Posts Tagged sexual assault

Growth Rings

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 10/7/18. It responds to the pain around this week’s news, especially in relation to the Supreme Court hearings, and sexual violence.

For those of you who follow me on social media, you already know that I was contemplating replacing this week’s message with 20 minutes of yelling the rage I’ve felt from this week’s news. As disappointing as that may be for some of us, (me not actually doing that,) I know it would just scare our babies, and the last thing this world needs is another angry white man making loud noises.

But I do have a ministerial responsibility here; wehave an institutional responsibility here – in the face of the psychic harm so many of us who have endured sexual violence – those who have endured, were forced to manage all over again these past two weeks. There are many calls to action that are easy to find, but today, I’m going to try my best to help us form a stronger grounding in our faithful tradition. To sort out where we come from, and to nourish the parts of us that need to find our center again. And for those that are called to act, that we offer some food for the work ahead, and our broken hearts.

The direction of this sermon will be different than originally posted, but we can’t ignore the world around us. And we will still find our way to the posted metaphor of Growth Rings.

I want to begin with Jewish Scripture, 1 Kings 19:11-12. The prophet Elijah has fled out to the wilderness. The people have broken their covenant, the other prophets have been put to the sword. And then the prophet Elijah hears the Word of the Lord. I grew up reading this not as a booming voice, but that small still voice. 11 He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 

12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.”The section goes on to hear the Lord’s message to Elijah to anoint new leadership. From the silence, that still small voice, there came the new beginnings that would change the fate of Elijah’s people.

Think about Elijah’s mental state right there. He’s seen his people break their promises; kill his friends and fellow spiritual and ethical leaders and he comes to the place of God – and witnesses a tremendous wind that could ruin mountains – but God was not in the destructive winds. Then an earthquake, but God was not found in that threat of ruin. And if this chaos was not enough, a fire, but God was not the fire.

When we witness week’s like this week; week’s where there is moral failure in our leaders, when truth is put to the sword, and our government agencies are wielded like fire, and quakes, and institution shaking winds – we need to remember – in week’s like this, that God (and conscience), is not in these destructive forces, but in the sheer silencethat fills the aftermath. From that moment of silence, comes the still small voice that calls us to action. Our collective conscience can not be heard while the whirlwind drones on, but we must center ourselves in that conscience.

And for those in our room today, who are survivors of sexual assault, be especially gentle with yourselves right now. We know the whirlwind in our government is retraumatizing. But know that God is not in that whirlwind. God is not in that whirlwind. As helpless as we sometimes feel in the face of it all, scriptures tells us that after we witness the whirlwind, the voice that speaks from the silence shows us the way to anoint a new world and new leadership. This isn’t an empty hope, but a bedrock for sustenance when all seems turned upside down.

This week will leave its mark…. You know how trees have those growth rings showing their age. Those rings also are a map for what happened in the world around them. The rings show the impacts of drought, or fire, or insect plagues, and so on. The stories we tell, or not tell; the inner places of our hearts and minds, are our human sort of growth rings. The raw places of our spirits, show the markers of another kind of cultural drought or plague. If we were to look at a cross section of our spirit, we could map out the world around us.  As Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”   As a new growth ring forms in our lives, we do not yet know how we’ll understand it a generation later, even if it seems like all we could focus on in our world at the time. That map can only be understood backwards, not forwards….

Earlier this week I got asked, “what’s my plan.” The “plan” in the big sense of life. And I thought for a few seconds and basically said, “I don’t really do plans anymore; they just tempt life to laugh at me.” Do you remember when you last had a plan? Do you still make them?

This morning’s story focused on the parable of the terrified squirrel; a squirrel with a plan. The plan would address all the fears and horrors of the world, should he ever be forced to actually face them. Silly things like green martians and sharks in the woods, to falling out of a tree. Falling out of the tree can be a very serious risk, especially if my dog is sitting under the tree when the squirrel falls. That would be serious enough to leave a new metaphorical growth ring on that squirrel’s psyche. (For what it’s worth, that fear seems to be a weekly occurrence in my backyard. So not all of Scaredy Squirrel’s fears were unfounded.)

Now that cute kids’ story, was about how our best laid plans don’t always work. But it was also about not living one’s life forward. When the Unknown is a threat to avoid, we hunker down into our singular trees. And when he moved into the unknown, he learned something new about who he was and what he could do.

Do you remember when you last had a plan? Do you still make them? Maybe where life deviated from our best laid plans, we can see those markers in our spiritual growth rings, when we look back, even if we can’t understand it at the time. I find that spiritually sustaining in times of chaos. Get a good night’s rest, stay hydrated, in times of chaos, and know that even if the thing will still be horrible in the morning, we may understand it differently down the line. Maybe the horrible thing, like in the silly kids’ story, will teach us that we’re able to fly after all. I know I’ve had that lesson in life, more than one time. Or in the case of the Prophet, knowing that God was not found in the destructive forces before him, but in the witness, in his conscience, in the path forward. It doesn’t make anything that happened any less horrible, but we understand our story differently looking back; even as we live forward. And another growth ring is formed.

How did we get here? Where did we go right, and where did we go wrong? We all had plans; and maybe some of us still do.

