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Monday, April 21, 2014

The Right Stuff: Religion, Refugees, and Radical Hospitality

If you have 20 minutes and enjoy a bit of fiery oratory, have a listen to this 'call-to-arms' given before Palm's Sunday March protesting Australia's barbarous treatment of asylum seekers. Click the link below:

Expanding Horizons » The The Right Stuff: Religion, Refugees,and Radical Hospitality

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Theology and Sexuality: 3 recent (short) articles

Yes, I know it's been a while since I've posted anything here. Suffice to say, things can get rather busy when you're the lone employee of a church of 130, and the only full-time, working Unitarian minister in the Australasian region.

However, I hope you enjoy this selection of three recent articles from my "Theology and Sexuality" column from Blaze magazine, Adelaide's glossy GLBTi monthly.

Bear in mind, the tone and content reflect the audience and the medium. They are NOT pulpit-fodder.(Sorry about the weird spacing below--there was nothing I could do to fix it, short of write the damn things over.)

“Poly Parroting”

One of the basic ideological differences between LGBTi and the normative ‘straight’ communities is the difference between intentional relationships and conventional relationships. In sexual terms, the LGBTi community has been and is more likely to openly embrace non-monogamous sexual relationships, whereas in ‘straight’ culture, the sexual norm is conventional monogamy (albeit inclusive of its shadow-side of affairs, swinging, and the sex trade to offset the obvious discontents of monogamy). Perhaps the straight community could learn a thing or two from the polyamorous-ness of LGBTi culture.

Some of the intentional values at work in polyamorous relationships include non-possessiveness, true gender equality, open communication to negotiate boundaries and make agreements, fidelity and loyalty (not as sexual exclusivity) to the promises and agreements made, and thus the emphasis on honesty, trust, loyalty, and respect for all. Not a bad way conduct one’s most intimate relationships, eh? Since so many ‘straight’ people are not actually monogamous anyway (aye, even in their hearts) why not develop a straight non-monogamy that is socially defensible and acceptable?

Not that the polyamorous life is without its challenges, of course. Parenting and custody ramifications can be a legal and social minefield, as can the struggle to overcome the culturally-taught possessiveness reflex that reduces all humans to commodities to be ‘owned’ to some degree. This is part of the cost of doing business.

But an intentional, rather than conventional, approach to sexual intimacy seems to me to offer one truly vital, human thing we’re all hankering deeply for. No, not more sex with more people (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), but community. Writer (and Unitarian) the late Kurt Vonnegut said of ‘straight’ couple divorcing, that if their dispute could be reduced to one sentence, it would be this: “Why aren’t you more people?” If I’m honest, the one thing I’ve always truly envied about my LGBTi friends is that they inhabit an intentional community of like-minded people that truly support each other, in a degree of intimacy largely unknown among friendship groups of ‘straight’ couples.

Although our Unitarian denomination does not have an ‘official’ position on polyamory, we do have an interest in communities of intention, being an intentional, non-conventional church ourselves. In fact, the ‘Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness’ have a developed an RE curriculum called “Love Makes a Family” to help educate people about polyamory. Also, some very lovely and life-affirming rites of passage ceremonies—polyamorous weddings, naming ceremonies, memorial services—have also been written and used in recent years. Check it out at http://www.uupa.org/

Anyone who lives not by doing what everyone else seems to be doing, but by their perceptions and will and values, will have much cause to rejoice in this life. Perhaps it’s time the ‘straight’ community parroted this poly.

I guess you could call me a Kant(ian)

I guess it’s an assumption of this regular column that matters of faith and religion and spirituality might be important to at least some of Blaze’s readership demographic.  So far, the responses I’ve received seem to confirm that assumption (the fact I’m getting any responses at all is something of a miracle). Keep those cards and letters coming in, folks!
But maybe this assumption is less true for some of you. Perhaps for you, GLBTi issues are more to do with the politics of sexuality (remembering that any personal issue is always political). In that case, a more philosophical might speak more directly to your experience. Politics is a species of ethics—the evolving dialogue about how we are to relate best with each other. And there are some ethicists whose thoughts might help you express and live your sexual identity more freely and fully.
My own denomination is actually more comfortable approaching notion of ‘the good’ from a philosophical angle rather than a theological one; we don’t think revelation on ethics or anything else is sealed and comes down from above like a parcel. Instead, we recognise the universe is essentially dynamic, changing, evolving, in flux. But how then shall we tell right from wrong, good from evil?

