Posts Tagged Women
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/5/17. As the Christian world enters the season of Lent, we will reflect on what choices we make that open our spirits through vulnerability. This service also opens our reflections for Women’s History Month.
In the Christian calendar, we’ve entered into the season of Lent. For some of us, Tuesday night was a night of celebration, before 40 days of fasting. For my own Lenten practice, I’ve given up excesses. I’m eating less, going to bed sooner, very limited alcohol – those sorts of changes. I’m reflecting a lot on mortality, sacrifice, purpose and meaning. Ash Wednesday is the most humanist practice in the Christian liturgy; ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It’s a time to reflect on the vulnerability of life. There’s a sense of atonement to the sacrament, but one where it’s more about returning to right perspective rather than seeking forgiveness.
This past Wednesday, had an odd end to it for me. A week or so ago, we came upon a pair of tickets to Sunset Boulevard on Broadway, when a friend wasn’t going to be able to go to see it after all. The audience clearly found it riveting, enjoyable and fully engaging. Maybe seeing the musical on Ash Wednesday itself, affected how I saw it, but I found the story of an aging starlet re-living her bygone days of fame, thoroughly horrifying. There’s a classic dialogue that sums it up, “You heard him. I’m a star.” “Norma, you’re a woman of 50, now grow up. There’s nothing tragic about being 50, not unless you try to be 25.” “The greatest star of them all.”
Now, for the record, I forgot that the Norma Desmond character was only 50 years old – I may have gasped out loud when her age was given. At 41, I can’t imagine feeling like she does in less than a decade from now. She becomes a metaphor for the worst excesses and demands we place upon women; and she in return tragically becomes a caricature of herself. It’s not a story of hope; but one of mortality, lost purpose, and misguided sacrifice – sacrifice that only serves to lift up another’s ego. It’s a cautionary tale, and a critique against our culture of excess, of idealizing youth. It tries to teach us not to box in women, with our impossible standards.
Norma Desmond, despite being known as “the greatest star of them all” in yesteryear, she was a star in the days of the silent screen. She was beautiful, she was captivating, she was young, but she never got to speak a word. Brené Brown, an American scholar, author, and public speaker, who is currently a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, has her own words that seem to speak directly to this. “Even to me the issue of “stay small, sweet, quiet, and modest” sounds like an outdated problem, but the truth is that women still run into those demands whenever we find and [risk using] our voices.”
…Risk using our voices… All this month we are reflecting on what it means to be a people of Risk. Our children and youth have risked putting their art on display in our galleries, where I hope they will learn the lesson of stretching into their talent, and I hope our adults share their compliments with our artists whose names are on our walls. Not to be quiet, sweet or small, but big, and present, and central to the life of our community. Being a people of risk, means creating spaces for each of us to grow, and to challenge ourselves. It’s the central message behind our third principle where covenant to accept each another and encourage on another toward growth.
Religiously speaking though, how does risk – how does vulnerability -open our spirits to newness, to life? Love and loss – two sides to the sometimes hard lessons of risk in our lives; to love something or someone, knowing that some day we will all face grievous loss. As the poet Anne Sexton’s words we heard earlier in the service, “when you face old age and its natural conclusion, your courage will still be shown in the little ways… and at the last moment when death opens the back door you’ll put on your carpet slippers and stride out.” Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust; but what comes in between birth and death is worth fully living, without our focus lost on what may come, or what once was.
History is vital, sometimes life-saving, and crucial to our cultural heritage. But when history turns into Norma Desmond’s grieving yesteryear, it ceases to be history; it becomes a prison of the spirit. Sometimes we are faced with loss, powerful and hard. And sometimes our grief is more ‘50 wanting to be 25’; (as if we were actually fully happy all the time at 25.) To return to other words from Brene Brown, “I’ve found what makes children happy doesn’t always prepare them to be courageous, engaged adults.” Now 25 isn’t childhood, but at any point in our lives this statement can be true. What makes us happy doesn’t always prepare us to be courageous and engaged. Love and loss – come hand in hand onto life’s stage – and ask us to live while we can with all the pain, and the joy. Hiding from the ashes in our lives, sometimes is a seemingly necessary coping mechanism… and Lent invites us to face what we might otherwise not be ready for, with humility, with sacrifice; for purpose, with meaning.
