Sunday, October 10, 2021

Thinking about the Great Questions of Human Existence

 


THINKING ABOUT THE GREAT QUESTIONS OF HUMAN EXISTENCE

Rev. Kit Ketcham

Oct. 10, 2021


When I was a kid, growing up in a pretty strict Baptist minister’s household with my very devout parents, every religious question seemed to already have an answer, an answer that never changed much.

Who is God?  Well, of course, God is Jesus’ father and is everywhere, sees everything, controls everything, and will punish anyone who does bad things.  And, oh by the way, God is love, also.

What is the Bible?  Well, it’s God’s message to us, his people, and every word is true.  It is a history book and tells us all the important events of Jesus’ life, as well as what came before Jesus arrived.

Who was Jesus?  Jesus was the son of God, born to a human mother.  He was perfect, never did anything wrong (unlike me), and he was God too, in a way.  And he died on the cross to save us from our sins.

What is a sin?  It’s anything you do, deliberately or accidentally, that makes God mad at you.

What should I do with my life?  Well, as a Christian, you are expected to give your life to God in service.  You can be anything you feel capable of being, but your primary mission in life is to serve God and teach about Jesus and how to be saved.

There were slight variations on the theme, every time the questions were asked, but there was always an answer, always pretty much the same.  And questioning those answers was frowned upon, even though the correction might bes delivered lovingly and sincerely.

It was pretty soothing to know that there were answers to everything, that no question about God or life or good and evil was unanswerable.  At least when I was ten years old.

At age ten, I knew better than to ask a second time, knew better than to argue with the answers, knew better than to voice my own opinions, as they began to come along, with education and with the advent of my own ability to think critically.  By the time I was in college, though, and away from home, the answers to my questions were beginning to shift.  I wasn’t so comfortable any more with the old answers.

And over the years, I came to understand that there were questions underneath these questions.  That my question about God and what or who God was could be stated another way:  who or what is in charge of the universe? Or is anything or anyone in charge?  What runs the universe? How did the universe come to be?  What is the power beyond human power?

My question about the Bible could be rephrased too:  how do I know what to believe?  Who can I trust, when it comes to spiritual teachings?  If the Bible was written by humans and humans aren’t perfect, how could the Bible be perfect?  Are there other writings that are inspirational and that I can trust?

As I grew older and somewhat more wise, I came to understand that there are many heroes like Jesus, that there were many stories about those heroes and heroines, and that some of them had very similar miracle stories, as in being born of a virgin or healing people or performing other miraculous deeds.

When it came to the idea of sin, it occurred to me that maybe the question beneath the question is “what is human nature and why do humans so often behave badly toward each other?”

Human beings question things.  Human beings are even more curious, I think, than the legendary cat, the one curiosity killed.  And the questions we ask as we develop our own worldview and ethical standards tend to stir up a lot of the world’s anxieties:  “Is it ever okay to end a life?  How was the universe created?  Who, if anyone, should be privileged over others?”

When I went to seminary in 1995, I had certainly heard the word “theology” many, many times.  To me, at that point, it mostly meant doctrine or dogma, beliefs by various religions that formed the backbone of their religious practice and were the standard by which people became members of that religious community.

Literally, the word theology means “study of God” and for many religions, that’s what it is.  But non-theistic or pluralistic religions have a different take on it; it’s more the “study of the sacred” or ultimate value and a recognition of the idea of sacredness.

Because people who are agnostic or atheist or Buddhist or pagan or any non-theistic religious path have reverence for the sacred but do not necessarily have a concept of God, at least not a traditional concept of God.

Yet most human beings who are introspective at all or critical thinkers do ask themselves big questions and the questions tend to be similar in nature.  In seminary, I learned to think of these questions in categories.

There is the question of ontology or being:  who am I?  what is the nature of humanity?

There is the question of epistemology or knowledge:  how do I know what I know?  What is the ultimate source of human knowledge?

There is the question of cosmology, or rulership:  who or what is in charge of the universe?  What is the power that infuses life with meaning?

There is the question of soteriology:  What can heal me or make me whole?

And there’s the question of eschatology, or the end of days:  What does my death mean?  What is the state of human beings beyond death?

These are questions of ultimate concern for humans, questions that circle around us throughout our lives, changing form, expressed as yearnings, even depression, and joggling us into attention from time to time.  These are the questions that live deeply within us and, depending on the circumstances of our lives, arise to haunt us on occasion, even when we think we may have answered them once and for all.

Over time, doctrines and dogmas have developed to answer these questions in certain ways.  Religious doctrines and dogmas are efforts to institutionalize thinking about the great questions of human life.  Most religions expect their followers to believe in and follow the doctrines and dogmas in order to attain the blessings of the universe, or God as they understand God.

Unitarian Universalism does not have specific doctrines or dogmas that we are expected to follow.  We have our seven principles (going on eight, with the proposed addition of a principle about anti-racism), and these principles are behavior-based, rather than belief-based.  We do not test people on whether or not they adhere to the principles at every moment.  But our principles nevertheless suggest approaches to the great questions of human life.  And one unique feature of our faith tradition is that we are open to new truth and can change our thinking if compelling evidence presents itself.

We as individuals find our answers in our own experience of life; we are guided by the ideas of influential other humans, our own early religious learnings, science, the philosophies of many world religions, and our own knowledge of the earth and its cycles. We bring all these influences into this community and learn to live with the diversity of thought that we find here.  We do not all hold the same theology and that is good.  We do tend to hold similar values.

How and why did we humans begin to think about these questions?  Human beings from time immemorial have puzzled over their relationships with the world around them, recognizing that we have so little control over some of the events of our lives, and wondering how to influence those powers that seem to supersede our powers.

