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Go Vote!

“We covenant to affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.”
Fifth Principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association

"I Voted" sticker with flaming chalice pinThe congregation I serve makes its major decisions by voting.  As a church belonging to one of the faiths descended from the early American congregationalists, we elect our own officers, we set our own budget and we vote to call our own ministers.  One of the primary benefits of membership in the congregation, in fact, is the right to vote on such matters, though we do not exclude sympathetic non-members from discussing the issues, too.  But it is a unique responsibility of membership to vote, to contribute in this and other ways to the collective wisdom of our decision-making.

We trace this tradition of congregational self-determination back almost four hundred years.  Indeed, with the rejection of religious hierarchy — rejecting both the king of England as the head of the church and the bishops as its officers — more than a hundred years before the United States declared their independence, the congregationalists were trying out democracy long before the country as a whole embarked on its similarly bold endeavor.  Liberty was the watchword in both cases, but for the churches it was specifically the freedom of mutual love.

After all, there is more to democracy than simply voting.  Being engaged participants, whether as members or as citizens, is essential.  And simply voting on an issue according to majority rule needs to be accompanied by a commitment on everybody’s part to stay in relationship, or else risk succumbing to divisiveness.  It is a fact of life that there will always be differences of opinion, so the real question is not which opinion is more popular, but how to live and work together before and after the vote.  The right to participate in shared decision-making is inseparable from shared responsibility for the health of the community, whether that community is one congregation or a whole country.

This makes efforts to rig elections all the more distressing.  I’m not talking about so-called voter fraud, which like other boogie men doesn’t actually exist.  Apply some reasonable common sense to the idea of repeated visits to a polling station while pretending to be a different person each time and it is clear that such a scheme would have little impact but require lots of effort and risk.  On the other hand, redrawing district lines to segregate certain voters or passing laws to prevent certain people from being able to vote at all are clearly ways to skew elections that, for all that they have the appearance of legality, are only sophisticated forms of cheating.  And since they inevitably target marginalized individuals — including women, people of color and poor people — they are also unjust and immoral.

We are already saturated with coverage of the various presidential campaigns in anticipation of next year’s elections, but this year’s elections — today’s elections, in fact — are just as important.  Candidates for national office often begin at the local or state level, working their way up as their political careers gain momentum.  Ensuring that we have capable officials who truly represent the will of the people, rather than special interests with deep pockets, begins — and is most critical — in so-called off-year elections.

For all those people who can’t vote or are prevented from voting, each of us who can do so should embrace with joy and gratitude the right and the responsibility to vote.  The purpose of an election is indeed to pick a winner, but when participation is low, whether due to voter apathy or deliberate disenfranchisement, then we all lose.

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Letter to the Editor, February 18th 2014

(UPDATE: This was published in the letters section of the February 23rd issue.)

To the Editor, Daily Press:

Sunday’s article about Judge Wright Allen once again affirms the old canard that scripture and church doctrine are opposed to any form of marriage but that between one man and one woman.

But this isn’t just a duck, but a fish, too.

Individual religious beliefs may motivate how we act as individuals — as was the case for myself and twenty-three other people of faith when we gathered at the Newport News Circuit Court on Valentine’s Day to witness for marriage equality — but it’s a red herring to imply that religion should determine how our society should act.

Wright Allen is a judge of the law, which in the United States is defined not by the Bible but by the Constitution.

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Witness for LOVE!

When I officiate at a wedding, I follow the couples’ exchange of vows and rings by speaking these words.

No single event marks a marriage.  A marriage is the freely chosen union of two individuals.  It is both culmination and commencement of a lifetime of love.  Through the statement of common spirit and the exchange of rings, you have done what in truth neither state nor church can do: you have joined yourselves in a shared destiny.

I believe in the truth of those words regardless of the gender identities of the couple getting married.  So I would like to be able to speak them at any two individuals’ wedding and know that they will not be treated any differently because of who they love.  For there’s no good reason why every loving couple choosing to be united in marriage shouldn’t enjoy the same privileges and legal benefits presently accorded only to heterosexual couples.

That’s why I’m joining with People of Faith for Equality in Virginia which is organizing public witness events at courthouses all across the state on February 14th.  We’ll hold a “Witness for LOVE!” this Valentine’s Day, standing up for the right of all loving couples to marry and demanding that marriage equality be recognized under Virginia law.Circuit Courthouses in Chesapeake (12 noon), Hampton (Time TBD), Newport News (12 noon), Norfolk (12 noon), Portsmouth (Time TBD), Virginia Beach (Time TBD), Williamsburg (12 noon)

When it seems that religion is so often reported as supporting bigotry and prejudice, it’s important to remember that religion actually gives us a powerful voice for justice, for ending exclusion and discrimination.

For example, marriage is a particular form of covenant, something for which there’s a well developed theology.  A covenant can take different forms using different words, but each represents a commitment to speak and to act in ways that are truthful, reasonable and kind; implicit is a promise that when we fall short on that commitment, we give each other permission to begin again in love.

Theologian James Luther Adams noted, however, that something larger than the people making such a commitment to one another is also involved.  “The people’s covenant is a covenant with the essential character and intention of reality,” he declared.  “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.”

