Sunday, December 11, 2016

Each Night A Child is Born...

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Dec. 11, 2016
     My son was a senior in high school, a longtime member of the youth group at Jefferson Unitarian Church in the Denver area, when the congregation decided to undertake an all-congregation social action project, as the chief community supporter of a local agency called Family Tree. Their mission was supporting families in transition, families whose poverty and crises had made life pretty unstable for them.
     The project made it possible for nearly every person in the congregation to be involved with social action work in a hands-on way. Activities with the project included food drives, child care provision, computer literacy training, home repair, transportation to appointments, thrift shop support, auto repair, and that sort of thing.
      Everyone in the congregation was excited about it. I even had a chance to act as Mrs. Santa Claus at a holiday party for families served by Family Tree and I did some light gardening and a few other things. Others taught computer skills, did cooking classes, babysat kids, provided gifts at Christmas and birthdays, painted apartments, replaced light bulbs and bathroom and kitchen supplies for the transitional housing development owned by Family Tree which was shelter for some of these families.
     The youth group that year decided to do a paper drive, to restock the supplies of paper products in the Family Tree storage facility. And one Sunday morning, as I sat in the front row of the choir, the double doors at the back of the sanctuary suddenly swung open and ten disreputable looking teenage boys, in double file formation, strode into the sanctuary, arraying themselves in a wide V across the front of the room, backs turned.
     My son led the parade and, in his long black leather trenchcoat, holey jeans, tattered shoes, skull and crossbones t-shirt, and long black hair under his backwards baseball cap, he swung around to face the congregation as his pals did the same, hands on hips, fixing folks with their steely gaze.
     He dramatically held open one side of his coat and pointed to the items he had duct-taped to the lining: “We’re having a paper drive to support Family Tree”, he said in a gruff voice, “and we want you to bring (as he pointed out each item) paper towels, toilet paper, diapers, spiral notebooks for kids in school, copy paper, note cards, all kinds of paper products.”
     He went on to show all the items on both sides of the open trenchcoat, then snapped it shut around him, affixed that steely gaze on the congregation, and then said, “cuz if you don’t, I’m gonna date all your daughters.”
     Yes, my son is a legend at Jefferson Unitarian Church for this and other incidents; in fact, one tactless wag remarked, when my son was only about 8 and suffering the effects of a parental divorce and some other limitations, (this guy said to me )“we need to G...-proof this church.”
     I may have told you that my son’s life was transformed by the religious education he got at Jefferson Unitarian Church. He had a very tough time growing up. He was small for his age, too smart for his own good, learning disabled and possibly hyperactive to boot, and had some health issues that got in his way.
     And what he got from his religious education had nothing to do with theology and everything to do with being a human being in a world he didn’t create, couldn’t control, and often couldn’t understand.
     In their Religious Education classes, he and the other kids in his age group learned about how to treat people, how to treat the earth, and heard the stories of people in ancient times, whose religious leaders, such as Moses, Mohammed, Jesus, and the Buddha, told those stories to make a spiritual and practical point.
     My son and his peers had a chance to ask all the questions they could think of about religion and spiritual experience. The adults who spent these hours with them learned who they were and offered the kids their own experience as guides.
     When they were small, the stories and experiences included songs about loving, about not being afraid to be who they were, about looking out for other creatures. All families, no matter how they were configured, were okay; it was okay to have two dads or two moms or maybe just one mom and a stepdad or maybe no mom, just a dad. And of course a mom and a dad who lived apart or lived together---that was okay too, as were grandparents and guardians and other less-frequent combinations of human parents.
     As they got older and the inevitable skirmishes between kids or between adults and kids took on greater meaning, they’d have long conversations and make agreements about how they would be together as a group. Their classroom bloomed with graffiti and posters of rock bands.
     At one point, all the 8th graders were part of a sex ed class which was explicit, comprehensive, focused on physical and emotional health and safe sexual practices. This group met all during their 8th grade year, with a couple of retreats and all-day sessions, with carefully structured and presented examples and led by well-trained adults.
     They learned about contraceptives, about the variety of sexual identities and preferences in the human population, sexually transmitted diseases, AND the ongoing teaching of waiting until they were more mature before having their first sexual experience.
     My son was still struggling with a few issues in 8th grade and his relationships within this group were fragile. Adults who had known him for most of his life worked with him gently and consistently; they didn’t give up on him and kick him out of the program, but he was not Mr. Popularity.
     There was a followup program for 9th graders the next year, a much-anticipated coming of age trip to the Four Corners area---Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico---to visit the Native American communities there and learn about their religious and cultural practices.
     But at the end of 8th grade, many of the kids who would have been included in that important trip declared that if (my son) was going, they would not go. What a blow!
     Our Director of Religious Education sat down with him to discuss this setback. I don’t know what they said to each other, but at the end of the conversation, he sent word through the DRE to the kids who were rejecting him in this way and apologized for his earlier behavior, said he hoped they would change their minds, and promised to change his ways. Which he did.
