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.