Monday, December 2, 2013

Be Good For Goodness’ Sake

Be Good For Goodness’ Sake
Rev. Dr. Gaye Ortiz
Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta
December 1 2013

The poet Robert Frost wrote these lines: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to let you in.” (Harold Kushner, How Good Do We Have to Be? 1996, p.44) How many of us feel that, at the start of the holiday season, we rather they would bolt the doors from the inside and save us from the feelings of inadequacy, resentment, guilt, and shame that rear their ugly heads? The remarks about our weight, our vices, our lack of education/our overachieving by going to college, how we raise our children/how to raise our children, our jobs/ lack of jobs, and – gasp! – our strange religion… Any self-possessed, confident human being can emerge at New Year’s a blubbering wreck after too much family time, so imagine what it is like for people whose guilt complexes regularly go into overdrive.

 This morning I want to pay a visit to the ‘swampland’ of the soul; we are going to metaphorically ‘put on our galoshes and walk through and find our way around shame’ and the role it plays in dragging us down. (as Brene Brown puts it in her TED Talk “Listening to Shame,”

Shame tells you you’re not good enough - we become paralyzed by shame. And there is a difference between guilt and shame, we can suffer from them both. But guilt is about behavior: “I’m sorry, I made a mistake.” Shame focuses on the self, “I’m sorry I am a mistake” (Brown, “Listening to Shame”). Shame is highly correlated with depression, eating disorders and other compensatory or self-punishing behaviors. And no matter what we do, and how good we want to be, we can never shake the feeling that we are worthless, and that we must hide our pitiful defects as human beings.

In his book How Good Do We Have To Be, Rabbi Harold Kushner says that: “When Charles Darwin shocked the 19th century world with his theory that human beings and apes had a common ancestry, someone asked him whether there was still anything unique about the human being. Darwin answered, “Man is the only animal that blushes.” That is, human beings are the only creatures capable of recognizing the gap between what they are and what they can be expected to be, and of being embarrassed by that gap. (P.35)

Brene Brown studied shame for 6 years. She is the researcher and TED Talk phenomenon who we’ll see during the after-service discussion talking about the power of vulnerability. One of her findings was that shame feels the same when it 'washes over' us, it doesn’t matter if we are male or female, but it is 'organized' by gender: women feel shame because of the expectation that we should be able to do it all, perfectly; the unattainable expectations for men center around the need to not be perceived as weak.

And so the pressure to conform with cultural norms sets us up for failure – what we see in our tv shows, commercials, what we read in magazines or hear in our popular music. And when we internalize these cultural norms, shame grows in us…and we believe we are flawed and thus unworthy of love.

Shame is an epidemic in our culture, and much of it originates in what we are taught by our faith traditions.

A new film, Philomena, starring Judi Dench, is based on the treatment of young girls in 1950s Ireland who became pregnant and were sent off by their families to convents to have their babies. The nuns reinforced the tremendous shame they felt with a phobic disapproval of sex and sexuality; the mothers had to ‘pay back’ the nuns for giving birth in the convent with 4 years of hard labor in the convent laundries. many babies were sold and adopted out without the mothers’ approval or even knowledge. Imagine the trauma and shame that these young girls experienced and continued to hold inside for the rest of their lives.

Rabbi Kushner says that he is embarrassed by the way so many religious leaders play on our guilt and shame as a way to control our behavior.

He tells the story of a woman who was a client of a therapist, she was a devout Southern Baptist lady who would never let herself get angry because she believed that anger was a sin – so even when she was justified in getting angry, it was a source of shame and guilt that she tried desperately to avoid. The therapist “directed her to read through the Bible and write down all the passages in which God or Jesus gets angry.” (p.43)

One religious leader who seems to be bucking that trend of enforcing feelings of imperfection, so as to keep us cowering behind the pew, is no less that Pope Francis. This past week he wrote a papal exhortation, which one reporter described as sort of like an official platform of how he plans to exercise his papacy. And Pope Francis is asking for the focus on compassion to overtake that on perfection, especially when it comes to access to the sacraments like Holy Communion: "Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community, nor should the doors of the sacraments be closed for simply any reason," Francis said.

