Sunday, December 29, 2013

Pastoring a tiny congregation...

is a mix of fun and frustration.  In the months since I offered my services to the tiny fellowship near my home, I've been blessed by a sense of greater connection to these parishioners and also concerned about whether what I am doing for them is good or hopeless.

At the time I proposed to use my ministry skills to help them deal with some of the holes in their programming (pastoral care and a resident minister who would preach on occasion), I knew I was only able to offer a stopgap ministry for them.  I'm 71 years old, I'm not interested in fulltime parish ministry any more, and I don't want to go to board meetings.

But my call to ministry was persistent and wouldn't let me give up on the idea, so in March of this year I started serving up pastoral care to anyone in the congregation who needed it.  Since that time,  two desperately ill folks have  died and their memorials either conducted or in the planning stages.  Because these folks have never had a resident minister (they've had quarter-time ministers who drove down from Portland to do what they could in a long weekend), they've not been able to provide adequate pastoral care and they hardly knew what to do with someone when faced with a death.  I've felt pretty useful in the pastoral care department and have counseled many a member through lesser crises.

Preaching is one of my favorite tasks of ministry and I thought it would be easy to recycle old sermons in my once-a-month pulpit gig, but it's not.  Some of my old chestnuts are more inane now than they were five years ago.  They might have served a need at the time, but now they're just creaky vehicles of old thinking.  So I've decided I will no longer re-use any sermon which can't be personalized to the congregation, increasing my sense of satisfaction but also my time commitment.

In an effort to serve this farflung bunch of folks in a parish which extends from a small Washington coast town on the north to the bottom edge of our long, skinny Oregon coast county, I've initiated smaller local groups in coffee klatches or happy hours every month, hoping to learn more about people's lives in a smaller setting.  This has been fruitful for the most part and we now have a healthy group of 5-9 who live way south of the county line.  It meets on a Sunday morning to offer a UU opportunity to people who live too far away (more than 40 miles) to get to church regularly.  A coffee klatch in a Washington setting attracts 3 or 4 folks on a Saturday afternoon and a happy hour at a local Astoria pub attracts as many as 12 on a Thursday evening.  Folks enjoy these gatherings as time to be together outside of a Sunday social hour.  And I enjoy them too.

I am trying to just enjoy what I am able to do without overextending myself.  They pay me a small honorarium for my work and are  very appreciative, but I know that giving more than a few hours a month can set up a pattern that sets too-high expectations, leaving them in the lurch if I should need to end my service.  Because it seems unlikely to me, at this point, that I will continue this for more than a couple of years. 

Will there be someone to pick up where I leave off?  The congregation is dependent on the pledges of about 30 people; it rents space from a UCC group; it's primarily retirees and a few small families with kids.  It's not growing much and has little growth future without more ministerial leadership; its layleaders are tired, having carried the ball for many years without much support.  They can't afford to pay anyone an actual professional wage and the ministers who drove down for a long weekend in the past have been frustrated by the limitations of time, weather, and size.

I have considered how we might attempt a social action program of some kind, but with the limits of building access, travel distances, and size, I have concluded that it makes better sense to encourage people to make their individual social justice efforts in their own communities, rather than as a church body.  I've been castigated for this decision by at least one non-member who has told me he's given up on us because of this "failure".  But somebody who lives 20-40 miles away does not want to drive that distance on a rainy night (or day) to volunteer in a body, no matter how worthy the cause.  And to tacitly limit participation only to those who live close to the cause seems to skew the effort somehow.  Also, it would drastically increase the hours I'd commit to them for a pittance of an honorarium.

But we're having fun and I think they're learning what it means to have a minister, even one who can't do everything a fulltime minister might do.  And I'm serving my call, in this small way.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Parenting in Old Age...

Well, not REAL old age, of course, as I'm only 71 and a half and have been the recipient of admiring comments by the docs and nurses at the eye clinic where I've been this past year, making 21 round trips to Portland for surgeries and followup visits.  One nurse put it well:  "I hardly know any 71 year old women who don't take anything but vitamins!"  Made me proud, even as I start to think about jettisoning most of my daily supplements.

Now that we've cleared up the old age issue, the real topic of this post is the re-learnings I'm having to make about being a mother.  My dear son is 41 years old, with a wife and family, and every time I see him I have to re-learn how to be the mother of an adult.

How many times, for example, have I listened to other adults describe religious views which are somewhat different from mine, not needing to interrupt them or suggest another point of view?  I can do this with just about anyone, from wildly, radically liberal to wildly, radically conservative---except my son.  Can't keep my mouth shut when he reveals that he has gone a step farther than I have in his concept of the universe.  Can't quit trying to redirect the topic.  Can't understand why he thinks I'm being critical.

Somehow I think I have to keep on shaping and training him, even when he is well into the age of maturity and has done a pretty good job of shaping and training himself since he reached adulthood.  He's a really decent man, smart, outspoken, funny, liberal, loving.  The trajectory was set for him a long time ago; why is it so surprising to me that he has continued on that arc beyond the point at which he has outpaced me? 

Granted, I know more about a few things than he does.  But the ways he has outpaced me, knowledge-wise, are many.  His world is so different from mine that there is no way to call him back.  He was born in one world and has shot, lightning-like, into another world where he is the knowledgeable one and I am clinging to the few tendrils of mastery I still have.

Someday he will have to learn the techniques of parenting adult children.  That's my only consolation right now, except for the firm conviction that he continues to be the same loving, caring boy-become-man who had to be urged to eat his vegetables long years ago.  He's still eating his vegetables and he's still funny and quirky.  I guess that's something, anyhow.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Searching for Spiritual Renewal

