Informed by Faith

I gave this sermon at UU Farmington on November 17, 2013. 

Reading:  Impassioned Clay, by Raph N Helverson (Singing the Living Tradition, #654)

Deep in ourselves reside the religious impulse

Out of the passions of our clay it rises.

We have religion when we stop deluding ourselves that we are self-sufficient, self-sustaining, or self-derived.

We have religion when we hold some hope beyond the present, some self-respect beyond our failures.

We have religion when our hearts are capable of leaping up at beauty, when our nerves are edged by some dream of the heart.

We have religion when our hearts are capable of leaping up at beauty, when our nerves are edged by some dream of the hears.

We have religion when we have an abiding gratitude for all that we have received.

We have religions when we look upon people with all their failings and sill find them good; when we look beyond people to the grandeur of nature and the purpose in our own heart.

My memory begins with church.  Specifically, it begins in 1970 in a Baptist church in Madison, Wisconsin.  It goes like this: From the center of a braided rug in what seemed to be an immense space, I see my parents in the doorway.  My father, in a dark coat and suit pants smiles while my mother, dressed for Sunday service, holds out her arms and beams.  Decades ago, my parents deciphered that memory for me.  In our Baptist church’s nursery, at ten months of age, I took my first steps across that rug towards my parents.

Millions of steps and countless of memories later, I have stepped into dozens of churches. I’ve called about ten of those my spiritual home, some for only months, most for at least a few years, and a few for over a decade.   From Baptist to Methodist to Catholic to Episcopal, I toured a slice of Christianity.  It was a generally liberal and entirely Midwest journey, and it ended in my late thirties when I left the theistic traditions.

I was born in the last months of the sixties  to pacifist parents in Madison, Wisconsin,.  The Baptist church of my birth, memorable to me only because of those first steps, did not baptize infants, so I began life unclaimed by any one denomination. I recall little more about my second spiritual home, the liberal  and Catholic St. Paul’s Church associated with the University of Wisconsin.  Aside from long legs, towering above me as I sat or sprawled on the pew, my main memory of this time is one exciting moment yelling, “But I want to go to church!” while being carried by my father into the vestibule. I doubt the veracity of that exclamation, and it says more about my tendency toward the dramatic than my spiritual yearnings.

More informative memories start later. When I was four, we moved to Michigan.  We settled in Warren, where liberal Christianity meant the local Methodist church. For seven years, I spent most Sunday morning in a classroom, learning about the Golden Rule, Jesus’ compassion, and the Bible, earning my own copy of the latter after memorizing the Lord’s Prayer. Services, seldom attended by children, were dull to me, with their the long prayers and a longer sermon, interrupted by hymns and choral pieces accompanied by the organ.

During those same years, noontime found us at the University of Detroit’s chapel,  liberally bent and Jesuit run. Yes. I went to church twice almost every Sunday. The chapel was in the university’s Commerce and Finance Building, a large classroom, really, with colored panes of glass where clear would have been. We sat in molded plastic chairs. There were no kneelers and no kneeling, and while I knew when to sit and stand, throughout the rest of my Catholicism, I couldn’t figure out when to kneel.  As in other Catholic churches, children attended services with the adults.  Sermons were shorter and more comprehensible than in the Methodist church, at least they were when I paid attention. Jesus’ love and messages of social justice and peace were perhaps just more accessible to my child-self than the more scripture-based preachings of my mornings.   Folk tunes accompanied by acoustic guitar punctuated the shorter, livelier services. The song’s lyrics and tunes echoed the music in my home, with many being the same folk tunes my father sang, guitar hand,  in the evenings at home with my mom and I. Themes of justice and love and peace filled this ordinary appearing space. This Land is Your Land. This Little Light of Mine. ‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple.

While aesthetically and experientially quite different, my Methodist and Catholic experiences professed similar messages about the love and compassion of Jesus and social justice while providing supportive community. Potlucks. Informal meetings in people’s homes. Accessible, human clergy whom my parents called by first name. Few rules and prohibitions. Plenty of community.

At home, Christianity whispered.  We said grace at meals, put out the crèche and Advent wreath each December, and attended at least one religious institution each weekend.  I don’t recall bedtime prayers, petitions to God for wants or needs, references to heaven or hell, or biblical bedtime stories. I do recall boycotts on lettuce and green grapes (and I mourned the loss of the latter) and intentionally being raised within the city of Detroit . I grew up with clergy in my home for meals.  I saw women in the (Catholic) pulpit. I grew up without much sense of mystery in or fear of  God.  Without a sense that religion prohibited much of anything other than hate and discrimination.  With a choice of what path to follow when I decided I wanted to choose.  Free thinking started early and was encouraged often. Like my father says of his youth, I have nothing to unlearn from that time.