"The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak." (

He must have been reading Rabbi Kushner, who says of religion that it “…sets high standards for us and urges us to grow morally in our efforts to meet those standards: ‘You could have done better; you can do better.’ But listen closely to that message. Those are words of encouragement, not condemnation. They are a compliment to our ability to grow, not a criticism of our tendency to make mistakes…Religion condemns wrongdoing. It takes us to task for lying and hurting people. But religion also tries to wash us clean of disappointment in our selves, with the liberating message that God finds us worthy of divine love.” (P.7)

He states that “the fundamental message of religion is not that we are sinners because we are not perfect, but that the challenge of being human is so complex that God knows better than to expect perfection from us.” (P.10)

Rabbi Kushner describes how the renowned psychologist Carl Rogers would approach every therapeutic session, by reminding himself that in dealing with his clients “I am enough. Not perfect. Perfect wouldn’t be enough. But… I am human, and that is enough.” (P.7)

Kushner goes on to say that “not everyone is wise enough to know that they are good enough, even if they are not perfect.” We may have gotten this message of perfection from parents who genuinely loved us and wanted the best for us, and acted out that concern by correcting our every trivial mistake and constantly urging us to do better. Or we may have gotten it from parents who were emotionally stunted, disappointed in themselves, angry at the world, and incapable of showing us the love and approval we yearned for…and we… thought we were responsible for their sour mood and didn’t deserve to be loved.” (P.11)

When I read this it reminded me of the Philip Larkin poem “This Be The Verse,” which some of you may know contains the ‘f’ word – but Larkin used it because there was no other word that could possibly fit:

They f**k you up, your mum and dad.   
    They may not mean to, but they do.   
They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.

But they were f**ked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,   
Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.

There is a bestselling author, John Bradshaw, who famously quoted a psychologist who said that 96% of families are dysfunctional. Rabbi Kushner says that this figure is correct “only if we define dysfunctional as being anything less than perfect.” The approach of Philip Larkin, who advises us not to have any kids if we want to end the cycle of shame and misery, is refuted by Kushner, who reminds us that “children are resilient enough to survive most of our parental mistakes, especially if they occur against a background of love and support, free of expectations of perfection on our part or theirs.” (P.89)

Rabbi Kushner says that if our parents cannot handle our mistakes, if they have trouble loving us…it may be because they need us to be perfect to reflect credit on them. (P.55)

Rabbi Kushner quotes the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who said “Out of timber as crooked as that which man is made of, nothing perfectly straight can be carved.” He goes on to say that he believes God never demanded that we be perfect or never make a mistake, but only asks us to be whole.

“To be whole means to rise beyond the need to pretend that we are perfect, to rise above the fear that we will be rejected for not being perfect, And it means having the integrity not to let the inevitable moments of weakness and selfishness become permanent parts of our character.” (P.180)

The 3 things shame needs to grow and become permanent parts of our character are secrecy, silence, and judgment. Judgment from a critic who is lacking in compassion or context or mercy…and that critic is us, telling ourselves we are not good enough, asking us ‘who do you think you are’. Kushner says that shame “ grows out of our perception of what other people think about us.” (P.51)

Brene Brown learned through her research that there is a flip side to shame – and it is that people who are the most resilient to shame, the people she calls ‘wholehearted,’ have in common a way of looking at their lives as worthy: “cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, “No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough…I am…brave and worthy of love and belonging.” (Brown, Daring Greatly, 2014)

Brown says that this is the message of Theodore Roosevelt’s famous quote about the man in the arena, part of a speech he delivered ("Citizenship In A Republic" delivered at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France) over a century ago in 1910, and which is the inspiration for the title of her book ‘Daring Greatly’:
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
When we make ourselves vulnerable, and say that we are just enough, not perfect, then we take that first step to wholeness. What is more, vulnerability is the path that will lead us back to one another."

We Unitarian Universalists may have a hard time reciting all 7 of our principles, but most of us know by heart the first principle, which affirms the worth and dignity of every human being. We can find that principle hard to put into action, no more so that when it comes to ourselves, we need to affirm our own worth and dignity. And we can do that by being realistic about our chances of being perfect; of knowing that when we keep our imperfections secret, we are distancing ourselves from other people who also are feeling alone and isolated in their imperfection. We can affirm our worth and dignity by reaching out instead, by taking a chance, by being vulnerable – as the subtitle of another of Brene Brown’s books says, “Making the journey from ‘What will people think?’ to ‘I am enough.’ 

