Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Origins of Christmas

Rev. Kit Ketcham, with Siv Serene Barnum
Dec. 10, 2017

            This is the time of year when that tired old War on Christmas rhetoric gets dragged out of the tattered decorations box and hung on the tree—or the cross, if you wish.  I don’t get into the fray anymore but I do like to pass on the real story, because it is so deeply embedded into our culture and yet virtually unexamined by most folks.
            You may already know this, but the Unitarians and the Universalists actually SAVED Christmas, long ago, building on the foundation set in place by pagan worshippers over thousands of years of honoring the earth, sun, moon, and stars as divine.
            This month marks the Winter Solstice, a holy day which has been in existence since the earth began orbiting around the sun and has been observed for millennia, ever since the first human realized that, after this solar occasion, the disappearing light in the sky began to come back.
            Many familiar winter customs and symbols come straight out of earth-based, pagan rituals and practices.  The solstice was a huge occasion for celebration, as early peoples watched the slow return of longer days and shorter nights, even as the cold winter winds and snow made life still uncomfortable and risky.
            Monica will involve us all in some of those customs next Sunday when she and Stacey bring us our morning service, so I won’t go into much detail. Suffice it to say that in their jubilation at what they considered the Birthday of the Sun, they celebrated joyfully in their relief at the sun’s gradual return.
            Many of their festive symbols are important to us too and the change of seasons during the year were significant as the air warmed and cooled and rain came and went. 
            But other changes were also in the wind, because institutional religion began to take an interest in solstice festivals, and in about the 4th century CE, Christian church authorities managed to refashion the ancient pagan revelry into a Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth.  They had tried in vain to halt these winter festivals because they honored pagan nature gods.
            But it wasn’t that easy.  Thousands of years of custom do not die gently.  So compromises were made, with nature deities being discreetly transformed into Christian saints and the whole shebang gradually became part of the Christian calendar.
            Since nobody really knew when Jesus was born, the day long associated with the rebirth of the Sun, December 25th, became the date of Jesus’ birthday.
            Christmas became a mélange of world religious practices---with Celtic, Teutonic, Slav, Asian, Greek, and Roman influences.  It has never been a strictly Christian holiday.  So take THAT, you War on Christmas folks.  We know the real story.    And in case anyone was wondering about that worrisome X in Xmas, that X is the Greek letter CHI which has been used since antiquity to indicate the word Christ.
            Let’s make merry now ourselves, with a hymn that celebrates some of what ancient peoples celebrated:  Deck the Halls, #235.  And don’t worry, you’ll get to sing it again next week!  It’s such a great song.
            In Merry Olde England, under Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century, the godly Puritan Party passed legislation outlawing Christmas.  However, people rebelled and Christmas went underground with its revelry, which included heavy drinking, sexual misbehavior, and general debauchery.  The outrage at this infringement on popular custom resulted in the ousting of the ruling Puritan party.  So much for legislating godliness, sobriety, and chastity!
            But the Puritans were also settling in the New World and their disapproval of Christmas revelry meant that Christmas was banned for many years in early American communities.
            Christmas in the earliest years of colonial America was forbidden.  The Puritans found it offensive to their pious minds.  They had come to the New World with religious freedom on their agenda, but that freedom didn’t include the revelry of drunkenness, lasciviousness, and general chaos that erupted every Christmas season among the so-called “lower classes”.
            There were laws against Christmas celebrations and people could be punished severely for indulging in them.  Talk about a War on Christmas!
            The Puritans did have a point---Christmas had become a season of lawlessness, in which bands of hoodlums in masks, bent on forbidden activity, roamed the streets, and it drove the Puritans crazy!
            Records from 18th century New England indicate a rise in unwed mothers and in babies born in September and October.  Something had to be done! 
So progressive religious leaders in New England decided that, rather than trying to squash Christmas, they should instead tame it.  Many churches began to schedule worship on Christmas Day and urged banks, shops, and schools to close so that families could spend the day together.  And our religious ancestors got into the act.
Well, you ask, what did the Unitarians and Universalists do?  Well, they literally SAVED Christmas.  I’m not kidding!  Many of our favorite traditions today came straight out of Unitarian and Universalist creative minds.
Here are a few of those Christmassy traditions:
In the mid 1800’s, the Christmas tree with its lights and festive hangings was introduced by Charles Follen, a Unitarian minister.
“Jingle Bells” was written by James Pierpont, organist and choir director at the Savannah GA Unitarian Church.
“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” was written by the Rev. Edmund H. Sears, Unitarian minister in Wayland, MA.
“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” was written by Unitarian Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as a commentary on the horrors of the Civil War.
Unitarian artist, Nathaniel Currier, of Currier and Ives fame, painted an array of delicate Christmas scenes which decorate many a holiday card.
Episcopalian-turned-Unitarian Clement C. Moore penned the beloved story poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas”, also known as “The Night Before Christmas”, from whence comes our popular portrayal of that jolly old elf Santa Claus.
But the Unitarian author who brought perhaps one of the greatest Christmas stories ever told was Charles Dickens, who, in his immortal tale “A Christmas Carol” penned a story of compassion, generosity, and transformation as the miserly Scrooge is brought to an awareness of the neediness of the poor and the joy of generosity.
It is interesting and ironic that we Unitarian Universalists, heretics to the core in the eyes of the orthodox, have long been champions and even generators of the Christmas we know today.
Let’s join now in singing #244, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” in remembrance and celebration of the gifts our spiritual ancestors have given the world for Christmas.
#244 “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”
Insert:  Good King Wenceslas
            Every year, it seems, I have to rethink my relationship with Christmas.  At one time in my life, when I felt lonely and bereft from the losses I had accumulated, Christmas was something to be endured until the new year.
            But every year since that symbolic “hitting bottom”, it has gotten better and, in my so-called retirement years, I have found a great deal of joy in this season.
            It seems to start when I sit down to write out the small checks I send to the many grandnieces and grandnephews in my extended family.  There’ll be a new baby in the spring, in our family, and her parents’ joy is infectious.   I can’t help but smile---and also pray for this little family’s happiness.
            Unitarian Religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs wrote, about this season:

