Many of my sermons can be found in written or mp3 form on the website of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto.
Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013: “A Religion for this World”
Sunday, August 19, 2012: “The New Normal”
Sunday, April 22, 2012: “Thinking Like the Earth”
Saturday, December 24, 2011: Christmas Eve homily
Sunday, June 19, 2011: “Getting Unstuck”
Friday, December 24, 2010: Christmas Eve homily
Sunday, July 11, 2010: on judgment and mercy
Thursday, December 24, 2009: Christmas Eve homily
“There is a Balm in Gilead”
new verses written on the occasion of Bass Lake weekend, September 2010
essay on bisexuality and Unitarian Universalism
And now I’m going to tell you a story too. But first I need you to tell me something. When you walk into a Christian church, what are some of the things you see? Especially the things up front here, at what’s called the altar?
(People say: cross, crucifix, candles, flowers)
Thanks! Here’s my story.
Once upon a time, in fact, just about ten years ago, there were two people who were Christian and studied Christianity and wrote books together about religion. They were traveling in Europe to some of the oldest churches, the ones that have been around since a few hundred years after the Christian religion began. They were beautiful churches. The traditional shape for old churches is a cross or sometimes a capital T, and this part of the church (gesturing over altar) is called the apse—often it has a high ceiling or dome and the inside of the dome is covered in pictures. The apses at these churches were filled with pictures of Jesus and the saints, the natural world and stories from the Bible. And after a while, these two people started to notice something odd about these pictures.
They went to one, in Ravenna, Italy, that was built in the sixth century. Its ceiling is a gorgeous mosaic of flowers, trees, and birds. In this mosaic, a blue sky stretches behind hills of mossy green rocks. Sheep are in the hills, and the figures of saints, and in the midst of it all is the face of Jesus. But there is no crucifix.
They went to the catacombs outside Rome, which were places people were buried and so they had a great deal of religious meaning. There they saw many pictures of Jesus. There’s Jesus’s birth, and Jesus healing people, and Jesus feeding a huge crowd with just a few loaves and fishes, and Jesus as a shepherd. But there is no crucifix.
They went to the church that has the earliest image of Jesus of any church apse, Santa Pudenziana in Rome, which also has mosaics, created three to four hundred years after Jesus’s time. It shows Jesus holding a book and talking with his students. There is no crucifix.
They started to wonder what was going on, and they did some research, and they discovered something amazing: there are no images of Jesus on the cross for the first thousand years of Christian church-building. For the first half of Christianity, crucifixion is not a central image. It’s not an image at all.
There are crosses, yes. They just don’t have Jesus on them. He’s doing other things: healing, teaching, making gestures of welcome and blessing. The people who built and worshipped in these holy places knew all about the crucifixion. It was part of the story, a key part of the story, as Dan just related; it’s told in all four Gospels. Jesus died and he died on the cross. That just doesn’t seem to be the part of the story that interested Christians for half of the history of Christianity.
This is quite a shocker to people like me, and maybe you, and most people who walk into a Christian church nowadays. It was quite a shocker to the two people in my story, whose names are Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker and who wrote a book about what they learned, called Saving Paradise. (Parker, by the way, is a Unitarian Universalist minister and the president of our Starr King School for the Ministry.)
Apparently, the crucifixion isn’t as central to Christianity as we have been led to believe. It wasn’t the center at all for those thousand years, until something changed. What made things change is an interesting question, and Brock and Parker go into it at length in their book, but we don’t have time to get into it today. The question for us today is: if the crucifixion wasn’t the center of the religion, what was?
That’s what Parker and Brock asked, and the answer was right there in those mosaics and beautiful apses. It had paradise. A very particular kind of paradise. A paradise that is right here in this world that we live in right now: that is right here in the life we’re living right now.
At its heart, the holiday we celebrate today, Easter, is about how to find paradise.
At its heart, Unitarian Universalism is about the same thing: what paradise is, how to know it when we see it, and rejoice in it, and preserve it, and sustain it.
So what is paradise? There are different ways to answer this question, and the answer we give will have a big effect on how we live.
One answer is: paradise is another place and another time. To be specific, it’s where you go after you die, maybe only if you’ve been good. Another word for it is heaven. It’s a realm beyond the body, beyond the world, beyond the life we live right now, and in this answer, in this way of looking at things, that’s good, because in this way of looking at things, the body suffers and the world is a mess and life is scary, so you want to get beyond all those bad things to the blessed place, the only truly good place. The way you get there is: you die.
If that’s how we think about paradise, then it makes a lot of sense to have the crucifixion front and center. That way we’re constantly reminded that this world is a terrible place where good people are tortured and die; and we’re shown the way out. The way out is to die too; if we do, we’ll be resurrected, the way Jesus was.
For the last thousand years, that’s been the dominant view within Christianity. Not the only one—Christianity is a very diverse and complex religion—but a big one.
A different way to understand paradise is this: we were already given a perfect world, right here, in this life. The Bible called it Eden. At first sight it looks like that’s what’s going on in those beautiful mosaics. The grass is lush and green, the birds are flying, there are flowers and trees of many kinds, a river runs gently through . . . Eden was called a garden—but you might notice, if you read the first few chapters of Genesis, the garden of Eden wasn’t really a garden, not like the garden you might grow around your house, or like the Gamble Garden. Those require a lot of work and attention. In Eden, Adam and Eve had everything they needed, without having to do a thing. They were just fed as babies are fed, fruit dropping into their hands—no weeding, no mulching, no effort on their parts.
The problem with this understanding of paradise is that if you look around the world we have, which is beautiful but does require our work and attention, we’ve obviously already blown it. So we tell stories that explain why things aren’t perfect anymore. We talk about how we messed up; we fouled the nest; we were given perfection, but we were imperfect, so paradise is a thing of the past. And the only way we can get it back is to wipe out everything and start over. Interestingly, the crucifixion has been used to promote that idea too. When, after a thousand years, the crucified Jesus started showing up in the art of the churches of Europe and Asia, another Jesus started showing up there too: the angry judge, who sent some people to the pit that was hell, others to the glorious, walled city that was heaven. In that view, all of the bad people and bad things will be cleared away one day, and the few good survivors will get to live in paradise once again. If you can call it paradise when most people are locked out.
There’s a third way, a third paradise, not of the future nor of the past, but of the present. Brock and Parker saw it in the mosaics of Ravenna and the catacombs of Rome. This third view of paradise envisions it in this world, among the rivers and trees and hills and sky we know. It’s not the long-ago Eden to which we can’t return. It’s in figures like Mary, caring for her baby. Like shepherd saints, who tend the flocks of sheep. And most of all, in Jesus, who is shown healing sick people, feeding crowds, speaking to his students of books and wisdom. It’s not a dead Jesus—Jesus is never dead on those walls—it’s the living one: the rabbi, the teacher, who taught anyone who chose to learn from him that they should love one another and care for everyone. This vision of paradise shows a world that is beautiful, holy, vulnerable like a little baby, full of potential, and imperfect. It’s our world: a paradise that is all around us and within us, and that also needs us. We can destroy it or we can sustain it. We are the shepherds too. This paradise doesn’t ask us to suffer and die, like the crucified Jesus; it certainly doesn’t ask us to kill to avenge that crucified Jesus, the way the church of the second thousand years began to do. It shows us the living Jesus and his care for creation, and it invites us to take care of the earth and its beings, the way he does, and so make this world a continuing paradise.
That’s how we find life in the midst of death. That’s our Easter.
Ours is a religion for this world. And that means two things. One, that it’s a religion of this world. We live as fully as we can the one life we know we have, this “wild and precious life,” as the poet Mary Oliver says. We look for heaven here on this “happening illimitably earth” (e. e. cummings). The other meaning is that ours is a religion for, on behalf of, this world. It’s a world that needs us, just as we need it. We are part of a web of interdependence, nurtured by the beings all around us and the other people we encounter, who need us in turn. If we do not depend on them, we have nothing; if we harm them, we harm ourselves.
That’s the teaching of the third way, the vision that comes through in the early centuries of Jesus on those walls and ceilings. When he was walking in the fields, when he was tending his sheep, when he was restoring the temple, when he was speaking to his students as the great Greek philosophers spoke to theirs. When he was a teacher and a friend, not a corpse.
In the third way, paradise is the whole world, not just a part. Long before people knew that the world was a globe, they used circles to show completion, and that’s what we see in those high, arched, domed ceilings. They show the whole world, and all of it is paradise. That paradise isn’t a walled garden. The walled-off heaven only appears in those angry, judgment scenes, the ones where Jesus is sending a select few to the wonderful paradise, the paintings that show up in churches after the crucifixion starts to appear there. If we are to make paradise here, it will have no walls shutting anyone out. It will be for everyone, because otherwise it can be for no one. It can’t be a parkland carved out of desolation, a lovely, clean, green spot that the rich and lucky preserve for themselves by running air purifiers and waste treatment plants that just spew more pollution into the lands of the poor and unfortunate who are shut outside. Paradise isn’t a realm that only some people get into: it’s a community that we create, where all are welcome. Everywhere, everyone, has something of the holy within, and we strive to make holiness blossom everywhere.
