Sunday, October 30, 2011

Learnings from our recent ministers' gathering

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Stress and Ministry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Children’s Letters to God”

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

“New Microsoft Product Bulletin” (from the Internet)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Struggling with the God Concept”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Merrell and Frank Allen will explain further.

by Nicholas Biel, adapted by Lev Ropes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that whatever we think about God, we are all brothers and sisters under the sky. May we look for the divine in each other and may we treat each other with the gentle care that the sacred deserves. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Why Religious Education Matters

Rev. Kit Ketcham
Oct. 16, 2011

My son was a senior in high school, a longtime member of the youth group at Jefferson Unitarian Church in the Denver area, when the congregation decided to undertake an all-congregation social action project, as the chief community supporter of a local agency called Family Tree. Their mission was supporting families in transition, families whose poverty and crises had made life pretty unstable for them.

The project made it possible for every person in the congregation to be involved with social action work in a hands-on way. Activities with the project included food drives, child care provision, computer literacy training, home repair, transportation to appointments, thrift shop support, auto repair, and that sort of thing.

Everyone in the congregation was excited about it. I even had a chance to act as Mrs. Santa Claus at a holiday party for families served by Family Tree and I did some light gardening and a few other things. Others taught computer skills, did cooking classes, babysat kids, provided gifts at Christmas and birthdays, painted apartments, replaced lightbulbs and bathroom and kitchen supplies for the transitional housing development owned by Family Tree which was shelter for some of these families.

The youth group that year decided to do a paper drive, to restock the supplies of paper products in the Family Tree storage facility. And one Sunday morning, as I sat in the front row of the choir, the double doors at the back of the sanctuary suddenly swung open and a phalanx of disreputable-looking teenage boys, in double file formation, strode into the sanctuary, arraying themselves in a wide V across the front of the room.

My son led the parade and, in his long black leather trenchcoat, holey jeans, tattered shoes, skull and crossbones t-shirt, and long black hair under his backwards baseball cap, he swung around to face the congregation as his pals did the same, hands on hips, fixing folks with their steely gaze.

He dramatically held open one side of his coat and pointed to the items he had duct-taped to the lining: “We’re having a paper drive to support Family Tree”, he said in a gruff voice, “and we want you to bring (as he pointed out each item) paper towels, toilet paper, diapers, spiral notebooks for kids in school, copy paper, note cards, all kinds of paper products.”

He went on to show all the items on both sides of the open trenchcoat, then snapped it shut around him, affixed that steely gaze on the congregation, and then said, “cuz if you don’t, I’m gonna date all your daughters.”

Yes, my son is a legend at Jefferson Unitarian Church for this and other incidents; in fact, one tactless wag remarked, when my son was only about 8 and suffering the effects of a parental divorce and some other limitations, (he said to me )“we need to G...-proof this church.”

I’ve told you, I believe, that my son’s life was transformed by the religious education he got at Jefferson Unitarian Church. He had a very tough time growing up. He was small for his age, too smart for his own good, learning disabled and possibly hyperactive to boot, and had some health issues that got in his way.

And what he got from his religious education had nothing to do with theology and everything to do with being a human being in a world he didn’t create, couldn’t control, and often couldn’t understand.

In RE, which we now call Religious Exploration, he and the other kids in his age group learned about how to treat people, how to treat the earth, and heard the stories of people in ancient times, whose religious leaders, such as Moses, Mohammed, Jesus, and the Buddha, told those stories to make a spiritual and practical point.

My son and Scott and Laura and Bre and Kirk and Camsie and all the other kids had a chance to ask all the questions they could think of about religion and spiritual experience. The adults who spent these hours with them learned who they were and offered the kids their own experience as guides.

When they were small, the stories and experiences included songs about loving, about not being afraid to be who they were, about looking out for other creatures. All families, no matter how they were configured, were okay; it was okay to have two dads or two moms or maybe just one mom and a stepdad or maybe no mom, just a dad. And of course a mom and a dad who lived apart or lived together---that was okay too, as were grandparents and guardians.

As they got older and the inevitable skirmishes between kids or between adults and kids took on greater meaning, they’d have long conversations and make agreements about how they would be together as a group. Their classroom bloomed with graffiti and posters of rock bands.

At one point, all the 8th graders were part of a sex ed class which was explicit, comprehensive, focused on physical and emotional health and safe sexual practices. This group met all during their 8th grade year, with a couple of retreats, all-day sessions, with carefully structured and presented examples of contraceptives, of the variety of sexual identities and preferences in the human population, sexually transmitted diseases, AND the ongoing teaching of waiting until they were more mature before having their first sexual experience.