Naomi Shihab Nye puts it like this:
Walk around feeling like a leaf.

Know you could tumble any second.

Then decide what to do with your time.
(- excerpt from “The Art of Disappearing,” Naomi Shihab Nye, Source: Words Under the Words: Selected Poems)

‘Don’t be afraid of letting go’ were the words that Nina so beautifully danced to this morning. “If we are going to find our way out of shame and back to each other, vulnerability is the path, and courage is the light. To love ourselves and support each other in the process of becoming real is perhaps the greatest single act of daring greatly.”
 BrenĂ© Brown (DG)
The UU minister Katie Norris gives us a way of understanding why our faith is so vital to her identity through these words: “My faith is so important to me because it speaks of salvation in this life, through knowing you are loved just as you are, and discovering who you are and your place in the universe so you can live out your purpose in life.” (
So forget about being good for goodness’ sake. Let the gift to yourself this holiday season be the gift of being enough. May we be the ones who make it so, Blessed be, Amen.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Teaching as a Spiritual Act

Sermon: Teaching as a Spiritual Act
Rev. Dr. Gaye W. Ortiz
Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta
September 8, 2013

This past week saw Jews all over the world celebrating Rosh Hashanah, which means "beginning of the year" in Hebrew. One of the popular practices during this time is to eat apples dipped in honey, symbolizing the hope for a good year to come. And may it be so.

Earlier we commissioned the volunteers and staff of Children’s and Youth Religious Education. They have been working hard to prepare for the beginning of this year’s classes. The teachers will introduce new curricula to our young ones that will be a true opportunity for growth, but only if it comes alive to them, and with some age groups that takes a lot of effort, ingenuity, and creativity. I would imagine that, in addition to being exhausted by the packed hour they spend in class, the teachers will also be satisfied when they see their kids learning and really entering into a collaborative effort in the classroom.

But would they agree that teaching is a spiritual act?

Writer and educator Parker Palmer defines spirituality as "the diverse ways to answer the heart's longing to be connected with the largeness of life." (The Courage to Teach, 2007 Tenth Anniversary Edition, as quoted in ) With that perspective, spirituality is not just one way but encompasses ‘diverse’ ways. I think we see that spirituality here every Sunday, when each of us is driven by our heart’s own longing for connection.

This morning I would like to speak about my own search for spirituality through connection in the context of education; I had reason to reflect on this connection when I was preparing for my credentialing interview with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. I wrote an essay about my philosophy of religious education that informs much of what I am feeling today as our young people go into the classroom. I am hoping that they will encounter the largeness of life through an encounter with religious education.

When I turned 18 I did two things that shaped my life: I got married, and I became a Sunday school teacher. Tomorrow Wil and I celebrate 41 years of marriage. I’ve spent many of those years as a teacher in religious education, and in higher education – but I have also been an educator, as many of you have, through my own family connection with children. Two daughters and four grandchildren have put me in close proximity to teaching the lessons of everyday life. Being a grandparent is to me a rewarding and incomparable religious experience!

Maybe, if your upbringing included church and Sunday school, you have never forgotten your early experiences. My childhood memories of Protestant Sunday School include one Sunday of utter terror, when the lesson was about the creation of the world. I became panicked at the thought that once upon a time there was nothing - I can’t imagine any teacher being able to calm my fear, my mind was reeling with the thought of nothingness.

Outwardly, probably, I must have looked okay, but reflecting on that feeling has taught me to be sensitive to the sometimes overwhelming effect of knowledge on little ones.

Later - in my pre-teen phase of attending the Church of God of Holiness with my grandparents - I was memorizing dozens of Bible passages every week for the Sunday School quiz. I enjoyed doing it but many of the quotes were obscure or just didn’t make much sense; I was memorizing just for the sake of a competition.