Out of a desire to influence the uncontrollable universe, ancient human beings devised ceremonies and behaviors that might convince the universe (or the gods) to favor them:  sacrifices of goods, crops, animals, even fellow humans.  They learned to work in concert with the universe, planting crops at certain times, using all the materials they had at hand as tools, as fertilizer, as shelter, as food, using the stars and planets, sun and moon as directional guides.

Out of these ancient practices grew many of today’s traditional religious practices and beliefs:  baptism of humans represents cleansing---of food or bodies or clothing—or the soul.  Jesus’ death on the cross is seen by many Christians as the ultimate sacrificial gift, as recompense for human sin, which was the function of sacrifice in ancient times, to appease angry gods.  Prayer for mercy from the weather gods expanded to become prayer for any number of blessings, including success in the stock market or on the football field.

Still, despite our growing sophistication, our scientific understandings, and our differences in religious thinking, we still feel a drive to be in right relationship with the universe.  We study it, we want to understand it, we stand in awe at its beauty, we think about what our lives within it are like, what we’d like them to be like, what our potentialities within that universe might be.  And we do what we can to influence and/or moderate the universe’s effect on our lives.

In past centuries, it has also become increasingly obvious that our relationship with the earth (and the universe by extension) has become toxic; we lost sight, over the centuries, of proper care of the earth and its resources.  So our efforts to reclaim a right relationship with the earth have resulted in a heightened awareness of our need to befriend and care for the earth as part of our being in right relationship with the power of the universe.

What is the function of questioning in human life?  What does it mean that we ask questions?  In the beginning, we humans needed to learn how to survive on the planet; we asked questions of the earth, of our companions, of the animals we saw.  We built upon those answers to create a body of knowledge about the earth and the universe which enabled us to live more comfortably.

Since the beginning of time, human beings have asked questions about answers that seemed incomplete or based on faulty reasoning or, as our understandings of how things work developed, too reliant on supernatural forces which could be debunked.

Even the most seemingly-solid answers were open to question as humanity evolved into an organism which had a great capacity for understanding, for high levels of reasoning, for exploratory methods which could open doors to ideas never before considered.

Questioners in ancient times were often seen as heretics, as sorcerers, as eccentrics whose wild ideas were dangerous to the established order.  As religions became more institutionalized, questioners of the orthodox answers were often anathematized or excommunicated, from the body of believers, even executed.

As we consider what Unitarian Universalist theology has become, as it diverged from orthodox Christianity, it is useful to draw a general timeline of our theological history.

We are a descendent of the religion established in the wake of the prophet Jesus’ ministry on earth, over 2000 years ago.  However, when that religion (now called Christianity) institutionalized the doctrine that the Divine was three Beings in one (now called the Trinity and defined as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit), our religious ancestors disagreed.  At that time, this heretical strand of belief was called anti-Trinitarianism but gradually acquired the name Unitarian, for its understanding of the Divine as One Being.

Some years, perhaps centuries later, Universalism as a religious idea, also heretical, formed in response to the idea of hell and eternal damnation for nonbelievers.  Our religious ancestors observed the nature of God and decided that if God was love, then God would not condemn beloved children to eternal hellfire, even if they misbehaved badly.  This too was considered a heretical idea and was an underground movement across Europe before moving to the American colonies.

During the Enlightenment period of the 18th century, when reason was advocated as the primary source and legitimacy for authority, scientific inquiry, and democratic principles, reason began to make an impact upon religious and political life, spreading rapidly across the European continent and into the fledgling United States of America.

In the mid19th century, the rational Enlightenment Christianity of Unitarians was also modified by the thinking of the American Transcendentalist writers and philosophers, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Margaret Fuller.  These thinkers began to see the Divine in the natural world and expanded the horizons of religious thought with their poetry, their essays, and their lectures.

In the early to mid 20th century, Humanism, having developed out of the Enlightenment period, became a strong pillar of Unitarian thought, as Unitarians diverged farther from their Christian roots.  

In fact, for a time, Unitarians pretty well disparaged their Christian heritage and, indeed, even today some are made uncomfortable by some of the implications of that heritage, particularly as evangelical fundamentalism has devolved from Jesus’s teachings to the mouthings of the Prosperity Gospel preachers and their ilk.

In 1961, the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America, seeing that their numbers were small but that their open-minded approach to theology was similar, joined forces and became the Unitarian Universalist Association, probably the most liberal of all the protestant denominations which grew out of early Christian roots.

Over the decades since the merger of these two small but influential denominations, our UU theology has been modified.  Today Unitarian does not mean a belief in the Unity, the Oneness of God, as much as it means a belief in the Unity, the Oneness of the human species and the understanding that all humans are related to one another and are a part of the interdependent web of all existence.

Today, Universalist does not mean a belief in heaven for all, as much as it means a dedication to acceptance and understanding of the great diversity of the earth and of the human community, seeing that diversity as essential to a healthy and productive life that must be available to all.

We here in this congregation are the product of the coming together of a Rational religious philosophy as represented by Unitarianism and a Spiritual religious philosophy as represented by Universalism.  In this congregation, we meld strong scientific and rational ideals with a desire to explore our inner emotional and spiritual depths, acting these out as we strive to bring love and justice to the world around us.

We work hard at respect for individuals and divergent viewpoints; within this congregation we have Christians, we have Jews, we have Buddhists, we have atheists and agnostics, we have Deists and and pagans and none of the above.  We have lifelong Unitarians and Universalists and Unitarian Universalists.

Our aim in this congregation is not to dwell on the differing theologies we may hold, for we understand at a very deep level that it is our behavior toward each other and the earth that matters. Our theologies may inform that behavior, but our principles guide us toward a common set of goals, emphasizing our responsibility to treat each other with respect, kindness, and humility.