I think most of us recognize, most of the time, that there’s no real script, there’s no plan that will 100% survive the real world. We do our best and take one step at a time through the years. Life is a mixture of joy, and challenge, hope and grief. Some of us have it easier, and some of us have it harder, but none of us live without stress. That being said, I think most of us also fool ourselves into living like there is a script. It sounds different for each of us. Maybe yours is the standard american dream – graduate from school, get a job, find a spouse, have children, and own a home. It’s a good script to have. It only becomes a problem when we think we should follow it, but life doesn’t match it. Maybe school isn’t for you. Or these days, jobs change far more frequently than they used to. My dad retired after working at the same company for almost 50 years. That kind of security doesn’t really happen anymore. Each one of those events, when we look back, is another marker of where we’ve been, and who we become. They never leave us, even if we’re a new person along the way.

I love Joan Didion’s words from our reading earlier, especially one part that stood out for me: “I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be…”.  Some of our earliest Unitarian theology, by the minister William Ellery Channing, in the early 1800s, spoke of a salvation by character.He had the notion that it was our primary work to develop and nurture our character throughout our life; that God’s salvation would be found through that work. And that society would benefit from that personal progress. It was still a communal outcome that he sought, but he would translate the Puritan work ethic into a theological spiritual formation of the individual.

I put Channing and Didion’s words into conversation with one another intentionally. She is reminding us that despite however much we may believe the person we are today – our pains, our joys, our annoying habits – is the person we actually are, she is reminding us that in a generation or two, we won’t even recognize that person we are so very attached to today. If Channing’s call is of worth, that formation of character is a saving grace, then Didion’s very practical human wisdom, is drawing a clear picture for us. Our hearts, our minds, our egos, our spirits – they all change and form and grow and recess, over time. For most of us, if we allow ourselves to be in formation, we won’t be the same people we once were. Hopefully, that’s for the better. Like Joan Didion said, I know I was a very annoying 19 year old – and I was sure of who I thought I was back then. As another growth ring, and another form, our spirits form more fully, along with our character – even and especially if we no longer recognize who we once were.

I gave two common plans earlier. But maybe you’re not looking to get married, or to get married again. Or children aren’t in your future for social, biological, or economic reasons. When family doesn’t look like the way we were raised to imagine it, it can be the source of great pain. I know that grief is real and legitimate; it’s good to acknowledge it if it’s a source of pain for you. But I find for myself, that I have to check where is the real sense of loss for me, and where I’m feeling loss from not following that imaginary script. We all deviate from it, but we don’t all have to feel bad when we do.

Or maybe you’ve lived that script and enjoyed the fullness of it, and are now wondering, what next? What does retirement mean for me? Do I become less busy, or more? When I move to be closer to the grandkids, what will become of my long time friends that have meant so much to me? I think this is the hidden secret about the classic plan. Even when it’s full, and realized and meaningful, it doesn’t always offer the answers we may crave. At some point, we take a turn, and need to figure it out on our own or with our loved ones. So I’m cautious of plans. They may be a good framework for goals, but they aren’t full of a lot of answers. I wonder how often we follow those plans thinking they’ll have answers….

Why do we face change with such fear and trepidation? In hindsight, it’s probably obvious, but we do it time and time again, and in the moment forget, so it’s important to repeat. We’re growing older, or the world is less secure than I once imagined, or I’ve had enough grief in my life lately – those are all thoughts that are real and true and important to acknowledge. But sometimes, we try to avoid acknowledging change by lifting up the shield of tradition. It’s as if we imagine – if this other thing stays the same, everything else will as well. … but it doesn’t. Life is change. Life is newness, and letting go; day after day. And that’s beautiful and that’s hard. But change is here to stay; tradition or no tradition.

Can we be a little easier on ourselves when things don’t turn out as planned? Even if they really don’t turn out as planned can we still go easier on ourselves over it? Can we learn to assess and judge where we are in our lives without needing to compare it to our neighbor, or to our childhood and child-like dreams? To look at our own growth rings, and to know that we are who we are today from it all. When the day comes, if it hasn’t already, when you feel like your religious community wasn’t perfect in some way – can we be patient enough to remember that that’s an eternal truth for human community – we don’t do perfect? That’s probably a tradition with a capital T that we can not change – maybe the only one.

This heretical statement I’m about to make, is probably especially true this week, in light of the world we have endured. People don’t come here to be happy.Our purpose is not to make everyone happy. If happiness were the main goal, religion would have died out a long time ago, and with it, religious communities. We’re here to hold context, to offer a theological grounding for understanding the world, and to sustain us when our hearts have broken open with good and meaningful words.

Happiness may be an end result of our search, but striving to be happy usually ends in suffering. We cling for what was, or we grasp for what might be. Neither grant the genie’s wish.

Religious communities, in all our imperfections and our awkward dance between tradition and change, seek not to grant happiness, but to offer hope. That through all the turmoil and the hardship, we can remember the times of solace and joy. That change also brings us out of places of suffering. This pain we feel will someday go away. That the loss of a loved one, does not steal from us the times we shared together; that we are forever changed for knowing them, and the world is so too changed for our passing through. We give hope that this all means something. And it does. When I’ve known times of hardship, religious community has helped me ground myself and find my direction anew – before all the change and all the turmoil. But through that change, something new came about. And we’re living in that something new today. Listen for the sheer silencethat precedes the still small voice. For it will surely tell us a new way. And another growth ring forms.

