Friday, December 30, 2011

In the distance, by the side of the road...

one day a few weeks ago, as I took my morning walk up toward Mutiny Bay and back, I saw what looked like the body of an animal----a rabbit, maybe, or a raccoon which had been hit by a car. I cringed as I walked toward it, not wanting to look at the kind of mess a car can make of a small animal. Having accidentally hit a rabbit or possum one night earlier (it managed to run into the bushes, so I'm not sure what it was or if it was a fatal blow), I was attuned to the feelings that accompany that kind of moment in life. There's a fatalism about it, a sense of inevitability, that an animal that runs in front of a speeding car is doomed, unless it is ultra fast or the car driver ultra nimble.

But it was a cat, a large tortoiseshell, a little blood by its mouth but otherwise unmutilated outwardly by its encounter with a force faster than its four feet. I stood there for a moment thinking about my own tortie Lily, glad that it wasn't my girl, and wondering whose mama cat it might be. There's hardly anyone living along that stretch of road, so this cat had been a little ways from home. It's a busy road, too, and I worry about Max when he's out on the loose. Lily never goes beyond the deck, so she's safe, as is Loosy. But a cat in the country faces many dangers.

I continued my walk toward Mutiny Bay thinking about what a lonely death that would be for an animal. Swift, maybe, but lonely, with no one to mourn or cover its body or pet it gently as life ebbs, to talk to it quietly and witness the inevitable. No one to lift it up and carry it away and bury it, except maybe the highway cleanup guys who remove other road kill from the island's roadways.

On Mutiny Bay road, there was a mom standing with her three little boys waiting for the school bus, and I went over to her and stood talking while the bus rolled up and rolled away. "I didn't want to ask this in front of the boys," I said, "but there's a cat that's been hit by a car up the road and I wondered if you know if it belongs to anyone." She didn't know whose it might be and we both shook our heads about all the feral cats in the local woods.

The next day, I took the same walk up the road and the cat's body had been removed. I wondered if it was the county crew who had taken her or if owners had found her. Or it might have been a scavenger animal who dragged the carcass off. It was unanswerable.

But I found myself remembering the cat every time I walked by the spot where she had lain. I walk that road two and three times a week, so I did a lot of thinking about the loss sustained when an animal, beloved or not, is killed.

One day, I noticed an interesting bit of garbage, a couple of sticks that had been deposited by the latest windstorm, I figured, with a bit of white toilet paper ensnarled between them. It looked a bit like an iconic cross, but it couldn't be, I told myself; it's just a piece of trash that looks like a cross.

I forgot about it on a couple of walks but then I noticed it again, right near the place where the cat had died. I took to watching for it, still assuming it couldn't be anything but an accidental configuration of garbage.

Today, I stopped and picked it up to confirm my assumption: two pine sticks, bound into the shape of a rustic cross by plastic ribbon, tied carefully in the back and placed just so on the side of the road, half buried by dead grass, right at the site of the cat's death.

Oh. Oh. Oh.

Monday, December 26, 2011

A Life of Work, Part I

As I prepare for retirement, I've been thinking about my work life, looking back over the years since I was eleven or twelve and asked to do babysitting periodically for children in my dad's little congregation. I was born in 1942, so when I began my work-for-pay life, it was about 1954. It's now almost 2012 and that means that I have spent the last 58 years working at one thing or another. No fulltime work till I was out of college, but a combination of full-time school and part-time work is pretty significant.

So I'm planning to write a few posts about my work life over the years and what those jobs/careers were, what they meant to me, and the life lessons I received. As I reach the end of my work years, I'm gratified to see just how valuable these experiences were and how much I received from the effort I put in. I haven't always been a hard worker; in my early years, I sluffed off on the job, even got fired for that once. But overall I learned to work smarter, to do a good job without cutting corners but by being choosy about the kind of effort I made.

Those babysitting jobs were a chance for me to see how other people lived, to notice that other families had different books on their bookshelves than mine did. I used to love babysitting for the Nelsons----they had things like the Decameron and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales on their shelves, books that were, as yet, unfamiliar to me. I would pore over them, not for their erudite wisdom but to see if it was true that they had slightly dirty parts. No dirty books on the Ketcham bookshelves! I didn't find much, but I kept looking! Pay for babysitting in those days was 25 to 50 cents an hour.