In his book “Letters to a Young Poet”, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote these words, with which I’d like to close:

“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart.  Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language.  Do not now look for the answers.  They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them.  It is a question of experiencing everything.  At present, you need to live the question.  Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”  (And haven’t we all been there?)

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

                                                         

BENEDICTION:  Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place.  Let us go in peace, remembering that we all have questions about what it means to be who we are and what our lives should be.  May we be patient as we seek our answers, looking to each other for the emotional and spiritual and mental connections we crave, and may we strive to live with open hearts and minds, so that our answers are not rigid but loving and accepting of those with other answers.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.


Sunday, September 12, 2021

The History of the Flaming Chalice

 THE FLAMING CHALICE: What it means to Unitarian Universalists

August 14, 2011
Rev. Kit Ketcham


Hey, remember our teenage years when we’d go to summer camp and sit around a big bonfire at night, make googly eyes at each other across the flames, and sing goofy songs like this:

One dark night, when we were all in bed, old Missus O’Leary put a lantern in the shed. The cow kicked it over and winked her eye and said “There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight! Fire, fire, fire, fire!”

Whether we experience it in a friendly way---around a campfire or in front of a fireplace in a cozy room----or as a frightening event in our lives, there’s something compelling about fire. We seem drawn to its light, its warmth, its flickering magic, the smoke that rises into the skies. And we also may shrink from its glare, its inferno-like heat, the caustic fumes it can generate and we fear its destructive power even as we kindle a small cooking fire.

We light candles for our own quiet times, or when we desire a sense of the holy. We take care not to let fire get out of control, we keep fire extinguishers handy in our kitchen, by the hearth, and at the campsite. We gaze in horror at the destructive nature of fire upon homes, forests and, property, and we also marvel at its regenerative powers when the ravaged forest begins to bloom again.

A cup, too, a goblet, a container for lifegiving substances, has significance to us. How many mugs with funny sayings on them have you received over your lifetime? We give and receive gifts of containers, from silly mugs to beautiful silver goblets to beer steins and even pasta bowls.

All of these gifts are intended to hold something we value---our morning cup of tea, a celebratory glass of champagne, a cold brew, a hearty meal. We look at the goofy mug and think of its giver----our child who tells us we’re the best mom or dad ever, our sister or brother who can’t resist making one more joke about the difference in our ages.

We raise our champagne goblets high and drink a toast to the bond between newlyweds. We look at the intricate designs on that authentic German beer stein and marvel at the colors and figures on its surface. We pour savory sauce over the pasta in the wide bowl and anticipate its delicious flavors.

Our flaming chalice is a combination of these two things: a bit of fire and a container to hold it. A flame and a safe environment for that flame.

Today we’re going to consider how our flaming chalice came to be important to Unitarian Universalists, the variety of meanings ascribed to it, a bit about its history, and what it means that we light it at the beginning of every worship service and even at board meetings and committee gatherings. And I’m going to ask you for your thoughts a few times to be shared during our social time.

The flaming chalice was not always our iconic symbol of UUism. It came into being at least twenty years before Unitarians joined forces with Universalists to become the religious movement we are today, and it took 20 more years to become our symbol.

The flaming chalice design was the creative idea of an Austrian artist named Hans Deutsch, in 1941. Deutsch had been living in Paris but ran afoul of Nazi authorities for his critical cartoons of Adolf Hitler. When the Nazis invaded Paris in 1940, he fled, with an altered passport, into Portugal where he met the Rev. Charles Joy, who was the director of the Unitarian Service Committee.

The Service Committee had been founded in Boston to assist Eastern Europeans, among them Unitarians as well as Jews and homosexuals, people who needed to escape Nazi persecution. From Lisbon, Rev. Joy oversaw a secret network of couriers and agents.

Deutsch was impressed by the work of the Service Committee and wrote to Rev. Joy: “There is something that urges me to tell you…how much I admire your utter self denial (and) readiness to serve, to sacrifice all, your time, your health, your well being, to help, help, help.”

The USC (Service Committee) was an unknown entity in 1941, which was a huge disadvantage in wartime, when establishing trust quickly across barriers of language, nationality, and faith could mean life instead of death. Disguises, signs and countersigns, and midnight runs across guarded borders were how refugees found freedom in those days.

So Rev. Joy asked Hans Deutsch to create a symbol for the USC’s papers, as he said, “to make them look official, to give dignity and importance to them, and at the same time to symbolize the spirit of our work…When a document may keep a (person) out of jail, give (them) standing with governments and police, it is important that it look important.”

So Hans Deutsch drew a simple design, and Rev. Joy wrote to his colleagues in Boston that it was “a chalice with a flame, the kind of chalice which the Greeks and Romans put on their altars. The holy oil burning in it is a symbol of helpfulness and sacrifice…”

And for all of us who have a little case of cross cringe when we see one, Rev. Joy noted that the chalice suggests, to some extent, a cross, and he emphasized that for Christians the cross represents its central theme of sacrificial love.  So you can tuck that information away in your thesaurus of religious words you don’t really have to be disgusted by.  We UUs do sacrificial love all the time, with our families, our friends, and our faith community, to say nothing of our social justice efforts.

The flaming chalice design was made into a seal for papers and a badge for agents moving refugees to freedom. In time it became a symbol of Unitarian Universalism all around the world and of the humanitarian call to action by people of faith who were willing to risk all for others in a time of urgent need.

 Every Sunday UUs all over the world light the chalice as a time-honored ritual---in huge congregations and tiny ones, big historical sanctuaries, rented strip mall spaces, and even home living rooms. And now, by the magic of technology, in Zoom services as well.

