Posts Tagged Sexuality

Broken Twigs

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 11/6/16 for our annual All Souls day service.

I recently attended ten days of working conferences for religious professionals. One part of those conferences was primarily about having difficult conversations. How do we as leaders, how do we as religious people, have the difficult conversations around the big topics: money, race, death and sexuality. I was also asked to lead part of the workshops around race, identity and racism. Not surprisingly, the week started with the comparatively easy (I kid) topic of money, and (not surprisingly) saved sexuality for the last day.

One of the premises of the conference was that we needed to understand our frameworks around each of these topics if we’re to have the difficult conversations within our communities of faith. Where we start from, when we’re thinking about race or death, has as big (or even bigger) an impact than any set of facts or subset of knowledge on the topics. What’s our story about money or sexuality, and how do we tell it? One of the odd stand-outs for a very unusual conference for religious professionals, was realizing that if something happened to me, my husband would have a hard time figuring out where all of my investments, or retirement portfolios are, where my bank accounts are and so on. That’s something we’re working on fixing, but it taught me something about myself that I hadn’t quite realized: Part of me is still living, in some ways, a story of individuality.

Don’t get me wrong; almost everything that impacts our household goes through a rigorous schedule of fretting, and arguing – like any very happily married couple. But there are some habits of the single years, that I haven’t quite put to rest: shared documentation, shared calendars, and negotiating where we go for Thanksgiving and Christmas – all still trip us up – even after six years together. How do we start a shared google calendar – has become a near weekly refrain that despite all my tech savvy, I find extremely onerous. Individuality runs deep in our culture, and it’s a hard practice to unlearn – and I don’t think I’m alone here on this.

Another side of individuality is isolation. We all live in isolation at some time in our lives, even if we’re surrounded by people all the time. (And we don’t have to be alone to be in isolation.) It’s another story we tell ourselves: how alone are we…We can become most aware of it when we’re going through times of crisis – whether or not we have all the communal support we can ever dream of – how we relate to crisis can determine if we tell our story as individuals, or tell our story as part of something larger. Do we fight that struggle with cancer as lone warriors, or do we let ourselves lean on our friends and neighbors for moral support, even knowing still that we are the ones that have to go in for chemo? When our relationships wither, do we reach out, or do we hunker down? Having good friends and family – even when we have many of them – doesn’t necessarily mean we let them in when the road gets rough. Sometimes that might be the right choice – only you know that answer for yourself – but sometimes we think isolation is the best choice – even when it’s not.

I was listening to an interview with a comedian some of you may know, Patton Oswalt. He was being interviewed on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert earlier this week. He’s a man in his mid to late forties with a 7 year old daughter. Six months ago, his wife suddenly died in her sleep – there was no warning. She had been working very long hours and he finally convinced her to stay home and get some sleep; there was an accidental and very tragic dose of sleeping medication…. He’s been very public with his grief, and is only now getting back to work in comedy. Something he said about grief in the interview really struck me as true. “If you don’t talk about it, then grief really gets to setup and fortify its positions inside of you and begin to immobilize you. But the more you talk, the more you expose it to the air and to the light, then grief doesn’t get the chance to organize itself, and maybe you can move on better and easier…

…[grief] can’t be remedied, it must be endured – and it’s the endurance, oddly enough, that becomes the remedy.”

He goes on to talk about how he’s found that not only has talking about his grief with others helped him to move forward with his life as an individual and now as a widowed dad of a young child, but he’s learned that his sharing has helped others in extreme grief find avenues for healing. Speaking our stories has a healing power that can help us get back to living more fully after times of great loss.

This reminds me of the old folk saying about twigs. Take any twig you find and try to snap it. It’ll break pretty easily. Put that same twig into a bundle with other twigs, and it gets harder and harder to break. I think when we separate ourselves too long from one another, from community or friends, we can become like that singular twig. Life’s pressures can become too much; grief or loss can become too much – and we don’t have to do it alone.