The most frequently reported miracle in the gospels is Jesus feeding the multitudes with a few loaves and a couple of fish. In four books it appears six times, and it appears in the art of the first thousand years, too. Jesus doesn’t make a way to paradise for us by dying on the cross; he does it by making sure there’s enough to go around. In his life and teaching, he took what looked like scarcity, like not enough, and made a paradise for everyone, which is the only kind of paradise there can be. When we create justice and fairness, we take this world in all its beauty and imperfection, and make it into a forever paradise.
(c) 2013 Amy Zucker Morgenstern
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This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
Jelaluddin Muhammad Rumi
When I was sixteen I got some unwelcome and upsetting news. The details escape me now, but I do remember that it was hard to be happy while thinking about it, and virtually impossible to think about anything else. I don’t know what my then-boyfriend had experienced to give him wisdom in these matters—he was no older than I was—but he had. He said, “It’s like a meteorite has crashed into your living room. And at first you can barely move around the room because there’s this huge rock in the middle. After a while you start to move around it, and put things on it, and then, eventually, you’re used to it, this big meteorite in the middle of the living room, and you hardly even think about it.”
You’ve probably had your own meteorites: unwelcome changes, which is to say, losses: losses of a person, a dream, an ability, an identity. When we’re trying to adjust to such losses, we often refer to our state as “the new normal,” not to be confused with the new television show of that name. What was once normal for us becomes a relic of the past and we have a new day-to-day reality, like Robert’s life with drop foot and Melissa’s unasked-for new home far away from what was familiar.
It’s a horrible term to anyone who’s just been hit with a disaster. We don’t want the new reality to become normal. We want to go back to where we were a moment before that thing crashed into our lives.
Another geological image comes to my mind. If you’ve never been to Craters of the Moon National Park, let me describe it for you. It is a place in Idaho where the earth once erupted in fire and flowed with melted rock. The formations left by the lava as it cooled are bizarre, and hard to walk on. And it is almost entirely devoid of life, except for the tourists who gingerly step out onto this desert. The rocks are so sharp that even through the soles of your shoes you feel the hostility of the landscape. It tears at the soles.
Adjusting to a new normal can be like walking across that barren land. We may know in some way that on the far side of pain and difficulty there is a new self in a new reality, and that that is where we need to arrive. We might know in the abstract that we won’t always feel as awful as we do at that moment. But we might not even want to adjust to the loss. In the most devastating cases, we may feel that we don’t even want to survive it. We wish we could just curl up and die rather than have to take one more step across that terrain of grief.
In Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Animal Dreams, a character suffers that kind of loss, and has a conversation with someone who is possibly the only person who has the standing to talk about it, because he’s suffered a very similar loss himself. His name is Loyd.
[He says:] “Listen, I know how this is. You don’t think you’ll live past it. And you don’t, really. The person you were is gone. But the half of you that’s still alive wakes up one day and takes over again.”
[And she says:] “Why should I look forward to that?”
. . . . [He replies,] “I can’t answer that.”
The seven words she utters are the cry of any of us who must suddenly look into a future devoid of a precious something or someone, and are told that one day we will find our pain bearable: “Why should I look forward to that?” To make the unendurable normal is itself an almost unendurable idea. And Loyd is right: no one can tell us why life in that normality might be worth living. We will answer it for ourselves, through faith and courage, as we pick our way over the soul-cutting rocks.
Sometimes, we spend a lot of time first huddling on one side of the desert, wrapped in denial, hoping that if we refuse to move, the pain won’t cut as deep. If we don’t think, don’t speak, don’t look our loss in the face, maybe we can just stay here, in some kind of no-man’s-land. That denial can get us through the shock. It’s a survival skill, and loving friends will give us the time to decide when we’ll take the first step across to our new, unwelcome selves.
When we get stuck there, though, it’s tragic. When Robert and I first spoke about this topic, his story struck me doubly because of someone else I have known (someone not associated with this congregation) who also had drop foot. She was so bitter about this irreparable loss that she could never move through it; she got stuck there, refusing completely to move into a new normal. Actually, the only thing I can think of that’s worse than having to adjust to a loss is not adjusting to it. And so I want to give the rest of this time to considering how we might wake up to that reality when we are in that place of just not even wanting to face that there is a new normal. What gives us the strength to see to the far side of the journey we have to make?.
A few years back, Nick Hornby wrote a beautifully humane novel about the struggle to adjust to a new normal. It’s called Slam. It’s a very apt title, because the main character, a teenager named Sam, is a passionate skateboarder. A slam in skating is a bad accident where you fall off the board and smash to the ground, and who knows what breaks. The story is about another slam that happens to him.
Hornby is not usually a fantasist. He writes realistic fiction about contemporary people. In this book, though, he uses a little bit of magic, a little science fiction, to show how we might adjust to the slams of life.
At the start, Sam’s life is going pretty well. He’s a smart, college-bound sixteen-year-old. In his room hangs a poster of the god of skateboarding, Tony Hawk, and he talks to this poster and Tony talks back, offering him all sorts of life advice. When Sam realizes, knows, that his girlfriend Alicia is going to tell him she’s pregnant—actually, she’s his ex-girlfriend, as he’s just broken up with her, but that’s no help—and before she can deliver the news that he knows she’s going to say, he tries to run away. He tries to stop time by turning off his mobile phone (in fact, by throwing it into the ocean) and living his life, insistently, as if nothing has changed.
But then something inexplicable happens. In the place he’s run to to hide, he goes to sleep, alone, and wakes up next to Alicia, in bed, with their infant son in a crib in the same room. He’s been picked up and dropped into the future, the future that he knows awaits him but that he’s trying so hard not to enter.
He blames Tony Hawk, who, he says, has magically forwarded him to the future. All through the book Tony Hawk whizzes him back and forth, giving him little glimpses of the future. It’s full of trouble: college plans put on hold, a baby he just isn’t ready for, two sets of parents who are disappointed and angry.
And worst of all, the person he experiences there just isn’t him. The first time he goes into the future, and wakes up beside his girlfriend, she of course assumes he knows how to take care of a baby, because in her reality, the future, he’s been doing it for a few months. He says, in his narration to the reader:
The trouble was, I wasn’t that Sam. I was the old Sam. I was the Sam who’d turned his mobile off so that he wouldn’t find out if his ex-girlfriend was pregnant or not. (91)
Well, that’s the new normal in a nutshell. You’re a new you. You’re not the old you anymore, even though you may want to be. But the old Sam already isn’t working out so well, because the future is here. Time did not stop when he threw his cell phone into the ocean. And thanks to being whizzed into the future, the old Sam takes a deep breath and faces his new reality.
It reminds me of one of my favorite moments in my favorite Harry Potter book, . . .The Prisoner of Azkaban, when Harry works a powerful, life-saving piece of magic that he’s never been able to do before. He too is able to do it because he’s seen the future–literally seen it, because that can happen in a magical world–and there he has seen a strength in himself that he didn’t previously know he had.
I said his spell saved lives. Actually, to be precise, it saved souls. And it’s our souls that are on the line when we struggle to accept a new normal. If we can do it, we can remain ourselves, even grow into a greater self, despite our loss, despite our pain. The walk across the desert of knifelike rocks cuts at us, but not nearly as much as the refusal to cross it would do.
Now, I have to make an important acknowledgement about Sam and his slam. On the scale of life disasters, having a baby at 17, many years before you want to, isn’t the worst. Hornby acknowledges that too; it’s clear that Sam adores his son and that a lot about being a father makes him happy, so he has an enormous consolation. People endure far worse.
But it is still far from a happy situation. Thinking about how to rate his new life, “marks out of ten,” Sam says, “I’m afraid I couldn’t go any higher than a three. This isn’t what I had in mind. How could it be?” (304)
And yet he can cope. He can cope because he’s glimpsed the future, and while he doesn’t know what steps will get him from the present to there, he knows that somehow he will take them. From the present, it looked impossible, but from the vantage point of the future, the place Tony Hawk whizzed him to, he knows it’s possible. Hard, but possible. And that is enough to give him the courage to keep moving over that land of pain.
Most of us don’t have a magical poster of Tony Hawk on the wall, so when we are plunged into an unasked-for, painful new reality, we have to call on something else to get us to accept it and begin to thrive. And we sang of some of them. We might feel it in this great burst of energy as in singing to the power of the strength within or maybe we’ll hear it as a still, small voice that some people hear as God within them. We might call on imagination, on hope, on faith. The evidence of the people all around us who have endured what we consider unendurable. One of the great gifts of life in a community like this is that we can see other people, ordinary people just like us, who have been dropped into a reality that no one wants, least of all them, and yet they step forward with courage and grace.
What I wish for you when you face loss and unwelcome changes is that that magic might work in your heart just enough to show you a future you can endure. Not one that will be just as it was. Not such a rosy future that you will in time be glad of the sorrows that came into your life, although that happens sometimes, with some losses, even very deep losses. But just that you will be able to see yourself, a new version of yourself, living fully in a future that you have fully entered.
For each of us, in some form, there’s a magical poster to bring us that special gift. We may take hope from a plant just emerging from the earth, that shows us the promise of the future; we may derive faith from the sun’s rising each morning, even when a part of us wishes it would hold still and let us stay fixed in time. The tide pouring over the beach again and again may give us determination by reminding us that the unstoppable forces of life do not just overtake us but also flow from of us, as the beauty that we make, as the love that we share. And we can find that window into the future in each other and be that window for each other. From our own courageous acceptance of whatever guest’s life brings into our guesthouse, we can show each other a new reality and the strength to accept it.
