Sunday, December 13, 2015

Marching to Our Own Little Drummer Boy

Rev. Kit Ketcham, PUUF, Dec. 13, 2015

I’d like to read you a story written by my colleague the Rev. Christine Robinson, of First Unitarian Church in Albuquerque. This is “The Grace of the Christmas Pageant”, written  a few years ago.
      I turned this year’s Christmas pageant over to an energetic member experienced in   improvisational theater. I gave her some old scripts, the box of costumes, told her about the (cardboard) animals which must be included with their pre-school creators, recruited someone to play the carol “The Friendly Beasts,” and left the rest to her.
     She recruited my husband, who came home with ominous news. “Wise Guys,” he reported, “midwives, and every kid in the Sunday School can wear a costume and bring an appropriate gift.”
     “Wise Guys?” I ask, skeptically.
     “With the gift of humor.”
    “You don’t think Joseph delivered that baby by himself, do you?” he quoted.
     If ever I am tempted to pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon us, miserable sinners,” it is at the time of the Christmas Pageant.
     The Saturday before the performance, I wandered through the rehearsal hall periodically, trying to keep my anxieties to myself. All was Chaos. There were an astounding number of people around, [one costumed child resembling the villain from “Star Wars”]. There were four figures on the stage: [an adult as] Mary holding a wrapped doll, Joseph, and a toddler. “Lucy won’t leave her mother,” the director explained to me, “so I just let her stay there. Maybe by tomorrow she will want to be a rabbit.” I retired to my study, astounded.
     My husband came home, swearing he’d never be involved in such foolishness again, and reported the lines of the head wise guy. “You need a sense of humor, little buddy; if you don’t have that, when you start doing miracles, you’ll get nailed.”
     All night, I dreamed of chaos, poor taste, and the church overrun by Rabbits and Darth Vaders.
     The first children to arrive Sunday morning are dressed as a football player and a rat. “What are you going to give the baby?” I ask, trying to keep my tone light. “Speed and courage,” says the football player solemnly. “He’ll need them.” The rat simply brandishes an enormous yellow sponge which, he tells me, is cheese.
     I speak to the first two Wise Guys I see, who agree that the Methodist Grandmothers in the congregation might not appreciate the reference to nails, and they agree to discuss the matter with the third of the trio when he arrives. A three-year-old rabbit with a beribboned carrot, an extraordinary two-boy camel (one head for each hump), two little girls wrapped in sheep skin automobile seat covers arrive in quick succession, and I am ready to retire to my study for the duration.
     The rat wants to light the flaming chalice, but agrees that someone who will not be in the pageant should have an opportunity. Two tiny children are crying over their (cardboard) animals. Some young pyromaniac has made off with the matches. It is time to begin the worship service.
     The first part of the service goes amazingly well, all things considered. There is even a moment of real silence at the time of the meditation, and one child catches on to the point of (joys and concerns) fast enough to light a candle for his father, saying “who usually doesn’t come to church, but came to see me in the play.” Mercifully, no one laughs.
     The pageant concerns a statue of St. Francis which comes to life and creates a living crèche, just as he did in Assisi. In the middle of the saint’s plea to the congregation for cooperation, the treasurer, who was not at the rehearsal, jumps up and says “It sounds like this is going to cost money!” He brings down the house, as they say in the theater business, which this is not.
     “We need some shepherds, some angels, some wise men...” continues Francis, and he is interrupted again. “And Wise WOMEN! ! !” yells an adolescent feminist dressed in an army jacket. She lopes down the aisle to give the baby her jam box treasure chest and her best advice. “Just be yourself, you know,” she says, and somehow, it is touching. The wise guys lurch down the aisle with their blind camel, and deliver their lines, uncut but sufficiently muffled that only the initiated laugh.
     The midwife arrives with her own children (“No baby-sitters in those days!”), and a zoo-full of animals proceed to give their gifts, one by one, to Mary, the baby, and the unexplained toddler. The gifts range from the sublime (a reading book, because you have to be able to read to be wise) to the ridiculous (a carrot to eat, when you are older), but they are clearly given from the heart. The adults have stopped laughing.
    The (cardboard) animals arrive. We all sing “The Friendly Beasts.” Saint Francis reads the old story from Luke. It is like magic. Even the rat seems enthralled. Mary has put down the doll and is holding her own child.
     “St. Francis” complains of stiffness and is helped by the Narrator (a teenager who didn’t know he could act) back to his pedestal. We sing “Silent Night.” I have goose bumps and the tickle of a tear in the back of my nose. It has been, as they say, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Oh ye of little faith....
      It happens every year like this, and it occurs to me that if I understood the magic of the Christmas pageant, I would have the keys to the kingdom, or at least to the church. Whatever it is that brings a small mob of adults and children to a long and boring rehearsal on the busiest day of the year, that allows self-conscious adolescents to offer their best to the congregation, that permits adults to play dress-up in sheets and bathrobes in front of other adults -- well, it’s too big to be magic. It must be the holy spirit.
      In some ways, we never get far from the Christmas Pageant. Here we are: busy adults playing with children, self-conscious adolescents finding new talents and offering unlikely gifts, wise guys who say inappropriate things and are forgiven, two-headed camels lurching blindly around the place doing the best we can.... And yet somehow, it all comes together. With stunning regularity, chaos and kitsch are transformed by intention, idealism, and grace into moving, motivated offerings. This is the miracle of the church, as well as its salvation.

