Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Evolution of Spiritual Experience

Rev. Kit Ketcham, PUUF, Nov. 12, 2017

            As a junior high school teacher and counselor for 25 years in suburban Denver, I had plenty of stressful moments, hilarious moments, frustrating moments, confused moments, moments when I knew I would have to take some disciplinary action toward a kid or a parent, moments when I simply cried out at the pain in a child’s life.
            Many of these moments in that career were kinda humdrum, just doing my job moments.  But others of those moments still linger in my memory:
            That time when 9th grader Gail came into the main office when I was there, looked at me, said “my boyfriend just committed suicide”, and ran into my arms.
            That time when Bonnie sat defiantly in my office and said “yeah, I’m a lesbian and I don’t care who knows it.  So what?”
            That time when Bob confided his suicidal thoughts and his latest attempt.
            That time when spelling-challenged Heidi gave me a poem she’d written entitled “thanks for the mammaries” in gratitude for the long talks we’d had.
            All of these moments led me into a place of contemplation, compassion, and action in my effort to help these teenagers find peace.  But one important moment came back to me, as I was preparing for today and thinking about how, in my spiritual life, both positive and negative emotions have been the source of a deep spiritual realization.  And how it took me a long time to learn it.
            Picture a tiny office, goofy but inspirational posters on the wall, a Kleenex box handy on a small table.  Picture a somber mom and brother and me awaiting the arrival of a young girl who has been summoned from her math class. 
Picture that girl coming through the door, seeing her family members, and wondering, with dread, what has brought them here.
            Her father had been ill and hospitalized but expected to come home shortly.  Instead, her mother and brother were here to tell her that he had died.  Suddenly and out of the blue, in the hospital, his heart had just stopped and could not be restarted.
            Time seemed to stand still as this seventh grader absorbed the news.  As she sank into a chair and leaned into her mother’s arms, I felt the enormity of the moment, of the occasion, of the gathering of a family at the hardest time of their lives, and of the witness I bore to their pain.
            I couldn’t do anything to take away that pain, I could only be there.  And for me, just being there was an experience of deep spiritual meaning inspired by our mutual grief.  For her father had been a fellow teacher in a nearby school.
            Ten years earlier, I would not have thought of it as a spiritual experience.  I would have been so tense and afraid I would do the wrong thing that I would have done anything to avoid it.  But my own experiences of loss by that time had taught me that these are the kinds of experiences that open us up to life, if we let them.
            Up to that point, my spiritual moments, when I even recognized them, were wrapped in laughter, or physical pleasure, or tenderness between myself and another person.  They were sweat-soaked on the top of a high ridge or singing with friends around a campfire, or getting up in the middle of the night to attend to a child’s nightmare.  Utterly mundane moments until I learned to notice them, to pay attention to their deeper meaning.
            We all have access to spiritual experience but we have to learn to recognize it, to allow it to show us its meaning, to hold it under the microscope of our minds, to feel its resonance in our gut and to rest in the moment of awe we discover there.
            In his book, “Spiritual Evolution”, psychiatrist George E. Vaillant lays out a vivid portrayal of human beings’ inherent, inborn spiritual nature and ties it to our brain’s design and our innate capacity for emotions, both positive and negative.
            He argues that evolution has made us spiritual creatures over time and makes a scientific case for spirituality as a positive force in human evolution.
            He traces this positive force in three different kinds of evolution:  first, the natural selection of genes over millennia; second, the cultural evolution, within recorded history, of ideas about the value of human life; and third, the development of spirituality within each human lifetime.
            I’m grateful to Dave Ambrose for loaning me Dr. Vaillant’s book, as it sparked some soul searching for me about my own spiritual evolution.
I’ve always known that I rarely find my spiritual moments in a religious service, though they do happen and they often are embedded in our singing together.  When we sing our closing song, for example, and I look around the circle at all of us, I tingle with that feeling of being part of this group, thinking later about what you mean to me and what I hope to mean to you.
It’s so hard to define just what a spiritual experience is, let alone the larger concept of spirituality.  One definition I’ve found of spirituality came out of the prologue to a research study of people who said they were spiritual but not religious.
So this description is from the Public Religion Research Institute and published in September of this year. “Spirituality is a complex concept with a wide variety of possible meanings. Because this concept is inherently subjective—(since) many activities and experiences can be imbued with spiritual meaning­­--(because of that) developing a standard definition poses challenges.” 