    As I struggled to revamp last Sunday's recycled sermon on "The Still Small Voice", I was made acutely aware of my own spiritual desertland, the place I have inhabited for several months, maybe as long as I have been retired.    I just haven't had a desire to go anywhere else but the desert.  It hasn't felt like desert to me---I mean, there's the beach and the ocean and the new friends and the new activities and (at least for a few months) a new boyfriend (or, as Dr. Sheldon Cooper of BBT would say, "a boy who is a friend".     
   But I had been having pain ever since I moved here----in my teeth, on my skin, in my back, in my eye.  Doctors and other practitioners fixed things pretty well----a root canal, a crown replacement, shingles medicine and ibuprofen, heat packs and massage, and five eye surgeries to salvage my dimming vision.
    It took me until last Saturday night's Christmas concert in Cannon Beach for the obvious to strike:  limited vision could mean more than just a detached retina.  Five surgeries to get it fixed was significant, in that my rebellious retina seemed determined to get my attention---finally.  What haven't I been paying attention to?
    The sermon pretty well spelled it out as I revamped that old chestnut on spiritual growth, making it more up to date, more germane to my new location in life.  It became obvious that my spiritual reservoirs were pretty well drawn down.  The words penned years ago suddenly jumped out at me:  transitions can do this to a person, can distract us with busyness and new adventures; grief can do this to a person, can tempt us to smother emotion with activities; changes of circumstances can short-circuit our ability to be mindful of the sacred moments in life.  And pain, pain trumps it all.
    How does the message become obvious?  We may get sick, we may return to old negative habits or pick up new ones, our behavior seems a little out of bounds.  Once we notice, we may be shocked.  My limited vision was not just retinal in nature---it was more than that.
    I have been distracting myself with a lot of stuff---the work I'm doing for the congregation, the classes I'm doing for ENCORE, the coffees on weekends with new friends, that sort of thing.  None of these things are bad or hurtful.  It's more that they keep my attention focused on externals, on Doing rather than Being.
    This fall a couple of things cropped up that changed my focus.  One of them was the Scandinavian trip with my sister.  I began to look at my ethnic heritage in a new way, feeling more Scandinavian than I ever had.  And I decided to get my DNA tested for its ethnic/geographical mix.  The results were surprising and my reaction to the results was also surprising; I wasn't as Scandinavian as I thought---I was also Mediterranean and Southwest Asian.  Initially, I even misread the results and proclaimed my Mediterranean heritage to be half as large as it actually was. 
    Then last Saturday night, I almost decided not to go to the concert, but my friends were singing and I wanted to hear the music.  I was feeling less than Christmassy and hoped the songs would jumpstart me into a more festive mood.
    During the first segment, pieces from The Messiah had my inner critic out in force-----how could anyone possibly still take the theology of The Messiah literally?  The music and the harmony were wonderful, but the words?  Good grief!  I wanted to shout "you know, those words from Isaiah were probably written with King Hezekiah in mind, not Jesus!" which I'd learned in my Old Testament class in seminary.
    Somehow I was able to recognize the damper that thought was putting on my mood and I breathed deeply, closed my eyes, and let the thought go away.  In its place came the fragrance of something sharp and sweet, perhaps wafting from a person nearby.  I saw in my mind's eye the vivid red and turquoise colors on a woman sitting near me.  My brain moved from criticizing to noticing to feeling and I realized that for months I have put most emotional responses on hold.  Most, that is, except for joy---which was easy to manufacture, given all the wonderful things about my new life.
    I didn't let anger surface over the surgeries and the 20 round trips to Portland I had to make to get the eye taken care of, with the mounting expenses of dental care, with the pain of the shingles attack, or the end of the romance.  I didn't let my frustration boil over during lengthy waits at the eye clinic; I just pasted on a smile and took a book.  I don't have a partner to share these emotions with and the cats don't care, so I just pretended I didn't feel them.
    It was confusing to feel the anger and frustration because of my deep gratitude to the docs and nurses at the eye clinic.  They felt like guardian angels, making sure I came through each surgery in good shape.  They were sympathetic and skilled.  It didn't feel right to express my anger and frustration at them, so I swallowed it.  And I swallowed a lot of extra food, too, so that I've gained back over ten pounds of the 40 I lost a couple of years ago.
    When I had open heart surgery in 2000, my spiritual director Karin helped me see the surgery as a way of becoming literally more openhearted, more attuned to the meaning in each of life's events.  When I recognized the retinal issue as possibly expressing the limited vision of my spiritual life, I had to ask myself---what am I not seeing?
    It feels awfully good to be writing these things down.  I am publishing them on the blog, because Ms Kitty's was the place I used to unload, discreetly but honestly.  Take it from here, peeps.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Annual Christmas Letter

I want to get back in the habit of writing blog posts regularly, rather than just posting the most recent sermonal attempt, so I'm going to try to write at least weekly.  Because there are readers of Ms Kitty's who are not on Facebook, I'm posting my annual catching-up-with-Ms. Kitty Christmas letter, herewith.  The rest of you may talk quietly among yourselves.
Dear friends and family,

            I hope your year has been as full of good surprises and small challenges as mine has.  I’ve lived here in Gearhart, on the north Oregon coast, for almost 18 months and have enjoyed nearly every minute.
         I’ve made many new friends through the groups I’ve joined:  the North Coast Land Conservancy, the Pacific UU Fellowship, the continuing education program of Clatsop Community College (ENCORE), and the Angora Hiking Club.  In addition, there’s a group of local Gearhart residents who gather for coffee at the local coffee shop/bakery in town and I’ve attained “regular” status, meaning that when I walk in the door in the morning, John the proprietor has my cuppa already poured.

            There have been a few big events during the year, most notably the 12 day Scandinavian cruise that my sister and I took in September, visiting our ancestral lands.  Our mother Mona Larson Ketcham was Norwegian and Swedish and we loved seeing the countries where her parents were born, bringing home a few souvenirs and many photographs and memories.  I’d love to go back for a few months and travel more extensively in Norway and Sweden.  We spent three days in Norway, one in Sweden, and also visited the Shetland Islands, the Faroe Islands, and Iceland.  So much to see with so little time!

            Another much-anticipated event was my 50th Linfield College reunion, for which I served on the planning committee and as the emcee for the big banquet.  So much fun to see those college friends again and renew those connections, this time as adults!

            My generally strong health helped me weather a couple of health situations:  three weeks worth of shingles in the spring and five months of trying to get the retina in my right eye to behave itself.  I’d had a shingles shot, so that experience was pretty easy, though I swallowed a lot of ibuprofen!  It has taken five surgeries to tame the recalcitrant retina and I’m hopeful that it’s healed for good now.  It just kept detaching and the docs at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland kept patching it back together until now it’s pretty well healed up.  (Knock on wood!)

            I’m looking forward to the new year, when I’ll be leading a couple of classes for the ENCORE group; one is Science Exchange, where attendees bring science news to share, and the other is Life Experience, where attendees share the wisdom they’ve accumulated over their years of life. 

            I’ve been serving the Pacific UU Fellowship on a very parttime basis, offering them pastoral care and preaching once a month and will continue that service for the foreseeable future.  The Call never goes away!

