Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Trail of Beauty and of Tears

Rev. Kit Ketcham, with Jarina Moss, April 29, 2012

    In February, I spoke to you on the topic of current civil rights issues in America, mentioning several different groups needing expanded civil rights, particularly our gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender/intersex friends and neighbors.  I felt pretty good about what we are doing to support these groups and what Unitarian Universalists have historically done to support civil rights for oppressed groups.

    After the service, Jarina came to me and said something like, “you listed a lot of groups that need expanded civil rights, but you left out Native Americans.  What about Native peoples?”

    I confess I was dumbfounded, because it simply hadn’t occurred to me to include Native Americans, First Nations peoples, in the litany of those whose human rights have been neglected by our country and other countries.  As we talked, she shared some of her story and I apologized, probably feebly, for my oversight.  And I promised that I would speak about the issues of indigenous peoples today.

    It’s not as though I didn’t believe that native peoples have any problems.  It’s more likely that the needs of native peoples have become invisible to me.  I have not been as conscious of the oppression they’ve endured, even though I’ve had native friends who lived on reservations, whose family members have died of alcohol related disease, who’ve been accused of being “dirty Indians” because of reservation conditions and genetic disposition to addiction.

    My own white privilege has kept me from acknowledging my complicity in the conditions which affect native peoples, not only here in America but across the globe. 

    For indigenous peoples have gotten a raw deal in virtually every country discovered by European explorers centuries ago and policies enacted in those times continue to oppress native peoples to this day. 

    So when I promised Jarina that I would speak about this today, I was taking on a big topic, one which affects many areas of our comfortable lives and is related to many historical policies and acts of our U.S. government, whether the party in power was Republican or Democrat.

    Steve Newcomb is an American Indian of Shawnee & Lenape ancestry. For over a decade, he has studied the origins of United States federal Indian law and international law dating back to the early days of Christendom. He is currently completing a book on his findings entitled, Pagans In the Promised Land: Religion, Law, and the American Indian.

    In an essay entitled “Five Hundred Years of Injustice”, he writes this:
    When Christopher Columbus first set foot on the white sands of Guanahani island, he performed a ceremony to "take possession" of the land for the king and queen of Spain, acting under the international laws of Western Christendom. Although the story of Columbus' "discovery" has taken on mythological proportions in most of the Western world, few people are aware that his act of "possession" was based on a religious doctrine now known in history as the Doctrine of Discovery. Even fewer people realize that today - five centuries later - the United States government still uses this archaic Judeo-Christian doctrine to deny the rights of Native American Indians.

    Newcomb goes on to explain the origins of the Doctrine of Discovery.  In the year 1452, 40 years before Columbus made his journey to the Americas, a statement, or papal bull, was issued by the reigning Catholic pope, Pope Nicholas, declaring war against all non Christians, sanctioning and promoting conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christian nations and territories.

    “Under various theological and legal doctrines formulated during and after the Crusades, non-Christians were considered enemies of the Catholic faith and, as such, less than human. Accordingly, in the bull of 1452, Pope Nicholas directed King Alfonso to ‘capture, vanquish, and subdue the saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ,’ to ‘put them into perpetual slavery," and "to take all their possessions and property.’”

     This action was taken to expand and strengthen the so-called Christian Empire.  And it affects, even today, the actions of the United States government toward Native Americans, including Mexican immigrants, and the resources of the lands native peoples occupied at the time of conquest and which they occupy today.

    I’ve been concerned about the immigration battles along the US/Mexico border and the crackdowns on so-called illegal border crossings that have displaced dual-citizenship families, punished US born children for the efforts of their non-US-born parents to give their children a better life, and painted an ugly picture of the governments of those states.

    But it has seemed like a problem that didn’t affect our area much so far, even though the problem of Mexican citizens crossing the border without permission has surfaced here, most recently in Skagit County, when a well-known organic herb farm was discovered to have a workforce made up largely of non-compliant unpermitted Mexican citizens.  The owner of that farm has been indicted for this unlawful activity.