     The group of teenagers who went to the Indian reservations together that spring for ten days came back changed, more grown up, with greater understanding of another culture, of other people, of other religious practices, of each other and of themselves. They seemed clear-eyed in a way they had not been in 8th grade.
    They all, including my son, still had a few rough edges, but they were, after all, 15 years old. The important thing was that their religious education had given them an experience which was life-changing, open-hearted, and accepting of others, while demanding accountability from each other.
     This is what we want a religious education to do, after all---expand understandings, make students aware of the validity of other religious paths, help them learn about their own, and develop ways of being in the religious world that are respectful, kind, and accepting of differences.
     Not only do our children need this kind of teaching, but we all do! We all need to know more about our neighbors on this planet, in order to live together in peace.
     I would never have learned this kind of thing in my Baptist Sunday School years. In fact, I remember the class session when I was in about 8th grade, when a fellow student asked the question of our teacher “what is circumcision and why was it important to the Jews?”
     We didn’t get a straight answer; our teacher blushed vividly and muttered something about asking our parents. But those kids in the Unitarian Universalist sex ed class called “About Your Sexuality” would have gotten an accurate and understandable answer. Of course, UU parents being who they are, many of those kids would probably have known that already, except maybe for the religious importance of the ritual.
     In our current religious and political climate, we are seeing a lot of religious persecution as well as harassment of ethnic and other minorities.  Children in many places, even in our area, are afraid---afraid for their own lives and those of their parents and other relatives, afraid of deportation, being gay or transgender, of being true to their family faith if it is not Christian, of sexual molestation and domestic violence.
     Just as the gift of a comprehensive and unbiased sex education tends to lead to a healthier sexual being, a comprehensive and unbiased religious education can lead to a healthier religious person. And, it seems to follow that healthier religious people are the foundation of a healthier society.
     How do we accomplish this? In our small way, here at PUUF, how can we contribute to a religiously healthy and better-educated community?
     The secular community struggles with its own issues of education, as does the religious community. We want to pass along our biases and opinions, whether at home or in a classroom. We want our children to do things our way and it can be hard to see whether “our way” is an honest and healthful way, especially when our own religious education is scanty and incomplete.
     Our own religious education is a critical element in our ability to change the world. If we neglect our own knowledge and understanding of religion, ours and others, we are less able to counteract the false messages of those who would demonize and persecute those of different faiths. And if our own understandings are not well-thought-out, we run the risk of giving misinformation to our children, grandchildren, and others.
     So I recommend  that we each undertake to increase our understandings and knowledge of religion, not only our own but the religions of our neighbors and friends. Instead of labeling Mormonism a cult, let’s learn more about it. Instead of shooing the Jehovah’s Witnesses away from our door, let’s invite them in once in awhile. Let’s counteract the hateful messages of anti-Jewish or anti-Muslim proponents with a message of acceptance and reason.
    To achieve this, we have public libraries, the internet, bookstores and other resources for our use.  One of the ways I’d like to increase our own knowledge of our religion is occasional classes on our UU history and theology or sermons from me or other UU ministers about our faith.  We need to offer more instruction about our remarkable, incredible religion.
     And another recommendation is that we become actively involved with the religious explorations of our own young people, here in our congregation. Let’s visit their classroom, get to know the children and their parents and teachers.
      Let’s help out in some way, whether by volunteering in the classroom or bringing treats or offering to chaperone an activity. Most importantly, let’s share our increased knowledge with our children, communicating with them at their own level but emphasizing the importance of learning about the world and the world’s religious faiths.
     This is not easy stuff. Learning new ways can be hard; this congregation has tended to leave religious education in the hands of our professional educators. But it is not just the job of our head teacher Jan and her assistants. It is the job of every one of us to help educate our children, to give them accurate information and loving guidance.
     Religious education means changing our own attitudes, looking at our values, and adjusting our behavior. This is hard, challenging stuff. And it’s also religious education to the core, according to the Rev. Tandi Rogers, one of our regional ministers.
    In closing, I’m happy to tell you that the teenage boy whose challenge to our Colorado congregation was the topic of our opening story, became a young man with a family, active in his Reno, Nevada, UU congregation, where he has served as a worship leader, and where he has been a credit to his own religious upbringing.
     Mike learned the things he learned because the adults in his younger life cared about him, cared that he become a man with values he’d thought through, values that helped him find his way in a complicated world, values that shape his actions and responses to the challenges he faces today.
     Might all of our children have the same wisdom and guidance from us here in this community, for “each night a child is born is a holy night”.  May we give each child the chance to change the world in a wonderful way.
    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 our lives have benefited greatly from the religious education we received, whenever we received it. May we strive to give the children of this congregation the best religious guidance we can, that they might go forth in life with greater understanding, greater compassion, and greater sense of purpose. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Ripping the Lid Off of Pandora's Box