            I hope the year to come will be as enjoyable as this one has been and I wish you the very happiest of New Years yourself!

Much Love,

Ms. Kitty

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Still Small Voice

As I was writing this sermon, it occurred to me that, because of the many little health issues and retirement issues I've dealt with over the past several months, I have not taken my own advice and sought spiritual renewal.  It was so obvious to me last night as I sat listening to the beautiful music offered by the Cannon Beach Chorus (and my own still small voice?) that I immediately began to jot down quick reminders of what I'd let slide in my distraction.  I'll be writing more posts on those topics, I hope, but first, here's today's sermon:

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Dec. 15, 2013

            Every year about this time, I become much more deeply aware of my craving for spiritual renewal.  It's a time of year when my own reservoirs have often been drawn down by my own personal matters, the latest news of war and hate, the ongoing needs of people I love and serve, and I need to find new meaning in my life so that I can live with a sense of abundance rather than deprivation. 
            This experience of needing to refill one's spiritual reservoirs is common to many in helping professions.  It's also common to caretakers, to people in transition who are moving from one stage of life to another, to people who are grieving, to anyone who needs to find new meaning in life. 
            We get the message in a variety of ways----some of us find ourselves withdrawing from others, some of us get sick, some of us go into therapy or self-help programs, some take up a hobby, some may become addicted to one thing or another.
            When we find ourselves craving too much solitude or cringing when someone needs us to do something, when we find our behavior out of bounds for some reason, being more irritable, more tired, more overwhelmed, more needy, these are often signals that our spiritual reservoirs are low and we need to replenish them.
            Many of us come here to Sunday services hoping to find a place where we are not only intellectually stimulated but also emotionally touched, where in the quiet times or in the music, we hope for a sense of something bigger than ourselves, a sense of connection to others, a moment we can carry away into our workaday week.
            The need for spirituality in our lives is a common but tricky thing because it is such a personal experience. For one person, it might be an insight triggered by a poem or a speaker's words or the music; for another, it might be an emotional sense of gratitude for an act of kindness. For others, these might not be particularly significant at all.
            But I have learned over the years that I can become more attuned to the moments in life which offer spiritual experience, whether they come during worship or during an ordinary day. I have had to train myself to recognize them. I have had to restructure my life a bit to be more open to them. I have had to go looking for them.  But I’ve learned that I can't usually expect them to be administered by someone else, like a dose of medicine; I have to be open to them myself.
            I found a little vignette that I think fits here, recounted by the late French author Andre Gide. while he was in Africa years ago.  He wrote:
            "My party had been pushing ahead at a fast pace for a number of days and one morning when we were ready to set out, our native bearers, who carried the food and equipment, were found sitting about without any preparations made for starting the day.
            Upon being questioned, they said quite simply, that they had been traveling so fast in these last days that they had gotten ahead of their souls and were going to stay quietly in camp for the day in order for their souls to catch up with them.  So they came to a complete stop."
            We human beings seem to be constantly in a state of movement of some kind---particularly in our life stages, as parents, in marriage or singleness, in job changes, even in retirement, just to name a few.  It's important to recognize that the changes in our daily lives affect our spiritual lives, just as the African workers knew and addressed, when they needed to.
            We are often so busy and preoccupied with those changes, both big and little, putting one foot in front of the other, that we are not able to be as mindful of or open to spiritual experience as we might be at a different time.
            Just recognizing our human desire for spiritual experience is a positive step. Just realizing that something that gave us spiritual sustenance at one time is no longer so powerful---that's a huge insight in itself. It may not feel good but it's a sign that a person is ready to grow and is starting to look around for ways to nurture that growth.
            It can be helpful to look back over our lives and recognize the times in our lives when we had an experience we might call a spiritual experience.
            For some people, it's the birth of a child; for others, a deep love felt for another being.  It can be a moment in the woods or on a mountain top or in deep snow or on a stormy beach. For some of us, it may be the latest jaw-dropping news out of the world of science.  But whatever the stimulus is,  it's a time when we experience a sense of awe and wonder that may be new or familiar but gives us a chill of recognition---so this is what it means to be alive.
            Let's take a moment together to reflect on those chilling moments of awe in our lives.  I invite us to enter into a time of silence, to look back in our lives to a time that was particularly meaningful in a way that felt bigger than ordinary moments.  It might have triggered goose bumps or a sense of recognition of something important.  Let's be silent for a little while. (1 minute or more; chime)
            One of my earliest spiritual experiences was sitting on a cold, windy hilltop out in far eastern Oregon, near Ontario, with friends from our Baptist Youth Fellowship, singing the old hymn "O Worship the King", as I watched the sun come up on a stormy early Easter morning singing these words:
"O tell of his might, o sing of his grace,
whose robe is the light, whose canopy space;
his chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form,
and dark is his path on the wings of the storm.
That bountiful care, what tongue can recite?
It breathes in the air, it shines in the light,
it streams from the hills, it descends to the plain,
and sweetly distills in the dew and the rain."
            I know that my experience may mystify some of you.  It’s hard to explain why this was so important to me.  But I was 16, looking for deeper meaning in the faith I’d been brought up in, hungry for  more than platitudes.  Somehow singing these words, on this stormy, cold morning as the sun came up, expanded my vision beyond mere religious doctrine and connected it to the entire universe of light and space and storm and loving care.
            How can I convey the sense of importance that I find in spiritual experience?  How can I help others find spiritual experience and connection themselves? 
           Sometimes we don’t realize that we have drawn down our emotional and spiritual reservoirs.  Sometimes we shut off the conduits of spiritual experience assuming that they have no meaning in a rational life.  I would invite you to reconsider that assumption, for it’s easy to tune out this very real human desire.
            I have learned that one thing that has helped me has been to have a regular spiritual practice.  Like walking every day helps me stay fit for my physical life, a spiritual  practice helps me stay in shape for my spiritual life.
            And there are many spiritual practices, not just the traditional prayer and meditation  Some people read for inspiration, some write in journals or write poetry, some dance, some sing, some walk or run, some garden, some volunteer to serve others, some work with their hands, or create art.
            Prayer is part of my spiritual practice, but mindfulness is the point of any spiritual practice. When I pray that I will be a good minister, a good person, my prayer reminds me to be mindful to look for the meaning in my life, because it is there that I find my spiritual sustenance.  Mindfulness means listening for the still small voice of inner wisdom that comes when I am touched by the spirit, the insight that may come when I am open to it.
            There’s a wonderful story in the Hebrew scriptures about the ancient prophet Elijah who needed wisdom and guidance in a troubled situation.  He prayed to the spirit he called God to advise him;  he believed he would know what to do if he just listened. 
            As he was beseeching his God for guidance, suddenly a great wind came up and swept through the trees, knocking them down, causing rockslides, blowing dust and debris through the air.  Elijah listened carefully but he did not find his answer in the wind.
            An earthquake shook the mountain where he was standing and great cliffs tumbled around him.  But even though he listened, he found no answer in the earthquake.
            Lightning flashed from the sky and struck the dry brush around him, lighting it on fire.  But the answer was not in the fire.
            The story goes on to say that after all these cataclysmic events had ended, Elijah continued to listen, and after the fire came a still small voice.  It was in that still small voice that Elijah found his answer.
            We often think we’ll find our spiritual experiences in big moments, in times of great drama and tension.  And sometimes we do.  But more can be found in the aftermath when we are still, when we take time to be introspective, when we are alone, when we are able to be honest with ourselves, when we experience emotion about something, when we are open to hearing the still small voice of our own heart and mind as we have been touched by the experience.
            Let's return to the silence for a few moments and let the quiet of this room seep into our minds and hearts.   During this time, I invite you to let your mind be open to your own inner wisdom, however it may reveal itself.  (1 min. chime)
            We may each discover some personal way that spiritual meaning comes to us.  Spiritual experience is something we can learn to see; we can cultivate the ability to recognize the spiritual in our lives.  Spiritual experiences are not, in my humble opinion, just nice things to have happen to us.  They can be trail markers and guideposts, they may be telling us something, something that our rational approach to life has yet to see.
            As Karen and I were talking about today’s topic, I asked her about her own spiritual experiences, what she had found valuable.  If you know Karen, you won’t be surprised to hear that working with animals offers her many of her spiritual experiences.  Most of us know that she volunteers at the Wildlife Rescue service here in Clatsop County.  Karen told me that she’d been packing cats around ever since she could walk!
            Camping trips with family  connected her to the natural world.  Just breathing the clear air, being in the trees, on the beach, all these things have led her to a deep connection to and appreciation of nature.  She says “my heart rate drops, I feel at peace with the world, tranquil.”  And she finds this tranquility and sense of peace when she runs. 
            Many of us know that Karen is a runner, spending time every possible day alone out in the open air (not in a gym or on a treadmill!) running. 
            She feels exhilarated, high, in total harmony with her life.  Even though running is hard work for most of us, Karen finds it restful and clarifying.  She told me of a wonderful moment during one run.
            It was evening and she was alone, pounding along a snow-covered trail near her home.  The moon was rising, the stars brilliant overhead.  As she reveled in the cool sweet air, feeling her body respond to the physical demands of running, she heard a sudden noise, and before she could make sense of it, out from the shelter of a culvert a passel of deer took flight, startled by her footsteps----shadowy, alert, responsive to her presence.
             She says she stopped, stunned, struck by their beauty and their presence on that beautiful night.  As she watched, the moment was embedded in her mind and heart as one of the valuable spiritual experiences of her life, one she returns to when she needs a little spiritual renewal.
            Karen’s experience with the deer reminds me of a time when I camped with a friend on the banks of the Platte River near Kearney, Nebraska.  It was very early spring and the sandhill cranes were migrating.  We hoped to see them in flight.
            Early that morning, before the sun was up, I joined a host of others on a small bridge over the river.  We could see the shadowy forms of cranes in the water and fields but were totally taken by surprise when, at some unseen signal, thousands of cranes lifted up and flew over our heads, all at once, uttering their eerie call.  I vividly remember the awe and wonderment I felt at that time.
            Let's spend some more time in silence together and this time I invite us to think about the times we may have experienced something that caused us wonderment and a sense of awe and what our response to it may have been.  (1 min, chime)
            Recognizing our need for spiritual sustenance, listening for the still small voice, and responding to its call----these are the elements of spiritual growth. 
            My use of periods of silence during this sermon are a partial response to the urging of a still small voice in me, because I have learned that silence works for many of us.  We may not have much silent time to spend listening for a still small voice.  Worship services may be that important chance to be still and listen, even though these periods of silence are very brief.
            As we go our separate ways today, I hope we will return in our hearts and minds to that place of stillness where we can listen for the still small voice of wisdom and guidance that lives inside of us.
            We may call it God, we may call it our inner self, we may call it human nature----it doesn't matter what the words are.  But that still small voice represents our best selves, guiding us to goodness, not evil; guiding us toward life, not death; guiding us to growth, not stagnation; guiding us to health, not sickness.
            We are in the season of the year called Advent, in the Christian world.  Advent means beginnings.  May we find in times of stillness the beginnings of new spiritual life.
            Let’s pause once again for a time of silence.
            Our closing hymn is #83, Winds Be Still
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 mindfulness of the spiritual meaning in every moment of our lives is a key to growing as spiritual beings.  May we listen for the still small voice, may we heed its wisdom, and may we grow in spirit as we move forward in our lives.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Turning Toward the Morning

