Thursday, June 30, 2011

With an hour to go...

before I pick up my pal Penelope for our trip to the Mensa Annual Gathering in Portland, there's enough time to write a quick post about how excited I am about doing this.

I joined Mensa thirty years ago, when my mom, seeing how stupid I felt after the breakup of my marriage, urged me to try my luck and take an IQ test. In my capacity as a school counselor, I had just given my young nephew Joel an IQ test, which he'd blasted the lid off of, to enable him to join Mensa.

"You could do that too, you know," my mom said. "Don't you remember when you were in 7th grade and Mr. S called us in to talk to us about you? We didn't say much to you about it, but his message was that you were undoubtedly a gifted child and we needed to provide you with the best education we could manage. At that time, you tested in the 140 level. You're probably still there, even if you feel dumb." (Words paraphrased, obviously.)

So I thought about it and eventually enlisted my friend Arline, the school psychologist at the junior high where I worked, to give me the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS), figuring that if my brain had deteriorated, as I was afraid it might have, at least she was sworn to confidentiality and nobody would have to know.

But there I was, still, in that range, whether I felt stupid or not. And I sent in my test results, certified by a qualified psychologist, and was duly accepted into Mensa, the high IQ society.

I dithered for months, wondering if I had made a huge mistake. I was afraid to tell people, for fear they'd think I was bragging, for fear of being labeled a brainiac (which I certainly didn't feel like), for fear of being put down as someone who thought overly highly of myself. What good was it to belong to Mensa if I wasn't comfortable telling people?

And then I went to my first meeting of the Denver group, a gathering in a buffet restaurant before a monthly general meeting on some topic. It was like walking into a comfortable, casual home with people who liked me immediately, understood and laughed at my jokes, told their own esoteric funny stories, reveled in punny humor, and weren't the least bit stuck on themselves because of their high intelligence.

Over the years since then, I've honed my leadership skills as an officer in the Denver group (if leading UUs is like herding cats, try Mensans!), spent a few years working with gifted underachieving adolescents in schools, and generally having a blast most (not all) of the time. I got my first writing-for-publication experience writing monthly columns for the Matrix, Denver Mensa's newsletter; I got my first conflict reduction experience as LocSec/President of Denver Mensa for several years; I found some of my fondest friends and lovers in the group (fond, not necessarily normal). And I also got temporarily disillusioned and dropped out for a few years.

Re-entering Mensa when I came back to Oregon in 1999 put me in a whole different Mensa milieu, fun but not as demanding as my earlier leadership experience. And moving up to this area meant I became a member of the Western Washington Mensa group, where friend Richard and I started the Whidbey Island "Thank Goodness It's Friday" second Friday Happy Hour, alternating between Freeland's China City bar and the San Remo Grill in Oak Harbor.

I haven't been to an AG (Annual Gathering) since at least 1991---twenty years. And in scanning the roster of registrants, I'm aware that I will only know a handful of attendees at the gathering. But I believe that there will be the same high spirits, stimulating presentations, and convivial shmooze sessions that have always characterized an AG for me.

So there---I'm out of the closet on this. I am a smart person, even though I don't act like it sometimes. I am not vain about it; my parents and brother and sister are also smart. And then there's Joel! My son became a Mensan when he was old enough to take a junior high IQ test. My ex-husband is also eligible. It's pure luck on my part to be smart and I have a responsibility to be humble about it and use it well.

I have noticed that as I got more and more involved in ministry, my interests changed and shifted and I was less interested in what Mensa was doing. I have spent the past twenty years immersed in ministry, with its search for meaning rather than information. But there's always been a little spark of curiosity in me about science and behavior patterns and human development---not just what they mean in isolation but in relationship to my vocation. And if IQ has had anything to do with ministry, I hope it has been to be intelligent about my relationships, to curb my weirder responses that are an attempt to be funny, and to offer understanding and comfort to others who often offend because they are "too smart for their own good".

In fact, I once thought I might write a book with that title, about what it's like to be a gifted kid grown into a gifted adult, to go from obnoxiously smart to more socially acceptable intelligence. It's been a journey that has had its ups and downs. I still do dumb things occasionally and, even as I smack my forehead in frustration, I still know that I am a wiser person, due in large part to my life experiences.

Mensa is NOT a place where people sit around and stroke their egos. At least I've never seen that happen. Mostly I see people who are blossoming in the accepting atmosphere of a place where they are understood and appreciated for their weird humor, eccentric interests, and creative ideas. If you feel a little off-kilter sometimes in a world that doesn't see things the way you do, consider visiting a Mensa meeting and see what you think. You might find a new home.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

At Cross Purposes?

