Seven Ways to Say It
Rev. Douglas Taylor
There are times when I step back and wonder at this community of ours: such an amazing collection of people with an amazing collection of ideals and practices. I am proud and honored to be a part of this community and I occasionally fall into wondering how I ended up so blessed as to be a part of it. I don’t mean to signal a tone of false modesty with these reflections, I know full well that I have played my part in creating this community. My call to ministry is best expressed as a call to help build this sort of life-saving, life-affirming faith community. But I know I am not solely responsible for the result. I know for certain because when I am away for the summer or gone for a sabbatical, this community of amazing people continues to pour out its blessings. I know for certain because when I am here offering my ministry I am also ministered unto: I am affirmed and challenged, uplifted and inspired. I suspect this is the experience for many of you as well.
Early in my ministry while serving another congregation, I led a class focused on helping participants to articulate what Unitarian Universalism is. Many people would speak of their personal experiences of the congregation as I have just done. The best part of the class was that at the beginning of each session, as an opening activity, we would each say our name and answer the question “What is Unitarian Universalism?” After the third session I noticed a few patterns emerging, the answers began to line up in distinct categories. Thus began the list of seven styles of answering the question that I have included as an insert of you.
Seven Ways to Say It
by Douglas Taylor
It is always good to have several ways to answer the question,
“What is Unitarian Universalism?”
(1) Underlying Unifying Shared Values
We do not gather around shared beliefs, rather we have shared values such as … (eg justice, freedom of conscience, respect, tolerance, reason, spiritual exploration, democracy.)
2) Covenanting Seekers
We do not gather around a set doctrine or creed, rather we join in a shared process of discovery. We promise to help each other in the search for what is ultimately meaningful in life. We are a church where you can believe as you must, as your conscience demands.
3) Theological Commonalities
Beliefs are not at our center, but we do generally share some beliefs such as: Most of us believe that every person has worth and that we have the capacity to choose to do good.
4) Historical Overview
We are a liberal religion born from the Judeo-Christian heritage. Historically, the Unitarians believed in the unity of God and the Universalists believed that all are saved.
5) Interfaith Group
We have a diverse mix of theological perspectives: Pagans, Liberal Christians and Jews, Theists, Agnostics, Atheists, Humanists, Transcendentalists, Native Spiritualities, and Process theologies. We are not one religion, but a respectful group of many religions
6) Personal Experience
When I come to this amazing community of people, I am affirmed and challenged, uplifted and inspired. In this congregation I feel called to be my best self. These are my people.
7) What We Are Not
No Dogma, No Creed, God is not mandatory, Guilt is optional …
Unitarian Universalism is a complex and nuanced faith tradition that does not offer quick sound-byte type answers to the question of definition. It is hard to articulate a simple definition of Unitarian Universalism not because it vague or contrived or non-existent, but because it is complex. Ours is an evolving faith. We grow as people and who we are grows with us. And our capacity to answer the question “What is Unitarian Universalism?” has become rather important to me. Thus, over the years I have developed this list of various ways to answer the question because the first thing I discovered is that my promoting ONE final and ultimate answer is impractical and indeed goes against the heart of what we are all about. I currently have 7 styles of answering the question.
And, an argument could be made that I actually have 8 ways to say it, because I have not included the Principles and Sources as a way of answering the question on my list of seven styles, yet clearly that is a fine way to begin. How many of you have made use of the UU Principles when asked about your Unitarian Universalism? Have any of you carried the Principles and Sources wallet card so you could offer it to someone? And have any of you actually offered the card to someone else curious about our faith? Being able to pull out even just the First Principle about the “Inherent Worth and Dignity of Every Person” is a great way to open a conversation with someone who wants to know more about Unitarian Universalism.
And I slipped in a little thing there that I find very important to all of this that I want to be clear about. These styles and categories of answering the question, these are different ways to ‘start a conversation,’ not to simply answer the question so as to put off the questioner. You see, that is an important piece of all this. Imagine the ways in which this question has come up. Sometimes it is in a conversation with a person who is really only interested in the answer so they will have sufficient fuel to tell you how you are wrong, sufficient information for them to come up with a better way to convert you to their understanding of the truth. This is a conversation you are can avoid if you wish. I don’t much care for this sort of conversation myself.
The other reasons this question may come up can be much more compelling. Sometimes people are genuinely curious about another person’s faith, and dialogue across our religious differences can be of immense benefit! And other times people are genuinely curious because they are searching for a faith community like ours but have not yet found us because (among other reasons) Unitarian Universalists tend to not be very forthcoming about Unitarian Universalism.
Part of why we tend to be quiet about our faith is that in Unitarian Universalism we believe in the freedom of religious conscience, that faith cannot be coerced. So why would we ever foist our beliefs and values on another when we would not wish the same done to us? Do unto others … and all that. Except, with this as our leading understanding we tend to categorize anyone asking “What is Unitarian Universalism?” as a hostile questioner.
If we can allow ourselves to be open to the question and welcome the curious questioner, we may be helping someone find the religious home they have been longing to find. And I am convinced that one simple piece of assistance I can give to anyone willing to engaging in such a conversation is to offer a variety of ways to step in.
So now, to the list! And I will offer them in reverse from 7 to 1.
#7 What We Are Not
This comes up for me when someone in a group looks over at me when they quip, “Somebody should pray for good weather because our event will be outdoors.” My typical response is something like, “I’m a Unitarian Universalist minister, we don’t do weather.” As a non-creedal faith it is easiest to describe what we are not, especially when creed-based religion is the accepted norm. When the question comes, it often is asked as “What do Unitarian Universalists believe?” and the only fair answer to that is to fall back to this category. We are non-creedal; we are not gathered around a shared belief. Individuals believe things, communities do not; the question “what do we believe” is the wrong question.
And then if we get into particulars, I often find myself having to say things like, “We do NOT believe the Bible is the literal word of God.” “We do NOT believe in Hell and, even though we are Universalists, most of us do NOT believe in a literal heaven either.” “We do NOT believe Jesus to be the only begotten son of God, or at least most of us do not.” And it is that last phrase “at least most of us do not,” that really causes confusion when talking to someone trying to correct my heresies. But then, that is exactly the phrase that begins to take us out of the rut of what we are not – which is when the conversation can get exciting for a person truly interested in Unitarian Universalism.
But generally speaking, this is a style of answering the question we do well to avoid. It is not all that helpful to tell people what we are not because it set us up to define ourselves by another religion’s categories. A Buddhist would never begin a conversation about Buddhism by stating they do not believe in the Tao or in Jesus as the son of God. They would begin by stating the four noble truths or outlining the life of the Buddha. So, all considered, this is a poor choice, or one to use sparingly.