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Nov. 13, 2016

            We’ve just heard Nancy recreate the story of Pandora’s Box, and I’m grateful to her for giving our fellowship this gift. 
            I’m going to ask Frank to read a more detailed version of this story before I begin. 
Has your curiosity ever got you into trouble? Have you ever been so desperate to know a secret that you took no notice of a warning? All through history there are stories of people being told not to open doors, caskets, cupboards, gates and all sorts of other things and, in so many of the stories, the people just did not listen. One person who did not listen was Pandora. Her story comes from Ancient Greece and her curiosity brought a whole heap of trouble!

In ancient Greece there were two brothers named Epimetheus and Prometheus. They upset the gods and annoyed the most powerful of all Gods, Zeus, in particular. This was not the first time humans had upset Zeus, and once before, as punishment, he had taken from humans the ability to make fire. This meant they could no longer cook their meat and could not keep themselves warm.

However, Prometheus was clever and he knew that, on the Isle of Lemnos, lived Hephaestos, the blacksmith. He had a fire burning to keep his forge hot. Prometheus travelled to Lemnos and stole fire from the blacksmith. Zeus was furious and decided that humans had to be punished once and for all for their lack of respect.

Zeus came up with a very cunning plan to punish the two brothers. With the help of Hephaestos, he created a woman from clay. The goddess Athene then breathed life into the clay, Aphrodite made her very beautiful and Hermes taught her how to be both charming and deceitful. Zeus called her Pandora and sent her as a gift to Epimetheus.

His brother Prometheus had warned him not to accept any gifts from the gods but Epimetheus was completely charmed by the woman and thought Pandora was so beautiful that she could never cause any harm, so he agreed to marry her.

Zeus, pleased that his trap was working, gave Pandora a wedding gift of a beautiful box. There was one very, very important condition however, that she must never open the box. Pandora was very curious about the contents of the box but she had promised that she would never open it.

