Thursday, April 28, 2011

The challenges of the liturgical year....

when you're not really a liturgical person weigh me down some years, and this year is one of them. I struggled with Easter and eventually approached it from the sort-of-back-door of my deeply-held Universalism. Growing up a Baptist, I didn't get a lot of ceremonial stuff and have never felt the need for it.

I'm tired of the effort to rehash the ancient story in a new way. I just couldn't manage it this year. I did like the way the sermon came together and it did make sense of Easter for me one more time. But I feel uncomfortable with both the commercialism of the season and its liturgical expectations.

The story of a good and brilliant, compassionate and deep-thinking, courageous man whose efforts to get people to turn inward to find the Kingdom of Heaven set the religious world on a new trajectory----that's a really good story and it deserves to be told over and over.

But we seem to get stuck there. We re-enact the drama of the story from beginning to end and then drop the effort to live the life that good man promised we'd have if we looked within ourselves to find the compassion and connection we need. It's as though, once Jesus was dead, the impetus to find that inner joy disappeared for most folks in the welter of meeting their daily needs.

We celebrate the holiday liturgically, intone the right words, wave the right icons, and overlook the deep internal need to find our inner wellsprings of joy, from which our ability to give deep Love arises. It just feels hollow some years, as though we are mouthing words we don't really understand or believe, because we are not observing the real message of Jesus, which was to find that deep Love within and give it to others.

I have long felt puzzled by the need many have to believe that Jesus was God, that he really did turn water into wine, raise the dead, heal the sick, rise from his own tomb. Those events, true or not, are not the point of his ministry. The point is the message of Love---for God, for neighbor and enemy, for self. I don't believe that Jesus was a perfect being but I do believe he had discovered something essential about human living and an awful lot of so-called Christians are overlooking it.

I walked the road outside my door this morning, waving at cars driving by on their way to work, enjoying the blooming wild currant, the horsetails sticking up through the mud, the tiny slug-lets all along the road, the intriguing deer paths through the brambles, and then the broad view of Puget Sound, the shipping lanes, and Port Townsend across the way. It's a busy, not-so-scenic road but there is much life to share in a short walk, and I've come to find it a source of renewal and peace. Reveling in the actual season of spring, which predates any tale of resurrection, feels more appropriate than anything else, this year.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Why I am a Universalist and what that has to do with Easter

And what that has to do with Easter
Rev. Kit Ketcham, April 24, 2011

My recent issue of Time Magazine practically heated up the mailbox last week when it arrived. The headline “What if there’s no Hell?” screamed as loudly as another headline decades ago, when Time asked its readers “Is God dead?”

I’d heard about this controversy weeks before, when the news came out that Pastor Rob Bell, of the Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, had written a new book entitled “Love Wins: a Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of every person who ever lived”.

In the book, Pastor Bell questioned the orthodox doctrine of traditional Christianity, that everyone who did not accept Jesus as Lord and Savior was doomed to eternal torment in the fires of hell.
He tells the story of visiting an art exhibit which included quotations from a variety of heroes of justice, including Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi. A visitor to the exhibit had stuck a note next to the Gandhi quotation stating “Reality Check: Gandhi’s in hell.”

Bell thought to himself, “Really? Gandhi’s in hell? He is? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without a doubt? And that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting the rest of us know?”

That’s the opening story in his book Love Wins, and he goes on to suggest that the message of Jesus is that all persons who ever lived could have a place in heaven, whatever that turns out to be, because of God’s eternal love and mercy.

Not surprisingly, this bold statement of universal salvation hit the conservative world like a bomb. By now they’ve tried to kick him and his church out of the Southern Baptists, they’ve condemned him to the eternal torment of theological disdain and censure, and one young North Carolina pastor was fired by his church for endorsing the book.

The president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Albert Mohler, says “When you adopt universalism and erase the distinction between the church and the world, then you don’t need the church, and you don’t need Christ, and you don’t need the cross. This is the tragedy of non-judgmental mainline liberalism, and it’s Rob Bell’s tragedy in this book too,” implying that Pastor Bell had just signed over his passport to Satan.

