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.

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