All she could think about was; what could be in the box? She could not understand why someone would send her a box if she could not see what was in it. It seemed to make no sense at all to her and she could think of nothing else but of opening the box and unlocking its secrets. This was just what Zeus had planned.

Finally, Pandora could stand it no longer. When she knew Epimetheus was out of sight, she crept up to the box, took the huge key off the high shelf, fitted it carefully into the lock and turned it. But, at the last moment, she felt a pang of guilt, imagined how angry her husband would be and quickly locked the box again without opening the lid and put the key back where she had found it. Three more times she did this until, at last, she knew she had to look inside or she would go completely mad!

She took the key, slid it into the lock and turned it. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes and slowly lifted the lid of the box. She opened her eyes and looked into the box, expecting to see fine silks, gowns or gold bracelets and necklaces or even piles of gold coins.

But there was no gleam of gold or treasure. There were no shining bracelets and not one beautiful dress! The look of excitement on her face quickly turned to one of disappointment and then horror. For Zeus had packed the box full of all the terrible evils he could think of. Out of the box poured disease and poverty. Out came misery, out came death, out came sadness - all shaped like tiny buzzing moths.

The creatures stung Pandora over and over again and she slammed the lid shut. Epimetheus ran into the room to see why she was crying in pain. Pandora could still hear a voice calling to her from the box, pleading with her to be let out. Epimetheus agreed that nothing inside the box could be worse than the horrors that had already been released, so they opened the lid once more.

All that remained in the box was Hope. It fluttered from the box like a beautiful dragonfly, touching the wounds created by the evil creatures, and healing them. Even though Pandora had released pain and suffering upon the world, she had also allowed Hope to follow them.