Interesting, huh? But from a traditionalist perspective, taking away hell means taking away the most powerful weapon the traditional church has in its arsenal for those Christian soldiers.

Without hell, where is the incentive to turn to Jesus as savior? If Gandhi is in heaven, why bother with accepting Christ? If the words in the Bible about hell and heaven are not literally true, what does that say about women or homosexuality? These are questions that can undermine much of conservative Christianity.

Bell’s startling revelation of his changing theology found a champion in also-deposed African American Pentecostal preacher the Rev. Carlton Pearson, who, a few years ago, also came out of the evangelical closet as a universalist, stating his belief that God’s mercy and grace would extend to all persons, regardless of their belief or behavior, and he identified as a Universalist publicly.

In addition, after Pearson was kicked out of his own denomination, he was welcomed by our Tulsa OK congregation, All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, where he is getting a feel for what universalism means in another sense---the radical inclusion of all people in the beloved community.

For that is what Universalism has come to mean in this day and age, among theologians in our faith tradition of Unitarian Universalism: the belief that all persons have inherent worth and dignity and receive the gifts of Divine love and grace and forgiveness.

We have let go of an insistence on an after-life in either heaven or hell and, instead, believe that heaven and hell are both available to us humans right here on earth, before death. And it is our job to help to create heaven, not hell, for our fellow creatures.

As John Murray, one of our Universalist forefathers wrote, in a few lines included in the readings in our hymnal:
Go out into the highways and by-ways. Give the people something of your new vision. You may possess a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them not hell, but hope and courage; preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.

Now, Rob Bell’s and Carlton Pearson’s universalism is probably not just like our Universalism; they both come from the conservative Christian tradition and still strongly hold many traditional beliefs. They accept a small-u universalism which is merely one strand in their statements of belief. But ours is so important to our way of being religious in this world, that we capitalize that U and make it part of our name.

What is Universalism and what does it mean about our religious tradition? Let me give you a little history, tell you why I am very much a Universalist in my own theology, and what that has to do with Easter.

Both Unitarianism and Universalism are ancient re-interpretations of Biblical narratives. Unitarianism started out as a disbelief in the Christian idea of the trinity. Originally, Unitarian thought was labeled anti-trinitarianism, because that’s how it was originally proposed. It meant a belief in God as a Unity, not as a Trinity, three in one, and it began in the third century of the Common Era.

Universalism was originally the idea that a loving God would not condemn his children to the eternal fires of hell, no matter how bad we were, whether or not we believed in Jesus as savior, and it, too, originated in the third century. Universalism originally meant universal salvation, and it is this definition that Rob Bell is talking about.

As the institutional structure of Christianity grew, orthodoxy crowded out these two alternative ways of interpreting the Bible. In fact, those who believed these different ideas were often persecuted, kicked out of the church, even killed. Their heretical beliefs were forbidden and even today conservative Christianity considers them anathema.

But they didn’t die out. Free thought has a way of rearing its head again and again despite attempts made to stamp it out. And over the centuries since those rebellious times, the ideas of God as One and Salvation for All have been resurrected again and again.

Today, we belong to a small, energetic, progressive, extremely liberal faith tradition which has taken those two concepts and reinterpreted them for an age in which the definitions of God and salvation have changed radically from those ancient days and have become even more relevant to a world in need of healing.

Why am I a Universalist? A story from the history of this very congregation illustrates one reason why:

It was just a normal Sunday, with the normal familiar smiles and 
greetings as people passed by me before joining others in the sanctuary, that Sunday in 2005.

There had been the normal “hi, so nice to see you today!’s your mom? and........what do you hear from so and so? and.......welcome to our UU congregation! would you like a nametag? and...........yes, I think there is a plan to go out for a meal after the service; I hope you can come. are you feeling these days?” 