Alone or together – the story we tell about our life changes us. British fiction author Terry Pratchett said, “People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.” All this month we are imagining what it means to be a people of story. Well, we are a people of story. Our services just about begin weekly with a story, and most of my sermons start by telling another type of story – basically parables of daily living. For us, we don’t have to imagine being a people of story as much as consciously realize how deeply stories impact our lives and our living.

What are the stories you come back to year after year? What stories do we raise our kids on, and why? Which stories defined your character, or pull on your heart strings, or get you in the gut when they resonate with what’s happening in your life? As Pratchett writes, people are shaped by stories – we should choose our stories wisely. And we should choose the stories we tell about our lives just as wisely. What negative story do you choose to try to convince yourself is true about you? I spoke about separation and isolation before, but there are many other stories we tell about ourselves that harm more than help.

A few weeks ago, a colleague of mine was sharing a story about their congregation on Facebook. (I have permission to share this here.) He wrote, “One thing that I never expected to be quite so good at – helping calm really little kids down who are missing their parents. I wonder if this sort of inherent knowledge came when I was hired as a DRE, or if it was there all along.” On one level, there’s a story we all tell about our capacity to be in the world; what we’re good at, what we’re bad at, and what our roles are in our lives. But on the spiritual level, his story reminded me about the central purpose of communities of faith – and I don’t say this flippantly.All religious life is essentially helping one another struggle through our separation anxiety: our sense of separation from the Holy, from God, from one another. In times of grief, we remember those who have died in our lives. In times of change, we hold one another’s hands to remember we’re not alone. In the every day, or maybe for you only a few times in your life, we struggle with whether there is meaning and depth to this world; whether we’re part of something greater. For some the answer is community, or compassion, or justice-building. For the more mystical among us, I believe we’re never truly alone – but despair sets in when we forget that truth. Religious life is helping one another through our struggle with separation and isolation, through grief and loss. And the other side of that struggle is a question of the spirit – and an answer that draws us back out – again and again.

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Why Are You?

This sermon was first preached at First UU in Brooklyn, on June 3rd, 2012.

As our year of formal religious education comes to a close, today our Junior Youth group celebrates having spent a year of reflection in the program, “Our Whole Lives” otherwise known as OWL. It’s 27 weekly hour long sessions on sexuality, relationships, gender identity, sex education, peer pressure, plain-old growing up and how our religious values tie into their ethical formation. The media and politics are wrestling with how we should be teaching these issues to our teens in our public schools. There’s a debate in our country right now whether youth should be allowed to receive scientifically accurate information. Yes – in fact the law still does not require sex/health education to even be scientifically accurate. I’m grateful that our community is so supportive of this critical education.

Part of the program is about growing up. It’s about coming to terms with moving away from childhood into our teen years. We heard a lot about that this morning from our youth’s reflections. (How great was that!) As we were planning our worship together, they chose to focus on the themes of past, present and future; knowing that half of our group will be entering High School this Fall. It’s a major time of change for our Junior Youth group.

          When I was entering High School, or finishing my first year of Middle School, I don’t remember any formal opportunity to reflect on what I was going through. Sure, I talked with my friends about the changes, my hopes, and what was scaring me, but I don’t remember any adults, or my church community, or really even any teachers, helping me along my way. The public schools were sometimes good at helping me get most of the facts I needed, but they never put much energy into helping me sort through the values – the choices – I would have to wrestle with in light of the facts of growing up.

Is this different for folks here? We heard from our Junior Youth already this morning. By a show of hands with our adults – who here received at least 27 hours of education – like OWL prior to entering High School? Which of our adults received religious support from their communities in sorting through some of these life changes that our youth reflections spoke about? I’m often amazed at how much more care and support our UU raised children and youth receive in these matters than folks do from society at large. It’s a necessary, powerful and potentially life-saving ministry we offer here.