            When I first read this story, a couple of years ago, I marveled at the fact that we Unitarian Universalists have the freedom to interpret the Christmas legends in our own way.
            One of our UU playwrights, Joyce Poley, has written a Christmas pageant entitled “Would You Like to Hold the Baby?”  Here’s a synopsis of the story that unfolds, another example of reinterpreting an ancient story in a new way.
        Mary and Joseph are traveling to Bethlehem to pay their taxes; Mary is about to give birth to the couple’s first child; they are very tired and Joseph is trying to find a place where they can rest. So he goes to a nearby inn to see if there is space. No surprises so far, right?
       But the friendly innkeeper welcomes them instead of turning them away; seeing that Mary is so close to giving birth he offers them space in his private stable, cleans the stable quickly, furnishes it with fresh hay for a bed, shoos out the animals, and the innkeeper’s wife stays with the little family to help Mary with the birthing.
       The animals who have been shooed outside into the cold want to return to the comfort of their stalls in the stable and Mary’s donkey, who is also tired, makes a plea for all of them, despite the innkeeper’s wife’s objections. Mary responds “let them in---we are in their house---let them come back in”.    Not your typical Christmas story, right?             
         Shepherds arrive and the innkeeper tries to bar the door to them, pointing out their lowly status as homeless wanderers. But Joseph tells the innkeeper that he, Joseph, is a lowly carpenter himself and allows the shepherds to come in, where they tell their story of having witnessed a choir of angels who directed them to the stable.
     Magi arrive with their camels and offer gifts, telling of a star, though the shepherds are fearful and urge Joseph to refuse them entry, as they are strangely dressed and clearly not Jews. But Joseph welcomes the Magi and they present their story of following that magnificent light to find the newly born child, and after giving their gifts, the magi depart, leaving the little family to sleep; Joseph finds a spot to rest in and Mary ponders.
      But what’s this? The innkeeper’s young daughter has crept back for a look at the baby. She has no idea of what this all may mean, she only knows that there is a newborn in the stable and like all children, she is captivated by the new little life which has come so mysteriously.
       Mary sees her watching and invites her to come closer, “would you like to hold the baby? Would you like to see him smile? Can you make your arms a cradle and rock him for awhile? This gift that I’ve been given is yours as much as mine, would you like to hold the baby? Take your time, take your time.”
       This version of the ancient story shifts the spotlight from the traditional elements and focuses on the moments in which real human beings behave with both kindness and judgementalness. Rejection is turned into welcome. Human beings learn real human lessons about hospitality, acceptance, giving, and promise.
        Mary and Joseph invite us all to hold the baby, not keeping him separate from those who are poor or different or unfamiliar. We are urged to seek something larger than our own daily needs and desires. We are surprised and awed, alongside the shepherds and the magi. We rejoice at birth and at life’s promise. We give without expectation.
This is one of the delights, for me, of our faith---that because we are a Living Tradition, that is, we are always seeking new truth, new understandings, new insights, we have the freedom to reconsider those old stories, so often interpreted through lenses of literality and dogma. We have the freedom to look for new truth, new understanding, new insight---and new ways of responding.
I’m sure Bill O’Reilly and the other Christmas Warriors would say we are waging a war on Christmas by taking a new slant on the ancient legends.  But I’ve been volunteering at the Warming Center these past few weeks, and I see chilling similarities between the ragged, hungry, cold men, women, children, and pets who come to the doors of the Warming Center at 8 o’clock at night to get warm and dry after a day in the rain, to have a hot meal and a safe place to sleep.
Because in my mind’s eye, I see in them the faces of the refugees from Syria and other embattled countries and I hear the rejecting responses of so many people who are afraid of them, who would like them to remain in misery rather than setting aside their fears in favor of hospitality to the stranger.
I have found that this volunteering at the Warming Center is a welcome antidote to my own tendency to feel despair at my limited ability to change the world.
            American poet Wendell Berry wrote this:
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water and the great heron feeds.
            I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.  I come into the presence of still water.  And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light.  For a time, I rest in the grace of the world and am free.
So I walk the Riverwalk, talk to the ducks and the herons and the crawdads, say hello to my fellow walkers, the respectable dog owners and the raggedy wanderers, and recharge my batteries with this kind of prayer, this communication with the universe.
The next morning I go to the Warming Center, greet the folks who’ve slept on the floor, who’ve had a hot meal and a friendly smile,  who may say thank you OR gripe about something that didn’t go right,  and I spend a few minutes saying goodbye to departing guests and then wielding the mop, the disinfectant, and gathering up the washables in plastic bags for later cleaning, getting ready for the night to come.
When I leave the Warming Center, my sense of despair has waned.  I feel regret that we can’t yet do more for these wanderers, but I am glad we are doing something, even if it’s not enough.
At this festive, chaotic time of year, instead of avoiding or rejecting those who are different, our UU interpretation of the ancient story of Christmas would have us welcoming the stranger, providing comfort, food, and a warm place to sleep. 
People from all walks of life, religious and secular, have an opportunity to reach out in multiple humanitarian ways, offering welcome and hospitality to the stranger.  Not just by opposing demagogues who would refuse entry to our country or mistreat those they are afraid of but by neutralizing some of that hate with hospitality. 
I would love to see some of you join me in this outreach to our homeless folks.  I always choose a time slot that isn’t too early or too late, I am joined by other volunteers so that I do not work alone, and I am blessed by the time I spend there.  It is one of the most rewarding things I do with my time.
There are signup sheets on our bulletin board in the social hall for the taking or I can email you a copy.  There is training for newbies and a great deal of appreciation for the time spent.
If you can’t give your time, perhaps you can donate warm, washable clothing---sweatshirts, sweat pants, gloves, hats, scarves.  I guarantee you that it will make your holidays more joyful than you might have expected!
So…be not afraid.  Welcome the stranger.
Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION:  Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place.  Let us go in peace, remembering that we ourselves have been lonely, rejected, far from home and needing comfort.  May we remember our own humanity and treat others with all the dignity and worth that we ourselves need so badly.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