We affirm, as a starting point, that all beings have inherent worth and dignity. A key ethical principle that seems to flow from ‘inherent worth and dignity’ is that all people have the right to be autonomous, self-governing. As a former philosophy student, I reckon Immanuel Kant’s view of autonomy and the good life elides perfectly with my Unitarian theological principles, and speaks a freshly today to our experience as it did in the Age of Enlightenment. For Kant, what makes humans special (and deserving of that worth and dignity) is that they have the right to decide for themselves what constitutes the good life. Not only can we choose the type of life we want to live, but we can revise that idea in the process of living. When our ideas "evolve," we are being most fully human, most fully ourselves.

But Kant is not a wishy-washy relativist. His ethical line is when anyone does anything that evidences a blatant disregard for inherent human worth and dignity, that action is immoral. Simple and air-tight! How this applies to the cultural dialogue about sexual identity in religious circles—i.e., that non-normative sexual practice is immoral—should be obvious. We are evolving beings, evolving our idea of goodness. The comfortable moral dogmas of the past are inadequate in this respect; they need to be examined, reflected upon, revised, or discarded. This is your human right.

So when faced with the puckered disapproval of anyone who judges your right to choose the life you want for yourself, if doing so does not constrict others, you can calmly look them in the eye and say to them: “Read Kant” (comma insertion optional).

Of genes and privilege

Enough has been said in response to Senator (how did THAT happen?) Cory Bernardi’s dim-witted and myopic ravings about any sexual activity other than the hetero-normative variety. His book’s satiric Amazonrevues alone are far more acidic than anything my humble pen could produce. However, the results of a recent genetic study should, let us pray, nail shut his bilious yap for good. If he’s intellectually honest, that is. No evidence for that thus far, but no one is beyond redemption, right Senator?

I refer to findings produced by a peer-reviewed study at Northwestern University, presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which found that homosexuality tends to be genetically inherited. Like most complex biological states, it’s not a case of cause-and-effect, though. Certain genes have a ‘limited and variable’ impact on sexual orientation. Genes alone were found neither to be sufficient, or necessary to sexual orientation, so they don’t completely determine it. The many other contributing nurture factors include the levels of hormones babies are exposed to while developing in the womb. However, the amalgam of genetic predisposition and pre-and post-natal nurture factors point to this: that sexual orientation has nothing to do with choice. Earlier studies have pointed toward this conclusion, so it was no surprise to the scientists involved.

So tell me, Senator…when did you choose to be straight? What was it like? Was there much internal struggle? (Thou doth protest too much, methinks…)

Will these findings help move the political debate forward, however? In the current political climate, I have my doubts. As a culture, we are raising privilege above equality. Look at what’s happening to the Gonski education reforms. Look at how unions and hard-won entitlements are being bashed. ‘Them that’s got shall have; them that’s not shall lose’, as the old song says, and the dominant myth of capital encourages us to see it as right and proper for the privileged to enjoy the privileges of class, race, gender.

But let me ask you something, Cory (can I call you ‘Cory’?). You and your lovely wife can walk down the street holding hands, even canoodling, and never for a moment fear for your personal safety, right? You, who did not choose your sexual orientation any more than Liberace did. That, right there, is you (and I guess your wife) enjoying heterosexual privilege. Privilege for a sexuality given you, not earned. How miserly of you not to wish the same for others, just like you in that regard-- powerless to be other than what they are?

Your notion of God is one who sees everything, yes? If that’s the case, Rev. Rob says there is time for you to redeem thyself. Start by listening to facts, and treating all others as you yourself enjoy being treated.
Maybe he’ll forgive you for that execrable book.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine

Strange it is how loss, departure, and bereavement often 'come not in single spies, but in battalions'. Stranger still how such sorrows put what is truly important into focus, instantly prioritize, and thus transform into the very stuff of renewal. Life from death: the eternal mystery that drives people to the bottle and to the Bible, to Deepak Chopras and to deep-dark churches.

