Monday, November 24, 2014

Coming Out (November 10, 2014)

Ritual of Remembrance

Let us honor of the Transgender Day of remembrance, celebrated around the world each year on November 20, with the words of Geena Rocero, Transgender Activist and Model. These words are from the Ted Talk where she came out to the world.
Ayla Nettles [was] from New York, she's a young woman who was courageously living her truth, but hatred ended her life. For most of my community, this is the reality in which we live. Our suicide rate is nine times higher than that of the general population. Every November 20, we have a global vigil for Transgender Day of Remembrance. I'm here at this stage because it's a long history of people who fought and stood up for injustice. … Today, this very moment, is my real coming out. I could no longer live my truth for and by myself. I want to do my best to help others live their truth without shame and terror. I am here, exposed, so that one day there will never be a need for a November 20 vigil.

We light a special candle today for all those who were victims of violence or who live in fear because they are transgender

We light this candle in memory, but also in hope that someday no one will be afraid to live authentically.

Harvey Milk gave that speech in 1978, 7 months after he became the first openly gay person in the United states to be elected to office. He had come to San Francisco at a time when the police regularly raided gay clubs, arresting folks they found there on “morals charges.” In those days you could be evicted for intimate acts in your own home. Gay business owners were refused business licenses. You heard Milk mention “Prop 6,” also called the “Briggs Initiative,” which would have banned gays and lesbians (and may be folks who supported gay rights) from working in the public schools in California. Discrimination was everywhere.

In the 1960s the Gay and Lesbian community had begun to fight back. Milk, who served in the Navy during the Korean war, and now owned a camera shop in the Castro, began running a grass roots campaign for City Supervisor in 1973. It took him 5 years, but through growing a web of relationships in his community, and by building coalitions with other communities, on election day in 1977 he was elected and prop 6 was defeated.

When Harvey Milk made that speech, coming out carried some significant risks. You could be fired for being gay, you could be evicted and you would have no legal recourse. Many who came out to their families were cast out or disowned. Milk was calling on all who would listen to do a very brave thing. I’m told that in those days Gay and Lesbian clergy met secretly together, organizing by word of mouth, knowing they would lose their ministry if anyone knew their truth. Today clergy are out in the pulpit, and out in the streets advocating for marriage equality. This fall two couples from our congregation were married in big public weddings in Bradford County Pennsylvania! There was a time when none of us could imagine such a thing. But by coming out to our families, to our friends, to our communities one by one, we have facilitated a great turning of the minds and hearts of people all over the world.

Meg Riley, one of the many openly gay clergy in our movement, believes that the way we began to turn the tide on marriage equality, and the way forward is “deep intimate conversations with people you know, and people you don't. Values based [conversations], where you start with what they think instead of bombarding them with facts about what you care about.” The tide started to turn when the Gay and Lesbian sons and daughters of Congressmen came out to their parents. By coming out to our neighbor, our barber, or boss we interrupted entrenched ideas about what it meant to be queer, about what it meant to be married. People opened their hearts and were changed. When I started writing this sermon 32 states legally recognize same sex unions, but with the latest rulings in South Carolina and Missouri it is now 34. When I was ordained 16 years ago, there was not a single state where I could perform a legal wedding. This is an amazing transformation that we should celebrate. We can be proud that Unitarian Universalism has been part of this good work.

When Apple CEO Tim Cook came out recently he was the first CEO of a major corporation to out himself while still serving in that capacity. He says of his decision:
"I don't consider myself an activist, but I realize how much I've benefited from the sacrifice of others," he said. "So if hearing that the CEO of Apple is gay can help someone struggling to come to terms with who he or she is, or bring comfort to anyone who feels alone, or inspire people to insist on their equality, then it's worth the trade-off with my own privacy."

Fortunately he serves Apple at a time and place where probably his job was not at risk for his courageous truth telling. But when Jason Collins, a Center in the NBA, became first openly gay man to actively play for a major professional sports team [vi] he knew that he worked in a profession rife with homophobia, where fellow players went on the record saying discriminatory things against gay and lesbian people. This is part of what he wrote in that now famous op-ed article in Sports Illustrated:
“No one wants to live in fear. I've always been scared of saying the wrong thing. I don't sleep well. I never have. But each time I tell another person, I feel stronger and sleep a little more soundly. It takes an enormous amount of energy to guard such a big secret. I've endured years of misery and gone to enormous lengths to live a lie. I was certain that my world would fall apart if anyone knew. And yet when I acknowledged my sexuality I felt whole for the first time. I still had the same sense of humor, I still had the same mannerisms and my friends still had my back.”