But 41 years ago, the excitement with which I approached teaching Sunday School for the first time (when I was still really a child myself) says a lot about the role model I had prior to taking on that responsibility. As a Catholic in high school, my favorite Sunday School teacher was an Irish nun, Sister Odile, and I loved her kind and patient way with our class. She made me eager to learn because of how she presented the material. I really did want to be like her for a short while, and I even took a weekend trip with her to visit the Franciscan convent in Savannah; I had visions of becoming a nun teaching inner-city children…but instead, I married after graduation. I was excited about teaching a 4th grade Sunday school class and I took a correspondence course in religious education so I would feel competent in it. This was the first of many courses on religion that I would take in my life!

I’m aware that I sound like a real freak, an 18-year old girl, married, with an enthusiasm for teaching religious education! But my love of teaching blossomed after having my children. When we moved to Yorkshire in 1983, I had an ambition to take art classes, and for a year I did. But I also taught 4th grade RE again, and became the Director of RE for a small Catholic parish; I prepared children for their confirmation as well as teaching Sunday school class.

But when I became the DRE I realized that I had more questions than answers, and it was then that I found…the nuns again! Sr. Mary Bernard Potter and the Leeds Diocesan RE Center provided all kinds of RE resources. Those connections made me eager to teach RE in schools, and so I began looking for a degree course in Theology and Education. The college I applied to, a Catholic college of the University of Leeds, had no more places in that degree but did have openings in Theology and Media. Before I knew it I’d graduated and was teaching priests how to write church newsletters and give radio interviews! And when I finished my Master of Theology at Edinburgh University I became a full-time university professor teaching exciting courses on theology and film, Judaism, feminist theology and ethics. I spent 20 years as an educator in higher education, the first 10 years at an English university, and then communication studies and cinema at Augusta State University.

I was a student at the same time for some of those years, working on my Ph.D. thesis while teaching full time. It was valuable and insightful to experience both sides of learning.

When I became a Unitarian Universalist, I was thrilled to learn how seriously UUs take learning. The way some people refer to Religious Education as ‘Religious Exploration’ made me aware of the value that is placed upon the right to question, the appreciation of reason, that makes UU history and theology so rich. Shortly after joining this church I asked the board to let me develop an adult RE program here, assessing and planning curricula and facilitating classes. We had a great Wednesday evening program, and it grew as other church members found an enthusiasm for teaching courses. Almost every classroom was filled during some seasons of Wellspring Wednesday with people – children and adults – eager to learn and play together.

My many years of teaching university students and adults didn’t really prepare me to work with children, even though a few times as a lay ministry associate I took responsibility for the Story for All Ages during Sunday service.

It was only when I went to the Aiken Unitarian Universalist Church as a guest speaker one Sunday – even before I became a ministerial candidate – that I realized connection with the largeness of life could come through teaching children. The worship coordinator in Aiken – who was Naomi Frost-Hewitt – told me I would be doing a Time for All Ages, and really did not let me off the hook even though I was feeling pretty intimidated when she told me about the group of pre-teen girls there.
During my service they were so engaged in my story, which was set around a bag of childhood memorabilia I’d brought to share with them – they didn’t sit still, they commented and asked questions and were a real part of the story.
Little did I know then that I would go back to Aiken as Consulting Minister and they would be teenagers! I learned to get through the often rambunctious Time for All Ages during Sunday services as well as Children’s Chapel several times a year.
One memorable Sunday I was showing photos of nature, including one of a fallen tree, its roots up in the air. I asked the children, “What do you think made this tree fall over?”

One of the middle school girls answered right away, “Gravity.” This was a moment of epiphany for me! Never assume you know what answer a child will give to your question; it was, in fact, such a Unitarian Universalist answer – confident, thoughtful, reasoned, and one of several possible answers! I was expecting ‘wind’ or ‘a storm’ or even ‘drought,’ but as soon as gravity was invoked it made such sense and provoked an enjoyable moment – the entire congregation warmly clapped and laughed in delight. We praised and affirmed that student’s authentic response.
That experience has caused me since then to reflect upon what I hope to be the fruits of religious education for both teachers and students.
The MRE serving the Shelter Rock Congregation, Dr. Barry Andrews, says “the best education our volunteers can receive about managing a classroom or what it means to be a practicing Unitarian Universalist is through the experience of teaching itself.”

