Tuesday, August 30, 2011

New Job, New Friends, New Digs...

for Max. I just took him over to the farm on Double Bluff where he was welcomed warmly by Bill and Ron, his new friends. They showed me his new digs---a spacious shed with resident mice where he will spend the next few days getting acquainted with his responsibilities and friends. He'll be in charge of patrolling the several acre property and decimating the small varmint population both indoors and out.

This is a mostly-guys hangout, which will be a change for Max who has grown up in an all-female environment. Ron and Bill are nice guys who like cats a lot and will give him lots of love and food and interesting things to check out.

I'm sort of looking at it the same way I looked at the situation when the Favorite Son left home with his car packed full of stuff and headed for Lake Mead to work on a lake steam boat---new job, new friends, new digs. It's not as hard to accept that way----for the FS and for Max, it's the next step in life, having a good job, earning his keep, making new friends, living somewhere new.

One more thing checked off the "getting ready for retirement" list. Now where's that tissue box?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Unforeseen issues of impending retirement, part 1

It's been a couple of weeks now since I announced to the congregation that I would be retiring next June and leaving the island. I anticipated a number of the issues I would need to deal with during this year. In no particular order, they seemed to be finding a home for Max, finding a new home for me and the cats in Astoria, dealing with all the issues of moving---packing, donating, selling, transporting---saying goodbye to all the friends and members of the congregation and the great love I have received from them, figuring out the financial ramifications of a one-income life, being the best minister I can be in the months I have left with this congregation rather than a lame-duck, thinking about who I am when I'm not wrapped in the mantle of a career.

One issue that has cropped up several times now, from a variety of folks, is "why aren't you staying on the island?" I'm very clear about why I'm not staying on the island but it's hard to explain to people. To most who live here, South Whidbey is nirvana, a progressive haven of environmental awareness, political liberalism, a wonderful, beautiful place to live. I think of it that way too, but I'm still leaving the island.

I am looking forward to living in Astoria, meeting new people, shopping regularly at Fred Meyer instead of Pay-less (commonly called Pay-more locally), being at the ocean with big waves instead of bitsy Puget Sound waves, NOT working for as long as I can stand it, finding out what I can do besides minister, counsel, teach, etc.

But that's not the only reason I'm leaving the island. I'm also leaving because I have an obligation to the new minister not to get in the way of that new relationship with this beloved community. I have an obligation to myself and the congregation not to watch as the necessary changes occur because of the new minister. I would rather not know which of my programs and sacred cows will need to be jettisoned after I'm no longer the minister (at least not right away).

If I am still on the island, I could find myself in passive competition with the new person and that's not what I want to do. Not only would it not be a collegial way for me to behave, it would drive me crazy to see congregants in the store or at events and have to redirect every conversation away from how things are going at the church. It's not good for them and it's not good for me.

I've seen cases where former ministers stayed in the community they'd served and caused trouble (usually inadvertently) because they had a hard time letting go of their relationships with congregants while seeing them around the community, and the new minister felt a little uneasy about it. It's easy to say that the new minister ought to be more confident and self-assured, but the reality is that most people starting a new job need time to learn the ropes, the systems, the community being served, and they need support.

The rule of thumb among my colleagues is that, when we leave a congregation at retirement, we stay away from the congregation for at least a year, maybe two. If we live in the same community as our former congregation, we attend church somewhere else. We don't interfere with our successor's bonding process by hanging around, offering advice, or listening to complaints about the new person.

I hate explaining this to people, I've found, because it sounds like a "turf" issue, seems to portray the new person as a wussie who can't stand on his/her own merits, and makes me look like a victim who is torn from the bosom of my community at retirement and forced to wander among the thistles somewhere, bereft.

The relationship ministers have with their congregations is both professional and personal. We live and work among those we serve; we create strong bonds of love and interdependency; we become closer to some than to others because of the ways we serve our congregants; we are with them at the most jubilant of times and the most sorrowful of occasions.

When we perform the sacred acts of ministry, we do so with every ounce of the professional training and comportment we have gained over the years; at the same time, we feel deeply and personally the great sorrow and loss of each beloved life departed, each disagreement with those we love.