    But consider this:  Centuries ago, the United States was the homeland of native peoples who roamed freely throughout the southwestern states.  Borders were fluid and even nonexistent---until European conquerors moved in, using the Doctrine of Discovery to claim the native lands of those indigenous peoples and to subjugate them, to Christianize those who were willing to convert, and to kill or enslave those who were not willing to leave their indigenous religion and embrace Christianity.

    Guess what happened because of this religious enactment in the 15th century?  Mr. Newcomb will explain:

    In 1823, the Christian Doctrine of Discovery was quietly adopted into U.S. law by the Supreme Court in the celebrated case, Johnson v. McIntosh (8 Wheat., 543). Writing for a unanimous court, Chief Justice John Marshall observed that Christian European nations had assumed "ultimate dominion" over the lands of America during the Age of Discovery, and that - upon "discovery" - the Indians had lost "their rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations," and only retained a right of "occupancy" in their lands. In other words, Indians nation were subject to the ultimate authority of the first nation of Christendom to claim possession of a given region of Indian lands.

    Yes, that’s right.  U.S. law concerning native American rights to peaceful existence in this, their native land, is based on a 500 year old religious dictum which authorized capture, conversion, killing, enslavement, and displacement of peoples whose misfortune it was to have been here first.

    Since that enactment of U.S. law by the Supreme Court nearly 200 years ago, native peoples have been herded onto reservations, forced to sign treaties to maintain some semblance of existence, massacred if they dared to oppose this treatment, caricatured by popular culture, and robbed of sacred rituals and practices which have been misappropriated by the dominant culture and used for commercial gain.

    The concept which came to be known as Manifest Destiny has been a hallmark of U.S. policy toward the expansion of European-born peoples across the Americas, upheld by politicians of every stripe, ostensibly to promote democracy across the continent and to declare it a moral law that superseded all other law.

    In other words, it was considered the destiny of American democracy to eradicate and subdue, in this country, non-democratic forms of government.  Historian William E. Weeks has noted that three key themes were usually touched upon by advocates of Manifest Destiny:

1.    the virtue of the American people and their institutions;
2.    the mission to spread these institutions, thereby redeeming and remaking the world in the image of the U.S.; and
3.    the destiny under God to do this work.

    Since that time, many of us have come to understand what terrible wrongs have been committed against indigenous peoples, both here and abroad, and slowly the tide has turned, our thinking has evolved, and there is a growing undercurrent of support to repeal laws which are based on the Doctrine of Discovery, to be in full compliance with the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

    The Doctrine of Discovery was used to justify the conquest of Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and the Americas.  It was the justification for the appropriation of lands and resources and the domination of native nations and usurpation of their sovereignty.  It formed the basis for the slave trade, the partition and colonization of the Near East, the colonization of the Americas, and the genocides of the indigenous peoples of Africa and the Americas.

    The Doctrine of Discovery codified, put into law, made legal the oppression of others and it may be what gives tacit permission to all the bullying behavior we see in society, from the playground to the boardroom and marketplace, and ultimately to the battlefield.

    Let’s take a moment of silence to consider this historic moment in the history of our nation and to think about the questions it raises in our minds.  (chime)

    I’m wondering what questions might be in our minds right now?  Let’s hear from a few of you and then I’ll say a bit about my own thoughts.  (Questions)   

    Thank you for your thoughtful questions.  Here’s what I’ve been thinking, as I’ve researched and considered the implications of this challenging world-impacting situation:  First of all, DUH!  How could I miss this?  How can native peoples have been subjected to this without my recognizing it?  How could they become invisible to me? 

    When I think of my high school friends, Joyce and Belva, who lived on the nearby Umatilla reservation and went to my high school, I remember that they were both beautiful, both of them were honored as Indian princesses in the Happy Canyon show that was part of the Pendleton RoundUp every year; their pictures were in our high school yearbook---on horseback, dressed in white deerskin, feathers in their hair, looking regal.

    There were two boys, Peter and Paul, who were basketball stars at St. Joseph’s Academy in Pendleton.  We all had crushes on these two guys.  I even wrote them an anonymous note one time, at the height of my starry-eyed phase.  What became of these beautiful young men and women?