            The article goes on to say:  The approach we have taken here is to measure spirituality using self-reported experiences related to feelings of being connected to something larger than oneself.  Three questions in particular were highly correlated and seemed to all tap a broader concept that fit well with definitions of what it means to be a spiritual person. These three questions asked Americans how often they “felt particularly connected to the world around you,” “felt like you were a part of something much larger than yourself,” and “felt a sense of larger meaning or purpose in life.”
            As I was thinking about this statement from this respected research institution, I was drawn back to our UU Sources, the places from which we draw our inspiration and our values.
            Here’s a quote from our UU official documents:  The Living Tradition we share draws from many sources (and this one is listed first):  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.
            Didja get that?  Direct personal experience of mystery and wonder, that experience we cannot fully describe, is a foundation of our UU faith.
            Our own evolution as a religious tradition has evolved from Trinitarian Christianity in the fourth century to Unitarian Christianity 15 centuries later, then on to an acceptance of Universalist Christianity and a merger with the Universalist denomination in 1961, from there to our pluralistic, multi-faith tradition whose values incorporate wisdom from many other sources, and not strictly religious voices.
            Let’s look at the three kinds of evolution I mentioned earlier.   First, natural selection of genes over millennia: We are talking here about the evolution of cold-blooded (literally and metaphorically) cold-blooded reptilian creatures into the warm-blooded (again, both literally and metaphorically) warm-blooded mammalian creatures capable of play, joy, attachment, and trust in a parent or mate.
            Simply put, as mammals developed their ability to survive and adapt to changing environments and to evade predators, their brains became more and more complex and this became a trait selected to increase survival.  In our fellow primates, we see the manifestation of behaviors which signify attachment, bonding, and nurturance of offspring and of mates.
            Second:  cultural evolution has been as important for human survival as brain complexity.  It is faster and more flexible than genetic evolution.  With expanded communication came expanded knowledge and application of that knowledge.  It was this capacity for cultural development that may have given modern humans an evolutionary advantage over earlier humanoids.
            Sociability increased survival rates and as communications improved, homo sapiens traveled, traded, learned from, and mated with unrelated others far away and the value of human life began to expand in human consciousness.
            Over millennia, through cultural evolution, religions (which are a major factor in cultural norms) also have evolved, and those which emphasized love and compassion rather than fear and dominance were more conducive to cultural development.  As an aside, I am moved to comment that if the Abrahamic religions---Judaism, Christianity, and Islam---had not let fear and dominance influence some of their doctrines, we might be in better shape today culturally!  And maybe our religion of love, compassion, and justice can lead the way.
            Third:  personal evolution in a human being.   It takes a while for a human being to evolve as a fully conscious creature, able to experience life-changing events and analyze and internalize them as factors which can expand consciousness and survivability.
            As children, we move slowly from self-centered, demanding two-year-olds, as an example, into adolescence and young adulthood, becoming persons more capable of compassion and understanding of others.
            At some point, many of us, probably most of us, have experiences that we learn from.  We may not get all introspective about these experiences; rather we may grieve or rejoice and move on.  And at some later point---as it happened to me and may have happened to you---we are likely to take time to pay attention to the emotional experience we’ve had. 
When we are able to do so—and it may take a while before we get there---we become conscious of the enormity of the event and how we may have been affected by it.
            Going deeper will seem scary, but we do it, and when we do, we are encouraging and allowing ourselves to evolve, to increase our survivability and to model that behavior for our children and friends.
            Dr. Vaillant has listed the positive and negative emotions which can be gateways to spiritual experience.  It’s probably easier for most of us to start our deeper explorations with a positive emotional moment.
            The positive emotions of compassion, forgiveness, love, hope, joy, trust, awe, and gratitude, to name a few, are largely experienced in relationship---with ourselves, with other beings, and with the universe.  They expand us, widen our vision and our tolerance for differences.  They enlarge the scope of our moral compass and increase our moral courage.  They enhance and impel our creativity.
            Let me ask you to think of a recent positive emotional experience.  (give time)  As you think about that event in your life, let me ask you the three questions mentioned earlier:   1.  Did it help you feel more connected to the world around you?  2.  Did it help you feel you were a part of something larger than yourself?  3.  Did it help you feel a sense of larger meaning or purpose in life?
             This quickie dip into deeper spiritual searching may be too brief to have worked for you and that’s okay.  It is only a suggestion that spiritual experience lurks in the everyday positive emotional experiences of life.  It may encourage you to be more mindful of the potential for spiritual experience in life’s every moment.
            And it can be found in negative emotional times as well---when we grieve a loss, we often find solace in examining the memories of love and the lessons learned through this loss.  When we are angry, going deeper may offer a pathway to greater understanding of an outrageous situation and give us motivation to solve a dilemma.  When we are afraid and explore the fear, we may find greater courage than we have ever dreamed of.