Thank you, Frank.  We’ve had a hard week, haven’t we?  Tuesday night and its aftermath have been difficult for us all, I expect.
For me, the past 2 years of drama and of building hopes about the possibility of continuing the progressive values of   President Obama  have been exhilarating and yet there came a time when I was ready for it to all be over.  I expected Hillary Clinton to be our next president.
But as I sat with others from the Fellowship at the Election night party at Silke’s, I felt a sense of growing dread, watching the early returns.  The tension in me became so high that I needed to leave the party and be alone to process what was beginning to be apparent---that hopes and dreams are not always enough.
I had a wakeful night, up and down several times, trying to write out my feelings and fears to release them to paper, to release them to the universe as prayer that goodness would prevail.
 I got about 2 or 3 hours of sleep and, of course, the cat woke me up about 4.  Her needs prevailed.
That morning, I dreaded getting the official news, as I knew in my gut what it would be.  Reading the news online, reading the words of colleagues and friends on email, and Facebook with its endless stream of news and cat videos----I got the picture interspersed with memes of grief, of dismay, and I put my own conflicted feelings into posts.
Reading the words of others who were wakeful in the night, I felt the enormity of what had happened to our nation and to my own hopes.  I shuddered at the dire predictions made by some pundits, the jibes at those who might have voted in ways that skewed the results,  my own anger at the revealed misogyny, distrust, sexual violence, racism, and the other ills that were revealed when the lid was ripped off Pandora’s box during the election campaign.
As an aside, do you know what Pandora’s name means?  It is a combination of two Greek words, Pan, which means “all” and Dora, which means  “giver”.  Pandora’s name means “Giver of All Gifts”.  I think that’s interesting.  And ironic, because what was loosed when the lid came off the box was horror after horror, not the gifts Pandora hoped for.
Anyway, my feelings Wednesday were a quite a lot like the feelings I might experience when “The Big One” comes, the Cascadia subduction earthquake and tsunami that has been predicted now for quite some time, and hasn’t yet arrived.
On that occasion, whether with warning or without,  I would find myself needing to take some immediate actions, if I were able to.  Those of you who are first responders or government employees or medical personnel know the drill pretty well.
I’m not as well versed as others, but my personal response, assuming I was conscious and able to act, would be to assess my situation, see what injuries I might have incurred, stop any bleeding as well as possible, determine the safety of myself and those around me---are we safe where we are or do we need to find a better location?
If possible, I’d move to safety, helping less mobile folks move too.  I’d take my go-bags with me and head for higher ground, assisting others as possible.  I’d group together with others for assistance and support.  I’d create a place to stay until help arrives.
I think we can modify these disaster-related actions to fit our current national scene, in disarray after a shocking turn of events, a life-changing turn of events, in our national comfort level, from relative complacency to coping with possible chaos. 
We want not only to be safe from the chaos but to protect others more vulnerable, from the chaos.  We want to mitigate the effects of damaging policies on our physical earth and in human lives.  We want to influence the development of policies toward a humane stance, rather than a vengeful stance.  We want to reduce fear and increase trust.
Remember the “stages of grief” put forth years ago by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross?  They’re a bit out of date because we’ve learned that people move fluidly between stages, rather than proceed neatly from one to another in a predictable way.  But they’re handy and a pretty good starting point when I’m experiencing events of loss, big or little.
Shock and denial.  Becoming angry and feeling betrayed.  Trying to figure out ways of changing  the loss.  Sadness, despair, depression.  Eventual tempering of the pain of the loss and entering some degree of acceptance and adjustment to it.
I have a tendency to hop around these stages!  I was in shock and denial until I got up Wednesday morning and had to face the reality of the election outcome.  Even then, I couldn’t quite get it into focus and it was raining hard at the time, so instead of going for my normal walk, I met a couple of friends at the coffee shop to kibitz and commiserate for an hour before coming home again, over-caffeinated and sharply aware that what I had planned for today’s sermon was going to need to change.
Pandora’s Box still seemed to be a good starting point.  Okay, I thought, where am I right now?  I was still shocked and desperately wishing I could deny the reality, but it was no longer possible---my friends Roger and Mike were evidence that it wasn’t a bad dream!
What I felt curious about  at that point was who might be our first responders in this situation, the ones who put their shock and denial aside and don’t spend time being angry just yet, but jump right into ways of managing the effects of the loss, not just for you and me and our friends and family but for the entire nation, for the earth.
I think about similar life-changing events in history and what their outcomes were, how those first responders---mostly just ordinary people like us---stuck with the work, not giving up after setbacks but pressing on until the vote was won or the equal housing act went into effect, until same sex marriage was legal.
Generations of Americans have been through similar traumas and have gone on to do whatever the situation demanded of them.  Our spiritual forebears did not give up; they slogged on:  Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martin Luther King Jr, and now whole spiritual and secular communities—like us, the UUs---and progressive Christians, Jews, Muslims, Pagans, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, Humanists, and others have come out on the side of humanity and against injustice.
I take heart today, despite my grief, that there are messages of hope amid the messages of doom. I'm grateful that there are those who can look beyond the shock of loss and find a path forward, that there are still bright spots emerging, new leaders coming forward, and that all is not lost after all. We have work to do, work that we would have had to do anyway---to protect the vulnerable, to care for the lost and hurting, and to keep our own selves fit and strong to continue what we have been doing all along.
Who are our allies in this resistance movement?
Here’s who I am looking to for help:  the American Civil Liberties Union has already issued a warning to Trump that they will fight him on any unconstitutional matters.  Human Rights Campaign; Basic Rights Oregon; Basic Rights Washington; Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, The Interfaith Alliance, Lower Columbia Diversity Project, the Rural Organizing Project, Southern Poverty Law Center, and many more.  And I’m planning to wear my Safety Pin whenever I’m out and about---to be a safe place for someone who needs it.
We are in the aftermath now of A Big One, the emotional and political equivalent of an earthquake and tsunami for many of our friends and neighbors---and ourselves.  
What are we to do?  We will do what we would if we had experienced a physical disaster:  we will check ourselves and our fellow survivors for injury, we will get back on our feet and start finding a path through the rubble, so that we can start rebuilding and helping each other survive.
In his message to us Unitarian Universalists, President Peter Morales wrote this (I’m paraphrasing):  “We are shocked and horrified, we are emotionally exhausted and deeply offended by this experience.  This is a time to take a deep breath and a long view.  Our role as religious progressives committed to democracy, compassion, and human dignity is to help bend our culture toward justice.  Our role is to help change attitudes, to lead by example.  Let us reflect and draw strength from one another.  Together we can recover.  Together we can shape the future.”
I’d like to end with a passage from a longtime favorite story of mine, something I go back to on occasion for reminders of another heroic journey.