This sermon was introduced by a rendition of Gordon Bok's song "Turning Toward the Morning".

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Nov. 24, 2013, PUUF

            I remember discovering this song that we’ve just heard at a fairly bleak time of my life. It was late fall in Colorado, the golden aspen groves on the mountain slopes were now starkly bare of their leaves, we’d had two feet of snow on Halloween, my marriage was over, my son was struggling, my paycheck barely lasted from month to month, and I was dreading the cold Rocky Mountain winter ahead.

            One of my great pleasures in life then was attending the monthly acoustic music jams of the Denver Friends of Folk Music. And one Saturday night, a fellow folkie requested this song, and its words resonated with me and my anxious mood.

            I was curious to know where the song came from. I was familiar with the New England composer Gordon Bok’s work and looked for something from Gordon Bok about why he wrote the song “Turning Toward the Morning”. Here’s what I found.

"One of the things that provoked this song was a letter last November from a friend who had had a very difficult year and was looking for the courage to keep on plowing into it. Those times, you lift your eyes unto the hills, as they say, but the hills of … November can be about as much comfort as a cold crowbar.
You have to look ahead a bit, then, and realize that all the hills and trees and flowers will still be there come Spring, usually more permanent than your troubles. And if your courage occasionally fails, that's okay, too: nobody expects you to be as strong (or as old) as the land." - Gordon Bok”

            I liked that idea, of not dwelling too much on the bleakness of today’s troubles and deliberately looking ahead to the brighter days of spring.

