Sunday, December 21, 2014

How the Unitarians and the Universalists Saved Christmas

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Dec. 21, 2014
Pacific UU Fellowship

         I hope I don’t sound too snarky, but something happened recently that relates to our topic today and I thought I’d share it.
         Overheard in my dentist’s office a few days ago, while I was waiting for my appointment.  One clerk was speaking to another:
“I just hate this ‘Happy Holidays’ stuff!  It’s Christmas, damn it, and people should be saying ‘Merry Christmas’, not ‘Happy Holidays’.”  And what’s this Xmas stuff, anyhow?  You can’t X Christ out of Christmas!”
         Several thoughts went through my mind, especially after the other clerk agreed and they conversed for a few moments about Jesus being the reason for the season, implying that Christmas was there first and had “first dibs” on the holiday season.
         One thought was that I should go to the reception desk and set them straight or at least warn them that we were listening to them in the waiting room.  My immediate next thought was that I might not be able to counteract so much blatant confusion.  And my next thought was that maybe I’d start looking for another dentist. 
         Except that I really like my dentist, who, I think, may be Jewish and may be unaware that his office staff harbors this opinion.  And, too, (grammar nerd alert, grammar nerd alert!) the use of “damn”, a common word invoking hellfire upon the subject “it”, which in this case would be Christmas itself, making Christmas the logical and grammatical victim of the damning, which I don’t think is what they had in mind.
         This is the time of year when that tired old War on Christmas rhetoric gets dragged out of the tattered decorations box and hung on the tree.
          I don’t listen to Fox cable news, so I rarely hear it first hand and have been spared the need to counteract its ignorance myself, relying on other Facebook friends and the real news videos of John Stewart and Stephen Colbert to do the work for me.  I just repost.  I’m too old to dive into the fray and am content to let younger firebrands do it for me.  Yes, I’m getting old, humor me.
         But the truth is, going back to the title of this sermon, the Unitarians and Universalists really did help to save Christmas.  It wouldn’t be what we have and love today if it hadn’t been for the UUs of the 18th and 19th centuries.  And the Unitarians and Universalists built on the foundation set in place by pagan worshippers over thousands of years of honoring the earth, sun, moon, and stars as divine.
         Today marks the Winter Solstice, a holy day which has been in existence since the earth began orbiting around the sun and has been observed for millennia, ever since the first human realized that after this solar occasion, the disappearing light in the sky began to come back. 
         Many familiar Christmas customs and symbols come straight out of earth-based, pagan rituals and practices.  The winter solstice was a huge occasion for celebration, as early peoples watched the slow return of longer days and shorter nights, even as the cold winter winds and snow made life uncomfortable and risky. 
         To express their jubilation at what they considered the Birthday of the Sun and to push back the dark nights, they lit bonfires and burned torches and lit up the night with feasting and singing and gift-giving, all in joy for the relief they felt because the sun was returning.
         Many of their festive symbols are important to us too---the holly and the ivy---well, maybe not so much the holly and the ivy here in the NW, evergreen branches, yule logs, mistletoe, and the profusion of candlelight everywhere.  The change of seasons meant that the earth would again produce vegetation---food---as the air warmed and the rains came. 
         But change was in the wind, because institutional religion began to take an interest in solstice festivals.
         It was in about the 4th century CE, when church authorities managed to refashion the ancient pagan Winter Solstice revelry into a Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth.  They had tried to halt these winter festivals because they honored pagan nature gods. 
         But it wasn’t that easy.  Thousands of years of custom do not die easily.  So compromises were made, with nature deities being discreetly transformed into Christian saints and the whole shebang gradually became part of the Christian calendar.
         Since nobody really knew when Jesus was born, the day long associated with the rebirth of the Sun, Dec. 25th, became the date of Jesus’ birthday.
         Christmas became a mélange of world religious practices---with Celtic, Teutonic, Slav and even Asian, Greek and Roman influences.  It has never been a strictly Christian holiday.  So take that, you War on Christmas folks!  We know the real story!  And by the way, the X in Xmas is the Greek letter CHI, which has been used since antiquity to indicate the word Christ.
         Let’s make merry ourselves now with a hymn that celebrates some of what ancient peoples celebrated:  Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly, page 235.
         In  Merry Olde England, under Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan Party passed legislation outlawing Christmas.  However,  people rebelled and Christmas went underground with its revelry, which included heavy drinking, sexual misbehavior, and general debauchery.  The outrage at this infringement on popular custom resulted in the ousting of the ruling Puritan party.  So much for legislating godliness, sobriety, and chastity!
         But the Puritans were also settling in the New World and their disapproval of Christmas revelry meant that Christmas was banned for many years in early American communities.
         Christmas in the earliest years of colonial America was forbidden.  The Puritans found it offensive to their pietistic minds.  They had come to the New World with religious freedom on their agenda, but that freedom didn’t include the revelry of drunkenness, lasciviousness, and general chaos that erupted every Christmas season among the so-called “lower classes”.
