Tuesday, December 13, 2011

10 Questions

Recently a high school student from Christchurch School in Middlesex, Virginia contacted me for help with a school project.  She was arguing in favor of marriage equality and, as one of the requirements of this project, had to contact someone who could be considered "an expert on the philosophy on this subject."  She thought that a Unitarian Universalist minister might just fit the bill.  (She thought this especially after she'd driven through Charlottesville on vacation and seen the "We Support Equal Marriage Rights" banner that hangs proudly on the front of our building!)

Tonight I answered the 10 questions she sent me as our interview.  I thought I'd share my answers here as well:

~ 10 Interview Questions ~

Why did you choose to be a minister at a UU church?
I was raised within the Christian tradition(s) – specifically Presbyterian and Methodist – but was exposed to a wide variety of religious/spiritual teachings growing up:  Zen Buddhism, Taoism, Wicca, Shamanism, the teachings of Carols Castenada, Transcendental Meditation, etc.  When it became clear that it was time to act on my long-recognized sense that I wanted to be an ordained minister, I discovered Unitarian Universalist and could see no other tradition that provided the same room and, in fact, encouragement for such an eclectic gumbo of religiosity.

What is the UU view on homosexuality?
Unitarian Universalists recognize homosexuality as one of the ways we humans naturally express our sexuality.  It may be statistically less prevalent than heterosexuality, but no less “normal.”

What is your view on gay marriage?
I find it astonishing that, once the disparity is pointed out to people, that it is not immediately obvious that the current view of “marriage is between a man and a woman” is inherently discriminatory.  I see no convincing – nor even coherent – argument that justifies limiting marriage to heterosexual couples, while I see myriad reasons for expanding our “definition” to include all couples – of any gender arrangement – who want to make a commitment to their loving relationship.

What, religiously, has influenced your view on gay marriage?
Unitarian Universalism is not a creedal religion – that is, we do not organize ourselves around specific sets of belief.  Rather, we are a covenantal religion – our faith communities are organized around shared commitment to certain principles of behavior.  The first that we enumerate is our covenant to “affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of each individual.”  I don't see any wiggle room or exceptions in that.

How do you think gay marriage fits into an American society? (ex, do you think it meshes well, do you think it’s necessary) 
It was not so long ago that Blacks and Whites were not allowed to marry, yet as we evolved as a culture we could see that these anti-miscegenation limitations were truly harmful – both for the individuals involved and for society at large.  The same, I believe, is becoming true of our attitudes toward same gender marriage.  Once again we are learning that “separate is not equal.”

Do you know of any arguments for gay marriage that I probably wouldn’t find in my research?
This is something that I wrote as part of an editorial several years ago:

As a minister, and as a husband, I am very much concerned with the sanctity of marriage.  I view each wedding at which I officiate as a holy event, and pray that no one may tear asunder those “whom God has joined.”  I agree with those who call marriage a sacred institution, and I believe that something much deeper is happening than the mere conferring of legal recognition and status.  As a traditional wedding reading puts it, “This celebration is the outward sign and token of a sacred and inward union of hearts, which religion may bless and the state my register and legalize, but which neither state nor church can create nor annul, a union created by loving purpose and kept by abiding will.”

I am confused, though, why politicians are concerning themselves with the “sanctity” of marriage, which means its holiness or sacredness.  Those are religious concepts.  The issue of the sanctity of marriage is the province of the church or the synagogue, the mosque or the ashram; it’s not the role of government.  As our nation’s founders noted, the only reason governments exist is to secure the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  That’s it.  Governments can be concerned with the legal and societal aspects of marriage, but its sanctity is none of their business.

And as odd as this might sound, it’s not even really any of my business as a minister.  The sanctity of a marriage is something between God and the couple.  Whether or not a union is holy does not depend on whether I or anyone else says it is.  It doesn’t depend on whether a book or a community’s traditions says it is.   The only thing it does depend on is whether or not it is, in fact, a holy union.  I’ve had the privilege of officiating at the unions of several lesbian couples whose obvious love and commitment demonstrated to me that theirs was a holy union indeed.  And I’ve know many heterosexual couples whose dishonesty, disregard, and outright abuse of their spouse made their so-called “sanctified” marriage anything but.   

What about against gay marriage?
Sorry, but I can’t really think of any, as I noted above, convincing or coherent arguments against gay marriage.

Why did you choose to work in a UU church in a state where gay marriage is illegal?
Three reasons:  Firstly, the job was offered to me.  (And I have seen no healthier nor more exciting congregations than the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church – Unitarian Universalist.  How could I pass it up?)  Secondly, our congregation has taken a very public stand in support of the marriage equality movement, among other things hanging a banner on the front of our building that boldly declares our position.  Thirdly, having served a congregation in Massachusetts, where same-gender marriage is legal, I somewhat relish the opportunity to work on increasing the number of states where that is so.