Somewhere along the way, my parents made it clear that I was to choose my own faith when ready.  I spent my elementary school years gathering a scorecard of sorts, noting the differences and similarities between the two places, unaware that neither were the only version of Methodist or Catholic life. Grape juice instead of wine for communion? Check for the Methodists. Shorter services with better music? Check for the Catholics. But junior high found me in a Catholic school, unable to participate in communion because of my non-Catholic status. The sense of being outside of fold was subtle but present. The mystery of ritual and faith of my Catholic school –and a desire to be like my friends –swayed me to, by twelve, become sacramentally and spiritually Catholic.

Or at least to become a liberal, 1980’s Catholic. That’s the only version of Catholic I knew until eleventh grade. Tumbling and reeling from my parents’ divorce and searching to define myself as myself, I  stumbled upon group of charismatic high school and college-aged Catholics. I was intrigued at this more tangible spirituality, far more alive and life-permeating than my previous church experience. For three years, as youth and then adult leader, I explored Catholicism from a more intimate, energetic, personal angle.  The mystical end of the faith spoke to me, bringing energy to my spiritual life and relief from my angst.  But by twenty, the mismatch between that conservative and close-minded bent of that arm of the church and my less emotive but more accepting and socially active upbringing led me to leave, returning my focus to the Jesuit Catholicism I’d been raised with.  Attending the University of Detroit for undergrad and grad school allowed me to remain in that church of my youth, albeit at the student version. I was active in Campus Ministry and sang with the guitar group for weekly Mass.  I  left school a practicing Catholic looking for a good fit.

Catholicism outside those Jesuit institution walls and in the ever-more conservative larger world was a disappointment.  My then-husband and I attended a handful of churches over the next dozen years, some for several years.  My boys were baptized Catholic, each in a different church.  Shifting buildings failed to ease the increasing discomfort I felt with the walls of Catholicism with its patriarchy, tightening rules, and increasing conservatism. God wasn’t the question yet. Catholicism itself was.

What transpired in my heart and mind over the next several years was informed by the fluidity of faith taught by the example of my parents. First, we moved to an Episcopal church in an attempt to find a more welcoming, liberal spiritual home. ( I simply asked my Episcopal friend what the most liberal Episcopal church around here was. She pointed me in towards the one headed by an openly lesbian minister, which seemed like as good an indicator as any. ) That held us for a few years, but during that holding period, I went through an intense time of change in spiritual thought.  First, my mother converted from Catholicism to Reform Judaism.  This played no small influence on my decision to leave Christianity.  Her fluidity modeled what religious choice should be — personal searches made freely and with great thought.  Second, and definitely a story for another day, my belief in God was rapidly dropping away. I started to allow the questions that had, like a leaking faucet,  become the background of my thoughts. Prayer, God, rules, religion. With sadness and relief and absolutely no idea what would come next, I left church.

A few years later, my boys and I found a Unitarian Universalist community.  It asked for no commitment to God or creed;  it preached love and acceptance, spoke cautiously about Jesus, resonated with messages of justice and equality, and encouraged reason and pondering. It became home.

Soon after we found our Sunday morning spot, life heaved unexpectedly the way life does.  As my marriage exploded, my new-found community held me tight.  Pondering the divine, questioning the nature of love, and wandering into a new life with my two children and without my spouse, I had found a place to work out and through the difficulties of  life out in a religious community which embraced free thought, spiritual search, and human dignity.  I found a home.

Today, I identify as an agnostic Unitarian Universalist. I don’t believe in a god or divine force. I hold to laws of science and trust science to continue to unravel the mysteries of the universe but am comfortable with them unexplained.  I am content with an understanding of my existence as temporal, bound by my birth and death, and I don’t find myself worried about the purpose of our existence. Instead, I focus on the world in front of me, seeking unity, compassion, love, peace, and acceptance.

Agnostic as I am — unbeliever I am — I remain informed by the faith of my first thirty-some years of life. While God has dropped away, I still find the language of my religious upbringing useful for my agnostic living. Reverence. Ritual. Sacrament. Even Jesus. These religiously rooted concepts anchor my agnosticism and Unitarian Universalism..

