Thursday, June 24, 2010

When Eros Sings: Variations on a Theme

Sermon delivered at Arlington Street Church, Boston MA - August 3, 2008

The song which calls to me, and which I wish to share with you today, is a love song.

It is a song of passion and pleasure, of joy and joining.

It is also a song of pain, of longing, of be-longing, of the conflicts and tensions which come whenever lives come together so intimately.

Each love song we sing and hear, and each way it is sung, is unique, just as each intimate relationship is unique and beautiful in its own way. The theme which runs through all of these is universal, with endlessly diverse variations.

How often we forget this. How often our minds connect so strongly to one song from our memory, and think of it as the universal song, the ideal by which all others are to be measured.

Consider the song sung as our first hymn this morning: "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine." Even the title is an echo of the first lines of the biblical Song of Solomon: "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine … " How could such a song not be universal?

Well, for one thing, it follows the confines of gender, not only in that it is the story of a man and a woman, but of a man pursuing a woman, as traditional gender roles demand. Even more ideal, the man did so having "never been kissed" (and, presumably, neither had his partner), the two falling in love and marrying. As lovely as that story is, the majority of people go through several relationships before choosing to join with another for the long haul; some may never settle into a permanent relationship, yet still be perfectly content. The idealized couple in our song have children, but not all couples do. And while most people couple and remain monogamous (or at least try to) some find love and joy in groupings of three or more.

And what of the qualitative ways in which love is made manifest – the tempo and the mood? Here I would cite another song, by Bill Morrissey, where another husband and wife discuss what kind of wood to put in their stove on a cold winter night. Sipping a glass of wine, she suggests filling it with birches, inviting him to "watch as the fire burns bright" as they did in their younger days; yet he, grumbling about how he hates a cold house, insists on using oak, which "will burn as long and hot as a July afternoon." So often we are drawn to the bright passion, like burning birches, yet told to strive for a more mature and lasting love like oak – yet, like the woman in Morrissey's song, how we miss the splendid "hungry light" of first romance, however brief, wondering how we could have both birches and oak.

Finally, the satirist Tom Lehrer takes that notion of fiery all-consuming passion to a darkly humorous extreme:

I ache for the touch of your lips, dear,
But much more for the touch of your whips, dear.
You can raise welts
Like nobody else
As we dance to the Masochism Tango.
Let our love be a flame, not an ember
Say it's me that you want to dismember
Blacken my eye
Set fire to my tie
As we dance to the Masochism Tango.

Now, who could take something like that to heart? Well, as satirical as that is, many of us in the BDSM or "kink" community have embraced Lehrer's parody as an unofficial anthem. For once, someone has composed a song which, however imperfectly and mockingly, acknowledges that what we do is about love and passion.

So many songs, so many ways to sing them. Such a variety of ways to find joy, love, pleasure and connection with another.

What then is the theme, the common thread, which joins them all together? How do we bring together our diverse sexualities and relationship patterns – queer and straight, monogamous and polyamorous, vanilla and kinky, intersex, asexual, and more – in harmony with the universal song of Eros? This is the challenge which I, in my own self-exploration, have found myself taking up. How do I bring the principles and values of my UU faith to bear on something so intensely powerful and personal? And how can we, as a spiritual community, do so in a way which transforms ourselves and our world for the better?

If we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, then let us affirm in word and deed alike that each of us is deserving of love, joy and pleasure. Sounds easy enough, but how often we forget to affirm this – including for ourselves.

If we believe in justice, equity and compassion, then let us speak out against both discrimination towards sexual and gender minorities, and sexual abuse and exploitation; let us further temper our attitudes and actions with compassionate concern, not only for the victims of these wrongs, but for their perpetrators as well.

If we believe in accepting one another as we are, then let us affirm each person's self-determination in how best to fulfill their desires, encouraging one another in a sexual ethic governed by honesty, respect for oneself and others, mutual consent, awareness of risk, and the affirmation of pleasure. In her book Sensuous Spirituality, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott recalled that one of the greatest gifts of inspiration she received was the advice to avoid condemning any other person's attempts to relate, however imperfect we may find it to be.

If we believe in a free and responsible search for meaning and truth, then let us speak up for comprehensive education on sexuality, not only for our children and youth, but as part of a continuous and lifelong process of growth, as a way of furthering our understanding and appreciation of the human condition.

If we believe in democracy and the right of conscience, and the goal of a just community with liberty for all, then let us provide safe spaces where people can discuss their questions, concerns and desires regarding sexuality, whether with an intimate partner, or in the context of community.