I will however, offer you this. I have heard this style put to constructive use in one compelling scenario: as a way to demonstrate to atheists that atheism is a viable and valued path among us. Sometimes, who you are having the conversation with will lead you to choose one strategy over another.
#6 Personal Experience
The next pattern on my list is Personal Experience. This, I already shared an example of earlier. When I come to this amazing community of people, I am affirmed and challenged, uplifted and inspired. In this congregation I feel called to be my best self. I could also speak of our Social Justice work. What is Unitarian Universalism all about? It is about living our faith, it about walking the walk.
The down side to this style is that while it describes the experience of being in this community, it doesn’t really describe what the community is all about. It doesn’t explain the theology or the history or why we do the things we do. On the other hand, this is a great way for talking about Unitarian Universalism with someone who already has some understanding of us but is uncertain if they will fit in or if they just don’t care about the theology and are only really interested in finding a decent community.
#5 Interfaith Group
The next approach, moving up the list, is one that I actually disagree with, but in fairness I have heard a number of colleagues define Unitarian Universalism this way … so it is on my list. And there is a grain of truth to it I will admit. This is an approach that says Unitarian Universalism is not really a religion in its own right. It is more of a mutually respecting conglomerate of many religious perspectives. We have a diverse mix of theological perspectives: Pagans, Liberal Christians and Jews, Theists, Deists, Buddhists, Agnostics, Atheists, Humanists, Mystics, Transcendentalists, Native Spiritualities, and Process theologies. We are a respectfully gathered interfaith group, but not a religion per se.
Now, for each of these styles of answering I am trying to not only offer a fair rendering of it but to also lift up both its limitations and its benefits. But, I am biased about this one. So I will be brief. The limit of this approach is that it is not an accurate portrayal of Unitarian Universalism as I, at least, have experienced. What this approach has going for it is that it will be rather easy for non-UU’s to grasp the concept.
#4 Historical Overview
Our next pattern is one in which we offer a historical overview. I used to use this one a lot, especially when I was among Christian colleagues. Unitarian Universalism is a liberal religion born from the Judeo-Christian heritage, specifically from the liberal progressive wing of the Protestant tradition. Historically, the Unitarians believed in the unity of God. Rather than a Trinitarian formulation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Unitarians believed in one God with Jesus as a human, a deeply spiritual human but certainly not in some way also God. Historically, the Universalists believed that all people are saved. Rather than seeing a large portion of humanity predestined to go to Hell, Universalists believed that God’s love was stronger than any sin or mistake a human could make and in the end, all souls would be reunited with God in Heaven.
The down side to this approach is that these historic anecdotes do not always offer an accurate rendering of what Unitarian Universalism is all about now. It offers a snap shot of what we were, which for some faith traditions might be great. But ours is an evolving faith that grows and changes. Thus, only a small number of us believe as Unitarians or Universalists did two hundred years ago.
The reasons this would be a good approach to use again depends on who your audience is. When talking to liberal Christians, this can create a shared reference point. It is important, I think, to not let this be the end of the conversation and to instead find a way to bring the conversation around to the present, perhaps augmenting it with the approach of how we have become an Interfaith Group or how we are Covenanted Seekers.
#3 Theological Commonalities
The next style, counting up, is listed as Theological Commonalities. A generation ago, David Rankin produced a list of “Ten Things Common Believed among Us” that is a great starting point for conversation. He lists things like the authority of reason and conscience, tolerance of religious ideas, the worth and dignity of all people, and several more. I have often proclaimed how the vast majority of Unitarian Universalists believe that every person has worth and that our theology of the human condition declares that we have the capacity to choose to do good. Most of us believe we are interconnected with everyone and everything. Most of us believe that our personal experiences of life can lead us to know truth and find meaning.
The trick is that beliefs are not our center. Our center is covenant, a promise grounded in mutual respect to support and encourage each other despite theological differences. We have common beliefs, but beliefs are not what we hold at our center. So, to start talking about our theological commonalities is skating rather close to saying we have a creed. It is a nuance that can be easily lost in conversation with others – especially when so many other people define religion as a set of beliefs.
On the other hand, so long as we can be clear that such a list of theological commonalities is descriptive rather than proscriptive we will be able to say these are the kinds of beliefs we usually find together, with out it being a claim these are the beliefs you must subscribe to before being allowed in to our membership. The benefit would be, again, to create a shared reference point for the conversation, or to be able to offer a bone to gnaw on if the person asking about Unitarian Universalism is just fixated on the idea of beliefs.
How are we doing? I have two more to go and these are my favorites, the ones I recommend highest.
#2 Covenanting Seekers
In all my dozen years of ministry, this answer carries the strongest accuracy by all the lights I have been able to see. Ours is a covenanting faith. We do not gather around a set doctrine or creed, rather we join in a shared process of discovery. We promise to help each other in the search for what is ultimately meaningful in life. We are a church where you can believe as you must, as your conscience demands. We travel different theological paths, but our covenant leads us to support, challenge, and encourage those around us to each travel our different paths well. We are seekers first; always open to new learning to new insight, to new understanding. The best avenue we have found is to be seekers in community. The covenant of respect and mutual care is the framework that provides the freedom we long for and the best boundaries possible for being in community.
The only downside to this approach is that the concept of covenant is a foreign idea to too many people. And so there is some education needed when we use this style of answering. But isn’t that true for all the other styles of answering as well? The benefit of this way of explaining us to others is that it can convey the positive tension of individual-in-community that many of the other approaches miss. Many of the other patterns of answering will work well to unpack how we are individuals, but the concept of covenant is the heart of how we are able to be individuals together.
#1 Underlying Unifying Shared Values
The final style is to talk about the unifying shared values of Unitarian Universalism. Our faith tradition is now and always has been about some basic shared values such as freedom of conscience, respect and tolerance, reason and personal experience, justice and compassion, acceptance, democracy, and encouragement in spiritual and religious exploration. If you read through our seven Unitarian Universalist Principles you will find therein many values such as I have listed just now. The concept of Covenant even is rooted in certain values such as respect, freedom of conscience and Beloved Community. I don’t think there is any down side to this approach except in the need to narrow down the list of guiding values so as not to overwhelm your hearer.
What is Unitarian Universalism? Oh, there are many answers to offer to that question. Sometimes the answer you might offer will depend on who is asking or on the mood you’re in or the book or sermon you’ve just been reading or thinking about.