         There were laws against Christmas celebrations and people could be punished severely for indulging in them.  Talk about a War on Christmas!
         The Puritans did have a point----Christmas had become a season of lawlessness, in which wild bands of hoodlums in masks, bent on forbidden activity, roamed the streets, and it drove the Puritans crazy.
         Records from 18th century New England indicate a rise in unwed mothers and in babies born in September and October.  Something had to be done.
         So progressive religious leaders in New England decided that, rather than trying to squash Christmas, they should instead tame it.
         Universalist and Unitarian churches began to schedule worship on Christmas Day.  They also urged banks, shops, and schools to close so that family could spend the day together.
         Let’s sing together a carol that might have been appropriate at a Unitarian or Universalist Christmas Day service back in those days.  “ In the bleak midwinter”, #241.
         So what did the U’s and the U’s do to save Christmas?
         Well, in the mid 1800s, the Christmas tree with its lights and festive hangings was introduced by Charles Follen, a Unitarian minister.
         “Jingle Bells” was written by James Pierpont, organist and choir director at the Savannah GA Unitarian church.
         “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” was written by the Rev. Edmund H. Sears, Unitarian minister in Wayland MA. 
         “I heard the Bells on Christmas Day” was written by Unitarian Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, as a commentary on the horrors of the Civil War.
         Unitarian artist, Nathaniel Currier, of Currier and Ives fame, painted an array of delicate Christmas scenes which decorate many a holiday card.
         Episcopalian-turned-Unitarian Clement C. Moore penned the beloved story poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” also known as “The Night Before Christmas”, from whence comes our popular portrayal of that jolly old elf Santa Claus.
        But the Unitarian author who brought perhaps one of the greatest Christmas stories ever told was Charles Dickens, who, in his immortal tale “A Christmas Carol” penned a story of compassion, generosity, and transformation as the miserly Scrooge is brought to an awareness of the neediness of the poor and the joy of generosity.
         It’s interesting and ironic that we Unitarian Universalists, heretics to the core in the eyes of the orthodox, have long been champions and even progenitors of Christmas traditions. 
         We may have degenderized the words of traditional carols in our hymnals (which, by the way, made Prairie Home Companion’s Garrison Keillor pretty annoyed one year!), but we still often sing the beloved old words, despite the theological disparities we know are there!
         Let’s join now in singing #244, “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” in remembrance and celebration of the gifts our spiritual ancestors have given for Christmas.
         Every year, it seems, I have to rethink my relationship with Christmas.  At one time in my life, when I felt lonely and bereft from the losses I had experienced, Christmas was something to be endured until the new year.
         But every year since that symbolic “hitting bottom”, it has gotten better and in my so-called retirement years I have found a great deal of joy in this season. 
         This year it started when I sat down to write out the small checks I send to the many grandnieces and grandnephews in my extended family.  There’s a new baby in the family, born just a month ago, and her parents’ joy, proclaimed daily by ecstatic, weary posts on social media, their joy is infectious.  I can’t help but smile---and also pray for this little family’s happiness.
         Unitarian Religious Educator Sophia Lyon Fahs wrote, about this season,
For so the children come
And so they have been coming.
Always in the same way they come
Born of the seed of man and woman
No angels herald their beginnings,
no prophets predict their future courses.
No wisemen see a star to show
where to find the babe
that will save humankind.
Yet each night a child is born is a holy night,
Fathers and mothers-
Sitting beside their children’s cribs
Feel glory in the sight of a new life beginning.
They ask, “Where and how will this new life end?
Or will it ever end?”
Each night a child is born is a holy night-
A time for singing,
A time for wondering,
A time for worshipping. 
         As I look at the children I know today, the youngsters who come up to hear the story on Sunday mornings, the littlest ones with their mamas and papas chasing after them, the in-between ones looking up to the big kids and watching out for the little ones, the older ones growing taller and maturing into big kids, their active minds, their loving hearts, as I look at them and smile, I feel the holiness of this season, reflected in our children’s eyes.
         Sure, they love the gifts and the goodies and the songs and the stories.  But what I loved most, as a child, and I hope it is part of every child’s Christmas, was the warmth of my family’s love, the tender care that I received and that I learned to give to my own child, to his children, and the love and care that he has learned to give, from me.
         It’s not the gifts we give and receive at this time of year, it’s not the decorations, it’s not the cards and letters or even the music, though these all have their value.  It’s really the miracle of human life, from birth through death and all the stages in between.
         We are so blessed by Life.  Even when it’s at its toughest, even when we are in pain, even when grief overtakes us, we have Life and its spirit gives us hope.
         As we look back over the past year, with its joys and concerns, let us be reminded in this holy season that it is truly the rebirth of the sun and in that rebirth we can find renewal and strength to last us as long as we need. 