The responsibility and privilege of ministry is (are?) both wonderful and awful. We rarely know this when we graduate from seminary and leap joyfully into our first ministry. It takes a few hard knocks to fully appreciate what ministry means---being professional in the hardest of times, being personal mainly in private. Sometimes parishioners know what we're going through; usually they don't.

So, yes, I'm leaving the island. It's because I want to live in Astoria. Would you mind handing me a tissue?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

I wanna be a dog...or maybe a cat

An Animal Blessing Service
August 28, 2011


Welcome to our Animal Blessing service, all you humans and the animals who brought you here. I want to start off by asking you to help me read a poem that needs some sound effects, okay? This is actually a song, but we're going to use it as a poem. Here’s how it goes. Every time you hear me say “O I wanna be a dog”, I want you to pant like a dog (hhhh) four times and again after the next phrase. You’ll catch on really quickly, I’m sure!

O I wanna be a dog (hhhh), wanna wag my tail (hhhh)
Chase cars and knock over garbage cans,
Bite the lady who brings the mail!

O I wanna be a dog…, wanna drool on the floor ….
Get pats on the head, chase cats, get fed,
Chew your shoes and bark at the door.

O I wanna be a dog… wanna dig big holes….
Wanna sniff French poodles and basset hounds
And pee on telephone poles.

O I wanna be a dog….wanna big wet nose….
Wanna run in the street, get mud on m’feet
And jump up onto your clothes!

I wanna have dog breath, I wanna learn to growl,
Scratch fleas and ticks and run after sticks
I want the moon to make me howl!

O I wanna be a dog….I wanna sleep on the ground….
Bein’ human these days is just a little crazed,
I just wanna be a hound!

How many of you would just as soon be a dog sometimes? Especially when things get a little nutso in your life? Wouldn’t it be nice to be a dog and get treats and do tricks and just give doggie kisses to everyone? Instead of having to pay bills and go to the store and mow the yard and do all those human things? Of course, not all dogs have it that easy, but I’d want to be a nice Golden retriever in a nice family.

Or who would like to be a cat? Cats have a pretty good life----all that cream and petting and bossing the humans around. Cats kind of run my house----they meow me awake in the morning, they meow for me to pet them or give them food, they hog all the extra space on the bed so I can hardly move. They have a pretty good life at my house. Of course, I’m not that crazy about Max’s tendency to bring in dead critters for me to clean up. I know they’re presents from him, but I didn’t ask for them!

Did you ever hear the story about how pets were created? It was recently discovered and here’s how I heard it:
 A newly discovered chapter in the Book of Genesis in the Bible has provided the answer to "Where do pets come from?" It is now part of the ancient story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden.

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

And God said, "No problem! I will create a companion for you that will be with you forever and who will be a reflection of my love for you, so that you will love me even when you cannot see me. Regardless of how selfish or childish or unlovable you may be, this new companion will accept you as you are and will love you as I do, in spite of yourself."

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

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

And God said, "No problem! Because I have created this new animal to be a reflection of my love for you, his name will be a reflection of my own name, and you will call him DOG."

And Dog lived with Adam and was a companion to him and loved him. And Adam was comforted. And God was pleased. And Dog was content and wagged his tail.
 After a while, it came to pass that Adam's guardian angel came to the Lord and said, "Lord, Adam has become filled with pride. He struts and preens like a peacock and he believes he is worthy of adoration. Dog has indeed taught him that he is loved, but perhaps a little too well."

And God said, "No problem! I will create for him a companion who will be with him forever and who will see him as he is. The companion will remind him of his limitations, so he will know that he is not always worthy of adoration."

And God created CAT to be a companion to Adam. And Cat would not obey Adam. And when Adam gazed into Cat's eyes, he was reminded that he was not the supreme being.

And Adam learned humility. And God was pleased. And Adam was greatly improved. And Dog was happy. And Cat didn't give a hoot one way or the other.

But you know, it’s not just our pets who make our lives on this earth more worthwhile. There are animals and other living creatures who also help to keep our lives in balance and teach us good lessons about living.