    Sadly, as I researched the names of these friends and admired ones, I found death notice after death notice----all of these four had died too young, between ages 50 and 60.  Why?  I couldn’t find out why, but knowing the bleak history of health vulnerabilities among indigenous peoples, I could hazard a guess.

    Was it alcoholism taking advantage of the genetic make-up of Native Americans?  Or their high susceptibility to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity?  Did poverty and depression contribute to their deaths? 

    These are questions I have never before thought to ask.  Has the treatment of Native peoples by their conquerors over the centuries resulted in such poor living conditions that their emotional and physical health has been damaged?  That their history from the day Europeans set foot on their lands has been one of death and displacement?  My answer to these questions is Yes.

    And my next question is, logically, what---500 years later---can we do about any of this?

    As Terra, Jarina, and I talked about this service, we had to face the questions that Jarina has asked, in her reflection:  why do we not think of the rights of native people?  Why do we still treat them as the invisible inconvenience of white colonialism?  What is it about human nature that allows us to dehumanize others of our species to the extent that we have?

    We acknowledge that we have within each of us the capacity for both good and evil.  Why do we so often choose hurtful behavior over compassion?  How do we begin to examine our own tendencies to dominate and to oppress?  How do we change our sense of entitlement so that it no longer impinges on the rights of others? 

    Native peoples in this country and others have contributed hugely to our arts and cultural heritage.  We in return have often misappropriated their art, spiritual practices, music, and other contributions, using them for our own material gain.  We do so without understanding their history, the heritage that they represent, and we may even callously adapt those rituals and items to better meet our needs, not caring that their originators might feel resentful and hurt.  The beauty they have offered----in art, in music, in ritual, in culture---has often been stolen and misused.

    Native lands are always under the gun.  Just this past week, I received notices about proposed mining in Alaska that threatens native fishing rights and  an impending auction in North Dakota that will sell the Fort Berthold Indian reservation’s oil and gas rights.  Large corporations were behind both these proposed acquisitions.

    Clearly, we must act.  What can we do?  The Unitarian Universalist Peace Ministry Network repudiates the Doctrine of Discovery and is bringing a resolution to the floor of our upcoming General Assembly in Phoenix, the end of June, when the related issue, of immigration laws, will also be a focus of attention.

    Other religious traditions are also speaking out in favor of repeal of laws which are based on the Doctrine of Discovery and we would do well to study the issue deeply and align with other concerned congregations and humanitarian groups, including the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.

    In addition, we can strongly oppose legislation and corporate actions which impinge upon native lands.  We can educate ourselves and others.  We can reach out in friendship to those affected by these ancient policies and, instead of just feeling helpless and looking away, let’s seek truth, let’s question what we’ve always done, and let’s practice compassion and seek reconciliation.

    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,  thinking hard about how our lives have been shaped by the oppressive policies of the past.  May we dedicate ourselves to doing our part to change the laws which hurt others and may we never forget that our privileged lives are, to some degree, bought by the pain of others.  We pray for strength to understand and the courage to change.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

An Easter Reflection on Rebirth and Resurrection

Rev. Kit Ketcham, with Dave Sweetwood, April 8, 2012

When Dave and I sat down to think about this service a couple of weeks ago, I asked him to tell me what Easter meant to him. He had had a fairly typical Protestant upbringing and had pretty much set aside the traditional teachings of Jesus’ physical resurrection and ascension into heaven, as well as the stories of virgin birth and other miraculous acts.

But there was one Easter theme that really spoke to him, and you have now heard him tell his story of rebirth, of redemption, of renewal and new life.

It’s always a little risky to ask someone to tell such a personal story, but Dave reminded me, when I asked if he’d be willing to share it with you today, that his story of rebirth into recovery from alcoholism is a story we all need to hear, time and again, for we all struggle with our various captivities, be they eating patterns, drug and alcohol usage, spending, relationship problems, gambling, anger, workaholism, to name a few.

We all need to hear the life-giving words that all is not lost, that we can reclaim health and sanity, that we can find a new way of living, of being with others, of being with ourselves and with the great mystery that some call God.

Dave tells his story of rebirth to others freely. It’s part of his recovery, part of the way he maintains his sobriety, part of the way he offers hope to others who may be struggling themselves.