            But I also liked another, less obvious, theme within this song and that was the idea that this man took his friend Joanie’s sorrow seriously and gave her the one gift he felt he had to give: a song that reminded her that he cared about her sorrow and, with his music, might help her lift her sight from the icy mud of her surroundings and offer her courage and support by pointing to the simple fact that the world is always turning toward the morning.

            Late fall can be a hard time of year, as the days grow shorter and shorter, sunny days are few and far between, and the darkness consumes more and more of our waking hours. It’s cold and often rainy and windy; we worry when the power goes out, unsure of how long it will be out and whether we will be able to stay warm. And the season seems to grind on and on. Often the upcoming holidays just add to our anxiety and gloom.

            Spring seems very far away in November. The holidays can distract us, but we need more than distraction sometimes. We need people and places we can depend on. We need to find the truths about the world that sustain us, give us hope, give us reason to keep pushing on, even when life’s troubles have overcome us and we see no easy way out.

            Sometimes the only way out is through and November is like that.

            I thought of friendship as a theme for this service because Thanksgiving signifies the beginning of a season of waiting for the light, of celebrating, in various faith traditions, the hope inherent in the change of seasons at the winter solstice, the sustaining grace of a menorah that never goes dim, the sweet joy of a child’s birth, all occasions of growing light and diminishing darkness.

            These relics of  legend and history represent the truth of light and warmth and survival, of the mystical and the pragmatic, of the life process that includes both birth and death, both darkness and bright splendor.

            Remember that old camp song “Make new friends but keep the old, one is silver and the other gold”? Or Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” and Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”. All these songs speak of the faithfulness and kindness of friends, the human need for friendship and connection with companions, the need for friends to see us through tough times.

            I used to be kind of wary of making friends, never quite sure I could count on them. Even best friends have a way of occasionally letting us down or hurting us. Sometimes we learn that a person we thought of as a friend really doesn’t like us very much or inexplicably disappears from our lives.

            Sometimes there are exclusions that deliver a message---you’re not our kind of people, so we’re not inviting you to the party, to our church, to our inner circle. Ouch! I suspect we’ve all had a few moments like these.  And some of them we brush off because they’re not important; others make us feel rejected at a deep level, make us wonder if we are worthy of friendship.

            I was talking with a person awhile back about an experience she’d had in which she felt excluded---possibly unintentionally, but….she wasn’t sure. And it stirred up old feelings for her, of times when she’d felt similarly excluded or watched others being excluded. Even though she was long past those experiences, the reminders stung.

            What are our experiences with friendship? Where do we find our closest friends and comrades? How many of us here still have some contact with friends from our early days, maybe even elementary school? How long have you known your longest-term friend? (?????)

            Why do we maintain contact with some of our earliest friends? What keeps us coming back to them?

            Erin and I talked a bit about the common characteristics of our favorite friendships: both of us noticed that there was a deep comfort level with these friends, a sense of mutual understanding, both spoken and unspoken.  These were mostly long-term friendships, deepening over time.  There was always an aspect of fun, of zaniness that was allowable with these friends.  And there was, too, a serious side, when we supported each other through tough times.

            I’ve often noticed that shared loss can create a bond. Long years ago, one of my best high school friends, Audrea Montee, died of liver cancer. Audrea and I had palled around all during grade school and high school; she was a crackerjack softball player, smacking that ball way out into left field and then trotting leisurely around the bases as fielders scrambled after the ball which was often lost in the weeds of the far outskirts of the diamond. Audrea was pretty chubby, which slowed her down a bit as she rounded the bases, but she was the home run queen of our class.

            She and I were friends partly because we were both kind of teenage misfits, me because I was a preacher’s kid and a brainiac and she because she was heavy and had to wear matronly clothes, instead of the popular Pendleton reversible skirts that were a hot item in high school. I didn’t have such a skirt either, so we had that in common, but mainly we just liked each other. She was funny and smart and shrugged off the teasing she got because of her weight; I learned how to do that from her.

            When she died at about age 50, a consciousness of mortality seemed to hit some of us McEwen High School grads hard. Out of our tiny graduating class of 20 or so, eight had died young, some in farm accidents or car wrecks, some by cancer or other disease. And so it became important to us who still lived to find each other and hang on.
         When I moved back to the PNW in 1999, we started getting together, sometimes in Athena, sometimes at each others’ homes. And a core group of six women formed that has become one of the most important friendship groups I’ve ever experienced.

            The interesting thing is that we weren’t close friends in high school, though we knew each other well. All of the other women in the group were part of a different crowd. They could date and go to the movies or go dancing; they had boyfriends and were cheerleaders. I didn’t and I wasn’t. My social life consisted of Baptist Youth Fellowship and other church activities. My school achievements were Honor Roll and Student Body treasurer. Not the stuff of high school dreams!

            But in our later years, when we were all in our fifties, we needed each other because our world was changing. No matter where we lived, what our careers meant to us, whatever our different circumstances had been in high school, the people who had been part of our lives for such a long time were dying.

            We couldn’t keep that from happening, but we could forge bonds of friendship that honored our long association and the common memories of growing up together in our small community.

            Not long after Audrea’s death, another friend, Donna Myers, died suddenly of a massive heart attack. And what had been just a vague idea in our minds became a project. Donna’s grandson, Riley, was in Doernbecher Children’s hospital in Portland with leukemia and the family had no health insurance. Could we help Donna’s family?

            Somebody discovered that a softball tournament in Pendleton was being organized as a fundraiser. Maybe we could participate! How long had it been since any of us played softball? How good would we be without our slugger, Audrea? It didn’t matter.

            So on a chilly November Saturday almost ten years ago, “Donna’s Team” formed and played the crummiest softball you ever saw. But luckily, it was one of those jokester games where all you had to do was pay off the umpire and get a re-do on your strike-out or your being tagged at home plate. We played with toy bats and hollow plastic softballs. We actually won one game, thanks to my son Mike’s willingness to play and be one of the goofier, more entertaining players on the field.

            I still have my Donna’s team t-shirt and hat, mementos of a time when friends fought back the dark for a little boy whose Grandma had been one of us.