We see this in the wider living world too. I’ll speak of this in more detail later in the month when I’ll devote a whole service to the Recklessness of Spring; but I’m thinking of gardens as we are seeing a disturbingly early Spring. As Beth Feldman and her team get our community garden ready to grow food for the town’s food pantry, I’m doing work on my own home garden. We had a lot of wild grasses in flowerbeds outside our windows that although browned over the winter, remained whole through March. I didn’t really want to cut them back; they are beautiful in their own way, and helped to keep my spirits up during the winter months that are so hard on many of us. But if they’re left whole, a strong rain can force the soil to sort of get bogged down like a swamp. It’s best for the plant to cut it back, and have it grow anew come Spring – otherwise it risks rotting from the inside and dying. I miss how my windows look, even though I know they’ll come back again soon. But to everything, there is a season, and that is as true for us, as it is true for the rest of the natural world. We are no different.
Change – the hardest spiritual truth. When communities slowly adjust to the times, we can get in the habit of critiquing anything different by labeling it “change” – as if that in itself makes it bad or wrong – even if the change is slow coming, well thought out, and well discussed. It’s the universal buzzword to end all debate – the worst 4 letter word.
As some of you know, I’m an avid sci-fi and fantasy reader. I’ll find a new author and work through all their works before moving onto the next. Octavia Butler is my latest find. Somehow, I’ve missed her work till this year, but she’s increasingly being covered in English Literature classes. I’m reading through her “Parable of the Sower” right now. She’s a prominent author, and one of the few Black sci-fi writers to break into the genre, and she’s clearly one of the best writers I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. Her writing is as much theology as it is sci-fi. Without ruining the plot, especially since I am still working my way through her writing, I want to share a little of her theology that I find translates universally to be true. Here are 4 short points, that I’ll share, and then I’ll talk a little more about them: 1) “All that you touch, you Change. All that you Change, Changes you. The only lasting truth, is Change. God is Change.” 2) “There is no end to what a living world will demand of you.” 3)“We’ll adapt. We’ll have to. God is Change. Strange how much it helps me to remember that.” 4) “Drowning people sometimes die fighting their rescuers”
The first quote: “All that you touch, you Change. All that you Change, Changes you. The only lasting truth, is Change. God is Change.” Some of us are most familiar with this teaching in the Buddhist context, where our attachment to things not changing only leads to suffering since all things change, and attachment to what can not be – is painful. The Serenity Prayer is a more modern version of this spiritual lesson: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” There are things we can change, things we can affect in our lives, and there are many things that we cannot. Love and Loss – to face each as they come is one of the hardest lessons.
But for Octavia Butler, she’s looking at this message a little differently. Change for her is sometimes like a rock banging against an object. All that you touch, you Change. All that you Change, Changes you.” The rock can break another rock, or a window, or maybe a door; but the rock will probably also break at least a little itself, as it comes up against what it changes. Change always happens in relationship – it’s never isolated. That’s probably part of the reason that is feels so difficult in community, because all the relationships are even more pronounced and obvious – it can feel like the change is compounding upon itself. And during this season of Lent, we’re reminded in even more vivid ways, that every little change can begin to point us toward the biggest of changes in life – ashes to ashes. We all feel that worry at some time in our lives.
The next two theological quotes speak for themselves: “There is no end to what a living world will demand of you.” And “We’ll adapt. We’ll have to. God is change.” But Butler poignantly teaches us that, “Strange how much it helps me to remember that.” We can catch ourselves always focused on the worst, or on the end that changes bring, but there’s a deeper spirituality found in the practice of remembering that change is at the very foundation of our being. We can forget that we come into this world in an act of tremendous change – that all that is and will ever be – comes from change. Change is also our birthright, and there is a solace we can find in that when we open ourselves to that truth. (maybe tell the short Buddhist parable of the drop of water in the wave.)
Lastly, “Drowning people sometimes die fighting their rescuers.” The novel “The Parable of the Sower” is a spiritual novel, but it’s also a political one. I’ll let you read that part of it on your own, but there’s a line that’s meant to be political during a time of crisis, that I also read it as spiritual. People will find “a tyrant we fear or a leader we follow.” Leaving the politics aside, Change can be either. In our seasons of love and loss, we can see Change as a tyrant to fear, or a leader to follow. How we accept the changes before us, how we open our hearts to vulnerability, determines where our spirits will lead us. Will we see Change as always and forever a tyrant – and experience more suffering for it, or will we understand Change to be a leader that we can learn from as we live into a new day? Love and loss: For Butler, “We are the life that perceives itself changing.” On some days we may wish it otherwise for the grief that it brings us, but self-awareness also allows us to experience love in our life; the spiritual truth that they come hand in hand.
Change is in a way, the great rescuer, even if we find ourselves flailing to keep it from taking us where it is going to take us. The great losses – of life and health – are the things we have no power over – we can only grieve and hope some day to heal our hearts enough to carry on. But so often, we take the small losses and confuse them as the great ones – and we lessen ourselves for it – we risk drowning in the water while we fight our rescuers.
