Posts Tagged values

Bah! Humbug!

I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on December 24th 2018.

This is the time of year when it’s not hard to find one of a number of traditional holiday movies on the television, from How the Grinch Stole Christmas to Frosty the Snowman, from A Christmas Story to Die Hard.  Another that you’ll find is A Christmas Carol, which, like The Grinch, has been adapted in various ways, from the Patrick Stewart’s theatrical production to Mickey’s Christmas Carol featuring Scrooge McDuck, from the modern version with Bill Murray as a cynical and selfish television executive to the 3D animation and its Scrooge flying through the air in a rather short night gown that has scarred all our memories forever.

Given all of these adaptations, we’re familiar with the basics of Charles Dickens’ novella, which was first published in 1843.

[Summary of the story…]

There has been much debate as to whether A Christmas Carol is a Christian allegory or if it’s a fully secular story.  Much like The Grinch, it’s about someone with a mean, cold heart discovering the true meaning of Christmas.  As one person has put it, “A Christmas Carol is the heartwarming tale of how rich people must be supernaturally terrorized into sharing.”  And yet, while Dickens’ novella mentions Christmas some ninety times, it does not mention Jesus even once.

This is somewhat curious, because it’s not that Dickens himself was not religious.  He was christened and reared in the Church of England, and he was at least a nominal Anglican for most of his life.  Thanks to some experiences early in his life, he developed an aversion to evangelical zeal, doctrinal debates and sectarianism in general, and he turned to Unitarianism for a while during his thirties.  Though he went back to the Church of England later on, he continued to associated with Unitarians for the rest of his life. At the time, though, Unitarianism in England — as well as here in the United States — was very much a Christian faith, so that’s not the reason why Dickens chose not to mention Jesus even once.

Even if A Christmas Carol is not explicitly religious, it nonetheless portrays values taught by Jesus: changing indifference into love, changing selfishness into generosity, amplifying the spirit of hope in humanity.  Some might argue that these are also humanistic values — and, for that matter, the redemption of someone described as “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner” is pretty Universalist — but maybe that’s because Dickens was aiming for an important distinction.

After all, what matters about Christmas, as exemplified by those values, is the religion of Jesus, not a religion about Jesus.  For A Christmas Carol, The Grinch and other stories lifting up the true meaning of Christmas to center Jesus would make them feed into the narratives of a religion about Jesus; by centering Christian, humanistic values, on the other hand, they are demonstrating the religion of Jesus.  And that’s much more powerful and will serve the world much better.

Now there is something in A Christmas Carol that has always bothered me.  After the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come has shown Scrooge scenes from a Christmas in the future, it takes him at last to

A churchyard.  Here, then; the wretched man whose name he had now to learn, lay underneath the ground.  It was a worthy place. Walled in by houses; overrun by grass and weeds, the growth of vegetation’s death, not life; choked up with too much burying; fat with repleted appetite.  A worthy place!

The Spirit stood among the graves, and pointed down to One.  [Scrooge] advanced towards it trembling. The Phantom was exactly as it had been, but he dreaded that he saw new meaning in its solemn shape.

“Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,” said Scrooge, “answer me one question.  Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?”

“Still the Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood.

“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge.  “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!”

The Spirit was immovable as ever.

Scrooge crept towards [the grave], trembling as he went; and following the finger, read upon the stone of the neglected grave his own name, Ebenezer Scrooge.

It is at this point that Scrooge gives up his defiance to Christmas past and present, making a promise to honor Christmas in his heart and to try to keep it all the year.  He says he will learn the lessons offered by the three ghosts that have visited him, if only it will change what is written on that gravestone.

What’s bothered me is that this scene is portrayed in the various movies as if it’s Scrooge simply seeing his own grave that changes him, that finally thaws his heart.  It’s as if he never thought he would die, but now seeing the evidence of his own mortality, he promises to change his ways as if that means he won’t die.

This doesn’t make any sense.  Death is as much a theme of the story as poverty and selfishness are.  After all, A Christmas Carol begins with this very paragraph:

Marley was dead: to begin with.  There is no doubt whatever about that.  The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner.  Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

And then Dickens goes on for another couple of pages about Marley being dead, in one of his apparent tangents that feeds the myth that he was paid to write by the word.  Furthermore, part of Scrooge’s time with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come involved witnessing the Cratchit family as they grieve the death of Tiny Tim. For all that Scrooge was miserly and mean and greedy and inconsiderate, he was hardly stupid, so I don’t see why he would have harbored any illusions regarding his own mortality.