For so the children come 
And so they have been coming. 
Always in the same way they come 
Born of the seed of man and woman 
No angels herald their beginnings, 
no prophets predict their future courses. 
No wise men see a star to show 
where to find the babe 
that will save humankind. 
Yet each night a child is born is a holy night, 
Fathers and mothers- 
Sitting beside their children’s cribs 
Feel glory in the sight of a new life beginning. 
They ask, “Where and how will this new life end? 
Or will it ever end?” 
Each night a child is born is a holy night- 
A time for singing, 
A time for wondering, 
A time for worshipping. 

            As I look at the children I know today, the young ones who come up to hear the story on Sunday mornings, the littlest ones with their parents chasing after them, the in-between ones looking up to the bigger kids and watching out for the little ones, the older ones growing taller and maturing into big kids, their active minds, their loving hearts—as I look at them and smile, I feel the holiness of this season, reflected in our children’s eyes.
            Sure, they love the gifts and goodies and songs and the stories.  But what I loved most, as a child, and I hope it is part of every child’s Christmas, was the warmth of my family’s love, the tender care that I received and that I learned to give to my own child, to his children, and the love and care that he has learned to give, from me.
            It’s not the gifts we give and receive at this time of year, it’s not the decorations, it’s not the cards and letters, or even the music, though these all have their value.  It’s really the miracle of human life, from birth through death, and all the stages in between.
            We are so blessed by Life.  Even when it’s at its toughest, even when we are in pain, even when grief overtakes us, we have Life and its spirit gives us hope.
            As we look back over the past year, with its joys and concerns, let us be reminded, in this holy season, that it is truly the rebirth of the sun and in that rebirth we can find renewal and strength to last us as long as we need.
            Let us act with that strength to bring joy and peace to one another and to all humankind, starting with our neighbors and reaching out into our communities, giving tender love and care to all we meet.
            Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
BENEDICTION: (as Siv extinguishes our chalice)
Our worship service is ended but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place.  Let us go in peace, remembering that the season of Solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa is a season of Light.  May we seek to bring the light of kindness, strength, and peace into the lives of all we meet, for in this way we will receive the Light ourselves and will be blessed by it.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.  (closing circle)