A reflection on the Arts and Spirituality

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Nov. 8, 2015
Thank you, Chris, Helen, and Allison, for sharing your creative lives with us.
         I  never used to think of myself as artistic. I’m one of those people who has always figured if I couldn’t draw a straight line, I wasn’t artistic. My sister and mother, now, they could draw pretty well. They were artistic. I wasn’t.
         I did like to sing and play the piano but I was mostly a workhorse, able to do a decent job but not particularly talented, just adequate. Oh sure, once in awhile I’d get a chance to sing by myself, mostly because I knew all the words to the old folk songs, especially the raunchy ones, and sometimes people said I sounded pretty good.
         But there were moments when something happened to me, in the music. Maybe it would be feeling myself caught up in the harmonies of the group around me. Maybe it would be the experience of improvising harmonies as I sang.
         Maybe it would be a particularly tuneful day for my vocal chords. Maybe it would be singing an old lullaby to my son when he was a baby. But it didn’t really mean much, wasn’t very important.
         Many years passed in this way and then came a time when I was asked to sing one of those folk songs I knew by heart at the memorial service of a friend. It’s a kind of philosophical, metaphorical song entitled “River” by Bill Staines and it sings about life as a river.
         The last verse is particularly poignant, with these words: “one day when the flowers are blooming still, one day when the grass is still green, my rolling waters will round the bend and flow into the open sea…”
         I was pretty sure that I would have a hard time singing that verse, that my voice would break, that I would not be able to continue. My friend Alan’s life had rounded a bend and had flowed into the open sea, unexpectedly, mingling there with all the other lives gone before him, leaving behind the lives of his wife and two teenage sons.
         I almost turned down the request, afraid I couldn’t do it properly. But Alan’s wife persisted, saying he had learned the song from me and she knew he would want me to sing it.
         The day of the memorial service, I went from my home in Denver to the church in Ft. Collins, spent a few minutes practicing with the guitarist who would accompany me, and then it was time to begin the service.
         The moment came for me to sing and I stood next to the guitarist, my stomach clenched with anxiety, wanting to do well but afraid I would falter. I made it through the first verses and choruses just fine and then the guitarist took his musical break before the final verse.
         Just as I opened my mouth to sing those most difficult words, my heart pounding, I looked out into the congregation gathered there and saw another friend, Mary, looking back at me. She smiled at me, with tears in her eyes, and all of a sudden, I felt the song begin to sing itself.
         It flowed out of me, in notes and phrasings I didn’t even recognize as mine. My voice was strong and clear and true. There was something happening that was beyond me, that was beyond my control, that was expressing my love for my friend Alan, that was receiving the love of my friend Mary, and pouring out all that sense of relationship and connection with them.
         A new understanding of my connection to others through music was born that day and left me shaken and humbled by that experience.  
Our service today has been about “The Arts” as a source of spiritual inspiration for Unitarian Universalists. But I’m not sure we’re just talking about “Art”, per se.
         The Arts, whether visual, aural, vocal, written, dance, are expressions of human creativity, a life force so powerful that we have evidence of it going back into pre-history. It is a primeval force, ecstatic and uncontrollable, and it has driven human beings beyond the requirements of daily survival as long as human memory has existed.
         Unitarian Universalist theologian, Henry Nelson Wieman, has posited that the creative force in the universe is another name for God, that this divine power exists in all of us and in all of creation.
         I find that image very meaningful. As we’ve heard our artists today, have sung our songs, looked at Helen’s paintings, listened to Chris and Allison, I think I’ve seen and heard a common thread---that there is something that pours out of us at those moments when we are caught up in creating or experiencing beauty or meaning or relationship or growth. It’s something beyond normal daily life, something so thrilling and engaging that it surely is a part of our spiritual nature.
         The creativity in human beings has brought us as a species to a place of high technology, of great beauty, and fearsome understanding of what we have done and what we may yet do.
         Today we have considered the creative experience and its relationship to spirituality. I find the creative experience to be so foundational to my spiritual nature that I have become attuned to it in other parts of my daily life, hearing it in conversations, in cooking a meal, imagining new ways of doing things, even in figuring out how to jerry-rig functional mechanisms to keep my home working properly.
         My colleague, the Rev. Rick Davis, minister of our congregation in Salem, Oregon, has proposed that we consider recognizing formally the importance of the Arts as a Source of our Unitarian Universalist faith.
         He suggests this wording: “The living tradition that we share draws from many sources (including) the Creative arts, which reveal to us the face of life’s beauty and joy, its enduring truth and meaning and which opens our hearts to feelings of awe and gratitude.” He goes on to say that creativity and spirituality are so intertwined that they cannot be separated.
         Whether or not this ever happens, we know how important the creative arts are in our own lives. I’m grateful to our artists today for speaking to us, and for bringing the creations of their hands and hearts and minds for us to experience.
         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 within each of us there is a burning spark of creativity, the spark of life that has brought forth great beauty in the world and gives us the ability to connect with each other and with the divine as we experience that creative spark in others. May we find beauty and inspiration in all of life’s ventures and may we offer our own creativity freely and lovingly. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Scrapped Sermon