UU congregations are always on the lookout for visitors and this 
congregation was no different. We want to be able to say hello, offer a 
friendly smile----and a nametag!------and demonstrate the best welcome we 
can offer to someone new, someone who was perhaps hurting, perhaps 
lonely, perhaps unfamiliar with UUism, or----perhaps a longtime UU looking for a new church home. It’s our normal Sunday routine. 

On this particular Sunday, however, members of our small 
congregation took one look at the visitor coming through the door and did 
a double take. No, it wasn’t President Bush, coming to see how we liked 
his environmental policies or disaster response; it wasn’t some glamorous 
movie star or bedraggled reality show survivor; it wasn’t the mayor of the 
small town or any other well known local personage. 

This visitor’s appearance was startling in itself, and I could feel my 
own apprehensions rise up. Why would anyone choose to look the way this person did? I quickly began to think about how best to approach this 
individual; how would others in the congregation respond to him? 

And then, I saw one of our greeters, Malcolm Ferrier, step forward toward our visitor and the two ordinary looking people who had come in with him. I saw a friendly smile on Malcolm’s face and then a handshake; I watched as he helped them prepare nametags and gave them orders of service; and when the three visitors came to where I was standing, outside the sanctuary door, I had been given a clear model for how we were going to welcome our unusual visitor. 

“Cat”, as we came to know him that day, is a Native American who 
has adopted the unusual practice of changing his appearance to resemble 
that of his totem animal, a tiger. Cat is tattooed with tiger-like markings; he 
uses special contact lenses to give his eyes a catlike shape and color; his 
nails are shaped into claws; his face has been surgically altered to a more 
feline shape and his teeth are sharp and fang-like. 

Cat is not your typical visitor. Wherever he goes in the community, 
people stop and stare and perhaps walk the other way. Now, I don’t 
know all the reasons Cat looks the way he does. There are lots of 
questions in my mind about how he has chosen this path. 

But on that day, my task and that of the rest of us attending that 
service was to welcome Cat and his friends, to make a place for them 
among us, to offer them the simple hospitality of our sacred space, of our 
worship time, to invite them to have a cup of coffee and a cookie after the 
service, to go with our group to the Chinese place for a meal after church.

It was not to shoo them away from our door, to refuse to speak to them, to pretend we didn’t see them. It was an opportunity to get to know someone who was radically different, both in appearance and in lifestyle, and to welcome them into our lives. We could not know in advance whether this was a safe thing to do or not; we had to trust in the ability of Love to smooth the way.

Cat came to church here only once but I hope he went away knowing that there was at least one place where he was accepted as a human being, not as a creature to be shunned and ridiculed or used as a commodity but as a fellow human with a story to tell.

This is why I am a Universalist: because I believe that there is a force in the universe more powerful than human strength and yet available within each human heart. I believe that the force I name is Love, radical, inclusive Love, Love beyond the commercially popular versions of movies, songs, and ad campaigns, the Love that is, in my mind, the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus preached.

Nothing in human life is more challenging than to love our neighbor as ourselves, to see our tears in another’s eyes, to reach out to others, no matter how scary or off-putting they may seem, not merely tolerating difference nor dismissing its importance. We humans are naturally wary of strangers; it is a mechanism that once served us well and now keeps us from rejoicing in diversity, though diversity will be our salvation in the end.

And there’s that word again, salvation. Universal salvation to me, these days, is the sense that I can walk unafraid in this world because I love with this Love and am loved in return. It isn’t always safe to love and to be loved, but that is a risk I am willing to take because of the joy it brings me.

And it is my salvation from a fragmented and anxious life, giving me a life of delight and a sense that I am living rightly, no matter what difficulties and dangers I may experience.

So what does this all have to do with Easter? Universalism is a religious philosophy of radical and overpowering love and this is exactly what this season means, whether we’re talking about the Christian Easter, or a pagan spring celebration, or a Passover release from bondage. We’re talking about love.

As Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed has written: “Universal Salvation insists that no matter what we do, God so loves us that she will not and cannot consign even a single human individual to eternal damnation. Universal Salvation is the consequence of Universal love, the recognition that love is the grounding, the basis of all….
The great insight of Universalism is that you do not have to coerce people into loving one another. The commandments are not threats. If they are not fulfilled, God will not withdraw love. No one has ever or will ever draw true love out of another with punishment. God’s love is given to all. Love is a more positive force for good than fear ever will be. Behind this is a simple truth: in being loved we learn to love.”

Now, it doesn’t matter whether we are agnostics or atheists or non-theistic in our thinking about God. We know what radical love means because we can see it in our lives and in the lives of those around us. We can experience it by giving it to others, for it inevitably rebounds to us full force.

Let me close with these words from the Rev. Ellen Cooper-Davis:
I am a Universalist. I believe that there is an inexhaustible, inescapable love that will not let us go. It is there in every corner of the world. It is there in our moments of greatest connection and joy. It is there in moments of excruciating suffering and sorrow. It is there even when we willfully turn away from it and seek to be isolated, alone and apart.
Nothing and no one is outside the reach of this Love. (Love) can sustain those in despair,…empower those whom society has written off… strengthen those who want to…turn back (on) that Love…. It can awaken us to the words that Jesus spoke--the Kingdom of Heaven is within you, it is here, now…
Perhaps the comfortable, the wealthy, the self-righteous are right to be afraid of such a message... Because it could turn the world on its ear, and the inheritors of the kingdom--the poor, the meek, the peacemakers--would be equal at last.

Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer on this Easter morning.

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 the power of Universal Love which is within us is not to be hoarded but to be shared. May we seek out the places where our Love can make a difference and may we give Love freely, not only to our friends and neighbors, but to ourselves and to our enemies. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Gratitude and Generosity: it works if you work it.

LOVING AND CHEERFUL GIVERS: the Sermon on the Amount
Rev. Kit Ketcham, April 10, 2011

I’d like to invite you all to center yourselves comfortably in your seats, perhaps close your eyes if you’d like, and enter a time of quiet reflection and thought with me. And as you relax into this time, I’d also invite you to be aware of this space, its quiet warmth, the tiny sounds of children down the hall, the tall shafts of fir trees outside the windows, the light streaming through those trees, the movement of the breeze.

Let yourself feel the presence of others in this room, those you love and those you don’t yet know, those who challenge you and those you challenge, those you are curious about and those whom you know well.

As we sit in silence for a few moments, I invite you to experience the feelings associated with this place, these individual people, this community of seekers. There may be feelings of pleasure, and joy, and happiness. Or uncertainty, or confusion, or pain. There may be memories of laughter, memories of sorrow, memories of pride and accomplishment. Whatever they are, let yourself experience those feelings during these moments. (chime, time of silence, ending with chime)

I don’t know about you, but when I take time to just sit in this sanctuary, experience the people around me, sing together, see the trees and greenery through these spacious windows, bask in the light that streams through the windows and almost feel the breeze as it rocks the trees, I feel profoundly grateful that I am alive in this time and place.

There is a sense of being filled with something almost inexpressible, a sense of being in a good place, of being with good people, of doing something good for others.

I wonder how many of you may have had a similar sensation, perhaps during our reflective time right now or at some other time in your experience with this congregation. Have any of you had those feelings? Who would be willing to share a couple of words about a sense of gratitude for something that has happened to you here. (sharing of gratitude items)

Many of you have said things just now that jibe with my own sense of gratitude for this place and its people. This past week, I sat down and brainstormed all the things about this congregation and this place that give me that sense of gratitude and fullness. It turned out to be a huge list!

I first listed the many hands and hearts that do the tasks that keep us afloat, because that was the easy list: our religious education staff, the volunteers and the parents of our wonderful children; those who spend hours tending our landscape and the little repairs and upgrades that the building always needs; the folks who have learned how to use our sound system and help out as needed; those who built the library shelves, sorted and catalogued the books, and developed the system for checking them out; our ushers who do so much on Sunday morning to get us ready for our worship service.