To back up: there has suddenly been a great deal of mortality, and of leave-taking, and of enforced letting-go in my narrow window of life lately. To list a few:
  • the valediction of a close friend so beleaguered with cancer that she is not expected to recover from a precipitous and a shocking decline; her prognosis a matter of weeks
  • a daughter who has suddenly chosen to depart the nest well before expectations; the house an echoing emptiness
  • a memorial service for Mandela here in the greatest Cathedral in this 'city of churches'; joy and sadness fused together
  • and today, an urgent, death-bed visit to a beloved church member; the faces of her family at the bedside a shattered landscape of grief
It's been easy to feel alone and at sea.

This last bereavement, especially, has hammered home some of the paradoxes of ministry that are still revealing themselves to me, newbie that I am: I was today both utterly useless and yet absolutely required.

To be clear: in our ministry education, we received no formal training in these matters. No clever theory, no strategies, no tactical psychology. Perhaps the wise heads who decided I was a fit candidate for the role, saw something in me which made them feel I could handle times like this. But whenever I go into such a situation, I am far from sure I will know how to respond.

And when I'm far from sure, I pray. How sweetly old-school. How charmingly naïve. How (what is the word?) weak.

And, again, to be clear: when I pray, I talk to my best self to find my highest thought, my most loving disposition, my deepest feeling. If the divine is in any sense within us, I would recognise it in these guises. But it does not talk back to me. Not in words at any rate. Nevertheless, I find it opens a clear channel, and steadies the tossing dinghy of my heart on the heaving seas around me.

Unitarianism can feel a bit mealy-mouthed at times like these. What should a Unitarian minister say to someone who is dying before them, reaching out to them for succour, the certainty of mortality snapping at one's heels? Shall I ask if they've made 'arrangements'? Shall I go all spooky and talk in vague terms about the great mystery to which all must go? Shall I offer wry and dapper observations about how in life we are always in the midst of death? Shall I give them false, comforting hope?

Shall I quote Emerson?

Today, you see, the oddest thing happened.

Having prayed on the way and met only the usual silence, I went in disarmed. I held her hand, stroked her head, sat with her laboured breathing for what seemed like ages, but wasn't.

And then I leaned over and whispered into her ear this clutch of words from my childhood faith. Words I thought I'd forgotten, that simply bobbed to the surface from somewhere:

Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, secundum verbum tuum in pace:
Quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum
Quod parasti ante faciem omnium populorum:
Lumen ad revelationem gentium, et gloriam plebis tuae Israel.

Which, in it's most recent, hippest, Unitarian-disinfected translation, might read;

Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people

Yes, Bible fans. It's the song of Simeon from the Luke gospel (the one most interested in the nativity and early life of Jesus). Simeon was a faithful, elderly Jew whom God had promised would not die until he had seen the saviour. And when he had, he simply let go of hanging on to life, and was at peace.

Though I did feel a squeeze of the hand, I will never be sure if she heard me or not, barely conscious as she was. But in the corridor, the talk among the family was of letting her go, of our letting go of her, of honouring her DNS wishes, and how we would support her grieving husband of 6 decades. And love. All the important stuff. There was a gentle acceptance and peace.

I'm not taking credit for anything. I'm not especially clever in navigating the tigerish waters of violent feeling. All I know is this: I prayed and something helpful was revealed.

And though I've spent this day waiting by the phone for the inevitable call, and in melancholic mood, it is hard not to feel blessed.

Because you see lately, I've been seriously questioning why I got into this job/role/vocation. Soul-sickened by the usual internal politics of church systems, irritated by the inertia of sloth and selfishness that attend a fundamentally conservative cohort, maddened by its lack of vision and mission and relevance, beset by its internalized consumer-model mindset of expectation, demand, and complaint. So much ME and so little WE. And even less of what's really important.

But suddenly none of that matters a toss any more. I, too, let go.

Today, this day, this is what I was for, what it was all for--ready or not. That I got what was needed says far more about the workings of God (or whatever you will) than about me. Its says things about perspective and priorities, about life and death.

And maybe even a little thing called "grace".