Reverence.  Reverence, according to Paul Woodruff, a humanities professor at the University of Texas in Austin and author of Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, states that “reverence begins in a deep understanding of human limitations (and) from this grows the capacity to be in awe of whatever we believe lies outside of our control — God, truth, justice, nature, even death.” Reverence is one of those words that is hard to define but easy to identify. Reverence can generate respect, but it is not respect alone. Reverence certainly contains awe and wonder as well, although it is still something more.

The reverence of my youth was wrapped up with God’s role in the natural world. Every summer, I attended an Episcopal summer camp in Ortonville, Michigan. For a week or two,  this urban child  lived a bit closer to nature, with woods and water, fields and flowers surrounding me. The chapel we used for services, choir practice, and movies held a wall of windows behind the altar, granting a view of nature’s grandeur. At ten or so, I connected the two, awestruck by the nature outside the window framed by the building created for the worship of God. Reverence was born.

It is certainly within the purview of the rational person to be reverent. Reverence requires no god. There’s no need to suspend the rational when staring in awe at the moon, realizing the smallness of oneself in the grandeur of the Universe while understanding the moon’s physical makeup and relationship to the Earth. My reverence is just as profound  when I catch the profile of my younger son, still child-like but on the cusp of adolescence. The accompanying catch in my throat is from the wonder of a world that entrusts us with the lives of the helpless, certain we’ll figure it out. And it’s reverence when I meet my partner’s eyes and am reminded that love and joy are not limited to those who’ve never known pain or fear,  but rather something fully available even when we hurt and fear the most.

It is reverence I feel when I sit here on Sunday morning in a room of people on their own journeys. Not reverence for something outside of us but rather for something among us. It is reverence for our strength together and for the power in community that should only be used to bring more love, compassion, and justice to the world. It is reverence for the freedom I have to believe or not to believe in whatever God, spirit, or presence that speaks to me. It is the reverence for the individuals in that space, each coming with his or her own view of what sacred and what brings meaning. It is reverence for what makes us different and what makes us the same. Reverence remains.

Ritual. I was a child drawn to routine, the mundane cousin of ritual. I thrived on a regular bedtime, a predictable breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and the rhythm of school. Routine comforted me. Ritual fed me, offering focus and meaning and a sense of purpose. The Catholic church provided plenty of ritual, what between the sign of the cross, the prayers and responses during Mass, and the sacraments.. These were soothing elements of my Catholicism, sometimes the nidus of my reflection of sense of purpose and meaning and sometimes simply mindful and mantra-like. Ritual, observed and participatory, at its most basic level, provided solace during those times where “going through the motions” was all I could manage. Ritual, observed and participatory, at its peak, allowed transcendence of self and ego, raising awareness of truth beyond my mind.

Leaving Catholicism meant leaving those rituals. The hole was vast, with no go-to prayers to quiet the chaos in my head and no communion to remind me that I belonged to a larger body of believers as well as to a god.  I tried prayer beads without the prayers, meditation with mantra, chant, and other rituals that shadowed those that had comforted me in my theistic days. Mindful meditation and mantra in time of stress provided the greatest comfort, allowing an anchor when I needed one most.

As a family, we’d long performed the ritual of grace before dinner, a practice carried from my family of origin to family of choice. While I was theistic, we’d used the same stock prayers of my youth:

Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let this food to us be blest.

and

God is great; God is good. Let us thank him for our food.

Seeking anchors for myself and my boys,  I worked to take a ritual that was quickly losing meaning (and seeing hypocritical, given all of our agnostic/atheist views) and form it into something meaningful. We cast aside the theistic prayers, made a chalice with a candle, and bought a book of prayers and words of wisdom from the world’s many traditions. And so we gathered, the three of us, all needing some tethering, each evening to light the chalice and find a reading. I know I found — and find — solace in the ritual, small as it is. Ritual remains.

Soul. Throughout my Christian upbringing, my ideas of what happened after death were fuzzy. When my grandfather died, I can’t recall anyone saying anything about where he went.  Heaven seemed vague and frankly boring. Eternity with God held no allure, and Hell was never a concept that made any sense in the context of a loving God. With no afterlife idea firmly in mind, the soul wasn’t ever about existence beyond the boundaries of my body. It was a piece of language without firm definition until I started thinking about just what I did and didn’t believe.