            There can be such a thing as “Bad Spirituality”, I think.  You may have noticed that some folks may claim to be deeply spiritual in an effort to make themselves feel superior to others.  (I’m recalling the YouTube videos of a sanctimonious guy in a tie-dye bandana and long hair explaining how to be more spiritual---like he is, supposedly.)
            Or they follow the latest gurus or spiritual fads without question.  Or they may use substances excessively in pursuit of mystical moments.  Or they dwell on the Positive to avoid dealing with their negative challenges.  Or they repress certain negative thoughts and feelings as too painful to face.  Or they are careless about the situations and companions they find on their spiritual path, to a dangerous extent.  Or they disregard the need for reason and science in seeking an appropriate spiritual path.         
            Every human being, I’ve come to believe, can learn to notice those expanding moments in life which accompany our emotional experiences.  As we learn to do this, just as we learn to follow the threads of a complex equation or a complicated pattern of some kind, we are sharpening our awareness of the facets which make up human life---and our lives.
            Improving our ability to be mindful, to notice our surroundings, to learn from each experience, good or bad, and to allow that process to take place adds to our ability to adapt to change, to survive difficult events, and to find, ultimately, greater peace of mind and compassion for our fellow travelers.
            Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
CLOSING HYMN #108  “My Life Flows on in Endless Song”
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 to take notice of the meaning of the emotional moments in our lives, drawing strength and new resolve from our spiritual experiences.  May we find depth and greater understanding as we allow our spiritual selves to evolve and grow.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Come on Up to the House...redux

Rev. Kit Ketcham
Oct. 8, 2017

            Thanks, Bree, I love hearing you sing and that song is once again just right for our service today as we think about the Radical Hospitality that we as UUs are called to give.
            Memory Lane time:  Let me tell you a story.
            It was just a normal Sunday in the year 2005, with the normal smiles and greetings as people passed by me before joining others in the sanctuary.  There had been the normal “hi, so nice to see you today!” and “how’s your Mom?” and
“what do you hear from so and so?”  and “welcome to our UU congregation!  Would you like a nametag?”  and “yes, I think there is a plan to go out for a meal after the service; I hope you can come”
            UU Congregations are always on the lookout for visitors and this congregation was no different.  We want to be able to say hello, offer a friendly smile---and a nametag!---and give the best welcome we can offer to someone new, someone who is perhaps hurting, perhaps lonely, perhaps unfamiliar with UUism or---perhaps a longtime UU looking for a new church home.  It’s our normal Sunday routine.
            On this particular Sunday in 2005, however, members of the small congregation took one look at the visitor coming through the door and did a doubletake.  No, it wasn’t President Bush, coming to see how we liked his environmental policies or disaster response; it wasn’t some glamorous movie star or bedraggled reality show survivor; it wasn’t the mayor of our small town or any other well-known local personage.
            This visitor’s appearance was startling in itself, and I could feel my own apprehensions rise up.  Why would anyone choose to look the way this person did?  I quickly began to think about how best to approach this individual; how would others in the congregation respond?
            And then, I saw our 85 year old greeter step forward toward our visitor and the two ordinary-looking people who had come in with him.  I saw a friendly smile on the greeter’s face and then a handshake.  I watched as the greeter helped them prepare nametags and gave them orders of service.  And when the three visitors came to where I was standing outside the sanctuary door, I had been given a clear model for how we were going to welcome our unusual visitor.
            “Cat”, as we came to know him that day, is a Native American who has adopted the practice of changing his appearance to resemble his totem animal, a tiger.  Cat is tattooed with tiger-like markings; he uses special contact lenses to give his eyes a catlike shape and color; his nails are shaped into claws; his face has been surgically altered to a more feline shape and his teeth are sharp and fanglike.
            Cat is not your typical visitor.  Wherever he goes in the community, people stop and stare and perhaps walk the other way. Now, I don’t know all the reasons Cat looks the way he does.  There are lots of questions in my mind about how he has chosen this path.
            But on that day, my task and that of the rest of us attending that service was to welcome Cat and his friends, to make a place for them among us, to offer them the simple hospitality of our sacred space, of our worship time, to invite them to have a cup of coffee and a cookie after the service, to go with our group to the Chinese place for a meal after church. 
This was not necessarily our first gut reaction, as you might expect!
We humans are almost automatically suspicious of anyone who doesn’t look or seem quite like us.  And hospitality can be tough when we are faced with offering acceptance and welcome to someone very different, someone who may appear a little frightening or unusual.