This from Isaiah:

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”
And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”

Sunday, November 24, 2013

An Open Letter to Scott Morrison: "You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

Dear Mr. Morrison,

I refer to the article in the Sydney Morning Herald of 22/11/13.

A good, Christian, family man. And a monster.
Why does it take a court order to get you to behave like the Christian you claim to be? Do you need a judge to tell you your plan to send a two-week old baby to detention is monstrous and an affront to God and man? You are a Minister of this country. How obtuse can you be?

Or perhaps I've got it all wrong...

Perhaps you might re-read the Gospels, and indicate to me, my congregation, and my international readership where exactly we are enjoined by Jesus to behave toward others as you are behaving toward these wretched people, and their utterly helpless baby, legally seeking asylum in our country?

But happily, refusing asylum IS illegal.

Every Sunday school kid knows that Jesus had a special place in his heart for children, "suffer them to come unto me, for such is the kingdom of heaven". What poor excuse for Christian education did you have that failed to include that titbit? Let alone the utter failure of that education to have conveyed the essence of Christ's teachings--that we are to help those in need.

"Get away from me kid, ya bother me."

Short of the Third Reich, it is hard to imagine a politics more morally repellent, xenophobic, and cruel than those this government is employing with regard to the world's most desperate. Whilst I have breath in my lungs, and can vent clamour from my throat, I will tell everyone within the scope of my ministry, that you and the current government do nothing less than evil in pursuing your asylum seeker policies.

I am forced to conclude that you can be no Christian, sir. If you had the least Christian sensibility, you would quail for shame that you would visit such suffering upon those already suffering. And that when you go to face your maker--a day your 'Christian' values claim will surely come--you will have to account for this with your very soul. It will be a heavy reckoning, sir, and something in you (however deep) must know it.

How can you sleep at night under the watchful eye of the God you uphold? Temazepam? What quantities of drink does it take to quell the pain and live with yourself from day to day? Or do you simply pray the heartache away?

Is it all worth it? Is the power and money, and the assurance of a secure government pension for life, and future consulting and directorship gigs on the public purse, and all that--worth what you are doing? And the acid contempt all genuine Christians, your brothers and sisters, must feel toward you?

It doesn't take a Christian to know right from wrong. A Sikh Temple, a Zoroastrian Atash, a Wiccan circle, even the new Sunday Assembly atheist-and-comedy church would show you the door for being so beastly to a baby its sick mother.

As it's the season in which Christians commemorate the birth of Christ, you might recall the pity evoked by the story that Joseph and Mary, a poor couple far from home, gave birth to a vulnerable baby in squalor and desperation. Jesus himself was one such as the baby you've tried to exile. Do you not see?

This is actually cleaner than the squalid manger would have been, as it lacks the requisite donkey sh*t.

But even if you had made no claim to Christian values, and thereby willingly taken on the mantle of 'glaring hypocrite' (the only group, btw, Jesus condemned), you would still be open to a question which rings down the ages, from a not dissimilar context, 50 years ago:

"You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

No, he didn't.

With pity and prayers for your dark heart,

Rev. Rob MacPherson

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Putting the 'Unity' back in Unitarian

It's a commonplace that the world we inhabit is nothing if not diverse--geographically, biologically, climatically, linguistically, socially, politically (et cetera...) diverse. As the Temptations so aptly sang forty-some years ago, "Ball of confusion/that's what the world is today/hey hey!"

The source of most of our frustrations is that we struggle to accept and live with this stone-cold reality, about which we can (and, I suggest, should) do nothing.

Frequently, too frequently, alas, this frustration boils over and a reactive craving to homogenize lashes out, to eradicate the tensions inherent in diversity, to have the world conform to our tastes and our convenience, to what meets our approval.

"My way or the highway", as they say. And that is the subtext of all dogma.

Usually, this means things/people/ideas that are not like us nor that we understand. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc., are the spook-stories people usually tell to make this point.

Uncle Joe liked his society like he liked his grooming--even and orderly.
It's so understandable, so very human, this urge for homogeneity, for sameness, for what we take to be peace, an end to confusion and tension and endless choice. And it always always ends in the building of walls-- in 'otherizing', excluding, demonizing, disenfranchising, who's right/who's wrong, and simply keeps the cycle of tension and conflict going by creating new divisions. This is a karmic tale as old as time.