         Let us act with that strength to bring joy and peace to one another and to all humankind, starting with our neighbors and reaching out into our communities, giving tender love and care to all we meet.
         Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
         Let’s sing, in closing, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s hymn to peace, “I heard the bells on Christmas Day.”  #240.
         Our worship service is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place.  Let us go in peace, remembering that the season of Solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa is a season of Light.  May we seek to bring the lights of kindness, strength and peace into the lives of all we meet, for in this way we will receive the Light ourselves and will be blessed by it, even as we bless others.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Gospel of Humanism

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Nov. 23, 2014

         During this next several months, I’m speaking on the six Sources of Unitarian Universalism, which form the foundation for our faith tradition and make us markedly different from most other religious traditions.
            Let’s read together the text at the top of your order of service.  This is the formal statement of our reliance on humanistic thought as one of the Sources of Unitarian Universalism.  I’ve chosen this Source for November because of Thanksgiving, which is a beloved American holiday not tied to religious doctrine or war.

        “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.”

          One of the most vivid memories of my youth is the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Nov. 22, 1963, 51 years ago yesterday. I was 21, still unemployed after college graduation, sitting in front of the TV at noon watching the popular soap opera of that day, General Hospital, with my dad, who was home from his office at the church for lunch. We were in the midst of some medical emergency onscreen when the news that our President had been shot pre-empted every airwave.
            We sat in shock as the dreadful news unfolded, awaiting the latest developments in fear and trembling. I’ll bet most of you have your own tales to tell about some historic moment in your world experience and how your life was different from that moment on.
            We tend to remember the events that shape our lives; often the more radical the change, the more vivid the memory. I also remember a moment when I acknowledged the shift in my religious outlook and said to myself, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, “Wow, I don’t think I’m in Kansas anymore.” 
            It was because of a song I was hearing on the radio, a song from a folk opera which was gaining recognition on Broadway: Allison, sing it for us, would you?  (Allison sings "It Ain't Necessarily So".)
            Hearing this song for the first time, I thought WHAT??? Someone dares to say this in a Broadway song? What would my conservative family think if they heard it? And what would they say if they knew I agreed?
            This was a huge moment of truth for me. I knew I didn’t believe all the stuff I’d learned in Sunday School; I didn’t approve of God’s handling of the Promised Land crisis, when he told the Hebrew children just to go and take it from the Canaanites; I had a lot of questions about the stories of water and wine and people being raised from the dead.
            But I hadn’t challenged my parents or my teachers on any of this. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t like the answers I got. But here was a popular song which crooned my own heresies in an authoritative and melodious way, resonating in my young heart.
            My opinion-forming style is to listen, rather than argue, to use my internal morality gauge and reason to determine right from wrong, to think about consequences, and to allow others to form their own opinions in their own ways. I tend to look for ways we agree, rather than ways I disagree with someone.
            So I quietly acknowledged to myself, in my twenties, that I was more of a humanist, in my heart, than I was a traditional believer. At that point in history, humanism—particularly what was labeled as secular humanism--didn’t have a good reputation. It was getting a lot of criticism from the orthodox religious world as a philosophy which seemed to contend that humans were the be-all and end-all of the universe, the most powerful and highest of creation’s huge output, in fact, a sort of God and Master of the Universe.
            But I was still clearly a Christian in many ways and anyhow, I had more interesting things to think about for this was during the time I was working in the inner city of Denver as a Baptist Home Missionary.  Life in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood was full of opportunities to serve in humanitarian ways and nobody seemed to mind if I skipped the proselytizing and saving of souls in favor of handing out food to the hungry and providing after-school activities for the kids.
            Let’s look again at the statement at the top of our O/S this morning and unpack it a little bit before moving on.  There are some things about the language of this Source which make it different from the others, because it contains a warning, a warning which has been quite relevant over the years, a warning that we must not worship rationality and science to the extent that we get caught up in a kind of fundamentalist UUism, closed minded and unwilling to think about other points of view.
            Because when the Unitarians first merged with the Universalists, back in 1961, we were combining two very different but equally radical concepts:  the boots on the ground philosophy of humanism and the Jesus-centered liberation theology of Christian thought.
            Out of these two separate entities, we were hoping to create something new, a religion based in reason and open to the spirituality and urgency of faith.  A religion which sought empirical answers to our questions about the universe and also marveled at the mysteries which could not be answered by reason.  At least not yet.
            It has taken time for this to happen, but despite the smoke and heat thrown off by the combination of these two elements, our congregations mostly have settled into a respectful acceptance that even within the ranks of like minds, there are deep differences of experience and opinion.
            For many years, and still today occasionally, our human desire for our own way to be the right way, the one way, overpowers our also-human desire for beloved community. 
            The warning expressed in this source, about idolatries of the mind and spirit, means, I think, that we are each capable of judging different religious beliefs as wrong and taking our own judgment so seriously that we become as excluding and mean-spirited as te most conservative fundamentalist.
            Just as there are “flat-earth” conservatives, who deny evolution and other scientific discoveries like climate change, there are “flat-earth” humanists as well, who ridicule anything that smacks of nonrationality.  Those are idolatries of the mind and the spirit, I believe.
            St. Google offered up this definition of humanism:   humanism is a broad category of ethical philosophies that affirm the dignity and worth of all people, based on the ability to determine right and wrong by appeal to universal human qualities, particularly rationality.  It entails a commitment to the search for truth and morality through human means in support of human interests.  It rejects the validity of supernatural events as a basis for morality and endorses a universal morality based on the commonality of the human condition.           
            Last summer, I had a conversation with my son about the idea of God, in which I found myself trying to impose my own views on him.  Our views were similar but just different enough that we could not come to an agreement at that time, but later, as I watched that wonderful series of COSMOS programs with Neil deGrasse Tyson, I realized that I had shifted once again and, if I was honest with myself, I would have to come to terms with that new idea, because it made better sense than my older view.