Soul, or the essence of one’s being as I call it now, informs my relationships with myself and others.  It’s the “me” under me, what’s left when I strip off my ego defenses, upbringing, wants, desires, and all that I’ve always identified as me.  My soul’s been with me since my start and will continue to accompany me on this journey of life.  It’s not the part of me that’s UU, agnostic, white, middle-class, homeschooling mom, divorced, liberal, free thinking, tactile-sensitive, or introverted-yet-sociable.  It is what is both before and beyond all that.  It’s the part of me capable of great compassion and love for those my egoic-self finds hard to love and feel compassion for, a list  of people who often includes myself. It’s the part that yearns for peace for all, not because I want it to be so but because it’s what humans should have.  It’s unselfish, kind, patient, undemanding, unassuming, endlessly loving, and deeply in touch with humanity.  It’s me with all the “me” left behind.

Soul, or essence, is not immortal or otherworldly. It can be buried under all the stuff that we identify as self — UU, agnostic, white, middle-class, divorced, homeschooling, liberal, free thinking, tactile-sensitive, and introverted-yet-social.   It’s a risky thing to expose. The more I work to let my soul lead, the more tender I become:  the more I risk in this world. It’s a vulnerable way to live, soul exposed, and I know I’m only living there a small fraction of my life, although I’m working on increasing that time.  It’s living with the soul that leaves me most fulfilled as human, most compassionate and loving of life around me.  And that’s worth some pain. Soul — or essence –gains definition.

Jesus. I was raised a Christian. My memories of kindergarten Sunday School include an episode of soggy tights due to hesitancy to use the church restroom and songs about Jesus:

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him belong, we are weak but He is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.

The song mystified me, much as heaven did. Jesus, a long-haired white guy, according to the picture on the classroom wall, was dead, but not. Human, but God. He loved me but had never met me. As years of Sunday School passed, I developed more sense of the man Jesus — the compassionate, generally patient, loving, and forgiving man said to be the son of God. And he seemed like a good guy. My Jesuit Catholic experience added a social justice component to the man — Jesus cared for the poor, the lost, the imprisoned, the hungry. He was unimpressed by money and power. He loved people. Yes, he seems like a good guy. And, at that point, filled with faith that this whole triune God thing worked somehow, he was real — human and divine.

When the divinity of Jesus fell away — when my faith left leaving reason as my main way of seeing the world — I started to like Jesus even more. How much of the life of Jesus portrayed in the Christian New Testament is real isn’t important to me. Whether the stories of Jesus’ compassion, acceptance, and activism are created to make a historical figure more appealing or to simply spread a way of thinking is immaterial to me. I like the guy. He’s a fine role model for how to move in the world and human enough to relate to (Recall the tantrum in the temple when he turned over the tables of the sellers and money changers? A man who struggles with anger and disappointment. I can relate to that.). He loved deeply. He acted boldly. Myth or man, the ideals professed in the Gospels carry with me today. If we lived in a world where those values were practiced, I can only imagine the difference in the lives of all of us.  Jesus man or myth, remains.

Jesus. Soul or essence. Ritual.  Reverence. I walk with these today. These are the remnants of the religions of my first (almost) four decades. I have followed in my parents’ footsteps, choosing a path that speaks to the truth to me at the time, changing paths when needed. I’ve come to forks in the path, wandered down one for a bit, then turned back.  I’ve stood at forks and looked backward and from side to side, awaiting the inspiration or courage to choose a way. As I’ve walked, I’ve picked up God and love and compassion. Justice and peace. Jesus and awe and reverence. Hope and humility. Divinity and everlasting life. Rules and prohibition. Joy and community. Requirements and reconciliation.

But at my last fork, I stared long and hard into the unknown. I set down prayer and God and promises of everlasting life. I set down rules more complicated than Jesus’ exhortation to love one another. I set down restrictions on gender in religion. And I took my first step on the wide path that is Unitarian Universalism, where I was free to carry what I chose to carry.  I remain informed by the religions of my youth as I  step forward with what remains: reverence, ritual, compassion, community, love, justice, equity, soul, Jesus (and a host of others), reason, and free thought. It is these I carry as I walk down this path and wander toward the next inevitable fork in the road.  When I get there, I’ll stop and again set down what no longer serves me, consider what still does, and take the next step.

