Archive for February, 2013

How Spirit Mingles

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on February 10th 2013.)

Even the great Persian poet and Sufi mystic, Jalal ad-Din Muhammed Rumi, had to admit that mere language is sometimes incapable of expressing all that can be felt and experienced and dreamed.  “I am out of words,” he wrote, “to describe how spirit mingles in this marriage.”  And so composer Eric Whitacre’s setting of Rumi’s poem ends without words, just sound.

I’m not nearly so good a mystic, though.  Plus, I have almost a whole sermon still to go, and I don’t think that simply humming for fifteen or twenty minutes would cut it.

Marriage is, I think, one of those things that we, as a society, like to think we understand — or, at least, we like to think we have the theory figured out.  Even if that were really true, of course, the difference between theory and practice still provides an awful lot of fodder for television sit-coms.

And if there’s anyone who really does understand marriage, surely, we tell ourselves, it’s our religious professionals: priests, pastors, and the like.  Never mind that those of us called to the life of ministry have the same foibles and failings as the rest of the general population.

Still, the Unitarian Universalist Association recognizes that the ministers it credentials need to be prepared in at least the rudiments of counseling, even if that’s only sufficient to be able to figure out enough of what’s going on to be able to make a reasonable referral to a professional counselor or therapist.  And in recent years the UUA has taken the additional step of requiring credentialed ministers to have some level of competency in matters of sexual health, sexual boundaries and sexual justice.

As the requirements for credentialing explain, would-be ministers “are expected to be knowledgeable about sexuality issues in ministry, including sexuality education, LGBTQI issues, sexuality concerns of adults and adolescents for pastoral care, and public witness.  Candidates are expected to demonstrate a commitment to sexual justice in our Association and in society.”

This requirement was added shortly after I had been credentialed, so I made up for that recently by taking a course on “Sexuality Issues for Religious Professionals”.  This was offered during the Fall by an organization called the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing.  These days, actually, they shorten their name to the Religious Institute, but their mission is the same: “to change the way America understands the relationship of sexuality and religion.”

Now since I’m going to be using the word “sexuality” quite a lot in the next minute or two, I need to explain what is mean by it.  It’s actually a very broad term that covers a lot of our identity as human beings.  That’s because sexuality is more than just sexual behavior and generally includes our understandings of our gender, our sexual orientation, our relationships with others, and the ways in which we express and respond to intimacy.  There’s agreement amongst professionals from the Surgeon General to the World Health Organization, in fact, that human sexuality is just as much about psychology as it is about physiology, just as much about the mental and the spiritual as it is about the physical, and just as much about culture as it is about biology.  When we run the “Our Whole Lives” program for our middle-schoolers and others, for instance, we’re not doing sex education so much as sexuality education.

So, under the leadership of Debra Haffner, who is both a sexuality educator and a Unitarian Universalist minister, the Religious Institute is “a multifaith organization dedicated to sexual health, education and justice in faith communities and society.”  It works, for instance, with “clergy, religious educators, theologians, ethicists and other religious leaders committed to sexual justice.”  It also works with lay people “who share a commitment to comprehensive sexuality education, to reproductive justice, and to the full inclusion of women and LGBT persons in congregational life and society.”  And as well as “helping congregations, seminaries, and denominations to become sexually healthy faith communities”, the Religious Institute is committed to “educating the public and policy-makers about a progressive religious vision of sexual morality, justice, and healing.

As you can imagine, there was a lot for us to cover in a course on “Sexuality Issues for Religious Professionals”, and much of it concerned the work of being a minister in a congregation, from preaching on these issues and doing pastoral care around them, to providing LGBT ministries and engaging in public witness.  Now at the beginning of the course, we each took an assessment about the various areas we were going to cover.  We took the assessment again at the end, with the intention being, of course, to recognize what we had learned.  So we assessed ourselves, for example, on “theological reflection regarding the integration of sexuality and spirituality”, on familiarity with “sacred texts and theological affirmations of sexuality”, on “preaching about sexuality-related issues” and on “speaking out for sexual justice”.

One of the course’s modules, in fact, specifically asked about how we might integrate some of what we were learning into our sermons and services.  I knew that I was going to be here in the pulpit the Sunday before Valentine’s Day, so I looked back at what I’d done in previous years.  Last year, for instance, I shared the sermon with a member of the congregation who has faced and continues to face discrimination due to her sexual orientation; we described how the UUFP became a Welcoming Congregation and we talked about the importance of continuing to be intentionally inclusive of LGBTQ people in congregational life.  And the year before, I preached on how so many Unitarian Universalists have taken up the cause of marriage equality, describing my own history of involvement and explaining why the Virginia Tourism Authority’s slogan that “Virginia is for Lovers” is a flat-out lie.