I have been blessed lately to be able to avoid unproductive or combative conversations with people about my faith. It has been several years since anyone tried to convert me or save me. Thankfully, instead, I have been having conversations with people who are genuinely curious to know more about Unitarian Universalism. I don’t know how this is for you, but I believe we would do well to open ourselves to more such questions and conversations. Answering such questions has helped me be clear about my understanding of our faith. Engaging such conversations has broadened the perspectives of others and has helped a few find their way here.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Five Habits of a Moderately Successful Minister
Let me tell you a story about my childhood. I have mentioned before that I grew up in an alcoholic home. My father, older brother and sister are all in AA and have been through recovery work for some time now. But back when I was a child growing up, our lives were very different. As the youngest in the family, I was lowest on the pecking order and my best defense was to hide from the chaos and unpredictability. I think that as a child my psyche must have circled the wagons. I was quiet and sullen. I avoided situations in which I would be vulnerable by spending most of my time alone in my room. I don’t think many of you would have recognized me from that time.
Now, I am very comfortable being at the center and being in the middle of what is going on. Then, I did everything I could to go unnoticed. This was the tactic I used at school as well as at home. I sat in the back of the class, squeaked by with C’s, and had no friends at the school until high school. I failed 9th grade history and had to take summer school. I almost failed my senior year of English. And high school is when things were improving for me. Someone reminded me this week about the time I told the story of growing up at the church and one of the elders had admitted to me only recently, “We were not so sure you were going to make it.” I wasn’t so sure I was going to make it. I was unhappy, isolated, sullen and unmotivated to participate in much of anything. I was intensely wrapped up inside myself.
It is sometimes hard for me today to believe that it was really like that. I function as a very different person now. The change did not happen overnight, but gradually as I eased into adulthood things changed. The reasons are legion. My father and my older siblings went into recovery. I went to college and experiencing life at my own pace. I started a family of my own. I discovered theater and music as outlets for my otherwise overwhelming shyness and unease around people. But let me lift up one thing in particular that changed in me; one thing that resulted in a significant shift in my perspective: advice my father offered to me one day. This is fitting, perhaps, as it is Father’s Day today.
My father’s advice came during my years in later elementary school. He and my mother had separated when I was four-years-old, but he lived one town away so we spoke nearly every day. It was around fifth or sixth grade that I had developed the habit of being sick on Wednesdays. I hated school at that point. I was regularly the target of ridicule and pranks. I particularly loathed gym class. There was not anything particularly awful about my schedule on Wednesdays I just felt I needed a break after a few days. So I would fake an illness. Stomachaches and headaches were the easiest to get away with.
One day my dad said to me, “There are days when I have gone to bed very late and when the alarm clock rings I may have only gotten a few hours of sleep. But I tell myself that I am waking up after a full night’s sleep. It’s enough to get me out of bed and moving.”
This statement, at the time, did not really sink in. Before too long I did shift that Wednesday off habit, but it was years later with my father’s voice echoing in my mind that I really began to appreciate what he was offering. Basically, what I came to hear in his words was this: you have more control over your body in particular (and your life in general) than you are taking credit for. You are more powerful than you are letting on.
This is the crux of what I want to offer this morning. There are people who go through life with a fair assessment of their strengths and gifts, a realistic sense of themselves in the world. They do what they do with their lives and don’t need to worry about being out of balance or overly self-critical or out of touch with some aspect of themselves. There really are people like this in the world. I am sure, if you are one of them, you could still use some improvement; you could still use some advice on how to be a better person or to improve your life. I am not sure I know what that advice might be, but don’t give up on it. Stay curious and something will open up, I am sure.
There are others, however, for whom life is not so clear. Others, such as myself, who have doubts or who struggle to be in balance. There are those who even may have an accurate sense of their gifts and strengths yet manage to stymie themselves and sabotage their own good sense. If you are like me, perhaps my father’s perspective may be of help. You are more powerful than you are letting on; you have more control of your life than you are taking credit for.
Now, there is a whole section in the bookstores devoted to helping people improve their lives. Of the “self-help” books, there are a few classics that have stood a test of time to still be useful. The Stephen Covey book Seven Habits of Highly Successful People is one such book. Looking through his list of habits, I see a lot of very sound advice. Know the difference between important work and urgent work. ‘Win-win’ scenarios are possible and more desirable in the long run than the competitive model of winners and losers. But at its core, Stephen Covey’s book is about developing habits, behaviors rather than abstract ideas.
So I thought perhaps there are spiritual parallels. Covey’s “Seven Habits” are based out of psychology and leadership theories. Would there be similar habits based on spirituality? What are the habits I have stumbled into in my ministry that have served me well? And might those habits translate into other aspects of living such as parenting or work-relations?
OK, confession time: the title of my sermon suggests I have five habits to offer rather than having a perfect parallel with Covey’s seven. Over this past week I discovered two things. First, the wayside pulpit sign put the number of habits I would be preaching on back up to seven, and the facebook announcement echoed that promise of “Seven habits of a moderately successful minister.” The second thing I discovered along these lines around midweek was that I really could only think of three. So really, this sermon is about Three Habits of a Moderately Successful Minister. Perhaps if I have seven or even five I would be more than moderately successful, but there you are. I’ve got three to offer.
The first habit is borne initially from the advice I heard and eventually took from my father. “Offer the best you have in every situation.” I realize there is some irony in stating my first habit as one in which I seek to offer excellence right after I admitted to doing only half of what I promised to do. But let me tell you my second habit which may serve to ameliorate this apparent contradiction. “Laugh and learn” is my second habit. Life is messy and mistakes happen. Don’t dwell on it, don’t waste energy and time lamenting or beating yourself up. Mistakes happen; laugh at the absurdity of life and see what there is you can learn from the mistakes. This second habit is a habit of acceptance. And it leads to my third habit which is to trust. “Trust yourself, trust the process, and trust the good people you are with.”
Offer the best you have in every situation
Laugh and learn
When my father reflected to me his habit to push himself to get moving in the morning, to trick himself really, to get moving in the morning, he was sharing a technique as well as a basic outlook: The technique is a form of self-talk or self-motivation which really does work. I’ve learned to use it myself. I have learned to tell myself that what I am feeling is really excitement not nervousness, for example. But that is just a technique, talking yourself into doing what you know you need to do. The deeper habit is to always offer the best of what you have in every situation.
Seek to offer the best within you for whatever you have before you. I remember a professor I had in seminary, he taught New Testament. Because I had done very well in his class I asked him for a letter of recommendation. In the letter he said he knew UUs to be free to critique and even ignore passages in the bible, particularly some passages that perhaps deserved to be ignored. But he found that I had not done that in his class. Instead I had tackled the biblical passages I had been assigned and uncovered worthwhile insights from them. My professor claimed to see in me not a particular passion for bible but instead a habit to always approach the work before me with my whole heart.