A Letter to My Father: Agnosticism Explained

On the morning of April 19th, the day after a night of gunfire and fear in Watertown, just four days after the Boston Marathon shooting, two days after the explosion in West, Texas, and two days after the Senate refused to pass tighter laws regarding the acquisition of guns, I felt a deep sadness. I felt a need to connect with family, to receive the comfort of talking to someone who worried often and thought deeply, so I called my dad. Since time was short on his end, my dad emailed me with some reassurance and concerns that events like these had led to my adult-onset agnosticism. Was my agnosticism a theodicy problem (the existence of evil in the presence of a good and omnipotent God) putting science in conflict with religion?  Nope. This is the letter, slightly edited for an audience who hasn’t known me the past 43 years, I sent in return:

Dad,

Thanks.  The business of the day provided plenty of distraction. It’s hard to be so far from family when the world shows its grungier human and even natural (Texas explosion) side, and this week has served up plenty of all that.

I don’t know how far back you’ve read [of this blog], but the loss of faith is multifactorial. I simply can’t reconcile the idea of any omnipotent or omniscient deity with what I see and sense. It doesn’t work with my science understanding, although I don’t see a conflict between the two. I just don’t see the evidence. I can’t reconcile that a deity active in lives on Earth — could exist without being, well, I’ll just say mean. It’s not a question of being evil,  but the logic just doesn’t work for me.  As far a god just watching and loving us, that honestly seems rather insufficient and pointless. If I loved my children but never protected them, supported them visibly, or otherwise operated in their lives, what kind of parent would I be? And what good is that love? God weeping isn’t a comfort. Deism I can almost see, but that offers little on a day-to-day basis.

Is there an overarching element of the universe that makes the pieces bigger than the whole, something greater than us? Love? Community? The best of humanity? A few years back, I’d have given an unequivocal yes. Now I’m less certain. I believe and trust in love, the human spirit, the universe, and nature’s ability to find every crack and crevice, taking hold and bringing forth more life. I believe people can continually try to do better and work harder to make the world a better place for the very least of us and to the Earth itself. I believe that while we’re hard-wired to be out for ourselves that our vast and as of yet poorly understood brains can buck that wiring. Thus people run toward the explosion. Thus parents sacrifice for children. Thus we rebound from tragedy more determined to live and love well. I am hopelessly optimistic and desperately realistic, a mix that gives me heartburn and hope.

I see no conflict between this event and going to Boston [a planned upcoming vacation]. After 9-11, with a four-year old and a newborn, I didn’t want to go anywhere. Of course, there were no places we were headed, but hunkering down seemed best. I don’t feel that way this time. I fly. I go places where there could be risk (well, not like I have huge opportunities).Just as anyone else, I’m good at rationalizing my own safety. Heck, it’s either that or be chronically scared. And I really don’t want to be chronically scared.

It’s not events like this that shook my faith. That faith fell away gradually over many years, lessening as I moved from the Catholic church to the Episcopal church, and there drastically changing. Not because of anything there, but just because I had more room to think. And I’m quite settled in my agnosticism. The universe still holds all its mystery, love holds all its power, and life holds all its miraculous nature. I’ve lost, in my opinion, nothing at all. I do good on Earth because I am here on Earth, not because there is a God to whom I’m accountable (and idea I can’t embrace and really never could). I can wonder at the universe and can’t see why a God would need or desire mere human praise. It seems like narcissism on a grand scale. I can grieve and fear, knowing I’m not alone in the universe but that others have grieved and feared as humans have for all of human kind. I’m not alone, and I can’t see where, for me, a belief in God would add any more meaning or purpose than I feel now.

I completely respect those who find solace in the divine in whatever form. I don’t understand those who use belief to divide and sort humanity. The God they claim is irreconcilable with the way I see the world, and it sickens me. Jesus had it right, but most Christians don’t have it right about Jesus. Sometimes I miss what I felt about God — the comfort, the assurance — a decade or two ago, but I could no more talk myself into believing again than I could talk myself into believing the Creation story or the flood. It’s not, at this point of my life, a two-way street. Now, I know I (hopefully) have decades ahead of me, and my mind could change. So be it. But now, I just don’t see that happening.

I’m  happy, I’m whole, and I respect that you believe. I don’t doubt that my agnosticism tugs at you somewhat, but I know you well enough to know that you respect my way of seeing the world, too.

Love,

Sarah

My dad’s reply was swift: “THANKS!”  Thanks to you, Dad. I love you.

Love, Laws, and Sex

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For more information about marriage equality, visit The Human Rights Campaign.