May it be so! Blessed be.
(c) 2012 Amy Zucker Morgenstern. Rumi poem translated by Coleman Barks.
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Centering Words: Terry Tempest Williams, Red
The eyes of the future are looking back at us and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time. They are kneeling with hands clasped that we might act with restraint, that we might leave room for the life that is destined to come. To protect what is wild is to protect what is gentle. Perhaps the wildness we fear is the pause between our own heartbeats, the silent space that says we live only by grace. Wilderness lives by this same grace. Wild mercy is in our hands.
Reading: Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (New York: Oxford University Press, 1949)
In one of the most striking passages from Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, in an essay called “Thinking Like a Mountain,” he tells of coming across a pack of wolves, mother and grown pups. He grew up seeing wolves as the enemy: killers or deer and thus competitors with human hunters, killers of cattle and thus impediments to a rancher’s solvency. “In those days,” he writes, “we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf,” and so he and the people he is fire onto the pack.
When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks . . .
We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes-something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.
Since then I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise. In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers.
I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea. (130-32)
I remember the first time I felt the earth spin. I must have been ten or twelve years old. It was bedtime, and I was lying on my back. I closed my eyes, and suddenly, I felt that I was turning, slowly, but just perceptibly enough to make me a little dizzy, as if I had lain down in the center of a playground carousel as it slowed.
My first and unshakeable impression was that I was feeling the rotation of the earth. If it had been a scene in a movie, the shot of me on my bunkbed would have cut to a very long shot of the whole planet Earth, one speck of a North American child spreadeagled upon it.
As my mind raced with wonder and curiosity, I applied some logic. If the spin of the earth was detectable, what a felt, a spinning with myself at the center, would be possible only at the poles. I was not at the axis of the spinning globe, like a person at the center of the carousel. If I could feel the earth’s movement, in Connecticut, about midway between equator and North Pole, it should feel like rushing movement eastward, not a rotation.
But the epiphany remained, and has always remained: I was one small being on a big globe, and that globe was one small rounded rock in a big expanse of space. It was one of many treasured experiences of glimpsing my part in a much larger and complex whole.
Long before the first Earth Day in 1970, Aldo Leopold was a worker in the U.S. Forest Service who observed the land and made beautiful verbal “sketches here and there,” as he called them, that are reminiscent of Thoreau: he is a keen-eyed naturalist and a shrewd analyst of human relationships with the rest of what Leopold called “the community” of land. He noted the effects of conservation, and its failures. Most conservation efforts just rewarded people for doing what was already in their economic self-interest. The problem was, “most members of the land community have no economic value”—such as songbirds and wildflowers (210).
In 1948, a few months before he died fighting a grass fire, Leopold wrote,
Conservation is getting nowhere, because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. There is no other way for land to survive the impact of mechanized [humanity] . . .
That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics. That land yields a cultural harvest is a fact long known, but latterly often forgotten. (viii-ix)
The passage I read about the wolves is not a declaration of animal rights, nor a manifesto against hunting. Leopold became an ardent opponent of Congress’s policy of exterminating timber wolves, not out of sentiment or affection for wolves, though his admiration for them is clear. Rather, he saw our prejudice against predators as short-sighted and profoundly out of touch with the community of land as a whole, which needs its predators; its pests; its unattractive members like gnats and molds; its members who yield no visible economic benefit, like deserts and marshes. If he were alive to hear today’s suburban city governments fuss and worry about their exploding deer populations, and the damage done to gardens and the people in cars, he would probably refrain from saying “I told you so,” but he would have earned the right.
~ ~ ~
Leopold’s insights are some of the origins of what is known as Deep Ecology. Deep Ecology has no single definition or proponent, but the gist is that living beings have an inherent worth—that should sound familiar to Unitarian Universalists—an inherent worth regardless of their usefulness to human beings; that an anthropocentric view of our environment is neither borne out by what we know about ecological systems nor morally defensible; that, in Leopold’s words, “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community [and] it is wrong when it tends otherwise” (224-25). The “eyes of the future” of which Terry Tempest Williams writes, in the stirring words we heard at our centering time, are not only human eyes. They are the witness of all living things.
Now, in a purely philosophical sense, the concept of “thinking like a mountain,” or thinking like the whole earth, ends in a cul de sac. Leopold writes that as the deer fear the wolf, the mountain fears its deer. But does it really? Too many deer mean too few juniper and sage, but what does the mountain care whether the juniper and sage thrive, or the deer, or the wolves? The mountain—its rocks and waters, its gullies and crevices, its contour—will be standing long after every animal and plant that lived upon it is gone. Just as the Earth, the actual ball of rock revolving around the sun, is not something we can destroy. It is impervious to us (something for which I occasionally give thanks), and even if we could blow it out of the skies, the impact on the galaxy would be negligible . . . you see, when you try to answer the question of “what are these things good for,” you head into a dead end.
In other words, to take Leopold’s logic to its logical extreme is not logical. Extremes seldom are.
What Deep Ecology does is expand our ethics, which have mostly spoken only of people, to encompass the entire biosphere: living things and everything that sustains them. Until very recently, we used to think of many people as having no rights at all. They were property; they were commodities in an economic system. “Rights,” when that concept was developed, protected a very small circle, which has gradually been expanded to include: women. Children. The original residents of whatever land we occupy. People in other parts of the world. They are no longer a commodity to which all people belong.
As Leopold writes,
The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land…. A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these “resources”, but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state. (204)
A naïve interpretation of ecology, even Deep Ecology, would have it that humans are uniquely unsuited to live on earth—undeserving. In this view, other creatures and some enlightened, usually aboriginal, people live in perfect harmony, but most of us are just exploiters. And yet Leopold’s wiser view affirms what Bill [today’s Worship Associate] said: we and all our creations are a part of the biosphere as well. The problem is not that we use resources; alter the land; threaten other creatures, even species; or create things that some would call ugly. After all, deer use resources; beavers alter the land; any predator, in a series of strong seasons, could tip a vulnerable prey population over the edge into extinction; and other species are, or create, things that others find ugly. All of these are part of the equilibrium of a living system, and we have our place in it.
No, the problem is that we are so ignorant of our place in it, so ignorant of the complex web of which we are just a part, that we don’t know how to walk in a balanced way. Leopold again:
The outstanding scientific discovery of the twentieth century is not television, or radio, but rather the complexity of the land organism. Only those who know the most about it can appreciate how little we know about it. The last word in ignorance is the [person] who says of an animal or plant: “What good is it?” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering. (Round River, Oxford University Press, New York, 1993, 145-146.)
We will not, need not, stop tinkering. But for us to do it sustainably, we need two things: intelligence and humility. And there is a powerful, simple route to both: pay attention to the other inhabitants of Earth, the other parts of the complex organism of which we are also a part. We often act as if we are removed from the rest of nature. The remedy is simple.
Our Green Sanctuary Committee, of which Bill is one of the leaders, encourages us all to be stewards of the earth by taking specific actions to reduce our carbon footprint, our impact on the climate, over the next month. As you are contemplating actions you’ll take—such as driving less, using the sun instead of gas heat to dry your clothes, or buying some of those native plants for your garden—I urge you to include one more thing make a date with yourself to connect with the rest of the Earth more often. It could be signing up for the hikes K. B. offers on our Announce e-mail list and getting up to Wunderlich or out to Mount Diablo. And it can be even closer to home.
The community of earth is wherever you are. So you can eat lunch outdoors and watch the birds. You can take your shoes off when you sit in your garden so you can feel the earth under your bare feet. When you’re up early one morning, instead of turning on the radio or computer, lie quietly and listen to the dawn chorus. When you see a spider in your home, pull up a chair and watch it. As you walk to the train station, note what is in bloom that wasn’t the week before. As you eat your dinner, pay attention to where your nourishment comes from and the effect it has on your body . . .
We are always a part of the community of the land. When we open our awareness, we develop intelligence and humility. We move from being contenders against the rest of this community, or even just stewards of it, to knowing ourselves to be a full part, a neighbor, a thread in the web. Over the next month and the months to come, may you spend this time becoming aware of this interdependence, and may it guide you into wise choices and joyful life.
(c) 2012 Amy Zucker Morgenstern
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“Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart . . . “
Mary has had a lot to think about for many months now, ever since an angel, a messenger from her God, came to her to tell her that she was going to have a baby, and that it was no ordinary baby, but holy, born of God’s Holy Spirit. Ever since then, surely, she has been pondering, what is it that is being brought to birth by me?
In some ways, the story is hard for us to relate to. It’s so full of miracles, supernatural occurrences, predictions that come true as if by magic. One thousand and eight hundred years after Matthew and Luke told the story of Jesus’s life, Thomas Jefferson would retell it without any of that. In Jefferson’s Bible, Jesus was born, he taught, and he died. No miracles, no singing angels. Just a human baby and the miracle that is every birth. That, apparently, was meaningful enough to Jefferson.