FRODO: I can’t do this, Sam.
SAM: I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy. How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened.
 But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.
 Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t. Because they were holding on to something.
FRODO: What are we holding on to, Sam?
SAM: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.
--J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings
            Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
Hymn # 291, “Die Gedanken sind Frie

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 grief must be expressed and healing may be a long time coming, but as we assess the damage we’ve experienced, may we see what is still standing, what has been revealed, and what are the new shoots of growth that were not destroyed by the disaster.  Though much has been lost, a certain amount has been gained and much is still standing.  May we find strength with one another and the courage to go on. May we reach out to those who are endangered by these times.   And may we remember that in the ancient fable, the final thing to emerge from Pandora’s Box was the beautiful dragonfly of Hope.    Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Andy's Garden Redux

When our guest speaker couldn't make it down to Astoria because of the weather, Plan B became a recycling of an oldie but goodie:  In Andy's Garden, printed here with minor updates in language.

Rev. Kit Ketcham, recycled Oct. 16, 2016

Bear with me for a moment, set aside any theological reservations you might have, and sing with me, if you know this old hymn, and if you don't, just let us sing it to you.

I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses,
And the voice I hear, falling on my ear, the Son of God discloses,
And he walks with me, Andy talks with me, Andy tells me I am his own,
And the joy we share as we tarry there none other has ever known.

My best friend in high school once told me, when we were girls sitting in the front row of the First Baptist Church of Athena, Oregon, where my dad was the minister, that she used to think God's name was Andy, because of the old hymn we just sang. I have since heard of children who thought otherwise: Our father who art in heaven, Howard be thy name.

Most of us have updated our concepts of God by now but many of us still remember our old ideas and the old songs with a nostalgic smile. If you're a Unitarian Universalist, of course, it isn't too cool to cling to old words and songs and rituals which are politically incorrect and theologically out of date. When I became a UU, I gave up that old-time religion in favor of a more pluralistic, interfaith tradition.

But I've come to realize, after several years of study and ministry experience, that you may take the girl out of the Baptists, but you can't take the Baptist out of the girl. I'm a Unitarian Universalist to the core, but my core remains Baptist. I think it's in my DNA.

I come by my UUism honestly through the time-honored route of youthful rebellion. One of my ancestors was BlackJack Ketcham, a New Mexican gunfighter in the 1800s, and my granddad was a bootlegger in Missouri during Prohibition, so of course, my dad became a Baptist minister and thereby set the stage for me and my rebellion.

I was a good girl, growing up, and in 1965, went to Denver, Colorado, as an American Baptist Home Missionary. My mission field was the Denver Christian Center in the inner city. A couple of years later, I married a UU man and began to explore the wider horizons of a noncredal religious faith.

But sometimes when I was alone, I'd sit down at the piano and plunk out the old hymns--Great is thy Faithfulness, O God My Father, Wonderful Grace of Jesus, Out of the Ivory Palaces-- the hymns which didn't appear in the UU hymnbook but occupied a prominent place in the hymnal of the First Baptist Church.

I did this surreptitiously and with many a caveat; I didn't want anyone to think I wasn't a devout UU, but those old hymns spoke to me in ways that no other songs did. I couldn't figure it out.  Was it just nostalgia for a simpler faith? Did they speak a subconscious message? I had long ago moved beyond a theology of Jesus as bloody sacrifice, God as a white male, heaven as a place with golden streets.