Here's the sermon PUUF would have heard yesterday, had it not been set aside in favor of a conversation on the events of the past eleven days since the mass murder at Umpqua CC.

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Oct. 11, 2015

            What do you already know about October 11?  Do you know why it’s important to a lot of people?  And why it might be important to Unitarian Universalists?
            Let’s start with the easy one first.  What do we commemorate on Oct. 11?   Here’s what I discovered by consulting  Google:
            In 1975, it was the first Saturday Night Live Show and its host was the late George Carlin, one of the forerunners of the comedy and politics shtick.
            It’s also Bald and Free Day, for those of you who wanted to know that.  It’s World Egg Day and National Sausage Pizza Day.  It’s also Face Your Fears Day, and here locally it’s the day of the Columbia Crossing and the last day for Astoria’s Sunday Market.  It’s also my friend Sue Ayer’s 80th birthday!  But there are a few even more important reasons to observe Oct. 11 as a special day on our calendar.
            For one thing, Oct. 11 has been designated the United Nations’ Day of the Girl Child, to raise awareness regarding gender inequality world-wide.  This special day was established in 2012 and  has a different theme every year:  in 2012, it was “ending child marriage”; in 2013, it was “innovating for girls’ education” and in 2014 it was “ending the cycle of violence”.    
This year’s theme is “the power of the adolescent girl” and was selected because teenage girls are at risk all over the world from the challenges of puberty, and their reproductive health is in danger, as they need help in protecting themselves against rape and unwanted pregnancies, STDs and gender-based violence.
            Those of us who have raised or are raising daughters and granddaughters can only imagine the difficulties of raising healthy girls under some of the world’s conditions, where kidnapping and rape in war-torn countries are commonplace and where many young women are still being held captive by the Boko Horam in Nigeria.  Can we even imagine what that must be like for them and for their families?  And we think we’ve had it tough when our girls decide their parents are old-fashioned and uncool! 
            This is one of the three October 11th commemorations that I want to think about with you this morning.  The others are similar in some ways, in that all of them share commonalities with our social justice mission as Unitarian Universalists.
            Some of you may know that Oct. 11 is also National Coming Out Day. Its purpose is to encourage lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, and questioning  people to come out of the closet to their friends and family members. 
 Over the years, so many members of the gay/lesbian/bi/trans community have bravely revealed publicly their sexual orientation or gender identity, and have told their stories and experiences, daring to take that step despite the danger, and,  that, I think, has created the possibility for the many changes in our national attitude toward sexual minorities.
            The second Monday of October which often falls on the 11th,  has commonly been known as Columbus Day, the day Christopher Columbus stumbled across the islands of the Caribbean and thought he’d found the West Indies.  That occasion, though important in the history of the Western Hemisphere, was the beginning of the demise of many indigenous peoples in the Americas. 
            Several cities in our nation have eliminated Columbus Day celebrations and instead recognize that genocidal period of history by instituting Indigenous Peoples Day instead.  Several states do not recognize Columbus Day at all any more and point to the infamous papal bull published by the Vatican in the 15th century which (and I quote):
gave Christian explorers the right to claim lands they "discovered" and lay claim to those lands for their Christian Monarchs. Any land that was not inhabited by Christians was available to be "discovered", claimed, and exploited. If the "pagan" inhabitants could be converted, they might be spared. If not, they could be enslaved or killed.
             This statement of religious arrogance and cruelty established a precedent which even the United States government enshrined  into law in the early years of our nation, and which has incited a groundswell of indignation and demands to both the church and the US government to repeal and repudiate its damning effect on the indigenous peoples of the globe.
            But I digress a bit to express my own indignation at this heinous  policy, known as the Doctrine of Discovery, which justified the treatment of native peoples in this country as Europeans considered themselves the true inheritors of the riches of this land and despised the original inhabitants as subhuman.
            Let’s look at how these three issues---the treatment of teenage girls, the struggles of sexual and gender minority persons,  and the oppression of native peoples, all of which are issues across the globe---team up with another human rights conflict which has taken center stage in the past few years here---the Black Lives Matter campaign, in which UUs have been deeply involved across the nation.
            Allison spoke to us recently about this campaign and shortly after the Sunday she spoke, I found in my own research for today a set of statements created by the group called the “Organizing Collective of Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism” which outlines pretty clearly how our Seven Principles, the philosophical statements on which our faith is founded, enable us as UUs to address the multiple threads of oppression, no matter who are the victims, and to sort out a personal and a community approach to the everyday struggle of those who are marginalized and oppressed.