And we don’t have to believe in the moving star or the angels or the messenger from God to connect our own lives to this story: the story which, at its core, is as common as the ground we walk on. A woman is expecting a child. He is born. She ponders what he will become. It happens all over the world every day.
We don’t have to have given birth, or be parents, or ever intend to become parents, to recognize ourselves in this story. We are all, every one of us, of whatever age and situation in life, like Mary in one key respect: Something waits to be born through us: something beyond us, beyond our understanding, beautiful, complete unto itself and yet dependent on us. It may be a dream, a friendship, a work of art, an idea, an act of love, a new way of being, a new world: something larger than ourselves and yet needing us in order to come to life. Whether it will be born depends on whether we give ourselves over to its birth.
The dancer and choreographer Martha Graham said, “There is a vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost.”
What is waiting to be born through you?
Graham didn’t have any children. But she knew all about the quickening of new life within—the stirring of images, actions, ideas—and patiently waited and worked, labored, to bring them into the world for all to see.
What is it that could come into the world, could ripen and be borne, like a peach swelling on a branch, if only you, the tree, will dig your roots deep to bring up water, open yourself to the light, allow yourself to bud, blossom, and bring it forth?
Today is the last day of Advent. The time of waiting, the days when something is coming, are almost complete.
Something is always waiting to be born. Approaching. Needing only for someone to bring it to its full form and welcome it into the world.
And so this is a meditation for Christmas: the question, what is it that can enter the world through you? However ordinary you may think you are, just a person going along minding your daily business the way Mary was, there is something that can take shape only if you allow it. You can block it—you can resist it—you can refuse to bloom and let the bud wither before it comes to fruition. Or you can try too hard to make it happen, when it has to grow in its own time, like a baby. Mary, like a Taoist sage, neither strives nor resists. She knows something is happening that is bigger than her and yet that must come through her.
Don’t most pregnant women wonder how this amazing thing can be happening? How is a new life, a whole human being, being put together within their bodies? None of us knows how to construct a human being. Something beyond our comprehension makes it happen.
Don’t most parents look into their child’s face and wonder what she is thinking, what kind of person he will grow to be, what her fate will be, whether he will be happy and loving and loved?
Aren’t so many of our most important plans and accomplishments realized by a mix of our efforts and our getting out of the way and letting that amazing power move through us?
The artist makes himself a channel for inspiration. He doesn’t know where it comes from. He practices, he hones his skills, yes, he works hard like a woman in labor, and also, when an idea comes from who knows where in the middle of the night, he picks up his pen or brush and follows it.
The athlete works and practices, gets up early, eats well, drills with discipline, but all in the interest of letting the inexplicable, unpredictable power use her body. She knows that feeling of being in the zone, when she does amazing things on the field or the court without even knowing how she does them.
Even the activist, so intent on making a difference, is a channel through which the longings of the world for peace and justice flow. Let them come through and the world will change, through us and only partly because of us.
Something is waiting to be born through you, and only through you. Part of your role is to pay attention and know what it is. And part of your role is to move aside enough to let it be born. Imagine a pregnant woman deciding to take matters into her own hands and make bones, a brain, a heart. She couldn’t do it. She wouldn’t know how. Life knows how to make new life, and so she eats well, gets enough rest, tries not to take too many long journeys by donkey, and awaits the birth of this miraculous, unknown child. The child, as we reminded parents at their children’s dedications earlier this week, of life itself.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote that even what we call God may be something that is waiting to be born through us: “the one who is coming, who has been approaching from all eternity, the one who will someday arrive, the ultimate fruit of a tree whose leaves we are.” Each person’s life, he wrote, can be lived “as a painful and lovely day in the history of a great pregnancy.”
Something is ready to come into being through you. Something beautiful, unique, and holy can come to birth through you, and you alone. Like Mary, may we each ponder what it might be. May we be humble enough, simple enough to let ourselves be the sacred channel through which something new and precious travels from dark nonbeing into the light of day.
Like the morning stars, let us together praise the holy birth, give thanks, and treasure it in our hearts.
© 2011 Amy Zucker Morgenstern
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Happy Father’s Day! What is it we are celebrating when we celebrate fatherhood? I ask this question because it strikes me that the answer is very different now than it would have been in 1911, or for that matter, 50 years ago, in 1961. There have always been fathers, and the expectations of what it means to be a father is strongly passed down from father to son, and yet fatherhood has changed, for individual men and their families, and for society as a whole. This is good to remember, because according to some points of view, namely a lot of women and mothers I know, there is nothing more resistant to change than an American father. Clearly, it’s not true!
At some moments, we believe that change is all but impossible, whether on a personal, an organizational, or a social level. On a personal level, we know all too well the cycle of resolutions and failures: of swearing to work out more, eat less, change our work habits, but not achieving the change we aimed for. We can sing every day with the hymn we shared earlier: “I wish I could live like I’m longing to live.” (“I Wish I Knew How,” Singing the Living Tradition, No. 151) We know all about the frustration of asking our spouses to change just one single annoying habit and having it never happen; of trying to get our housemate to just empty the darn dishwasher instead of pulling clean dishes out of it on an as-needed basis; of getting our employees or co-workers to abide by a few simple common-sense guidelines that they’ve been resisting for year. We are very good at sabotaging change efforts. We do it so effectively that it’s sometimes amazing that change ever happens at all.
And yet it does. As William Schulz (Executive Director of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, former Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, and former President of the Unitarian Universalist Association) retold when he spoke here two months ago, he was once part of a conversation where academics were debating whether the state of human rights was better now than it was 100 years ago. One after another lamented that it wasn’t, but if I’d been there, I’d have responded to them the same way Schulz told us he did: by asking them, “Are you guys nuts?!” The advances have been truly incredible. A step back for every two forward, often, but still, the change, a change for the better, is clear.
What happened with human rights, with the changing roles of fathers and mothers, women and men in our society—did human nature change? Or are there perhaps more concrete, repeatable ways to bring change about?
I’ve been reading a book about change recently because I’m particularly interested in how to bring about wanted changes. It’s called Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, by Chip and Dan Heath. Like everyone, I have all sorts of hypotheses about why individuals, organizations, and societies do or don’t embrace change. But hypotheses beg to be tested, so I turned to research. There has been a wealth of research about what works for people seeking to change. The Heaths’ book digests this research and sets out some principles, beginning with three surprises about change:
(1) “What looks like laziness is often exhaustion”; help people to tap into their source of energy and they will change.
(2) “What looks like resistance [to change] is often a lack of clarity”; give clear, specific direction and have a clear destination, and people will change.
(3) “What looks like a problem with the people is often a problem with the situation”; tweak the situation, and people will change.
We can get very stuck, and stay stuck, and I’d like to spend the rest of my time this morning looking at one case of stuckness and what we know about how to shift it from research such as that compiled by the Heaths. The case I’m interested in is Unitarian Universalism’s welcome, or lack thereof, of people of color—what the Reverend Mark Morrison-Reed constructively frames as “missed opportunities.”
Reverend Morrison-Reed is a historian of African-American pioneers in Unitarianism, Universalism, and our denomination since the merger of the two in 1961. He has written a few books on the subject, and his first, Black Pioneers in a White Denomination, published almost 30 years ago, has been on the required reading list for ministers in preparation for many years, and I’m happy to learn, still is. He spoke at our District Assembly last month, and then here at UUCPA a few days later, invited by our Minister of Religious Education, Dan Harper, who also wrote the opening essay in Rev. Morrison-Reed’s most recent book, Darkening the Doorways: Black Trailblazers and Missed Opportunities in Unitarian Universalism. In that book, Mark told one story that illustrates this problem of getting stuck.
It’s the story of the hymnal commission created after merger, in order to create the first hymnal of the new, merged denomination, the one just before our “gray hymnal,” the “blue hymnal” called Hymns for the Celebration of Life. It was the early 60s and the commission included people who were acutely attuned to racial justice and the racial issues of the country, particularly black-white issues. One was Kenneth Patton, who led the way in shaping a Universalism that drew on all different traditions and world religions, and who made headlines when he wrote an essay declaring his resignation from the white race. Another was Christopher Moore, who founded the Chicago Children’s Choir, an intentionally multiracial, multicultural chorus that began at the First Unitarian Church of Chicago. And yet the hymnal that resulted had not a single reading by an African-American poet, not a single song from the African-American tradition.
The moral is that sometimes we don’t even know we’re stuck. Good people, with lots of knowledge and good intentions, and a commitment to racial justice, might still replicate old patterns.
What do we know about change that suggests some ways we could move forward? In particular, how might we apply this knowledge here, at UUCPA?
I don’t know if Mark Morrison-Reed has read Switch, but I’ll tell you, he successfully used some of their principles on me. When I went to his address at District Assembly, I was already on board emotionally with the dream of a Unitarian Universalism that is abundantly multiracial and multicultural. I agreed with the UUA president, Peter Morales, that welcoming newcomers is “the spiritual equivalent of feeding the hungry and housing the homeless,” because we have already found here something that they need and are looking for; I saw outreach to people of color as part of that mission. I had taken steps toward leading this congregation in that direction. But I didn’t have a lot of energy for the task. It felt overwhelming, like an uphill and uncertain path.
Here are a few things Reverend Morrison-Reed said and did that helped get me unstuck. More, they showed me some ways that we as a congregation can get unstuck.