The art works we enjoy on the walls of the foyer were chosen and hung by those who have an eye for beauty and creativity; we have people who make a special effort to reach out to befriend those who need special care---our shutins and those whose memories and abilities have been taken away by illness. The folks who bring refreshments, make the coffee, clean up the kitchen afterwards.

The Lyceum 2.0 task force which offers us a program on science and ethics every month. Our wonderful musicians and the wide range of musical experience they bring. Our volunteer choir directors and our vibrant choir.

Dinners for newcomers. A worship committee that spends many hours making sure we have high quality, inspirational worship every week. The laughter and creativity that our auction offers us because of the hard work of its creators and supporters.

Our administrative team, the board and our incomparable administrator, who oversee and carry out the workings of the congregation, its programming, its financial stability, the nuts and bolts of governance and administration. Our Leadership Council comprised of someone from every committee and working group in the congregation, staying abreast of the many activities of the congregation.

Our social responsibility council which encouraged us to give away our offering once a month and helped us see how much good we could do for the many local agencies which need our help.

Our communications team, putting together our newsletter, our website, our Friday messages, and doing all the printing for our worship and other activities.

Those who offer and attend our adult programs, from circle dinners, to koffee klatches, dine outs, classes, and other opportunities. Our history keepers, those who collect our history and keep its memory alive. Our greeters and hospitality providers, and all the regular givers of time, talent, and treasure.

That’s a long list, indeed. How many of you heard your own contributions mentioned? Did I miss anything? And those are just the everyday tasks of keeping our congregation smoothly operating and doing its important work in the world.

But there are other less tangible and even more important sources of gratitude for me. Every time I see a rambunctious child being gently and lovingly corrected, every time I see friendships developing between adults and children, every time I see adults making efforts to understand children rather than just expressing their disapproval, I am reminded of my own experience as a parent in a congregation years ago.

I’m reminded of a young single mom, me, and her rambunctious seven year old, a little boy who wasn’t sure how to behave in school or church, who didn’t understand what was going on between his parents, whose intelligence and maturity didn’t match up, who was smaller and more hyper than the other kids, who had no obvious talents other than being a smart-aleck and a clown.

We his parents were at a loss to know how to make the divorce easier for him, how to help him with his difficulties, and we were grieving the changes in our lives as well. So we all just kind of struggled along, with my ex and I apologizing for the many incidents of shoving or rowdiness or other misbehavior. We knew we all still needed the church, but it could be tough with a child who was having such a hard time.

But there were teachers and others in the religious education program who understood and loved our little boy. They didn’t give up. They saw the potential within this little smarty-pants, and they worked with him to help him with his frustrations and his fears, his sorrow and his self-control.

And it didn’t happen overnight, but by the time he was a teenager, he had mastered the art of friendship, the ability to joke and tease appropriately, the self-understanding and compassionate heart to reach out to others who were struggling.

And now, I’m pleased to say, that little boy now become a man is an active leader in the UU congregation he attends in another town, where he lives with his wife and family. Life is not always rosy for him, but he has the tools and the foundation to make good decisions.

That’s what Religious Educators and others who work with children in this congregation are doing right now. They are carrying on the work that those wonderful religious educators at Jefferson Unitarian Church did for me and my family those many years ago. My gratitude knows no bounds for the work of our religious educators.

What else brings that sense of fullness and gratefulness to me? I see how you all reach out to each other, offering friendship, welcoming new folks and my heart fills up. I see all the children who come and sit on the rug to hear a story, and I can’t help but smile. I hear of those who offer to transport someone to an appointment or who offer support to those in difficult transitions and my heart swells with thanks.

I see how you all enjoy each others’ joys and grieve with others’ sorrows. I see people walk into this room, look around, and I know they are seeing the same beauty and serenity and welcome that I find here. And there have been times when the music has been so lovely that I am left speechless and overcome by thankfulness that we have had the experience and that we have had it together.

Melody Beattie has written: “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.”

And Winston Churchill once wrote, “We make a living with what we get. But we make a life with what we give.”

How is your gratitude expressed in the world? Do you find yourself wanting to do something to share your sense of fullness with others? When you are feeling lonely and deprived, has another’s generous kindness made a difference for you?