And if we believe that we are a part of an interdependent web of existence, then let us be mindful that our erotic selves are an integral part of our whole selves, and as such, one with a vital spiritual component. Let us not only infuse our respective sexualities with spiritual values and practice, but in return enliven our spirituality with a celebration of the sensuous and erotic, recognizing and affirming as the late John O'Donohue noted, the "secret relationship between our physical being and the rhythm of our soul," that "[t]he body is the place where the soul shows itself."

Above all else, my friends, let us not be complacent. It is easy to compare ourselves with those holding more conservative and puritanical approaches to sexuality and relationships, patting ourselves on the back for being so much more welcoming and open-minded. But the challenge of our progressive faith is that we must constantly question and challenge one another. We must not only speak our truths in love, but listen when others do the same, and be mindful that doing so also means speaking truth to power – including the "powers-that-be" amongst us. To hearken back to the admonition of Jesus, we need to look for the mote in our own eye before pointing to the speck in others.

The love song which calls to each of us is but one variation of the song which Eros sings to us all. Some can sweep us away, others make us think more deeply, and a few may even freak us out. But each one in the repertoire has something to tell us about ourselves and our wider human family. Like love and joy and pleasure, these songs are something to be shared, so that each of us may learn and grow and heal.


Sacred Eros: Embodying the Divine in Our Sexualities

A homily delivered at Arlington Street Church, Boston MA - September 5, 2007

Jesus Christ. The Buddha. The Prophet Mohammed. Lao Tzu.

What do you think of when you hear these names? Their spiritual teachings? The examples of their lives? I’ll wager that the last thing you think about is their lives as sexual human beings, with desires and passions like our own.

This is just one example of how our culture – even in so-called liberal quarters – persists in dividing sexuality and spirituality from one another. Eros, as passionate and primal love, was demoted by early Christian theologians who claimed that the “higher” spiritual love of agape was the ideal to which all people should aspire. In fact, this so-called split between physical passion and spiritual love owes more to the influence of Manichean and Stoic dualism on the thought of Augustine and other church fathers, and ignores how the Bible not only includes the Song of Solomon, but in many places uses the terms agape and eros interchangeably.

Granted, we have come a long way since then, both in theory and in practice. There is the fact that I can stand here and deliver this homily, in one of many churches which welcome people of all sexual and gender identities. Then there is our denomination’s shared work with the United Church of Christ in creating and presenting one of the most widely praised sexuality education series, “Our Whole Lives.” But it’s hard to overcome centuries of anti-sex dualism. Ours is still a rarified atmosphere here at Arlington Street Church, and much of the surrounding American culture would prefer not to talk seriously about sexuality, or to do so in embarrassed, even shameful whispers. Even supposedly progressive and enlightened individuals can be, and often are, reticent to discuss and come to terms with various aspects of human sexual expression.

This is the challenge to progressive spiritual communities such as ours. If sexuality is as important an aspect of our being as any other, then is it not as much spiritual as anything else? If it is a source of joy, pleasure and connection, then should we not then see it as a means by which we may embody the Divine within and amongst ourselves? And if we wish, in the words of lesbian feminist theologian Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, to reclaim Eros as a spiritual urge, then should we not dare to rethink the very presumptions by which we view the myriad ways that we and our fellow human beings express and connect through sexuality?

First: We need to create a safe space where people can talk about sexuality. In her book Our Tribe, Reverend Nancy Wilson talked about how, whenever representatives of the Metropolitan Community Church would attend meetings of the National Council of Churches, they would become impromptu counselors on sexuality and relationships, often having NCC delegates and staff knocking on their hotel room doors in the middle of the night, painfully in need of someone to talk to. Set aside the presumption that openly gay or lesbian people are somehow instant experts on sex. Why would people, many of them trained clergy and pastoral counselors themselves, turn to relative strangers in the middle of the night for advice and information on sex? Could it be that their own churches have failed to provide a safe space to ask and answer these questions? And when turning the lens on our own congregation and movement, to what extent do we provide sanctuary in this area of our lives, not only as a physical space of refuge, but a continuing process of reconciliation and renewal?

Second: We need to rethink what we mean by “sex.” We often confine sex to engaging in intercourse, or some form of genital contact. But what of our hands, our eyes, our mouths, our entire bodies? What of our thoughts and feelings and sensations? By confining the erotic to the mere genital, how much do we disembody sexuality from the rest of our selves, and reduce sex to a mere “thing” that we do? Consider how we express this in our language – how we talk about “having sex” with someone, instead of being sexual – and how your very thoughts and feelings might change if you likewise made that change in phrasing.