I’d love to share the Heaths’ whole framework with you first, but I can’t do it all this morning. I’ll just tell you a few things that happened for me over the past month to change me from a person who vaguely wished we were more diverse, to someone with a fire in the belly, a plan in mind, and the means to make it happen—starting with the workshop I’m leading this Thursday evening, which I hope you’ll attend.
One thing they advise is to make a big job less overwhelming by shrinking the change. To stay motivated, we need hope, and we get hope by knowing that we’re partway there. Studies have shown how big a difference this makes. For example, in one experiment a group of people was given a card to fill out, eight car washes and then they would get a free car wash; and another group was given a card that said “ten car washes and you get a free car wash,” but it had the first two already punched. Eight to go for these folks, and eight to go for these folks. The ones who had the ten-minus-two were much more likely to complete the card and get the free car wash—which was of course exactly what car wash owners wanted them to do. They got to the goal because they were already partway there when they started. Well, I went to this workshop and learned from Mark how attractive Unitarian Universalism is to people of color—how many times in our history African-Americans, for example, have eagerly come in our doors, saying “This is what we’re looking for!”–and then I started looking at how many people of color and multiracial families are already here in our congregation, and I felt this burst of energy. I was feeling so overwhelmed before, but look, I already have two punches on my card!
UUCPA shifted me. One of the keys to becoming a multiracial, multicultural congregation, Mark said, was the support of lay leaders. Like any big change, it won’t happen unless there’s a broad range of dedicated supporters among the leadership, and here is where I must apologize, because I had a lot of doubt on that point. I looked at his list of keys, realized we had a lot of them in place, but looked at “lay leadership” and thought, “I don’t know. I don’t know if they want this.” Then Mark spoke here in our Main Hall a few days later. The crowd wasn’t big—about what I expect for a mid-week speaker, 22 people in addition to me and Dan, and I know because I counted and wrote down their names. But it was made up of people whom, if there were any change you wanted to make happen in this congregation, you would want to be pushing in your direction. I looked around and thought, “Wow, we do have that key too.” I’ve also been encouraged by the response of the Board and the number of leaders who have either told me they’ll be here on Thursday, or if they have another commitment, have taken the time to say, “I’m so glad you’re doing this—how else can I support it?”
A third thing that the Heaths advise that’s been happening for me over the past month is to look for bright spots—look for where you are already having success making the change—and replicate them. Again, there is abundant research on how effective this approach is, which I’ll share with you another time. For example, let’s look at that hymnal commission. It would be easy to bemoan this missed opportunity—or we could look for the bright spot, which is that, as Mark Morrison-Reed points out, the next hymnal commission did much better. The hymnal they produced, our gray hymnal, is full of resources from African-American poets and writers, and music like the hymn we sang earlier (“I Wish I Knew How”). So how do we clone that? We know some of the things the second commission did differently, and we can repeat them so as to notice the opportunities we might be missing now and grab them. For example, as Reverend Morrison-Reed pointed out, we can open our eyes to all the contributions Latino culture could make.
He started his workshop presentation at District Assembly with another bright spot, a video of a congregation that has successfully made the shift I’m hoping we’ll make, Davies Memorial in Prince Georges County, Maryland. We’ll watch the same video on Thursday. It’s a congregation I already know and admire, so that I felt, “Look, we’re already doing it there in Maryland!” It’s in much the same situation as UUCPA: it’s near a liberal urban center and located in the midst of a large middle class population of people of color. In Davies’ case, it’s the biggest black middle class population of any county in the US; in our case, it’s a huge population of middle class Latino and Asian people, a county in which 68% of the people are other than white European-American Anglos. (For the moment, as Reverend Morrison-Reed suggested, I’m setting aside considerations of class and classism, although as K. [our Worship Associate] said, they’re important too.)
Finally, the research cited by the Heath brothers emphasizes the importance of marshalling one’s sense of identity to bring about change. People don’t change when they’re told “You’re resisting change because of the kind of person you are.” They change when the change asks them not to go against their identity but to honor it. Reverend Morrison-Reed helped do that for me. He could so easily blame the whole problem on the kind of people Unitarian Universalists are, especially white European-American ones like me: that we’re not open to change, or want our congregations to remain full of people who are mostly like us, or that we’re not very welcoming. Instead, he points out how good we are, how concerned we have always been about racial justice, how anxious to be welcoming—all of which is true. It’s a part of my identity, a part of our identity, to make this change.
There’s lots more to learn and lots more to do, and I hope you’ll join me. In Julius Caesar, Cassius says to Brutus that the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves. But actually, what we know about what’s happening when people stay stuck, and what’s happening when we change, tells us that we are not fated, by either the stars or our natures, to stay exactly as we are. The more we know about our own natures—what motivates us—the better we can make any change we envision. We can do this. Please join me.
© 2011 Amy Zucker Morgenstern
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I’m really excited about tomorrow morning. Aren’t you?
I try to live simply and not accumulate a lot of things I don’t need, but I admit I really love to see a gift bag with my name on it and a pretty ribbon on top. I love the surprise inside the tissue paper. I love getting stuff.
But I’m also a little nervous about how much I love it. I know that’s not what Christmas is supposed to be about.
Jesus never said a word about presents. They don’t appear in the Christmas story. The magi do bring gifts, but that isn’t even on Christmas, but twelve days later, when they complete their journey from the East. And of course, the presents are just for the newborn baby, not from everyone to everyone the way we give Christmas presents; and really, they’re the kind of gifts you bring to royalty to show your honor and homage, not the useful or fun thing you’d normally bring a baby, like a rattle. Still, somewhere along the line, presents became a big part of Christmas.
Of course, we’re supposed to give them, not just get them. And that’s a really fun part of Christmas too. Most of us find that it gets to be even more fun as we get older.
But is it really as much fun to give as to receive? We’re supposed to feel that way, but it’s not easy to live up to it. Especially when we’re thinking about all those goodies waiting for us tomorrow morning.
There’s a website I really like called PostSecret, where anyone who likes is invited to choose or create a postcard, write on it a secret they’ve never shared with anyone, and send it in. About twenty of these beautiful, creative, three-by-five-inch works of art are posted each week. In time for Christmas, one was posted that looked like a wrapped present and read, “I hate that Christmas makes me feel greedy.”
So I guess I’m not the only one.
And I know for sure that neither the religion Jesus followed—Judaism—nor the religion he inspired—Christianity—nor our religion—Unitarian Universalism—gives us permission to be greedy. They are united in their teaching that we should let go of all our desire to have things, let go of all our fear that we will not have enough, and just concentrate on the side of the giving-receiving equation that is in our control: that is, concentrate on giving.
If you think that that part of Christmas is challenging, just wait ‘til Jesus grows up. Then he starts to challenge us to get really generous and really fearless.
He says even if someone demands something from us that is ours, we should give it to them, and more. If they ask for our coat, we should give them the cloak we wear on top of it too. He says we’re not only supposed to love our friends, but also our enemies. He tells a rich young man who wants to know how to get to heaven that it’s very simple: all he has to do is give everything away. Yes, that simple!
Let’s imagine for a moment trying to live that way . . . giving and giving, giving it all away, without trying to receive or worrying about what will come back to us.
It can be done if we have one essential quality: trust. Trust that our needs will be taken care of. Giving makes us like a newborn baby far from his only home, utterly vulnerable, utterly dependent on the goodwill of those around him.
As a culture, we have a deep and growing fear of freeloaders. More and more, we arrange our politics, our economics, our whole social system, as if the worst thing that can happen is not that a family in genuine need will find themselves without a place to sleep, but that a family not in need will get a free night at the inn.
We are more worried about the welfare cheat than about the people who need our help and don’t get it. What kind of community does this give us? The kind where in the midst of plenty, 20,000 people experience homelessness each year, as they do in our county.
And what creates that other kind of community, where trust not only flourishes, but most of the time it turns out to be well-founded? Giving freely. Giving with no thought of being repaid.
Whereas clutching onto what we have, worrying that we will give more than we get, makes us trust people less. It drives us further into our own fortresses, walls and fences around each of us and our stuff.
Yes, sometimes someone will take advantage. But Jesus said not to worry about that. He even said to give to people who we know don’t wish us well. Just give. Not just give to the people we love, not just give presents—those are warmups for the other kind of giving.
Another rabbi, Moses ben-Maimon, known as Maimonides, told us some more about the kind of giving we’re working our way up to. And the kinds of giving he said were best are the kind we are doing here tonight.
He said there are lots of ways to give. In some, we give grudgingly. In some, we want to be thanked and recognized, maybe even made to feel like the recipient owes us something. These are not the best ways to give.
But one of the best ways to give is anonymously. The person we help doesn’t know who we are, so they can’t feel beholden; we don’t know who they are, so we can’t feel superior. That’s the kind of giving we just did with our offering. InnVision will help someone with our dollars and that person will be able to offer thanks only to an unknown angel, just as we will get nothing in exchange except the hope that we have helped an unknown Joseph, Mary, or Jesus in our midst.
The very best way to give, Maimonides says, is to help the recipient to not need our help anymore. InnVision does that kind of thing too, when it helps someone find a job. So does the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, which will take the contents of our Guest at Your Table boxes and help people close to here and far away create more just communities where they and everyone can prosper.