I’m close with the words of Teresa Honey Youngblood we heard earlier in the service.“And yet, we carry a constancy: the still, quiet voice within that knows the difference between the window dressing and the big, wide, beautiful world beyond the window. We feed this wise little voice with prayer: breath, song, service, bare feet walking circles on the ground, slow-cooked soup, gentle gazes held when words fail.”

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When Goodness Happens

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 10/16/16. It explores our endemic culture of misogyny, and how our theology can help us through to a new creation.

When I was a child, one of the worst insults another kid could make toward a boy was to say they acted like a girl; or threw like a girl, or ran or walked like a girl. “Man up”, meant toughen up. Being a guy meant being strong, and loud, and taking up space. And the barbs would come from boys for sure – but those barbs would also come from girls. It would be engrained by implicit actions by adult men, and by adult women. As kids we would voice aloud the stuff that we would quietly live by as adults.

It’s sick. It’s a sickness in our culture that strives to denigrate half our population in order to apparently lift up the other half. But it only does so in appearance. When boys and men are raised to think masculinity has only one form, we box in our boys’ potential as we diminish the worth of our girls. No one wins; everyone loses. The pain is merely felt differently for each of us; but the pain is real. And although we’re all diminished, girls’ and women’s safety is put up as the gamble.

And it continues well on into adulthood. The worst excesses get normalized as harmless ‘locker room talk’, when what is actually being bantered about amounts to sexual assault. But we don’t have to go to that extreme to see it in our daily lives. At work, or at our Fellowship, note who takes up room in discussions. Note how we are trained and raised to speak or not to speak. Who gets to repeat the same tired point over and over until folks are beaten into submission, and who struggles to whisper their view even once? Misogyny is a sickness, and we’re swimming in it – we’re swimming in in so some of us normalize it, some never notice it, and some are being killed by it.

We’re living in a culture where several women can accuse a public or political figure of sexual assault, and a mainstream media pundit/newscaster (Lou Dobbs) will punish them by tweeting out the women’s home address and phone number. If we wonder why women do not speak aloud in a timely manner after being assaulted, we only have to look to that to know one of the reasons. How is that even legal?! We give the whole public direct access to the potential victim of sexual assault. How traumatic that is for the victim. But there’s also a way in which that punishment for speaking out gets felt by all women, by all victims of sexual assault (not just women.) They’re put in their place – once again. Misogyny is a sickness that demoralizes, victimizes, and sometimes kills.

Theologically, misogyny is another form of Original Sin. We don’t need to have done anything to be infected by it. Men, women, all people raised in our culture must deal with its imprint on our psyches and on our souls. We’re born into, infected by it, and live lives that replicate the systems of abuse – knowingly or unwittingly – even if we’re also victims of it; because we’re all victims of it. But even if we’ve done nothing to deserve the sin of misogyny, in order for healing, we need to address it. For some of us we’re victims and a whole range of support systems may need to be relied on for healing, for safety, or for justice. If that’s true for you, and you need help, please reach out, and our Fellowship will help in every way we possibly can.

Some of us have internalized it so much, that we contribute without knowing the damage we do – in some ways large, and in some ways small. If I go back to my childhood – being a guy meant being strong, and loud, and taking up space. The flip side meant that being a girl meant being weaker and being a door-mouse. When we find ourselves living by either of those false truths, we need to seek to push ourselves to break free from that bind. Binding lies, break our spirits, harm our world, and risk our lives.

And for the men in the room, we need to do better. We need to be a little more believing of women who say they are in danger. We need to be a little more gracious with the space we dominate. We need to be less permissive of supposed “locker room talk” when we hear it. Women become less safe, and men become less human, when we pretend that language that perpetuates sexual assault is harmless in our personal fantasies. It’s not harmless; it doesn’t further the peace; it doesn’t make space for women to be themselves without fear of harm. We have to do better.

A month ago, I spoke at length about the theology of James Luther Adams and his concept of the five stones. He was one of our Unitarian theologians who was physically active in trying to stave off the rise of Nazism in Germany before he moved back to the States. After many requests, I promised I would work through each of the stones in successive weeks. In short regarding the piece about the five stones, he was looking at the story of David and Goliath and reflecting on what the 5 stones David used would be in modern language to combat oppression. After today we have one more to cover, but today, I want to focus on the 4th stone in Adams’ theology. That precept paraphrased is: “Each child that’s born is another redeemer — we are all potential sources of good in the world and each have a role to play. Goodness happens in relationships with one another.

Each child that’s born is another redeemer. Theologically, what does that mean for our culture? If every child that’s born is another redeemer, then misogyny is a lie. We’re not better than any other soul because of the happenstance of our birth. Any ethic that lifts one group over another is a spiritual lie that erodes our conscience and diminishes our humanity. Each girl that’s born is another redeemer, and we ought to treat one another appropriately with care and support. Our common humanity is wrapped up in the common redemption of all people. Each of us has the potential to redeem the broken corners of our world.

We just came through the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. On Tuesday evening, we celebrated the Kol Nidre service where we sought to admit our failings, and atone for the harm we’ve brought into this world – through our actions or due to our inactions. There was a quote in the service that comes from an 18th century Chasidic proverb. “Keep two truths in your pocket, and take them out according to the need of the moment. Let one be, “For my sake was the world created.” And the other, “I am dust and ashes.”