How important is the issue of legalization gay marriage to you? Is there a different aspect about gay relationship legal logistics that is more important?
To be sure, there are many aspects of heterosexism that are in need of being addressed.  I am personally drawn to the issue of marriage equality for several reasons.  My Universalist ancestors declared their theology in the simple three-word phrase, “God is love.” I am then, if you will, in the “love” business.  I believe that the right to enter into a committed relationship with another person is one of life’s great gifts.  It is an unparalleled environment in which to embody this divine love and to nurture not only your own spiritual development, but also another’s, and that of the so-called “third partner,” the marriage itself.  That individuals are being denied this right simply because they love someone whom our culture currently deems to be “the wrong kind of person” offends me deeply.  Further, I find the fact that the language and veneer of religion are used to defend this discrimination – this limitation of love – is abhorrent.

How can gay marriage fit in well with major religions? (Big, broad question, I know. With vast opportunities for long answers!)
I recognize that there are interpretations of certain passages of scripture and certain elements of tradition in many different religions that appear to support a prohibition of same-gender marriage.  I am also aware that there are passages and traditions in these religions which appear to support slavery and ritual murder, as well as prohibiting working on Sundays and (a personal favorite) the wearing of clothing made from mixed fabrics.  At the same time, it seems inescapably clear that these same scripture and traditions hold up again and again the values of love and compassion.  If God made us all then we are all God’s children.  If all sentient beings have Buddha-nature than it does not matter whether you marry someone of your own or of another gender expression.  If all things in creation serve Allah by fulfilling their own nature, then this must be as true for homosexuals as for heterosexuals.  I see no contradiction with what I understand to be the core teachings of any of the great religions humanity has developed.  As the Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, has summed up the primary teaching of religion:  “If you can, help people; if you can’t do that, at least don’t harm them.”

I think that this is a pretty good explanation of where I stand.
In Gassho,


Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Speech of Angels

A week or so ago I heard an interview on National Public Radio with the theoretical phsycist Michio Kaku.  Beyond his many television appearances and published works, Kaku’s real claim to fame is as one of the creators and developers of what’s known as Superstring Field Theory.  Superstring Theory is an attempt to take Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity – which deals with the force of gravity and large-scale structures such as galaxies – and the various theories of Quantum Mechanics – which deal with the other four fundamental forces of the universe and structures at a sub-atomic level – and put them together.  This unification of these various theorems is sometimes called, not so humbly I’d point out, “the Theory of Everything.”

To try to explain String Theory, Kaku reminded us of how strings work in the world we know – think of the strings on a guitar.  If you pluck one, it vibrates.  It creates a tone, a note.  Pluck a string of a different thickness, or length, and you get a different note.  A different tone.  A different vibration.  This “Theory of Everything” posits that the basic, fundamental reality, if you will, of the universe consists of “strings” floating in space/time.  These strings vibrate and their vibrations, their notes, are the various basic elements of creations – bosons and fermions.  Everything in the material world, then – the sun, the moon, the stars, the starfish, the moon pies, and even you and me – all of it, can be described as, fundamentally, vibrations of these strings.  You and me and everything we can see and feel around us are the harmonization of these strings.  We are literally notes in the symphony of life.
Cool, right?
And one of the reasons I especially love this new science is that it ties in so nicely with one of my favorite old myths.  It’s a creation story, but not any of the ones passed down in the oral traditions of the many Native American Nations, nor the Scandinavian story written in the Elder and Younger Eddas, nor even the foundational creation myth of the Jewish and Christian traditions, recorded in the Bible.  No, my favorite creation story is the one recorded in The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien.  (Published posthumously in 1977 but begun back in 1914.)
According to this tale, Eru, Ilúvatar, The One, sings a chord, a theme, into the void.  The Ainur, perhaps the closest analog we’d recognize would be “angels,” then essentially improvise a melody around this chord.  Discord is introduced, so Ilúvatar offers a new theme and the Ainur continue their improvisations.  This happens three times, until finally Eru sets forth a theme which incorporates and completes everything that came before.  Eru then commands their Ainur to open their eyes and see what they’ve created with their song . . . and they see the universe we know and love.  Here, in this tale, is the truth scientists are only just discovering – the universe, and everything in it, is physicalized music.  
I love music.  Always have.  Maybe it’s because I grew up in a musical family.  My brothers and I were all singers when we were younger, and Pat played a mean guitar while Paul played a smoking bass.  I played the French horn.
And there was nearly always music playing somewhere.  The 60s and 70s rock my brothers listened to.  Jazz, both classical and avant garde.  Actually, just about anything and everything.  After my parents died my brothers and I went through their record collection.  There was an album of Scottish Bagpipes next to Oscar Brand’s Baudy Sea Shanties next to the Oscar Peterson trio’s rendition of the music from “West Side Story.”  Carmina Burana next to The Grand Canyon Suite next to Carmen.  Everything from Aaron Copland to Frank Zappa – if it was music, we listened to it.
And we’re not alone in responding to music’s magical charms.  While working on the sermon I found this quote from the abolitionist, suffragist, and Unitarian Lydia Maria Child: 
“While I listened, music was to my soul what the atmosphere is to my body; it was the breath of my inward life.  I felt, more deeply than ever, that music is the highest symbol of the infinite and holy. . . .  With renewed force I felt what I have often said, that the secret of creation lay in music.  ‘A voice to light gave being.’  Sound led the stars into their places.”
The renowned author Ursala K. Le Guinn has asked,
“What good is music?  None . . . and that is the point.  To the world and its states and armies and factories and Leaders, music says, ‘You are irrelevant”; and, arrogant and gentle as a god, to the suffering [one] it says only, ‘Listen.’  For being saved is not the point.  Music saves nothing.  Merciful, uncaring, it denies and breaks down all shelters, the houses [we] build for [ourselves], that [we] may see the sky.”