The rich young man asked the grown Jesus, “How do I get to heaven?”
And he said, “Give.” Does that mean we go to heaven if we stop trying to receive and just give? Not exactly. It means that if we do that, heaven comes to us. By giving to our friends and our family members, yes—and then also giving to people we don’t even know, giving to people we don’t even like, giving to people who show no sign of giving to us, giving when we aren’t sure what we’re going to get back: we make heaven, right here. This is how we get to heaven.
A heavenly Christmas to you all.
© 2010 Amy Zucker Morgenstern
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One uncomfortable theme comes up repeatedly in today’s lectionary readings: judgment. I don’t like judgment. You could say I’m positively judgmental about it. I don’t like to be judged, I don’t like to hear people judge other people, and my own quickness to judge others is one of the qualities I try hardest to eradicate in myself.
Judgment is not nice. So how do we make sense of these passages, such as the one from Amos and the 82nd Psalm, which seem to exalt judgment, and harsh judgment at that? Aren’t they just encouraging one of our worst tendencies? The obvious answer is that the scripture is encouraging us to give our desire to judge over to God, the only true Judge. But I’m not much more comfortable with a judging God than with a judgmental person. When I pray, it’s never to the divine Judge—except when I’m vengefully hoping that an all-powerful Someone will bang the gavel and mete out justice to someone I think deserves it. Which is to say, both I and many others call on the God of Judgment when we want our own views to be backed up by the ultimate authority. And so we come round, in a very small circle, to our own harshly judging selves.
To make things more difficult still, we do have to judge. It’s part of our responsibility, part of being a good person. Sometimes it’s literally our duty as citizens, as when we’re called to jury duty and required to decide who among our neighbors is speaking truth, who is lying; who bears blame and who is innocent; who has done wrong, who should be exonerated, who should be compensated, who should be punished. Then there are the more everyday, less dramatic cases of judgment. Judging the parent who yells at his child in the market. Judging the greed of corporate directors who have trampled on human dignity or nature’s beauty in search of profit. These are just discriminations of fact, of right and wrong, aren’t they? And finally, there is the kind of judgment that we might call discernment, that is so essential a part of religious life because it is the heart of morality. How do we decide, “I should do this, I should not do that,” without implicitly shining the light of judgment on others and saying, if only to ourselves, “This person is good, that one is bad”? If we flat-out refuse to make such judgments, whether in a courtroom or our own hearts, we may be guilty of abandoning the world to injustice and chaos.
The wise designers of the lectionary have pieced together an interesting message for us, in the passages they’ve chosen about judgment and the way they’ve paired them with a complementary theme.
That theme is taken up by a midrash, a Jewish story expounding on the scriptures, that tells of a king
who had delicate crystal goblets [and he wasn’t quite sure how to make use of them]. He said, “If I pour hot water into them, they will expand and burst; if I pour cold water into them, they will contract and shatter.” So what did the king do? He mixed hot water with cold and poured the [temperate] water into the cups, and they did not break.
So it was with God. When it came time to create the world, God reflected, “If I create the world with the attribute of compassion alone, there will be an overflow of wrongful acts. No one will be afraid of punishment. But if I create the world with justice alone, how could the world endure? It would shatter from the harshness. So I will create it with both justice and compassion, and it will endure.” (B’reishit Rabbah 12:15, translation found here)
Justice and compassion, or, put another way, judgment and mercy. Today’s scriptures urge us to practice them together. Let’s take a few minutes to look at how.
The passage from Amos is chilling. In a time of prosperity and peace, God’s prophet has some bad news: God has judged the people; his verdict is “GUILTY”; and the sentence he pronounces is death. This is judgment at its most terrifying. And what makes it perhaps even more terrifying is the so-simple image of the plumb line.
A plumb line is an age-old builder’s tool that uses gravity to determine whether a wall is straight. Hang a lead weight on a string and you have an inescapable, implacable judgment of whether the work of your hands is in plumb, is true, is the way it should be.
You can’t argue with this judge, it isn’t biased, it isn’t corruptible, you can’t appeal to it with emotion or logic. It just measures us the way we really are: how we compare to the straight line. Are we upright, are we true? And none of us could escape such a judgment.
Imagine being judged for everything we do. Not judged harshly, but purely, unemotionally, as by a carpenter’s tool. Who among us could stand under that impartial gaze? We have betrayed the trust of friends. We have responded to suffering with callousness and apathy. We have spoken words that are not true and many more that are not kind, and we have left unsaid the words of compassion that could have been a balm to another suffering soul. We have seen someone in trouble and been too tired, too busy, too nervous, too bent on our own destinations to stop and help. Who among us does not deserve punishment?
Were we subject to pure justice, we would be in a bad way. We need that judgment to be tempered with mercy, or we could not withstand the force of our own failings. They would shatter us.
J. R. R. Tolkien put wise words in the mouth of his wizard, Gandalf: “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement” (The Two Towers, Book IV). It is not enough for our judgments to be just; they must also be tempered with mercy, or who could live?
That rather bizarre council of the gods in today’s psalm shows us two ways the people of the world are judged. All gods sit in judgment, but the God that is our God, our champion in this psalm, is moved by mercy as well as justice. God exhorts the other gods to have mercy on the orphan, the poor person. The psalm challenges us to consider: When we judge others, do we judge like these gods, the ones who have no kindness for the widow and the hungry and so lose their own immortality, or do we judge like the God who is Love, pouring mercy and compassion upon those in need, and so gain ourselves a kind of immortality?
Which brings us to the question asked of Jesus in the Gospel reading. It is asked by one whose realm is that of judgment: the law courts where people come to be judged and to attain justice. He seems to be a good man—he gets a lot of flak in various interpretations of this story, but he’s honest and earnest—but still, he would like to judge those around him, to sort out who is his neighbor and who unworthy of that designation, so as to make that onerous commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” a little easier to carry out.
The story of the Good Samaritan also tempts us to judge: to criticize the priest and the Levite, and of course to criticize, then applaud, the Samaritan. Just one chapter previously, Luke has reminded us that the Samaritans are Not Nice People (Luke 9:51-55). It’s as if the Gospel author is saying to his listeners: yep, I’m talking about those Samaritans, those troublemakers who don’t respect Jesus. It might even be the case that the apostles who itch to punish them for their disrespect are justified in judging Samaritans harshly.
In that passage we read two weeks ago, Luke’s Jesus gave us a hint of what was to follow when he silently prevented his disciples from passing sentence on the Samaritans. In today’s passage, Jesus doesn’t ask us to judge the Samaritans, those we despise, fairly. He doesn’t ask us to judge at all. He asks us to do mercy. That is what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves.
And so from today’s scripture, we may derive a small but profound spiritual practice. A tempering of justice with compassion, judgment with mercy, which we can all practice daily, at least if you’re like me and never go a day without passing judgment on someone. The practice is to add mercy to each of our judgments. When we hear the man speak harshly to his child and our minds leap to the judgment that he is a bad parent, we can think, mercy in our minds, “Maybe he is an exemplary father and I’m catching him at the one moment all year when he’s lost his patience. Maybe he is under stress that I can’t see and what his child did was the last straw: maybe he just lost his job; maybe his mother died last week.” When we hear the news and are filled with rage at what some criminal, some corrupt official, some greedy CEO has done, instead of just hoping that the so-and-so gets what’s coming to him or her, we can pray for a merciful outcome for all involved: that the culprits as well as the victims be healed. When we cast our eyes on someone in judgment, we can add, “there but for the grace of God go I”—and know that if we are blessed with a little extra grace right now, we could be in a very different situation in a year or a week or even an hour. “That could be me,” we can remember, and more—“Sometimes that is me.”
We show mercy to others—we grant others the same benefit of the doubt that we want for ourselves—we give them room to change—we, in short, love our neighbor as ourselves, because we are our neighbor’s neighbor. We are the one set upon by thieves, we are the thieves, we are the important official hurrying past to carry out another duty, we are the despised Samaritan. We are the lawyer looking for an easy way; and sometimes, just sometimes, on a good day, we are Jesus.
So may it be.
© 2010 Amy Zucker Morgenstern
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Christmas Eve Candlelight Service 2009
Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, CA
Isaiah 9:2, 4, 6-7
What an improbable story this is. Everyone gathers around a newborn child and hails him as the King of his people, the Messiah they have awaited for a thousand years, the Savior. A baby! He doesn’t know anything. He can’t do anything. He doesn’t even have a bellybutton yet. How do they expect him to save the world?
Of course, the story reflects the hope we feel at the birth of any child. “Each night a child is born is a holy night” (Sophia Lyon Fahs). In the presence of a newborn baby we feel that anything is possible. We wonder if this is the child who will save us. Is that so improbable? Maybe this is the one who will unlock the riddle of cancer and rid the world of that terrible illness. Maybe this is the one who will bring warring nations to peace. Maybe this one will write a piece of music that seems to make the angels themselves sing Alleluia. Maybe this one will turn us back from our crazy path of destroying our beautiful planet.
Some of these predictions will surely come true. And so we have hope.