Of the three habits I am offering up this morning, I suspect this is the one that will translate easiest for you in any situation. I commend to you this habit to always offer the best within you for whatever is before you. This habit serves not only for tasks and projects but for people as well. As it says in Fred Small’s song Everything Possible, “If you give your friends the best part of yourself, they’ll give the same back to you.”
Of course, life is messy and complicated. What we think of as our best may not be quite what is needed, may not fit the situation. What we expect to be able to offer may at times fall apart by circumstance (or intention). Mistakes happen. I make many mistakes. This leads me to my second habit. If I did not have a decent habit for responding to my mistakes I would be in a lot of trouble because I make a lot of mistakes. So I laugh and I learn.
Perfection is over-rated I say. Mistakes and imperfection are some of the juiciest things in life. Mistakes and imperfections are, in many ways, what makes life beautiful and full of grace. By all means aim for excellence, aim to give the best within you for whatever you have before you. But when it gets messy or it all starts to fall apart then see if you can find a way to laugh. I don’t mean to say you should not take it seriously. I mean to say you should not make it worse with worry.
Once during my internship I botched up a small moment in worship. It was the custom of this particular church to share some context before offering the reading. I stood to do the reading and realized I had not taken the time to gather a sentence worth of context for the reading. I said, “Our reading this morning is from A. Powell Davies who …” and I stopped because I should have known who Davies was and I thought I had known but here I was standing up front and I didn’t have a clue what to say next. So I laughed and said, “Well, I am not sure who he was, but I really like what he wrote here and I think you will all like it too.” Later a member of the congregation said “Hey, if that kid can make a little mistake like that and keep going then I think any of us can do the same.” I suspect this wise elder already knew well enough the art of making mistakes but he clearly also knew the art of giving a student minister a shot in the arm.
But in fairness I did not only laugh and move on. I also learned. I learned I can role with a mistake like that but I also made sure to learn pretty quickly just who A. Powell Davies was. (And you don’t know, you should go find out. Davies was a rather remarkable minister!) So go ahead and make mistakes, accept imperfections – so long as you can learn from it. Aim for excellence but be ok with “good enough.” Then pick yourself up and aim for excellence again.
This leads us to Trust. At least it leads me to trust. Offer the best you have in every situation. Laugh at and learn from mistakes and imperfections. And trust.
Trust and faith share a lot of meanings together and in many ways are interchangeable worlds. While today is father’s day I must admit I learned a great deal about a behavior of trust by watching my mother at work. My mom served as the Director of Religious Education at the First Unitarian Church of Rochester when I was young, and she was ordained into the ministry there when I was a young teenager. Watching her in that setting was very illuminating. She taught me about trust through her example.
Things would be moving along there in the life of the church and something would come up – as something always does. And while others would get very anxious or would get worked up or upset or even panicked, my mother would calmly continue to do the next thing that needed to be done and move through all that anxiety with grace and calm. She would say, ‘we will get through this and it will work out.’ And then we would get through it and it would work out. Not always perfectly, but see habit number two for my answer to that.
Trust is not just a condition of believing that everything will work out. It is that, but it is more. It is also a behavior and can be a habit of dealing with situations. The habit of trust is to proceed on the assumption that things will work out. The habit of trust is to treat other people around us as though they also want the best outcome. The habit of trust is to accept that a sound process will bring us to a good solution – perhaps not the solution I want, but a good solution all the same.
When I think back on what I was like as a child I think the advice my father offered about my own power was invaluable. But at the root, my trouble was that I had no trust or faith. I did not trust the alcoholics in my family. I did not trust potential friends at school. I did not trust myself. In learning more about my own power I have also learned to trust myself and others. And that – I believe – is the basis of every good thing I have to offer as a minister and perhaps as a father and husband and friend and colleague as well. Not just trust, but the behavior and habit of trust – that is the heart of any success to which I might boast.
It is less about what you believe or about the principles you may espouse, and all about what habits and behaviors you have that guide your living. I commend to you to look at your life, to examine the habits that serve you well and bring ‘success’ in the many ways that word can be understood.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Study War No More
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Happy Mother’s Day. Religion has an old and deep tradition of honoring motherhood that is somewhat lost in our modern practice. Ancient religious rituals to honor the Creative power of divinity would invoke maternal symbolism, through either a mother-deity or in less-than ancient times the mother-church. Over time however, this has slipped out of practice in many traditions. What we now call “Mother’s Day” is broadly secular. We’re not giving mom flowers or breakfast in bed to honor the ancient creative divinity undergirding all that is. We’re giving mom chocolates and spa-treatments because we love our mothers and wish to show our gratitude for all they have done for us, first and for most: giving birth to us and nurture us through our early years.
It does feel as if the holiday has become a sentimental prop for corporate interests. Mother’s Day shopping is second only to Christmas. It is the top sales event for florists. Mother’s Day has become a billion-dollar industry.
Yet, the rampant consumerism of the holiday really has nothing to do with religion. And unlike the Christmas season debate between consumerism and religion, Mother’s Day never was a formal religious holiday and as such is not something to be ‘rescued’ by religion. Unless the piece to be rescued involves honoring the ancient earth-mother deities, which is really not something I hear about much. So I feel fairly safe in saying, Mother’s Day does not need to be rescued by religion.
Mother’s Day, or Mothering Day as it was earlier known in England, is clearly focused on the personal human mothers in our lives. There is a very secular base to the day. In the 1600’s in England Mothering Day was focused as a holiday for laborers to travel back to their home towns where they would gather with their families for feasting with mother as the guest of honor. Mothers were given cakes and flowers and visits from beloved though distant children. This was a compassionate holiday for the working class.
And it is not a holiday that traveled to this country, America had to invent Mother’s Day all over a few centuries later. This is probably due to the fact that it was the puritans who traveled from Europe to America and the puritans did not bring Mothering Day with them because it wasn’t religious enough.
And it was not until 1870 that Mother’s Day made its début in American culture. Julia Ward Howe, the woman who, ironically, had written the Battle Hymn of the Republic 12 years earlier, issued a Mother’s Day proclamation for peace. She called for an international gathering of women on June 2nd to bring those values and qualities of motherhood such as compassion, patience, and caring for one’s family to the boarder world family.
This original Mother’s Day was not a religious holiday to honor creation and the divine mother, but neither was this a day to let mom sleep in and be pampered. This was a day for mothers to take up the mantle of active citizenship and public activism for the goal of peace in the world. The vision of this woman who penned The Battle Hymn of the Republic was to spark women to gather for the abolition of war.
Thus, in the spirit of the original Mother’s Day, in the spirit of Julia Ward Howe’s vision, Mother’s Day might better be a day of taking to the streets, a day of prayer and action and involvement, a day of promoting peace among people and peace among nations.