I’m wondering----what does lighting the chalice mean to you all, when we kindle this flame at the beginning of our worship time? During our social time after the service, we’ll have a chance to share our thoughts.

The chalice lighting is often preceded by words of dedication or poetry or the wisdom of some sage, carefully chosen to focus on the event beginning, whether that is a time of worship, of memorializing, of honoring, or doing sacred work.

The lighting of the chalice signifies, to many, the moment at which we move into another realm, into a sacred time, into a time in which we consider matters of worth and value, a time in which we find wisdom and strength in the act of being together in community. It focuses our attention on the work at hand, when we light the chalice before a board or committee meeting, and it reminds us that the work of the religious community is sacred work.

Now let’s think about the possible meanings of combining the vessel of the chalice with the living, breathing flame. Here is a container for nourishment—the chalice--and here is an ever-changing, comforting yet dangerous element—the flame. What spiritual significance might be found in this juxtaposition of these two disparate elements? Let’s think about this idea. And during social time, we’ll share our thoughts.

A couple of years ago, our UU ministers’ email chatline considered the significance of the flaming chalice and how that meaning has developed in our own understandings since the custom began, sometime in the 80’s, introduced by the youth’s and women’s caucuses at a long ago General Assembly, when youth and women were beginning to have a huge effect on the direction of Unitarian Universalism.

Here are some of their thoughts: the chalice is a container for the holy. The chalice signifies open-hearted community where all are welcome. The chalice is a poetic, visual metaphor for community. In dreamwork it indicates a need for spiritual nourishment. The chalice bowl is deep and wide, big enough to contain many paths and ideas, hopes and intentions.

The flame is a conduit to the transcendent. It is ever-changing, alive, untouchable, dangerous; it can tempt and it can also heal. The flame is a symbol of spiritual transformation; it reminds us of the sacrificial flame of antiquity. It is a light in the darkness. It brings change, creation, rebirth. It is a cauterizing, purifying element.

The flaming chalice, as our iconic symbol of UUism, came into being at a time of great global turmoil. The forces of oppression and tyranny were strong across the earth. Few were able to withstand and survive that assault, but underground, beneath the surface, there was constant clandestine activity by those who resisted, those who dedicated themselves to saving others who were in danger, regardless of the personal cost.

Interestingly, a chalice design similar to our original design by Hans Deutsch mysteriously appears on the cover of a book entitled “The Ideal Gay Man: the Story of Der Kreis” or the story of “The Circle”, the international gay literary journal published from 1932-1967. Except for a slight difference in the curve of the flame, the two drawings might be the same thing. Did Deutsch draw both symbols? I can’t say for sure and am not willing to pay over $100 for this out of print book!  Though I did get a peek at it when a colleague gave me a link to a Google document of the book.

But the significance of a chalice and a flame adorning official-looking documents enabling refugees to leave Nazi Germany and serving as the symbol of an underground journal which published gay European writers-----that’s interesting. Not only interesting, but compelling.

It makes me ask, what does the flaming chalice stand for? And what might it challenge us to do? Let’s think about this symbol and its challenge. And we can talk about it a bit during social time.

In the songs today,  the flame’s reputation for passion and intensity comes through, hot, ardent, eager. Also steamy! Light My Fire and Ring of Fire are classics in the country rock world, making no secret of the heat of passion that drives us mammals to find each other and make new mammals.

Passion drives us in many ways, not just sexually, and it is this passion for action that the flame of the chalice expresses to me. Your thoughts also may reflect your desire for passion, for fire in your lives as well as the comfort of the sacred space we create with our Beloved Community.

I like the symbolism of our congregation, our sanctuary, being a sort of chalice, a community that is safe, healing, and nourishing, welcoming all into its circle. I like the symbolism of our passion to help our community being the flame set inside the chalice, warming us, inspiring us, moving us to action.

I like to think of the lighting of our chalice on Sundays and before our meetings as a visual and heartfelt reminder that we are together in love and commitment, safe within these walls but eager and ready to move out into the community to be of service to those who need us.

And each of us embodies the message of the chalice; each of us can be that safe haven, that healing presence, that source of nourishment to those we meet on life’s path. And each of us can offer the passion nourished within these walls to those beyond these walls. As one of my heroes the late Dag Hammersjold once famously wrote, and Veja repeated these words earlier: “Each morning we must hold out the chalice of our being to receive, to carry, and give back.”

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

Our closing song is Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”.

EXTINGUISHING THE CHALICE 

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 carry within us the same fire that lights our chalice flame. May we carry our passion and fire into our daily lives, committed to doing whatever we can to serve our neighbors and friends as we live out the symbol of our flaming chalice. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.





Sunday, July 04, 2021

 FREEDOM:  THE HEART OF DEMOCRACY

Rev. Kit Ketcham

July 4, 2021


On our nation’s 245th birthday today, before the fireworks explode over the river tonight and the hot dogs and hamburgers hit the grill, let’s celebrate that we are in a new home, at a new time of day, with some new faces and some faces we haven’t seen in person for almost a year and a half.

We’ve been deprived of certain freedoms, we’ve chafed at those restrictions, we’ve gone along because our consciences insisted that we consider the larger good.  It hasn’t been easy and we may have resented the uproar from certain quarters about FREEDOM from government interference and the stubborn refusals to comply with public health recommendations like wearing a mask, observing social distance, and other restrictions that seemed to some to compromise the American way of life---doing what you darned well please.

You would think that most of us by now would have realized that “doing what you darned well please” isn’t a healthy way to live, does not get you a significant other, or even a second date.  We can’t be oblivious to the needs of others and our society and come out smelling like a rose, in the vernacular of an older place and time.