            We need each other, sometimes, to fight back the dark. Sometimes friends come to our aid when we have an emergency; they take us in when the power goes out; they cover for us when we are ill. They take us up to Portland when we have an emergency. They buck us up by listening understandingly (or just by listening, whether they understand us or not!), even if they can’t do a thing to help.

            We receive countless gifts from our friends, intangibles we can hardly name. And what do we give, what can we give, in return for this kindness and support?

            The thing is, friends give their presence and their aid without any expectation of return. It’s not a you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, much of the time. It’s somebody stepping in when there are few other alternatives; it’s somebody seeing our need when we are reluctant to admit our neediness.

             It’s not, usually, a “calling in of a chip” as we hear in the gangster movies on TV. “He owes me a favor” seems more like a business deal than an act of friendship, though I imagine sometimes that’s what we need.

           What have been some of the gifts you’ve received in the past months? Thanksgiving has become a time to express our gratitude for blessings received. Because of the economic uncertainty in our country, our blessings may have morphed from material things to generosity measured in a different way.

           What are the gifts you have received recently from others? Let’s take a moment to reflect and then share some of those gifts. (think, share)

           The generosity of both friends and strangers, plus our family members, is a sweet thing to consider. These gifts of time and energy fill our hearts and give us strength for the cold days ahead.

           But gratitude is a two way street. We receive gratefully from others, cherishing the thought and the generosity that those gifts of spirit entail. And we also give those gifts to others, grateful for the opportunity to be a giver of gifts of spirit.

           You and I have doubtless encountered many people who give only so they can receive something in return. There’s something uncomfortable about being either the giver or receiver with a person like that. The best gifts are given with no expectation of return; the best gifts are received with no expectation of payback. These are gifts of the spirit.

           What are the spiritual gifts you have to give to others? Let’s take a moment to reflect, once again, and then share some of those thoughts. (think, share)

            The gifts of the spirit are numerous and have often been incorporated as pillars of some of the world’s great religions. They are universal values and we all have them to impart and to receive.

           Here’s what I think, after considering how we might both give and receive the gifts of the spirit.  I want to tell you about seven gifts of the spirit that I have found valuable.

           One of them is wisdom. We seek wisdom from others and we are able to offer our own wisdom to those who seek it from us. Wisdom is the result of our own life experiences and can be both general and specific.

           Another is understanding. We strive to understand another’s life circumstances and to extend that understanding to those we meet. When someone really understands us and we know it, that gift is priceless.

           How about the ability to make good decisions? This comes from conscience, the ability to differentiate between right and wrong. We support others who make good decisions, who choose for the right instead of the wrong; and we receive from those who make right decisions, because we are better able to choose right behavior ourselves because of them.

           Then there’s courage, revealed in the strength of character that develops when we don’t back away from situations that scare us, when we accompany a friend on a journey through terminal illness, when we encourage another to do the hard, fearsome thing because it’s right.

           Knowledge is another gift. Our knowledge of the universe and of a life of integrity offers us a way to find meaning in life despite its apparent randomness. We can share knowledge when appropriate and we can receive knowledge gracefully, even when it contradicts a fondly held belief.

            Wonder and awe are a gift that is sometimes lacking in us worldly adults. We often let go of our ability to stand struck with awe at the beauty of the universe and of the human creation; children give us back this gift, many times over. But this is a gift we can give ourselves, as well as others, if we just take the time.

           Reverence is the final gift on my list, though there are many I haven’t mentioned. Our desire for rationality and empirical experience sometimes makes it hard to be reverent in the face of our knowledge of good and evil, especially when evil seems so much more in evidence than good. But reverence has the ability to infuse daily life with deeper meaning, like water on a withered plant.

           Gordon Bok sings his gift of spirit to his friend Joanie, “oh, my Joanie, don’t you know that the stars are swinging slow, and the seas are rolling easy, as they did so long ago, if I had a thing to give you, I would tell you one more time, that the world is always turning toward the morning.”

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 have gifts of the spirit to offer to each other and spiritual gifts to receive as well. May we reflect upon the gifts we have to give; may we receive gratefully the gifts that others hold out; and may we hold fast to the truth, that the world, both literally and metaphorically, is always turning toward the morning. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Evolution of God

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Nov. 10, 2013

         It was a beautiful afternoon in fall on a Rocky Mountain  hillside, where I sat enjoying the blue skies and warm sun with friends who had gathered at the home of a fellow member of Jefferson Unitarian Church, my church home there in Golden, Colorado.

         I’d recently entered seminary and was beginning the school year excitedly engaged in studies of pastoral care, Old Testament, and Church History, surrounded by students from all different Christian backgrounds with a variety of doctrines and dogmas.

         I felt a little like an outsider at seminary; I was one of only a handful of Unitarian Universalist students, there at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, a very liberal Methodist seminary.  But I was loving my studies, feeling my brain stretch and my own theology grow clearer, as I compared it to the theology of my more traditional classmates.

         Next to me in a lawn chair, was an older gentleman named Jakob, who was interested in what I was studying at Iliff, and during our conversation, he mentioned that he was a pretty staunch atheist.  I’d known Jakob for many years and I knew this about him, so it occurred to me to ask him “what do you believe in, Jakob?”  He paused a moment and then…

         “Nature,” he said.  “Nature.  That’s what I believe in---the laws of nature, the way the universe works, the plants, the animals, the laws which govern life and how everything connects to everything else.  I don’t believe in God.  I believe in Nature.”

          In my grad school-induced arrogance, I almost said to him, “but Jakob, it’s just that your God is Nature”.  Luckily, I had retained enough of my mother’s teachings about respecting one’s elders to keep my mouth shut and just listen; consequently I went home that evening pondering Jakob’s words and marveling at their implications.  It was another step in my own evolution of an understanding of the power beyond human power, which some call God.

         Several years ago, I entered a 12 step program to find peace of mind after a number of experiences with alcoholic friends.

         In a 12 step program, one is asked to find a Higher Power and use its strength to change one’s behavior.  I’d outgrown my “old white guy on a throne” concept of God and when they told me that my Higher Power only had to be something stronger than myself, I thought of my hours of hiking up steep trails in the Rockies, defying and yet using gravity to get stronger every step of the way, and I decided to use Gravity as my Higher Power.  There seemed to be a connection there.