The word rebirth may call up in us a number of different feelings. We may associate it with the traditional Christian concept of being “born again”. We may, as Nicodemus the tax guy in the Bible said to Jesus at one point in those ancient stories, we may wonder how the heck a person can re-enter his/her mother’s womb and come out again. That’s a kind of creepy concept that is physically impossible, anyhow.

If we’re stuck on the literality of the term, it is hard to recognize its deeper meaning. But consider the many words I found in my thesaurus when I checked out “rebirth” for synonyms. There are the requisite religious terms: conversion, baptism, cleansing, purification, purgation---there’s one that sounds a little gross. They’re pretty loaded for many of us.

I remember in seminary innocently asking my theology professor one day what the term was for a person who gradually saw things in a different way and came to behave differently as a result.

I was thinking of my own process of becoming a Unitarian Universalist, not overnight but after long hard thought in which I compared the religious values of justice, mercy, and humility with the values of the conservative Christianity I’d observed, which seemed to be more along the lines of proselytize, deny science, and exclude anyone different.

Dr. Davaney looked at me strangely and said, “Conversion”, as though she were wondering if I should even be in seminary, if I didn’t understand the concept of conversion. I did understand the concept of conversion; it was the step right after proselytization and it was something I had been expected to do to or for others.

That wasn’t what had happened to me. It wasn’t what I had done to or for others. I had watched other people live their lives in ways I admired and I wanted to learn how to live that way too.

Long ago, in a universe 1300 miles away, Denver, before I ever met Professor Davaney, I had a lovely boyfriend named Gil who was a recovering alcoholic. He lived his life in ways I admired. I cared for him very much and listened to him talk about examining his life and making amends to those people he had hurt with his drinking behavior----his ex-wife, his sons, his co-workers, and most of all, himself.

All this time, while I was listening, all I could think of was my ex-husband’s faults, his drinking behavior, and how it had hurt me and our son. I wanted that man to make amends to me! And so one day, I asked Gil, “how can I get him to make amends to me?”

Gil looked at me a little bit the same way my theology professor would look at me, years later, and suddenly, it clicked. I “grokked” it, as we learned to say in the 60’s. I realized that I couldn’t make my ex do anything. I needed to examine my own life and consider making amends to those I’d hurt, not fixate on how they had hurt me.

And my mother’s words came back to me, to when she’d say to me after some complaint I’d registered about how a sibling had treated me badly. My mom just said, “honey, you can’t change other people’s behavior, you can only change your own.”

Gil’s look and my mother’s words combined to give me a moment of clarity and recognition of a new pathway for my life. Instead of resentment against a man who had hurt me, I would be better served by self-examination and consideration of how my behavior might change.

Here are a few other words I found in my thesaurus: renaissance, renascence, revival, new awakening, regeneration, renewal, rejuvenation, restoration. And resurrection, a returning to healthy life from a place of death.

Resurrection----one of the key words at Eastertide. Now, we can be pretty sure that truly dead people almost never become alive again, though we often hold out hope for a miracle.

And I suppose it’s possible that Jesus, after his crucifixion, seemed to be genuinely dead but that he recovered and was able to walk and talk again with his friends a few days later. Possible, but not very likely---crucifixion was a pretty final event in a person’s life.

What it makes me think of, however, is that there seem to be different kinds of things we consider to be death-like: there’s physical death, when the brain and organs quit working, but there’s also a sort of mental death, when the mind is gone but the body continues to function. There’s bodily death, when almost nothing but the mind works.

Even these informal categories are open to question, now that it is possible to resuscitate many a person whose brain and heart have suddenly stopped working and there are ways for severe quadriplegics to continue to function, like Stephen Hawking who depends on technology to keep his bodily systems working and whose mind is steadily churning out ideas.

The death that threatens us all, I think, is spiritual death. And how I would define that term is as a state of being in which we no longer feel connected to the universe, when we focus solely on the routines that get us through a day with little or no awareness of the larger meanings of our lives, when we are so beaten down by habits or circumstances or sorrow or anger that we cannot see a way out of our blind alleys and the quagmires that trap us.