This wisdom speaks to us based on where our ego and where our sense of self lie. When we’re allowing the world to step on us, and destroy our sense of worth, we need to remember that for our sake was the world created. When we’re doing the soul-crushing of another we need to find more humility and remember that we’re dust and ashes. Misogyny confuses the world into thinking those two proverbs apply distinctly based on gender; as if the world were created only for men, and women were but dust and ashes. If that feels extreme, take a closer look at how men and women are spoken of in the general public, on the schoolyard, and in your work meetings. I don’t think it’s that far off how culture functions at its worst. And it functions at its worst far too much.

But if each child that’s born is another redeemer; if we each have worth and we each having a saving agency to bring to Creation, then that potential for goodness is inherent. That potential for goodness also obligates us in the face of a world full of struggle. If we have agency, goodness obligates us to use that agency for the betterment of one another. To do otherwise is to turn our heads from another’s needs; to become complicit in systems of oppression and indifference that churn through the lives of our children and adults, and through our own lives. The demand this fourth stone places upon us is the perennial question: Do I live into this holy work? At times of hardship, it may be enough to simply try to survive, or to heal. But when we have the capacity to ease the suffering of those around, goodness obligates us to live into this holy work. At those times of strength, living into this holy work means taking seriously when another speaks up about violence or coercion done to them. And to be sure, when we’re going through those times of hardship, living our authentic self is the first step to living into this holy work.

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Sermon: Wrestling with the Angel of Forgiveness

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 6/12/16 as part of our annual LGBT Pride Sermon and in conjunction with the installation of our Black Lives Matter banner. Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence.

 

This week has been one of many firsts in our nation and in our world. The glass ceiling of the White House is seeing some cracks in it; for the first time in our history, a woman has been selected as the presidential candidate for a major political party. Whatever the outcome, and whatever your political leanings, imagine what that looks like to young girls today. Imagine what that looks like to young boys today?! Let’s take politics out of it for the length of this sermon and this worship. When it’s possible to imagine role models for the highest position of power and authority and leadership – irrespective of gender – it may be empowering for young girls growing up, and it may be critically instructive to young boys growing up, to better understand the genders as intrinsically equal. I don’t know what may come, and regardless of the outcome of the elections, I am hopeful that girls will have a little more space to grow freely, and boys will have a little more room to be themselves because the ideal of power and leadership might possibly look different. And when we slowly inch toward a world where we put less bias into gender discrimination, I pray for a time where young trans youth can grow into themselves with safety and confidence.

But sexism is still alive and well. The news this week told us that women who are rape victims, with all the evidence in the world, may not see their attacker live out a real sentence if the attacker is a privileged white male with a promising future and an expensive lawyer. We know that in too many states, Transfolk are challenged when they attempt to use a public bathroom that conforms to their gender. A young white college student criminally assaults a woman – with witnesses who testified – and the judge will express concern over the impact a punishment will have on the assailant – yet instead of looking to the real problem, there are states that are policing bathrooms for mythical Transgender attackers. When the story gets so out of whack, like the stories we’ve heard this week, it’s a sign that it’s not about what it says it’s about. Something else is at foot. Hans Hoffman, a 20th century Abstract Painter once said, “The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” This month we are imagining what it means to be a people of simplicity. When the world contorts itself to see threat in places and people who are safe, and seeks to protect or go lenient on people who are a known threat, we as consumers of the media need to learn to simplify by eliminating the unnecessary in the story, so that what is necessary may speak. Gender terrifies some; or our sense of power connected to gender terrifies. Some men become violent, some seek to possess, some seek to control and mitigate those that blur the lines. When we become a people of simplicity, when we have cultivated a discerning lens through which we take in what the world is giving us, we learn to see through all the smoke screens that seek to confuse and separate those with common cause.

Pride month is a time of celebration. It’s also a time of memory; a time to remember the movement for LGBT equality began with Transgender People of Color, who were leaders in starting a riot in the West Village because enough was enough when it came to the police abrogating their civil rights through harassment and arrest. With that broken glass, I doubt this gay minister would be preaching from your pulpit today. It’s a time to remember the lives that have been lost over the years to hatred and fear; a time to remember that our LGBT youth still kill themselves at a radically higher rate than straight youth. What is it about our society that teaches victims to blame themselves? When you cut out all the chatter of politics and popular culture – we get to the question of why – why do we do this to ourselves; why do we teach our youth that brutality is something to be tolerated and managed? That’s the simple question for the day.

We have dreams for our kids. We imagine schools where they learn about the world; where they learn to live with folks who are different than they; where they learn to find and be themselves. We send them off so that they can figure out a little bit more how to make it on their own – whether they’re 5, 13, or 19. And sometimes, try as we might to be the most supportive, nurturing parents with the best intentions we can be, not all of us have internalized the lessons of compassion and morality we might hope for. We all have flaws and blind spots. Coming to accept who our children are when it doesn’t fit the neat description we have woven over the years, isn’t always an easy task. This isn’t just an LGBT issue, as many parents in this hall today will attest. Raising a child to be their own self means we have to accept what comes, even if it isn’t our design. But for the sake of today’s topic, I want to focus on the family dynamics of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth. Some parents, who learn their child is not heterosexual or identifies with a gender different from the one assigned to them at birth, simply don’t know how to cope. Sometimes it all works out. But sometimes, the results are catastrophic. Sometimes, our hearts break.