         When I had my conversation with Jakob, I was ready to grow again and his concept of Nature as Higher Power was very appealing to me.  In fact, I’d already realized that gravity was only a piece of my higher power, that the entire universe seemed to be an infinite power that included much, much more, most of it mysterious and only partially understood by science.

         In my former congregations we’ve talked about “the driving force, the creative force in the universe, which many call God”.   With you here today, I’d like to consider how human understanding of that power beyond human power, that which drives the universe, creates the universe, has evolved over the millennia of recorded human history.  

         It’s interesting to me that human history reveals, both in the larger sense and in the more personal sense, a concept of “God” that has generally evolved from a figure of parental-type authority to loving presence to independence from a fixed image.

         In the earliest reaches of human history, the power beyond human power, or God or Goddess, was revealed in weather, in seasons, in drought and flood; it was a force to be appeased, bargained with, sacrified to.  Whether that force was seen to be male or female, it mostly was a rule-maker, a boundary keeper, a teacher.  I can imagine mythical and metaphorical Mother Earth and Father Sky giving instructions:  “Now, children, wind and rain and snow can kill you; so make shelter, and, by the way, use fire when you discover it as a gift of weather. 

         “It will be hot for a period of time; it will then cool down; it will get much colder for a period of time (of course I’m excluding the tropical zone); then it will warm up again and the cycle will repeat endlessly.  Each season will bring certain kinds of weather, mostly unpredictable; learn to cope.”

         Humans tried to influence the weather, the seasons, the drought and the flood, using prayer, sacrifice, bargaining with the seen or unseen Gods and Goddesses.  Some of it seemed to work; when it didn’t, it was assumed that the deities were displeased or busy elsewhere or had a different plan.

         Across the globe, human beings were generally polytheistic, ascribing power to the sun and moon, earth, stars, trees and animals, considering them the beings which controlled their lives, sent the weather, governed the seasons, controlled fertility, birth and death, and were only partly predictable.  Female deities were common and Mother Earth was seen by many to be the primary Deity.

         So reverence for a God or Goddess figure was initially, and logically, attached to nature.  Not so different from my friend Jakob’s perspective, though Jakob, as a scientist himself, had a lot more academic knowledge to call upon to make that judgment.

         Interestingly, ancient peoples often argued with their gods and goddesses, threatening to withhold sacrifice and obedience if the deities didn’t shape up.  And intriguing rituals accompanied some of these interchanges.   Robert Wright, in his book  “The Evolution of God”, recounts a ritualistic “interchange” between a Siberian native man and the wind, in which buttocks are bared to the breeze and incantations shouted at the wind, in an effort to stop the wind’s incessant and damaging blast. 

         Lest any of you be tempted to try this, it probably worked about as well as our own hopes and prayers when a wind storm is predicted!  Mother Nature, whether by indigenous or modern standards, is notoriously hard to influence.   Me, I just pray that I can cope, if the power goes out.  And that some kind family will take me in once again.

         Eventually, polytheism began to lose ground to monotheism, to a powerful, all-purpose Deity who was jealous of other Gods and told his  followers (for by now God was a He) to follow his commandments or he’d get mad.  If they were good, he’d bless them, give them land of their own, harken to their prayers.  Early scriptures bear this out but the willful Israelites were unwilling to give up their old gods and goddesses completely and frequently invoked the One God’s wrath, causing Him to threaten and punish those He called His Chosen People.

         The Abrahamic religions---Judaism, Islam, and Christianity----are descendents of that God-form, having themselves evolved out of the experience and the necessities of human living in early times.

         But monotheism has had its own set of problems.  The God of Abraham was a top-down, moralistic, parental authority upon whom followers were to be utterly dependent.  This God was male in form and in language, which has encouraged followers to assume that God intended that human males be dominant and females be submissive.

        Patriarchy was the starting place for a triumvirate of Abrahamic religions that eventually dominated the early Western world.  God’s attributes were measured by human attributes, making assumptions about God’s opinions, God’s preferences, and God’s marching orders. 

        This God was rather cruel and autocratic much of the time.  This God kicked native peoples out of their lands so that the Chosen Ones could live there.  This God sent an avenging angel to kill firstborn Egyptian children, among other plagues, to allow His People to escape into the desert, even though they weren’t happy once they got there.

        The history of God as portrayed in the Hebrew scriptures is that of a strict and punishing male parent.  Scholars like Karen Armstrong and others have posited that when God created humankind, he (like all parents) found himself with unanticipated problems on his hands.  The Hebrew legends around the creation of humankind portray God’s children as independent thinkers whose curiosity landed them in trouble and eventually got them kicked out of Eden.

        This God got so upset with human behavior that he decided to drown all but a few and start over.  Hence the legend of Noah and the ark, with its male and female starter species.
         When Jesus began his ministry centuries after the Israelites established a monotheistic tradition, he had been raised and educated in the Jewish tradition of a God who demanded that certain purities be maintained, that certain customs were required of devout Jews, and that God was a Father figure.  Indeed, Jesus called his God “Father” and, in times of greatest crisis, even called God “Abba” or Daddy.

         Christianity modified the portrait of God to include a male parent’s loving side and brought a female near-deity into the family constellation.  Mary, the mother of Jesus, became a figure women Christians could identify with and even venerate.  But as the concept of the Trinity evolved, the idea that God was Three in One---Father, Son and Holy Spirit---in that scenario, Mary was merely the mother, albeit the mother of a God figure.  Mary was a mortal, after all, and had only been the recipient of God’s grace, not a God figure herself.

         We need to remember that monotheism, the idea that God is One, was at stake.  Even the doctrine of the Trinity, the idea that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were identical to each other and were simply different functions of the One God, was a stretch for many, including our ancient Unitarian ancestors.

         Acceptance of the idea of the One God was pretty much universal in the world influenced by the Abrahamic religions for centuries after Jesus’ ministry.   There were skeptics, to be sure, particularly around the concept of the Trinity, but belief in God was unquestioned by most.  Heretics were punished, sometimes cruelly as in the case of our own religious ancestor, the young Spanish doctor Michael Servetus who was burned at the stake for his denial of the Trinity and Jesus as God. 

          But as understandings of the natural world grew and science became an influential resource to human beings, particularly to those with access to education, a period of time known as The Enlightenment in the eighteenth century brought huge wide-spread change and conflict about religious ideas and the very concept of Creation and the nature of the universe.