People and their religions can understand that power in different ways, so when it comes to the actual practice of covenant we may invite other people to stand in as human representatives.  We do that so that we can be certain there are witnesses, particularly in those cases when we think the covenant has special significance.

So in every wedding I perform, I greet the assembled family and friends not just as participants in a happy occasion, but as witnesess to the covenant that is about to be made.  And that’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: a marriage doesn’t happen because the officiant utters that famous phrase, “by the power vested in me by the Commonweath of Virginia”; no, the marriage happens when the vows are made and the rings exchanged.  That’s what makes real the covenant of marriage, “a covenant between human beings in the face of reality.”  The rest is bureaucracy.

That’s not to say that the thousand legal provisions that give particular benefits, rights and privileges to married couples don’t matter, because they do.  And it’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 it 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 solemn commitment to speak and act in ways that are truthful, reasonable and kind, to promise one another that, when they inevitably fall short, they may begin again in love, then their marriage has equal claim to those same benefits, rights and privileges.  It’s love that makes a family, no matter how either church or state may try to legislate it otherwise.

And that’s why, this Valentine’s Day, I shall be a Witness for LOVE!, joining with progressive people of faith calling for marriage equality in Virginia.

Witness for LOVE!

Witness for LOVE!

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Freedom from Fear

Franklin D. Roosevelt concluded his 1941 State of the Union address by describing four universal freedoms that, as the right of all people, justified American involvement in the Second World War.  When it came to the fourth freedom, “freedom from fear”, Roosevelt said more than he did for the first three freedoms — “freedom of speech and expression”, “freedom of worship” and “freedom from want” — making the case for U.S. military intervention in Europe as a means to the goal of “a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.”

This is a dream that still awaits realization.  Universalizing Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms beyond the challenges of his time, though, freedom from fear continues to be the most critical of the Four Freedoms, something that we would do well to demand in our own time.  Enshrining freedom of speech and freedom of worship in the Constitution does little good if people are afraid to enjoy those freedoms.  Even freedom from want isn’t possible if people are afraid to grasp the opportunities and securities that are their rights as basic expectations of democracy.

That’s a point that has been part of the good news of Unitarian Universalism for a long time.  There are, for instance, a hundred or more references to freedom in our primary hymn book, Singing the Living Tradition.  There are even whole sections of both hymns and readings under the title of “freedom”!  There are many references to fear in that hymnal, too, but most of them are about overcoming fear, whether that’s through truth or love or service or fellowship.  And in the newer book, one of my favorite new hymns, Jason Shelton’s “The Fire of Commitment”, calls us “into faith set free from fear.”

In this, we Unitarian Universalists really are living the counter-culturalism we claim.  In some of my sermons I criticize the commercial media that, if it’s not trying to sucker us into buying stuff we don’t need, seems to thrive on making us afraid.  Actually those functions go hand-in-hand.  It’s almost laughable how often some so-called “news” segment on television concludes with an outrageous statement such as “Something in your kitchen could be killing you right now!”  Apparently the assumption is that you’ll sit through as many commercials as can be fit in before it is finally revealed that you probably shouldn’t drink dish soap.

Part of the Unitarian Universalist message of freedom, however, is that we don’t need to live in fear.  We don’t need to live in fear of hell or in fear of orthodoxy.  We don’t need to live in fear of the world around us or in fear of our own bodies.  We don’t need to live in fear of being judged for being ourselves or for having questions.  We don’t need to live in fear of not being perfect when perfection is an impossibility.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more it makes sense that the opposite of freedom isn’t captivity or imprisonment or regulation; no, the opposite of freedom is fear.  So to speak of “freedom from fear” is to be redundant.  To speak of “freedom of speech” also includes not being afraid to speak.  To speak of “freedom of religion” also includes not being afraid to think about and ask questions about religion.  To speak of “freedom from want” also includes not being afraid to demand that one of the priorities of the wealthiest nation on Earth be that everyone have access to the basic necessities of life.

As we go about our lives in a world that strives toward peace, liberty and justice like a seedling strives for the Sun, let us cultivate a faith that rises above fear, seeking the wisdom of our heritage and values, seeking the courage to free ourselves from the fear that closes doors, and resolving to offer the world a hope so keen that our souls may hear and our hearts may see.

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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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What Really Matters

“Joy and woe are woven fine, A clothing for the soul divine.”
— from “Auguries of Innocence” (1803) by William Blake

July 19th will be a red letter day on my calendar for the rest of my life, for it was the day on which my daughter was born.  I shall always remember her first cries as she was delivered: I held tight to my wife’s hand and the world stood still in that moment.  Much later, after a long day in the hospital, busier than any we had known in a long time, and having shared our happy news with family and friends, my wife and I finally drifted off to sleep, tired but filled with joy for this new life.

Then, on July 20th, the new day woke us with unhappy news.  We noticed that some of our friends had posted on Facebook their reassurances that they were okay, and we wondered what had happened.  We learned that a heavily armed man had opened fire at a movie theater in Colorado, killing a dozen people  and wounding dozens more.  Our hearts sank when we recognized the theater, which is not far from where we lived in Aurora only a few years ago, and where we had ourselves watched movies with friends.