But first someone has to raise the babies into women and men. Which is why the story is a little funny, a little touching. Here are all these grownups hoping a baby will save them. But first they need to save him. There’s nothing so helpless as a newborn human—other animals at least can walk almost as soon as they’re born. Most are grown in a few months, many in a few weeks. But not a human. It’s going to take a long time until the baby Jesus grows up into the teacher Jesus, and the Bible skips over most of it. In the in-between years, Joseph and Mary did a lot of child-rearing. They had to feed him and bathe him and teach him and keep him from climbing onto a high shelf in his father’s carpentry shop and falling to his death, if they were to turn the hope into a reality.
We look around at our world and see a mess we don’t know how to clean up. Through the centuries since Jesus’ birth and the centuries before, we’ve asked again and again for someone to save us. There’s so much we need to be saved from: war, exploitation, greed, poverty, cruelty. We want to be saved from ourselves.
Then, when a savior comes along, we are filled with hope—and as quickly disillusioned. Last month, a man whom millions around the world, thousands of millions, had thought could turn us back from war, stood up to declare an escalation of war. Great disappointment and anguished questions followed. So it goes: we hail a new savior, are disappointed, and turn in ever-decreasing hope to a new savior. Maybe we need to do something different. And I think the story we tell tonight tells us what that something might be.
Jesus was called the light of the world. And yet he turned to his students, his followers, the multitudes who gathered to hear him preach, and said to them, “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). You.
“And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5). Your light shines. The words of John’s gospel combine the present tense (“shines”) and the past (“did not,” resolved in some translations as “has not,” overcome). All these years the darkness has never overcome it; through the darkest times; still, into the present, in that bold present tense, the same today as when John set down his words 1900 years ago, the light shines. For it is not that a baby is born and all is saved, forever and ever. The salvation begins there, with the hope. And the hope is kept alive as the child grows, as the child is nurtured by not just two but numberless others.
The light passes from one to another. Look at these teachers before us, symbolized by the candles that we have lit—and we will be the teachers who next pass the light along.
When Jesus told his disciples, told us, “You are the light of the world,” he didn’t say “you have to do it alone.” You are not the only light–just you. You have others. Teachers are all around us, exemplars, brave pioneers, stubborn toilers for freedom and justice. Will we leave it to them to be the light of the world or will we join them? Will we follow them, push them, raise them up?
A savior lives on, past his early death, 2000 years later, because others, including us, have lit their tapers from his. Anyone who we think may save us, that is what she needs, what he needs, in order to be the salvation we hope for. They need us. We bend our candle to theirs and double their light.
In this way and this way alone the world will be saved. It begins with each birth, and it begins again with each kind word, each wise stance, each strong stand . . . Together, and together alone, we will be the saving of our world.
The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it—has never overcome it. And as long as we take light from one another and give light to one another, it never will.
(c) 2009 Amy Zucker Morgenstern
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Each of us is a flower, with a delicate beauty uniquely our own. We may be like sunflowers, turning always towards the light.
May our lives bloom like the flowers.
We may be like night-blooming cereus, only displaying our fragrant petals when it is dark and we think no one can see.
May our lives bloom like the flowers.
We may be hothouse flowers, far from our native lands, cautiously tended within a harsh and unfamiliar climate.
May our lives bloom like the flowers.
We may be gray-headed like dandelions, eager to launch the new generation with the first strong gust of wind: past our own bright youth, but ready to pass our wisdom on in precious gossamer-carried seeds.
May our lives bloom like the flowers.
Some of us, sometimes, spring up overnight and fade in the hot glare.
May our lives bloom like the flowers.
Some of us, sometimes, are roses, slowly assembling petal after tightly-wrapped petal, and revealing our full glory only when everything is in place.
May our lives bloom like the flowers.
Sometimes we are roadside weeds, lovelinesses bursting improbably from the dust and debris.
May our lives bloom like the flowers.
May we offer our beauty with the simplicity of flowers, expecting no recognition, hoping for nothing, giving out of what we are, and knowing it is enough.
May our lives bloom like the flowers.
(c) 2002 Amy Zucker [Morgenstern]–please use freely, with attribution.
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There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul.
(Traditional [African-American spiritual])
The original has two verses, one of which I love:
Sometimes I feel discouraged
And I think my work’s in vain
But then the Holy Spirit
Revives my soul again.
So far, so good, but the next verse veers off in a distinctly un-UU direction:
If you cannot preach like Peter
If you cannot pray like Paul
Go tell the love of Jesus
He died to save us all.
The “you don’t need extraordinary gifts to change the world” is powerful, and I’ve thought of rewriting the last line to make it about salvation by the teachings of Jesus, or the love Jesus counsels us to put at the center of our religion, but my thoughts went on other paths, because when I think about what gives balm to my soul, I think of places like Bass Lake. So I wrote:
When I cannot hear the music
That used to call my name
I sit beside the waters
And they sing to me again.
It whispers through the forest,
It floats down like the leaves:
The peace past understanding,
The courage to believe.
(c) 2010 Amy Zucker Morgenstern–please use freely, with attribution. The original lyrics and melody are in the public domain.
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Unlike a woman I knew in college who said unhesitatingly that she’d known she was a lesbian from age two, I had to learn my sexual orientation gradually. I didn’t get the first glimmer of the idea that I might be bisexual until I was about 18, and I didn’t strongly identify this way until several years later. There were sudden revelatory moments along the way, such as the one that came when I was watching the opening scene of Rear Window and, seeing Grace Kelly’s luminous face loom into close-up as she leans in toward the viewer to kiss James Stewart, was surprised by my emphatic wish, “Kiss me! Kiss me!” But on the whole, my realization that I was bi arrived in degrees, a gradual perceptual shift.
What I have known for as long as memory stretches back is that either/or choices make me suspicious. When presented with a confident statement that two things stand on the opposite sides of an unbridgeable divide, I reflexively ask whether they are really mutually exclusive. Material and spiritual, male and female, liberal and conservative, Israel and Palestine, teenager and elder—when two things are said to be opposites, I try to ask: what category might encompass both of these, synthesize them into a whole?
Being a both/and thinker serves me well as a minister, particularly in the role of community-builder. Part of my job is finding a way for opposites to dwell together in peace. And theologically, I am committed to moving beyond the choices that are often presented to us as either/or, and to leading others past those unreal boundaries; it gave me particular delight to once give a sermon called “Confessions of a Theist Humanist.”
I was well-trained in the habit of seeking both/and answers to either/or questions by my late teens. So when I discovered, around that time, that the world was not divided into heterosexual and homosexual, as I’d thought, but included many people who were romantically drawn to both another sex and their own, I already stood on a foundation that made that fact unsurprising, easy to accept, and, ultimately, attractive to apply to myself.
The desire to go beyond either/or also brought me to Unitarian Universalism and kept me here. I had been brought up Jewish, and the stories and rituals of that faith still meant a great deal to me even when I started searching for something else. I had found great wisdom in Buddhism and embraced much of its teaching. But neither one of those traditions was quite the right home for my spirit. And then I went to my first UU congregation, and discovered a place where I could be Jewish and Buddhist and this great new (to me) thing called Unitarian Universalist, and where no one would force me to choose just one. It was a religion that allowed room for each of us to keep adding new ideas, theologies, practices, and ethical perspectives: where the assumption that met such changes would not be “You can’t do that,” but “Let’s see how that fits in!” Unitarian Universalism was the both/and religion, the one that had successfully challenged so many rules of society and theology and shown them to be illusions.
As I learned more about my newly adopted religion, I felt more and more that this was a religion that thought the way I did, deliberately turning the false choices of either/ors into the inclusivity of both/ands. I read about how the early Unitarians and Universalists were told that if religion tried to incorporate skepticism about the Bible, it would crumble—but Channing, Parker, and Ballou insisted that reason and religion could (must!) co-exist. The resistance to women’s rights in the nineteenth century was an attempt to force an either/or choice: women could either have a moral voice in a public role or have moral authority in the private sphere. I learned that Unitarians and Universalists had led the way in insisting that women could still be women while voting, speaking, leading, in the public sphere that had so long been reserved for men. In the next century, critics of religious liberalism said that one could not both be atheistic and have moral guidance. The UU humanists who went before us replied, “Of course we can.” These Unitarian Universalists were my people!
I’m not both/and about everything. I believe there are ideas that are mutually exclusive; I believe there are actions that are incompatible with certain desired outcomes. So, for example, I am monogamous, not because I’m opposed to polyamory in principle—if people can make it work to everyone’s satisfaction, all power to them—but because what my wife and I know about ourselves tells us that we are most likely to find what we seek within a single relationship sustained as long as we both live. And then, too, much of ethics is about delineating, “If you choose A, then B will be necessarily excluded.” For example, we can’t both maintain solidarity with the poor and promote an economic system that depends on keeping people in poverty. In short, there are limits to both/and-ness. Yet the habit of thinking that seeks to rise above false either/or choices and give a more inclusive answer is one of the gifts we Unitarian Universalists have to offer the world. In turn, one of the gifts bisexuals can offer Unitarian Universalism is to help our religion to more fully develop that way of thinking, applying it to more situations, bringing ever more inclusiveness to a world that creates arbitrary categories—and to our own religious communities. I believe Unitarian Universalists will understand bisexuality better as we learn to think of ourselves as spiritual questioners dwelling in a world that prefers its categories neatly bounded, one that mistrusts those who call those boundaries into question.