            Our own denomination has had its less than heroic moments as we have struggled to live out our principles in a society where institutional racism and our own non-recognition of how our white, straight, gender privilege has often blinded us to the despair of those we perceive as “other”---be they teenage girls in sexual slavery, the torture and murder of transgender persons, the stealing of land and resources from First Nations people, or the black person killed by police policies about deadly force coupled with racism. 
            I haven’t yet figured out how to fold in the atrocities of gun violence and the difficulty of finding effective ways to reduce the misuse of guns for violent actions against the innocent.  Another day, perhaps.
            Because the document of the 7 principles of Black Lives is so powerful, let me read from the statement that has been published.  In a historic gathering of Black Leadership in July, the Caucus of Black UUs codified the direct link between our 7 UU principles and the movement for black lives, in this document which underscores the principle that Black Lives Matter.  (read document)
            When the movement “Black Lives Matter” began to gather steam, its very momentum caused anxiety among many observers.  “ALL Lives Matter” as a slogan appeared in protests; some BLM banners were defaced and the word BLACK replaced by the word ALL. 
But the movement itself was in response to the many incidences of black men and women and children being cut down by police policies, some of the victims dying needlessly, dying unarmed, dying of so-called suicides, dying for being children with water guns, thrown on the ground or beaten for no apparent reason.
            So I do not want to come across as diluting  or appropriating the message of the 7 principles of Black Lives.  I want to take the wisdom hammered out by the Organizing Collective and apply it to our own social justice efforts, whether we are working with homeless people in Astoria, growing food for the food pantry, cleaning up our roads, and just being in relationship with others in our community.
            Here’s some of what I’ve found in this manifesto that applies broadly to our work as social activists and provides a framework for searching our own hearts and minds.  We don’t want to be just do-gooder liberals, the bleeding hearts who talk about a problem, throw money at it, but don’t really get involved.  That’s not me and I hope it’s not you.
            The First Principle of UUism, our guiding philosophical principle, is that we “affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person”.  To me this means that all flavors of human beings, in every or any category, matter.  All are worthy of respect and dignity, even if we are scared or repelled.
            Our second principle affirms and promotes justice, equity and compassion in human relations.  To me, this means that LOVE is the driver of our social justice work, that we reach out in our efforts to heal the world with a sincere desire to offer compassion, justice, and fairness to all persons.
           Our third principle affirms and promotes acceptance and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.  To me, this means that we, in love, strive to understand and to accept those in our congregation and in the world who are different, whose path may be different from our own, and to open our hearts to them.
            Our fourth principle affirms and promotes a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.  How can we find the best ways to practice our work, evaluate our progress, and examine our own motives and efforts?
            Our fifth principle affirms and promotes our right of conscience and the use of the democratic process in our congregations and in society.  Let us not assume that we straight white liberals of either gender know what non-straight, non-white, gender-fluid people need.  They are the experts, not us.  Let their experience guide us.
            Our sixth principle affirms and promotes the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.  What is the world we want?  For ourselves, for all other humans, for all living creatures, for our environment?  We work for transformation, that all may thrive.
            Our seventh principle, which wraps it all up, affirms and promotes respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.  Let us honor the wisdom and work of our elders, as we work to build foundations.  And let us recognize the impact of our work on future generations.  It’s not just for today.
            To summarize---the words “all persons”, “compassionate love”, “equality and justice”, “leadership, “evaluation”, “transformation” and “all existence” jump out at me.
            They create a concept that could be our mission statement, our reason for being, our goal to achieve, small bit by small bit, until the world around us has been transformed in some positive way.
            Giving compassionate love to all persons in the name of equality, we seek to support the cause of justice by respecting the leadership of oppressed groups and carefully evaluating our motives and process, in the quest for transformation  for all existence.
            Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
HYMN# 170  “We are a gentle angry people”
            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, ready to give compassionate love to all, committed to equality and justice, respecting the leadership of those who are fighting the battle of oppression, keeping our motives honest and clean, as we bring transformation to ourselves and all existence.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Scrapping the Sermon...

