Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Minister of Sexuality? Yes!

I was reading Debra Haffner's latest post from her excellent blog* when something caught my eye. Among the progressive faith leaders joining her in a meeting with White House officials, the United Church of Christ sent Ann Hanson, Minister of Sexuality Education and Justice.

A minister of sexuality?

Absolutely! It's not just that sexuality is an integral part of our lives, with an important spiritual connection. It is that so many religious leaders have either neglected it, or even downright sabotaged it.

Liberals included. So many of us have presumed that being religious liberals means not having hangups about sex, so we don't really need to talk about it. Well, as the Gershwin song says: "It ain't necessarily so." To wit: In response to the Sacred Eros program at Arlington Street Church, I get a lot of contacts from people at other UU congregations because they don't feel comfortable bringing up sexuality with their own ministers.

So yes, we Unitarian Universalists need a minister of sexuality. We need someone who can educate, support, persuade and even cajole other ministers and leaders to address this vital part of our lives.

So if you're a fellow UU reading this post, please consider writing to UUA president Reverend Peter Morales, and putting this proposal to him. With the damage done by "abstinence-only" programs, pervasive homophobia and anti-choice rhetoric and violence, our denomination needs someone who can speak truth to power on these issues, both to the outside world and within our faith movement.

What better way for us to stand on the side of love.

* = If you have not subscribed to Debra's blog, "Sexuality and Religion: What's the Connection?", join me in doing so. She provides great information and insight on these important issues.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Latest Lepers: What Our Hypocrisy Has Wrought

It's been said that a society can be measured by how it treats the least amongst them. What does the Tuttle Causeway Colony say about us?

Many states and communities impose rules on where registered sex offenders may live. If you're a registered sex offender living in Miami-Dade County, you are prohibited from living some 2500 feet from any place where children congregate. Doesn't matter if your offense involved children, or if you have family in the area willing to look out for you, or even if you're appealing your decision. That leaves only one place in the county where you can live -- a shanty town under the Julia Tuttle Causeway. The courts have even told people that they have to go there, actually dumping them there with a blanket and pillow.

There is no running water. No permanent housing. The nonstop sound of cars reverberating overhead. Inhabitants share electrical generators to recharge their cell phones and ankle monitors. They are barred from leaving the area from 6pm to 7am. And imagine writing this down as your address on a job application.

This is the product of our hypocritical attitudes about sex. A murderer who completes their sentence can live where they want. Someone who rips off millions in people's life savings, once finishing their sentence, can live where they want. But if your crime involves sex -- even consensual sex between willing adults -- you can be exiled like a leper. For the rest of your life.

There are efforts to rehabilitate gang members, drug addicts, and violent criminals. We want them to learn a skill, to turn their lives around, to make a positive change. But sex offenders? So many have declared them to be irredeemable and untreatable (despite evidence to the contrary) that we are actually spending more time and taxpayer money making their lives worse.

Recently a woman was told by a Miami-Dade court that, because of her sex-related offense, this was the only place she had to go -- in a shantytown with over one hundred men. The men there provided her with a beaten-up camper, which for them is prime real estate. They've made a pledge to "watch out for her," and sticking by that pledge. In a seemingly hopeless dumping ground, these human beings are behaving more humanely and justly than those who put them there. A soul-stirring irony -- and a lesson for the rest of us.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Abortion and the Health Care Debate

I was listening to a news program interview on health care, and the host asked both guests (one from the Obama administration, another from the GOP) whether a Federally funded health care scheme should use taxpayer money for abortion.

I have a simple answer: Yes.

Abortion is a legal medical procedure. If we're going to refuse coverage for it, what other legal procedures should we also refuse to fund? And on what grounds?

Many people have religious objections to abortion, and that they should not have their taxes used to fund something which goes against their beliefs. Should we also oppose funding blood transfusions, out of respect for Jehovah's Witnesses? Should we oppose funding psychiatric treatment because it goes against Scientology?

The main argument is that abortion involves the taking of a human life, and therefore should not be financed with taxpayer money. I'd love it if our government never paid to have a life taken -- but we already do. Every casualty of war, every suspect shot by police, and every murderer executed, is paid for by tax dollars. Should we give people the option to check off on their income tax forms that they don't want their share of the tax pool to go to these activities?