At church, my sister and I were asked to help wash communion glasses and tidy up after services; we got to experience one of the perks of being preacher's kids-----swilling the leftover grape juice and munching communion bread. No pay attached, just these benefits. At home, we were expected to clean our bedroom weekly, do dishes, set the table, babysit our brother; for this we received a small allowance which grew slightly larger on each birthday.

When I turned 13, my dad taught me to drive a stick shift and I was hired as a pea truck driver in the fields of eastern Oregon. It wasn't necessary to have a driver's license, as we were only able to drive in the fields, not on the highway. We were paid 85 cents to a dollar an hour for 12 hours of work daily during pea harvest. Our job was to haul peavines from the fields being harvested to the line of peaviners stationed at one end of the field. This job was the cool thing to do for teenage girls in Athena and we had a good time. We had plenty of downtime between trips, as we'd have to wait our turn to load and then wait to dump the load back at the viners. So I always had a book or a notebook with me to pass the time.

Once I had my driver's license, I was also able to drive a wheat truck. Wheat season followed pea harvest by a few weeks and the girls' job was to drive the threshed wheat kernels from the field to the grain elevator in town. We were paid about a dollar an hour for 12 hours a day of work. There were a few hazards working in harvest jobs: once my wheat truck caught fire and burned up; in the pea fields, there were occasionally rattlesnakes in the loads so we were careful when we got up in the load to goof around. Once or twice I worked the night shift in pea harvest, which was kind of eerie, as it was hard to tell where you were in the field; you had to watch for the dim lighting on the swathers and loaders to tell where to go to get your load. And it didn't feel as safe out there at night, working with transients and other unfamiliar folks.

Lessons learned? Everybody works, you do it because it needs to be done, it feels good to be useful, it feels good to earn a paycheck. And it's boring to sit around the house all summer and do nothing!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Christmas reflection

It's Christmas Eve afternoon. The ertesuppe is ready for my supper tonight after the annual Christmas Eve service, which, thankfully, is being conducted by a super-team of worship leaders and not me. I offered to conduct tomorrow morning's service and I'm looking forward to it.

It feels important to have a service tomorrow, Sunday, because that's what we do. Who knows who might need a place to be on Christmas Sunday morning? I certainly need a place to be tomorrow morning. Christmas can be a lonely time for people, especially if they are single or far from family (I'm in both categories), and we need to be available for them (and for me!).

So I knew I'd be meeting my own needs by doing Christmas Sunday morning. And those needs included a nice holiday meal. So, with the help of a few other folks, we are going to roll out a bit of a feed. I've roasted a juicy turkey breast and a small ham, found cranberry sauce, bread, and other accoutrements, and have lugged it all over to the church refrigerator.

Our service tomorrow will be a Sharing Service. That is, I have invited folks to come casual (including pajamas for children, if that's easier), bring stories of winter holidays to share, plus something to contribute to the potluck, and we'll choose songs on the spur of the moment. We'll sit in the round, not rows, and look into each others' faces. I won't be offering a homily but will have a few stories of my own to contribute if the need arises.

I hope we'll talk together instead of my blathering on. I hope the kids will bring a new toy or two and their own impressions of the holidays. I hope our Jewish members will come, and our Muslim and Christian and atheist and agnostic members. I hope it isn't ALL about Christmas but that we look at this season through a larger lens, of welcoming the light, sharing what we have, giving gifts of kindness and affection instead of focusing on material gifts.

I've often had a hard time with Christmas because of its commercialism, the frenetic quest to do everything perfectly, the focus on one religious holy day instead of acknowledging the holy days of other faiths. I think the folks who whine their "War on Christmas" laments are stupid for their refusal to understand this immutable fact. It's not just Christmas this time of year----it's Hanukkah and Kwanzaa and Solstice and Divali. And Christmas is artificially placed at this time of year----likely because of the pagan celebration of the solstice. Jesus was probably born in the springtime.