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Exploring the Mystery

Rev. Kit Ketcham, PUUF, Nov. 26, 2017

            A couple of weeks ago, I spoke with you about what I’d discovered about spiritual experience and where such experiences come from, how we might welcome them, find their meaning, and as a result observe the outcome of that experience.
            I offered three questions to ask ourselves when we have an emotional reaction to some situation we may encounter.  I asked you to think about an emotional moment in your life and to ask yourselves those three questions: 
1.     Did it help you feel more connected to the world around you?
2.     Did it help you feel you were part of something larger than yourself?
3.     Did it help you feel a sense of larger meaning or purpose in life?
After the service, several people came to me and remarked that they had gotten a lot out of the sermon and found it helpful in figuring out what their own experiences had meant.
            Because this issue of spirituality is so foundational to Unitarian Universalism, it seemed reasonable to spend a little more time on it today.  It’s interesting to me that of our six sources, this one is Number One.  And I’m grateful to have Monica here to say more about her own spiritual life.
            Let me read to you the wording of this First Source, as it appears in our UU official documents.
            The Living Tradition we share draws from many sources:  Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.
            Let’s unpack it a little bit with a visualization.  I invite you to close your eyes, let your mind drift for a moment, and then let it settle on an emotional experience you have had, a time when perhaps you received some insight, some awareness, some sense of connection or great love.  Just stay in that place for a moment, reliving it in your heart and mind.
            Think about the context.  What had been happening in your life up to that point?  Was it a joyful time?  A time of grief?  Of illness?  Of boredom?  Of new love?  Can you put a name on the emotion you were feeling?
            When you’re ready to do so, open your eyes and we’ll go on.
            A few years ago, I told you of an experience from my life that has profoundly affected me ever since.  In a moment I’d like to retell that story and use it as an illustration of how we often receive a direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder.  We may not recognize it immediately but it may stick in our minds until we have a chance to look at it more deeply.
            Our religious tradition, Unitarian Universalism, is unique among other religions because of our reliance on our own direct experience as a source of spiritual deepening.
            We do not require that those who join us have religious experiences that are tied to doctrines or to a deity or to a particular prophet.  We know that each person’s life offers meaning and insight into the human spirit and its relationship with other living beings and with the mystery of the universe.  And we feel that this experience is so important that we acknowledge it as a Source of our living faith.
            We are not woowoo about this, though some of us delve more deeply into spiritual matters than others.  But we rely on our own experiences in life to guide us spiritually.  This is radically different from most other religions.
            Here’s the story:
            It was June, 1994.  I’d been driving Interstate 80 since dawn, from Farewell Bend on the Snake River in eastern Oregon where I’d camped in my van the night before.  I was returning to Colorado after burying my mother, crossing the hot dry deserts of southern Idaho and over the border into Utah, pondering the lessons of her life and death and crying as I drove, my tears drying almost as soon as they appeared, in the hot blast coming through the open window.
            And now I was beyond tiredness, in that late afternoon state of mind where rational thought and fantasy merge, and reality has a fuzzy edge.
            I’d been seeing a lot of hawks poised on telephone poles or circling overhead, their broad wings barely flickering to stay afloat.  My mother had loved birds, and hawks and eagles were interesting to both of us.  Each bird felt like a message somehow, but in my emotional state, I couldn’t quite figure it out.
            But every redtail or northern harrier caused me a fresh pang, and by the time I reached the outskirts of Salt Lake City, I had exhausted my tear ducts and my brain.
            I wanted to be back in Colorado as soon as I could.   I wanted to drive US 40 through the mountains, but I had no idea how to find it the maze of interstates, beltways, and smaller roads that interlace the Salt Lake valley.
            I drove south into SLC, peering through my foggy contact lenses at unintelligible signs, looking for landmarks.  Nothing.  I realized I was in the far left lane of a 6 lane interstate and, in my weariness, nearly sideswiped another car as I tried to pull the huge van over so I could read my map.
            At last came a break in traffic, and I eased over to the shoulder, cringing for fear I had missed seeing some hapless little car in my mirror, half-expecting to feel a sickening crunch.  But I made it, stopped the van, and, once again, the tears came.  I was safe, I hadn’t hit anyone, but I was exhausted and bereft.
            Suddenly, in my rearview mirror, I saw the ominous blink:  blue and red, blue and red, blue and red.  “Oh no,” I thought, and hastily mopped my eyes as I fumbled for my car registration.
            There appeared at the driverside window a short stocky cop, his hat pushed back on his head, his face serious and concerned.  I braced myself for the worst, assuming he’d seen my near-accident, but in a voice of infinite kindness, he just asked “Lady, are you lost?”
            That man could not have known just how lost I was.  I couldn’t find myself on any map---not the map of Utah nor the map of my life.  I didn’t know where I was after my mother’s death; I only knew I needed to go home.