Rev. Kit Ketcham, June 26, 2011

A couple of months ago, I was talking with a friend who is one of the organizers of the local PFLAG group (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). She had asked about renting a room here in our building to hold their meetings and I was encouraging her, telling her a little bit about the layout, that sort of thing, and mentioning that Unitarian Universalists have long been in the forefront of civil rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender folks.

She seemed excited and interested and was willing to prepay the first few months’ worth of rent right then and there. But then she hesitated, put her wallet back in her purse, and said ruefully, “I’d better check with the rest of the group before I commit us to renting from you. There are a few in the group who won’t walk into a church, even a liberal one, because of the wounds they’ve experienced in other churches.”

I’d had a similar experience at another time with a conservative Jewish friend who was talking with me about where she attends synagogue and why. Her group of Chabad Lubavitch Jews were very uncomfortable meeting in a sanctuary which was called a church. They preferred secular rooms in a hotel to anything which might display a Christian symbol such as a cross.

And in my first congregation, down in Portland, the very fact of meeting in a United Methodist sanctuary, with its several crosses prominently displayed, was enough to encourage a small group of congregants to kick up a fuss and push for a change of venue.

Where does this anger and fear come from? And why does it pop up in our midst? It’s been said that Unitarian Universalists are open to religious symbols from all world religions----except Christianity.

There is, among many Unitarian Universalists, a deep discomfort with Christian ideology and doctrine. Some say it’s because of the supernatural aspects of Christianity---the virgin birth, the physical resurrection and the deity of Jesus, the anthropomorphic definition of God. Others say it’s because of the pain inflicted upon those denounced and excluded because of their race or gender or sexual orientation or culture or religion or other arbitrary characteristic. Some folks have experienced cruelty firsthand that had nothing to do with exclusion and everything to do with control of a child or a woman.

Yet we express respect for other similarly supernatural or exclusionary religions and we select inspirational quotes and stories from traditions which also have their negative histories; Islam, for example, has both cruelty and compassion written into the Koran, yet when our friend Jamal Rahman comes to speak to us of Islam, we pay attention as he unwraps the mysteries of his tradition and explains its contradictions.

What’s going on here? I’ve thought about this a lot and, though I don’t have my own painful past experiences with Christianity, I do think I’ve figured a few things out.

Pain is a powerful deterrent, even keeping us from experiencing delight and love when we’ve had hurtful experiences. Rape or abuse victims often struggle with life’s opportunities and challenges because of the pain inflicted by a rapist or an abuser. Love and pain are often so closely intertwined that it’s hard to distinguish where one ends and the other begins.

We’ve doubtless had our own experiences with love and pain, some of those experiences healthy and normal and others degrading and humiliating. We may have learned our own ways of avoiding pain, healthy and unhealthy as those ways may be.

It can be hard for a man who was the victim of molestation at the hands of an adult male to trust other men, to express affection to a male friend by an embrace or holding a hand. It can be hard for a woman who has been sexually assaulted to work through the pain and fear engendered by that violence. A gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person can find it very difficult to put him or herself again in a situation which has previously resulted in humiliation. A child treated cruelly remembers that cruelty and tries to avoid it as an adult.

It’s hard to leave behind old, painful experiences, but our own desire for health may cause us to seek a healing solution, rather than try to avoid all contact with anyone or anything that might remind us of the old trauma. We tend to support efforts to help our wounded veterans heal from the effects of Post-Trauma Stress, rather than continuing to experience and re-experience the pain and conditioned responses of psychic and physical battle wounds.

So I would like to suggest that it makes sense for us to take a hard look at whatever pain Christianity has caused us and come to grips with it, rather than avoiding Christian symbolism, criticizing “churchy” hymns and language, and generally scorning Christianity as if it were a noxious religious movement.

Because it’s not. And, it’s our own history we’re scorning. We may have moved on down the evolutionary religious path, but we still started out as Christian, we owe a great deal of our existence to the effort to reclaim the best of Christianity while letting go of the worst and moving on.

And we have a lot of Christian cousins who are walking only a little bit behind us, letting go of exclusionary doctrines, opening their arms to all folks, working for justice and equity and world community, reinterpreting the Bible through a lens of liberation and acceptance of others.