My son was still struggling with a few issues in 8th grade and his relationships within this group were fragile. Adults who had known him for most of his life worked with him gently and consistently; they didn’t give up on him and kick him out of the program, but he was not Mr. Popularity.

There was a followup program for 9th graders the next year, a much-anticipated coming of age trip to the Four Corners area---Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico---to visit the Native American communities there and learn about their religious and cultural practices.

But at the end of 8th grade, many of the kids who would have been included in that important trip declared that if (my son) was going, they would not go. What a blow!

Our Director of Religious Education sat down with him to discuss this setback. I don’t know what they said to each other, but at the end of the conversation, he sent word through the DRE to the kids who were rejecting him in this way and apologized for his earlier behavior, said he hoped they would change their minds, and promised to change his ways. Which he did.

The group of teenagers who went to the Indian reservations together that spring for ten days came back changed, more grown up, with greater understanding of another culture, of other people, of other religious practices, of each other and of themselves. They seemed clear-eyed in a way they had not been in 8th grade.

They all, including my son, still had a few rough edges, but they were, after all, 15 years old. The important thing was that their religious education had given them an experience which was life-changing, open-hearted, and accepting of others, while demanding accountability from each other.

This is what we want a religious education to do, after all---expand understandings, make students aware of the validity of other religious paths, help them learn about their own, and develop ways of being in the religious world that are respectful, kind, and accepting of differences.

Not only do our children need this kind of teaching, but we all do! We all need to know more about our neighbors on this planet, in order to live together in peace.

I would never have learned this kind of thing in my Baptist Sunday School years. In fact, I remember the class session when I was in about 8th grade, when a fellow student asked the question of our teacher “what is circumcision and why was it important to the Jews?”

We didn’t get a straight answer; our teacher blushed vividly and muttered something about asking our parents. But those kids in the Unitarian Universalist sex ed class called “About Your Sexuality” would have gotten an accurate and understandable answer. Of course, UU parents being who they are, many of those kids would probably have known that already, except maybe for the religious importance of the ritual.

So many myths and misunderstandings exist about other religions that it’s no wonder we have so much religious conflict on this planet.

Some may have a slight basis in truth but have been circulated and recirculated for so long, particularly if they have gotten circulated electronically, that they have taken on an aura of truth which is hard to dispel even with factual information.

Some emerge from hateful lies and deliberate misstatements. Others arise out of misinterpretation of ritual statements within liturgy.

For example, I sent a note out to my colleagues on our UU ministers’ internet discussion list and got some responses from them. One woman told a story of visiting her childhood church with her children. Here’s what she wrote me:

When our oldest, who is now 33, was about 8, I took her and her younger sisters to a Dutch Reformed church - I grew up in that (church) and my parents were very active and when there was an anniversary celebration, I was invited to say some words about my father's experience there; he had physically helped rebuild it after a fire in 1915 or so...

The service was really wonderful until there was communion. When the Domini (what I was raised to call ministers in that church) said, "this is my body and this my blood," my oldest literally turned ashen and said, a little loud, "They eat people here." Fortunately we were sitting with some family friends so it wasn't all over (the room)... she still remembers that and the fun she had up to that point...

Other colleagues responded with these ideas: that Islam is a religion of hate. That Sikhs are violent. That Jews have horns. That Mormons aren’t Christian. And one woman reminded me of the bumper sticker that rebuts a persistent blaming of women for all the world’s problems: Eve Was Framed!

Some misconceptions and outright falsehoods are completely unbelievable and others have a mixed heritage of truth and fabrication. Some have been deliberately spread about as truths in order to discredit a religion, as well as individuals associated with that religion. I’ll bet you’ve received a few online yourselves.

Here is what the rumor-investigating webpage says about its work:
A familiar aspect of many religions is the use of narratives such as parables and fables to teach and reinforce moral attitudes and religious principles in forms easy to assimilate and remember. Likewise, urban legends are narratives often used to spread and reaffirm societal mores and beliefs, and since much of our moral code is mirrored in religion, the world of parables and urban legendry frequently intersect.

Here are some of the questions the rumor-debunking web page has investigated and sorted out. First the true ones, of which there are only a few: June 10, 2000, was proclaimed by Gov. George W. Bush to be officially “Jesus Day” in Texas; Billy Graham and John Wayne did have a hand in the creation of the song “It Is No Secret”; lightning did strike a church during a sermon after the preacher identified thunder as the voice of God; and some folks do often attempt to avoid monetary amounts totaling $6.66.

And then there are the funny but not true: NASA scientists did not discover a lost day in time; certain symbols displayed on the packaging of a variety of grocery items do not signify that their manufacturers have paid a secret tax to the Jews; scientists drilling in Siberia did not punch through to Hell; and the exclamation “holy smoke” does not derive from the burning of the ballots used to elect a Pope.