So there. And, in case you wondered, "ertesuppe" is Norwegian for split pea soup, a Ketcham traditional Christmas Eve supper. Then I'll open my one gift (that's a Norwegian custom too) from my friend Sue, unless the FS's gift arrives later this afternoon, listen to some nice music, and go to bed early so I can be up and around in plenty of time for tomorrow's festivities.

Merry Everything, Everyone!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

One human life...

Sitting on the shuttle bus as it made its way onto the Mukilteo ferry Sunday night, all I could think about was getting home and going to bed, weighed down by cats grateful to see me, and getting a bit of rest in my own home before a busy day on Monday.

It had been a wonderful weekend in Reno, visiting the Favorite Son and Daughter in law and the One and Only Grandson, being present at the memorable ceremony in which the FS would receive his BA degree, meeting some of his friends, celebrating his achievement, and finishing off the weekend with a visit to his church, the UU Fellowship of Northern Nevada. I was tired and ready for my own routine again, grateful for the Whidbey SeaTac shuttle's service to and from the island.

We had been crossing the water for only a few minutes when the alarm sounded: blaaattt, blaaattt, blaaattt. Oh no, I thought, please don't be doing one of your interminable practice rescue routines---I just want to go home. I felt the engines and the boat slow down and I sagged. What were they doing at this time of night? It's ten o'clock, for heaven's sakes.

Then the captain came on the horn: "We have just learned that a person has witnessed someone jumping from the vessel. We are launching a rescue boat immediately, have notified the authorities, and will begin a search. I ask our passengers to go to the rails and assist crew members in watching the waters for the person who may have jumped."

My fellow passengers in the shuttle and I looked at each other in shock. Those who were warmly dressed went out on the deck to see if they could help. Others of us stayed inside the bus. I went out for a brief time but wasn't dressed warmly and my coat was inside my luggage, so I didn't stay long.

The roiling water around the boat seemed too cold and rough for anyone to survive in it long, but I watched the circles from the ferry searchlights, looking for anything that might resemble a human form. Nothing.

Back in the bus, we were all in that state of mind that follows the announcement of a human crisis: how do we react to this? can we help? if we can't help, what do we do? what was this person thinking, feeling, doing? And---how long is this going to take to resolve? what is the human obligation in a crisis like this?

I am not proud to tell you that I just wanted to go home. I wanted to do the right thing, but I just wanted to go home, not prowl the waters for a person who was probably dead by now, who wanted to be dead, who hadn't considered the effect of his act on his fellow passengers or his loved ones or the crew of the Cathlamet ferry who would be asked to rescue him or recover his body.

As time passed and we crisscrossed the waters between Mukilteo and Clinton, the captain would update us on the situation: "We are waiting for the Coast Guard to arrive." "We have word that the State Patrol will be involved." "We are beginning a systematic search of the waters, in a grid pattern, so the vessel will be making many turns and reversals." "Will the person who left a black leather computer case in the passenger compartment please come and pick it up?" (At that one, we passengers exchanged glances----this sounded ominously like the warnings you hear in airport security zones. We realized that it probably was an effort to discover if the case belonged to the missing person.)

And finally, after 90 minutes of circling and recircling the waters between the two ferry docks, as search boats and helicopter began to arrive and take over the search, the captain informed us that the State Patrol and Coast Guard had released us from our part in the search and we headed for the Clinton dock. "Thank you for your patience and your assistance," said the captain, and he signed off.

I phoned the friend who was going to pick me up at the Freeland Shell station, which is the shuttle's drop point, and let her know that we'd be there about 12:15. My gratitude for her willingness to come get me, even though it was way past her bedtime as well, got me thinking.

And I realized that the conveniences of ferry and shuttle and willing friends, the joys of celebratory weekends, all these are secondary to what happened that icy, moonlit night on Saratoga Passage: one human life was worth more than all of the conveniences we'd arranged for ourselves. One human life----an as-yet-unidentified and desperate soul who leapt into the frigid waters of the Sound---was more important than my busy Monday or my warm bed or the schedules of any of us there that night. One human life.