We are protective---of our children and ourselves, we are concerned about how we may look to others, we are leery of being conned or taken advantage of, and we may worry about the effect of a stranger on our children or on our quiet lives.
What is hospitality?  We often associate it with “the hospitality industry”, meaning hotels and travel agencies and restaurants and tourist attractions.  We may think of it as greeting guests in our home, inviting friends to join us for a gathering.
My dictionary says that to be hospitable means to welcome guests or strangers with warmth and generosity.  But in Cat’s case, we’re talking radical hospitality.  Again, my dictionary says that radical means “carried to the farthest limit or extreme.”   So to provide radical hospitality seems to mean that we welcome the least welcomed, the one who is most different from us.
In one of his famous parables, the teacher Jesus tells of a king who is rewarding his faithful servants for their loyalty.  The king tells his servants, “I was hungry and you gave me food.  I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.  I was sick and you took care of me. I was naked and you gave me clothing.  I was in prison and you visited me.”
But the servants are confused and ask when all this happened, because they don’t remember these events.  And the king says in reply these memorable words:  “Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done it unto me”, saying, in effect, that every effort they made to make another person comfortable and at home was as important as if they had done it for the king.
In our current society, the struggle about who deserves hospitality and who does not is intense and far-reaching.  Ironically, one of the chief bulwarks of homophobic religious denominations is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Hebrew scriptures.
The story is about two angels in human form who visited a man named Lot, a citizen of Sodom, to warn him that the city was about to be destroyed by God.  An angry mob of men saw the two strangers arrive at Lot’s home and descended upon the house, demanding that Lot surrender the two men to them, that they might get to “know” them, a word which occasionally in Hebrew refers to sexual intercourse, though infrequently.
This story has been misconstrued to say that the sin of the city of Sodom (from which the word sodomy comes), the sin was homosexual behavior.  However, according to Bible scholars, the real sin in this instance, in addition to the sexual violence implied, the real sin was the mob’s destructive behavior toward two strangers who were receiving hospitality from Lot and his family, for hospitality has long been an important religious principle in most world religions.
When Bree first sang this song for us, over a year ago, I told you all at that time that the phrase “come on up to the house” revived memories for me of growing up in Athena, OR and hearing it repeated by a rancher friend of our family.  Kohler Betts’ Christian belief in hospitality prompted him to say to some of the wanderers who came through our town during pea and wheat harvest seasons:
“Come on up to the house, we’ll find you a job, or a meal, or a place to bunk”.  Come on up to the house; we care what happens to you and you can help us bring in the crops.
In the past several weeks, our planet has undergone many radical weather and geologic events which have disrupted communities, killed scores of people, caused billions of dollars in destroyed property, and underscored the clear message of climate change and its catastrophic potential.
Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Maria have forced evacuations of millions of people, from Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, the Caribbean nations, and bordering US states.  These four storms have caused the largest evacuations in US history and have decimated entire cities.  Where are these folks going to go?
What if no other states or countries would take them in?  Imagine if Georgia and Alabama built walls to keep them out.  Imagine if we forced them to stay put and drown.
And yet this is what our nation is currently doing every day all over the world, from Mexicans fleeing the violence of drug cartels, Syrians fleeing a civil war, Yemenis (YEmenis)fleeing forced starvation, Palestinians expelled from their homes, Rohingya (Rahinga) fleeing genocide in Myanmar (Me-en-mar).
We know in our hearts that this is wrong.  We know that if humans have any rights at all, they have the right to flee certain death.  We know this.  We know this.
I occasionally join an elderly friend named Billy in his booth at Geno’s on Sunday night for my granny-burger and tater tots.  He’s a veteran of the Korean War, lives in Naselle, and drives over to Astoria nearly every day to sit at Geno’s and talk with friends who come and go.
He’s concerned about all the veterans and other homeless folks he sees on Astoria’s streets.  Why are they there?  Where can they go?  Can they get jobs?  Who is responsible?  Does anyone care?
And I think “Come on up to the Warming Center”---and then remember that the Warming Center’s legitimacy has been challenged and threatened with closure, though that crisis appears to have been averted for now.  Will it be available when it’s most needed?
Another friend feels lonely because she has few friends like herself and doesn’t know how to find others who share her world. “Come on up to the Lower Columbia Diversity Coalition”, I think, and then remember that most of those members are straight and white and abled. Will she find what she needs there?
I meet someone looking for a new church home where he can share his liberal Christianity without needing to recite a creed or sing songs that are not in tune with his beliefs.  He kinda likes to use the word God too.  “Come on up to PUUF”, I think, and when he does, I overhear an anti-Christian joke.  Will this UU Fellowship really be a good fit for him?