And we miss out when we overlook the strides many Christian denominations have made, when we fail to encourage their hard work and refuse to forgive them for their errors.

I feel very sad about the great pain caused by such monumentally damaging events as the Crusades, the Holocaust, the dogmas which deny women the right to choose or to protect their bodies from pregnancy, the church laws which prevent women from serving as clergy, the literal interpretations of ancient purity laws which ostracize and condemn sexual minorities.

A great deal of harm has been done by these kinds of practices and policies. Christian church leaders often forget that their founder, the Jesus they claim to revere and follow, did not utter any of these statements of exclusion. In fact, scholarly research is hard pressed to reveal exactly what Jesus did say about anything, since the Gospels of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, were written long after Jesus’ death, years after those with first-hand experience of Jesus’ ministry had died, all based on oral reports handed down from generation to generation and written down by ancient scribes in their own words, not Jesus’.

When I first came to serve this congregation, in 2003, I lived in Seattle for a couple of years and during that time I got connected with an interfaith clergy group called the Religious Coalition for Equality, which was working to support legislation giving all couples the equal right to legal marriage.

It was a exciting thing to do, to sit down with other clergy (Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist, Pagan, and UU) and talk about how we could best make this happen.

It was a revelation to me to find many Christian clergy walking with me and others as we marched on the King County Courthouse to give our clergy petition to Ron Sims, King County Executive, asking for marriage licenses to be granted to same-sex couples and supporting the men and women who had attempted to get marriage licenses and were denied.

And scanning the list of signatures on that petition, I found a preponderance of Christian clergy representing all mainline denominations. There were United Methodist, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian, Evangelical Lutheran, Unity, Catholic, Episcopalian, Disciples of Christ, and….Baptist. American Baptist, that is, not Southern or Conservative or any other of the many Baptist brand names.

In fact, when I was first invited to be part of the Religious Coalition for Equality, I was a bit taken aback---but proud and pleased---to find that my former Christian tradition, American Baptist, was strongly represented and, in fact, we held our meetings at the First Baptist Church of Seattle.

It was hard for members of the gay community to walk through those doors in the early days of our work together. It took a great deal of courage to be openly gay and attend a mainline church. But once they’d taken that step, most found a welcoming and supportive environment where they could be themselves without fear of condemnation.

This past winter, a rash of highly publicized suicides by teenagers suspected of being gay or lesbian resulted in a campaign spearheaded by the controversial sex columnist of Seattle’s alternative newspaper The Stranger, Dan Savage.

Prominent and not-so-prominent men and women across the nation, from all walks of life, told the stories on video of their own growing up gay experiences, with the theme of “It gets Better”.

Though the word hasn’t gotten out to every American teenager yet, and there continues to be bullying and humiliation directed toward those presumed to be gay or lesbian, the “It Gets Better” campaign has had a great deal of airplay, with over 22,000 videos produced and distributed on YouTube and other outlets over the past several months. You may have seen some of those videos and thrilled to the stories told by people you may not even have known were gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender.

Some of those videos were made by straight friends who told their own stories of transformation and could testify that, for former bigots as well, things could get better. I could make a video myself, telling the story of moving beyond my own discomfort with the visit of my friend Fern, who came out to me in the 70’s and scared me to death when she wanted to stay overnight.

I think liberal Christianity could use an “It’s Gotten Better” movement! But we Unitarian Universalists have a complicated history when it comes to our relationship with our Christian cousins.

Did it start with the controversy in 325 of the common era, when those who denied the Trinity were condemned as heretics? Or in 544 c.e. when the doctrine of universal salvation was rejected as blasphemy? Those ancient roots established our spiritual ancestors as free thinkers and question askers, not always compliant with orthodoxy.

Our heresies endured, throughout subsequent centuries, across Europe and into North America. Both were persecuted in Europe and both emigrated to the American colonies as Pilgrims, seeking religious freedom.

Here in the newly established United States of America, our founding fathers and mothers proclaimed their separation from traditional Christianity in such areas as women’s rights, the divinity of Jesus, and heaven’s rewards for all.

As President, Thomas Jefferson compiled his own version of the four Gospels, removing passages which he felt were against the life and morals of Jesus, a little book which is available still and known as “The Jefferson Bible”.

William Ellery Channing preached a revolutionary sermon entitled “Unitarian Christianity” in which he delineated the differences between orthodox Christianity and that of seekers of a less supernaturally-based faith.