My question for those who oppose funding abortion: What is your alternative? So many who oppose funding abortion are also opposed to funding contraception, comprehensive sex education, child care for single mothers and so forth, one has to wonder what practical policies they would favor -- or even if they do.

In the end, the more important question is making sure that every American can get the health care they need. The choice of which procedures to have should be left to patients, in consultation with their health care providers. And if those opposed to abortion do not want it chosen, then they should be willing to make as many alternatives as possible available to all, and especially those options which would prevent unwanted pregnancy and abortion to begin with.

I can't think of anything more ethical -- or more American -- than giving every person the power to choose how best to deal with their family's health, even if the choices they make may not be mine, or my choices theirs.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Thank you, Michael

Recently I received an email from Michael, an acquaintance of mine who is a survivor of clergy sexual abuse. Every time I ask him how he is, he responds the exact same way: “Hanging in there.” Which is indeed an understatement. I am always so amazed at how much this remarkable individual epitomizes grace, forgiveness and resilience. Rather than lash out that those who abused him, or the church which ignored his pleas for help, he’s managed to rebuild his life and to dedicate himself to helping other victims heal and grow.

And before you jump to conclusions … no, not a Roman Catholic. Michael was raised in a relatively moderate evangelical denomination, yet one still afflicted by similar problems of denial and ignorance. Michael has since left that church, but still takes the time to share his experience and insights with religious leaders. His number one piece of advice: Prevention. “Too often we only react to stories of abuse. If we are really against abuse, we should do all we can to keep it from happening. Speak the truth, break the silence, empower people and hold leaders accountable before any of this happens.”

Amen, brother!

One way of breaking the silence is to talk more openly about sexuality in our religious communities. Even in many liberal congregations, it’s not considered appropriate to talk about sex in the same sacred space where we revere the Divine. But if we truly believe that sexuality is a divine gift, then it’s not only right but necessary to speak about it, learn about it, and celebrate the diverse ways in which erotic love can be expressed without exploitation and harm.

While knowing the truth can set us free, it is empowerment which gives us the tools to do right in the light of that freedom. Teaching people to think critically and constructively, to move beyond mere adherence to rules into an authentic ethical discernment, gives us the power to live our lives with integrity and wholeness. Such empowerment also means we have the confidence to set boundaries for ourselves, to choose who will lead us and to what extent, and to hold them to account when they fall short.

A rather general set of points, I agree, but hopefully useful as a guide to finding the specifics. George Bernard Shaw said that there is one religion, but a hundred versions of it. Let us hope and work for every denomination to find the specifics of how to speak truth and empower one another in their sexual lives -- and not let anyone else take that power from them.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

What it Means to be a Welcoming Community

I've often had discussions with other UUs about "where we should draw the line" about welcoming people into our congregations. No problem with gays, they agree, but what about ... ?

Go ahead, fill in the blank. There are plenty of categories of "those people" out there who give us pause.

Forty years ago, gays and lesbians were in that category. Even within the UUA and its predecessor denominations.

So how do we determine who we should welcome, and who we should not?

My own answer, in a nutshell is: Yes, we welcome all people -- but not all behaviors.

So, would I welcome a registered sex offender into the church? So long as they agree to specific limits, I would say yes. We often have prejudices about what sex offenders are like, and fail to recognize how isolating them can actually make things worse.

Would I let a professional dominatrix teaching Religious Education, or providing lay pastoral care? Hey, I happen to know a few prodommes, and I can tell you two things. First, they are great educators and counselors. Second, they know how to keep things private, including and especially the facts of their occupation.

What about someone who interrupts worship services and committee meetings, or chases after individuals during social hour, demanding that his grievances (whatever they are) be heard? Clearly there are some people who, for whatever reason, have difficulty understanding that there is a time and a place for everything. We can do what we can to remind them of that fact -- but if they refuse to heed that advice, then we're not obligated to put their desires above the need of community members to feel safe when they come into our shared space.

It is that ideal of community, of welcoming people as they are while challenging one another to grow and change, receiving diverse gifts and responding to diverse needs, which we must always keep in mind. May it always be so.

Well, It Was Bound to Happen...

As many in the UU blogosphere know, there is a fellow who has engaged in some relentless posts and comments about "injustice, abuse and hypocrisy" within Unitarian Universalism. I won't give his name, but I'll describe the course of events for those unfamiliar...