is something I've never done before, but it's going to happen today.

As I was going over what I'd written for today, it just didn't feel right.  It wasn't bad, but it felt inarticulate and inadequate, considering what has gone down in the world---and in Oregon---over the past eleven days, since Oct. 1, when a student at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg opened fire on his classmates and teacher, killing nine of them before he killed himself.

This was followed a few days later by two more school shootings in the US, in which others died, and the horrible specter of Roseburg citizens protesting the arrival of President Obama in Roseburg to visit the families of the victims, angry with him and his concerns about gun violence.

I was afraid for him all day, afraid that one of these misguided souls might haul off and shoot our President because of their anger and fear, afraid of what that would mean for our nation and for Oregon, afraid of the ricochet of a metaphorical bullet as it brought down hopes and dreams in a bloody heap.

So we are going to spend the 20 minutes of sermon time in a conversation about guns and hate, two topics that have reared their ugly heads in several ways in the past eleven days.  I intended to tie together, cleverly of course, the observances of the UN's Day of the Girl Child, Indigenous People's Day, and National Coming Out Day, including the work of the Organizing Collective of Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism, which penned a thoughtful document about how our 7 principles are expressed through the BLM campaign.

In the end, it just wasn't going to work.  So here we are with Plan B.

Monday, September 14, 2015

A Tribute to Our Friend John


            One of the most poignant parts, for me, of preparing for a memorial service is the time I am able to spend with the family, listening to their memories of their loved one.  On the afternoon I spent with Sandy, Debbie, and Ross, I was able to ask some questions and hear their answers, as they thought about their lives with John.
            Tell me what you’ll most remember, I asked, and Debbie mentioned her sense of connection with her big brother, his help with her homework, the paper route she helped him with and their many times together at Sand Lake as kids.  Ross remembered John’s dry sense of humor and John’s service in Viet Nam where he received the Purple Heart.  Sandy spoke of John’s extended family, the Carpenters, and how the two of them, when they married, expanded their families beyond their own biological families.
            We talked about that empty seat in the bakery, where John held down the “locals” table and offered his perspective on a wide range of topics, volunteered his help with every project, giving generously of his time and expertise to anyone who needed it. 
I was so grateful for his help when I was moving two months ago, for John offered his pickup, his time, his expertise in packing the storage locker, and then driving the huge UHaul truck through downtown Astoria and the narrow streets of Alderbrook to my new home.
            There were river trips and fishing trips, golf and boating, building things and tearing things apart to fix them.  John helped every neighbor on the block in their Portland neighborhood with the myriad of household repairs that always crop up—water heaters, toilets, kitchen sinks---he knew how to fix them all and when he and Sandy moved to Gearhart permanently, he continued his generous donations of time and talent.
            He loved to play games, to hear a good story and tell another.  I remember how carefully he’d think through his explanations, striving for just the right word to describe what he was thinking.  It was important to him to be right on the mark.  He presided over the barbecue pit at many neighborhood gatherings, as he and Sandy invited neighbors and friends to eat fried clams and barbecue.
            John Duncan was a generous man who strove to be fair to all; he was honest and ethical, a moral man who believed in doing the right thing.  A God and Country guy, loyal, law-abiding, exacting, an engineer to the bone, John was a Scot---thrifty but not stingy, accepting of all people.  He loved to distribute lottery tickets to his friends at holiday times and was tickled if somebody won something.
            John and Sandy were a good pair.  They enjoyed being together and I was tickled by his always referring to Sandy as his bride.  He depended on her, loved her deeply, and lit up when she came into the room on those mornings at the bakery.
            John had very high standards, for himself and for others.  He was frugal, sometimes to the point of missing the big picture in order to save a few bucks.  We laughed about the story Ross told about John’s giving him a certain tool for his birthday and then immediately borrowing it so he could use it on one of his own projects.
            Sandy said she met John when he came to fix her sink, and her friend Sherry quipped---“he fixed your sink and he didn’t swear once!  You’d better marry him!”
            John’s pride in his grandson Marcus, son of Nicola and Michael, was strong.  He and Sandy regularly attended Marcus’s athletic events and were involved in Marcus’s life.  Marcus, Michael, and Nicola were important in John’s life, and they will carry forth the values they learned from John and Sandy.