Other preachers such as Theodore Parker and Ralph Waldo Emerson further explored the limits of traditional doctrines and set forth their thoughts about a free thinking, open minded faith, presenting the findings of science as more valid than ancient purity laws defining human life and opening eyes to God as seen through Nature’s wonders in the literary awakening known as Transcendentalism.

Eventually, the two denominations of Universalism and Unitarianism became stand-alone alternatives to traditional Christianity and in 1961, merged to become who we are today, the Unitarian Universalist Association.

One of our major sources, rational humanism, a reaction to the evangelical fervor and emphasis on supernatural events of traditional Christianity, influenced the continuing development of our faith and its emphasis on rationality and scientific inquiry dominated our faith for many years, until a hunger for spiritual expression began to assert itself and many of us began to take another look at the spiritual practices of more ancient faiths.

Buddhism, Hinduism, paganism, these all had mystical practices that offered something science did not: a pathway into the mysteries of mind and body that could not be explained by rational means.

As this hunger for spiritual experience developed, so did resistance on the part of those whose UUism was largely humanistic. Spirituality seemed to some too much like supernaturalism, irrational rather than rational, and the phenomenon known as “cross cringe” began to emerge, as UUs distanced themselves from a Christianity that no longer worked for them.

The symbol of the Christian cross came to mean subjugation, hypocrisy, and patriarchy in the minds of those who were trying to find a way to combine rational thought and spiritual practice, and many found comfort in Eastern and indigenous spiritual practices rather than the spiritual practices of Christianity.

Unfortunately, this had the effect of distressing the large numbers of Unitarian Universalist Christians who began to feel unwelcome in our midst yet didn’t really fit in traditional, even liberal, Christian congregations.

Something had to happen and the UU Christian Fellowship emerged as a way to recognize and honor the values imparted by our Christian heritage and to support those whose Christianity fit well within our UU community.

I wrote an essay for my blog several years ago about “cross cringe” and one of my readers made this comment:

"IMHO, it would help UUs and Xtians on either side of the "cross-cringe" divide to be reminded that the UU concern for things like justice, equity, compassion, and radical inclusion (sprang)… from the mouth of Jesus, who himself was retelling the message of the Hebrew prophets and who in turn has been retold and preserved through the Christian tradition for 2,000 years…

We UUs of today learned our own cherished principles from our Christian UU predecessors, who learned them from reading Jesus in the Bible. We may have wandered so far away from a formerly Scripture-centered religious orientation that some of us no longer pay much or even any attention to the Bible, but it is still the original source of most of our UU values; we didn't just think them up on our own.

To Christians, the Cross is not a symbol of hypocrisy, patriarchy and subjugation, but of the same principles that we too hold dear, and that our only recently divergent traditions were originally learned from the same source. 

To reject the supernatural cosmology of Christianity or the abusive practices or attitudes of certain Christian subcultures is one thing, but we cannot reject its moral principles and sources without ultimately also rejecting our own, for they are in large measure the same."

I think my reader is saying something we need to think about. When we lump all Christian thought and all Christian behavior and all Christian practice into one objectionable pile, we do ourselves and our neighbors a great disservice. Would that we could come to see the Christian symbol of the cross as a reminder of the compassionate spirit, selfless action, and inclusive practice of the teacher Jesus, whose teachings changed the world, even though they have been much distorted and altered over the centuries. There are still Christians who strive to follow those footsteps, many of them within our own communities.

It is a disservice to our faith when we fail to live out our own principles of acceptance and respect for others’ spiritual paths, especially when our own heritage is what we are rejecting.

We are no longer adolescents who feel the need to disparage and rebel against our parents’ ways. We are loving, compassionate, justice-seeking adults, trying to teach our children to be respectful and caring in a world that often seems to discourage love and compassion.

The Jewish prophet and teacher Jesus of Nazareth is quoted in both the gospels of Matthew and Luke in this way:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye."

So as we work to encourage our b/g/l/t friends and our Jewish neighbors to trust us with their spiritual lives, to reassure them that we UUs have friendship and hospitality to share, as we urge victims of violence to look for peace of mind and heart through therapeutic experience, may we also see that, as Jesus’s ancient words point out, we too may have a vision problem, a problem we need to address before we consider others’ limitations.

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 our long history and the ways our Christian ancestors have shaped us. May we honor that heritage, in addition to the several sources which also shape our faith, and may we open our hearts to the understandings and wisdom of all our sources, not just the ones we like the best. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

I am one of those NOT going to ...