One fond memory I have of my mother was the Sunday she led the congregation parading around the outside of the Church singing peace songs and carrying banners calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. The newspapers and TV stations came out and I was standing with her as she spoke to the press about why we were all outside singing that Sunday morning. I was so young then and so proud of myself for being part of that and singing so loud. Now, when I think back, I’m proud of her for organizing it and leading us to speak out for peace. Julia Ward Howe would have been proud too.
Rev. Dr. Forrest Church tells this story about his mother:
She even saved me from the bomb. It was 1958. Fire drills in elementary school had been temporarily replaced by nuclear attack drills. The alarm would go off and all of us would dutifully tuck ourselves under our desks. From the moment of the first alert to the arrival of the missiles, we had ten minutes. Three times a year we practiced this. I can assure you (and some of you will remember), ten minutes pass very slowly when you are crouching under your desk waiting for an imaginary bomb to fall.
So I planned my escape, and practiced by running home after school every day. Despite an innate lack of athletic ability, I finally got it down under ten minutes. One day I arrived panting at the door, and my mother, fearing that once again I had attracted the attention of neighborhood bullies, asked me why I was so winded. I told her my plan. She understood completely. “If there ever were a nuclear attack, I’d want you here with me, not at school under your stupid desk.”
So my mother went to the principal and requested that, in the event of nuclear attack, I might have permission to run home and die with her. The result was a new school policy. Should a nuclear attack take place, upon securing parental permission, those children who could get home within ten minutes would be excused from school.
I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s and did not have these bomb drills, but I had heard about them. And the news was filled with worry over the cold war and fear for the ever pending threat of World War III. I honor my mother today for showing me that we need not wring our hands or hide under desks or live in fear. I honor my mother this Mother’s Day for showing me that we can stand up and speak out for peace.
This is a message we still need today. War and violence have been very much in the news lately. The killing this past Monday, May 1st of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden by US troops has sparked a wave of response from relief to jubilation. It has also marked a resurgence in national conversation about war and about how best to respond to the evil we call terrorism. Among my colleagues and several members of the congregations the death of Osama bin Laden stirred up questions about the nature of a Unitarian Universalist response to the killing of bin Laden, to war and terrorism, and to the events of 9/11. Certainly we do not want to wage war, but when Osama bin Laden and others like him attack us it certainly tries our principles and convictions as a nation. And it tests our theology as Unitarian Universalists.
The Republican response as typified by President Bush was to take the fight to nations that harbor terrorists such as those who attacked our country nearly ten years ago now. The Democrat response as typified by President Obama was to take out the mastermind who orchestrated the September 11th attack resulting in the death of thousands of innocent American citizens. Personally, if I were in charge, my strategy would be to bring to bear the wisdom of Julia Ward Howe on our foreign policies. I would call for compassion and patience and the sense that we are all one human family, thus dismantling the injustices that sow the angry seeds of terrorism. I don’t know what Julia Ward Howe would suggest be done with Osama bin Laden or with terrorists. She did, after all, write the Battle Hymn of the republic out of her strong support of abolition and the Union cause of the Civil War. Yet when the Civil War had ended and the Franco-Prussian war began, Julia Ward Howe felt compelled to speak out against the endlessness of humanity’s warring ways.
I don’t know what Julia Ward Howe would have said about Osama bin Laden or about terrorists in general. I am certainly glad Osama bin Laden is dead and will not be spreading malice and suffering across the face of the earth any longer. But that gladness and relief is tempered by a sadness borne of my theology that must acknowledge that it took his death to accomplish this.
My colleague Chip Roush in Traverse City, Michigan wrote this prayer for today which I find compelling.
We call upon the ghost of Julia Ward Howe,
dead now one hundred years,
yet still alive in our imaginations and our hearts
we call you forth in our consciousness
to echo your cry
for a Mothers Peace Day
to end the unnecessary bloodshed
which we humans all-too-often employ.
We call you, dear Ms. Howe,
to help us make sense of the death of Osama bin Laden.
You, the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic,
know that self-defense and war are sometimes necessary.
Yet you, as a mother,
who lost her own mother as a child
and who lost a child herself,
know the tragic sting of death.
Mindful of the chaos and destruction
and the many, many deaths
on September 11, 2001,
and through the war-torn years since,
we honor the losses and the sacrifices
and we rejoice at this possible turning point
in the war on terrorism.
We rejoice at the possibility of peace,
but let us not rejoice at the loss of life.
Mother Julia, remind us
that every life has inherent worth,
that each person had a mother somewhere.
Help us to use this moment for self-reflection,
that we might grow and evolve.
Urge us to take this opportunity
to rededicate ourselves
to justice and compassion for all:
help us to end terrorism
by ending the injustices which fuel it.
Let us honor this Mother’s Day
as if it were your own Mothers’ Peace Day.
Let us honor mothers of all kinds,
and those who serve as mothers,
and those who would be mothers,
by creating a more just and peaceful world
for all children.
So may we be.
Yesterday I drove down to my cousin’s funeral service and I witnessed there a mother’s grief. My cousin was a veteran of the gulf war, he came home with (among other things) PTSD. My cousin had depression before going to war, so I won’t lay the blame all at the feet of war. And he believed in the war he had fought, believed he was making the world safer for freedom and for peace. The hell of war did not kill him, but the hell that lived in his head following the war did. My cousin received military honors at the graveside yesterday; they presented the flag to his father and mother in gratitude for his service to our country.
Motherhood is about creating a peaceful and healthful world in which your children can grow. Julia Ward Howe wanted to expand that compassionate sensitivity to all the world. “Women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.” “Arise, Arise, then, women of this day,” and “Let us take counsel with each other as the means whereby the great human family can live in peace.”
There is a movement afoot to bring the Original Mothers’ Day vision of Julia Ward Howe back into practice: to make the day one of activism and witness. While I was at my cousin’s funeral yesterday, there was a group back here in Binghamton gathered to commemorate that original vision and its call to peace.
I have a modest proposal. Rather than trying to reclaim the holiday, let us add to or adjust the current practice with a growing amount of activism and work to make the world a better and more peaceful place. Sort of like how at Christmas many people give with a social conscience. Some support the Heifer Project as a gift to friends and family, other shop at environmentally friendly stores. It is sort of like the way we have added a hands-on justice-making component to our UU Pal Sunday. We don’t need to stop doing the kind and enjoyable, fun and family-focused holiday activities we have grown to love and expect on Mother’s Day. But we certainly can augment the holiday with a thoughtfulness toward justice and compassion for the whole world.