I’ll close with the words of a former minister of mine, Rev. Forrest Church, who frequently taught that religion is the awareness of the dual nature of being born, and knowing that will some day die. As we begin our road to Easter, we do so in ashes. “We are the life that perceives itself changing.” May we hold a fondness for that which we love, that which once was, and may we leave our spirits open for what may yet still come. The act of living is to be vulnerable; may we all so live.
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, and one transforming and abundant love,
May we enter into a time of reflection this holiday weekend.
Taking stock of the meaning of freedom and independence,
in a country that was founded, as always, with complex motives and practices.
We are a nation that strives toward the fulfillment of democracy,
rooted in an ethic of morality;
yet our history is marred with slavery of millions,
and the genocide of indigenous nations.
Teach us to be humble where we are strident,
to be active when we become complacent to oppression,
and hopeful when we find ourselves held back,
or held down,
by the greed or fear of others.
The discipline of democracy is a spiritual one,
Remind us to practice it daily,
in our communities,
and in our families.
May we not become silent before another’s power,
and may we not, in turn, silence another through our own will.
For faith, and freedom, and independence,
are not just for ourselves alone;
they are lived in community.
We know their blessings come along with
disciplines of accountability,
and of living and letting others live as well.
We hold in our hearts this hour all the women in our nation who are now subject to the religious whims of their secular bosses. May our nation not go too far down this road. We pray that our leaders learn to lead and govern once more, so that our country will not stray from the path it was founded upon. May we not confuse religious freedom with Christian Theocracy.
#29 Small Group Ministry Session on “White Rage” Written by Rev. Jude Geiger, MRE, First Unitarian,Brooklyn – Based on his sermon preached at First UU on 3/25/12 found here:
Welcome & Opening Chalice Lighting (Please read aloud) #429 In Singing the Living Tradition by William F. Schulz
Statement of Purpose: To nurture our spirits and deepen our friendships.
Brief Check-In: Share your name and something you have left behind to be here.
Reading: An Excerpt/Edit from the sermon, “White Rage.”
Religion can be of help here. We don’t need to feel like we have to go at it all alone. Likewise, when we’re successful, we don’t have to feel like it’s us against and over the world. Rage is rooted in this sense of separateness. We are left broken when we allow rage to uproot us from that web of life of which we are a crucial part. Feeling rage is not wrong. Allowing rage to indignantly convince us that we stand apart from that web, our family, is the source of crisis. When it rears its angry head, acknowledge it for what it is… and let it go. It’s not real – only our actions are real.
Sometimes that’s hard to believe. For me, that’s where faith comes in. There’s a certain point where we just need to tell the mind – the part of us that repeats the tired old story that we’re not loved, or that we don’t care, or that the world stands against us so we should stand against the world – tell that voice to settle down. Even if we can’t see the other side, we may need to find a sense of faith that allows us to believe that there can be another way. We may not be thinking logically, and then logic isn’t going to help all too much.
Discussion Questions: The sermon talks about the change in the quality of living of the average white American over the past 25 years. These economic shifts often confuse conversations about race dynamics, privilege and power. In our country, as financial situations worsen for the majority of Americans, we also see an increase in attempts to mitigate the rights of Women, LGBT and Immigrants. How do these seemingly unrelated issues connect for you? What emotional responses do you feel? Have you found yourself wrestling with anger, rage, or fear as these conversations and changes play out in our national discourse? Where do you find hope in the face of the struggle?
Closing: (please read aloud) #469 The Wisdom of Solomon 7 (In Singing the Living Tradition)
Check out my latest Huffington Post blog on Religious Freedom and Women’s Reproductive Health.
This Side of Love: Women’s History Month & the Role of Power
#28 Small Group Ministry Session on “This Side of Love” Written by Rev. Jude Geiger, MRE, First Unitarian,Brooklyn – Based on his sermon preached at First UU on 2/19/12 found here:
Welcome & Opening Chalice Lighting (Please read aloud) by Rev. Jude
We come together this hour, A reprieve from a world that makes so many claims upon our lives. May this time of sanctuary offer us: the strength we need amidst the chaos, a sense of love that asks us to stretch, and a calmness that may seem just out of reach.For we meet upon holy ground this hour, May our hearts bless those we meet.
Statement of Purpose: To nurture our spirits and deepen our friendships.
Brief Check-In: Share your name and something you have left behind to be here.
Reading: An Excerpt/Edit from the sermon, “This Side of Love.”