Charlotte, NC, where the 50th anniversary of Unitarian Universalism is being celebrated at the annual General Assembly.

Despite the blandishments of HOT WEATHER, I would prefer to stay here on my island in Puget Sound where it is raining again and where I have just had to fill up my home fuel tank for over $1000, after a mere six months of daily furnace usage. It is June 23 and the furnace is running again because the outside air is 50 degrees. But I love it in the Pacific Northwest more than any other place on the earth, even if it does get a little rainy at times.

There is a part of me that misses the organized chaos and bonhomie of GA, the wisdom of colleagues who've stayed the course for 50 and 25 years, reconnecting with people I see very seldom and maybe have only met on Facebook.

I have only been to one GA since I moved to the island in 2003, and that one was in Portland, just down the road. I may never go again, even when I retire and can participate in the ceremony of the Living Tradition as a minister going into retirement. It just isn't appealing to travel across the country, spend bushels of money, and dress well every day in order to maintain my professional image among the laity.

I'd rather stay home with the cats, wear my jeans and sweatshirts, and go to the local jam, cook my own meals, go to bed at a decent hour, and miss out on all the educational and collegial fun. I remember GA's as being absolutely frantic; I always felt I needed to attend multiple educational and governance sessions but I inevitably skipped out on most of them and schmoozed with friends in the exhibit hall. The guilt of spending all that money to hang out around the booths and the buddies rather than boning up on stewardship campaigns and other ministerial topics----that eventually became too much of a burden. So I don't go any more.

Instead, I am going to indulge in an activity next weekend that I haven't enjoyed for 20 years, in fact ever since I began my journey into ministry: the Mensa Annual Gathering which, in a stroke of luck, is in Portland OR! At an AG, I never feel guilty about avoiding all the educational sessions and schmoozing with friends in the hospitality suite or the bookstore or the game room or the nightly fishbowl conversations. In fact, that's what I go for.

Their business meeting takes a couple of hours in the front end of the weekend and nobody is required to go. And everybody likes my jokes, which can be slightly raunchy at times and not appropriate for professional occasions. This time I'm even going to strut my stuff at the after-hours cabaret, since Richard is also a Mensan and also going to the AG. We're gonna do some of our Hoagy Carmichael songs and I'm going to wear a slinky dress and sing "Stardust" into the ears of some so-called geniuses whom I haven't seen for 20 years and just hope they have their hearing-aids turned up.

All this thinking about retirement has me looking with great interest at a future down the road which has fewer professional responsibilities and much more time for kicking up my elderly heels. At the beach. Maybe with a dog. Tidepools in the early morning. Big waves. "Ocian in view. O the joy!"

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

I was a teenage Pea Bum and...

I'm tired. And beginning to really feel my age. Not to worry you, FS and other family and friends, but I am at an age where retirement is beginning to look pretty attractive. Not that I have quit loving my work---quite the opposite: I love it as much as ever. But I'm at that point in life where I realize that I don't want to work forever.

My first job, at age 12, was babysitting, which I didn't much like. When I turned 13, my dad taught me to drive a stick shift and I went to work for the same pea farmer as all the other Athena girls my age, driving big open-air truckloads of peavines from field to viners, for 85 cents an hour, 12 hour shifts. It was hot, dusty work and we loved it. It seemed logical that the boys driving swathers and loaders made $1 an hour; their job was a little more demanding---they had to fix their tractors when they broke down, while we girls just sat and waited for the field boss to come fix our trucks.

It wasn't always a safe job, either; sidehills were dangerous places to drive alongside a loader and feel the peavines shooting out of the loader chute against the high side of our truck beds. Sometimes the load would stack up unevenly against the high side, making the truck lurch precariously onto two wheels. Hills that were really steep required bulldozers to pull the trucks up the hill vertically instead of risking a tipped-over truck and injured driver.

But it was my job every summer until I turned 16 and got my driver's license. Then I could add wheat truck driver to my resume' and began to earn $1 an hour for 12 hour shifts, on top of the pea harvest pay. Peas came first, in June and very early July, and then wheat ripened in later July and August.

From that early work experience grew a strong desire to be employed in something at all times and I worked pretty much non-stop from then on: strawberry row boss, receptionist, book store salesperson, dorm counselor, snack bar hostess, welfare worker, missionary, teacher, counselor, minister. From age 12 till now is 57 years of Puritan Work Ethic, giving the best I could manage under a variety of conditions, always with responsibility hanging heavy on my mind. No wonder I'm tired!