            That, I think, is one of the gifts of the philosophy of humanism---that it gives us permission to change our minds based on new insights and perspectives, and, in fact, demands that we do so, if our experience reveals something new.
            As my colleague Tom Owen-Towle has observed, “We come to our religious values experientially.  The beliefs we hold are not so much revealed to us as experienced by us.”
            When Arline and I were preparing this service, we talked a bit about our transitions from traditional religion to a more humanistic approach to religious faith.  After she had a chance to study the Bible as literature in college, she felt challenged to explore and in her search for a non-creedal faith, a faith which reflected her own truth, she found Unitarian Universalism here at PUUF.
            We acknowledged that we had both evolved in our thinking over our lifetimes, as all living beings are inclined to do.  Rigidity of thought or of ability to adapt to changing circumstances can thwart the natural process of evolution.
            Now, we all know that Arline is a locally renowned person, someone we know and support as Mayor of Astoria.  But who else is or has been a humanistic person?  Again, St. Google to the rescue.  Here’s a partial list of some other notable figures who have advocated humanism as a world view:
            Isaac Asimov, author; Margaret Atwood, author; Leonard Bernstein, composer and conductor; Niels Bohr, scientist; Johannes Brahms, composer; Helen Caldicott, anti-nuclear activist; Confucius, ancient Chinese scholar; Aaron Copland, composer; Ann Durham, President Obama’s mother; Albert Einstein, scientist; Buckminster Fuller, architect; Che Guevara, revolutionary; Katherine Hepburn, actress; Bill Nye the Science Guy; Ellen Page, actress; Gene Roddenberry, author and screenwriter; Carl Sagan, scientist; Charles Schultz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip; Dr. Benjamin Spock, pediatrician; Mark Twain, aka Samuel Clemens, author; Neil deGrasse Tyson, scientist and TV star; Kurt Vonnegut, author; and, one of my personal favorites, Pete Wernick, Doctor Banjo of the bluegrass band Hot Rize.
            Several years ago, the editor of the humanist publication “Free Inquiry”, Paul Kurtz, wrote and published a statement of humanistic principles which are clearly reflected in our own UU values.  His list includes such affirmations as our preference for natural, rational explanations of the universe, rather than supernatural ones, our advocacy of the separation of church and state, the democratic process, justice and fairness in society, and the worth and dignity of all living beings.
            In addition, his list includes supporting the disadvantaged and disabled, transcending divisive loyalties based on race, religion, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, class, or ethnicity, working together for the common good of humanity.
            I like his closing paragraph, at the end of a list of 21 affirmations:  “We believe in optimism rather than pessimism, hope rather than despair, learning in the place of dogma, truth instead of ignorance, joy rather than guilt or sin, tolerance in the place of fear, love instead of hatred, compassion over selfishness, beauty instead of ugliness, and reason rather than blind faith or irrationality.  We believe in the fullest realization of the best and noblest that we are capable of as human beings.”
            Each of our sources calls us to act on the wisdom of that Source.  Our belief in the value of direct personal experience, which we discussed last month, calls us to be mindful, considering the meaning of our personal experiences and how they shape our understandings of the universe.
            What does this Source, emphasizing the importance of human-centered philosophy, call us to do with our religion?   As we consider the list of notable personages who have espoused humanitarian values, we may notice that many of these men and women have made huge contributions to the fields of literature, music, science, social movements, and other creative endeavors.
            If we are to live out our connection to humanism, we must find ways to express our concern for humankind in concrete ways.  I think most of us are already doing this to some extent. 
            I know that many, perhaps most of us contribute financially and in hands-on ways, as individuals.  We also act in humanitarian ways when we repair the damage done by misguided human beings, as we work to heal the environment or care for abused animals and other living beings.  This congregation supports a local family during the holidays, buying gifts and food for their celebration.
            It’s been challenging to find an ongoing humanitarian project for us to get involved in because of our long, narrow parish, stretching from the Long Beach peninsula down through Tillamook County, a distance of about 100 miles.  That’s a long way to come to church or any other meeting, no matter how important!
            But it may be possible for our members who live in farflung locations to get involved deeply or start something that serves local needs in the communities where they live.
            And it seems definitely possible for those of us who live within a few miles of Astoria to find a project that will reflect our humanitarian values.
            As a congregation we support civil rights for sexual minorities, through our Welcoming Congregation affiliation and have had members personally involved in this struggle.  We have members who privately take part in addressing literacy, who give support for the arts and scientific research,  spend time in wildlife and animal protection work, who reach out to the mentally ill and homeless residents of our area, who spend time educating people about our local environment and repairing the damage done by past usages, who offer hospitality to strangers in our community, and who do so both individually and as volunteers with agencies.
            What are we doing now?  Where do you volunteer, either as an individual or as a member of a group?  (cong. resp)  What agencies or movements do you support that are devoted to improving human living conditions?  (cong resp)  What possibilities do you see for us to be more helpful than we currently are, as a congregation?  (write down)
            So though a lot of the things the Bible says “ain’t necessarily so”, the sacred literature of every religion, including religious humanism, urges us as people who try to live useful, productive, humanitarian lives, to spend our lives working to improve the lot of humanity, rather than just our own circumstances, to offer hospitality to the stranger and to teach better ways of living.
            As we move through the holidays, starting with Thanksgiving this coming week, saying thank you to the universe for its bounty and its beauty, expressing gratitude and appreciation to our family and friends who treat us with such kindness and generosity, and pouring out our own love on them in return, let us keep our eyes and hearts open for ways we can improve the lives of all living things----the hungry, the homeless, the injured, the despairing, the abused.
            For in so doing, we live out our humanitarian instincts and our religious mission, and make ourselves better persons in the process.
HYMN # 318, “We Would Be One”
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, considering the value of our humanitarian work and how we might extend ourselves in the larger community.  May we seize opportunities for kindness and mercy toward others and may we not fall into the trap of closing our minds to ideas which bother us, lest we miss an opportunity to grow.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The First Source of Unitarian Universalism