Interestingly, our current best understanding of the metaphysical reality itself seems to suggest that diversity is inherent in the very nature of the cosmos, that the universe is not our poodle, will not be pinned down. If light, say, is BOTH a wave and a particle (two contradictory physical states), if there is matter and anti-matter and 'dark' matter, if solid matter is really energy (etc., etc.) our human impulse to homogenise anything seems delusional, a fool's errand.

Not 'either/or', but 'both/and'.

It would seem a radical humility regarding the nature of reality is called for. But how to LIVE in that? This is where Unitarianism comes in. Or at least, where it's supposed to...

(For Unitarian tragics only: all others can skip this next paragraph:)

(A caveat: the root word 'Unity' is a trifle misleading. We're rather odd in being the only denomination whose name bespeaks a theology, and yet we've no set theology. The word "Unitarian" was coined as an opposing response to Trinitarian Christianity, since early Unitarians found the concept of the Trinity neither scriptural (which is the case), nor in accordance with reason (er, how can three be one?). Instead, we suggested that if there was indeed a God, it made more sense (and was truer to scripture) to think of him/her as one and indivisible, hence 'Unitarian'. Interesting footnote in the history of theology though this may be, it is not the point of this post. I just needed to get that out of the way.)

The 'Unity' in Unitarianism can be traced to the 1557 Edict of Torda, an early attempt to guarantee religious freedom in Europe. In essence, it sought freedom of thought, practice, and faith-teaching, for everyone not just those with whom we agreed. A radical humility indeed, based on the fact that no one can know the absolute truth of God (or Ultimate Reality or whatever you will) for absolute certain. Therefore, it called for tolerant respect for the diversity of faith practices and teachings at the time. In that respect, times have changed but little: a tolerant embracing of diversity is still sold as the Unitarian way.
You can thank, if you want to, Unitarian Francis David for being WAY ahead of his time in saying: "I'm okay; you're okay."
And so it follows as does the night the day, that within the Unitarian movement, there is also  great diversity of views about absolutely everything. This makes them less a flock of sheep than a herd of cats: difficult to muster together, and often fighting amongst themselves. But, in theory, held together gently by a covenant that says that your right to your view is as legitimate as mine. And I will defend your right to hold your well-considered views.  I may challenge, admonish, question the substance of those views, but I will NEVER so disrespect you as to try to wrest them from you, or to exclude you from fellowship.

And yet, depressingly, the exact converse of these sentiments were exactly what I heard bandied by many of my fellow Unitarians, including some of the eminence gris, at our recent ANZUUA conference in Auckland. A few snippet of the dogmatic, exclusionist assertions put forth in paraphrase:

  • There is only the big bang, evolution, and randomness. All else is b*llshit, and we don't want people in our membership who recognise for anything else.
  • We are alone in a material universe.
  • We don't want 'sheep' from other denominations (ignoring the fact that nearly everyone recent began life in another faith tradition). We want only secular atheists. This is what we are.
  • Fundamentalism is wrong; therefore ANY and ALL conventional religion is wrong (especially Islam)
Yes, this has all the ingredients of a new creed, the very idea of which we were meant to have rejected hundreds of years ago as being exclusionist, arrogant, and coercive.

Don't get me wrong, it's not that I disagree (though I do). It's that while I would defend to the death anyone's right to hold these views, I clearly would not be accorded the same respect if the old guard had their way.

It was as if the old guard of ANZUUA decided that veganism was the only morally defensible lifestyle and stated baldly that carnivores need not apply. Talk about cognitive dissonance: I wondered what church I had wandered into.

Look guys: even the eminent evolutionary biologist JB Haldane admitted:

"The Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose."
So how can a gaggle of superannuated (and let's face it) amateur theologians have the chutzpah to suppose they alone know the true way? I am no longer young myself, and I too understand that feeling there are things that time and experience and some reading should make you sure of. And I understand the urge to homogenize your environment, silence the ball of confusion, and have everything conform to your weary requirements. But that, right there, is what drives the young, the seeking, the truly open minds away from our movement and spells its death in a generation or two.
What all genuine science assumes is a radical humility toward this unknowability, including a understanding that scientific materialism is itself a construct that obscures as much as it reveals. As Unitarians, our principles require a humble embracing of the diversity of life, an acceptance that "there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of" in our half-baked philosophies.
And to learn to love it all.
Our church, our world, is a messy unity, but only by lovingly holding the contradictions, the confusion, the opposition in equipoise, can we put the "Unity" back into Unitarianism.
Looks almost like a chalice.