St. Francis of Assisi lived over 800 years ago in Italy and he loved animals too. Stories are told about St. Francis taming a wolf who had been scaring a small village, about his preaching to the birds, and protecting the creatures of the woods and fields. Our blessing today of the animals we care for is to show our understanding and our agreement with St. Francis’s idea that animals are so important in our lives that we must always protect them and take care of them.

We have come to understand that we must not use animals carelessly, that if they work for us, as horses and cows and donkeys and dogs and other working animals do, we have a responsibility to see that they do not work too hard or too long or under bad conditions and that they receive good care, good food, good shelter.

Many of us have come to understand that using animals for food is something that must be done carefully and respectfully. Some of us don’t eat meat any more. Some of us eat only plants and their products for food. Some of us eat meat and fish but look for meat and fish that is humanely produced. And we don’t eat too much of it or eat it just because it’s the trendy thing to do.

Our relationships with animals, whether they are our pets or our source of food or work or the wildlife we see in the fields and forest and oceans, must be in balance. We must not overfish the oceans; we must not overwork our work animals; we must not use up animals or animal habitat unnecessarily.

When our earth and its creatures are in balance, our lives are more in balance too. We are happier when our animals are happy and well-cared-for. We receive so much love from our pets when they are happy and we feel bad when they are sick or injured or afraid.

What does it feel like to be out of balance? When you are dizzy, what does that feel like? Being dizzy is a kind of being out of balance. We can’t walk straight, we feel a little sick, we might even fall down. It’s not very much fun to be dizzy, even if sometimes we do it to be funny.

So we bless our animals today to tell them in our own way that they are important to us, that they help keep our lives in balance, and that we appreciate all that they do for us.

And what is a blessing, you might ask? A blessing is a very strong wish and hope for good things for someone or, in this case, for our animals. When we bless them, we are wishing and hoping that they will have good health, good things to happen to them, good people to take care of them. And we are also promising them that we will help them have good health, good things, good people in their lives.

Our behavior toward our animals tells them even better than words that we care for them. So we are promising them the blessing of our good care. They bless us every time they purr or lick our face or take us for rides or give us eggs or milk or meat. And even when they do something naughty, like my Max does every once in awhile, I still promise to take good care of him, even when I’m a bit mad at him.

How we’re going to do our blessing is this: We’ll do smaller animals first and work our way up through the dogs and larger animals. And we’ll go outside to bless horses and other larger animals. I’m going to ask the owner what the animal’s name is and then I’m going to say, “Bless you _____ and may you live a long and happy and healthy life.” And we’ll give each animal a treat.

At the end of the blessing, we’ll have a time of silence in memory of all the dear animals that have blessed our lives and have given us so much love before they died. During that time of silence, I’ll invite you to call out the names of those animals who have died and whose memory still gives us joy, even though we miss them very much.

Before we sing our final song, I will lead us in a commitment promise to our animals, saying out loud a pledge to treat animals with care and respect, in our homes, in our lands, and in meeting our food needs.

SILENCE (chime, speak names)

COMMITMENT PLEDGE (repeat after me)
I promise to treat the animals in my life with respect and care.
I promise to care for my pets by giving them good food, shelter, and love.
I promise to care for wildlife/ by caring for the forests, fields, and oceans where they live.
I promise to care for working animals by treating them kindly and gently.
I promise to care for food animals/ by respecting the gift they give with their bodies.
I make these promises knowing that my life is connected to theirs.
May it be so.
SONG: All God’s Critters

Friday, August 26, 2011

Max's new digs...

look like a go. I went over to Bill P's place on Double Bluff to check it out and it looks like a workable situation. Max can be outdoors as much as he wants, there will be several people living on the property (small apartment units) who love animals, nobody seems to be a cat molester as far as I can tell, and the grounds he'll patrol are huge, with several outbuildings and a big old barn.