Third: We need to rethink the prerequisites for relating sexually with another. By this, I certainly do not mean that we should divorce the erotic from the emotional. On the contrary, I believe our world would be a better place if we engaged in more emotional investment – more caring, more consideration, more respect, more passion – in all we do. What I do question is the insistence that sexual expression requires such a highly idealized level of emotional commitment between partners. Mutual respect, mutual affection and mutual joy – absolutely! But why demand perfection, and then make people feel like failures when they can’t achieve it?

The fourth challenge I wish to offer is perhaps the most daunting: We need to continually question our own individual sexualities. In our effort to be an inclusive community, our acronym of sexual identities has increasingly expanded, and includes a “Q” for “questioning.” But, what if we were, all of us, always questioning, and in the process of doing so, always growing, changing, exploring and discovering?

I was fortunate to have parents who taught me very early about gays and lesbians, and in a nonjudgmental manner. As a teenager, I decided to take the step of deliberately questioning my own sexual orientation, even though I felt quite certain about it. I emerged still identifying as a heterosexual male, but with a deeper appreciation of the difficult process of coming out, and a healthier attitude towards gender roles and gender identity – that one needn’t be “macho” to be masculine.

What I regret is that I did not take this process even further, along other dimensions of sexuality, daring to explore the unconventional side of Eros until much later in life. Now that I have – and continue to do so -- I feel more whole, my sexuality more integrated in all aspects of my humanity, a part of me instead of apart from me. I have a greater appreciation for both the diversity and the unity of Eros, that our different sexualities cannot be so easily boxed into discreet categories, but fall along a continuum of possibilities. Most important, I have come to transcend merely thinking and believing at an intellectual level, to feel and know more profoundly through my physical, emotional and spiritual experiences of the erotic.

And so I stand before you, an example of the metanoia – that state of being transformed in the renewal of one’s mind – that can come from an authentic integration of sexuality and spirituality. My journey is certainly not complete, and it is one which humbles me. But with great challenges come great rewards, and if we are to help heal the wounds of the world, let us start with ourselves.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Core Values ... or Puritanical Legalism?

You'd have to be a hermit in the tundra to be unaware of how conservative Christians have upheld opposition to abortion, contraception, homosexuality and sex education other than "abstinence-only" as going against their beliefs. What you may not have heard is how it's been ratcheted up. These positions aren't just beliefs, or even "deeply-held religious beliefs" -- they are now deemed "core values."

So now we have a conservative Christian university student claiming a right to refuse to counsel openly gay clients because she claims it would contradict the "core values" of her faith.

On the flip side, a nun who approved an abortion to save a critically ill woman's life is not only fired from her post at Saint Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix but excommunicated from her church, because Bishop Thomas Olmstead apparently holds as a core value of Catholic faith that "the mother may in fact die along with her child."

When Jesus was asked: "What is the greatest commandment?" he did not talk about carrying pregnancies to term, rejecting anything outside of heterosexuality, or more generally talking about sexual purity. All of that was secondary. He answered the question about the greatest commandment -- the core value of his day -- thusly:

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, "You shall love your neighbor s yourself."

Let me go further, and give an example of how Jesus put this into practice. That would be when a Roman centurion -- not just a gentile, but an active participant in the military occupation of Judea -- comes to him asking that he heal his servant, who is seriously ill. And not just any servant. In the extant Greek, the centurion describes him specifically as his pais and entimos duolos -- denoting not just any male slave but one obtained to share his bed as his lover.

What did Jesus do? Did he tell the centurion: "Sorry, but helping a gentile oppressor, and a homosexual to boot, goes against my core values"? No, he said very simply and clearly that he would go to the centurion's house to heal the young man. And when the centurion asserted his belief that Jesus had the power to heal without having to step into his house, Jesus praised him for his faith, and did so.

The very phrase core value depends on the concept that certain beliefs and principles are dependent upon others. Belief in prayer, for example, depends upon the belief that you are praying to some entity or power worthy of receiving those prayers. And the belief that one should help those in need regardless of their station in life depends in turn on the core values that each human being, created in the image of the Divine, is worthy of respect and love -- even a sinner or an enemy.

To hold up specific doctrines about sexuality above the more central value of compassion is more than mere legalism. It is virtual idolatry. It is confusing means with ends, giving more weight to selected issues than to the central message of one's faith, and in that process, distorting that faith beyond recognition.

Jesus condemned Pharisees and Saducees for doing much the same thing. What would he who healed the "honored slave" of a gentile soldier, and without hesitation, say to those who would refuse to do so today?