I can relate to that heartbreak. I am, after all, a gay man, and I, too, have felt the seemingly insufferable burden of simply being who I am. I can relate to the LGBT youth who succumb to despair in a world of violence. And I see it intrinsically connected to a culture that protects sexual assailants over their female victims. I was the target of violence, largely due to my sexuality, from the age of 8 to about 13. Fists, pipes, wood, metal – groups of young teens working in concert at a time, weekly or monthly, for years. …

Parents who truly care for and love their children unconditionally want to imagine that when these sorts of things happen to their kids, they’ll know right away and know how to help. Many of us imagine that our children will come to us; that they’ll tell us. But that isn’t how it works much of the time…How many times did you hide something painful from your parents, because you were ashamed or afraid or confused or couldn’t imagine that they could possibly understand or help?

Many injuries fall below the neck so they can be hid – I remember protecting my face so that others wouldn’t see the bruises and know that I had been subject to violence. Kids don’t speak up all the time.

All too often, the people a child in this situation most looks to for help, the teachers and principles with all their schoolyard authority, simply want the problem to go away. Parents protect their little-bullies. Politicians claim it’s not that frequent, or not their problem, or that boys will be boys (forget about girls just being girls, because we almost never talk about that.) I was angry with the people who attacked me, yet I blamed myself. Shame trumped safety. I couldn’t forgive myself for letting it happen, or face my differences long enough to seek help. For all the LGBT youth whom we’ve lost to suicide, I can not just see, but I also feel how shame won out over safety for these young people.

At some point in my early college years, I realized that the violence against me wasn’t my fault. I think I made the connection listening to a talk on domestic violence – which was not my situation exactly but one to which I could relate, and the connection clicked. I learned how to shift the blame rightfully off myself and onto the perpetrators. It wasn’t an easy process. A lot more anger bubbled up. I remember the anger often being crippling. My new burden was learning to forgive, although definitely not to forget. Lance Morrow, a long time writer for Time Magazine, once wrote, “Not to forgive is to yield oneself to another’s control…to be locked into a sequence of act and response, of outrage and revenge, tit for tat, escalating always. Forgiveness, on the other hand, frees the forgiver. It extracts the forgiver from someone else’s nightmare.” This was true for me, although it would take me years to learn it. Forgiveness is not easy when the stakes are high, yet forgiveness extracted me from a nightmare of shame and violence that belonged to someone else, not to me. It freed me.

The sad thing is, some of those boys who tormented and beat me later would be men whom I would occasionally run into at various gay settings. They were people who allowed their blameless self loathing to bring them to harm the very thing they were seeking, which is validation of their identities as men who love men. As a child and as a teen, I was subject to their personal nightmares, and as an adult I had to do the long work of releasing myself from their hold.

I’ve never said what those other kids did to me was OK. I’ve never said they weren’t responsible for their actions, no matter the causes. And I am very aware that they’ve never done the hard work of coming to me and facing honestly the effects of their actions. But I’ve learned to let it go, to forgive.

I wish we had a word in the English language that meant, “What you did was horrible. What you did to me was not and will never be OK. But I have to let it go. I have to move on. I release your hold over me.” Until we come up with that word, I’ll continue to use the word “forgive.”

We often mistakenly think that in forgiving someone for their actions – particularly when their guilt is so extreme, that we’re condoning what they did. We fear that we’ve let them off the hook. That somehow the world is still not right, and our being easy keeps it so. I feel the truth is this – the world is still not right, but our forgiving or not-forgiving will not make the world right. We need to allow the other to seek whatever repentance they need, and not hold their actions over ourselves.

The justice system is an important element here. It’s one that has many failings, true, but one that also has so much potential to help. The inner spiritual work that we do individually to release ourselves from the pain of injustice through forgiveness, is different from the lengths society as a whole must take to address this problem. I began this sermon lamenting a very public injustice that impacted the life of a woman who was sexually assaulted. The work we victims must do to come to a place of wholeness – of our own striving – is separate from the work the judicial system must do in order to have earned its title and complete its duty.

There’s a lesson in the Hebrew Scriptures that’s helped me for years. It’s the story of Exodus. The Jewish people are enslaved by the power of Egypt. They’re caught up in a cycle that tells the world that folks that look a certain way, or share a particular culture, or lift up one set of values over another, or whose faith is different from another’s, deserve being enslaved. Oppressor and oppressed are captured, like bugs in amber, within the system of violence, within the system of hate and power; their shared humanity is drowned and paralyzed. The story teaches us that we are not born to remain in that nightmare. The sacred scriptures teach us that we are born to live free of the trap; free of the cycle. They teach that we are to move on; we are to build new communities, to live different lives. But in the scriptures, God commands that we not forget the story. Each Passover Seder we relive the pain long enough to teach the lesson that demands we live in relationship with one another; so that the next generation knows what exactly is at stake. In my case, the college educator teaching about domestic violence shared in her own way her Egypt’s lesson of retelling for me. She told me the path was trod by someone else before that was different than my own story but in some ways the same; there were lessons learned; and there is a way forward.