Now looking back, I realized that, in these and other services, I have often picked the low-hanging fruit of criticizing many of the arguments against marriage equality and LGBTQ rights.  Frankly, many of those arguments are so absurd that it’s not only easy to ridicule them, but doing so is a easy way to add humor into a sermon, too.

For instance, the Los Angeles Times reported just a couple of weeks ago that the lawyers defending both the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8 before the Supreme Court are now trying to make the case that marriage should be limited to opposite-sex couples given, in their words, “the undeniable and distinct tendency of opposite-sex relationships to produce unplanned and unintended pregnancies.”  The lawyers have apparently realized that homophobic arguments against same-sex marriage aren’t going to do them much good — November’s victories in favor of LGBTQ rights at the ballot boxes of Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington show that that ship has sailed — so they’re reduced to claiming that hetero couples need marriage — in other words they need to be bribed by over a thousand federal statutory provisions that give special benefits, rights and privileges to married couples — or else they’ll go around breeding all over the place.  When gays and lesbians want to have children, one of the lawyers claims, “substantial advance planning is required”, so society only really needs the institution of opposite-sex marriage to protect itself against the rest of us engaging in wanton procreation.

Good grief.

So, rather than picking apart the arguments against marriage equality, I want to make a case for marriage equality.  And that, of course, means trying to figure out what marriage is.  It means, since I am a religious professional, figuring out my theology of marriage.

Some places are more helpful starting points than others.  The Bible, for instance, is singularly unhelpful.  Amongst its many different stories, the Bible describes at least eight different forms of marriage in families.  And one of the more common Biblical forms of marriage consists of a man and his wives — plural — and, if those aren’t enough, some concubines, too.

Zach Wahls’ testimony to the Iowa Legislature is rather more helpful.  “[Our] sense of family,” he explained, “comes from the commitment we make to each other to work through the hard times so we can enjoy the good ones.  It comes from the love that binds us.  That’s what makes a family.”

I don’t think it’s been particularly well publicized, in amongst all of the newpaper and television interviews that took place after his testimony, but Wahls is a lifelong Unitarian Universalist.  In an article published in UU World about his experience testifying to the Iowa Legislature, he explains the role his faith played.  His church in Iowa City, by the way, became a Welcoming Congregation in the mid 1990s, when he was only a toddler.  Wahls says the religious education program there taught him about thinking outside the box, about putting others before himself, and about religious pluralism.  More important than these, however, were the Unitarian Universalist values that guided that religious education program, and thus shaped him, too.  “It was these values and these lessons,” he explained in his UU World article, “that led me to speak before the Iowa House Judiciary Committee on that snowy January night.  They stilled my shaking hands and gave tenor to my breaking voice.  They shaped my words and my character and where I go from here.”

So whenever we are tempted to complain about how religion is so often used to support bigotry and prejudice, I want us to remember Zach Wahls’ testimony and know that religion is also a powerful motivator for working for justice, for ending exclusion and discrimination.

Take Unitarian Universalism as such a religion, for instance.  It’s not a religion that is based on creed but a religion based on covenant.  We do not require people to believe certain things or to not believe other certain things in order to become members.  Rather, we ask them to join with us in offering a safe place for spiritual diversity and individual growth through lifelong religious education and service to the wider community.  Nor do we have some select group of church elders issuing dogmatic statements to which we must all assent.  Rather, we welcome anyone who shares our values into the work of making this congregation a spiritual home for our common endeavor.

Now accepting the fact that, given our different life experiences, we inevitably believe different things, and even as we encourage each person to figure out what it is they believe for themselves, we nevertheless recognize that something holds us together as a community.  That “something” is covenant.  It can take many different forms in many different words, but at the heart of covenant is a commitment to speak and to act in ways that are truthful, reasonable and kind, and a promise to one another than when we fail to keep that commitment, we give each other permission to begin again in love.

We often think of a covenant as a set of promises that we make to one another, and for the most part that’s the case.  Covenants are often created as lists of promises to behave in certain ways and to not behave in other certain ways.  Most of our Fellowship Circles, for instance, create covenants for themselves that include something about keeping confidentiality within the group.  “What happens in the Caum Room stays in the Caum Room,” a covenant might say.  For Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams, though, that wasn’t quite enough.

For Adams, something larger than the people making promises to one another was also required.  “The people’s covenant is a covenant with the essential character and intention of reality,” he wrote.  “It is not merely a covenant between human beings; it is a covenant between human beings in the face of reality.  […]  The covenant is with the creative, sustaining, commanding, judging, transforming power.