            When I talked with Nicola, she spoke about her Dad’s great intelligence and his sense of humor---which lots of people didn’t get!  She felt so well-loved, that her Dad’s love for her was deep and endless.  “He was always teaching me,” she said.  “Before I could drive the family car, I had to prove that I could change the oil, change a tire, know what was going on under the hood.  He taught me to drive a stick shift, and through all the ups and downs of the teenage years, he was laid back, calm, even-tempered even when I was furious about something.”  “Life’s a giggle”, he would say. 
            Nicola’s partner Michael and John were close---and very similar in personality, intelligence.  The two of them were good friends and understood each other well.
            Marcus told Nicola, ”Papa did everything he could for me; he wanted to make me happy.  He always supported me in all my activities, my ball games, plays, school activities.  He always supported me in everything.  He played catch with me, taught me to golf, and he took me to work with him on the Ridge Path.”  Marcus always wanted to tell John about his life; they shared a strong bond.
            John’s generosity and commitment to community service are well known in Gearhart.  He was proud of what he’d done to extend the Ridge Path, and it is in his honor that the John Duncan Fund for the Gearhart Ridge Path has been established.  You will have a chance to donate in John’s name when we meet at the Firehouse after this service for a reception.
            In closing, as we thought about our loss of this dear man, we just wished we could have had him with us a longer time and that we hoped he knew how we loved him.  And Nicola confided that she wished her Dad had been able to meet the new puppy; John pretended he didn’t much like pets, but she knew better. 
            It’s hard to lose someone who has been such an integral part of our lives.  But I found a quote by A.A. Milne, the author of the Winnie the Pooh stories that fits here:
If ever there is a tomorrow
When we’re not together,
There is something you must always remember.
You are braver than you believe,
Stronger than you seem,
And Smarter than you think.
But the most important thing is
Even if we are apart,
I’ll always be with you.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Being Prepared

Today was Water Communion and Homecoming Day, the first Sunday after Labor Day, when we begin the new church year.  We had forty-five folks in the service, with several new visitors, some of whom are already ready to join!  I had doubts about this homily, but it seemed to go over all right.  And they loved singing:  
          “Be prepared, that’s the Boy Scouts’ marching song,

            Be prepared, as through life you march along,

            Be prepared to hold your liquor pretty well,

            Don’t write naughty words on walls if you can’t spell”…

            The next few lines might be considered NSFC, not safe for church, so I won’t go farther; you can go and look them up later!

            Many of you may recognize those words as the first lines of a rather bawdy song by Tom Lehrer, the musical social critic of the 50’s, who wrote such other “interesting” songs as “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”, “The Vatican Rag” and “We Will All Go Together When We Go”—the latter a tribute to the Cold War’s nuclear nightmares.

            A few weeks ago, a New Yorker article by Katherine Schultz, entitled “The Really Big One”, sent the rest of the US into a frenzy and we denizens of the Pacific Northwest yawned and said “we already know all that stuff”, whether we did or not.   The topic, of course, was our Cascadia subduction zone, which will someday let fly and cause an earthquake and tsunami on the West Coast.

Some of what riled locals up was her suggestion that people come to the coast but spend the night outside the tsunami zone.  As if that would protect them from an earthquake.   But it does give new meaning to Tom Lehrer’s nightmare title:  We will all go together when we go---as if we will have a choice. 
            But being prepared is important, whether it’s for surviving a cataclysmic natural disaster or some other crisis.  There are a lot of things we can barely prepare for---a sudden accident or illness, the death of a loved one; in life, unusual circumstances can pop up at any time.  How do we prepare for those kinds of things?  Or can we?

            I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially as I packed my go bags and survival-proofed my car.  And it made me remember something my dad said when I got my first job as a teenage pea bum, driving truck in the  Athena pea harvest, in the late 50’s.  I got some good advice from my dad at that time and it made me think about this particular bit, which seems to apply in other situations as well. 

How many of us, in our wild and crazy youth, had the need or the opportunity to ride in the back of a moving pickup truck.  Did you ever do that?  Do you remember how we did it?  Did we stand with legs akimbo, not holding on to anything?  Did we hang over the side and try to grab things off the ground going 50 miles an hour?  Did we jump up and down as the truck roared down the road?