Collins was a free agent at the time, and he knew he might never play professionally again because of this decision. In fact many hateful things were said about Collins when he chose to come out. But the first time he took to the court after his public disclosure, the fans gave him a standing ovation. Collins said in an interview later “The atmosphere was incredible. Even my first game back during the regular season when I entered the game and getting a standing ovation from the crowd in Brooklyn is something that I will never forget. This amazing moment shows the character of the fans in Brooklyn.”
We have come so far on this issue, but there is still a ways to go. Even now that Pennsylvania recognizes marriages equally, it is not really “safe” to come out, is it? In the state of Pennsylvania, it is still legal to deny a person housing, or employment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Several states prohibit the second parent from adopting their own child when the parents are of the same gender. We recognize Transgender day of remembrance because we know there is still bullying and violence experienced by our transgender neighbors and friends. Coming out today still takes courage, still has power, still requires discernment.
My colleague Nada Velimirovic said once “When I feel that tension in my stomach, I know that it is time to come out.” Do you know that feeling? It happens to me not only when I come out as queer, but whenever I reveal some part of my identity that doesn’t feel completely safe. When your relatives are bashing Obama and you feel compelled to mention that you voted for him. When someone at work says “we’re all Christians here” and you say “Actually, I’m a humanist. ” When you are seated around a big festive table and the person next to you hands you the platter of Turkey and you have to say “Actually, I don’t eat meat.” It happens in a hundred little ways in our ordinary life whenever we risk saying the truth of who we are -- we get the sweaty palms or the lump in our throat that tells us that what we are about to say is a risk.
Coming Out is not the only choice we can ethically make. Wiccan Author and Activist Starhawk tells the story of being welcomed into the home of a Muslim woman while she was in the middle east protesting the treatment of Palestinians. She spoke to this woman in the role of a woman born Jewish in America in the 1950s, feeling that being present across that Muslim – Jewish divide was as much as the meeting could bear, without beginning to explain what on earth Wicca was. She chose not to come out as Wiccan that day. For folks who follow the goddess traditions, there is a realism that comes from remembering the times when women were burned at the stake for such things. A friend of mine who was trained in the tradition of the goddess Hecate, told me that her teacher lived in a very proper British home, all the elements of her religious observance folded into the appearances of ordinary culture-- sometimes passing as mainstream is the smart thing to do.
In UU culture and history we hold up the stories of Servetus, burned at the stake for outing himself and his heretical beliefs. We honor Joseph Priestly who fled to America when his home and his church were burned by an angry mob for his radical political and religious beliefs. And usually I do cone out is bisexual, and usually I do come out as Unitarian Universalist, but recently when I was at a training for clergy on mental health issues and the presenter asked, rhetorically “We’re all Christian here, right? We all know where we are going when we die?”  I considered interrupting his presentation to out myself, but I struggled with what I would say: "Actually, I'm Unitarian Universalist, and while some UUs are Christian, I myself am not..." ultimately I just sighed and let it go.Each of us must discern in our own hearts when to answer that call to come out, when to stay quiet and when let that nervous knot in our stomach call us to speak truth of who we are.
In 1992, Oregon was considering an anti-gay rights initiative called Measure 9. The Portland UU church wrap the whole church block in a large yellow ribbon and declared it a “hate-free zone.” Some families left the church over the decision, but many more new members joined, drawn by their courageous stand. "Brothers and Sisters… you must come out." Said the great Gay Activist Harvey Milk in 1978. Who could have imagined how the world would be transformed between then and now, and how our coming out changed the world. These words are not only an important part of our history as Americans, as human beings, but they are also a prophetic imperative in our own times. Part of supporting the inherent worth and dignity of all people is supporting one another when we speak the truth of who we are. Coming out both closes and opens doors. That nervous ball of energy that builds as we will ourselves the courage to speak releases an energy for change in ourselves and in our communities. And we know now, 36 years after Harvey Milk made his impassioned plea, that it can transform the world in amazing ways.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

They Wyrd of Universalism (Ocrober 19, 2014)