Rather, and this is a point to which I don’t believe the various movies have done justice, seeing his own grave forces Scrooge to realize he’s not leaving anything of any value behind.  For all the wealth that he accumulated during his lifetime, there’s nobody to mourn him. The only people who feel emotion over his death are a couple who are happy that they now have more time to put their finances in order.  And it is clear that Tiny Tim, a young boy whose short life had been defined by illness and poverty, leaves behind a much greater legacy than Scrooge. This stark realization is what makes him finally vow to change his ways, not so that he can somehow prevent his death someday, but so that when he does die, there will be people who mourn him because they love him, people who will be inspired by his example, people who will find meaning in their lives thanks to his legacy.  This is when Scrooge realizes the true meaning of Christmas.

There’s another part of the story that is usually overlooked in its movie adaptations.  The Ghost of Christmas Present is often portrayed as a larger-than-life figure of plenty, more Father Christmas in his origins as a Green-Man-type god of nature than a sanitized Santa Claus.  And yet, toward the end of this spirit’s time with Scrooge, the miser notices two small figures lurking in the folds of the ghost’s robes.

“They were a boy and girl.  [Jaundiced], meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility.  Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds.  Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

“Scrooge started back, appalled.  Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them.  “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers.  This boy is Ignorance.  This girl is Want.  Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.  Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city.  “Slander those who tell it ye!  Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse.  And bide the end!”

Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol with a moral in mind, and it’s not as simply as “selfishness is bad and generosity is good”.  Though born into a middle-class family, he experienced poverty as a child, and it gave him, according to one biographer, a “deep personal and social outrage” that heavily influenced his outlook on life and his writing.  But whereas Scrooge’s attempts to ensure that he never suffered turned inward, making him a miser, Dickens’ developed a social conscience, particularly a concern for children whose families were affected by the working conditions resulting from the industrial revolution.

In the same year he wrote A Christmas Carol, his anger was fueled not only by witnessing the appallingly unhealthy and unsafe conditions experienced by tin miners, but also by the fact that those mining the tin were children.  He saw further suffering at one of London’s schools for illiterate and half-starved homeless children, and he joined efforts to change these conditions. In a speech that year, Dickens urged workers and employers to join together to combat ignorance with educational reform, but he soon realized that he would be most effective in reaching the most people not with pamphlets and essays but with a heartfelt story about the social effects of poverty and injustice.

In this scene with the Ghost of Christmas Present, the spirit is not so much making its point about Ignorance and Want to Scrooge, who, at this point, still doesn’t get it, but to the reader, both then and now.  Certainly children are no longer made to work down mines or sent up chimneys, but childhood poverty is very much a problem in our society, and public education as a means to lift up individuals and families is under attack.

The moral of A Christmas Carol is still very much relevant today, not simply the tale of a mean and selfish man who is frightened into changing his behavior, but a warning to society at large that treating children so badly is hypocrisy — indeed, nothing short of evil — when our society spends more time and effort claiming Christian values than it does actually putting them into practice.

As Dickens wrote in the surprising brief preface to the novella, “I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me.  May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.” As we prepare to enjoy this Christmas with friends, family and loved ones, as we celebrate the season in whatever ways fill us with joy, may this favorite story of transformation and redemption continue to haunt all of our houses.

May it be so.

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Open Doors to Many Rooms

UUFP Blog

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive MillardLighting the Flaming Chalice

One of the activities that’s part of our quarterly Orientation to Membership workshop is the “values continuum”.  Laying out a piece of string on the floor, we describe a number of scenarios where one end of the string represents somebody holding one set of values and the other end represents somebody holding contrasting values.  For each scenario, we ask the workshop participants to place themselves on the string based on how their own values align, and then we invite them to share their reasons for where they’ve placed themselves.

For example, one scenario might have “Interior Isabel” at one end of the string and “Ollie Outreach” at the other.  Isabel believes that Sunday services should be primarily occasions for spiritual growth; she likes quiet sermons on pastoral topics and plenty of time for silent reflection.  Ollie, by contrast, believes…

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To Be Good Stewards of Our Own Power

UUFP Blog

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

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

I spent two of January’s Tuesdays in Richmond, the first for the Virginia Interfaith Center’s Day for All People and the second for Equality Virginia’s Day of Action.  Both were opportunities to learn about the legislative process and the bills before the Virginia General Assembly and then to meet with our elected representatives or their legislative aides to share with them our opinions of those bills and other views on what matters to us.

Now most of us experience some anxiety or at least nervousness when it comes to approaching those who make the laws that govern our lives.  I’d…

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Knowledge, Access, Advocacy

(I delivered this part of a shared sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on April 28th 2013.)

During the last few months I’ve shared services with representatives from some of our Share-the-Basket partners.  If you’ve been here more than a few times, you’ll have noticed that each and every Sunday, we share the Offering with one of a number of worthy causes that actively promote what we recognize as Unitarian Universalist values.  The Fellowship has been doing this for a few years now — and, in the case of the Living Interfaith Network (or LINK) of Hampton Roads, doing it once a month for much longer — because we recognize that it is important to practice the abundance to which our faith makes claim, particularly once we recognize that how we use our money and other resources says a lot about who we really are.