From the perspective of a Unitarian Universalist, here is how I see the core of the religious message: We should be alive to see this life, this world, this crazy, frustrating, awesome and humbling world. We should strive to forge real connections with the people and creatures we share this small planet with. We should have the opportunity to be ourselves; to find the abundant newness of creation; to love and to be loved. We should be alive to see it. When we get trapped in amber like bugs in the cycle of oppressor and oppressed, we lose what is necessary about life. Trapped in unnecessary hate, and greed, and fear, and brutality, we cease to live.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin once wrote, “I would feel far more sanguine to learn that the various world religions could agree on the desirability of teaching their followers, from childhood on, the significance of moral distinctions; to teach them that forgiveness is almost always a virtue, but to teach them that cruelty is evil and the murder of innocent people an unforgivable evil. In other words, to teach people the harder, more morally worthy path – to repent of irrevocable evil before, not after, they commit it.” His writings were in reference to the Holocaust of the Jewish people, not gay or gay-seeming teens. But we know as well that the the broader Queer community was most assuredly targets in the Holocaust. Rabbi Telushkin’s request is one that resonates today with the challenges our liberal faith is facing.

How do we repent before, not after – as the Rabbi demands? Do we acknowledge the wrongness of the systems of violence, and fear, and ego that lead to feelings of shame among our queer youth (and frankly all the youth of the world)? Do we acknowledge the stories of Egypt that tell us silencing our pathfinders by denying them the rights the heterosexual world enjoys, hides the truth to our gay children that they can in fact grow up to be in loving relationships? Do we acknowledge that learning healthier morals and values grounded on our faith tradition’s call for compassion, equity and justice in human relations is lifesaving?

Friends – repentance – yes repentance – starts with us by acknowledging these truths. Denying one people a right to their role models denies the  right for them to convey the morals and values that they believe are the most critical to their children.

We may not be able to change the lives of all those touched by loss and violence. We are not culpable for the actions of the teens or adults who set these spirals in motion. We very likely do not even hold world-views that contribute to the pain that sparks such tragedies and all those other stories we will never hear about. But we have it within our power to transform our corner of the world. We have it within our power to repent, as the Rabbi put it, of those inactions and views that keep this world forever punctured with these horrors. We have it within our power to live to our fullest potential now, here in this Sanctuary, in Huntington, New York in 2016 on this beautiful June Sunday morning.

The first steps are acknowledging all these wrongs, and failings, and short-comings that we are all guilty of on infinitely lesser scales and in often unrelated ways. The media often focuses LGBT equality on the issue of marriage, maybe job protections, maybe hospital visitation rights, and lately on bathrooms. But in a week in our nation’s life when gender and sexuality have so clearly intersected in so many ways with the horror of violence, I want us to remember our youth who continue to be at risk of violence done to them by others, or done by themselves from a shame they somehow learned to feel. Today, I’m thinking of the teens our world has lost to suicide. In honor of all those youth known and all those others who will never be named by our national media, I want to call you to remember their stories when you see the faces of the congregants around you. Our adults, our children, our youth. Think of your connection to your neighbor. That is what these teens so desperately were craving while they were alive and clearly could not get enough – safe connection, approval, respect. That is the way to stand in solidarity with these teens. That is the way to make a difference. That is the next, most immediate, way forward.

You see, Rabbi Telushkin isn’t saying we’re guilty. The Rabbi is saying if we know the things that contribute to the great evils of the world, and we can name what they are, then we are duty-bound to seek, in every way possible, a different path that leads elsewhere. We as the Unitarian Universalists of the Fellowship of Huntington seek to do this every week in our Religious Education classes. We seek to teach our children, youth, and adults that there is another path. We teach about consent. We teach about bullying, and boundaries and support. We seek to teach that there are stories worth retelling to release ourselves from bondage. When I speak with you and say that it is so very important that our children, youth and parents commit to attending these classes regularly – it’s because I believe it can help us avoid these stories of tragedy. It’s a way to create bridges of understanding that set a path forward, rather than one that harms. And it’s not just for the years we teach Our Whole Lives – our comprehensive sexuality education we affectionately refer to as OWL. It’s not just for the years of Coming of Age – where our youth learn to wrestle with forming their own sense of meaning in the world in the light of our shared values. It’s not just for our Adult Journey Groups – where we covenant with each other to support and nurture one another on our shared and individual paths. We need parents to be involved in every year and in every class. Soccer can wait. The violin class can happen another time. There is a dream of a world we hope to build, and we need to take the time to remind ourselves that there is, in fact, another way. Time for reflection in community is lifesaving, in so many ways.

Education is lifesaving – in the literal sense. Compassion in our daily human relations in this very building and this broader world is lifesaving – in the literal sense. A commitment to justice crafting in our nation and our towns is lifesaving – in the literal sense. To do any of these things is to be living hero. To do all of these things is a living miracle. This is the path this liberal faith calls us onto. This is the path of religious conviction. This is the path of standing in solidarity, on the side of love, with all those who will never be named by our society.

Last night in Orlando, Florida, a gay nightclub was shot up. I don’t know all the facts yet because it was too painful to read through all the news feeds, and information is still coming in. But as of this morning, over 20 were killed and over 40 were hospitalized and the gunman is dead. It was so bad, that some messages overnight were saying there was a suspected terrorist attack in Orlando. I don’t know what the whole story will tell us in time. But as a gay man, at a time of year when much of our nation is celebrating LGBT Pride – this service included – I can’t help but look at the timing and the focus and wonder – was the gunman merely overcome with violence, or were they overcome with violence toward the LGBT community. When I thought this was a terrorist attack, I felt one set of emotions. When I learned it was a terrorist attack targeting my community, I felt another set of emotions.