This individual believes that he had a revelatory experience, and went to the minister of a UU congregation about it. The minister, according to this fellow, dismissed his account as "psychotic" -- and it went downhill from there.

Since then the fellow has had his membership revoked by that congregation; he has responded not only with continually writing letters, emails, blog posts and comments on other people's blogs, but he has picketed that congregation until their current minister felt the need to file for a legal restraining order. Worse, he has gone out of his way to verbally attack and harass various people, especially UU ministers, and appears oblivious to how his behavior affects others.

What caught my attention was how his manner of writing, and his seemignly obsessive focus on one topic -- even to the point of boring and annoying others -- resembled another fellow I've encountered. And, in turn, how their common traits could be possible signs of Asperger's syndrome

Well, when I became yet another one of his targets, I wrote to him privately. I told him my suspicions regarding Asperger's, with the caveat that I was not a professional and was only speculating based on partial information. I explained to him that Asperger's is not considered a form of psychosis or insanity, but that it can and does affect one's ability to interact with others. I told him that I did not wish to engage him in discussion again, unless he consulted a specialist on Asperger's for an evaluation.

My reason for suggesting this is not to belittle or attack him. It is to try to help, just as many folks diagnosed with Asperger's as adults have found it helpful in their lives. And my reason for making it a condition for further discussion is that I don't see the point of engaging in an endless exchange with someone who is not willing to work on how they interact with others.

But, he does not see it that way. He sees it as yet another "attack", and has said as much on his blog. My only reason for responding here is because of how he has portrayed things.

And that, my friends, is all I have to say on the matter. I'm sure he will see this and write yet again. As many other UU bloggers have noted, he seems to have a lot of time on his hands.


UPDATE 7/14/09

Recently, two developments have been brought to my attention regarding this individual -- both disturbing.

The first is that, in response to comments from members of the Asperger's community, this fellow has openly admitted that he is, in his own words, "deliberately rude and offensive" towards various UUs.

The second is that, several months before my private speculation that he might have Asperger's, he publicly did his own "amateur diagnosis" of someone else, as an outright attack.

This changes the entire picture. Asperger's or no, we are dealing with an individual who is blatantly malicious and hypocritical, and who is so desperate for attention that he will say and do anything to get it.

Failing to perceive how you harm others is one thing. Failing to care about it is quite another.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

UU Sex Education: Why Aren't We Doing More?

A couple of months ago, our Director of Religious Education joined one of the members of our congregation in a training program about sexuality education. A great step - the more people and congregations able to lead such courses, the better!

Then I learned that, even with such training, it ain't so easy.

"We're looking into teaming up with other congregations in the area," one mom told me, "so we can get a critical mass with a balance of boys and girls, and a good team of teachers."

Well, you can do that here in Boston. There are, after all, four UU churches in downtown Boston, and even more within a short subway or car ride. But what about those relatively small and isolated groups, without so many resources or willing volunteers?

We seem to have locked our own congregations into a Catch-22. We love to promote the heck out of the Our Whole Lives curriculum - and well we should - but then we set up all of these hurdles to actually teaching it. Maybe the folks at UUA headquarters should try to go through those hurdles themselves, as though they were staff or lay volunteers in the average UU congregation.

Imagine that you're a leader of a small to mid-sized UU congregation in the middle of the country. You have a vibrant Religious Education program for children and teens, and you want to hold Our Whole Lives modules for them. So now, according to the UUA's recommendations, you need to...
... find one or more programs within driving distance of your church or fellowship.
... locate both a man and a woman who are not only willing to teach the course, but who have the time to drive out to each training session and back, and for each and every module.
... have parent orientation programs "that affirm parents as the primary sexuality educators of their children" for each and every module - so now another set of meetings.

Get the idea?

Voltaire warned of making the perfect the enemy of the good. Yet I fear that, with all that a congregation needs to do just to get started, we've fallen into that trap. And with the lack of meaningful sex education in so many parts of the country, our young people can't afford to wait for perfection.

Here's one suggestion with regard to training new instructors. Why don't we use various media technology, such as DVD's and online seminars, to provide greater access to OWL's training programs? People don't have to wait for a workshop to come to their area; they can use their computers and phones to bring the workshop to them. And not only would this make the trainings more accessible, but with less driving they would also be greener!