And the prospect of retirement, of fulfilling a longtime dream to move to the Oregon Coast and live out some of my days, is more and more appealing. I will hate to leave Whidbey Island when I retire, but collegial guidelines will demand that of me, so that the new minister doesn't feel the competition of my presence in the community and so that congregation members don't feel tempted to turn to me instead of the new minister. That's the hardest part of leaving a congregation behind---saying goodbye.

But I'm thinking I will make the decision to retire within the next couple of years, maybe sooner, and help the congregation take the needed steps to prepare for a new minister, figuring out the financing, the search process, the infrastructure necessary to take this large step in the life of the congregation.

When I retire, I want to do it right. I want it to be at a good time in the congregation's life, if possible, and in my life with good health and strong energy in me to enjoy the years of new leisure time. I want to try something new---being a docent at Haystack Rock, working with community theatre, volunteering at something new, walking the beach every day, even in the rain. I want new shorelines, bigger waves, real tide pools, few deadlines. Maybe I'll write something besides sermons and newsletter columns!

At this point, it's just a gleam in my eye. But it will happen when the time is right.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Shall we dance?

Rev. Kit Ketcham, June 12, 2011

I don’t remember all the pieces of the scenario that day, but it was September and my father and I were standing on a downtown McMinnville, Oregon, street. I think we might have just had lunch before he got back in the car to go home to Athena, after helping me move into my dorm at Linfield College. I think this would have been my sophomore year.

I do remember looking at the nearby movie theater marquee and noticing that some movie musical I was hoping to see was playing. Now, I had not seen many movies up to that point in my life, mostly those shown at church, which were always with a missionary theme, and also the epic movies “The Ten Commandments” and “The Robe”. Instructional movies in school were fine, but not much else was permitted by my strict Baptist environment.

There had been a few clandestine family trips to the drive-in theater in a town 15 miles away from Athena, where nobody would be likely to see the preacher’s family swilling Pepsis and munching popcorn, in defiance of the small-town norm that proclaimed that ministers and their families must be above such worldly pleasures!

My father noticed me gazing at the movie theater and took this opportunity to say something like this: “Betsy, you are now officially an adult. You are 18 years old. You are old enough to make your own decisions about all the things we have asked you not to do while you were living at home. We trust you to make good decisions.”

I was stunned. I had not expected to be given my parents’ permission to step outside of the conventional expectations of our conservative little family.

But I tried to be cool, not betray my amazement by babbling some childish remark which might make him regret what he’d said.

We said our goodbyes and hugged each other, he hopped in the old Dodge station wagon and chugged away, while I stood on the corner wondering if he knew that his words of permission had come a little late.

I had already made the decision to go to the movies and had seen a few during my freshman year. I’d even gone to a dance or two and though I didn’t know my left foot from my right on the dance floor, it was fun to sway back and forth with my equally inept partner, in time to the music.

In fact, I had learned first hand just why the Baptists were against dancing. It was too much fun, too intimate, too encouraging of additional intimacies that might lead to …..what? well, you doubtless have heard the old jokes: Baptists don’t dance because they consider it to be making love standing up. Of course, that’s also related to why they don’t make love standing up----somebody might think they were dancing.

Of course, most of the other youth in our Athena Baptist Youth Fellowship did go to school dances, just not the preacher’s kids. And Linfield was a Baptist college at the time. Apparently not all Baptists had the same rules. And didn’t my dad drive us all to those drive-in movies every summer? Clearly there were variations in the seriousness of these rules!

There was a piece of me that was relieved to hear Dad giving me permission to make my own rules about things that had previously been taboo. There was another piece of me that struggled to get past my guilty fears, particularly about dancing. Dancing was intimate, it was moving in harmony with another person, it was tempting and sexy and scary.

And though I went to several dances during my college years, I was invariably nervous and stiff as a board in my movements. It was as though I really believed dancing was wrong and my body couldn’t relax.

Interestingly, I’ve never completely conquered that sense of discomfort and tension, even though I enjoy dancing, even got good at it during one period in my life when I did a lot of square and contra dancing. I’m uptight and stiff and nervous, at least at first, about stepping on my partner’s toes, particularly in the close-up positions.

I was thinking about dancing as I took my morning walk the other day and I was singing a little ditty as I walked, a song a friend had sent to me via Facebook on the occasion of my birthday: “God danced the day you were born, the angels did the bump to Gabriel’s horn; God danced the day you were born, so grateful for the gift of you.” Isn’t that fun?