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Oct. 19, 2014

         From the meditation manual published by the UUA and edited by the Rev. Kathleen Rolenz: 
         “Moses encountered a Burning Bush and took off his shoes to honor the sacred ground he stood upon.  (The) Buddha saw the morning star and attained enlightenment.  Muhammad rose from his sleep and recorded what he heard Allah telling him to write.  Jesus fasted in the desert for forty days and then returned, full of the spirit, to preach about the kingdom of God…  Our first Source describes how we also point to our personal experiences of awe (and wonder), trying not to mistake the pointing finger for the moon.”

        Please turn in your grey hymnals to the page toward the front which lists the 7 principles and 6 sources of Unitarian Universalism.  It’s right after the Preface page.  Let’s read the first source together, starting with the introductory phrase:

         “The Living Tradition we share draws from many sources:  Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.”

         Many of us Unitarian Universalists came into this faith having realized that our early religious training seemed to mistake the pointing finger for the moon, that we had been taught that the pointing finger, in other words, the rules, the supernatural events, the ancient creeds, should be the object of our adoration, of our reverence, of our commitment.

         This morning I start a series of reflections on the six Sources of Unitarian Universalism.  I find them fascinating and inspiring and want to share them with you. 

         Most religions base their theology, their doctrines and their rituals upon one or two sacred texts and the words and deeds of one prophet.