Now what he means by this is, I think, open to interpretation.  Someone who believes in the typical idea of a personal God would say that Adams is talking about God.  Others, and probably many of today’s Unitarian Universalists, would say that Adams was talking about the Universe itself.  I’m less interested in the various possible theological interpretations, though, than I am in how it’s implemented.  After all, in most of those theological interpretations, it’s pretty hard to say how, exactly, “the face of reality” or God or the Universe is actually, actively involved in the covenant-making process.  If it was easy to identify that involvement, frankly, there’d only be one intepretation because we’d all be in agreement.

So while we might be content with Adams’ metaphysics, when it comes to actual practice we usually invite human surrogates to stand in for God or the Universe or whatever Adams meant by “the creative, sustaining, commanding, judging, transforming power.”  And we do that, I have come to believe, so that we can be certain there are witnesses to the covenant, particularly in those cases where we think the covenant has some special significance.

And that brings me back to marriage.

In every wedding I perform, my opening words include some sort of greeting to everyone else who is present.  And, as part of that greeting, I specifically note that friends and family are not just there to enjoy a happy occasion, but to bear witness to the commitment, to the covenant that is about to be made.  Because that’s really what a wedding is: it’s the making of a covenant.  And here’s the mystery, the open secret that the people who have enshrined discrimination in laws saying who can and cannot get married simply don’t understand: the marriage doesn’t happen because the officiant utters those famous words, “by the power vested in me by the Commonweath of Virginia blah blah blah”; no, the marriage actually happens when the vows are made and when the rings are exchanged.  It’s the vows and the rings that make real the covenant of marriage, “a covenant between human beings in the face of reality.”  The rest is bureaucracy.

Now that’s not to say that the thousand federal statutory provisions that give particular benefits, rights and privileges to married couples don’t matter, because they do.  And that’s not to say that a covenantal theology of marriage makes easy the hard work, the soul work of marriage, because it doesn’t.  But that is to say that the gender identity and sexual orientation of the individuals getting married is utterly irrelevant.  If two people — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or hetero — are willing to make that commitment to speak and act in ways that are truthful, reasonable and kind, to promise to one another that, when they inevitably fail to live up that commitment, they will try to begin again in love, then their marriage ought to be equally entitled to the same benefits, rights and privileges, regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation.  It’s love that makes a family, no matter how either church or state may try to legislate it otherwise.

The tide has turned, my friends.  A majority of Americans support marriage equality.  And while recognition of the legitimacy of same-sex marriage at the state level had only before taken place in the courts or in legislatures, and while state ballot initiatives have been used repeatedly in the last couple of decades to codify homophobia, last November’s voters in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington simultaneously chose equality over discrimination.  It really is just a matter of time until the twenty-first century comes to Virginia, too.

So may it be.

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A Hampton Roads UU Revival!

There’s been a lot of media coverage recently about the “nones”, the growing numbers of people, particularly amongst the younger generations, who are not affiliated with any religion.  Given the changing demographics of our nation, that’s not really surprising.

For when the “nones” reject religion, they’re rejecting rigid hierarchies that tell people what to believe, they’re rejecting gender roles that demean women in order to protect men’s egos, they’re rejecting antiquated dogmatism that’s at odds with what they know about the world, and they’re rejecting all manner of bigotry against their lesbian and gay friends, their multiracial friends, their Muslim friends.

And yet at the same time that we’re witnessing the rise of the religiously unaffiliated, Unitarian Universalist congregations are also growing.  And that’s because Unitarian Universalism rejects those rigid hierarchies and gender roles, the antiquated dogmatism and all manner of bigotry, too.

But don’t take my word for it!  You have an excellent opportunity later this month to see for yourself.

On Sunday February 24th, the Fellowship of Campus Unitarian Universalist Students (FOCUUS) at Christopher Newport University are hosting a worship service that will revive, refresh and re-energize our spirits.  There’ll be fantastic music, combining the choirs and musicians of the Unitarian Universalist congregations of Newport News, Williamsburg and Norfolk, and we’ll hear uplifting messages for all ages.  Starting at 11am in the David Student Union Ballroom at CNU, we invite you to join us to sing, to listen, to laugh, to give and to worship with us, as we build our common vision of a world where the circle of love is drawn ever wider.

For our Unitarian Universalist congregations in Hampton Roads, FOCUUS is bringing us together so that we can recommit to a faith that is radically inclusive, spiritually alive and justice centered.

Ours is, first of all, a religion that asks you to bring your whole self into the Beloved Community — your heart, your soul, your mind and your body — and whoever you are, whatever your spiritual path, whomever you love, wherever you are on your journey, you are welcome.