Spiritual death threatens when we lose sight of our relationships and our connections to other people and to the universe. Some would say that spiritual death means disconnection from God; though I prefer to use other language, I believe that’s so, that there is often a hole in our lives that would be best filled by spiritual experience.

There have been a few times in my life when I’ve teetered on the brink of becoming so disconnected that I didn’t feel quite real. My life at those times seemed to be centered on doing what others wanted or needed me to do, hiding loneliness and resentment under a fa├žade of vivacity and cheer, controlling as much as I could to keep from having to deal with the surprises and crises that would otherwise land in my lap.

I reveled, at those times, in the ego-boosts of praise from admirers and tried to keep them coming in, sometimes by abandoning my own ethical standards and doing things I would not normally have done, in order to keep feeling like I was a real person, that I belonged.

I resisted getting too close to people. I pretended to be what people thought I was. It took a spiritual awakening to get me on the right track.

I think this period of disconnected time in my life began when I first started to realize how different I felt from other people. Some of it was being a preacher’s kid who couldn’t do the same kinds of social things that my friends could do. Some of it was being smart and wanting to do something with my life besides marry the first boy who asked and become a wife in a small town without much intellectual stimulation.

There were lots of ways I felt different from everyone around me and I began to cope with that sense of separation by faking it a lot. By pretending to be like everyone else, by pretending to believe what everyone around me believed. By letting go of some ethical standards and acquiescing to things I knew were wrong, just in order to make my husband happy. Or at least keeping him from complaining about my bad attitudes.

This was a tough way to live, but I got good at it. It carried over well into my work and social life, and I had no idea that not everyone around me was fooled. I was fooled, sort of, but people who took the time to know me well were not.

Now, I don’t want this to turn into true confessions, though I do confess I am telling you more now than I might have nine years ago!

The point is that I think a lot of us grow up in ways that encourage us to pretend, to be what others think we should be, to fulfill societal expectations that stuff us into boxes and molds that are uncomfortable and even dishonest.

I tell stories about myself because I believe that they are universal stories, that others share these human dilemmas, that hearing another person’s stories can give us insights into our own lives, ideas for approaching our personal dilemmas, and the courage to do something about them.

So what does Easter mean to me? Like Dave, I resonate to the idea of rebirth. I see the resurrection story of the Bible as a metaphor for human living. I see myself being reborn any number of times over my lifetime so far. Perhaps you do too.

For me the most recent rebirth came about a year ago, when my doctor told me my cholesterol, blood pressure, and other numbers were high and we needed to consider drug therapy to lower them. I had guessed she might suggest that and I knew I needed to do something.

So all the way up to Oak Harbor for my appointment one day, I considered various ways of telling her I refused drug therapy for these conditions and why I felt I couldn’t lose weight, which I knew would be her next suggestion.

But once in her office, going over the numbers and knowing I needed to do something, I said to her, “well, I guess I could go back to Weight Watchers”, thinking even as I said it that it probably wouldn’t work, but that at least I could fob her off by giving that answer, which would sound good. Which she wanted to hear. Yep, I was doing it again!

She was, of course, pleased to hear me say that but I felt dishonest as I went out the door, because I kinda knew it was just a way to get her off my back.

All the way home, I thought about what I’d said and what I actually would probably do. And I thought about other times I’d tried Weight Watchers: after Mike was born, when I needed to lose baby fat and make my husband happy; after my divorce, when I wanted to look good and get a boyfriend; during the hard times at a former congregation when I was feeling bad about myself and was looking for a new congregation.

None of these unsuccessful efforts was actually about me---they were all an effort to be what I thought others wanted me to be. This time, it was about me and my health and my happiness and my ability to live into my old age as a strong healthy woman. I wasn’t going to be able to be my real self if I was sick or if I lacked stamina for life’s challenges.

I thought about times when I’d succeeded in doing something really hard and I remembered those years I spent in a 12 step program. One of the old slogans came back to me, somewhere around Coupeville: “It works if you work it.” It works if you work it. It works if you do it the way it’s supposed to be done. It works if you do it for yourself, not for someone else.

When I got home, I went to the WW website to locate a meeting, I put it on my calendar, and the next Thursday at noon, I showed up at Deer Lagoon Grange. I’ve been going ever since, and you have all watched me succeed in peeling off almost 40 pounds during the past year.