When you’re community is targeted and you feel like the responses are too weak, you feel the need to say that our gay lives matter. When women are sexually assaulted and the judicial system fails in treating all assailants equally, women feel even more unsafe. We call for increased awareness around sexual assault. We don’t say that other forms of assault don’t matter, but we say that addressing this form of violence needs to be handled with more care. And when we hear story after story of black lives not mattering in our courts and our streets, we reaffirm that Black Lives do Matter. Black Gay Lives Matter. Black Lesbian Lives Matter. Black Trans Lives Matter.

As our service comes to a close, I’d like to return to where I began. The LGBT civil rights movement – the moment that finally propelled us forward, was notably begun by Transgender People of Color starting a riot because their lives didn’t seem to matter in the eyes of their neighbor or the authorities. The free exercise of the civil rights that I enjoy today are based on the protests started by a Black Transwoman and all the others that screamed out in rage when she said enough is enough. Following the benediction, we’ll process outside to join our youth who have been working all morning to install our Fellowship’s Black Lives Matter banner on our front lawn. Black Lives do matter; and considering who helped to kickstart the LGBT civil rights movement, I am so personally glad that our statement of solidarity will be publicly blessed in this national month of LGBT pride.

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Sermon: Home When It Is Hard To Find

This updated sermon was preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington on 9/14/14 and explores the intersection of violence and gender. It reflects on cases of Domestic Violence (Rice and NFL), sexual assault and rape (Columbia University and Steubenville)

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“When I think of home, I think of a place where there’s love overflowing; I wish I was home; I wish I was back there with the things I been knowing.” These words open up the song Home from the musical The Wiz. It’s a powerful song from a woman who has come far in her own story. In this version of the rewrite of the classic, “Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy is extremely introverted, she has, as Aunt Em teases her, “never been south of 125th street”, and refuses to move out and on with her life.

“When I think of home, I think of a place where there’s love overflowing.” It’s a myth of family, of home, of our roots, that love – and all these things – are neatly intertwined. It’s a myth that’s sometime’s true, like in the case of Dorothy, and sometimes hurtful. But the heart of the message is that there’s a point in our lives where we do need to move on – as introverted or as closed-off as we might be – and leave our homes – or leave our families – for something new. Sometimes we choose to do this, and sometime this chooses us.

There are those moments in life where we look around and see all the crazy, madness that seems to surround us. The Wiz, or the Wizard of Oz, hold mean witches and flying monkeys to portray this. In the real world we leave home and have to face real humans with real hate in their speech, or their actions, or their lack of actions. We craft the fantastical to help us understand, or to accept, or to distance ourselves from the very normal, the very real.

I have in mind this morning, the flying monkeys of this age, the fields of poppies that put us to sleep – this week, this month, this year – seem to me tied to our internalized and public sense of shame. The young Dorothy’s of this generation travel down roads, seemingly alone at first, where through no fault of their own they become targets of violence and denigration. We all know so many cases of this. Each is a more recent version of another, with other lives affected.

I am reminded of a Columbia University student, named Emma. “On the first day of her sophomore year at Columbia University, Emma Sulkowicz was raped in her dorm room. Despite two other allegations of rape against the same attacker, Columbia University has dismissed all three cases. Horrified that her attacker is still a student at Columbia University, Emma is using performance art and her senior thesis [to send a message.] Two years after the alleged assault, [Emma], a visual-arts major, has made a promise to carry her mattress around campus every day as part of her senior thesis. It is, she says, a symbol of the burden sexual-assault survivors carry with them every day.” Not long after she begun her thesis, others in the community began helping her carry her mattress to her next class. She didn’t have to bear the burden alone. It’s in speaking up, sharing our stories, where we invite others to share in our journey and ease our suffering.

Or of the case of domestic abuse by Ray Rice of his girlfriend (whose name I will not mention because she has publicly said that all the specific attention has caused her more pain). He did not deny the claims, and was caught on video, yet it took the NFL weeks to suspend him, and not until the public was outraged by the viral video that was released. And more and more stories of other cases of domestic abuse being swept under the rug in the NFL to protect the male players at the expense of the women on the sidelines.

Both of these stories are visible this month. We could look back a year, to the case of rape, in Steubenville, Ohio. Where two teen boys targeted another drunk girl at a party. She too could represent every Dorothy, although every story is different. There are horrors that will challenge the victim for years that we can’t just wave away. But there are also horrors that we as a society will continue to perpetuate that make me suspect the idea of the safe home, where love’s overflowing. Following the conviction of the boys last year, some news coverage took a disturbing route. CNN largely focused on the effect the conviction will have on the boys who were found guilty. The media showed – on loop – the heartfelt apologies one of the victimizers gave. The coverage lent a tone of heroism to the boy’s apology.

Candy Crowley of CNN asked, “What’s the lasting effect though on two young men being found guilty in juvenile court of rape essentially?” Or reporter Poppy Harlow said, “It was incredibly emotional, it was difficult for anyone in there to watch those boys break down,” Harlow said. “[It was] also difficult, of course, for the victim’s family.” Or CNN legal contributor Paul Callan noting, “There’s always that moment of just — lives are destroyed. But in terms of what happens now, the most severe thing with these young men is being labeled as registered sex offenders. That label is now placed on them by Ohio law. That will haunt them for the rest of their lives.” It may haunt them for the rest of their lives, but I can’t remember the perpetuators’ names a year later, but I’m sure the victims will never forget.