So may it be.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Theology and Sexuality: 3 short posts

In post-federal-election Australia, we are about as far from marriage equality as we've been in the last generation. Indeed, by the election of a conservative "Opus Dei" Catholic to the top job, and the parallel implosion of the Labour left, we have probably taken a big step backwards.

I am heterosexual, and I am committed to equality on the basis of sexual orientation. As part of that commitment to political activism, I write a regular column for Blaze, a local magazine, part of the Gay News Network, exploring the theological dimensions of LGBTi issues.

Since many of you, dear readers, won't be able to get your hands on a hard-copy, I've decided to post the most recent articles here as well.



History is made by those who show up (July 2013 issue)

 “Just ignore those bigots,” they said.

And of course, they were--and are—right about this. The rational part of me sees this clearly. Nevertheless, I still bristled at their bilious hate-speech and poor scriptural scholarship on their surprisingly well-made and huge placards. And eventually, I allowed myself to be baited into a confrontation with them that a calm, friendly cop had to step in and defuse. I am not so much ashamed of what I did, but how I comported myself. Violence—even in the form of intemperate speech--begets violence… (something you’d think a minister would know).

Why the bristling and the intemperate speech? Because I was the only actual clergy present at last month’s marriage equality rally. I was there to support the cause, as the Unitarian church, my denomination, has always done in the USA and the UK and New Zealand. My appallingly un-aesthetic, homemade placard read “Unitarians Support Marriage Equality”—along with a picture of our flaming chalice symbol. I might just as well have not been there at all.

The problem was (and is) that all the general public (through the ever-balanced mainstream media) see of religious representation at such demonstrations are people like the self-appointed Street Preachers. And so the message is: “If you’re in any way religious, you’re anti-LGBT rights.” And this simplification is just damn well not true.
Lies, damned lies, and people who use the parts a big book to confirm their prejudices...
Our theology says it’s simply not okay to cherry-pick an encyclopaedic ancient book from another culture, make up stuff from what you’ve picked, and use it to harass and oppress people. Especially when the over-arching theme of that book is: “Learn to love all beings.”

Unitarian theology prizes the use of reason, confident that humans wouldn’t be given that capacity to ‘fust in us un-used’. So the rational argument for marriage equality goes like this: “People do not choose their sexual orientation (this is well-establish science). Justice requires equal treatment before the law for all citizens. Denying equal legal rights on the basis of something over which one has no control (like skin colour) is discriminatory. Therefore this law needs to be changed.”

Progressive religion is NOT the enemy of LGBT rights, and I know clergy who agree. Where were they? The recent SCOTUS decision to overturn Prop 8 in the USA indicates that marriage equality is now the ‘low-hanging fruit’ (pardon) of social justice issues, easier to endorse now that it has ever been. If progressive clergy want to show that religion can be a relevant and effective force in positive social change, THIS is the issue to help move to its logical and inevitable conclusion.

But on the day, the voice of religion defaulted to the usual shrill bigotry. And that is what is called a wasted opportunity to help incarnate divine love in the world.


Be yourself to death (August 2013 issue)