         Christianity, for example, rests almost exclusively upon the texts found in the Bible, which have been translated and retranslated hundreds of times, striving for correct language and, to a great extent, maintaining traditional doctrine.

         The Bible is a collection of books edited and included in that anthology by multiple authors and editors, plus the  words of the teacher and prophet Jesus written down many years after his death, words and deeds which have also been edited and modified by others, according to their interpretations of his stories. 

         The writings of those later teachers, like Paul, Luke, and others of those who followed Jesus and wrote about his words and deeds did so many years after Jesus’ death, and they are also part of Christian doctrine.

         Judaism and Islam, two sister religions to Christianity, grew at different times out of the ancient cultures of the western reaches of Asia.  They also rely on certain sacred texts and stories for their doctrines and rituals, plus the words and deeds of such ancient prophets as Moses, David, Micah, and others prominently featured in the Hebrew scriptures and the words and deeds of the prophet Muhammed who transcribed the text of the Koran, from dreams he had which he felt came from Allah.

         Our Unitarian Universalism reveres much wisdom from all three of these sources, but we turn first of all to our own personal experiences of awe and wonder.

          There may have been a time for us when we felt guided by so-called miracles and commandments and rituals which promised salvation, but for many, if not most, of us, there was another time, a time when we looked at the sky and marveled at the vastness of the universe or watched the birth of a child and stood in wonder at the everyday miracle of human creation.  

         Or perhaps a fierce storm or other natural disaster caused us to marvel at the power that human beings cannot control.  As we experience the drama of weather and geologic upheavals, we stand in wonder and awe at the natural events that we puny humans can only witness and respond to, but not control.

         Repeated experiences of these types, connecting us to the universe, to other living beings, and to the cycles of nature, may have set us questioning:   just what is truth?  What are the real rules?  Why are some of the human rules so illogical?  What about the indefinable emotions of love and hate, the paradoxical desire to repel enemies and draw others closer?  What about the ethics of human interaction? 

         Philosophers, sages, and artists have always tried to capture their own awakened sense of wonder in their work, whether that be with words, images, music, or drama.  Scientists marvel at the sight of worlds within worlds as they explore the depths of matter, from a blade of grass to the capacity of the human brain, to the workings of the vast universe. 

         Would whoever has quote #1, please stand up and read it aloud to us?
         “Nothing any theologian ever wrote about God has helped me very much, but everything that the poets have written about flowers, and birds, and skies, and seas, and the saviors of the race…has at one time or another reached my soul.”  John Haynes Holmes.

         As Cameron and I talked about this service and our own personal experiences, he told me that his moments like this tend to come when he sees something brand new to him, or when he learns something new about something familiar.  His experiences in nature and with people often bring him that sense of wonder, as do art and music.

         John Haynes Holmes’ words “nothing that any theologian ever wrote about God has helped me very much…”these words remind me of my own early preference for hymns and religious songs that left out mention of doctrine or traditional images of God or Jesus.  My favorites focused on human life and beauty and the natural world.  “For the beauty of the earth” had much more significance for me, for example, than did “The Old Rugged Cross”.

         Would whoever has quote #2 stand up and read it, please.
         “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,…to cut a broad swath…, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it.”
Henry David Thoreau.

         A week or so ago, I learned that the grandson of a former parishioner on Whidbey had committed suicide.  He’d been beset by mental health challenges for several years; his parents had done all they could and, though therapy and love and medications were provided, the young man had eventually submitted to his pain and had ended his life. 

         My parishioner was an elderly woman who also had mental health challenges and she worried about her grandson, deeply.  We talked a lot about her concerns for him and she had done what she could to encourage and love him, from her bed at an assisted living facility. 

         When she died a few years ago, this grandson was distraught and expressed his sense of connection with his grandmother.  There was clearly a deeper tie between them than I had known before.

         I felt myself caught up at that time of the grandmother’s death in the family’s web of grief and other, more mixed feelings, their relationships bared in this time of sorrow, with the sense of relief paired with regret that life and death bring to most grieving families, as we always wish we could have done more.

         And yet it was a profoundly moving time for me, to be part of creating a loving farewell that honored both the woman who had died and the family who had tried so hard to keep her safe and to appreciate her individuality while dealing with her eccentricities. 

         So when Thoreau says  he wants “to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world”, well, when he says that, I know what he means.