Religion is at its best when it helps us to celebrate life and to grieve in the wake of death.  Particularly at times of great joy and at times of great woe we all need a community of the like-hearted that can support us by sharing in our struggle to find meaning in both life and death.  For a church is like a gym for our souls, a place where we can go to exercise our spiritual muscles by practicing the gratitude, compassion and hope that we need to be fully human throughout the week.

The unfortunate fact is, however, that the number of people in the United States who report no religious affiliation is increasing, many of them turned off not just by church-based homophobia and sexism but also by injustice’s decoration in religious bromides.  It doesn’t help that the media tend to portray the more conservative forms of religion as the only forms of religion, but when religious leaders would rather dictate the details of citizens’ sexual lives than feed the hungry and shelter the stranger, then it is nothing short of a massive failure of our calling to minister to the real needs of the world.

And yet, it doesn’t need to be that way.  There is no shortage of opportunities to wake up, to open our hearts to the call “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God”.

For every birth is a reminder that life is both precious and all too short, and every death is a reminder of what really matters in life.  Both provide occasions for us to exercise gratitude, compassion and hope.  As we enjoy these first weeks of my daughter’s new life, for instance, my wife and I are grateful to many people: the doctors and nurses at both the Center for Women’s Health and Mary Immaculate Hospital for their skill and care; our own parents, for their love and support of us in countless ways; and the members of my congregation who helped us make ready our home for a baby and are now bringing us meals.  As we think about our friends in Colorado and our former neighbors in Aurora, we mourn the senseless loss of twelve all-too-young lives and we keep in our prayers all those who are still suffering from the trauma and loss of that terrible night.  And for all of us, for every family and community, we hope for a future where none of us need live in fear, a future where each of us is free to discover for ourselves who we are and what we can be, a future where every religion supports rather than opposes our striving to be fully human, fully realized and, most importantly, fully loved.

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The Jigsaw Puzzles of Our Souls

It’s no accident that my congregation’s mission — “to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths” — refers to “truths” in the plural.  Unitarian Universalists generally recognize that there are few things we can claim as being absolutely true in any completely objective sense, and so we embrace “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning” as a valuable part of our religious endeavor.

Of course, we human beings like to be right.  We like to think we have the truth, that we can even refer to “truth” in the singular — or, worse, capitalize it.  We like to believe that we’ve got it all figured out, and it’s just a matter of convincing people, and if they won’t be convinced it’s only because they’re stupid and we just need to talk at them more loudly.  Oh, we know on an intellectual level that it’s possible to be wrong, but we’d much rather be right, even over the most apparently inconsequential things, and if needs be we’ll defend our rightness with words or fists… or bullets… or bombs.

There’s apparently no greater need to be right than when it comes to understanding the world around us.  Given my former life as a research scientist, though, I know that while a good discovery confirms something we thought was right, the better discovery is actually one where we realize we were wrong about something.  After all, experiments that failed to follow Newton’s ideas about absolute space and time led Einstein to his theories of relativity, while a couple of apparently minor problems in optics and thermodynamics led to quantum mechanics.  As Isaac Asimov put it:  “The most important phrase in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, isn’t ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny…’”

Now it’s not for nothing that most religions lift up humility as a virtue; at one time in ancient Greek society, hubris was considered the greatest crime someone could commit.  Journalist Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, notes that “the capacity to [be wrong] is crucial to human cognition.  Far from being a moral flaw,” she writes, “it is inextricable from some of our most humane and honorable qualities: empathy, optimism, imagination, conviction and courage.  And far from being a mark of indifference or intolerance, wrongness is a vital part of how we learn and change.  Thanks to error, we can revise our understanding of ourselves and amend our ideas about the world.”

Of course, I’m not advocating willful ignorance or suggesting we avoid courage when it comes to our convictions.  But it seems to me that refusing to acknowledge our own mistakes, to stick to our guns come hell or high water, to willfully deny the evidence that we’re wrong is to be no better than a child with his fingers in his ears chanting that he can’t hear.  In doing so we forget that it’s only when we’re wrong that we have a chance to become right, to seek out those small-‘t’ truths than can help us find wholeness and wisdom.

Maybe we can think of such truths as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle — actually, as the pieces of lots of different puzzles, at least one for every human soul on the planet.  You never know where you might find one of the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of your own soul, or who might have found it and kept it in their heart until the day they can pass it on to you — and on that day your own soul grows a little more into its own wholeness.

After all, we can learn a lot about ourselves from other people.  Versions of the Golden Rule are found throughout the world’s religious traditions, but here’s one from the ancient wisdom of Shinto that goes beyond the ethic of reciprocity:  “The heart of the person before you is a mirror; see there your own form.”  What if we were truly able to see and hear ourselves reflected in the hearts of others?  Would we be so righteous about our rightness?  Or would we be open to seeing the holes in the jigsaw puzzles of our own souls and be more willing to seek out the missing pieces?  Wouldn’t we see ourselves as part of something so much larger?  Perhaps then we’d be ready to lift our hearts above the constraints of our own truths and be free.

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