There's a quote from Rabbi Tarfon that speaks to me, as I reflect on this experience:

"Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it."

We are not free to abandon the work. We are not free to abandon the work. We may not be obligated to complete it, but we are not free to abandon it. Those who put the value of one human life above the convenience of others model behavior that inspires me.

Sunday, December 04, 2011


MAGNIFICAT: Our response to our Call
Rev. Kit Ketcham, Dec. 4, 2011

Lest those of you who are recovering Catholics seize up in response to the Latin word which is the title of this sermon, let me reassure you that I have a different slant on the phrase “Magnificat anima mea Dominum”, which means, in translation, “my soul magnifies the Lord”.

I respond, not literally but metaphorically, to this phrase in a different way than perhaps a devout traditionalist would. It’s one of my favorite things about Unitarian Universalism, the heretical idea that there is more than one way to interpret the Bible, more than one way to find meaning in it, more than one way to make that meaning significant in our lives.

The story in the gospel of Luke, where the song of Mary uses this language, comes out of the legends surrounding the birth of Jesus. Mary, the mother of Jesus, as you may recall, has been visited by an angel who has told her that she will conceive and bear a special child, the son of God.

This is a pretty big deal, obviously, but Mary has a couple of questions: why me, for starters? and she’s not married yet, so how does the angel propose to solve that problem?

The angel tells her that she has found favor with God and has been chosen to be the mother of his child, that God will come to her and will make it possible for her, a virgin, to bear a child. For proof, the angel reminds her that her cousin Elizabeth, who is past childbearing age and was thought to be barren, has now conceived and will also bear a son in a few months.

Because of this more or less convincing evidence, Mary says yes, okay, here am I, let it be with me as you have explained it, she says. And in her song, she expresses her gratitude and her acceptance of this new direction for her life.

In Christian legend, Mary has been “called” by God to bear the Son of God, to bring the Messiah into the world. She is apparently expected to receive this call with grace, without fear, and to bend her will to the will of God, despite the obvious challenges and even outrage that her unmarried pregnancy will inspire. And she responds with a hymn of joy that she has been chosen for this unimaginable responsibility.

Mary’s not the only human being to feel called to an immense responsibility, a life of challenge and perhaps difficulty. Many of us may have felt this same call, though we may not have responded to it with Mary’s grace and acceptance.

What is a “Call”? Recently, I met with my fellow ministers from Bainbridge and Vashon Islands and Port Townsend. It was my job during this quarterly meeting to bring the program, an hour of conversation or some theological challenge that would give us new fodder for our ministries, catch us up on each others’ lives, and send us home again refreshed and energized.

I’ve been thinking a lot about being called to the ministry and what that means now that I have decided to retire in a few months. My original call to the ministry was clear and unambiguous; parish ministry was what I felt God was calling me to do. But now I’m going to retire! How will my call change, once I am no longer the minister of a congregation? Am I excused from it, once and for all? Have I done all I was supposed to do?

So I asked my colleagues----Barbara and Jaco Ten Hove from Bainbridge, Liz Stephens from Vashon, and Bruce Bode and Debra Thorne from Pt. Townsend, plus retired colleague Barry Andrews----to share their sense of call with our group.

I asked these questions: what does it mean to be called to a particular life work? What has been your experience of being called? Who were the people who were part of your call process? Were there encouragers? Discouragers? How has your sense of call changed over the years? How do you think it might change?

We sat in silence for a few moments and then shared our stories. I could sense the significance of each person’s experience; we shared tears, laughter, frustration, all in an effort to express what it meant to us to be called to the ministry.

We defined “the Call” as an inner urging, shaped by our discoveries about ourselves. One person saw himself as specifically called to teach, to offer religious education rather than to preach. Another had experienced a growing understanding of himself as a generalist, capable in many areas of ministry but always with a need to be out in the community inspiring others to work together to solve common problems. 

One person had spent all her adult life in the ministry and had changed her style and her expectations of herself over the years, as her life experiences expanded. Another had been stymied by life in pursuing her call and was only now able to complete the training she had longed for, in order to fulfill her sense of call.