When you go to big gatherings of Unitarian Universalists, there is always buzz about the future of our movement. Together we try to cast a vision of who we are becoming, who we are called to be. One of my favorite presenters at such events is Galen Guengerich who serves the All Souls Church in New York City. They have 1000 members there and three full time ministers. Whenever Galen gives a workshop at GA it is going to be on the cutting edge. There might be a full jazz ensemble providing meditative interludes. There is certainly a high tech AV system, so that when he wants to references something from popular culture, he pushes some magic button and there is perfect cinema quality music and sound, seamlessly integrated into his presentation.
Sometimes at these national events where large abundantly staffed congregations take the lead, it’s easy to feel left behind. We are told that if we are not skillful about our presence on twitter and Facebook, we won’t appeal to a younger populous, that if we don’t sophisticated technology, and current popular music in our worship, the millennial generation won’t feel at home. We begin to wonder if our low-tech churches are relics of a time past.
When I was a very little girl participating in the town Easter egg hunt for the first time I found the whole experience kind of overwhelming and confusing. After 5 minutes of chaos the hunt was over and I returned to my mom, probably crying, holding my basket with only one egg, Mom told me this story, which has been almost archetypal for me ever since. She said “When that crowd of children headed left, you headed right. There you were alone with dozens of eggs, but when you looked up and saw where the other kids were, you left the eggs and followed the crowd. Of course by the time you got there, all the eggs were gone, and when you came back to where you started, all those eggs were gone too. If you had just stayed where you were, you would have a basket full of eggs right now.”
I have been mulling over that story ever since. When I realize that I have been separated from the crowd, I try to ask not “how can I get back into the crowd” but “where are the eggs around me, right now, that only I can reach.” This morning’s sermon is not a challenge to keep up with the crowd, to have higher resolution visuals in your sanctuary or to design an App for your congregation that works with the latest smartphones. You already receive plenty of encouragement from our culture to move in that direction. Instead, let’s look at the eggs hiding around us right now. 
First, we here at UUCAS, and many of the Pennsylvania Universalist Convention churches, are family sized churches. I don’t have to tell you the challenges of being a small church- we live those each week. But I want to remind us of the special gift of the small church, which is relational-ity. Anyone who has ever gone to a large church knows that sometimes it can be a lonely experience. But I can’t remember a time when I’ve felt lonely at UUCAS. Even when I came to preach here for the first time your friendliness shone and I felt welcome. There is no chance of getting lost in the crowd here, we know each other and we know each other’s lives. We open our hearts to newcomers and visitors. Younger generations have a lot to teach us about the rapidly evolving web of social media, but people of every age will always want a place in the physical world where they can be with people they know and trust, and where they can meet new people in a web of community.
There are other hidden gifts of being small. I hear story after story from colleagues at larger institutions about how hard it is to maintain a large salaried staff. At General Assembly a speaker referenced with a nervous laugh the emerging trend that more and more ministers will be piecing together part time and multi-site ministries. I thought to myself- well on this one at least we are ahead of the curve! When the Alban institution closed after decades of being leaders in church life, a journalist theorized that we are headed into a time when many such institutions will be closing because they have an infrastructure that is unsustainable. At UUCAS we have always used our money carefully, staying lean. We don’t confuse the success of our shared ministry with the trappings of monetary success. It’s easy to look longingly at churches with full time youth ministers and a state of the art AV system for seamless video content in worship. But when the crash happened, UUCAS had a lean infra-structure, and no debit, and a board that understands the importance of stewarding its resources carefully to keep our institution sustainable. Moreover, we have the incredible privilege and responsibility of being part of the PUC, another community that has a long term view toward the survival of Universalism. 
Our small size also makes us nimble. I came from a church where even after 2 years of meetings we could not begin to imagine how we could make composting church food scraps into a reality. Here at UUCAS the children were painting compost buckets one Sunday, and Katie bought an extra one for the church. Now Chris or Carol or Katie take the scraps home whenever the bucket is used, and so composting happens. Now that doesn’t mean anything we want will just happen. My first year as your minister a Coming of Age program with the Fellowship in Big Flats came together quickly and the whole congregation jumped in to support it. It was important to the young UUs who came of age, and it was powerful to me. Last year we had no teens at all here most Sundays. There was no force of will that would have made a Coming of Age program happen. It would have been like a Fish trying to go adventuring on land. But it’s starting to look like next year may be one of those magical Coming of Age years again. This is not a church where we can promise families that every week there will be a Sunday school class at each grade level, but today I have no doubt that Chris and those kids are up to something cool. Because we are nimble we are able to respond as the moment unfolds to the needs and gifts of our community. The full moon drumming circle is another example. When I first arrived at the church there was a lively bunch that came to drum under the leadership of Marion Minnick. When Marion no longer lead the circle, that field lay fallow for several years. Then the gifted Janelle came into our membership, and up it springs full of life. 