Last but not least, we need to remember that there is more to education than just a lesson plan or written text. There is also the passion and enthusiasm of the teacher, the encouragement of parents, and the desire of students to learn. When these things are properly nurtured, then it doesn't matter if the curriculum is perfect; the very drive to teach and to learn will fill in the gaps.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Forest of the Soul

[This is the text of the sermon I delivered at Arlington Street Church, Boston MA, July 5th 2009]

Growing up in the suburbs of New Jersey, my brother and I attended an elementary school which was partly surrounded by woods. The principal and the teachers often admonished us never to go in there during recess; after all, they were obligated to keep an eye on us, and could not do so through the dense cover of trees. Yet there were those of us who loved to explore the woods, learning every path and landmark within, taking shortcuts through it between home and school. We laughed and made fun of those who took the teachers’ warnings so very seriously, those fraidy cats! Yet perhaps it was their very fear of the woods which gave us, in their eyes, an almost outlaw cachet.

Those woods are still there. I searched online to find a satellite map of my old school, and sure enough, those lush green canopies still surround the campus. How it stirs my heart! How I wonder if others are as drawn to those woods so lovely, dark and deep.

Such primeval landscapes have a sublime draw to our spirits. As pagan author Morgan La Fey says in her article “Sacred Trees”:

When walking through a warm and lush forest setting one's thoughts can easily take flights of fancy. It is not difficult to shed the layers of modern life and find one's more subtle or primitive beginnings. Somewhere from deep within the spirit and majesty of each single tree steps forth and at once one can find themselves transported to a world of shadow and shade.

So it is with the landscape of our souls, where the shadows of our more primal selves seem very much like those dense, deep woods – attractive to some, while others hesitate to even set foot inside.

Why do we hesitate? Perhaps it is because we have been taught to think of the soul or spirit as divine light, distinct from and even transcending the material or “mundane” world. By extension, we tend to react to the idea of darkness as a metaphor for evil. But when we speak of a literal forest as dark, we do not mean it is literally evil. No, we mean that it is hard to see into it, from the dense foliage blocking outside sources of light. It is in this sense that psychologists like Jung refer to our shadow selves, hidden from the light of conscious thought.

So often we think of emotions like fear, anger and want as inherently negative, even destructive – and surely they can be. But they also have their place in human life, and can even be utilized for good. We can be fearful of harm, angry at injustice, and wanting of love. What we must caution against is allowing such feelings to be all-consuming – to let fear become blind terror, anger become blind rage, and want become blind addiction.

The question is not simply whether we repress or unleash those parts of ourselves which are hidden, but whether we can acknowledge and draw from them – or, to borrow the language of Carl Jung, whether we can “own” them. It was Jung in fact who warned that, as we continue to disown our shadow, to deny and repress it, we begin to project it onto others. Imagine trying to contain a forest, only to have the untamed plants and animals within it start to encroach on our so-called “civilized” territory. Or, we can learn to live with and learn from the forest, with humility and appreciation.

One area for me is the fear invoked by my father. Dad has a temper – the bellowing, throw-things-against-the-wall kind of temper that would scare the pants off of anyone. One weekend at their house, he couldn’t get his computer printer to work, and erupted, actually hurling a big bottle of soda on the floor in front of me.

I was scared, yet strangely calm. Holding out my hands, I said: “O-o-okay, I’m going to put the cats outside and go for a walk before you kill one of us.”

That shook him. He stood there, all six feet five inches of him, dumbfounded, utterly quiet. He didn’t have to apologize – the expression on his face said it all.

Two things happened after that. First, I’ve never seen him lose his temper like that again. Angry, yes – but not out of control. Second, we’ve been able to talk on more equal footing, with less distance. In a sense, we unwittingly healed one another, by prompting each to become aware of that within us which we would rather not face, so that we could better come to terms with them, and with one another.

It reminds me of one of the great mythic tales, that of Percival and the Grail King, the young adventurer and the wounded old man. Here, from his interview program with Bill Moyers, “The Power of Myth”, is how the late Joseph Campbell sums it up:

Now, when Percival comes to the Grail castle, he meets the Grail King, who is brought in on a litter, wounded, kept alive simply by the presence of the Grail. Percival’s compassion moves him to ask, “What ails you, Uncle?” But he doesn’t ask the question because he has been taught by his instructor that a knight doesn’t ask unnecessary questions. So he obeys the rule, and the adventure fails.