Yet another had been badly hurt by her first experience and had almost called it quits completely but was now back in school to complete a Doctor of Ministry degree and was in search for a new ministry. I found these stories revealing and poignant; I shared many of their experiences.

I realized that I had first felt that inner urging way back in my early school days, when one of the songs we often sang in youth group or even in school music groups was the old song “Follow the Gleam”. Does anyone remember that old song? Let me sing the words of the first verse to you and join in if you remember it:

“To the knights in the days of old, keeping watch on the mountain height,
Came a vision of Holy Grail and a voice through the waiting night:
Follow, follow, follow the gleam, banners unfurled o’er all the world;
Follow, follow, follow the gleam of the chalice that is the Grail.”

The words of the second verse are pretty old-fashioned and I have to translate pretty hard to turn them into metaphors that work for me, but the message is clear:

“And we would serve the King and loyally him obey,
In the consecrate silence know that the challenge still holds today.
Follow, follow, follow the gleam, standards of worth o’er all the earth;
Follow, follow, follow the gleam of the Light that shall bring the dawn.”

At the time, I had no idea how I would follow any gleam. I had no desire to be a foreign missionary and contend with snakes or bugs or be far from home in a hot, jungly environment. But following the gleam seemed like a good idea, so I cherished it and thought about it. A lot.

As a preacher’s kid, I had a strong identification with my dad; I was proud of him, wanted to please him, and looked for opportunities to make him proud. School was doing the trick at the time; I was a good student.

But in the months after college graduation, I was at a loss. Casting about for a job, I briefly entertained the idea of entering seminary, but all the Baptists were training women to do was to be directors of Christian Education and that didn’t appeal to me. It never occurred to me I could actually be a minister.

My first real career was as a welfare worker for Washington State. This was eye-opening work, as I dealt with people in extreme poverty. Living with my parents was a temporary necessity but it wasn’t easy, as my worldview had shifted drastically, with a college education and now the desperate circumstances of the clients I worked with.

After awhile, I landed a job in Denver as an American Baptist Home Missionary (whew, no snakes or hot jungles for me!), making my parents very proud and giving me further experience in providing service to the desperately poor of the inner city, at the Denver Christian Center.

Marriage meant that eventually I left the Denver Christian Center and went back to school for teaching credentials. I taught Spanish for a few years but was about one page ahead of the kids in the book and soon realized that I was better at listening compassionately to troubled students than at teaching them to conjugate verbs. So more education, this time a Master’s degree in Guidance and Counseling which prepared me for a long career as a junior high school counselor in a large Denver area school district.

Marriage to a UU man also meant that I discovered a good religious fit in UUism and became active in a UU congregation. My experiences as a teacher and counselor felt good; I was living a life of service helping kids. And my family was pleased with me, at least about the education part, if not about the change in my religious perspective.

But it always felt like there might be something more out there. After 25 years of public education, I was getting bored, frustrated with the low morale of my fellow teachers, and alarmed by the huge problems kids had, problems that I could not resolve for them and had to watch as life inflicted its pain on my students.

But what about you? I’m guessing that many of you have felt a distinct call to a life’s work. Some of you may have gradually felt a clarity about what you wanted to do with your life. And I’ll bet some of you are still looking. Maybe you felt an urge to pursue a sense of call but were unable to satisfy that urge because of life’s circumstances; maybe you are waiting for the right moment----retirement, children raised, house finished, whatever it might be.

I’d be interested in knowing: have you felt a call to some life’s work? (raise hands) It doesn’t have to be a paying career; it could be something more basic than a job. Our life’s work doesn’t have to have a paycheck attached.

As Joann and I talked about this service, she mentioned that when she became a school librarian, even though she had resisted it initially, she found she took to it like a fish to water. It was a natural fit; she had not known it would be so. It was that “duh” moment, a serendipity of timing, being in the right place at the right time. And though she is now retired from active librarianship, we see Joann continuing to follow the call of books---telling stories to the children here, helping with the congregation’s library, and offering her skills wherever they are needed.

The rewards of finding our life’s work are many----the satisfaction of getting started in it, rising to the challenge, the stimulation of a new path that becomes more exciting as one progresses along that path.