One lonely Saturday morning when I was living in Seattle, I was having my usual Grand Slam breakfast at the local Denny’s, and I noticed a group of young men and women off in one corner, laughing and drinking coffee. I remembered how my son, when he was about their age, used to drink coffee with his friends from work at the local Denny’s near our Denver home, and I smiled to see that age-old habit repeating itself in Seattle youth.

But I was very surprised, when I asked my server for the bill, to discover that it had been picked up and paid for by the group of young people I’d been observing. I went over to say thank you to them as I left the restaurant, and they mentioned that they were paying it forward, doing something nice for someone else because they had been the recipients of kindness earlier in the morning and wanted to share their gratitude.

There’s a member of this congregation who, when he sees me at El Corral restaurant once in awhile, pays my bill before I get to the cash register. This kindness cannot be ignored, so I have begun paying the bill of someone else in the restaurant, stealthily pointing someone out to Fernando and quickly leaving before they notice.

It would be easy to just say thank you to this person and go on my way with a smile, forgetting what it means to be the recipient of another’s generosity. And I did that for awhile, just being secretly pleased that this person would do this for me. It didn’t occur to me right away that there was more I could do. And then some friends came to El Corral and sat with me, and, guess what, it occurred to me then and I had the opportunity and took it.

Being able to give them the gift of a delicious meal was every bit as pleasant as being the recipient!

This ties in with another insight I had awhile back, the idea that “It works if you work it”. That’s a 12 step mantra, often echoed at the end of meetings, but it works in everyday life very well.

I have the habit, as perhaps some of you do, to regard advice from others as something I have to respond to politely, consider, and then let go of. Sometimes I don’t even consider the advice, particularly if I didn’t ask for it. Sometimes if I ask for the advice, I still don’t consider it, even when it’s good advice and intended to be helpful. “ I’ve made my mind up, don’t confuse me with your thoughts” seems to be my MO on occasion.

But it really works against me. It keeps me from acknowledging that others have good ideas, workable ideas, ideas that could actually improve my life!

For a long time, years ago, I denied the idea that I had some pretty unmanageable things going on in my life---I kept ending up with people who took more than they gave, treated me rudely frequently, and I had no idea what to do about it.

And then one morning, early on a rare day off from school when I was trying to sleep in, a friend woke me up with a phone call, suggested we meet for lunch, and, once we were together, she said essentially, “you need to figure out why you keep ending up with all these people who treat you this way.” And, for once in my life, I listened.

I took her advice, I started going to AlAnon meetings, and I decided to go the whole route, work the 12 steps and do them conscientiously and faithfully. If I had not done that, I suspect I would still be repeating the mistakes of old. It wasn’t so much the 12 steps that saved my bacon, it was my realization that “it only works if you work it”.

Gratitude is kinda like that. We can say thank you to people who compliment us or do something nice for us or perform a service of some kind, dishing us up pasta salad at the deli or helping us straighten out some financial issue over the phone. We can express appreciation to our kids or spouse for chores done or favors offered. We often say thank you and go on our way without really considering what it means that people are kind to us or that efforts are made in our behalf.

But gratitude as a spiritual practice really works-----if you really work it. I’ve noticed that when I really let myself experience the gratitude I feel, whether it’s for everyday kinds of things---the thank yous I hand out to those who help me or speak kindly to me----or for the larger gratitude I feel when I witness some act of kindness and generosity toward others, when I let myself really absorb the meaning of those acts, my sense of gratitude grows and my behavior toward others becomes more generous and kind.

I leave a bigger tip or I add a compliment to my thank you or I offer something helpful in return or I say yes to the Equal Rights Washington caller on the phone and promise to send in my pledge right away. Gratitude enhances my life, it improves my relationships with those around me, and the generosity which is the outpouring of that gratitude increases.

Gratitude works. It works to open our eyes to the wonders of our lives, the people we are in relationship with, the beauty of the earth and its creatures, the majesty and mystery of the universe.