Right now, we hear stories in the media of struggles around religious freedom. What are some things we think of when we hear religious freedom? What do we mean by freedom – (worship, belief, faith of the free, personal choices, medical treatments, congregating where and how you need, etc.) It’s an important value in our country. It’s also an important value in our faith tradition. It comes from the Edict of Torda. In 1571, a Unitarian, Francis David, convinced the King of Transylvania to pass a law that said that “no one shall be reviled for their religion by anyone.” Francis famously said, “We need not think alike to love alike.” It’s thoughts like this that influenced the foundations of this nation.
The connection that’s being made in the media between Religious Freedom and Women’s Reproductive Health is stretched so thin it must soon break. Religious freedom is about being able to worship as you see fit – or don’t see fit for that matter. It’s about belief and it’s about personal choices (and you can hear the emphasis on personal right). Personal freedom, or liberty, is not about having the freedom to make the world do what you want. It’s about making your own best choices regarding personal matters – especially those matters that affect no one but yourself. I think managing one’s own body is the clearest definition of that I can imagine.
How are we acting in such a way that we’re trying to mold people in our own image? How is our personal freedom affecting the freedom of those around us? How are our immediate wants hurting our neighbor? Do you speak over everyone around you? Do you let others be heard? Are you kind when someone does something that you disagree with? Do you seek to understand where someone is coming from – or do we try to fit their actions into our way of seeing things?
Closing: (please read aloud) #706 from Singing the Living Tradition – the gray hymnal by Kathleen McTigue
Last Sunday, our Senior High Youth lead an educational social justice project toward the end of the religious education day with our children, as part of the Standing on the Side of Love campaign. After teaching our children a bit about love, marriage equality, and justice, we made Valentines to send to the NY State representatives who voted to support Marriage Equality. Being a Brooklyn congregation we sent the cards to Brooklynrepresentatives. We also included Valentines to our Federal Senators, our Mayor, our Governor, and the four Republicans (state-wide) who made a stand of personal conscious across party lines. It was a program that was rooted in gratitude for the efforts of our secular leaders on a matter of human conscience. Juliette and Cooper Richey-Miller crafted a beautiful video of the day that you can watch on our website. http://vimeo.com/36797503. It’s a hopeful snapshot of our religious community – and a good indicator of who we are and what we can be.
What makes a community? Or a congregation? Or a nation? Our story this morning spoke of a church being built on a hilltop – one that would bring the folks from all around to it every week. It needed a bell to ring folks to service. It needed strong stone and wood to stand firm against the wind and the weather. And it needed light – a whole lot of light – so that folks could find their way. I think it’s really beautiful that we learned from Zora’s mom in the story, that in our Unitarian Universalist tradition, we each carry a light of our own. Like the song we heard today – this little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.
That’s at the core of faith. For UU’s, it’s not so much about belief, faith is in part about trusting in yourself – and the people around you. It’s trusting that all our lights are there; they’re worth uncovering; and they can help lead us on the path ahead. Right from the start, we come pre-packaged with that light – even if we sometimes find it hard to feel that warmth. It’s still there.
That’s what a community is about. It’s remembering what’s true for each of us, is also true for all of us. We each bring something of value to light up this church. You know, this is one of those kind of truths that we like to say is so incredibly apparent. “Duh, we all know that!” And yet, it’s probably one of the hardest things to remember.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I was talking with two god-parents who were about to make promises during one of our child dedications on a Saturday morning. Three of the questions they had to commit to were, “Will you teach her to tell the truth and to trust herself? Will you teach her to be compassionate and loving while being there with open ears and open hearts when she needs you? Will you keep good words and ways so that you will be an example for her?” They seem so straight forward, but one god-parent reflected, “At first I was thinking, oh sure, these are obvious. I can do that. But then I got to thinking – be compassionate and loving – how about the long line at the deli, or behind the wheel when someone cuts me off. Those three things are really hard!” And to be honest, she’s completely right. They’re all hard. Sometimes obvious things are very hard to live by. That’s partly why we go over them again and again.
It’s easy to say that each of us have value – but sometimes it’s hard to feel like that applies to ourselves. It’s easy to say that everyone has a light to shine, but it’s hard to feel that way when the other person is telling you what to do with a really mean voice. With a show of hands – who here has ever felt less about someone who was being mean to them? (alright, I thought that would be a strong showing.) We’re all a little guilty of not finding the worth in another when they’re being difficult, and we’re all probably just as guilty of thinking less of ourselves than our religion tells us we should.
But sometimes we do the opposite. Sometimes we think so highly of ourselves, that we think we know what’s best for the people around us. Sometimes we’re so sure that if only things were done my way, all would work out just right. Out of curiosity, with a show of hands, who here has ever thought that last one – if only the world worked the way I wanted it to… OK – we’re all in good managerial company.