I want to offer some advice to our graduating class of OWL 2012. As you continue to grow and mature – a process that hopefully doesn’t end for at least another 60 years for you all – try to remember “why you are.” It’s an odd phrase. I’m going to try to explain it in two stories. One that’s personal, and one that’s a little mythical. (Well, to be honest, both are a little bit personal and both are a little bit mythical in their own ways.) And then we’ll come back to how that relates to all our next steps.

First, the personal story. My partner and I were strolling through the Village on Saturday enjoying the perfect weather. When we got to Washington Square Park, we heard piano music playing. Apparently, a fellow had rolled in a full-size piano into the central walkway of the park, close to the east side of the square. He had the obligatory two giant tip buckets spaced far enough apart that you couldn’t miss them while you passed by. Not that you could miss the piano from 100 feet away for that matter. It was an iconic NYC moment. Brian and I sat down to listen to the music for a while. He was an excellent pianist. I found myself wondering how he got the piano into the park (curbs are rough on giant unwieldy square instruments after all); where did it come from – did he push it himself (there’s probably a music video of that image rolling around somewhere – and if you find it, please do share it on my Facebook wall) or did he have helpers to get around the tight corners and mostly 7 inch curbs.

          It was a surreal moment for sure. A little bit of whimsy, culture and quirkiness rolled into one. Like you’d expect from the typical hipster classical musician you’d find playing the piano in the park, he would offer odd little ironic quips after each piece. (In tired droll voice) “And that piece was Ave Maria, composed by Franz Schubert. In my humble opinion it was the only piece he composed that was of any good.” He would also end every performed piece with the driest, “I do hope you enjoyed it.” The affect was so opposite his performances, which were lively, skilled and largely moving. I wanted to go up to him, jump up and down, and yell “Buddy, you’ve gone through the trouble of creating a little bit of faerie-land here in NYC by dragging your piano God knows how far through the Village. Cheer up!” The spiritual message of “why are you here” rings softly, or I guess maybe not so softly if it’s a UU minister jumping up and down in the park yelling it at you. Thankfully, I didn’t do that… this time.

Sometimes in life, we go through all the trouble of making something happen that we really want, and then we don’t allow ourselves to live into it. Anyone here ever desperately want to go to the beach to relax (or to my fellow Jerseyeans – Down the Shore?) Then you finally make it through the hours of travel, sun block, prepping sandwiches, screaming/crying children/siblings/parents and lay out – only to realize that you can’t stop thinking about all the things that were stressing you out that you’re trying to get away from for a little while? You can’t sit still long enough to relax? The “why” of where you are is just out of reach. The sun, and spray, and sand might as well be miles away still.

I want to share with you that second story now. It’s written by a colleague of mine in NJ, the Rev. Dr. Matt Tittle, UU minister in Paramus. It’s called Stanley the Very Fine Squirrel. When I first heard that Matt was publishing this children’s story I got really excited. I grew up hearing another odd little story about “Stanley the Christmas Squirrel.” It was a totally different squirrel named Stanley (who was dealing with his home getting upgraded into a Christmas Tree for someone else’s living room, but that’s another tale entirely.) But it’s notable because still to this day, my parents and I call every squirrel we see, “Stanley.” Even my childhood dog knew the name. If we would say, “Look, it’s Stanley!” my dog would jump up and make a bee-line for the squirrel. (I don’t recall him doing that if we just said squirrel. And no, he never caught Stanley, thankfully.)

          (…tell the story of Stanley the Very Fine Squirrel…)

So let’s try to answer the Owl in the story. “Why are you?” Why are we here for? Feel free to call out a word or two response. If I can make out what you said, I’ll repeat it back into our microphone so that all can hear. (to love, show compassion, sow peace, to teach, parent, grow, nurture, to learn etc.) How often do we hold all these things in our hearts and minds throughout our daily activities? In this religious community, we can probably all agree that we’re here at least in part to show compassion, to nurture those around us, to sow peace. How easy is that to remember when we’re sitting in our third period class, or when we’re memorizing math formulas, or when the person with the full grocery cart races us to cashier? But the boredom, or the work, or the addiction to work or schedules can help us forget our purpose.

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