Now I’m told that, whenever we’ve done a straw poll, at about this time of year, regarding our possible Share-the-Basket partners for next year, Planned Parenthood, if it is on the ballot, gets the highest number of votes.  A large number of you, in other words, believe that it is important for this congregation to support Planned Parenthood’s vision of “a society where all adults and teens have the ability to make informed and responsible choices about their reproductive lives.”  And so this year, I’m pleased to remind you, one of our Share-the-Basket partners is Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia.

A couple of other factors make this a timely partnership.

One is that, at last year’s General Assembly in Phoenix, Arizona, the delegates from the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association selected “Reproductive Justice: Expanding Our Social Justice Calling” to be the new issue for study and action by UU congregations over a four-year period.  Stepping up to challenge the “racial, economic, cultural and structural constraints on women’s power” as well as supporting “the right to have children, [the right] to not have children, and [the right] to parent children in safe and healthy environments”, this is only the most recent stage of our association’s “fifty-year history of reproductive rights advocacy of which [Unitarian Universalists] should be very proud.”  The first resolution by Unitarian Universalists was passed fifty years ago, in fact, at the 1963 General Assembly in Chicago; it called for the legalization of abortion, ten years before Roe vs. Wade made that a reality.  That made Unitarian Universalism the first religion to officially endorse a woman’s right to reproductive choice; since then there have been at least two-dozen association-wide resolutions and social justice statements on the topics of abortion, women’s rights and sexuality education.  This is a history of presenting a strong progressive religious voice — our Unitarian Universalist voice — of which we should definitely be proud.

Another factor is that Virginia is the target of too many jokes on late-night television when it comes to our Commonwealth’s nineteenth century sense of sexual morality.  Actually, the nineteenth century might be giving Richmond too much credit; perhaps fourteenth century would be more appropriate.  In any case, I’ve only been living here for three years, so I don’t know how long Jon Stewart, David Letterman and the rest have been laughing at us, but good grief!  Whether it’s requiring trans-vaginal ultrasounds as part of abortion “counseling” or reinstating Virginia’s anti-sodomy law, it’s all too easy to make fun of us.  Never mind that, when it came to a challenge to the sodomy law in 1975, the court justified it by quoting Leviticus, the fact that Governor Bob McDonnell excused his support of the ultrasound bill by saying that he didn’t understand what “trans-vaginal” means is the best argument in favor of comprehensive sex education that I’ve ever heard.  It’s a shame we can’t require every elected representative to have taken the same “Our Whole Lives” curriculum that we teach to our middle-schoolers.

Now in introducing the Adult Religious Education curriculum that was created in support of the “Reproductive Justice” study/action issue, the authors explain that the current debates about all of these issues — including, incredibly, the availability of contraception — “is not as much a political argument over information and misinformation as it is a conflict of values about life, sexuality and religious freedom.”  (And I shouldn’t need to note that religious freedom does not mean the freedom of churches and other religious organizations to oppress their own employees or those they serve.)  As promoted in particular by coalitions of women of color such as SisterSong, Reproductive Justice is a framework that promotes individual rights in many intersecting areas, including reproductive choice, the eradication of violence against women, comprehensive sex education, discrimination based on race and sexual orientation, economic justice, environmental justice, and immigration justice.  These are all areas in which Unitarian Universalists have developed progressive positions based on our religious understandings of life, sexuality and freedom.

Talk, of course, is cheap.  It’s doing something with our beliefs and opinions that makes a difference.  All of the time spent at General Assembly debating and passing resolutions and statements of conscience and actions of immediate witness is worthless unless we actually act upon them afterward.  And since it’s congregational delegates who do all that debating and passing of resolutions, it’s the responsibility of congregations to put them into action.  So, on the fortieth anniversary of Roe vs. Wade back in January, Lauren F—, Tret F—, Tom H— and I went up to Richmond to take part in a demonstration at the Capitol in support of reproductive rights, including access to safe and legal abortions, and in opposition to the persistent efforts to chip away at those rights.

I realize, of course, that taking part in such a demonstration — even had it it been at a warmer time of year — isn’t everybody’s cup of tea.  Moreover, there are limits to what we, as a single congregation, can reasonably expect to achieve.  This is work we must do in coalition, and we’re doing just that in at least a couple of ways.

For example, the Gathering of the Tidewater Cluster that took place in Williamsburg last month marked the first step toward creating a Unitarian Universalist network for legislative advocacy in Virginia, something that is being facilitated by our own Mason M—.  This is something that’s been talked about since before I got here, and I’m so glad that it’s now getting off the ground.  I encourage you to talk with Mason to learn more about it.