While the Supreme Court of the United States ponders questions about marriage equality, human rights, and states’ rights, I’ve been thinking about love. For those who support the right of two consenting adults to choose to marry, the question is fundamentally, after all, about love. It’s about the freedom to love whom we were wired to love and to covenant with that person. Yes, it’s also about the receiving all the privileges and accepting all the responsibilities that accompany that covenant. It’s about that covenant being seen as equal in the eyes of the government, regardless of the make-up of the 23rd set of chromosomes each person brings. But when it comes down to it, marriage is about love.

And that’s why I’m flummoxed. While my first thoughts about love revolve around family and those whom are dearest to me, my next ones, thanks to my upbringing and positive church experiences, turn to religion. God, it is said, is love. Jesus spoke of love throughout the Gospels. While I’ve lost in faith in God and in the divinity of Jesus, I’ve retained a respect for love — a reverence for the power of love, in fact — and a soft spot for the teachings attributed to the historical Jesus.

News flash. There’s no place in those Gospels where Jesus says anything negative about gays or lesbians. Nothing. Nada. Jesus does say plenty about love: Love your neighbor as yourself, love one another, and so on. He stands by the outcasts of the turn-of-that ancient-millenium society — lepers, prostitutes, the poor, and plenty of other regular folks. He encourages compassion, love’s active sidekick, to just about everyone, regardless of social position, life choices, or circumstance. We simply never hear about the homosexuals, possibly suggesting either they just weren’t the top of the outcast hit parade or at least that they didn’t make the cut when the Gospels were written. In short, it doesn’t seem that’s what was terribly important to Jesus or at least to those who wrote about Jesus decades and centuries later.

So why, tell me why, do some Christians –not all — not nearly — froth at the mouth at the thought of marriage between same-sex partners? As I’ve wandered the web today, I’m distressed by the vitriol by the Religious Right, both Protestant and Catholic. Reading through articles calling the equality sign above “The Sign of the Beast” and extolling teens that God “loves the person but hates the sin (of homosexual sex).” It turns out, at least in the eyes of those social conservatives, marriage isn’t really about two people committing to each other, either in a religious community or a secular ceremony, with the rights and protections that affords. It’s not even about love.

It’s about sex.

Isn’t it always? The funny thing is, most of heterosexual marriage isn’t about sex, so I’m not sure how it manages to be for homosexuals. Sure, both parties able and willing, sex is present in marriages. It can be an exceptionally good part of marriage, although it can get a short shrift when life gets busy.  And, if children are desired, the procreative end of sex is one way to bring them into the family.   But most of marriage, most of the time, isn’t about sex. Now, I’m divorced, so maybe I was doing something wrong during those 14 years of marriage, completely missing something, but I doubt it.

Much of marriage is about partnership. We generally marry to partner, to share our lives with someone we love and with whom we share values, desires, and maybe a few dreams. If we’re pragmatic about it, we may consider our future partner’s goals and approach to hard times as well as the legal benefits such union afford. Heck, we may look at credit ratings. But primarily, we marry because we love someone. We love so deeply and completely that we covenant with one another in the presence of others and share that commitment publicly.

Can that all be done outside of marriage? Sure, but in the eyes of the law, it’s not nearly the same. Those legal benefits of union — over 1,000 on the federal level — aren’t small details. Those benefits may include partner access to employer-provided medical insurance, tax benefits (or liabilities), exemptions from estate and gift taxes upon the death of a spouse, social security benefits for a surviving spouse, the ability of a partner to take family leave when the other is ill, visiting rights at hospitals, decreased costs on auto and housing insurance, and even child support should divorce occur. Yes, there are legal means to set up some of those outside of marriage, but many of those benefits only are realized for those in a federal government sanctioned marriage.

So let me get this right. As a nation, we’re denying same-sex partners a host of legal protections, many which better a family’s ability to care for those within it, even if a marriage is dissolved, because some of us are focused on sex? I’m not naive. I know religion is behind this as well. Not the religion I grew up with, one focused on love and social justice. This one is based on judgement and rules. Many people marry within a church because their belief system supports or even demands that way of partnering (and that’s often about sex and when to have it, too). Over eighteen years ago, I married in the Catholic Church, with marriage as sacrament as well as a legal contract. I married because I loved my then-fiance and wanted to partner with him. I then realized, in material terms, the benefits that people with the right to marry take for granted, building an appreciation for the legal end of marriage as soon as our first joint tax return occurred and when we discovered my company offered far better health insurance than his.

