee, help of the helpless, O abide with me.”

Whether we believe in a God of any kind or whether we are uninterested in the very concept, we are all subject to human loneliness. And in that existential night, we may wonder. Is there Someone? Is there Something beyond humanity? Something or Someone I may never understand but which I wish for, to bring me comfort when I am stricken with fear, to hold my hand when I am dying, to be with me when I am all alone. God works under these circumstances, at least for many of us. There’s no explaining it, except in terms of human need.

Thomas Dorsey wrote a wonderful old gospel song 50 years ago when his wife died, a song which has passed from being religious to being a piece of Americana. Its language is too literal for most of us, but it doesn’t take much imagination to think of “Precious Lord” as whatever that mysterious Force might be that we want to comfort us in that darkest night, the companion when all others are gone, the antidote to loneliness. Perhaps that is the whole point to the idea of God.

Let’s sing that old hymn, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”, #199

“What do I believe about God?” by Rev. Kit Ketcham

What do I believe about God?
I am an atheist, if you ask me about the old white guy in the sky.
I am a believer, if you ask me about nature or spirit or love.
I am an agnostic, if you ask for proofs of God.
I am a believer, if you ask for my experience of God.

To me, God is all--nature, spirit, love, cosmos, creation.
God is in all--in me, in you, in my belongings, in my animals and the garden I tend, in all beings, animate and inanimate.
God is in my relationships--with myself, with other beings, with the universe.
God is beyond all--infinite, endless, limitless.

How can I know God? How can I not know God?
God is all around me, God is within me, God is beyond me.
God is in all my experience, yet beyond my experience.
God is mystery, yet I know God when I tend my garden, when I care for my pets, when I nurture my relationships.

God is invisible, yet I view God in the starry sky, in a mountain meadow, in a mighty storm.
God is infinite, yet I experience God in the limitless ocean, in an endless prairie of grass, in the wind which cools the hot day.
God is not human, yet I pray for God’s guidance;
God is impersonal, yet I seek God’s blessing;
God is detached, yet I feel God’s presence.
God is genderless, yet I sense God’s understanding of my womanhood.
God is changeless, yet I am aware of the continuous growth of creation.
What do you believe about God?

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 whatever we think about God, we are all brothers and sisters under the sky. May we look for the divine in each other and may we treat each other with the gentle care that the sacred deserves. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.