Bill and his pal Ray (?) will let me know when they've fixed up one outbuilding with temporary screens to keep Max inside until he's bonded to the folks feeding him, and then he can go in and out at will. When they've completed the work, I'll take him over and they'll start getting acquainted with him. I told them that if it doesn't seem to be working out, I'll come and get him and keep looking for a spot, but I think it will work out.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed but I know I'm going to miss him terribly.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Decision-making about The Move...

has started and one that has been hanging over my head for awhile is "what am I going to do about Max?" Longtime hangers-on at Ms. Kitty's know that Max the Magnificent, the Massacree-er, is both a beloved fixture at the Saloon and Roadshow AND an attractive nuisance.

When I first started thinking about moving to Astoria, I realized that Max needed to stay on the island, for my wellbeing and his. There are a few organizations on the island who help to place animals who can't accompany their owners to new digs and I started investigating them, figuring I'd make some contacts here and there and by Aug. 1, 2012, I'd surely have found a place for him. Taking him with me was out of the question; paying pet deposits for three cats would be expensive and it's very possible that the only places I'd find to rent would be places where he couldn't go outdoors safely.

A few days ago, I realized that if Max were to have a new home well in advance of my move, it would simplify the move a lot, ease my anxiety about the timeline, make the older cats' lives less anxious, eliminate the need to take him to the kennel every time I want to go out of town, and (I hope) end my need to clean up after the occasional urinary indiscretion (yes, we had another one recently). Let's face it, Max's life here at Cottontail Acres has been marked (pun intended) by messes: disemboweled critters left on the deck and walkways, soaked, odorous bedding, horrible vomitus.

I knew I would miss him, even so, but I decided to look actively for a placement for him right away, so he could be settled in before the rains start. And yesterday morning, in our local version of craigslist, there appeared an ad:

One Hardworking Barn Cat
I recently lost a dear barn cat who lived on a beautiful piece of property overlooking Double Bluff ... There is a barn, multiple outbuildings on 5 acres to patrol – a fantasy job for any barn cat, with plenty of opportunity for advancement in the mouse-eating world.
If you have such a barn cat that is seeking new digs, please contact me.
Bill P.

So I made contact with Bill P and the kind voice on the phone said he thought Max might be a good fit. So I'm going to visit this afternoon and check out the potential new home for my rascally boy. If I feel confident that Bill P is truly kind and that the new digs will work for my Max, I will let him go and explore new territory.

I realize there are risks involved, but there are as many risks if he stays with me. As I went walking yesterday, mulling over the prospect of letting him go, I could see the analogy between letting go of Max and letting go of my dear congregation. Max will miss me (and I him) but he will learn to love another caregiver; his new fields of opportunity will offer plenty of excitement and lots of mice. The congregation will miss me (and I them) but they will learn to love another minister; the possibilities for their outreach and growth will increase with new energy and ideas from a new person. And my life will simplify and ease with each letting-go decision.

Letting go of longtime responsibilities and enjoyments weighs on my mind somewhat. Not to be a minister? Not to be a singer? Not to be a caregiver? Not to be a teacher? a counselor? a provider of information?

And the taking on of possible new roles weighs heavy as well: to be old? to be dependent someday? to be alone? to make new friends? to find new outlets for creativity and enjoyment? to make a new life in a place where I know few people? Risky and exciting, both. Stay tuned!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

I know it's healthy to be...

self-critical, but sometimes when I'm reading UU blogs, I get really tired of the seemingly endless litany of what Unitarian Universalist congregations and ministers and establishments and laity and officers and Boston and the hymnal and worship practices and general philosophy/theology are doing wrong.

As if the world weren't hard enough on us already, we pile on even more self-critique. We're pitifully small, we're confused about our message, we ministers need to be more careful about what we say and do and wear, we're elitist, classist, aging, not growing, you name it---we're guilty of it.

And much of this self-critique is true! But sometimes I just want to scream "People, we're human, we're not perfect, deal with it!"

It seems to me that all the self-critique we put out there, particularly in blogs where we are self-editing, is a kind of self-flagellation, where we beat our breasts and publicly apologize for being imperfect. It seems to me that we lack collective self-esteem and feel a need to beat ourselves up for not saving the world faster, more efficiently, more perfectly, and able to convert others to our way of doing things.