Some are truly weird: Alabama did not redefine the value of “pi” to 3, to bring it in line with Biblical precepts; a group known as the “Second Coming Project” is not seeking to clone Jesus from the DNA of holy relics; a man contemplating suicide did not receive a phone call from God; part of the process of determining that a Pope has died do not call for him to be tapped on the forehead with a silver hammer; and airlines are not avoiding pairing Christian pilots and co-pilots out of fear that the Rapture will snatch away both crew members capable of landing the flight.

But the false one that made my skin crawl was this one:
A Saudi Arabian newspaper ran an article claiming that Jews use the blood of teenage Christians and Muslims in foods created to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Purim. Part of this was true---the newspaper did indeed run such an article, describing at great and false length the supposed process of acquiring the blood, preparing it for use in food and then using it as an ingredient in pastries eaten during the Purim feast.

The article itself was a complete fabrication and a continuation of an ancient fable called “blood libel”. It is an outgrowth of the story of the Passover, when the Hebrews were led out of slavery in Egypt after a ritual which involved painting the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a freshly sacrificed lamb. This ritual was distorted into rumors that the Jews use the blood of Christian children in this rite and it is an anti-Semitic story that has persisted for centuries and still arises today.

The publication of this story was roundly discredited and condemned by religious leaders worldwide, but it is evidence of the deep animosity between religious people in the Mid East.

Just as the gift of a comprehensive and unbiased sex education tends to lead to a healthier sexual being, a comprehensive and unbiased religious education can lead to a healthier religious person. And, it seems to follow that healthier religious people are the foundation of a healthier society.

How do we accomplish this? In our small way, here at UUCWI, how can we contribute to a religiously healthy and better-educated community?

The secular community struggles with its own issues of education, as does the religious community. We want to pass along our biases and opinions, whether at home or in a classroom. We want our children to do things our way and it can be hard to see whether “our way” is an honest and healthful way, especially when our own religious education is scanty and incomplete.

Here’s what I think: I am encouraged, this fall, by the plethora of educational opportunities for adults in our congregation: in addition to Sunday services that provide spiritual uplift and challenge our thinking, we have opportunities to learn about the ancient roots of religion as revealed by archaeology, to be part of a discussion group focused on ethical living and character development, to consider the pillars of our individual theologies, to be in a group of spiritual companions, and to learn more about our own faith tradition, Unitarian Universalism.

Quite a lot of you are involved in these classes, and after the first of the year, we have a similarly interesting and challenging slate of opportunities available.

Our own religious education is a critical element in our ability to change the world. If we neglect our own knowledge and understanding of religion, ours and others, we are less able to counteract the false messages of those who would demonize and persecute those of different faiths. And if our own understandings are not well-thought-out, we run the risk of giving misinformation to our children, grandchildren, and others.

So my first recommendation is that we each undertake to increase our understandings and knowledge of religion, not only our own but the religions of our neighbors and friends. Instead of labeling Mormonism a cult, let’s learn more about it. Instead of shooing the Jehovah’s Witnesses away from our door, let’s invite them in once in awhile. Let’s counteract the hateful messages of anti-Jewish or anti-Muslim proponents with a message of tolerance and reason.

And my second recommendation is that we become actively involved with the religious explorations of our own young people, here in our congregation. Let’s visit their classrooms, get to know the children and their parents and teachers. Let’s help out in some way, whether by volunteering in the classroom or bringing treats or offering to chaperone an activity. Most importantly, let’s share our increased knowledge with our children, communicating with them at their own level but emphasizing the importance of learning about the world and the world’s religious faiths.

This is not easy stuff. Learning new ways can be hard; this congregation has tended to leave religious education in the hands of our professional educators. But it is not just the job of our DRE Vanessa or our teachers Natasha, Kim, and Evan. It is the job of every one of us to help educate our children, to give them accurate information and loving guidance.

Religious education means changing our own attitudes, looking at our values, and adjusting our behavior. This is hard, challenging stuff. And it’s also religious education to the core, according to Tandi Rogers, our district program coordinator.

In closing, I’m happy to tell you that the teenage boy whose challenge to our Colorado congregation was the topic of our opening story, has become a young man with a family, active in his Reno, Nevada, UU congregation, where he serves as a worship leader, and where he is (Ithink) a credit to his own religious upbringing.

Mike learned the things he learned because the adults in his younger life cared about him, cared that he become a man with values he’d thought through, values that helped him find his way in a complicated world, values that shape his actions and responses to the challenges he faces today.

Might all of our children have the same wisdom and guidance from us here in this community.