In 1992, we had a new minister at Jefferson Unitarian Church in Colorado and I angled to be on the Committee on Ministry, mostly so I could get to work with this new guy who was charismatic and full of new ideas for our sluggish congregation.

In September, at our kickoff service of the new church year, I was asked to give a short homily about our theme, which was “Dreams dreamed; Dreams come true”. I guess they thought all my experience as a teacher and lunchroom supervisor gave me special expertise in speaking to a bunch of churchgoers.

So I got up in the pulpit that Sunday morning long ago, spoke to the group about the dreams we had dreamed as a congregation, the sorrows we’d endured, the changes we’d made, and the ways we had grown. I got some laughs, even saw a tear or two, and sat down much relieved and feeling like I’d gotten through my assigned role adequately.

As I took my seat in the front row of the choir section, our minister, the Rev. Robert Latham, got up in the pulpit, turned to where I was sitting, and said to me, in front of everyone there, “Kit, you missed your calling. You ought to be a minister.”

I swear to you it was like the proverbial two by four between the ears of the balky mule; I was stunned. For the whole rest of the service, I couldn’t think of anything else. Of course I ought to be a minister! I had been practicing for that role all my life without realizing it----working with people who needed compassion, learning about the injustices and oppression so many people in our world experience, becoming an enthusiastic, if limited, musician, honing my public speaking and my counseling skills. I could do it! I could be a minister!

It took awhile to get there. It wasn’t until 1995 and a powerful reminder of my call while I was attending General Assembly in Spokane, having recently retired from my counseling job and having become free to go back to school to follow the inner urge to serve in this new and more challenging work, the work of ministry.

It had taken me a long time to get ready to answer the call that had grown in me since childhood, even though I didn’t recognize it until I was 50 years old. When I did, my whole life fell into place. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Here’s the thing about a call to a life’s work, whether that’s music or art or teaching or law or ministry or raising happy children, whether we spend our whole lives at it or come to it later in life----answering the call to a higher purpose gives our lives significance in the face of the insignificance conferred by the universe.

A call is bound up with a sense of needing our lives to have meaning, significance. It may come to us very early in life, perhaps through the example of a parent or a teacher or coach or other leader.

It can be sidetracked, permanently or temporarily, by abuse or loss, but it can also be an opportunity for the “called” person to respond to that abuse or loss by doing something to find meaning in the awful experience.

Remember Mary and her Magnificat, at the beginning of this sermon? You might think that this is the case of a woman taken advantage of, forced into an uncomfortable situation by an unwanted pregnancy or superstition which made her interpret a mere dream as a vision of call.

My colleague the Rev. Hank Peirce has a different take on Mary’s song of praise to God. Here’s what he thinks, in an essay called “Occupy Advent”. First he quotes the Magnificat, the song of Mary:

And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.…. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away…

Hank continues: “In order to merge (the Occupy movement) and Advent I introduce to you, Mary. Yes that Mary, mother of Jesus, pregnant teenager married to a dude way older than (she), the virgin, you know who I mean. … But look at what she says in the passage known as either the Song of Mary or as the Magnificat (Luke 1: 46-55.) “My soul magnifies the Lord.” That's not a shy statement, is it? and keep reading, this lowly knocked up teenager is speaking revolution!

"God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts." "God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly." "God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty."

“ It is not the kind of thing we find printed on a Hallmark greeting card; she has connected God with revolution, a Judaean coup d'etat. No wonder people get tattoos of her; this is radical, powerful stuff. In fact its message is so subversive that for a period during the 1980's the government of Guatemala banned the reading of the Magnificat in public. Who knew?

“Today, I hope you take some time to think about how radical your beliefs are… and ask yourself. Are you living what you believe?”

And I would ask, are we living what we believe? Are we living what we are called to do with what Mary Oliver has called our “one wild and precious life”?

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

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 as religious folk are called to make meaning with our lives, not to spend them wastefully or superficially. May we continue to seek out the best ways to live our lives, in right relationship with others, in work which makes the world a better place, and in love for those who are our neighbors and for ourselves. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.