And then it takes him five years of ordeals and embarrassments and all kinds of things to get back to that castle and ask the question that heals the king and heals society. The question is an expression, not of the rules of the society, but of compassion, the natural opening of the human heart to another human being. That’s the Grail.

And, by the way, before Percival was trained as a knight and instructed to stifle questions and curiosity, he had been raised by his mother apart from courtly society – in a forest. And, the Grail castle which he visits is surrounded by a wasteland which, once the Grail king has been healed, is likewise rejuvenated into … a forest.

We are often given rules for living with others in society, and surely there is reason to understand and respect such customs. But there is also need to return to the very core of our humanity – our compassion, our desires, our fears, and even our anger – rather than let ourselves be so bound to tradition that we cannot heal one another and make ourselves whole.

One of those rules, borne of our Western ideal of individualism, is to neither intrude into the lives of others, nor burden others with the details of our own lives. Yet what are the consequences of living this way, isolated from one another? Go into the forest, and you’ll see that every plant and animal depends upon one another, with even the mighty trees depending on lowly bugs and worms to break down waste matter and replenish the soil. So it is with our humanity, for we are meant to live in community, not in isolation. Children starved of embrace and touch, suffer just as much as if they were starved of food. How, then, do we starve one another when we fail to ask in compassion: “What ails you, friend?”

When Percival failed to ask this question, he awoke the next day in an empty castle, utterly alone. It took a wild woman – a woman of the forest – to show him that this was a sign that his adventure had failed, and that he must begin his quest anew.

My friends, let us begin our quest anew. Let us help to make one another whole, to bring together shadow and light, cultivated homes and primeval forest. In seeking to build the beloved community, let us not be afraid to bring – and to welcome – all of ourselves, so that we may realize more fully how we may sustain one another, grow together, and heal ourselves and our world.


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Limits of Diversity

I've been thinking a great deal lately about someone I've encountered online. He is, to put it politely, quite atypical. He appears obsessively focused on a very narrow subject. His language is overly repetitive and pedantic, and he seems to have a hard time grasping what others try to tell him. He comes across as cocksure to the point of arrogance, so sure of his rightness that he won't even consider any other options or opinions, except to try to argue them into the ground. Many say that he seems utterly self-centered, as if he doesn't give a hoot about other people's thoughts and feelings, or is unaware of them.

Some people think he's nuts. Others think he's just a conceited jerk.

I've started to think ... Asperger's Syndrome?

A lot of people with Asperger's are seen as socially awkward, even cold or rude. It doesn't help that two of the classic symptoms are problems with eye contact and vocal inflection. Add to that the tendency to be incredibly logical, literal and rigid in their thinking, and you can see why so many feel isolated, even bullied.

Perhaps because of that isolation, many "Aspies" have developed their own sense of community, even challenging the traditional notion that they are disordered. They've even coined a term for non-Asperger people: neurotypical. And from that, the concept of neurodiversity, - that so-called "normal" neurological makeups are just one part of the continuum of healthy human variation.

I can see that ... up to a point. Many people with Asperger's, ADD, dyslexia and so forth have been able to adapt, function in and contribute to society. On the other hand, what happens when someone's "neurodivergence" is so extreme that it can lead to serious harm, to themselves or others?

Much like how our view of sexuality and sexual diversity continues to evolve, and to be challenged. If being queer, kinky, polyamorous and asexual are just different forms of healthy erotic expression, then why draw the line at other "differences"?

Diversity to me is about more than "embracing difference", because some differences are not worth embracing - sociopathy, for example. Diversity is about recognizing one another's gifts and shortcomings, and working together so that each can give and receive from one another. And with that in mind,...

Aspies like the fellow I mentioned above have gifts to bring. So do kinky and poly folk like me. Each of us has gifts to bring, cultivate and share with the world. We also have shortcomings, blind spots and weaknesses which we need to be aware of and work on. And sometimes those shortcomings are such overwhelming obstacles in our lives that no amount of tolerance or social change can help.

So yes, we need Aspie pride, just as much as we need GLBT pride, kink pride, poly pride, and so on. But we also need to be careful to balance that pride with humility, lest that pride cross over into arrogance and hubris.