The poet George Eliot said,

“I think I should have no other mortal wants, if I could always have plenty of music.  It seems to infuse strength into my limbs and ideas into my brain.  Life seems to go on without effort, when I am filled with music.” 
An anonymous commentator once said, “Music is what feelings sound like.”
And Thomas Carlyle wrote (in words that give this sermon its title), “Music is well said to be the speech of angels.”
And, of course, a pre-eminent theologian of the twentieth century once said, famously:

Music is a world within itself
With a language we all understand
With an equal opportunity
For all to sing, dance and clap their hands 

(That is, of course, from Stevie Wonder’s magnum opus, “Sir Duke.”)
Of course, not everyone likes music.  Or, at least, some people say that they don’t like music but in my very unscientific survey it seems to me that what these people are usually saying is that they don’t like some particular kind of music.
Take the playwright Virginia Graham who said, “There are some composers—at the head of whom stands Beethoven—who not only do not know when to stop but appear to stop many times before they actually do.”
Or the English author Dodie Smith who said, “The one Bach piece I learnt made me feel I was being repeatedly hit on the head with a teaspoon.”
Or the actress and writer Maureen Lipman who said (and this is my favorite), “To Jack (my husband), his violin is comfort and relaxation.  To his inky wife, it’s time to put her head down the waste disposal unit again.”
One of the reasons some people don’t like music is that they are convinced – usually because someone told them so at a young age – that they are “musically challenged.”  “She can’t carry a tune in a bucket,” is a phrase that comes to mind.
My dad couldn’t carry a tune if it was put into a gift-wrapped box and stapled to his forehead.  But that didn’t stop him.  That didn’t stop him from initiating – initiating – the annual singing of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” with his three award-winning choir member sons while we trimmed the tree each year.  That didn’t stop him from breaking out into the song – “Many brave hearts / are asleep in the deep / so beware. / Beware.” – at any opportunity.  That didn’t stop him from joining a choir during his adult life.  He loved music, and he loved making music at whatever level he was able.
There’s an old proverb from Zimbabwe – if you can walk, you can dance; if you can talk, you can sing.  I want to say this morning – this Music Sunday during which we’ve hears such lovely song – I want to declare this morning that each of us can make music.  And maybe that’s because each of us is music.  If Michio Kaku and his colleagues are right, then we are quite literally embodied music, music incarnate.  Let that thought vibrate through you for the rest of the day.

Laid in a Manger

A while ago I was reading the book Francis:  the journey and the dream, a beautiful blending of biography and meditation on the life of St. Francis of Assisi by the Franciscan priest and poet, Fr. Murray Bodo.  In it I found this wonderful reflection on Francis' understanding of Christmas:
"At Christmas it was the infant Christ who was born again in human hearts, and it struck Francis that God came to earth as a baby so that we would have someone to care for.  Christmas was the dearest of feasts because it meant that God was now one of us.  Flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, this child we could approach without fear.  We could be silly and uninhibited as we sought to make Him laugh.  We could be totally ourselves because a child accepts us just as we are and screams with delight at our little performances on his behalf.

Someone to care for, someone to try and please, someone to love.  God, a helpless babe; God, a piece of Bread.  How much trust God had in creatures!  In the Eucharist and in the Nativity, we group up, because God places Himself in our care.  We come out of ourselves if we are aware, because we now have responsibilities for God.  Not only the earth to till and creation to subdue, but now God to care for."
History has it that the first nativity scene was created by St. Francis in 1223 because he wanted to encourage people to really engage with "God [the] helpless babe."  This seems to have gotten lost in all the hubub and hullabaloo surounding the holiday.  Yet even those who would have us "put the Christ back in Christmas" seem to be totally focused on the adult Jesus, even the crucified Christ.  But what about that baby?  That little, helpless baby for which we "now have responsibilities"?  What would it mean to your spiritual life if you spent this Advent season not so much preparing to receive God as preparing to take care of God?

In Gassho,