But love and legal arguments don’t work if you’re wrapped up in what happens in the bedroom some nights a week (more or less – no judgement here). In discussions with the religious right, it comes down to sex rather than love and stability.  And I don’t understand this. Jesus doesn’t have too much to say about sex, aside from some lines about adultery and lust. He never mentions the details, nor does he say that partners must be male and female. Jesus leaves out a host of details about other issues of life, such as dietary restrictions, fabric content of clothing, and menstrual regulations. I’m still stymied.

Love. Laws. Sex. Let’s embrace the first, allowing two people, DNA aside, enter the covenant of marriage. Let’s make the second equal across all consenting couples, regardless of race, religion, gender, ethnicity, or shoe size. And as for the third? It’s not really my business, is it? Let’s keep it that way.

One Rule to Bind Us

Poster available through Scarboro Missions.

I can’t recall when I first learned the Golden Rule, but I’m sure I’d heard it plenty by kindergarten.  I didn’t know it had a biblical basis until a bit later, and I was well into adulthood before I realized Christians hadn’t cornered the market with their primary rule of engagement:  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:1).

It’s a fine rule, from preschool through old age.  It works in a variety of circumstances including, but not limited to, the sandbox, the schoolhouse, the home, the church, the workplace, Congress, and social media.  Its versatility is complemented by its clarity: if you like being treated with respect and kindness, treat others that way.  No caveats, no disclaimers.  The Golden Rule is elegant in its simplicity. Continue reading

Common Ground: Reversing the Polarity Social Media Encourages

I’ve heard it said many times that the internet has increased our polarity.  Rather than increasing our understanding of the vast variety of viewpoints in our world, we tend to herd (yes, like sheep) with those who think and feel just like we do.  We go to forums and join email lists filled with people who validate our worldview, or at least a little slice of our worldview.  We pat each other on the back, celebrating how right we are in our way of thinking.  At our best, we patronizingly ask what those poor fools on the other side of the issue are smoking, shaking our heads with a bemused, knowing smile.  At our worst, we ridicule them amongst ourselves or to their social media selves, calling them names and judging their character.

We’re human.  We seek out other humans who are like us.  We look for a neighborhood that we think fits our family. We look for a church that matches our belief system.  We seek an education for our children that fits what we think education should be.  It’s human nature and completely understandable.

It’s also dangerous.

When the only voices we hear are the ones that validate our existing point of view, we miss the balance that comes from hearing what doesn’t match ours.  I’m not talking about the “hearing” that is followed by rolled eyes and online rants.  I’m talking about real listening to another side of the issue and to what the other person has to say.  Whether it be about politics, religion, a current community issue, or a standing social concern, the key here is really listening without judgement.

This is hard.  As  Unitarian Universalist, a member of a liberal religious tradition, I stand by the right for every human to search for what he or she finds true and meaningful, within the bounds of respecting the worth and dignity of every human being.  That can really be tough, requiring far more breathing and pausing than I sometimes care to practice.

To be sure, listening to opposing viewpoints does not mean agreeing with them.  It doesn’t mean never presenting a respectful rebuttal or providing additional (neutral) information.  It does require an open mind and heart and some creative thinking.  It takes creativity and openness to look at the world through another’s eyes, if even for a moment.  It takes knowing where your own buttons are, remaining alert what might threaten to set them off.  It takes love — the kind of unconditional love Jesus taught– and compassion — the sort the Buddha demonstrated — to quiet the mind and just truly listen.

Why bother?  Because, at best, ranting and raving at the other side accomplish nothing.  Because digging in, calling names, and making broad assumptions is the job of two-year olds and teens (the latter of whom we rightfully expect better).  Because, like it or not, much of life is a mystery, as is all of the future.  None of us have the market cornered on the best way of living in this remarkably complicated world.  Really. And no amount of vitriol and rhetoric actually changes anyone’s mind.  Does the adage, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,” ring a bell?

Just try it.  Try it on your public media of choice.  The next time someone posts a favorable link about the politician you hate, the church you can’t stand, or the cure-all that you’re sure is garbage, don’t just move on.  Click through. (Judiciously — I’m not advocating damaging your computer or being irresponsible.)  Read the link.  It may be a one-sided rant full of — wait for it — vitriol and rhetoric.  Or, more often in my experience, it may be a more thoughtful look at the other side of a subject. Before cursing it on or off-line, look for what’s behind it.  Google the politician, church, or cure-all and read more.  Listen while you read, to the people behind those messages that drive you out of your mind.  Listen to their fear, their hopes, their concerns.  Listen to your own heart and mind, noting judgement and your own fear, hopes, and concerns.