Another gift of this church is our location. The Valley NEEDS us. So often I get advice like “you should connect with the local GLBT community center” and I think, well, I guess that’s us. “Why don’t you work with the local interfaith group?” I guess that’s us too. “What about a local humanist group.” That’s DEFINITELY us. The Valley is what you might call an “underserved community.” We are needed here. Folks from the valley reach out to me to marry them when they don’t know where else to go. Can I marry GLBT folks? Of course. Atheists? Naturally. Whether or not this congregation could ever grow large enough for a full time staff, we have an important ministry in this community. We are needed here. Moreover, the UUA need us here. When I stand up at national UU gatherings and explain that the technology gap is alive and well in rural Pennsylvania, that members of my congregation have limited access to the internet not only because of financial realities, but also because no one will run high speed cable lines out to some of our homes, my colleagues look genuinely surprised. When we remind our colleagues that the impressive list of webinars offered to our congregations don’t works so well over dial-up, we speak for all those UUs and folks who might never find UUism because they are on the wrong side of the technology gap. 
Here in Rural Pennsylvania, we also understand the political diversity of UUs. We know there are Unitarian Universalists who support second amendment rights. We know that UUs have complex feelings about hydrofracking. If there is ever going to be a true dialogue between genuinely different opinions, if we are ever to reach across the gap between liberal and conservative, it is going to start in a community like ours, where our neighbors have changed their minds about same-sex marriage because of that nice couple down the road, and we, in turn, have the opportunity to have our own minds stretched by our neighbors and friends. Or, what was it Kathleen McTeague called it yesterday? “Glad Curiosity.”
That, already, is a field of eggs wider than we can ever gather in –even with all 40 members of UUCAS working diligently together, even with every congregation in the PUC. So how do we discern our Wyrd, our own unique path? Recently our congregation adopted a mission statement: to be a liberal religious community dedicated to service, spiritual growth, and ethical living. The heart of that, the starting place has to be “spiritual Growth.” That’s what makes us different from the Food bank of the Southern Tier, or the United Way. One of the teachers in my Spiritual Direction Training, Don Bisson, introduced us to Karl Rahner, the famous catholic theologian who influenced Vatican 2. Rahner said “Christians in the coming age must all become mystics or be nothing at all.” Don interpreted his statement this way: “[Rahner’s] vision is: the future of the church-- if the church is going to have a future-- is how do we initiate men and women into the universal call to holiness and union with God because that’s where the world would change. Not on what denomination you belong to, or whether you are Christian or not Christian, the transformation of the world is dependent on our call to holiness.”
Rahner is saying a very Universalist thing here. He is saying that whatever deeper truth lays at the heart of things, spirituality must either be at the core of who we are as a church, or we may as well close our doors. For all the folks who check off “none” on surveys about religion, it is not obvious why they would want to support the Unitarian Universalist tradition or any other tradition. But the soul hunger for the depth of life, that is universal. And the capacity to seek and find that depth, Universalists believe that this is the right and potential of each and every person. The first source of our UU tradition is: “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.” In other words, mysticism. This is the single most important thing we can offer the world, direct experience of the forces which create and uphold life. Which renew our spirit.
Rahner calls this “union with God.” But we know that not all UUs, nor all those in the wider community who are spiritually hungry are comfortable with the word “God”, so let’s switch gears a bit and look at this from the psychological perspective. Don continues “We get lost if we don’t experience something deeper in us than just our superficial ego needs. We get lost. This is what Jung called soul murder.”
There is no App to feed our spiritual hunger. It is not Facebook that brings us back to the deeper self when we are lost. The reason I like, for example, to sit and hear Galen’s talks is not because of how his beautiful technology (okay, maybe a little. It is pretty cool) but it is because he has a message worth hearing. And you, you left your home this morning not because everyone on Twitter was talking about today’s service, not because you wanted to follow the crowd, but because you wanted to experience something directly- you wanted to connect with other people, face to face, you wanted to connect with something deeper inside yourself. You wanted to connect something bigger, larger, wider --the interconnected web of life of which we are all a part. And from that place of holiness, from there we can serve lovingly. From there we can live ethically, from there we can transform the world. 
I believe that far from living in a time when these old rural churches are a historic remnant, these hills and valleys where our churches were planted over a century ago are filled with ministry that is calling out to us- filled with Easter eggs, if you will. The need for our Universalist tradition and for our beloved communities is so great, that an equally great discernment is needed. We have to be willing let go of everything we “should be doing” --all those ideas we hear at conferences, the ministries we witness at other churches, in order to hear our own destiny. Sometimes we have to have the courage to take our eyes off the crowd, and the faith to look for our wyrd, our ministry right here where we are.