Dr Andrews states that “The essential qualities of a good church school teacher are a love of children, a sense of wonder about life, empathy and the ability to listen, and a willingness more to share who you are than what you know.”

That stated, let me share five main points in my holistic philosophy of religious education:

First, It Takes a Village: RE is an opportunity for the congregation to appreciate and participate in the curricula that is available through the UUA and chosen by our RE staff. I believe that the assumption that parents will naturally be the teachers, so other members need not concern themselves with it, is short-sighted and not indicative of the covenantal relationship that we have as church members. People who volunteer to be RE teachers will be sharing their faith – sharing who they are, as Dr Andrews says - and can be living examples for our children of how UUism continues to be relevant to their identity as they grow up into adulthood. Teachers can be role models just like Sister Odile was for me.
In our Sunday services, before children go off to classes, we regularly have a Time for All Ages; adults as well as children should be able to benefit from the lessons learned in this segment of intergenerational worship within a caring community. Time for All Ages, when planned as carefully as the other elements of the service, makes learning fun for us all. It should not just be a book read in a monotone voice to the children sitting in front (I have experienced this in more than one church, and if I was losing the will to live, I can just imagine how the children felt). Just as we can inspire and entertain children with a creative delivery, we can also easily bore them without one.

Second, Teaching is a Spiritual Practice: For this building block of my philosophy of religious education I cite the essay “The Soul Only Avails: Teaching as a Spiritual Act” written by Dr Barry Andrews ( In it Andrews articulates the vision I have of the educator as mentor and companion for children as they undertake their religious life journeys.  When I use the term ‘spiritual practice’ it is in the sense that teaching demands an openness to something larger than myself; a relationship between me, the student, and learning; a relationship that commands respect and reverence.

Third, Children’s Chapel: I am a firm believer in children being present in a worship service, so they can catch the infectious feeling of a worship service that is well-done, and so they know the adults in the church and see how we enjoy worshipping together.

This year we also have opportunities for them to help plan and participate in Children’s Chapel. There is a lot of care with which the elements of the service are considered and allocated to the various classes, and there is creativity in using all forms of art, music, role-play, and interactive and inclusive communication. The religious education of our children must not only comprise the ‘usual suspects’ of principles and sources, history, sexuality education, values etc, but also how to do meaningful worship well.

Fourth, Growth: I learn something every time I interact with students, and I would hope that this is also the experience of all RE teachers and volunteers. It is both humbling and inspiring when we all learn from each other, and the content of a curriculum is only part of the learning experience. My expectation is that RE will enrich the learner and the educator as we rediscover and grow in our faith. To quote Emerson, “Be the companions of their thoughts, the lovers of their virtue.” In any communication encounter between two people, both should come away changed in some way, and to be admitted to the sacred ground of children’s learning is a special encounter indeed.

Fifth, Our Whole Lives: There is one more piece to my philosophy, and that is a firm commitment to the OWL curricula. We are a denomination that has been ahead of its time in many ways, and the development of OWL with the United Church of Christ has been so timely and valuable.There are trained facilitators in more than half of all UU congregations. Thousands of children, teens and adults have taken and have been enriched by OWL programs. Not only do they learn about sexuality, they learn about UU identity.
The website for “Our Whole Lives Program Ministries and Faith Development” says that: “Every faith tradition has its own approach to sexuality. Unitarian Universalism has a long history of supporting comprehensive sexuality education in our congregations. We also advocate publicly for sexuality education and equal rights for people of all sexual identities. Sexuality is about biology, identity, relationships, responsible choices, justice, inclusivity, and self-image… all of which are intertwined with our faith and values. Some of the most important “milestone” decisions we make in our lives, such as marriage/life partnership and creating families, involve relationships and sexuality. Intentional sexuality education is especially important in a world in which people of all ages are constantly bombarded with social and media messages about sex, and misinformation about sexuality.”
“Our Whole Lives recognizes and supports parents as the primary sexuality educators of their children. It creates a partnership between the family and the congregation through parent orientations. Many congregations also offer parent education programs.” 
I believe in the continual training of teachers in, and regular scheduling of, the OWL program in every UU congregation. I intend to support and advocate for OWL and other sexuality education curricula for our congregation.
The Congregational Study Action Issue chosen at General Assembly last year for the next 3 years is Reproductive Justice. Because we are so fortunate to have the OWL curricula, we have a real part to play – the part of reason and enlightenment - in the culture wars we see being acted out in legislative sessions across the country.
Learning and education never really stop; in fact, in our society I believe they are more important than ever.