Repeat this exercise until you kind of get it.  Not believe it (although that could happen), but just understand that there could be another valid way of looking at the world.  That other way may be in stark contradiction to yours, and you may be more opposed to it than when you first began your search.  That’s fine.  The point is to know what the other point of view is about. After all, it came from human beings (and, if it’s via social media, it came from human  beings you call your friends).  It’s worth understanding where they come from.

Don’t be surprised if your heart softens a bit, even if you hold your stance as tightly as before.  Don’t be surprised if you find it harder to lambaste folks you don’t know online and off, now that you have a better feel for them as human beings.  Don’t even be surprised if you now find it easier to respectfully voice your own opinion.

The secret is this.  The more you know about another way of looking at the world, the more you understand just a bit of the people behind those crazy ways that are not yours, the more you see how you are similar to them.  The woman who opposes all vaccinations? She has fears for her children, just like you have for yours.  That’s common ground.  The man who rages against higher taxes for national health care?  Perhaps he worries about not having enough resources down the line, like so many of us do.

We have more common ground than we think.  Our internet communities can make it seem like we have none, breeding hate, anger, and fear.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Until we see what we share and at least try to recognize the thoughts and feelings behind another’s point of view, we’re living neither the message of Jesus or the Buddha.  We’re simply practicing polarity.

‘Tis the Season

‘Tis the season of advent candles, trimmed trees, colored lights, stockings hung with care, greeting cards adorned with a family picture, too much food, even more shopping, and Jesus. So far, I’ve only managed the advent candles (demanded by younger son), lights around the house (courtesy of older son), and a good deal of shopping (that’s all me). It’s my third year as a Unitarian Universalist at Christmastime, and I still haven’t figured out what to do with the season.

Despite approximately 50% of my church’s congregation avowing secular humanist status, Christmas makes a big splash at my UU church. The meeting hall sports a decorated tree next to the altar and garland graces every window. Sure, a menorah (electric) at on the altar the Sunday enveloped by Hanukkah, although no mention was made of the symbol or the eight days it represents. And, as I’ve been told past years, the decorations on the tree are largely Earth-based. Still, the place practically screams Christmas. But no whisper of Jesus, the non-commerce reason for the season.

My struggles with Christmas began about five years ago. My mother had converted from Catholicism to Reformed Judaism. I’d left a liberal Episcopal church, both for reasons of poor fit with place and a crisis (or reconsideration) of faith. Perhaps my mother’s move away from Catholicism, which we’d long shared, gave me the permission to think more deeply about what I believed. Whatever the spark, I started to think differently about Jesus and the holidays and holy days around him.

My younger son asks it this way: “Mom, if we don’t believe Jesus is the son of God, why do we celebrate Christmas?” For the past few years, I’ve given him the same non-answer, turning the question back to him, “Should we skip it this year?” The answer is always a definitive, “No!” But the question nags at me.

Let me clarify that I deeply respect the teachings of the historical Jesus. Jesus taught and practiced unconditional love and radical inclusivity. He advocated for the poor, the downtrodden, the prisoner, the sick, the captive, and all the others society pushed to the margins. He practiced equanimity, patience, and peace. His teachings, if followed carefully and en masse, could result in a profoundly loving and peaceful world. Love one another. All the others. Now that would be radical.

Past years, I’ve found myself hung up on the divinity issue. If I don’t hold that Jesus is the son of God (okay, I’m a bit in limbo on the God question, too), then what business do I have celebrating the holiday. I know seeing it as a secular holiday only or as a solstice tradition are options others take, but I’m uncomfortable with those options, probably because for most of my life, Jesus was the reason for the season, as the saying goes.

Perhaps he still can be the reason. Perhaps the divinity question isn’t the key, at least for this Unitarian Universalist. Perhaps I can still celebrate with authenticity, given I still see Jesus as an amazing spiritual leader with a message of love that has power even 2000 years later. Perhaps the advent candles I’ve been lighting with more than a flicker of discomfort, feeling somewhat the fraud, still hold meaning, as I anticipate the birth of quite the liberal religious leader.

So for 2010, I’m dropping my non-Christian-but-still-celebrating-Christmas-anyway guilt. Okay, so I may not celebrate the birth of Ghandi or Confucious with the same vibrance (and spending) that I celebrate the birth of Jesus, but, hey, this is the celebration I know and it is about a person worth celebration and emulation.

May you, too, know love and compassion this month. After all, ’tis the season.

Namaste.