But imagine God or the Universe dancing! What would that mean? Infinitely large entities bopping to the music of the spheres? Now there’s some toe-stepping-on behavior that we might want to watch out for! But the truth is that the universe does dance; the planets and galaxies seem to be moving all the time. And we move with them, involuntarily and more or less smoothly.

The ancient poet Rabindranath Tagore expresses it this way:
The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.

It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.

It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean-cradle of birth and of death, in ebb and in flow.

I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life. And my pride is from the life-throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment.

When Terra and Eileen and I met to design this service, we talked about Eileen’s idea for the topic: how to be in right relationship with people we love who are radically different from us in their religious or political outlook.

We talked about the ways we had felt uneasy, badgered, silenced, even rejected, because of our differences, the times we had felt that those differences were an invisible but smelly elephant in the living room.

I remembered the times when my dear mother, out of concern for the state of my afterlife, would send me endless tracts about salvation, write letters full of concern, and pray for my soul. I felt almost as if I was hiding inside a protective shell while she beat on it with a stick, to make me change my mind and come over to her side of the Jordan river.

Terra and Eileen had their own memories about occasions like these and as we talked, we began to see that what we were engaged in with our dear ones was a kind of dance, a dance in which both partners were uneasy, unsure of what they were doing, tense and stiff and even antagonistic.

This dance is no fun. It’s scary. We risk losing our relationships over this kind of tense, conflicted dance. We are on edge, self-protective in case our toes are endangered, we don’t know what to say, how to be true to our own dance form without hurting the partner.

And yet, we want to dance. We want to be understood; we want to understand. We want to find the steps that will let us move in harmony with each other, without sacrificing our own integrity or that of the other person.
“Shall We Dance?” (Eileen)

Shall we dance? And what dance steps shall we agree to use? What does the music call us to do? Can we relax and be in tune with our partner? Can we let them lead and we follow? Can we lead and encourage them to follow? Can we do this with humor and understanding, especially when both sets of our toes are vulnerable?

How many of us have friends, neighbors, and relatives who are very different from us in their outlook? And how do we maintain good relationships with them considering those deep divisions? The differences might be religious or political or philosophical; we might have agreed NOT to discuss certain topics for the sake of family or neighborhood harmony.

But any time important parts of our whole selves have to be hidden from those we care about, there is pain. And we can see from the tenor of our national political conversations, that NOT discussing our differences in calm and reasonable terms is NOT helping our country be its best self.

When my mother persisted in her efforts to get me to return to my childhood faith, I didn’t handle it very well. I wrote long impassioned, defensive to the point of insulting letters to her, sent her tracts back to her or tossed them in the trash. I was angry that she couldn’t see my point of view.

Finally, my sister wisely reminded her of my legendary stubbornness and suggested she quit banging her head against my wall. And she did, to her credit, though I know she kept praying for me! And her ongoing, unconditional love for me eventually opened my eyes to a way of being in better relationship with her.

Only a few years later, my mother suffered several small strokes and was unable to put many words together coherently. But one of the few sentences she could utter was one she used a lot: “I love you so much.”

It wasn’t “I love you but I’m afraid you’re going to hell” or “I love you and you ought to do what I tell you”. It was just “I love you,” a sentence that set aside the squabble about whose religion was right in favor of the clear truth of our love for each other. The squabble became meaningless in the face of the universal truth of mutual Love.

And luckily, I had learned a little more compassion by then, having gone through my own set of transformative experiences and coming out on the other side with a better understanding of relationships and their importance in my own life.

Through those experiences, I had learned to look for the common ground between me and those I disagreed with. I had learned to look at what had brought them to where they were in life. I had learned that my impassioned disagreements weren’t going to change anyone’s mind. I had learned that NOT discussing hard things wasn’t going to help; there would always be a big smelly elephant in the room.

I’m still not great at it, so when Eileen suggested this topic for today’s service, I knew it would be a good one for me to think about.

Terra loaned me a little book entitled “Gracious Space” by Patricia Hughes, described as a practical guide for working better together. It’s aimed at workplace discourse and seeks to address the issue of our coarsening national civil discourse by improving it in the workplace.

Hughes notes that nationally and individually, we have become hardened in our arguments with each other, polarized to the extent of disabling government efforts to meet our citizens’ needs. We are distrustful, conflictual, and we tend to form our opinions based on sound bytes, not reasonable conversations.