Few people appreciate this, but there is a crucial theological imperative to being ‘out and proud’, whether or not you happen to believe in a personal God.
Absolutely everything in the universe has its own unique and inherent nature, a one-off mix of limits, potentials, and physical properties. In human beings, sexuality is one rather basic expression of one’s nature. A humanist would call this nature one’s ‘identity’ or ‘integrity’; a theist might refer to this as ‘the imagine and LIKEness of God’.  Ask any parent, and they will tell you that no child comes into the world a ‘blank slate’, as raw material to be shaped entirely by social forces. There is a unique selfhood to each and every one of us.
Thus, we are called (by Nature, by God, of whatever you will…) to live out this authentic selfhood. As many of you, dear readers, will attest, the psychological costs of NOT doing so can be profoundly crippling, and warp not only yourself, but your entire network of relationships when you try to be that which you are not.
Being true to your self...so much easier than the alternative.
Not that this is easy. The playwright Harold Pinter, in an interview, said:
“Self-acceptance is terribly difficult…It is the ultimate sin, you’ll find, to ignore or to deny who and what we are….One of the most potent ways to discover and to accept yourself is to tell your story honestly. There you will find your true self.”
But when pervasive social/cultural forces not only demand a normative sexual identity, but also ‘otherise’ and demonize any transgression from a moral standpoint, the notion of feeling ‘natural’ or ‘beloved of God’ can seem very far away indeed.
I invite you, then, to consider replacing the familiar, narrow, judgemental God-of-morality, not with nothing, but with a God-of-reality, one who not only accepts the unique and inherent nature of every piece of his/her/its creation, but also cherishes it for its expression of the endless, delightful diversity of that creation.
The “Universalist” part of Unitarian-Universalism used to assert that there was no such thing as Original Sin, that a benevolent and loving creator would not and could not engender a thing with inherent corruption, only to then condemn it for being corrupt. For a Universalist, all were saved, and the concept of Original Sin was replaced with ‘Original Blessing’. Though such antiquated theological language has fallen from our church’s everyday use, it gets close to what I mean that your first responsibility in this life is to “Be yourself to death.” After that act of self-love, you can then begin to love the uniqueness of all other beings, as you yourself are loved.

I Support Chelsea (not the FC) (September 2013 issue)

Bradley/Chelsea Manning’s ‘Wikileaks’ whistle-blower status was over-shadowed recently when she struck yet another heroic blow for liberty: gender re-assignment. Her recent statement:

“As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female. Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I hope that you will support me in this transition. I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility). I look forward to receiving letters from supporters and having the opportunity to write back.”

Her defense counsel had been claiming all throughout the trial that Manning suffered from ‘gender identity disorder’ all her life, but (gosh) no one seemed to be paying attention to that aspect off the proceedings. The timing of her announcement—on the eve of serving 35 years in a MEN’S prison—suggests some rather difficult incarceration scenarios, making Manning’s claim to her true gender identity all the more heroic.
Seriously...how does his freedom to do this impinge on you?
Cue, of course, predictably cruel and loopy and denial-ridden responses from the ‘sexually normative’ (inverted commas for sarcasm)—a choice selection:

·       Taunting insistence on using the male pronoun when referring to Manning

·       Transgender identity is evidence of mental illness

·       Gender reassignment is as ridiculous as species reassignment (‘I am the Walrus’, Dude.)

·       Boorish high-school-teacher puns around the surname (“Manning? More like Womanning! Geddit? Geddit?”)

·       Gender reassignment is an elaborate ploy to be sent to a ‘cushy’ woman’s prison, and so avoid the enforced sodomy ‘justice’ demands

Leaving aside for a moment the obvious issues of the dispiriting lack of compassion and empathy for someone identifying as transgender, there is an underlying truth to human sexuality such bigotry glosses over. Gender, like all creation, is not binary. We are not either male or female, but a mixture of both, and this has nothing to do with the presence or absence of a key chromosome. One gender may assert itself more than the other, through nature and nurture and culture, but no one is entirely any one thing. Think of it as a continuum, with equally unattainable ‘absolute male’ and ‘absolute female’ at either end. An individual’s gender identity is located at neither extreme, but somewhere along the line, inclining more on one side or another, but only inclining. There will, in each of us, be qualities of both what we recognise as the masculine as well as the feminine.

Try it. I’ve placed an X where I think Manning has staked out her identity. I’ve put a Y where I think mine is. Where does your gender identity sit?



Absolute male                                                                                                               Absolute female

The important moral point is that just as I would demand the freedom to discover and live my true and uniquely gendered nature in my one human life, so I would support Chelsea and you, dear reader, in doing likewise. If issues of gender assignment, transgender identity, or indeed human freedom matter at all to you, do what Chelsea asks to help her face 35 years in the US justice system: write to her, offer support, offer compassion.