Gratitude works. When we experience gratitude, we also tend to become more giving. We learn the transformative power of giving, its ability to lighten our mood, heal our hurts, improve our sense of well-being, change our hearts from fearful to joyful, strengthen our connections with each other; it teaches us to look deeply at ourselves, helps us see that giving and receiving are equal in value, gives us a chance to offer our unique gifts, connects us to the greater whole, gives us new eyes to see the world around us, to experience oneness with that world and to see its truths.

As we enter this stewardship season, I hope that each of us will think deeply about our gratitude to this congregation, this place of worship, the ways in which we reach out to each other and to the larger community. I hope that we will all express our gratitude for the gifts we’ve received here by being as financially generous as we can manage, within our own circumstances.

My practice every year is to increase my financial pledge by $300 a year. That’s an extra $25 a month. I can do that and I find that my heart expands and becomes even fuller, as I express my gratitude for the joy that serving this congregation brings me.

One theologian has said that if our only prayer in life is “Thank you, thank you, thank you”, that would be enough. But we have been given so much that “our gratitude calls us to give back, to find ways to bless the world as we have been blessed. Generosity is making love visible in the world. We offer our gifts as we build the beloved community.”*
(* from the Rev. Tom Disrud)

This is our religious home. We have work to do in the world. May our gratitude and our dedication to this religious community lead us to generosity that will sustain its work in the coming years.

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, grateful for the love that has created and sustained this place and these people. May we express our gratitude in all the ways we are able and may we experience the joy of giving until it feels good. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

The Living Tradition Institute...

might not be a familiar concept to you, if you are a Unitarian Universalist in a different district. It is, as far as I know, unique to the Pacific Northwest District, though there may be similarly shaped opportunities in other districts.

It began as an effort to offer guided theological reflection workshops to interested laypersons from a cluster of local UU congregations. It was the brainchild of four of my colleagues from the North Olympic Ministers group: Jaco and Barbara Wells ten Hove, Liz Stevens, and Bruce Bode, and began last year as a traveling workshop at each of the three congregations represented by their ministers. It was a big enough success that the group decided to offer it again this year.

They invited me to participate to the extent I found possible, given that it takes a good deal of cash and time to get over to the Kitsap/Quimper/Bainbridge area where the three congregations are located. I opted, at least for this year, to participate mainly as a small group facilitator and yesterday I had that opportunity.

I was thrilled, when I advertised the LTI for Whidbey folks, to watch the list of interested participants grow. We ferried eight folks over to the Quimper congregation for a full day of lecture and discussion of the theological questions of Soteriology (salvation/wholeness/preparation for death) and Ontology (the nature of Being/Reality), seen through the lens of Rev. Fred Campbell's concept of the Four Faiths of Liberal Religion.

Rev. Campbell sees Humanism, Naturalism, Mysticism, and Theism to be the four threads which generally comprise most UU congregations, as well as many other liberal congregations. The purpose of the LTI's workshop was to help participants find the thread that most nearly describes their approach to their faith and to discuss with others the aspects of their spiritual journey.

As I facilitated my group (Naturalists), I was struck by the eagerness with which people shared their thoughts and views, not arguing, just speaking their own truth. It seemed to be both reassuring and clarifying for most of the people in the Naturalist group to hear others' thoughts; there was both agreement and disagreement on certain points, particularly when someone shared a more mystical experience but attributed it to "unknowable" when others saw it as "ultimately knowable".

I see myself as a humanistic naturalist, if that makes sense---very grounded in the natural world from whence most of my spiritual experiences arise, but receiving my strength and joy from sharing values with my human community. That is not to say that I am not a mystic, for I have had and continue to have mystical experiences that are grounded in nature; and it is not to say that I am not a theist, for I have an ongoing relationship with the Power beyond human power, which I find in myself as well as outside myself.

My group of congregants, coming home on the ferry, talked about how we might offer these same ideas to our Whidbey congregation in the coming months. What a thrill for a minister, to find my beloved congregants excited about theology and eager for more! What a delight!