I watched these reports over and over. Trying to see the space where it became about the health and wholeness of the girl who was hurt. Or about how society doesn’t know how to handle the aftermath of harm. Or how the courts are doing their best to make clear that rape is rape. But all I see is sympathy for the lives of the victimizers that are destroyed by their actions. As if being labeled for life a sex offender – for the simple reason of being a sex offender – was a serious grievance done to these boys. Or protecting a star football player is more important to the bottom line, than the safety of a woman trying to keep her home a place of safety. Or honoring the word of several Columbia University women who all have made the same allegations, who are only trying to learn in school.

“Maybe there’s a chance for me to go back there; now that I have some direction. It would sure be nice to be back home; where there’s love and affection.” We all have to deal with hard times in our lives. Some of us, too many of us, need to face times of incredible pain. In those moments we wish to be able to turn back to a place of safety, of affection, of simplicity where we can regain our footing; and immerse ourselves in a sense of nurture. To return to our center in light of all that we have to face and all that we have learned. Journalism like this with CNN, or with those common lessons that teach women how to prevent harm to themselves rather that instilling in people the drive not to harm. The public sense of culpability errs on the side of how she could have prevented this rather than on why he should have known better. And to be true to the world, the victims are not always women – but it so often happens this way.

Our theology of Universalism asks of us to strive for a place of openness, of compassion for those that cause harm. Holding hatred, or malice helps no one, and harms most of all ourselves. It can grip our hearts, and make us forget to love freely, to live deeply, to hope when we need to so desperately. —- I appreciate the compassion in the journalists’ from CNN’s coverage. —- I criticize the focus. Many lives were ruined as they say – but some lives bear the brunt of their own mistakes – and that guilt, that shame, should not fall upon the victims in our world.

“Suddenly my world has changed it’s face, but I still know where I’m going. I have had my mind spun around in space, and yet I’ve watched it growing,” Dorothy continues on singing. Our childhood sense of normal, of safety, of home will go away – and return – throughout our lives. But we can find a compass to steer by; we can know where we’re going despite all that feels like it’s been thrown at us. In fact, it takes each of us returning to our compasses to see the way.

Common sense tells us that victims might be wise to learn how to avoid, as best we can, future harm – but the onus is not on them. The crime is not ours. The partners in so many homes throughout our country who are survivors of violence – may sometimes be stuck in a trap – but they are not the source of that trap. For some of us in this room – this is a given. For some of us in this room – they have learned this truth the hard way. For some of us in this room – we desperately need to hear it – right now. Our culture of shame is a collective trip we buy into, and it requires collective action to let go. We have to lovingly remind ourselves, time and again, that we ought not feel shame for the actions of others – that is for them to bear. It is for us to find our direction again in our own lives.

“If you’re list’ning God, please don’t make it hard to know if we should believe in the things that we see. Tell us, should we run away. Should we try and stay, or would it be better just to let things be?” Dorothy asks pleadingly. This question – right here – might be the heart of the message. The culture of shame we have built as a nation – around women, their bodies, and who gets to decide what – is not to be believed. It is as false as can be. We have fabricated an insane politic that lifts up personal freedom while simultaneously legislating corporate control of one gender’s identity – sometimes with as much emotional impact as other forms of actual assault. Our media blithely discusses “about women” in a way that men would be shocked should we ever do the same to us fellows. For the men in the room – try to imagine any form of legislation that would ever affect us where a panel of women sit and decide what we do with our bodies? Would that feel merely intellectual, or political, or would it feel invasive? Try to imagine a situation where we were the victim of sexual assault and where the news would take the side of the perpetrator or focus on how unfortunate it is that the perpetrator’s life is now ruined. I could not imagine this – at all. It would be seen as horrific, shocking. It would not be read as as simple statistic; a norm to be expected.

Victims of physical violence often internalize the blame – in part because we as a society say that we’re always able to have done something to prevent it – so when we didn’t prevent it we search for why we didn’t prevent it. We do this as kids when we’re hurt as kids. When we’re bullied as teens we draw the lines to why it’s really our fault, even though we hate the bully. And we carry that with us for the rest of our lives. As adults we’ve often convinced ourselves that we are able to accomplish so much so if this happens to us, we should have been able to stop it. And we’re trapped. We’re centered in our sense of shame. We seek to find blame – and while pointing anger toward those who are guilty, secretly – inside – deep down – we believe the lie that it’s about us. We echo the lie our culture tells us to believe.

Central to our faith is the conviction of worth. Our first principle is not a simple belief statement that solely means we’re all inherently worthy. It does mean that too. We have worth – we have human value. It also means that we are tasked with committing ourselves to the discipline of fostering and uncovering the worth in each of us. Shame buries our sense of worth. Shame teaches us to limit who matters and by how much they are allowed to matter. The discipline of worth calls us to challenge anything that diminishes the human spirit.

“And I’ve learned that we must look inside our hearts to find a world full of love. Like yours; like me; like home…”. Dorothy blesses us with those closing words. We can turn this around. We are the people we have been waiting for. In all its complexity, all its difficulty – this world full of hurt is also a world full of love. Our hearts that are broken, also carry within them a love that is full whether we have forgotten it or not. In recognizing the careful messages we as a people have crafted around blame, shame, and power we can unlock the fullness of our hearts once more. We have to start by recognizing the messages for what they are. We either see them, or we live by them – and we can’t live by the culture of shame – not truly.

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