Freedom is a messy topic.  Seems like for every freedom we prize, we have to consider the consequences of that freedom.  Freedom to disregard the warnings about COVID landed a lot of people in the hospital and many died.  

Freedom to disregard the civil rights of people of color has proved to be disastrous, as we are forced now to look at our dismal history of slavery, poverty, segregation, and other cultural punishments visited upon those whose skin color or station in life has relegated them to fewer opportunities for advancement.

Freedom to speak hatefully about those with sexual or gender diversity has resulted in the deaths of countless suicidal children and adults, psychic wounds from bullying and discriminatory practices denying the rights of transgender people to adequate health care, and a sense of fear about being one’s true self.  And don’t forget the stigma of HIV/AIDS, when thousands were dying and there was no urgency on the part of our government to offer help.

It's been instructive and astonishing to witness the freedoms many citizens are pursuing even in the face of the consequences:  freedom from truth lies at the bottom of a plethora of waystations on the way down :  freedom from health care, freedom from personal responsibility, freedom from caring about the larger whole. Freedom from science they don’t like.  Freedom from liberal values that require deeper thought than a kneejerk NOT in my town or church or family or friends.  Freedom from inconvenient requirements like masks or temperature checks or even the suggestion of vaccination.

These are so-called “freedoms” that have severe consequences, not only to the true believer but also to our precious democracy, the democracy that depends on truthful information, reason-based requirements, honesty in our public servants and elected leaders.

I did some Google work to delve into what the term freedom means---what does it allow and what does it disallow?

I read about positive liberty and negative liberty.  Philosophers like Erich Fromm and others distinguish between “freedom from” and “freedom to” and the difficult task of working that out in a democracy.

Currently, as we emerge slowly from months and months of restrictions in the service of public health, the difference between the two becomes stark and challenging.

In an essay by Ibram X. Kendi in the Atlantic recently, the long-standing difference between core notions of freedom from and freedom to,  Kendi points out that these two notions of freedom have long rubbed along uneasily side by side, but that those who demand that states open up so they may shop or visit the zoo, among other so-called free pleasures, are, as he says, revealing the tension between the two.

It's the very notion that it doesn’t matter what happens to the larger community so long as the individual has unfettered freedom to do as they please.  This value animates the gun rights movement---indicating for that group that the cost of true liberty is tens of thousands of avoidable gun deaths each year.

We have seen hundreds of gun-toting insurgents mounting the steps and climbing the walls of our national capitol, and Americans must decide whether the price we are willing to pay for the freedom of armed protests is our own health and safety.

Polls have shown that the majority of Americans are still deeply devoted to the proposition that brandishing of guns inside a Capitol building is not actually liberty, not liberty and justice for all but rather only for a small minority of those who seek to define freedom as something they will seize and threaten and even kill for.

The idea of personal freedom is a concept which has been debated for centuries.  In Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Aunt Lydia, an instructor for novice Handmaids, tells the women that there are two kinds of freedoms:

Freedom for the individual to do what he or she wants, which may seem desirable but can lead to anarchy, and…

Freedom from, in which rules and restrictions protect individuals from the results of amoral or anarchic behavior.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, evidence of both attitudes has emerged in the severe restriction of individual liberty and freedom of speech in such repressive regimes as the USSR and other authoritarian nations and the insistence by insurgents on their right to attack the US Capitol and State capitols in defense of a false belief that an election was stolen.

In early 1943, during the second world war and about the time of the Blitz in Europe, the artist Norman Rockwell painted scenes of what President Franklin D Roosevelt at the time considered “The Four Freedoms” of American life. (Frank)

The first work in this series was a family having what looks like a Thanksgiving meal together, with grandparents, adult children and their children smiling and laughing across a table laden with food and featuring a giant turkey in the center of the scene.  This painting was entitled “Freedom from Want”.

The second painting in the series portrays a man who appears to be perhaps a blue-collar worker standing and speaking to a crowd of men seated around him.  This is entitled “Freedom of Speech”

The third painting shows a man and woman at the bedside of two sleeping young boys.  The man has a folded newspaper in his hands with headlines about bombings across Europe.  This painting is entitled “Freedom from Fear”.

The fourth painting shows a grouping of people’s faces in a variety of prayer or reverie, or concentration on a speaker who is not pictured.  This painting is entitled “Freedom to Worship”.

That was 78 years ago and Rockwell’s folksy, homey paintings appeared regularly in the Saturday Evening Post, hung in galleries across America and were prized for their depiction of an American citizenry which was blessed by these four freedoms.

Nowadays, they seem, to me at least, to depict an America that never really existed, except in our ability to overlook the ways each purported freedom was a false front---romantic and charming but idealistic and unreal.

We have been challenged to look at the real America, the America that is beautiful, yes, but also hiding a dark history of oppression and greed.  

As Unitarian Universalists, we have communally decided that our religious faith is founded upon 7 principles which outline the values which form the bedrock of our faith. 

Over the years, as the issues of racism and white supremacy have come to light and the pain of marginalization has affected Unitarian Universalist congregations and associations, our leadership, guided by the strength and determination of the many people of color who are active in our congregations and in our (governance), shaken by experiences of POC that have come to light over the years, there has come a movement to add an 8th Principle to our guiding principles.

The proposed 8th Principle, which is making its way through the acceptance process and will likely be added to our list of Principles, is worded in this way:

“We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”

Over the generations that the Unitarian Universalist Association has existed, we have prided ourselves on being “ahead of the pack” in terms of responding to social issues.  We were in the forefront of earlier social movements like marriage equality and women in the ministry, but when hiring practices in the UUA revealed great discrepancies in the hiring of equally qualified POC, our leadership realized we had a big problem to solve.