As with every holiday, there are those for whom Mothers’ Day is not a joyful day for one of several real possibilities. Might this be a way for everyone to take part? Can we expand the day, allowing the honoring not only of each individual’s mothers but also of Motherhood and creation and peace? Can all of us honor Motherhood as a force of creation and as a drive to create a peaceful and healthful world in which the children can grow? Make a donation in honor of your mother, do something kind for children on the other side of the world or in your own neighborhood. Use your imagination. Dream.
Give some thought to it today and perhaps put it into action next year. What could be added to this day that would not detract from the wonderful displays of gratitude and love children offer? Mothers’ Day has been domesticated from its early wild ways. What can we do to unleash it again a little and allow the wildness in its eye to lead us closer to a world of love?
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Messages in the Music
I was in the car this past week with my older son and he looked over at the police car that was waiting at the red light next to us and reported that the cop was singing. I said, “No, he was probably talking to headquarters or something.” And Keenan laughed, “No, his shoulders were bouncing and he was into it. He was definitely singing.”
I’m the kind of person who sings in the car. I sing in the shower and in the living room and at the kitchen table and out on the sidewalk. I sing along to the radio and without the radio if the mood strikes me. There’s a popular TV show now called Glee and part of the charm of the show is the way the characters just break into song now and then. It’s a fun show and has, on occasion, really risen up to the level of social commentary – not always, but occasionally.
I suspect the allure is the music. It is almost like a musical except they don’t sing everything; they speak most of their lines and occasionally break into song. Perhaps it is closer to how, for some people, there is music bouncing around in their heads all the time; and in the world of Glee, sometimes this music comes out … with full back-up by the stage band who happen to be just standing over there.
There is something special about music. It gets at a level of the brain that regular words cannot reach. In some way it invites the hearer to share in the experience. It is like poetry or storytelling but more, because music gets into our awareness in a different way. Victor Hugo said, “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent.” I think he is referring specifically to instrumental or orchestral music. “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent.” It expresses something, but it also brings something out of us.
Aristotle wrote: “Music has a power of forming the character, and should therefore be introduced into the education of the young.” Pull that quote out during the next round of public school budget cuts. Or you could call on Aristotle’s counterpart, Plato who wrote, “Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other in the integration of the human being because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the Soul on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the Soul of him who is rightly educated truly graceful.” So, music weaves its way into your very being and calls forth a virtue of grace and character; at least according to the ancient Greek philosophers.
When you interact with young people who are listening to music, or blaring music, or deafening you with their atrocious noise … it is worth noting that something important is being transmitted through that music. There are messages in the music that shape our character, that define us and help us understand ourselves and our world.
Admittedly, the vast majority of good songs out there on the radio are basically love songs.
You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs.
But I look around me and I see it isn’t so. [Paul McCartney]
And there’s noting wrong with that (unless the message is grossly unrealistic or destructive. I’ll give you an example of that later.) But there is nothing wrong with a profusion of silly love songs. One of my favorite songs on the radio is by Michael Franti and Spearhead,
Say, hey, I be gone today
But I’ll be back around the way
Seems like everywhere I go
The more I see, the less I know
But I know one thing that I love you, baby girl
I love you, I love you, I love you.
Carlos Santana has said, “Just as Jesus created wine from water, we humans are capable of transmuting emotion into music.” And romantic love is not the only emotion that is out there on the radio waves. There are messages in the music.
There is a scene from a recent movie remake called I Am Legend starring Will Smith. Smith’s character is talking to someone about why he continues to try to make a difference. He talks about Reggae musician Bob Marley, saying:
He believed that you could cure racism and hate… literally cure it, by injecting music and love into people’s lives. When he was scheduled to perform at a peace rally, a gunman came to his house and shot him down. Two days later he walked out on that stage and sang. When they asked him why – He said, “The people, who were trying to make this world worse… are not taking a day off. How can I?”
That scene stuck with me and I started thinking about the messages I hear in the music around me. I wondered about the messages that we talk about here in this sanctuary about peace, light, acceptance, respect, and honoring each person’s path to the holy. And I wondered if there were songs out there on the radio that people are listening to that have messages like the ones we’re lifting up in here.
I have sung Cat Steven’s Moonshadow which seems to be about non-attachment and acceptance. And I’ve shared snippets of Gospel music and Sweet Honey in the Rock. And I’ve sung Blackbird singing in the dead of night. Take these broken wings and learn to fly, a Beatle’s song about overcoming the impossible. But what about today’s popular music? What about songs that are not ‘church music?’ These songs are from an earlier generation, what are the messages in today’s music?
In the 60’s and 70’s popular music became a vehicle of social change in a way unheard of before. The Times they are a-changing. “Come on people now, smile on each other, everybody get together, try to love one another right now.” How many times must a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see? There was a message in this stuff back then. A message about change, about righting the social wrongs, about making the whole world a new place guided by the law of love, about surviving and growing strong in the face of overwhelming hardship.
Listen to this song by Sam Cooke, written in 1964 on the edge of the growing Civil Rights Movement.
— Amoreena Wade sings Change is Gonna Come —
And now listen to a song from this generation about the prospect of change:
Waiting on the World to Change by John Mayer
me and all my friends
we’re all misunderstood
they say we stand for nothing and
there’s no way we ever could
now we see everything that’s going wrong
with the world and those who lead it
we just feel like we don’t have the means
to rise above and beat it
so we keep waiting
waiting on the world to change
we keep on waiting
waiting on the world to change
I want to grab John Mayer and say, haven’t you been paying attention? If you want change you don’t just sit there waiting for it to happen for you. You need to get up, stand up. Stand up for your rights. Get up, stand up. Don’t give up the fight. I mean what is it with this generation of mine?!
But in exploring this a little further I of course uncovered the songs “Dear Mr. President” by Pink and “American Idiot” by Green Day among several others from the past 10 years or so. The protest songs of today are subtler and perhaps rarer that they were in the 60’s and 70’s. But there are still some pretty good messages to be found.
I will admit that I limited my search to popular music on the radio, music that is out there floating around, if you will. I sent the question out on facebook asking people to suggest songs that had good messages. I had tons of responses. But I wanted to limit my search to popular music because that is the stuff that is floating around for most people to tune in to.
I checked the billboard charts to see what songs have been in the #1 spot lately. I gotta tell you, there have been three songs dominating the weekly #1 spot in 2011 and two of them have a really great message. The third one is a terrible song: Grenade by Bruno Mars. This Grenade song is about how the singer would catch a grenade for the woman he loves, throw his hand on a blade for her, jump in front of a train and so on. That in itself is bad enough, but the “I would die for you” message has been around for a while in music. The twist Mr. Mars adds in his #1 hit is when he sings:
Yes, I would die for ya baby; But you won’t do the same.