         Life isn’t always pretty sunsets and funny animals on the internet; it isn’t all cures for disease and loving families.  It has its meannesses as well as its sublimities.  All of life has the capacity to amaze, to frighten, to empower, to overcome us with both its beauty and with its horror.  And we always struggle with our understandings of how things come to be.
         Would whoever has quote #3 please stand and read it aloud?
         The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion.  It should transcend definitions of God, and avoid dogmas and theology.  Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things as meaningful unity.” 
Albert Einstein

         When I was a kid, living with my Baptist family, I saw our religion as the right way to live.  I was a little skeptical         about friends who went to other churches, especially those who were Catholic.  I couldn’t imagine that any of them were bad enough to go to hell, even though some of them drank beer and smoked and danced.  But I’d been baptized in the “right” way---dunked in the church baptistry one summer night----and I was pretty sure I was okay. 

         When I went to college, I quit going to church very often.  It was such a pleasure not to have to get up early and leave my friends having coffee in the dining room, walk all the way to downtown McMinnville and sit through a service that seemed like a rehash of everything I’d heard in my dad’s church.  I did like my required religion classes, however, and figured they’d be an acceptable substitute, even though they were pretty liberal!  They brought up questions I didn’t even know I had.

         And whenever there was something particularly interesting going on in the college youth group, like learning to speak in tongues, I’d visit to see what it looked like.  I was not interested in speaking in tongues; it just seemed weird to me.  But the refreshments were usually pretty good and on Sunday evenings, the dining room at the college didn’t serve dinner.
         The summer after graduation, I went to Green Lake, Wisconsin, to serve on the young adult staff at the American Baptist Assembly grounds, where I willingly went to hear some of the bigtime preachers from New York City’s Baptist churches, just to say I’d heard guys like Harvey Cox and Howard Moody, but they were very different from my Dad and I wasn’t sure about that.

        But while there, I discovered a little book entitled “Heavenly Discourse”, by Charles Erskine Scott Wood, whose imaginary conversations between God and any number of historical figures---Mark Twain, Voltaire, Robert Ingersoll, Charles Darwin, on the one hand, and Billy Sunday, St. Peter, St. Paul, and even Satan, on the other.

        These conversations debunked a good deal of the rules and dogmas of traditional religion.  I was spellbound.  These short conversations illuminated some of the doubts I’d begun to have.  It was my first real opportunity to question my childhood faith and to integrate some of the interesting new knowledge I’d acquired in my college education.  Linfield, though Baptist, was way ahead of rural Baptist congregations!

        During my young adult and midlife years in welfare casework, community center work and public education,  I witnessed firsthand the poverty and hardship of the Native Americans who formed my welfare caseload, the racism and injustice experienced by Black and Latino inner city residents of Denver, the domestic violence and addiction issues of the upper middle class students I taught and counseled for 25 years.

        These experiences were coupled with the eye-opening visits I made with my then-husband to Unitarian Universalist congregations around the Denver area and resulted in a sea change in my religious and spiritual life.

         And then came 6 weeks on an Outward Bound course in the Colorado Rockies, where we lived in makeshift shelters, hiked 20-25 miles a day through magnificent passes and valleys  where I felt intimately connected to the wildlife, forests, and streams.  A 72 hour solo experience without food or anything but a journal, a pocketknife, and a cup for scooping water out of a pristine creek and I was changed forever.

        A few weeks ago, when the August SuperMoon was getting a lot of PR, a couple of friends and I decided to go check out the sunset AND the moon as it rose over the Coast Range.  We’d been walking south on the Gearhart beach, looking over our shoulders at the brilliant sunset, all red and orange from the wildfires up north.  We kept peeking east to see if there was any sign of the moon, and finally we saw its orangey dome starting to rise above the hills.

        We turned around to walk back the way we’d come, able to see the moon and the sunset just by turning our heads slightly.  We walked to the top of the first dune to one of the benches available, climbed up to stand on it and watched the moon coming up over the eastern hills.

        We’d been standing on the bench for several minutes when my friend Pat gasped quietly and pointed:  “Look,” she said.  We looked and as we squinted in the twilight, we could dimly see dark shapes among the clumps of beachgrass.  They looked like ordinary shrubs at first and then they began to move. 

        Slowly, slowly, out of the shadows cast by the rising moon, we watched shape after shape grow legs and ears and muzzles and antlers and begin to move silently toward the south end of the dunes. 

         As the moon’s light intensified, we could see a huge bull elk with antlers to match overseeing the movement of his large herd of cows, calves, and young bulls from their resting place in the dunes to the grove of trees a quarter mile away.  We could only watch the procession, our hearts thumping, our eyes wide, our voices silent, thunderstruck by what we saw.