And ours is a religion that nurtures rather than hinders spirituality, recognizing our individual struggles with the mystery of being and yet affirming that we can still walk together in the ways of love, inviting the spirit to move in our hands and give life the shape of justice.

And ours is a religion that has long sought to grow the soul of humanity, from fighting for the abolition of slavery to campaigning for women’s voting rights, from protesting economic injustice to demanding same-sex marriage equality.

For residents throughout Tidewater, then, FOCUUS along with the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula, the Williamsburg Unitarian Universalists and the Unitarian Church of Norfolk invite you to gauge the boldness of these religious aspirations for yourself.  Whether you consider yourself one of the “nones” or a spiritual seeker or a recovering church-goer or a parent wanting helpful rather than hurtful religious education for your child, we invite you to be a part of drawing the circle of love and life and hope ever wider.

So we warmly welcome you to join us on February 24th, at 11am in the Ballroom of CNU’s David Student Union, to revive, refresh and re-energize our commitment to the promise of religious community: that we are different people with different life experiences and different understandings of the world and our place in it, and yet we can nonetheless come together in a boldly shared endeavor to grow the Beloved Community not only for ourselves but for our whole world.

Let us live the promise of people coming together in common spirit, learning from one another, helping one another, sharing with one another.  Let us bring our open minds, our loving hearts and our helping hands together and rediscover faith set free from fear.

Drawing the Circle Wide

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The Pilot Light of the Soul

During his ordination examination, a Presbyterian seminary student was being questioned by an elderly and very conservative minister.  One of the exam questions was: “Do you believe in the Doctrine of the Total Depravity of the Human Soul?”  The student’s immediate smiling reply was: “Yes, but I find it very difficult to live up to!”

When the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association consolidated in 1961 to form the Unitarian Universalist Association, they merged in primarily administrative and organizational ways, without much discussion about theology.  The consolidation made sense, of course, because both religions were on similar pages theologically, each having evolved beyond their Christian origins, but there were still differences, given those origins.

The Universalists had emerged from Christianity around the central belief in universal salvation: that God so loves every soul that everybody is (ultimately) admitted to heaven.  As Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou put it, “Your child has fallen into the mud, and his body and garments are defiled.  You wash him and array him in clean robes.  The question is, do you love your child because you washed him or did you wash him because you love him?”

The Unitarians had also emerged from Christianity, with their central belief being in the humanity (rather than divinity) of Jesus.  As such, Jesus was not somebody to worship so much as someone to emulate.  Indeed, the Unitarians put their hopes for the afterlife in “salvation by character”, that heaven must first be attained as an internal state of the soul, as inward goodness.

As Thomas Starr King — the Universalist and Unitarian minister who is credited with preserving California within the Union during the Civil War — drew the distinction, “The Universalists believe that God is too good to damn them, whereas the Unitarians believe they are too good to be damned!”

Five decades after the consolidation that formed the UUA, today’s Unitarian Universalists are most often in line with the classical Unitarian position: even if we might slip up from time to time, we believe that people are intrinsically good.  This can be empowering, but it can also come across as too optimistic: we’re right to emphasize the inherent worth and dignity of all people, but we can’t forget to acknowledge real brokenness and pain and how easy it is for us to cause brokenness and pain.

I know a Lutheran minister who says she tried Unitarian Universalism but found that our “high opinion of humans” didn’t fit with her experience.  “People are flawed,” she says.  Whereas classical Unitarianism has a high opinion of the human being — what is known theologically as a high anthropology — Lutheranism has a low opinion — a low anthropology — such that we are incapable of contributing to our own salvation and only through divine grace have any hope of being saved.

However, to pit Unitarianism’s high anthropology against Lutheranism’s low anthropology is to set up a false dichotomy, for Universalism offers a third way.  Arguing whether humans are intrinsically good or intrinsically bad is to miss the more important point: we are intrinsically human.  Yes, Unitarian Universalism affirms the inherent worth and dignity of all people, but that doesn’t mean we’re perfect, that we never screw up.  Rather, it’s a call to hold ourselves and one another accountable for our actions.

Another way of thinking about this is that we each have a spark of the divine within us.  It’s the pilot light of the soul.  All of us, if we are being honest, are broken in some way, and sometimes — due to illness or terrible circumstances or simply the stress of today’s world — the fire of love and compassion and all that is good within us stutters or even goes out.  But the pilot light of the soul remains, ready to re-ignite only if we clean away the debris by holding ourselves accountable for our actions, only if we reset the system by earning forgiveness, and only if we provide enough fuel by treating ourselves and one another with tenderness.

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