All I can think is that a willingness to die a violent death for someone is not a solid foundation for a lasting relationship and this woman was probably pretty smart to get out of that relationship.
But cheer up and take hope, the other two songs that have dominated the charts lately offer much better messages. Lady GaGa has a song called “Born This Way.” This song makes a strong statement against racism and homophobia.
No matter gay, straight or bi
Lesbian, transgendered life
I’m on the right track, baby
I was born to survive
No matter black, white or beige
Chola or orient made
I’m on the right track, baby
I was born to be brave
This song is becoming the anthem of this generation akin to Gloria Gaynor’s “I will Survive.” And while I still like Gaynor’s old song better, that’s not the point. The powerful message is still here. I’m on the right track baby, I was born to survive
The third song on the top of the 2011 charts is “Firework” by Katy Perry. Now, Katy Perry is not an artist I would have thought could produce this kind of song, but I have to admit I really like this one. Firework is basically saying that everyone has a spark inside; and that even if we feel like outcasts among our peers or feel lost or fragile or insecure – there is that spark within that can, with a little effort, blossom into a stunning display. That’s the kind of message I like to hear, that’s the kind of message we offer here.
The TV show I mentioned earlier, Glee, has done “Firework” and will be doing “Born This Way” later this season. But my favorite scene was a song sung by my favorite character, Mercedes – I know, I like Kurt too, but Mercedes is my favorite.
“Beautiful” by Christina Aguillera
Every day is so wonderful
And suddenly it’s hard to breathe
Now and then I get insecure
From all the pain, feel so ashamed
I am beautiful no matter what they say
Words can’t bring me down
I am beautiful in every single way
Yes, words can’t bring me down, oh no
So don’t you bring me down today
To all your friends you’re delirious
So consumed in all your doom
Tryin’ hard to fill the emptiness, the piece is gone
Left the puzzle undone, ain’t that the way it is?
‘Cause you are beautiful no matter what they say
Words can’t bring you down, oh no
You are beautiful in every single way
Yes, words can’t bring you down, oh no
So don’t you bring me down today
We have songs in our hymnal that offer this sort of message. Isn’t it nice to know that popular music is offering some of the same messages too?
And there is “Unwritten” by Natasha Beddingfield that talks about trusting your own experiences. And then “Hands” by Jewel that talks about empowerment and agency in life. And “You Found Me” by The Fray that is a modern retelling of Job, dealing with suffering and loss and a questioning of God. “Perfect” by Pink with its message that you may feel like you’re less than nothing but really you are perfect to me. Or Rob Thomas’ “Little Wonders” where he sings about how our lives are made of small moments, the everyday simple things that really matter. And U2 has been producing powerful and poignant songs for a couple of decades now.
You know, there really are a lot of great songs with great messages out there today. Listen for the messages. Google the lyrics and learn what the song is saying. What are the messages in the music you choose to listen to? Ask other people what they’re listening to and why? What are the messages in the music you hear around you, the music that is being absorbed by our youth and children? It was Nietzsche who said, “Without music, life would be a mistake.” So listen for the music. Remember Aristotle when he said “Music has a power of forming the character.” Let us listen, and lift up the best messages from our music.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
A Welcoming Congregation: Still Standing!
Rev. Douglas Taylor
We have a big bright banner hanging in our social hall that proclaims we are Standing on the Side of Love. The banner, linked to this wonderful anthem we just had, is part of a major justice-making campaign in Unitarian Universalism. It began a little over a year ago. One of the explanatory sentences says, “This campaign seeks to harness the power of love to stop oppression, exclusion, and violence.” Unitarian Universalism, as a faith tradition, stands up with love against oppression and exclusion and violence. For religious reasons we stand with the oppressed and the excluded. It could be for political reasons or social reasons, and those are a part of all this. But really, we stand on the side of love for religious reason.
On a national level, the campaign targeted two particular issues and communities of oppression. As a congregation, we have taken the “Standing on the Side of Love” idea into nearly every aspect of our justice making efforts, but on the national level the focus is of the oppression, exclusion, and violence against sexual minorities and undocumented immigrants. Next week the focus of my sermon will be on immigration. Today our focus is on our congregation’s stance as a Welcoming Congregation and with lgbt issues such as gay marriage.
Gay marriage is one of those exciting and sensational issues today. I am in the camp of people who feel it is long past time for our country to allow gay and lesbian couples to legally marry. I’ll even go so far as to push it as a separation of church and state. Let the state get out of the marriage business all together! Let the state give everyone a legal ‘union’ with all the legal rights and responsibilities that go with it. Then if a couple wants to be religiously wed as well then they can go to their clergy of choice and get right with God or whatever. But I doubt we’ll see that much change anytime soon, so I’ll keep pushing for marriage for same sex couples as it is currently formulated.
And now I hear that the general public, by a slim majority, agree with me. Columnist Leonard Pitts’ recently wrote a great article about that point. He didn’t write about how 51% of Americans agree with me exactly; the article was about how the majority now agree that gay men and women have a civil right to marry. Pitts admits, however, to a certain nagging concern in the news of this new poll data. Certainly it is great that a growing majority are ready to repeal the restrictions against marriage equality, that the great ‘voice of the people’ is growing more unified in its support. And yet …
Pitts puts it like this, “Yes, the will of the people matters a great deal. Indeed, in a democracy, few things are more deserving of deference. But still, one draws up short at the idea that human rights are subject to a popularity contest.” Lyndon Johnson did not take a poll of the American people before signing the Civil Rights Act of ’64 or the Voting Rights Act of ’65. The country was founded on the notion that all persons have ‘unalienable’ rights.
If you believe that, [Pitts’ writes,] then you cannot buy into this notion of a nation where rights are magnanimously doled out to the minority on a timetable of the majority’s choosing. You and I cannot “give” rights. We can only acknowledge, respect and defend the rights human beings are born with.
That’s the pebble in the shoe, the popcorn husk between the teeth, that nags at the conscience when one reads polls tracking how many of us approve of other people’s lives and decisions. It’s all well and good that 51 percent of us support the right of gay men and lesbians to tell it to the judge, but really, what hubris makes us think we have a right to say yea or nay in the first place?
One hopes that, as they grapple with the issue of gay marriage, our leaders will also grapple with that question. And find in it the courage to understand what Lyndon Johnson did: You don’t do the right thing because it’s popular.
You do it because it’s right.