            I don’t know what I said to him, besides asking how to find route 40, but he neither remarked on my tears nor ticketed me, and within a few minutes I was on my way again.
            As I topped the last long hill up out of Salt Lake City, my eye fell upon the broad-winged silhouette of another redtail hawk, soaring just above the horizon. 
            And all the confused, jumbled thinking that I’d been doing all day---the memories of my mother, my grief at losing her, my anger at all the years I’d felt motherless because of my own rejection of her religious beliefs and because of her illness, the link to birds and mountains and all of nature---all these coalesced into one single thought:  I AM NOT ALONE.  I AM NOT ALONE.  I AM IN THE ARMS OF THE UNIVERSE, I AM IN THE ARMS OF GOD.
            That knowledge has reverberated for me down the 23 years since it happened.  Before that time, I had not experienced much spiritually.  It was before I began my seminary training, though I had felt a call to ministry.  But I had, over the years, insulated myself from profound emotional responses.
            I had not let myself feel much; I was always busy trying to help junior high kids deal with their emotions, or staying afloat after my divorce, or driving gloomy thoughts away with a deliberate discipline of cheerfulness.
            But when my mother died, it hit me like few other losses had hit me.  I had learned by then that “stiff upper lip” was not really the best response to loss, that I had many other feelings.  And I wanted to let myself experience them.
            This experience of transcending mystery and wonder, to use the language of our First Source, was a gateway for me and since then I have come to recognize spiritual experiences more often and more clearly.
            One of the things I’m most asked about, as a minister, is spirituality and spiritual experience.  How is it different from religion?  Is it important?  What is it, anyhow?
            I usually define religion as a public expression of my relationship with the Universe, or God, if that word is meaningful to you.  It happens in community, it is strengthened by my relationships with others, and it gives me an external outlet for my efforts to make the world a better place.
            Spirituality for me is a private expression of my relationship with the universe, or God.  It is my internal awareness of the beauty of each of life’s moments.  It is always available to me, if I am mindful.  Most of my spiritual experiences I don’t share; most of them I savor privately and ponder privately.
            A few summers ago, I was meeting with a young couple, preparing for their wedding, and the young man observed that he and his fiancée were different in how they approached spirituality.  He wondered about spiritual experience and how to increase it in his life.
            I looked at him and his fiancée sitting on my couch in the morning sunshine, he with his arm around her, my cat on her lap, and I had a revelation, which I tried to put into words.
            “Here we are, the three of us, talking about how to make the ceremony of your marriage meaningful and beautiful, not just for yourselves but also for your friends and family.  That in itself is a spiritual act.
            “You are sitting in the sunshine, basking in its warmth, savoring the relationship between you and her.  That is itself a spiritual moment.
            “She is next to you, enjoying your arm around her, petting the cat on her lap as it purrs and expresses its enjoyment of her attention.  That too is a spiritual experience.
            “Every moment of our lives has the potential to be a spiritual experience, whether it’s a joyous or sorrowful or ordinary moment.  It is our mindfulness, our awareness, that gives it meaning and importance.  We can call spiritual experience into our lives just by noticing it.”
            Remember last spring when many of us here attended the Darrell Grant concert, offered by that quartet of musicians who were offering us their gift of music?  It was a wonderful experience for many of us, I suspect, to see their intensity, their virtuosity, and to feel the waves of music which broke over us as they played.
            It could have been just a performance, an excellent one, but for me it was more, because I have known Darrell for many years.  I know how his life has gone, I know of his hopes, his sorrows.  And I saw how the music filled them and us, how their gift of the music was sacred and holy.  The music and the musicians filled us with joy that night and it was indeed a spiritual experience for many.
            Unitarian Universalism has at its heart the myriad spiritual experiences of all of us who gather together around the flaming chalice.  Our individual and collective spiritual lives are the bedrock, the origin, the foundation of our religious faith.  From our direct experience of mystery and wonder, we shape our deepest understandings and convictions.
            We need not use a doctrine or a deity or a prophet to build our spiritual lives around.  We are free to trust our own experience and understandings of the universe as the foundation on which to build our faith.  And that is what I find so compelling about UUism, that we are trustworthy as spiritual beings, that our humanity can show us the way to a fuller, deeper way of life.
            Guided by our values as expressed in our Seven Principles, we open our hearts to experience the mystery of life and give it back to others through our deeds of kindness and acceptance.
            Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place.  Let us go in peace, remembering that many moments of our lives have the potential to be spiritual experiences, leading us into deeper and deeper understanding of ourselves, each other, and the mystery of the universe.   May we savor those moments and bring them with us into our lives together here in this beloved community.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.