We Unitarian Universalists are already boundary-challengers by nature. When I co-authored an Adult Religious Education curriculum on bisexuality, I suggested including exercises that would help people move beyond either/or thinking. One of them asks people to go to one side of the room or the other depending on whether they like vanilla or chocolate, walking alone in nature or being with friends, reading books or listening to music. Being Unitarian Universalists, they often resist the binary options. Even though the facilitators firmly instruct them to choose one side or the other, almost all participants gripe about this arbitrary division, and some disregard the rules, invent a continuum, and put themselves somewhere in between.
In other words, Unitarian Universalists are ripe for understanding bisexuality. When they don’t get it—and I’ve encountered some, both heterosexual and homosexual, who don’t–it is usually because they haven’t yet expanded their capacity for both/and thinking to encompass sexual orientation. I take hope from the fact that most Unitarian Universalists embrace both/and thinking in other areas of their lives. It also means that when we are supported in being out and clear about what our orientation means, we bi UUs can lead our co-congregants in broadening their views, not just of sexuality, but of all the elements of life that have been forced into arbitrary and false categories.
My own experience suggests that even in a Welcoming Congregation, we can have a ways to go. When I came out as bi, I was asked by one UU (sympathetically, but with an exasperatingly knowing look) whether I was “in transition.” I was so slow about the lingo that it took me a week to realize that she was suggesting that this was just a step on the way to admitting I was a lesbian. I don’t generally mind being taken for a lesbian—it’s an honorable label—but I do mind the implication that someone who claims to be bi must be only halfway out of the closet. Although many people do try on bisexuality as a self-description in the process of sorting out their orientation (and they have my support and empathy), it is a mistake to conclude from that that it is only an in-between state. Being bi is not a way station. It is an orientation of its own.
It reminds me of the bitter little joke told about UUs, that our religion is “a way station between Methodism and the golf course.” No, it’s not. Some of us live here permanently, and find it a very comfortable and beautiful home. Many people may pass through our congregations on their way from another religion to none at all, but their using Unitarian Universalism as a convenient resting point doesn’t define our religion.
Invisibility, the bane of bisexuality, is a problem in our congregations. I’ve had someone in the church’s LGBTQ community suggest that another bi person—in fact, our other minister—was not a true member of that community because she was married to a man. In other words, I and others who were in same-sex relationships were acceptable because—and, I couldn’t help concluding, only because—we resembled lesbians or gay men. Likewise, many hetero people in the congregation simply didn’t register that their other minister was bi, even though she had spoken clearly of her bisexuality from the pulpit. It was easy for them to disregard her membership in the LGBTQ community even when she proclaimed it; they could think of her as hetero, and chose to do so. In each case, people struggled to acknowledge the both/and before their eyes: that we bisexuals fit into neither category, neither gay/lesbian nor hetero, but are an entity outside that either/or.
Another such entity is our religion itself, which shares with bisexuals that painful quality of invisibility. It isn’t beneficial to either UUs or bi folk to be rendered invisible, and perhaps Unitarian Universalists can learn something about themselves, as well as about the bisexuals in their midst, from bisexuals’ dogged insistence to be acknowledged and understood by a world that often simply does not see us.
In the case of bisexuality, invisibility arises from the peculiar rules a please-check-one-and-only-one-box society imposes. It is one half of the double bind that holds us: if we are openly involved with one person, then we are implicitly identifying as either hetero or gay (depending on whether it’s a different- or same-sex relationship), which hides bisexuality from view—if not disproving its very existence. If, on the other hand, we speak openly about our past involvement in both kinds of relationship–or, heaven forbid, are in both at once—we are confirming the stereotype that bisexuals “just can’t make up their minds,” “can’t be faithful,” or are all polyamorous.
Of course, as with so many double binds, the dilemma is caused not by the nature of bisexuality but by the rigidity of the rules. When we dismiss those rules, the problem dissolves. Just as people in our congregations are learning not to assume that a man who speaks of his partner is referring to a woman, we can learn not to assume that everyone in a different-sex relationship is hetero, or that everyone in a same-sex relationship is gay. Bisexuality is always a possibility, and, studies suggest, will be increasingly so as we free people to be more candid about their true orientation. We can do that through activism—by removing the real, legal penalties for being openly bi—and, right at home in our congregations and organizations, through remembering (and reflecting in the way we speak) that many of the people who visit, join, and lead us are bi even though it doesn’t show.
When bisexuals stay closeted, it’s generally out of fear. Why do Unitarian Universalists stay in the closet? Why do we hide our religion from the world? I think it is often for the same reason. We accept the assumptions of the wider society; we define ourselves by its categories, which have no place for the likes of us; and so we become reticent to say “Actually, there is another option.” We closet ourselves. Perhaps we do so because the implications of declaring of our religious home, “We are a both/and place,” scare us. Such a statement certainly carries its pejorative connotations just as bisexuality does. According to some members of other, more creedal faiths, we Unitarian Universalists are simply unable, or unwilling, to make a commitment. Our diverse approach to spiritual sources, which is one of our great strengths, they interpret as wishy-washiness; we don’t stand for anything. We can’t commit to one path. And while this is sometimes true, it misses the larger truth that being Unitarian Universalist is a path.
All of this is very familiar to us bisexual people. We hear it all the time: you can’t commit to a single partner; you’re afraid to declare yourself as lesbian or gay; you’re trying to be trendy; you can’t make up your mind.
We know a thing or two about seeing through these accusations. We know that the reason we’re bi is not that we can’t make up our minds, but because we see the beauty of many varieties of humanity. We know that we are perfectly capable of committing to a single partner for life if we wish, just as a heterosexual woman can be attracted to men of different colors, yet choose one, with his own unchangeable skin, to be her husband; just as a lesbian can forswear women she finds attractive in order to settle down happily with just one—some say as soon as the second date. We know we are what we are, regardless of whether it fits a trend. Can Unitarian Universalism as a whole “come out” as what it truly is? We are a religion that, in explicit contradiction to what many religions consider possible, affirms both mystery and reason; is a home for both Christians and Buddhists; draws upon the Bible and other texts riddled with oppressive teachings, while firmly supporting liberation.
To assert the possibility of both/and is to blaze a new trail, or rather, to clear a trail that many have walked before but that continually becomes overgrown for lack of enough footsteps. So it can be hard going. We Unitarian Universalists have internalized many of the either/or messages from other faiths—even though, for many of us, they are the very messages that made us go look for a religious alternative in the first place. We accept too readily the either/or stereotype that says one is either a possessor of university degrees or uninterested in tackling subtle ideas, and thus we question whether our religion is attractive to people who don’t have an advanced formal education. We accept the falsehood that we must be either an activist church or concerned with tending our spirits, and thus repeat the old, tired drama of “spirituality versus social justice.”
As Unitarian Universalists, we inherit a great legacy from generations of people who heard all the “NOs” of either/or thinking and responded with a both/and, affirming, “Why not?” Will we make the most of that legacy?
A heterosexual friend of mine once said, in all seriousness, that he admired those of us who could be attracted to more than one sex–as if we demonstrated a higher spirituality, a kind of open-mindedness that “hopelessly heterosexual” people such as he had not attained. I laughed, but I strongly disagreed. There is nothing better about bisexuality; for mysterious reasons, human beings have a range of orientations and none is better than the others. We bi folks are just being ourselves. But when the wider society denies that one’s self is a true and possible thing, then being oneself is itself an act of courage and spiritual leadership. All openly LGBTQ people among us have led their UU kin in practicing integrity and wholeness, and we can continue to do so, if the others will follow. By insisting on our own truths, we can break through the walls dividing categories and lead others to freedom. What joy could follow if we Unitarian Universalists dismissed all the false categories the world and our own minds create!
We can begin with our own religious communities, where many of the barriers caused by either/or thinking still wait for us to dismantle them. We struggle, still, to say “why not?” not only to category-defying identities like bisexuality and transgender, but also to political diversity, class diversity, and racial and ethnic diversity. We are too quick to accept the either/or thinking that stuffs our religion into a mostly white, upper-class, liberal, English-speaking box. We struggle even to be open to both humanists and theists, to both children and adults, to both young adults and elders, to both cradle Unitarian Universalists and converts.
Bisexuals know just how hard it is to say both/and where others have said either/or. It puts you betwixt and between, and it’s so much more comfortable, so much more emotionally safe to fit into a set category. It is not easy to feel as if you don’t belong anywhere. It’s not easy for a bi man to turn down the solidarity offered by a gay man who assumes, with a friendly “Nice to have another gay man in this group,” that he’s gay too. It’s hard for a married man and woman to declare themselves outside the safe circle of other married couples in the church by saying, “Actually, we’re both bi.” People are comfortable with categories, and we challenge them, even frighten them, when our lives present them with evidence that the walls separating one category from another are permeable.
But we bisexuals have also learned that the problem is not in ourselves, but in the categories, which are figments of the mind. Coming out is a proclamation of faith in reality instead of the divisions that falsely claim authority. Unitarian Universalism will begin to claim its full authority as a religion when it comes out boldly as a both/and faith. Celebrating bisexuality, that dissolver of false boundaries, can be the key that opens that closet door.
© 2010 Amy Zucker Morgenstern
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