She quotes an adapted Arabian proverb, poetically expressed by Dinah Craik:
“Oh, the joy---
The inexpressible comfort
Of feeling safe with a person,
Having neither to measure words
Nor weigh thoughts,
Pouring them all out just as they are,
Chaff and grain together,
Certain that a loving hand will sift through,
Keep what is worth keeping,
And with a breath of kindness---
Blow the rest away.”

It’s universal, isn’t it? The Arab sage who first expressed this deep need for safety and comfort with another person was speaking for, I’d guess, all of humankind.

How much of human misery could be prevented or healed by the gift of safety and comfort in the presence of other people? Not just one other person, but a universe of safe, trustworthy, compassionate people.

I think we human beings want less defensive, safer, reasonable conversations with each other. I believe we want to be able to learn from each other. I believe we are curious about others and yet too afraid of hurting or being hurt to dare to ask for information.

“What if I ask my brother to tell me more about why he is so politically conservative? Won’t he just tease me again about being a liberal? Won’t he just ridicule me or try to get me to agree with him? Won’t we just go away mad?”

“What if I ask my sister to tell me more about her objection to abortion? Won’t she assume I’m trying to change her mind and get her to agree with me? Won’t this endanger our relationship if we can’t agree on the issue?”

Patricia Hughes, in her little book, speaks of two dimensions to creating Gracious Space. She points out that in order to experience the first dimension, that of Spirit, we have to create a gracious spirit within ourselves.

That inner life of graciousness is something we carry within ourselves; it is trusting and eager to learn, it is open, vulnerable, and compassionate. Gandhi once said, memorably, that we must be the change we want to see in the world.

To cultivate this spirit of inner grace, we need to examine our approach to life in this world. Do our days feel tough or joyful? Are we patient and curious about new ideas? Are we constantly rushing or do we relish a slower pace? How do we show compassion for those in need?

In this way, we can discover our innate strengths and see where we might try to improve. For most of us, it takes time and conscious effort to develop an inner spirit of graciousness and openness.

The second dimension of Gracious Space is Setting, the care we take to provide a place that is welcoming and comfortable for those we seek to understand.
In our own lives, as we play host to those who are so different from us, a little intention can go a long way. Hospitality is the foundation of a gracious setting, an intentionally comfortable and accepting space.

Remember when we were renting space elsewhere and the cross was a prominent fixture in the room? Though many of us didn’t mind it a bit, many others of us didn’t feel quite comfortable with that symbol of a different faith so prominent in the room.

It’s one reason we use the word “congregation” in our name, rather than “church”, preferring the more inclusive term. A setting in which all feel comfortable and accepted is a gracious setting. Are there ways we can create a gracious setting in which our gracious spirits can welcome others who are different, religiously, spiritually, politically, philosophically?

And once we’re there, with our gracious inner spirit and our gracious outer setting, what then? How do we initiate the dance?

“Shall we dance?” What common ground do we have? Can we start there? How can we learn more about our neighbor, our friend, our relative, without badgering, without insisting on there being one right answer, without patronizing or anger or defensiveness? Can we find compassion and understanding by just listening to another’s stories? Can we find a way to support the other’s efforts to live a life of integrity and good will? Can we respond to the other’s efforts to change our minds with gentle firmness but without rejecting them?

I wish I’d had the wisdom and compassion to say to my mother long ago, “Please, mom, these conversations are hurting our relationship. I feel badgered. Can we shape them differently so that we both feel understood?”

My sister and I have found common ground in talking about the efforts of each of our congregations to help the poor and needy in our communities. We may diverge sharply on our theology, but we are in step when it comes to reaching out to the poor and homeless of our communities.

Interestingly, I was talking recently to a realtor who lives just up the road from me, and she told me that the South Whidbey Community Church, a nondenominational evangelical congregation which is fairly new on the south end, has just bought the piece of property across the highway from us here at UUCWI.

And it makes me wonder: when we are neighbors with this very different congregation, can we reach out to them with love and care, despite our religious differences? If they are receptive, can we have a conversation that is gracious in spirit and in setting? If they are uneasy or rejecting, can we respond with compassion and openheartedness? Is there any common ground that we can share?
In other words, can we, shall we dance?

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 those in our lives who are different from us in outlook and understanding. May we look for ways to create an inner spirit of grace and an outer spirit of welcome, that we might grow in understanding and compassion for all humankind, regardless of our differences. And may we find great joy in embracing the other. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.