That problem is happening from time to time all around us. It’s not just within our congregation, or over the dinner table. It happens in our country at large. Right now, we hear stories in the media of struggles around religious freedom. What are some things we think of when we hear religious freedom? What do we mean by freedom – call out one or two words (worship, belief, faith of the free, personal choices, medical treatments, congregating where and how you need, etc.) It’s an important value in our country. It’s also an important value in our faith tradition. It comes from the Edict of Torda. In 1571, a Unitarian, Francis David, convinced the King of Transylvania to pass a law that said that “no one shall be reviled for their religion by anyone.” Francis famously said, “We need not think alike to love alike.” It’s thoughts like this that influenced the foundations of this nation.
But just like how we sometimes think the world would just be a better place if it worked just like we wanted it, sometimes that mindset gets into the heads of our leaders. This is a difficult subject to talk about, but I think most of us have seen the photos, or the news, or posts on the internet – so if we don’t talk about it here we’re being strangely silent.
I’m thinking of those pictures of all-male testifiers before congress, giving their expertise on how women should receive medical care. I think just saying that sentence that way, more or less gets to the point for most of us. I don’t see a problem in men being involved in the decision-making process of how people receive health care – after all some doctors are male. I do see a problem in women not having a voice at the table – especially on matters that solely affect women’s health. I think it’s even more odd that several of those experts were clergy. In case this congregation has the same confusion – if you have a medical issue – I am not the person to come to for health-care advice. They do not teach that in seminary. Frankly, it’s a really severe case of abuse of power. In our story this morning, Zora had her own lamp to shine. Whenever we create situations where only certain people get to lift up their lamps, we’re probably doing something wrong.
Anyone here watch NBC? Well on Friday morning, following the spread of the all-male congressional panel photo – The morning talk show called, “Morning Joe” began talking about how inappropriate it was for Congress to have an all male line-up of experts. However, in one snapshot (and you can see it on my Facebook page) all five of Morning Joe’s experts were themselves men.
Now some of you may be scratching your heads right now. I started out by talking about religious freedom, and then shifted into talking about health care for women. If you’re having trouble seeing the connection, you’re in some very good company. The connection that’s being made in the media is stretched so thin it must soon break. Religious freedom is about being able to worship as you see fit – or don’t see fit for that matter. It’s about belief and it’s about personal choices (and you can hear the emphasis on personal right). Personal freedom, or liberty, is not about having the freedom to make the world do what you want. It’s about making your own best choices regarding personal matters – especially those matters that affect no one but yourself. I think managing one’s own body is the clearest definition of that I can imagine.
And in this congregation, we take that so seriously, that we educate our children and youth through the program Our Whole Lives. Right now, half of our religious education program is in an OWL class. It’s an age-appropriate comprehensive science-based sexuality curricula. I mention science-based, because not all programs out there on this topic are even legally required to be scientifically accurate. Our K-1 class started in January. Our Junior Youth began back in September. And our 4th and 5th graders will have two Saturday programs. And our Senior High will be continuing it throughout the Spring.
Just like the story, someone had to make that lantern and pass it down. In our tale, Zora had to learn to carry it on her own. From a caring, loving community, she grew into a mature adult that would do the same in return. I think if we were to edit the story to fit the current trend to misconstrue what religious freedom actually means, we’d have Zora’s dad carrying the lantern for her for the rest of her life. And her mom would be strangely silent. That image isn’t one of freedom.
I don’t want to end this sermon on a national matter. This time I want to bring that national crisis back home, back to our pews. Whatever emotions you may have felt, or are feeling, about the paternalism being inflicted on women in our culture right now – consider how we might be the cause of that kind of strife in our own lives – for other matters. How are we acting in such a way that we’re trying to mold people in our own image? How is our personal freedom affecting the freedom of those around us? How are our immediate wants hurting our neighbor? Do you speak over everyone around you? Do you let others be heard? Are you kind when someone does something that you disagree with? Do you seek to understand where someone is coming from – or do we try to fit their actions into our way of seeing things?
There’s this photo floating around the internet of a saying on a t-shirt (that I think was intended to be a joke.) It reads, “I’m a Unitarian-Universalist: the bedrock of my faith is an unshakeable belief that your guess is as good as mine.” Now as far as faith statements go, that’s more shale than bedrock. But it does speak to one very healthy mindset. My opinion doesn’t rule the day. Remembering that – not only in political chatter, but also in the coffee hour, is key. A little bit of humbleness is good for the health of a community, of a congregation, and yes – of a country too.