When I was working with middle school kids, the hardest one to work with was the kid who was constantly complaining about his/her own imperfections and apologizing for every mistake, as though it were a criminal offense. That kid needed me to help him/her see his/her strengths, take some pride in his/her skills and successes.

The next hardest was the one who complained constantly about others' imperfections, pointing out all the mistakes others made, even though his/her performance was not exactly stellar. That kid needed to focus on his/her own performance, not that of others.

Self-critique is a good thing but it can be more discouraging than encouraging. And it's really boring after awhile. So here I am, being one of those who critiques others rather than my own performance. There's such an aura of sanctimony about self-critique sometimes. I think that's why it bothers me so much.

And yet here I am, being sanctimonious about sanctimony elsewhere. Sorry---I am a worthless worm today. Tomorrow may be better.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

So the cat is out of the bag....

figuratively speaking, and I am relieved. I have been carrying around the secret of my impending retirement for many months now. It has constrained me in ways I didn't even know until I wrote the letter, informed the board, and then had the letter mailed to the congregation.

The letter arrived in most mailboxes yesterday and I also posted it here and on Facebook. Interesting to be using social media to get the word out---for instant feedback, there's no equal to FB and blog.

Colleagues responded first, with encouragement and thoughtful advice. They mostly are thrilled for me and I suspect they crave the kind of personal time retirement can bring. Ministry gives a distinctive shape to one's life and it doesn't allow for very much personal time. I thought I detected a note of slight envy, as well as the message to not slip off the map while wallowing in the freedom from ministerial duties.

Response from congregants has been slowly coming in and, by and large, they're excited for me and sad for themselves. My friend A warned me yesterday over our lunch not to be surprised if people experience "abandonment issues" and start acting crazy. We'll see how that turns out. I would hope that this healthy bunch of folks would be able to deal just fine.

I do feel sad about leaving them and I feel sad that this news has come on the heels of a tragic death and another impending death in our midst. But there wasn't a better time and I was having a hard time keeping my mouth shut. Still, when I announced it to the board, one fellow said "so, it comes in threes". Maybe that means we're done with loss for awhile.

I find myself checking off things mentally: this time next year I won't go to a board retreat, or plan an adult RE program, or conduct the animal blessing or the water ceremony or... And I won't need to sort out problems like hurt feelings in a congregant or the request to return by a former member who caused difficulty in the past or submit newsletter items.

It's a mixed bag, of course, because I will miss doing many of these things. And yet I won't wake up in the night, either, wondering what the best response is to the disgruntled congregant or the difficult former member. No more deadlines! No more sermon scrambling! No more UUCWI, in just 10 more months.

And that's tough. UUMA guidelines make it clear that former ministers have a duty to the incoming minister to clear out for awhile, give the new person plenty of room to make his/her own connection to the beloved community. I'll have to figure out what to do about some of my connections with the congregation, like Facebook, but generally I respect the guidelines and will be careful not to interfere with the new configuration of leadership.

It's a good thing that I'm moving 200 miles away, by choice. I won't need to do the awkward dance of fobbing off conversations in the grocery store that wander into UUCWI business that I can't share. My job will be to be caring but not involved, not competing with the colleague who is in the process of bonding with this congregation I love so dearly.

Monday, August 15, 2011

A letter to my congregation

This letter was mailed to my congregation on Saturday, Aug. 13, and should arrive in their mailboxes today:

The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Whidbey Island
20103 Highway 525, P.O. Box 1076, Freeland, WA 98249 •
(360) 321-8656
August 9, 2011

My dear Whidbey friends,

We are beginning our ninth year of ministry together and I am looking forward to it with great anticipation. We have a strong leadership team, a growing, vital membership, outstanding adult and children's programming, incredible talent in many areas, and a beautiful facility to share with our community. It will be a wonderful year, I predict, and I am excited about it.

UUCWI has become a strong and growing congregation. That enables me to decide that it is a good time for me to end my ministry with you. I plan to retire from the active UU ministry on June 30, 2012, and will be moving to a new home in Astoria, Oregon, next summer, where I am looking forward to starting a new phase of my life. I have experienced some of the very happiest years of my life here on Whidbey Island and I will miss you all very much when I move away. But the future for you and for me looks bright and promising.