I go to the library and I notice that somebody must have said “come on up to the library” because sitting at a table reading a magazine is an older guy with raggedy clothes and a wild beard and a backpack beside his chair.  And at one of the computers is a young woman who seems to be looking for a job.  And upstairs in the stacks is a boldly pierced and tattooed teenage science fiction buff checking out the classic fantasy books his dad told him about.  Quite a few people are coming on up to the library.
There just aren’t very many places where people are welcomed no matter who they are or what their needs are.  Lucky we have the library.  Lucky we have the Armory and the parks.  Lucky we still have the Warming Center.  Lucky the Lower Columbia Diversity Coalition knows it needs to up its game.  And lucky that PUUF has gotten more comfortable with its theological diversity.
            As I was on my way home from my weekend on Whidbey Island on Monday morning, the news about the massacre in Las Vegas NV was all over the airwaves.  And I began to think about the pattern of mass shootings that has developed in the US over the past years.
            There are some scary similarities among the shooters,  as documented in various psychological publications:  they tend to be angry white males, feeling wronged and wounded by society, narcissistic, seeing violence as the only cure for their pain, single or divorced, isolated loners, highly intelligent, crying out for help (or attention) through social media or journals, having weapons at hand, particularly semi-automatic rifles, possessed by hatred and paranoia, idolization of radical politics, who has been planning his act for a long time.
            Not every mass murderer has all these characteristics in equal measure, but when I look at the list of common traits, my many years as a professional counselor come to my aid, and I see loss and the resultant anger all over the place.
            We have been made sharply aware of the pain of many white men, particularly those who feel that their authority as white males has been challenged by women’s accomplishments and the rise in power by women and by people of color.  Their pain is compounded by difficult relationships; they may have been abused as children; they often have domestic violence convictions; they want revenge for their pain, to hurt in return for being hurt; their intelligence gives them both the ability to strategize and plan but is turned toward violence, not altruism; big guns give them a sense of power and control and the knowledge that they can take revenge---and skip out on the consequences through suicide.
            Our president called the massacre an act of ultimate evil and while I don’t disagree that this was an evil act, I began to wonder about where evil comes from.  I just don’t think it comes out of nowhere.  I’m coming to believe that it arises out of fear.
            Perhaps this is why most world religions include the instruction to give hospitality to the stranger, to welcome the stranger, to offer kindness rather than pain.  If the stranger in our midst is not afraid they will be hurt, not afraid they will be rejected for their different skin color or ability or religious belief, if the stranger receives kindness instead of cruelty and rejection, perhaps our world would be a different place.
            I have come to believe that hospitality, giving kindness and support to people we don’t know, even people who are scary-looking or very different in some way, is one of the building blocks of a healthy society.  When we can set aside our fears and reach out in kindness to one another, we nudge that other person toward goodness, encouraging kindness toward others, rather than anger.
            Hospitality, then, radical hospitality, is absolutely necessary for a healthy nation, or person, or community.  Fear kills.  Fear kills people, animals, the environment.  When we let ourselves fear that we will not have enough---enough money, enough food, enough love, enough power---we are most likely to strike out in anger and recreate anger in others.
            Unitarian Universalism’s Poet Lynn Ungar has offered these thoughts, which I quote in closing.
(But) The bizarre US fascination with powerful weapons capable of killing large numbers of people is only a symptom of the disease. It’s a symptom that needs to be addressed. But the disease, the fury and dominance and entitlement of Angry White Men, is the rot at the heart of the matter.
It’s not a problem that has a legislative answer, although electing people who don’t fit the description of Angry White Man might help.
Fighting fire with fire, punching Nazis or breaking windows, only invites the Angry White Men into the kind of fight they are eager to have. And it’s not as if reasoned discourse will get at the root fear that drives the anger. There aren’t answers that are easy or quick, but there are answers. Raise children who know both how to express their emotions and how to listen to the feelings of others. Work to dismantle white supremacy in all of its complicated manifestations. Address economic inequality and the need for meaningful work.             
              Stand up to the gospel of greed. Build communities. Build diverse communities. Build communities where people can experience being both safe and challenged. Build communities where people learn to practice love, which is ultimately the only antidote to evil.
Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

HYMN #131 “Love Will Guide Us
            As Nancy extinguishes our chalice, let’s close with our 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 have the power to change the world, through our commitment to kindness, respect, and open communication.  May we use our powers for good, to the benefit of all living things.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.