I spent some time reading more about the 8th Principle proposition and would like to tell you more about it.  It is clearly related to the efforts this congregation’s membership has made in understanding the issues of white supremacy and the history of racism in our country.

Let me tell you what I’ve learned.  I retired about the time this was gaining prominence in UUA circles, so it’s been a new journey for me too.  But as I looked at the Norman Rockwell paintings of the Four Freedoms, I realized that there is not a single face (that I could discern anyhow) of any person of color.  

There was no indication that Black or Brown or Asian people had the same freedoms as white Americans.  So here is some of the information that is the groundwork for affirming and promoting an 8th Principle.

WHY THE UUA (USA)?

Whiteness, and chattel slavery (structural racism) were invented in the US, at the same time that modern Unitarianism and Universalism were being created.

Unitarians originally were largely from the New England European-American elite – often did not treat Native American peoples well, benefitted from slavery, and some were leaders in the Eugenics movement (promoting birth control for people of color because they were seen as inferior.

Some Unitarian and Universalist ministers (more Universalists, since Universalism was more of a working class movement) spoke out against slavery, but we did little as a denomination.  After the Trayvon Martin verdict, many UU ministers said nothing in church

UU’s did a very good job during the Civil Rights Movement, largely at the request of Dr. King, and we deserve to be proud of that.

In the late 60’s a promising movement among Black UUs was supported by the UUA, then de-funded because of a financial crisis, leading to a terrible conflict, after which many African-Americans left the UUA.

There was a long period of silence until the late 80’s and early 90’s, then excellent progress after that for a decade or so, but we have regressed, leading to an incident in which the UUA President resigned over hiring inclusivity issues.

WHY SINGLE OUT RACISM?

At a global level, this would not necessarily make sense…but in the USA, racism stands out.  The two worst crises of the UUA (late 1960’s and now) were both related to race.  Racism in the US stems from chattel slavery, where people were uniquely legally treated as property that could be inherited, for something (skin color) they had no control over.

The UUA has done well with women becoming ministers and leaders (the 7 Principles themselves came out of the Women’s Movement within UUism).

The LGBTQIA+ community is well represented as members, ministers, RE staff, and other leadership in individual congregations and the UUA, and the Welcoming Congregation program has been very effective.  

Some congregations have done a good job of making sure they are accessible to people with disabilities, although many UU spaces are still not fully accessible.

  • WHAT IS BELOVED COMMUNITY?

Beloved Community happens when people of diverse racial, ethnic, educational, class, gender, abilities, sexual orientation backgrounds/identities come together in an interdependent relationship of love, mutual respect, and care that seeks to realize justice within the community and in the broader world.

\WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE ACCOUNTABLE?

White UUs hold themselves accountable to communities of color, to make sure whites do what they say they will do. In practice, that can mean having a People of Color Caucus within congregations, districts, etc., to discern and express needs and concerns to the rest of the community. Black UUs hold each other accountable and help each other see and dismantle signs of internalized racism. We need an effective mechanism or structure to ensure this. Similarly for other oppressions.

The UU Principles were designed to be dynamic, not a fixed creed.  It means we want to always continue to be educating ourselves, exploring truth, and raising our consciousness.  When we get to a new level of understanding and clarity, our structure makes it possible to reflect that.  

UU is the only religion that intentionally builds in that flexibility to acknowledge the importance of ongoing revealed truth.  This happened when environmental awareness reached a critical mass and got added as a 7th Principle (although it also has multicultural relationship implications).  We are approaching a similar critical mass level of awareness with the systemic nature of racism and other oppressions.

The 8th Principle is really just the beginning of action, rather than the ultimate goal.   Many people of color have been attracted by the values and potential of UUism, but their souls have been repeatedly wounded by its whiteness.  Let’s make our actions match our values.  Let’s be a UU movement that truly feeds them.  That would be spiritual wholeness.

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


Benediction:  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 Freedom is a quality that depends on truth, on our rational examination of issues and making rational decisions about them, and on our commitment to our diverse community.  May we not be individuals who insist on OUR freedoms when others’ needs are at stake and may we continue to strive to bring Beloved Community to our nation and ourselves.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.


Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Is PTSD part of the Q(ueer) package?

 I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and how it affects human behaviors as we strive to live with each other in community.  And since June is Pride Month, I'm particularly thinking about how it might relate to the Q community.  I'm not a therapist.  I'm more of a chaplain or counselor in my relationships with Q folks.

Almost every person I know who is part of the Queer universe (asexual, bisexual, homosexual, lesbian, gay, transgender, misgendered, intersex, or any of the other layers of sexual and gender diversity) has some strikingly common characteristics:  intelligence, creativity, talent, strong leadership skills, courage,... and hidden pain from the deep wounds of being different all their lifetimes.

I've talked with teenagers, young adults, and older adults for almost 50 years about gayness, listening to stories of bullying, physical and emotional abuse, denial of true self, fear of discovery, suicidal ideation, dangers of disease, wanting to be honest but scared of the outcome, and all these conversations have led me to understand that many, perhaps most, people in the Queer universe have been hurt badly during their lives.  

It can be hard to overcome the damage done by PTSD experiences, especially when it's buried deep in emotional receptors;  fear and mistrust of those who may inflict further pain can make interpersonal relationships hard to create and maintain.  A certain defensiveness can become a coping strategy, especially when hard work does not appear to be appreciated. Healing occurs through deliberate effort, often therapy, and deliberate behavior changes.

I've noticed that in groups of people, like a organization's board or other community agency involved in doing good work in the world,  the great creativity and leadership skills in such a group tend to produce many different takes on how things should be done.  