         It was a holy moment, a moment like no other, and it came to me that there is NOTHING more important to me or to any other living being than the orderly processes of natural law.  Others can argue the existence of God or the importance of religious faith, but nothing has exceeded my own personal experiences as a source of my spiritual life.  NOTHING.

         “Religion should be based on a sense arising from the experience of all things as meaningful unity,” says Albert Einstein, and I agree.  The natural world, with us a part of it, is a meaningful unity and requires nothing else from us than our respect and care.  We need not mistake the pointing finger for the moon.

         Do you realize what it means that our First Source is "direct human spiritual experience"? We do not require those who join us to build their spiritual life around a doctrine, a deity, or a prophet. We believe that human beings can find and experience spiritual growth without these things, important as those might be for others. We know that each person's life offers meaning and insight into the human spirit and its relationship with other living beings and with the mystery of the universe. And we believe that this experience is so important that we acknowledge it as a Source of our faith. The First Source, as a matter of fact.

         Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.  (If there’s extra time, ask for responses)
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 many moments of our lives have the potential to be spiritual experiences. May we savor those moments and bring them with us into our lives together here in this beloved community. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

The Rivers of Our Lives

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Sept. 7, 2014
Pacific UU Fellowship

         “I’ve known rivers”, wrote Langston Hughes, “ancient, dusky rivers.  My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”

        Growing up in Oregon, I mark several of the stages of my life (and maybe you do too) by the presence of the Columbia River, the river to whose shores Astoria and much of Clatsop County are anchored.

         As kids, driving with our parents from Athena down the Columbia River Gorge to Portland, we’d compete to see who would be the first person to spot the river as we got closer to Boardman.  The first one of us to see it would burst into “Oh Columbia the gem of the ocean…” knowing full well that the song didn’t refer to “our” river but needing to herald its presence in some majestic way.

         As a young adult in my first real job, living in Stevenson in the Gorge and watching the river rise and fall with the spring runoff, held back by Bonneville Dam, I looked across the river at night to try to spot the campfire of a hermit who reportedly lived in the forest above Cascade Locks, wondering if he was watching it too. 

         When I moved to Denver in the mid-60’s, I joined up with the Denver Friends of Folk Music partly so I could sing “Roll On Columbia” with others who liked intoning the names of that river and its tributaries:  Woody Guthrie sang “Other great rivers add power to you, the Yakima, Snake, and the Klickitat too, Sandy, Willamette, and the Hood River too, it’s roll on, Columbia, roll on”.

         Other rivers, however powerful, paled in comparison to this River of the West, the Columbia.  The Colorado rolled through some pretty beautiful country like the Grand Canyon, but I always yearned to come back to the Columbia River and my homeland.

         Are there rivers that have shaped your lifetime?  What might they be?
Call them out.

         Rivers have been analogies for some important ideas.  The UU song writer Peter Mayer has a song with the theme of “God” as a river.  And I like Bill Staines’ song River whose chorus  says it this way:  “River, take me along, in your sunshine, sing me your song, ever moving and winding and free, you rollin’ old river, you changin’ old river, let’s you and me river run down to the sea.”  In this song, the sea represents the vast pool of souls who have gone before us.

         I like the analogy of a river as representing Life and its constant movement, its changeability by tides, by weather, by obstacles in the channel.  Rivers can get dammed up, choked with debris, just like life.           Rivers need to run clear and clean but they’re often laden with silt, fallen logs, beaver dams, and the clutter so common in nature---and in life.

         Many of us have brought deep hurts and ecstatic joys to share today, important insights to ponder.  We share all these experiences as we share these waters, as we begin a new year together as a community.  We will use these pooled waters, during the year, to bless our children and dedicate ourselves to their wellbeing; we may also use these waters to say goodbye to beloved members of this congregation.

         I always save the water from year to year, purify it, and add a small amount of it to the common vessel, in acknowledgement that this community, represented by this shared water, is an ongoing thing.  In past years, our friends Michael Link and Ruth Jensen brought their waters to this ceremony.  They are still a part of this community, in this way.

         In gathering these waters every fall, we commemorate the ways our lives have changed during the past months and share those changes with this community.  Water is the basic stuff of life and, like community, we need it for our very survival.

         All over the United States and even the world today, Unitarian Universalists in many congregations are bringing water representing the rivers of their life experience.  We join our waters together today in memory and celebration.

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

 BENEDICTION:   As Veja extinguishes our chalice, I will close with these words.  Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place.  Let us go in peace, remembering that our lives affect one another, for our experiences shape us and thereby shape our relationships.  May we remember this and share ourselves and our lives in ways that enhance our time together, for this is how we heal ourselves and each other and knit up the rips and tears in the interdependent web of existence, of which we are a part.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.