We have accomplished a lot together and you have many more achievements and outreach projects ahead of you. Your service to the Whidbey Island community will grow and prosper and you will find a new minister who will help you fulfill new dreams, new ideals, new ways to serve each other and the larger community.

During the coming months, our board of trustees will work with our Pacific Northwest UU district staff to make decisions about finding a new minister and will keep you the congregation in the loop during this process. Your thoughts and involvement will be crucial to the process of finding just the right person to serve you in the future.

I'm looking forward to this last year together and expect that we will continue our work together this year in exciting ways. Just imagine the possibilities!

Much love,


Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Flaming Chalice

THE FLAMING CHALICE: What it means to Unitarian Universalists
August 14, 2011
Rev. Kit Ketcham

Hey, remember when we’d go to summer camp and sit around a big bonfire at night, make googly eyes at each other across the flames, and sing goofy songs like this? Sing with me if you remember it:

One dark night, when we were all in bed, old Missus O’Leary put a lantern in the shed. The cow kicked it over and winked her eye and said “There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight! Fire, fire, fire, fire!”

Whether we experience it in a friendly way---around a campfire or in front of a fireplace in a cozy room----or as a frightening event in our lives, there’s something compelling about fire. We seem drawn to its light, its warmth, its flickering magic, the smoke that rises into the skies. And we also may shrink from its glare, its inferno-like heat, the caustic fumes it can generate and we fear its destructive power even as we kindle a small cooking fire.

We light candles for our own quiet times, or when we desire a sense of the holy. We take care not to let fire get out of control, we keep fire extinguishers handy in our kitchen, by the hearth, and at the campsite. We gaze in horror at times at the destructive nature of fire upon homes, landscapes, property, and we also marvel at its regenerative powers when the ravaged forest begins to bloom again.

A cup, too, a goblet, a container for lifegiving substances, has significance to us. How many mugs with funny sayings on them have you received over your lifetime? We give and receive gifts of containers, from silly mugs to beautiful silver goblets to beer steins and even pasta bowls.

All of these gifts are intended to hold something we value---our morning cup of tea, a celebratory glass of champagne, a cold brew, a hearty meal. We look at the goofy mug and think of its giver----our child who tells us we’re the best mom or dad ever, our sister or brother who can’t resist making one more joke about the difference in our ages.

We raise our champagne goblets high and drink a toast to the bond between newlyweds. We look at the intricate designs on that authentic German beer stein and marvel at the colors and figures on its surface. We pour savory sauce over the pasta in the wide bowl and anticipate its delicious flavors.

Our flaming chalice is a combination of these two things: a bit of fire and a container to hold it. A flame and a safe environment for that flame.

Today we’re going to consider how our flaming chalice came to be important to Unitarian Universalists, the variety of meanings ascribed to it, a bit about its history, and what it means that we light it at the beginning of every worship service and even at board meetings and committee gatherings. And I’m going to ask you for your thoughts a few times.

The flaming chalice was not always our iconic symbol of UUism. It came into being at least twenty years before Unitarians joined forces with Universalists to become the religious movement we are today, and it took 20 more years to become our symbol.

The flaming chalice design was the creative idea of an Austrian artist named Hans Deutsch, in 1941. Deutsch had been living in Paris but ran afoul of Nazi authorities for his critical cartoons of Adolf Hitler. When the Nazis invaded Paris in 1940, he fled, with an altered passport, into Portugal where he met the Rev. Charles Joy, who was the director of the Unitarian Service Committee.

The Service Committee had been founded in Boston to assist Eastern Europeans, among them Unitarians as well as Jews and homosexuals, people who needed to escape Nazi persecution. From Lisbon, Rev. Joy oversaw a secret network of couriers and agents.

Deutsch was impressed by the work of the Service Committee and wrote to Rev. Joy: “There is something that urges me to tell you…how much I admire your utter self denial (and) readiness to serve, to sacrifice all, your time, your health, your well being, to help, help, help.”