But this story is not about weight loss and better physical health. It’s about the recognition I’ve had over this past year that physical poundage was not the only weight on my heart.

There was also the weight of unresolved conflict with people from my past, people I still felt angry with, people I thought had done me wrong, who thought I had done them wrong.

They included longtime friends and colleagues I’d written off, still peeved that they got mad at me over hurt feelings, still feeling hurt myself and resentful about it. I was uncomfortable when I had to be around them, I let the resentment crop up repeatedly, and I avoided seeing them if possible.

One day last fall, I got to thinking about a lost friendship with a woman in my former congregation in Colorado. We had been very close, but when I went into the ministry and moved to the PNW, our friendship weakened and when I asked her once to tell me more about a problem in that congregation, she flared up at me, told me that she felt I’d dumped her when I moved, and she didn’t want to be friends any more. Ouch.

All my emails of indignant protest went unanswered. I sent more messages. Nothing. So I just fumed quietly about it----until it was approaching this past Christmas and I again wondered about sending her a holiday message. It struck me suddenly that maybe I was in the wrong, to some extent. If I couldn’t change her behavior, perhaps I could change my own.

I wrote her a letter, a real letter, not an email, of apology, took the blame for having asked her inappropriately to gossip about the situation, and sent it off, around Thanksgiving. I had no idea how she would respond, whether she’d even open the letter.

Two weeks later, I got a card from her, accepting my apology, offering her renewed friendship, and hoping I was well. A huge weight was lifted from my heart. Even if she hadn’t responded at all, I had at least done the right thing by admitting I’d hurt her and asking her forgiveness, even these long years after the fact. She’d had a right to feel hurt; I had hurt her.

A few months later, another opportunity arose, this one with a colleague I’d felt resentful about for years. We had mutually hurt each other and the weight of my resentment was bothering me. I wrote my colleague a letter of regret about my having administered that hurt. I didn’t ask my colleague to make amends to me; I just wanted to get rid of that weight on my heart. My colleague forgave me.

There are a few more pounds weighing down my heart—five more physical pounds and a couple more spiritual pounds, weight I need to jettison in order to be more whole. But I’ve learned some important spiritual lessons during this past year---that pounds of lard affect my physical health and that pounds of resentment affect my spiritual health. I need to be careful that they don’t creep back, once I’ve lost them.

They say maintenance of healthy physical weight depends on vigilance and I think that holds true for healthy spiritual weight as well. I hope that all of us who struggle with issues of resentment, addiction, and other spiritual ills will find the rebirth, the resurrection, out of spiritual death and grow into a new life of joy and greater health.

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 we can only change our own behavior, not others, and that it is our asking forgiveness that we can find new life. May we offer forgiveness to others freely and may we find the peace of mind that comes when we let go of resentment. May we all find a sense of spiritual renewal and renaissance in the days ahead. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Spirit, Love, and Light

Today at UUCWI, we'll have a worship service using the personal poetry of 12 of our members and friends, including me. My contribution is to lead a hymn I wrote when I was a student in a Hymnody class at Iliff School of Theology. The words are below. It can be sung to the tune "Restoration", as individual verses, or to "Hymn to Joy" (aka Ode to Joy by Beethoven) by making the verses eight lines long instead of four. Or, if you prefer, find a different tune in the metrical index of any hymnal, under the section or (for the 8-line arrangement of verses).

You are welcome to use it, if you like it, just giving attribution.

by Rev. Elizabeth “Kit” Ketcham, 1999
TUNE: Restoration or Hymn to Joy

Wandering in earth’s lonely places,
We see clear, though sick with fright,
In our comrades’ lovely faces,
God is Spirit, Love, and Light.

Jesus was our prophet, mentor.
Heart and soul he does invite
us to find God at our center,
God is Spirit, Love, and Light.

Yet we need to be reminded,
In the deepness of the night,
Whom we seek when we are blinded,
God is Spirit, Love, and Light.

When we question our disgraces,
Where can God be in our plight?
Answers come from hidden places,
God is Spirit, Love, and Light.