And don’t forget to use the correct pronoun!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Extreme Unction: The Well-Lubricated Church

It's funny what people do, and don't, notice in church services. For example, I once did an entire service on the history and various meanings of our flaming chalice symbol, one which was very well received. The very next week, the service was taken by very devout and committed congregant who utterly neglected to light it, a defining ritual which begins UU services. Sigh...

A different example on the same theme is the story of the dreaded "SKRAAAAK" of our church microphone.
Like this, but noisier
For years now, every time someone took the pulpit other than the speaker for whom the mic was set, they adjusted the mic to suit their height, and a "SKRRAAAAK" would rasp out of the sanctuary's speakers, and everyone at the service would jump, or wince, or both at once. The pulpit mic is a 'gooseneck' type that is made of a flat piece of spiralled metal twisted ingeniously onto itself to form a tube, allowing for infinite adjustment. And, boy, did we like to adjust it, despite the fact that we knew, knew mind you, that the ensuing "SKRAAAAK" would be emitted as sure as night followed day. Never mind that the mic, wherever it is placed, is sensitive enough to pick up the Pastor's stomach growling as the service approaches lunchtime.

When I knew someone rather shorter than I was about to use it for, say, a reading, I'd do what I could to conceal the harsh sound, shoving it abruptly downward as the last chord of the preceding hymn sounded, so you'd get a quick muffled "skrak" rather than a drawn-out "SKRAAAAK". I hoped I was subtly modelling mic etiquette, but subtle doesn't always read. All of which means I had more or less learned to live with this openly and obviously dysfunctional element, this fly in the ointment of a professional, reverent church service, just like everyone else had learned to live with the obvious and actual aesthetic pain the wretched thing caused them every week. No one mentioned it, let alone fixed it. For years.

I guess I'll just offer this up as penance
That is, until a recent stroke of genius from one of our newest members. The genius was not in the mechanics of the fix, which should have been obvious even to a non-engineering-type like myself. From early childhood, in fact, I had the knowledge about how to fix this problem, in that I had an average person's working knowledge of lubricants--silicon-based, petroleum-based, graphite-based, glycerine-based. I had used lubricants with such household names as RP-7, WD-40, and 3-in-1, in spray, liquid, and unguent forms, to lubricate cars, tractors, bikes, hinges, locks, chainsaws, lawn-mowers, saddles, and even stage rapiers. I had 50 years of experience with what would fix this mic. Never mind: someone will do something someday.

Ahh, that's better...
The genius was in how it was fixed. The squeaky mic finally got the much-needed, silencing grease not because a motion was put before committee, or because a working party of interested technophiles was rounded up and set to address the most cost-efficient upgrade to a new mic, but because this new member, in his innocence, had no idea of processes, procedures, or whose turf he might be treading on, but just went ahead and fixed the problem. With a few drops of lubricant. Genius.

After I finished thumping his back and wringing his hand, and after waggling the mic around in silence (to confirm that the "SKRAAAAK" was really, truly gone), my heart sank a bit. For in this incident I felt I could see all I needed to know about how church does and doesn't work:

  • First, churches can be inertia made flesh; it is better to wince and bear it than to get on and fix things.
  • Second, even though familiarity with dysfunction can feel like comforting tradition, we in fact de-value ourselves if we don't see it as important to get things right.
  • Third, new members can see things more clearly than those who are comfortably used to the way things are, so it is vital to bring them into the dialogue.
  • Fourth, aesthetics matter in worship; getting the tone/mood right is as important as getting the content right. If we are not invested in the feel of worship, we risk making the content less relevant.
While this message has played at being facetious, the import of what the incident tells us is deadly earnest. Given the general trends in church decline I shared with you in the post "The Little Chapel That Cried" and how our own church's attrition rate over the last generation matches those trends, this church will be on its last legs in one generation, maybe two. Not for lack of money, but for lack of people to engage with it. Where is the lubricant to fix that?
The real lubricant to ensure functional church workings is purposeful, positive engagement, even at the risk of bruising a few toes. Bruises heal, and our fellowship should heal them all the more quickly. And of course proper processes are important to protect the vulnerable from chaos.
But sometimes even chaos is preferable to inertia, just as life (with all its awkward complexity) is preferable to death.