In any case, it was interesting to have my poor mother accusing me of having lost my childhood faith by joining a UU church, on the one hand, and, on the other, to find such power (unidentified as it was) in the old songs.

I struggled with reconciliation for many years, reconciliation between me and my horrified family members, and reconciliation between my Baptist DNA and my UU beliefs.

And now, many years later, I'm making some headway. As I explore my own theology and its foundations more deeply, I have begun to understand the contribution that being a Baptist preachers kid has made to my spiritual life.

I'd like to try an experiment here. I recognize that we all come from differing backgrounds; we may have grown up Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Mormon, Jewish, you name it. Some of us grew up as Unitarian Universalists. Others may have no formal religious background. But we all have a spiritual history. For many, it was specific church doctrines; for others, values imparted by family or culture. No matter what, we all bring to our present religious experience the accumulation of years of values teaching.

So I ask you to delve into that experience and consider your responses to a few questions. I'll ask some of you to share your answers, if you're willing.

Question 1: think of a favorite old hymn or song, whose words no longer fit for you but which you still enjoy hearing or singing. Is there anyone who would be willing to share the name of the song?

Question 2: think of a present-day religious value that is a holdover from your early learnings.

Question 3: think of a religious value that you have added to that early value which makes you the unique person of faith you are today.

To return for a moment to the old hymn with which we began a few minutes ago: Andy walks with me, Andy talks with me, Andy tells me I am his own. I no longer think of God as a white male on a throne, but this song still expresses for me the very close connection I feel to the Divine, to Higher Power, to the Ultimate in the Universe.

When I am in Andy's garden, whether on a high pass in the mountains or along a foggy Oregon beach, I am very aware of Divine Presence and my connection to the Universe, to God as I understand God. And the joy we share as we tarry overwhelming.

The great challenge of our religious journey, I believe, may be to take what we know, our earliest values and religious instruction, and go deeper with it, beyond the literal, beyond the familiar, looking for ways to expand our understanding of what it means to be a human being in relationship with the Cosmos, with one another, with ourselves.

Most of us live and work in a community where people’s creeds and beliefs are different from our own. We are surrounded daily by people who are conservative Christian, Catholic, Jewish, or adamantly anti-religious. In our own congregations, we worship with folks whose theology is different from ours--pagans, Buddhists, humanists, theists, nontheists.

To be in religious dialogue with all, we must be able to articulate our faith in common terms, so that all feel welcome at the table of religious community.

Beneath the surface of most religious traditions, there is a depth of common human experience that transcends orthodox doctrine and dogma. When we explore those depths, both in our own religious past and in the traditions of others, we find common ground.

We learn to interpret legends as metaphors, not as literal fact, to find the deeper, more universal meanings beneath the fantastic stories and myths.

This is one of the challenges of Unitarian Universalism. As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I preach to good people, folks who are theists, nontheists, Jews, Christians, pagans, humanists, Buddhists and combinations of all of the above.

I must present my thinking in terms which go deeper than the traditional language of Christianity, which is my native tongue.

To do this, I have learned to use my intuitive understandings of life, my mystical experiences, my dreams, my relationships with others, with the spirit I call God, and with myself, to glean what is common to the human experience and express it in terms which are understandable by others whose religious thinking is widely varied.

I remember as a Preacher's kid thinking to myself that there had to be a bottom line to religion, principles of behavior toward other people and toward God that would work no matter what. I remember feeling concerned that I was expected to base my behavior and beliefs on supernatural events which I sensed were hard to prove.

So I began to look for that bottom line. I didn't want my religious faith falling apart if somebody proved that Jesus didn't rise from the dead. I wanted it based on something that I understood and knew to be true.

I looked for permanent, not transient, values: Love. Forgiveness. Service to others. Acceptance of others, no matter how different from me they might seem. In the Bible, the words of the prophet Micah particularly resonated for me: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly. These were the values that seemed most important to me as a youngster, and they still do.