And, of course, we’re working with Planned Parenthood as one of our Share-the-Basket partners.  You’ll hear more about their work in a moment from two of their people who are here today, but before I introduce them, I just want to frame the value of our support of their work in terms of the three words that provide the title of this sermon — knowledge, access, advocacy — words come from the mission of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia itself.

First, knowledge.  If all people have the “right to make informed and responsible choices about their reproductive lives”, they need to be empowered by receiving the knowledge they need to make those choices.  And so, much as we teach “Our Whole Lives” to our middle-schoolers, Planned Parenthood “provides comprehensive, age appropriate sex education to schools and organizations around Hampton Roads.”

Second, access.  It’s no good having rights in theory if you can’t exercise those rights in practice.  And so, to support people in making informed and responsible choices about their own lives, Planned Parenthood provides access to “high-quality, affordable reproductive health and family planning services”, with facilities located on the Peninsula and southside.

Third, advocacy.  In recent years we’ve witnessed a resurgence of efforts to suppress and prevent both knowledge of our own sexuality and access to services including abortion and contraception, not just in Virginia but nationwide.  And so, Planned Parenthood leads the way in calling for responsible public policy that supports “the rights of all women and men to make their own choices about their [own] reproductive health, to have access to comprehensive sex education and and to have access to affordable reproductive health services.”

I’m very pleased, then, that sharing the pulpit with me this morning are Kim Barbarji and Dan Rice from Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia.  Kim is the interim program director in the education department at Planned Parenthood.  In that role, she manages the education department and oversees their Newport News public school program.  Before coming to Planned Parenthood, Kim was the Deputy Director of Avalon, a Center for Women and Children which serves victims of domestic abuse in Williamsburg.  And Dan is lead educator at Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia, teaching their program in the Health I classes at all six Newport News public high schools.  Dan is a gifted sexual health educator, who has written and taught a wide variety of health curricula for Rutgers University.

[Kim and Dan speak.]

Thank you, Kim and Dan, for being with us this morning.  I hope you’ll take the opportunity to talk with them following this morning’s services, when our Social Justice Committee will facilitate an informal question-and-answer discussion with them.  Our partnership with Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia is a critical part of our work for Reproductive Justice, part of our larger commitment to grow the Beloved Community that is fundamental to both Unitarian Universalist theology and identity.  When it comes to knowledge, access, advocacy and all of the ways we do this, may we be courageous in living our shared aspirations.

So may it be.

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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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The Seven Promises: a Responsive Reading

When Unitarian Universalists talk about our Seven Principles, we like to think of them as a set of values that define our faith.  We like to note, of course, that there’s little in them that most reasonable people, whether they’re Unitarian Universalists or not, would reject, but we hold them up as, in some way, defining what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist.

In fact, the Seven Principles are part of a covenant that Unitarian Universalist congregations make with each other.  As printed in large capital letters on one of the opening pages of our grey hymnal, the Seven Principles are actually prefaced with these words: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:”  So these are actually values that Unitarian Universalist congregations promise to uphold.

Of course, those same values can be affirmed and promoted by individuals, too, so in many Unitarian Universalist congregations the language of the Seven Principles has been adapted into what is often called the Seven Promises, a covenant that Unitarian Universalist individuals make with each other.  The Fellowship made its own version of the Seven Promises some years ago, and I’ve adapted it for use as a responsive reading.  I start it with what is essentially an eighth promise, based on our Fellowship’s own mission, and the Seven Promises follow, only in reverse order for reasons that I explain elsewhere.

Let us create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths,

for we honor minds that question, hearts that love and hands that serve.

Let us live lightly on the Earth, beginning with our church community,

for we respect the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Let us embrace others both near and far in hope and compassion,

for we lift up the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.

Let us remember that everyone bears responsibility for the health of our congregation,

for we affirm the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process.

Let us remain open to new ideas, knowing that we need not be afraid of change,

for we trust in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

Let us respect individual religious paths, even those we do not understand,

for we aspire to accept one another and to encourage spiritual growth.

Let us treat others as we would like to be treated,

for we desire justice, equity and compassion in human relations.

Let us listen actively and speak and act respectfully to others,

for we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

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Letter to the Editor, June 21st 2011

To the Editor, Daily Press:

I write as a minister who is a proud member of the “Religious Left”.

While Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (“Attorney general rallies church leaders”, June 17th) may be free to witness to his particular social values, I strongly resent the implication that all “pastors and other church leaders” walk in lockstep with his opposition to abortion rights and same-sex marriage.

Speaking as someone who joyfully stands on “the other side” from Cuccinelli, I stress that there are valid religious voices that affirm reproductive rights and marriage equality on the basis of sound theological principles. Visit the congregation I serve or any other progressive church or temple and you’ll find ministers, pastors, rabbis and other religious leaders willing to speak truth to power in opposition to the evils of state-sponsored discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Religion does not equate to repressive social values. There are plenty of us who still believe in religion based on compassion, equity and justice.

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