        No longer did every facet of human living depend on belief in God.  The earth revolved around the sun, not the sun around the earth.  Discoveries about any number of everyday things, such as plants and seasons and the movement of the stars in the sky, created new questions in human minds.

        Before this time, belief in God was taken for granted.  Not to believe meant abandoning any coherent world picture.  This was unthinkable to most humans in that time in history.

        But emboldened by new ideas and knowledge, thinkers of many stripes took courage and began to wonder:  what is the real authority of the church and why does the church demand human obedience?  Those who traveled observed other religious practices and saw that there was a larger world than the one which accepted the idea of One God with three manifestations; there were nontheistic religions such as Buddhism and Confucianism and there were polytheistic religions as well.

        Three different conceptions of God, through the lenses of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, called into question the idea of One God.  Each of these Gods had such different characteristics----how could they be the same God?  And yet again, humankind’s shaping of the idea of God was illuminated.  No longer was it so clear that God had created humans in his image; perhaps humans had created the God that they wanted to create.

         So---that’s a quickie rundown on the history of the concept of God up to about now.   It’s not exhaustive, it’s a little irreverent, and my knowledge is far from complete, but what I’ve tried to do so far is establish that as human understandings of the universe have progressed, humans have increased their questioning of the reality of God or Gods or Goddess.

        Part of it is due to our increased scientific understandings and discoveries.  Part of it is due to the relaxed insistence on belief in a Deity.  Part of it is due to our own mystical spiritual experiences which may lead us along non-traditional paths.

        I’ve collected some quotes from scholars and theologians about their own concepts of the power beyond human power.

        For example, Albert Einstein said this:   “It was the experience of mystery, even if mixed with fear, that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty. It is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude. In this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man. I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves. Enough for me, the mystery of the eternity of life and the inkling of the marvelous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavor to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature.”

        James Luther Adams, a renowned pacifist and Unitarian theologian, said and I am paraphrasing and pulling together a couple of related ideas: 

 “God is the power that holds the world together.  We are called by God to participate in holding the world together and we are seduced to return to the task of putting the world back together again and again.  God is the force in the Universe that calls us to love.”

        In the 60’s, a theologian, John T. Elson, the religion editor of Time Magazine, wrote an article entitled “Is God Dead?” which illuminated the shifting sands of theology and belief as religion tried to accommodate scientific discoveries.  The article stripped bare the fact that there are multiple concepts of God and that the traditional “old man in the sky” was woefully out of sync with science.  Therefore, was it possible, even likely, that God as we knew God was actually dead.

        Elson wrote:  “Secularization, science, urbanization---all have made it comparatively easy for the modern man (and woman) to ask where God is and hard for the man (and woman) of faith to give a convincing answer, even to him or her self.”

        Henry Nelson Weiman, another Unitarian theologian and philosopher, offered this definition of God:  “God is an event, a Creative Event, an event of Creative Interchange.  God is Creativity.  God is trustworthy, reliable, and sustaining.  God is that which can transform and save humans in ways in which we cannot transform ourselves, provided that we understand and fulfill the requisite conditions.”

        Feminist theologians have illuminated the feminine face of the power beyond human power.  They cite the earliest evidence of deity worship as being the worship of Mother Earth, for female powers of reproduction, of community, and nurture, and many religious people today honor and revere the feminine attributes of the Goddess, rather than a male figure of God.

         Atheist writers who have become popular in recent years have primarily stated their rejection of the traditional view of God as an anthropomorphic figure, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent.  I have not heard much from them about other concepts of God or Goddess and wonder if they too are out of sync with new ideas of God.

        Yet quantum physics has revealed an entirely new possibility about the power beyond human power.  As the Large Hadron Collider lurches toward its grand experiment of recreating a smaller version of the Big Bang, the event which appears to have set the universe in motion,  it is possible that science may unveil the deepest roots of the universe yet explored, if they find the elusive Higgs boson, the subatomic particle dubbed “the God Particle”.

        And will they find God?  Well, probably not the God most people assume is the Ruler of the Cosmos. 

        So where are we?  Here’s what I think.

        I’ve noticed that the power beyond human power, which some call God or Goddess, can be viewed through many lenses.  Even as a parent or guardian can be called a mother or a father or a chauffeur or a cook or a teacher or a cruel tyrant or any number of other names, so can God and Goddess.

        There is the lens of religion: God as  a personal servant and ruler.  There’s the lens of physics:  God as energy.  Of psychology: God as  emotional need.  Of biology:  God as creator, God as mere brain chemistry.  Of evolution:  God as an orderly, purposeful system.  Of Love:  God as human connection and nurture.  Of parent:  God as protector, caretaker.  Of child:  God as rule-maker, guidance giver. 

        Of art:  God as designer, creator of beauty.  Of indigenous person:  God as nature and ancestral wisdom.  Of poetry:  God as metaphor and simile.  Of fear:  God as the punisher.  Of ethics:  God as source of the moral order.  Of the abstract:  God as ground of being, Ultimate Reality.  Of the concrete:  God as old white guy in the sky.

        I’ve probably missed your favorite lens and you can tell me later what yours might be or if you disagree.  But I think it all comes back to the recognition that there are so many ways to think of the power beyond human power, so many ways we have found to use that power both for secular and spiritual and religious meaning, so many names and faces for God, that it is useless to argue about whose version is right.

        A member of my Whidbey congregation, Ken Merrell, once spoke about a discovery he had made in his religious journey:  that when we encounter different language and ideas from our own, rather than dismissing them as useless or offensive, we might try translating those words and ideas into our own language and worldview, to see if we and those who are different from us have any common ground.  And I would reiterate Ken’s wisdom:  we all have different ideas about what the idea of God means.  Let’s share those ideas, rather than reject each other because we don’t speak the same language.

        The Evolution of God is a journey of countless millennia, from prehistory to the present.  The Evolution of our personal understandings of the concept of God has taken our whole lifetimes and continues to offer opportunities to change our minds.   Whether we are theists, nontheists, atheists or agnostics, we can learn from each other and respect each other’s language and experiences, both here and in the larger community.  As Ken has said, the key is to translate!  You too can be religiously bi-lingual!
         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 all humankind shares a reliance on the faithfulness of that power beyond human power, which we call by many names.  May we respect one another’s language and thoughts, listening carefully that we might learn from one another.  And may we offer to our children, our grandchildren, friends and family the opportunity to think large about what it means to have faith in these troubled times.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.