            No, well, maybe some of us did!  But those of us who were more cautious found a place to stand where we could hang onto something and face forward.  And we kept our knees bent, to absorb any shock waves from the bumpy road.
           That’s how you ride in the back of a pickup truck out on the road or in the field.  It isn’t really safe and it’s probably against the law now, but in those days, it was just fun and a handy way of getting from one place to another on the farm or the ranch or in the small town.  And that was the advice I got from my dad, and maybe you did too----hang on tight, face forward, and keep your knees bent.  This is useful advice for life, if you think about it.
In our Summer Sunday forums this year, we had three, count them, three discussions about end-of-life issues.  Each discussion seemed to cover new ground, as though we had endless stories to tell about our own needs, the needs of our loved ones who had died, and the need for dignity and as much self-determination as possible in those last months of life.

For me, the issue of “being prepared”, or rather not being prepared, came sharply to a head this summer when a friend died suddenly and unexpectedly and with absolutely no apparent forethought about preparing for the future inevitability.  

We survivors, her friends, were angry.  How could someone so smart, so organized, so apparently on top of her life, do this to herself or her small circle of friends?  We  had no answers for that, and so “being prepared” took on great meaning for us and is probably one reason why I spent so much time thinking about this topic this summer. 

My friend needed to prepare for a moment in time when a sudden mishap might make it impossible for her to help herself, when others would need to come to her aid.

            What, in your experience, do we humans need to prepare for?  (cong resp, repeat aloud)

            Your thoughts and mine have some similarities:  when I made a list in my journal recently, I listed:

 the earthquake/tsunami event that might come in our lifetime;

the challenges of aging and changing health that affect all ages;

deaths (expected and unexpected);  

changes in the old ways, the old social patterns that cause societal unrest when disrupted;

changes in friends’ and families’ lives;

disappointments in jobs or in relationships;

and always, our children’s lives.

            How do you prepare for these changes?  (cong resp, repeat aloud)

            Again, we’re on the same wavelength: 

we have our go-bags poised by the back door;

we have the best insurance we can afford;

we have written out our wills or our POLST documents or talked to our families about our wishes, if we’re getting old or ill

---and have talked to our parents if we’re young;

we’ve stayed informed about changes in the social climate and have thought through our responses;

we’ve taken the temperature of our own relationships and made amends when we need to;

and we resign ourselves to the inevitable consequences of raising our children to think for themselves and not panicking when they do.

            In all of life’s challenges, I have come to the conclusion that our greatest survival mechanism, the best way we can survive crises of all kinds is to be resilient.

            Resilience is not a magic wand or a miracle-working drug.  It’s not the universe changing a law of nature to give us a break.  And whereas it might be considered an answer to prayer, chances are the answer actually comes from inside our own hearts and minds.

            Resilience is the quality of being able to recover from whatever difficulty life throws at us and move ahead.  It’s not being halted permanently in one’s tracks by a sudden turn of events.  It’s not denial; it’s acceptance and a determination to take the present, make the best of it, and move on.

We’ve seen countless examples of this human ability as we’ve lived through our years on this planet.

            Jimmy Carter, our former President, whose health has taken a turn for the worst, spoke about what sustains him in this time before his death.  And he said that for him, the invisible qualities of justice, truth, humility, service, compassion, and love are the guiding lights of his life.  He has relied on them all his 90 years and we have learned that they form the backbone of his resilient character.

            A Facebook quote from an author named L.R. Knost struck me the other day as also appropriate:

            She writes:

Life is amazing.  And then it’s awful.

And then it’s amazing again.

And in between the amazing and the awful

 it’s ordinary and mundane and routine.

Breathe in the amazing, hold on through the awful,

and relax and exhale during the ordinary. 

That’s just living heartbreaking, soul-healing,

amazing, awful, ordinary life.

And it’s breathtakingly beautiful.


            I like that.  And I love Jimmy Carter and will be sad when death claims him.  But I’m inclined to think that my dad also had it right when he told me to hang on tight, face forward, and bend my knees.

            Hang on tight to those around you and to your values and find a firm place to stand, face forward so that you can see what’s coming down the road, at least as far as you are able, and bend your knees to absorb the shocks as they come along.

            Life isn’t safe and the law won’t always protect us.  Sometimes we can’t control what happens and we have to deal with whatever we get.

            So when those times come, hold on tight, face forward, and bend your knees.

            And, I think my dad might add, if you can, help others do the same.

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

HYMN# 1064, “Blue Boat Home”


BENEDICTION:  Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place.  Let us go in peace, thinking about how we might increase our ability to be resilient in an ever-changing world, committing ourselves to helping others make it through, and preparing our children to thrive as they enter the future.  Amen, shalom, salaam, and blessed be.