Hard-won, sometimes fragile self-esteem can make it hard to find common ground when ideas clash.  People take sides and a schism can emerge, damaging the effectiveness of whatever project is under consideration.  Without a way to resolve the conflict, fears and defensiveness define the way forward.

But it often isn't really forward, it's backwards, because some good ideas aren't heard or accepted and frustration with each other delays the planning of an event or making decisions.  And the work stalls, the feelings are negative, and the damage to a desirable goal is considerable, to say nothing of the scabs pulled off of old wounds.

Sometimes the best next step is to wait till feelings cool and then test the waters.  Often, though, an opportunity for all to vent feelings of anger and disappointment, as well as the fear that cherished projects will fall apart, is a better option, if there is a trusted, neutral person to listen and to reflect what they are hearing, in a safe space.


Sunday, June 13, 2021

The ABC's of Q


The ABC’s of Q

There are some new letters in the Q alphabet, along with a whole lot

 of new understandings of gender identity and sexual attraction.  Most of us are probably familiar with the standard acronym LGBT and many are likely acquainted with the additional letters of Q and I (queer and intersex).  We’ve become more comfortable with the changes emerging in the language of sexual and gender diversity:  

CISgender, for example, means someone whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth and we tend to automatically think of other humans falling mostly within that definition.  So it has been really important that, as the term “homosexual” began to feel pejorative and limited, the non-CIS population of our world has expanded to include layers of sexual and gender identity that have been previously unknown except to those who inhabit those identities.

According to a recent NYT article, there’s pansexual, someone attracted to people of all gender identities; demisexual, someone who does not experience sexual attraction except to someone with whom they have a strong emotional connection; and graysexual, someone who occasionally experiences sexual attraction but usually does not, so it’s a gray area.  

We are getting more comfortable with the knowledge that many people identify neither as male nor female but see themselves outside the gender binary, and call themselves Nonbinary.  They may also use the term genderqueer, exhibiting both traditionally masculine and feminine qualities or neither.  

Gender fluid is a term used by people whose identity shifts or fluctuates.  Gender neutral describes someone who prefers “they” as their singular pronoun, not described by a specific gender.  The Pride Rainbow refracts into a beautiful panorama of color and inclusion.

There’s one more letter in the acronym and that’s A.  I’ve previously thought of it as signifying Ally and Advocate, but as I age and get ever nearer to my 80th birthday, I realize that gradually I have let go of my search for a sexual partner and I have become comfortably Asexual, a person who experiences little or no sexual attraction—to anyone.  

I am eager to give and to receive love but not sexual love.  It’s different from celibacy, which is a discipline sometimes required by religious vows; it is an understanding that I am attracted to people for nonsexual reasons, and this is both a physical and an emotional condition. 

It is also a huge relief to know that this is normal!  Yes, I have formerly lived a life as Ms. Kitty, an eager ciswoman attracted to men, but now I want friends, not lovers.

Monday, April 05, 2021

 RISE AGAIN, RISE AGAIN:  Transformation and Tragedy

Rev. Kit Ketcham

Easter, April 4, 2021

It’s been 13 months since the world, our nation, our states, our counties, our towns, our selves were forced into lockdown and isolation, fearful for our own lives and those of our families and friends.  Life turned on a dime---or was it a molecule? 

 For the past year plus, we have contended with all manner of tragedy:  not only disease but also wildfires, landslides, floods, weather events that changed the landscape and destroyed homes and forests, multiple deaths, including mass murders, unfamiliar ways of being in the world with masks, no hugging, no touching, no crowds, and an overlying dread of “what will happen next” with an unstable and cruel federal government.

At the same time, however, we have participated in ongoing resistance to cruel and inhumane treatment of our fellow citizens.  Fueled by unjust laws, occasions of police brutality, neo-nazi threats and actions, our resistance has reflected the undying thread of hope and commitment to a life that offers love and justice to all living beings, to our precious Earth, and enhances our relationships with each other and with the land.

 And here we are at Easter, with its myriad rituals of celebration and dedication.  I ran over in my mind all the various things I think of when I think about Easter:  bunnies, eggs, the vernal equinox, Passover, Holi, death, resurrection, flowers, springtime, Ramadan, Jesus.

If you were a little kid in a traditional Christian Sunday School, like me, cue the old song: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” 

You may have noticed that in Unitarian Universalism, we include Christianity as one of our sources but only one of several, even though many of us grew up as Christians in churches that ranged from fundamentalist to progressive, and our UU principles are remarkably similar to the teachings of Jesus.

I think of myself as a UU Christian and am glad for the gentle guidance of Sunday School teachers of my childhood and youth, though when I went to college and learned from professors who were clearly better informed than those kindly women and men, I learned that there was no one-size-fits-all Christianity and gave myself permission to find the version that fit me best.

Unitarian Universalism presented me with the opportunity to use my skills and commitment---in social justice work, in songs and stories that reflected my values rather than tired old “washed in the blood” theology, and in a way of presenting our UU faith not by proselytizing but by attraction---attraction to a religious faith that honors science and critical thinking, reaching out to a world that sought love and justice in religion, not cruel rejection of The Other, those who were different---in race, in sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, the many ways religion has historically wounded those looking for a safe place to be their real selves.

One of those gifts of UUism has been the opportunity for me to find spiritual meaning and inspiration in a wide array of stories, songs, poetry, the arts, the outpouring of creative expression of an inner life, an inner commitment to say to the world, “this is important!  Listen, watch, sing, pray in these ways.  Let yourself dream, understand, create your own spirituality and meaningful life out of your own understandings and ingenuity.”