The USC (Service Committee) was an unknown entity in 1941, which was a huge disadvantage in wartime, when establishing trust quickly across barriers of language, nationality, and faith could mean life instead of death. Disguises, signs and countersigns, and midnight runs across guarded borders were how refugees found freedom in those days.

So Rev. Joy asked Hans Deutsch to create a symbol for the USC’s papers, as he said, “to make them look official, to give dignity and importance to them, and at the same time to symbolize the spirit of our work…When a document may keep a man out of jail, give him standing with governments and police, it is important that it look important.”

So Hans Deutsch drew a simple design, and Rev. Joy wrote to his colleagues in Boston that it was “a chalice with a flame, the kind of chalice which the Greeks and Romans put on their altars. The holy oil burning in it is a symbol of helpfulness and sacrifice…” (Sorry it's sideways)

Joy noted that the chalice suggests, to some extent, a cross, and he emphasized that for Christians the cross represents its central theme of sacrificial love.

The flaming chalice design was made into a seal for papers and a badge for agents moving refugees to freedom. In time it became a symbol of Unitarian Universalism all around the world and of the humanitarian call to action by people of faith who were willing to risk all for others in a time of urgent need. Every Sunday UUs all over the world light the chalice as a time-honored ritual---in huge congregations and tiny ones, big historical sanctuaries, rented strip mall spaces, and even home living rooms.

I’m wondering----what does lighting the chalice mean to you all, when we kindle this flame at the beginning of our worship time? Let’s pause for a time of silence while we consider this question. And then we’ll take a few moments to share our thoughts. I know that folks who are newer to UUism may have a different perspective than longer-time UUs. Your perspective is important, too. (chime, silence, chime)

What does our lighting of the chalice say to you? How do you see it?
(Cong. response)

I’ve listened to others reveal what the lighting of the flame means to them, at the beginning of worship or a meeting of some sort. The chalice lighting is often preceded by words of dedication or poetry or the wisdom of some sage, carefully chosen to focus on the event beginning, whether that is a time of worship, of memorializing, of honoring, or doing sacred work.

The lighting of the chalice signifies, to many, the moment at which we move into another realm, into a sacred time, into a time in which we consider matters of worth and value, a time in which we find wisdom and strength in the act of being together in community. It focuses our attention on the work at hand, when we light the chalice before a board or committee meeting, and it reminds us that the work of the religious community is sacred work.

The words of the chalice lighting I turn to most often tell us that the flame stands for our values, values of truth, gratitude, humility, courage, compassion, and generosity. It reminds us that we are together to grow and to learn. And together we repeat the phrase “may love reign among us here, in this hour of community”.

Now let’s think about the possible meanings of combining the vessel of the chalice with the living, breathing flame. Here is a container for nourishment—the chalice--and here is an ever-changing, comforting yet dangerous element—the flame. What spiritual significance might be found in this juxtaposition of these two disparate elements? Let’s think about this idea. (chime, silence, chime) What are your thoughts?

Not long ago, our UU ministers’ email chatline considered the significance of the flaming chalice and how that meaning has developed in our own understandings since the custom began, sometime in the 80’s, introduced by the youth’s and women’s caucuses at a long ago General Assembly, when youth and women were beginning to have a huge effect on the direction of Unitarian Universalism.

You have named some of the very things they named. Here are their thoughts: the chalice is a container for the holy. The chalice signifies open-hearted community where all are welcome. The chalice is a poetic, visual metaphor for community. In dreamwork it indicates a need for spiritual nourishment. The chalice bowl is deep and wide, big enough to contain many paths and ideas, hopes and intentions.

The ministers said that to them, the flame is a conduit to the transcendent. It is ever-changing, alive, untouchable, dangerous; it can tempt and also heal. The flame is a symbol of spiritual transformation; it reminds us of the sacrificial flame of antiquity. It is a light in the darkness. It brings change, creation, rebirth. It is a cauterizing, purifying element.