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 that our lives have benefited greatly from the religious education we received, whenever we received it. May we strive to give the children of this congregation the best religious guidance we can, that they might go forth in life with greater understanding, greater compassion, and greater sense of purpose. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Thinking about the future and other things

The Future has figured large in my thinking lately. And I feel a need to write it down, even though my thoughts are jumbled and veer between ecstasy at the thought of not working any more and terror at the thought of not working any more. And it has nothing to do with income.

Just now I was looking at what I need to do tomorrow, which isn't very much, and wondering how I would fill the day if I didn't have a project of some kind. That's the kind of thinking that causes me terror.

Earlier today I was walking up the road and counting "only so many more board meetings of such and such agency" and "I've done my last Water Ceremony" and wondering "what will it be like to live in a totally new place?" That's the kind of thinking that gets me all charged up.

I am tired. Since 1964, I have served in one helping profession after another: welfare worker, Baptist missionary, junior high school Spanish teacher, junior high school guidance counselor, and now minister. The helping professions, I think, are among the most demanding careers in our culture, and I've spent a long time working to help people get their feet under them, grow up, figure out who they are, and meet their spiritual needs. That's almost 50 years of mostly-enjoyable but challenging work. No wonder I'm tired!

It's been a long haul but a joyful one. I've loved my work, each job, almost each person, and have felt fulfilled and successful nearly all of the time. I've had my failures, but I managed to learn something valuable from each of them. And now it's time to lay that burden down and figure out what I want to do with the rest of my life.

I figure I have 15 to 20 good years left. That's a long time. And for those years, I probably won't have responsibility for anyone but myself. I want connection with people----stimulation without too much leadership demanded from me. I'd like to just watch for awhile instead of having to organize and lead things.

I've also been thinking of the possibility of finding a partner, a companion, some nice guy who is my equal in many ways and would enjoy my company. I hope for good conversations, a little romance, shared activities, and a shared life. Not marriage, but good company. I have done a little looking on online sites but the results were not encouraging.

My best romances have been with musicians----one a guitar player and old timey square dancer and the other a banjo player who loved to hike. These were outstanding relationships, but, as happens, we went our separate ways. The guitar player is happily married to someone else and the banjo guy recently died. But they gave me gifts of love and fun that have lasted me a long time. It was because of these two fellows that I learned that I could sing. I'm great friends with a local guy who is a guitar/bass/mando/dobro/washboard player, but he's not interested in more and that's okay.

I have noticed that I tend to be drawn toward weirdos. Wait, that's not fair. I'm drawn toward eccentric men because they look interesting. I have also had a pattern over time of trying to befriend the men that nobody else liked much, the men who had deficiencies that I overlooked because they were interesting. None of those men have lasted long in my life.

This pattern, I think, started with my Spanish prof, Dr. Malone, in college; few people liked Dr. M because he was so tough on students. So I decided I'd like him and get him to like me. Dr. M was not the sort to hit on women students and I wasn't interested in that either; I wanted him to like me because I was a good Spanish student and excited about my studies.

I married the man I married because everyone told me he would never get married---he was just a Don Juan type of guy. Now there was another challenge! I didn't notice his serious quirks at first but they became a huge problem over time. Luckily, the Favorite Son was the beautiful product of the marriage and made those years worth while.

Boyfriends after divorce tended to be oddball guys who didn't last long; I wasn't that stable a person either, so I guess we deserved each other. But into that mix dropped Mr. Guitar for several years and later, Mr. Banjo, and their caring for me helped me see that I deserved something better than weirdos. I deserved a nice, normal guy---who was interesting!

But when I went into the ministry, dating and romance stopped short. Before seminary, I briefly dated a professor at the seminary but once I enrolled, that ended. In seminary, I had no time or interest, and men outside the seminary were clearly a bit intimidated and tended to shy away.

Since then, my only romance was with a lovely guy in Portland who was seriously wounded by a hurtful divorce and also struggling with having been molested as a teenager; he wasn't eccentric but he didn't have any energy for a relationship. He needed therapy, not romance.

Recent experiences with prospective fellows have been disappointing. I've had the experience of being placed on a pedestal because of the "Reverend" bit and then knocked off that pedestal for unfathomable reasons. I've been enjoined from hugging someone I like a lot because he has an antipathy for touch.

Okay, so this may be a little too much soul-baring. Sorry about that. But as I lose weight (26 pounds now!) and start to feel pretty again, I am eager to have some romance in my life. The odds tend to be against women my age, no matter how slim they've gotten, but I want to give it a shot! Maybe there is some nice, normal guy out there who is liberal, a good conversationalist, unfazed by the ministry label, a musician, and looking for a nice woman his age who can sing.

Do you know anybody you'd like to introduce me to?