Take what you know and go deeper has become my guide to developing my theology, my personal creed, my own spirituality. It is important for three reasons:

1. When I take a familiar idea from the Bible stories I learned as a child and go deeper, I discover meaning that goes far beyond the literal story. One example of this is the idea of Jesus as my personal savior, which we hear quite a bit from more traditional Christians. I understand Jesus' death on the cross as an example of unconditional love, one man’s willingness to die for his friends and his beliefs. I do NOT see it as a sacrifice for my sins. I consider Jesus a human who was deified by history and the love of his followers. I am a heretic, a non-trinitarian. But Love is my personal savior. What Jesus represents to me is my salvation, my way of finding wholeness in a broken world.

Jesus' words in the Christian Scriptures, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one comes to God but by me” say to me, Love is the way, the truth, the life; no one finds a relationship with life and living things without learning to love.

2. When I take what I know and go deeper, I find language with which I can talk with others of differing faiths. A non-theist may find the words God and Christian and salvation uncomfortable, even offensive. But most non-theists, however secular they may be, find the word and the concept of Love to be deeply meaningful. And Love does what Jesus and Gandhi and other heroes of faith came to do--it reclaims, redeems, reconciles all beings.

3. When I take what I know and go deeper, talking with those of other faiths about the inherent meanings of human experience, my understanding increases and deepens, joining me in religious community with women and men who are radically different. I am graced by this new community, and I have learned that it's not the story that is so important; its the meaning of the story.

This is, of course, not a bit easy. It's hard to listen and talk calmly about issues which are so important to us, especially when we feel we have the Truth. But we must learn to do it, both for the sake of community within our own congregations and a shared dream of peace in our larger world.

Martin Luther King Jr. did it when he, a Baptist minister himself, proclaimed love and justice with nonviolence to be the prophet Jesus' essential message from God. Mahatma Gandhi did it when he, a devout Hindu, used non-violent protest to reclaim his country's independence. Countless others have done it in the name of freedom, in the name of hope, in the name of justice.

This is the meaning of our UU principle “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”. Whenever we look for meaning beneath the surface of orthodoxy, we are following in the large footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Jesus, LaoTse, the Buddha and other prophetic men and women. When we take what we know and go deeper, we grow.

You and I bring to our Unitarian Universalism all the meaning of our early lives. We bring our ability to be faithful. We bring our ability to love. We come wanting to know more about the Divine. We know that our children need instruction. We come trusting our own experiences and our own minds. We want to be accepted for ourselves. We believe that in community we will find spiritual sustenance.

We crave beauty and find it in many settings, in nature, in art of all kinds, in a human face, in deeds of love and kindness. We want to give nurture, to reach beyond ourselves into the larger community, to bring justice to a world in pain. And we want a safe place to experience grief and joy. All these are the roots we bring to our religious journey.

And we also have wings. As our hymn Spirit of Life says, roots hold me close, wings set me free. Wings symbolize for us our religious freedom, that search for personal truth and meaning that directs our path. Our wings enable us to put our new insights into action.

My wings have enabled me to fly from a belief in a white male God to the conviction that the interdependent web of the universe connects all beings; I have leapt from the slogan "Jesus loves me" to a recognition that unconditional Love speaks to the inherent worth and dignity of every person; I have rejected supernatural events as doctrine and have accepted a free and responsible search for meaning instead. I have taken what I know and have gone deeper.

But anything that keeps me from growing, from using my wings, is not a root, it's a tether. It is imperative that I look courageously at my faith, opening myself to new insight, eagerly joining others of differing faiths in dialogue which goes beyond doctrine, and learning the deep language which can bring us that shining goal which is another of our UU principles, that goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.

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 our whole lives have brought us to this place in time and that our earliest learnings are valuable to us, if we can use them as starting points for our searchings. May we live out our faith in our daily lives, taking what we know and going deeper. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.