The flaming chalice, as our iconic symbol of UUism, came into being at a time of great global turmoil. The forces of oppression and tyranny were strong across the earth. Few were able to withstand and survive that assault, but underground, beneath the surface, there was constant clandestine activity by those who resisted, those who dedicated themselves to saving others who were in danger, regardless of the personal cost.

Interestingly, a chalice design similar to our original design by Hans Deutsch mysteriously appears on the cover of a book entitled “The Ideal Gay Man: the Story of Der Kreis” or the story of “The Circle”, the international gay literary journal published from 1932-1967. Except for a slight difference in the curve of the flame, the two drawings might be the same thing. Did Deutsch draw both symbols? I can’t say for sure and am not willing to pay over $100 for this out of print book!

But the significance of a chalice and a flame adorning official-looking documents enabling refugees to leave Nazi Germany and serving as the symbol of a journal which published gay European writers-----that’s interesting. Not only interesting, but compelling.

It makes me ask, what does the flaming chalice stand for? And what might it challenge us to do? Let’s take another moment of silence to think about this symbol and its challenge. (chime, silence, chime)

In the songs Ken sang for us earlier, the flame’s reputation for passion and intensity comes through hot, ardent, eager. Also steamy! Light My Fire and Ring of Fire are classics in the country rock world, making no secret of the heat of passion that drives us mammals to find each other and make new mammals.

Passion drives us in many ways, not just sexually, and it is this passion for action that the flame of the chalice expresses to me. Your thoughts just now also seem to reflect your desire for passion, for fire in your lives as well as the comfort of the sacred space we create with our Beloved Community.

Last week at our annual board retreat, we talked about the new year of church life coming up and how we as your chosen leaders might shape the year. There was a deep desire among us to make particular facets of this community stronger and more infused with passion.

We talked about our children’s and adults’ religious programming and the energy we want to pour into both those areas. And we also learned that many of us want our Social Responsibility work to become a centerpiece of congregational life, for both adults and children, that our neighbors and friends on Whidbey Island be able to live lives that are healthy, safe, and happy, at least in part because of what we can offer them.

We talked about aligning with other congregations and groups on the island to improve housing for those who have no housing, who perhaps live in the woods in tents in the rain or in their vans in isolated parking lots and small parks.

Our interest in this need on the island is borne out by our sponsorship of the WISH agency, the Whidbey Island Share a Home agency whose director, Doris Newkirk, spoke to us last Sunday. (And, by the way, our special offering last Sunday produced $500 as a gift to WISH. Thank you very much for your generosity!)

That night after the retreat, I got a phone call from Doris Newkirk who, serendipitously, was calling a special board meeting of the WISH board to discuss a possible avenue for creating a homeless shelter here on Whidbey. She was thrilled and so was I! Imagine if we could be part of that work, perhaps as part of an interfaith coalition to provide for those families whose economic situation is too fragile for them to have their own homes.

Now there’s a flaming chalice challenge in the tradition of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee! But it’s not the only one. If working with the homeless isn’t your bag, what about working with our children? Kids respond to adults’ passionate interest in the world. And they need your passion to have the best possible religious education we can offer.

I like the symbolism of our congregation, our sanctuary, being a sort of chalice, a community that is safe, healing, and nourishing, welcoming all into its circle. I like the symbolism of our passion to help our community being the flame set inside the chalice, warming us, inspiring us, moving us to action.

I like to think of the lighting of our chalice on Sundays and before our meetings as a visual and heartfelt reminder that we are together in love and commitment, safe within these walls but eager and ready to move out into the community to be of service to those who need us.

And each of us embodies the message of the chalice; each of us can be that safe haven, that healing presence, that source of nourishment to those we meet on life’s path. And each of us can offer the passion nourished within these walls to those beyond these walls. As one of my heroes the late Dag Hammersjold once famously wrote, “Each morning we must hold out the chalice of our being to receive, to carry, and give back.”

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

CLOSING HYMN: “#1028 “The Fire of Commitment”

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 we carry within us the same fire that lights our chalice flame. May we carry our passion and fire into our daily lives, committed to doing whatever we can to serve our neighbors and friends as we live out the symbol of our flaming chalice. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.