And I believe that it is my strong Unitarian Universalist faith that has made this past year a growing time for me, because I was able to see the contrast between the corruption and failures of our harsh government’s policies and the hopeful, justice-seeking practices of a nation of people who craved leaders who valued human life more than riches, whose intent was to help, rather than to punish or to narrow opportunities for all citizens.

This faith has helped me weather the loneliness and frustration of isolation, presented opportunities to be creative in new ways, and to reach out in small ways to connect with others safely.  Though I was inactive here at PUUF for much of this past year, it has been a blessing for me to return as a member of this Fellowship and to offer support to this beloved community of friends.

But back to Easter.  One of the things that has been important to me, and perhaps to you as well, is the overriding knowledge that we have been through an oppressive and dark time, and as the clouds begin to lift, as vaccines have become available, as we stretch out our arms to each other, many of us don’t quite know what to do.  

We want to return to normal, but what, under these circumstances, is normal?  As a congregation, we are diverse in our spiritual and religious lives.  We are definitely NOT one size fits all people. And we are all affected by PTTSD==post-trumptraumatic stress disorder.

It used to be that the old Easter songs—Up From the Grave He Arose—and others of that ilk gave me a certain thrill.  It wasn’t so much the words (you have to translate pretty hard to turn that hymn into something more meaningful to a UU Christian heretic like me), but the thrilling chorus “He arose, he arose, Hallelujah” was always exciting to sing.

As a minister, I’ve dinked around on Easter with other hymns of the season, but my taste really runs more to the folk genre, the songs that challenge us to think about the injustice in the world, the plight of people who are cheated out of a good life by racism or ableism or homophobia or other subtle and not so subtle oppressions.

Listening to the music that came out of the Pete Seeger era and the stories that accompanied those songs, I found that many songs told a story of moral courage, of resurrection and rebirth, of overcoming despair and deprivation, some of them tied to words about God or Jesus but many of them simply telling a story with an outcome that was triumphant.

And isn’t that what Easter is all about?  Buried bulbs turn into daffodils and hyacinths, gnarled old trees produce abundant blossoms, the vernal equinox signals the spring season, eggs and bunnies represent the flourishing of new life.

A long time ago, probably in Denver at one of the many folk jams I attended in those days, I heard a song I really liked.  It was about a fishing boat off the shores of one of the Canadian provinces, a vessel that hit a rock and went down.  I want you to hear it, so I’ve arranged for us to listen to a song that has been meaningful to me for a long time and now even more as I think about its being an allegory for the past few years.

It’s called The Mary Ellen Carter and it has come to mean more to me than just a fishing boat that sank.  See what you think.  We can talk about it in our social time, if you wish.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8uirXFig0IQ&ab_channel=AlS 

I learned this song some time ago, before the days when our nation was starting to deal with the aftereffects of governments that seemed bent on changing our system of self-governance to a system of corporate domination.  We may not have fully recognized its toxicity until 2016 when it began in earnest to poison and kill.

But a time of isolation and social deprivation and distance has made it possible to consider the stories we heard of kindness and connection, the ways people were rising and have always risen during times of crisis.   We and all our global neighbors were living through the same experience and it had quite a leveling effect.

We noticed kindness, we shouted down injustice, we read about what it has meant to be Black, to be Brown or Asian, to be disabled and mocked by a tone-deaf president, to be banned from crossing US borders, detained for minor reasons, as was our friend Ruben Perez.  

To be unprotected as a deadly virus roamed the planet, killing millions of helpless people and here in our country, killing over a half-million of our friends, our grandparents and parents, our children, our young adults, and ourselves as well as many of the health workers who came to serve the ill, risking their own wellbeing.  We have been in mourning for a long time and for a lot of reasons.

Fueled by our anger at the corruption revealed by investigations and arrests, livid that our democracy should be so attacked by those who had for a generation or more enriched the rich, oppressed the poor, and professed a variation of Christianity that had nothing to do with the teachings of the prophet Jesus and had everything to do with corruption and greed.

We resisted, we pushed back, we organized, we marched.  We learned about the Black and Brown and Asian people who were suffering under the hammer of white supremacy and we learned how we colluded with it unwittingly.  We read about Caste and the works of James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Cesar Chavez, and other writers who made clear the agony and the anger which were the product of that hammer of whiteness.

And we read and watched stories of kindness, of people reaching out to help those struggling, of triumph over loss and fear, of rising despite the obstacles we faced.  We got used to Zoom meetings, went through a lot of dry eye meds as we stared at screens, rejoiced with each other as vaccines became available and more and more of us were fully protected.

We connected with friends on email, on Facetime, on Facebook and Messenger, and some of us reconnected with friends from whom we had been estranged.  Families who lived far apart from other members checked in weekly rather than yearly.  We celebrated birthdays and holidays in new ways.  We stayed home and got creative with cooking or sewing or painting or writing.  We watched the birds.  We walked a lot.

We watched the news and rejoiced as a new federal administration took the reins of a weakened democracy and began to rebuild the damaged pillars of our national life.

We rose and we continue to rise. We celebrate Easter this year with a new sense of resurrection, even with all the deaths that have taken our loved ones away.  We rise. 

So maybe the real message of this time of year is simply this:  Rise Again, Rise again, though your heart it be broken or life about to end.

Rise Again, after four years of watching our precious democracy chopped away at by greed and corruption and the relief of finding leaders with compassion and a determination to make real democracy live again.

Rise Again, through the confusion and fear and sorrow of not knowing who you are and lifted up by kindness, finding possible joy and truth beyond the fear.

Maya Angelou closes her epic poem “Still I Rise” in this way:

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise.

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

BENEDICTION:  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 message of Easter is of Rising Again, and again, and again, and helping our friends and neighbors Rise with us.  May we offer always kindness instead of meanness and may our strength make others’ lives easier.   Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.