Over my dozen years in ministry I have officiated as many same sex unions, non-legal ceremonies that recognize and honor the commitment and love between two people. A few weeks ago I walking in on a conversation my wife was having with our two boys, 18 and 9 years old, respectively. They were talking about one of the gay couples we know who are legally married, but how they had to go to Canada for the ceremony. I mentioned another couple we knew who did this in Vermont. Our youngest son was confused by this. My wife clarified for him saying that in New York State it is not yet possible to get married if you are a gay or lesbian couple. But our state does recognize other state and international marriages. In other words, you can be married to someone of the same sex in New York, you just can’t get married. To which our 9-year-old said, and I quote, “That’s stupid.”
In May of 2004, Massachusetts became the first state that allows same-sex marriage. The first same-sex couple to get a marriage license in Massachusetts was a UU couple and it was issued by the UU city clerk. And the minister officiating at the ceremony was Rev. Bill Sinkford, then president of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
But here in New York, we still do non-legal ‘services of union.’ The first service of union done by a UU minister for a same-sex couple was reportedly done in the late 1950s. [http://www.uua.org/documents/obgltc/history.pdf] It became more common practice in the late 1970s and early 1980s; and in 1984, we passed a resolution at our General Assembly affirming the use of “services of union” to recognize committed same-sex relationships, thus giving it official religious sanction.
But support for gay marriage is not the whole package. Indeed, that is only one aspect, a social and political aspect of a much broader picture. We are a religious community and as such there are deeply religious reasons for our support and the greatest hallmark of that support is the kind of community we create in our congregations. We are a Welcoming Congregation, which means something very particular. The Methodists have “Reconciling” congregations, the UCC call their communities “Open and Affirming,” while some Presbyterian churches have “More Light.” For Unitarian Universalists congregations we say we are “Welcoming.”
One of the first objections to being a Welcoming Congregation in a liberal community such as this is not to quote objections from the Bible or say it is against God’s will to be open and accepting of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. We don’t get into biblical arguments here.
Other churches will make use of what have been called the “Clobber Passages” in the Bible. There are 4 or 6 or 10 passages, depending on how you count them, in the bible that are used to condemn homosexuality. But as Unitarian Universalists we have long ago stepped away from a literal reading of scripture. We have long since subscribed to the notion that the Bible is a human document, a library of books by different human author at different times from different cultures and that each text has both culturally bound portions we can set aside amidst the enduring and profound parts. So we just ignore the so-called Clobber Passages. This is not a problem for us. We just side-step the whole issue of “the bible says …” Everyone picks and chooses which scriptural texts they lift up and use. Someone once said (Lynn Lavner, comedian and musician) “The Bible contains six admonishments to homosexuals and 362 admonishments to heterosexuals. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love heterosexuals. It’s just that they need more supervision.”
We Unitarian Universalists have a history that leads us to see this in a particular direction. We’re guided by love. We acknowledge that we are picking and choosing just like everyone else. We choose love over hate. We stand on the side of love.
So if biblical quotations are not the first line of objection among Unitarian Universalists to becoming and living the reality of being a Welcoming Congregation, what is? It is this: why single any one group out for welcoming. We are welcoming to all!
Unfortunately, churches are still the most anti-homosexual institution in America. Much of the hate against gays and lesbians is couched in religious, biblical language. The vast majority of people in prison for gay-related crime cite “religious” motivations (from p11, Welcoming Congregation). Homosexuality is the last acceptable group to hate for religious reasons – at least acceptable to some … It is not acceptable here. But it remains particularly hard for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people to trust that a religious community will be a safe community. That is why we are specifically singling out gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people to welcome.
I was invited to speak a few weeks ago at Binghamton University to a small group of trainers for “Safe Zones.” Rev. Art Suggs from First Congregational and I spoke about how our congregations were welcoming communities and that we each came from a theological perspective that said homosexuality is welcomed, affirmed and even celebrated. Near the end of our conversation with the university people I asked, “As a person comes out of the closet about their sexual orientation, I am getting the sense that they feel the need to go into another closet if they feel at all religious.” The people around the table confirmed that this is often the case. If you are gay, it feels like you can be open about your sexuality or your spirituality but not both.
Religion has such a bad track record among gays and lesbians that a community such as ours has to go a little out of the way to be clear. It’s not enough to say, “It doesn’t matter to us if a person is gay.” We need to say, “Yes, it does matter, and all of us are welcome here.” Holly Near, composer of our opening hymn, has credited Unitarian Universalist congregations as one of the only open public places where gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and openly question people could meet socially, spiritually, and politically outside of bars for far too many years.
Our Binghamton congregation was one of the first congregations to go through the Welcoming Congregation program. The workbook was published in 1990. We completed the process and had our congregational vote to officially become “Welcoming” in June 1992, which is impressive. We were one of about ten or twenty congregations in the country at that point. Now, well over half of all Unitarian Universalist congregations are officially “Welcoming Congregations,” meaning they have gone through the workbook process. It is generally fair to say that even those of our congregations that have not done the official work are still very open and accepting communities.
Part of the process is to create structures within the life of the community to be intentionally welcoming. For example, as good UUs one of the requirements for the program is to create a standing committee that will hold LGBT issues and concerns. We had the “Gay and Lesbian Concerns” committee for a long time and in trying to be more inclusive without lengthening an already long committee name, the group has recently become the Rainbow Alliance.
When I began serving this congregation in 2003, there was an active committee hosting an annual Sunday morning worship service during the year and participating significantly in an annual interfaith evening service each summer. Over the years the energy had faded until a few years ago there was a concerted effort made by the congregation’s leadership to revitalize the committee. It seems to be working. Alongside the activities the Rainbow Alliance has in motion already now, I have been suggesting we consider going through the Welcoming Congregation workshop again.
Currently the program is in its second edition. And it has been suggested that a congregation can pick up just the revised portions when they want to re-do the process. One major change from the first to second edition is found in the attention given to racism and the confluence of oppressions such as racism and homophobia. The second major change is in the attention given to bisexual and transgender concerns. It is noted that people work to dismantle homophobia first, then biphobia and then transphobia – in that order.
I don’t know, calling it all about ‘phobias’ like that is not an enticing way into the conversation. I absolutely understand that fear is at the root of a lot of the issues, but it seems to me the driving reason this all matters to us, why it matters to me, is that I want all of us to be able to gather in an open and welcoming congregation like this to grow in spirit and compassion so we can build a better world together. I want my friends to be able to come here – all my gay, straight, lesbian, trans, bi, and questioning friends.
For nearly 20 years now, this congregation has been standing up as Welcoming and celebrating community, offering a loving message of inclusion and acceptance. Nearly 20 years and we’re still standing on the side of love. And when we are welcoming to those who are shunned for supposedly religious reasons, then we are welcoming in all the best of ways.
In a world without end,
May it be so.