And so I welcome this new year of Religious Education with great appreciation for the spiritual joy and growth that it creates, and I hope that you will reap the benefit of that by volunteering.

Remember that “Thomas Jefferson once said that he was content to be a Unitarian by himself. If we all felt that way, Unitarian Universalism would be a one-generation phenomenon.” (Andrews) Walk the spiritual path with our children and rediscover the sense of wonder, connection, and community for yourself.

GWO – 9/4/2013

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Joy of This Day: Quotes for Daily Reflection Sept. 6th - 12th, 2013

The Joy of This Day
Quotes for Daily Reflection - Rev. Gaye

This week irony seems to abound in our world. As our government debates and decides on military action against Syria, we cannot help but notice that the anniversary of September 11 2001 is almost upon us.

Whatever our feelings about the crisis in Syria, we hope and pray that our leaders have the necessary vision and courage to do the right thing for our country and our world. No situation is black and white; rather, the shades of gray that make it complex are what confirm or confuse us in making a wise decision. The confusion and trauma that came out of 9/11 still affects the way we see the world – and our place in it – today. Our vision for a planet that lives in peace is complicated by the knowledge that we have the power – but perhaps not the collective will - to deter injustice and suffering by engaging in military conflict once again.

This week’s quotations again speak of vision in different contexts. What is interesting to me, as I reflect on them, is that they suggest that often vision can be achieved with the help of other qualities we value, such as courage, belief, and confidence.

May every day bring you joy and inspiration!

Friday, September 6: When it is dark enough, you can see the stars. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Saturday, September 7: Vision looks inward and becomes duty. Vision looks outward and becomes aspiration. Vision looks upward and becomes faith. ~Stephen S. Wise

Sunday, September 8: We lift ourselves by our thought. We climb upon our vision of ourselves. To enlarge your life, first enlarge your thought of it. Hold the ideal of yourself as you long to be, always everywhere. ~Orison Swett Marden

 Monday, September 9: You have to see the pattern, understand the order and experience the vision.
~Michael E. Gerber

 Tuesday, September 10: One is called to live nonviolently, even if the change one works for seems impossible. ~Daniel Berrigan

Wednesday, September 11: I would give all the wealth of the world, and all the deeds of all the
heroes, for one true vision. ~Henry David Thoreau

Thursday, September 12: Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal. ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

(Quotes from Simple Gifts, All Souls Unitarian Church of Tulsa; www.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Joy of Association

The Joy of Association
Reverend Doctor Gaye Williams Ortiz
Aiken Unitarian Universalist Church
June 9, 2013

         "Authorities arrested 151 people in the rotunda between the          legislative chambers during the latest “Moral Monday” protest – the largest mass arrest since the N.C. NAACP began organizing the weekly civil disobedience events in late April.
         The number is nearly the equivalent to the arrests at the four prior protests combined and brings the total above 300 this session.
         The crowd of spectators also exploded, with hundreds rallying on the mall outside the legislative building, listening to speakers condemn Republican legislative leaders. “That’s extreme,” shouted the Rev. William Barber, the N.C. NAACP president, into a loud speaker as he listed legislation Republicans have approved this year. “That’s immoral, and we must stand up and wake up right here, right now.”
         Police estimated the crowd at 1,000 – about five times more than the last protest – but organizers counted 1,600."

One of our Unitarian Universalist ministers, the Rev Robin Tanner, was arrested at a protest last month on the one-month anniversary of her wedding…and her life partner, the Reverend Ann Marie Alderman, was arrested this week. Today in solidarity I’m wearing the stole they sent me for my ordination, which they bought for me on their honeymoon in Guatemala. Maybe this news has passed you by…but it is an important illustration of the ‘joy of association.’

The Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams is known for his writings on voluntary associations. And he says that the freedom of the individual American citizen defines the voluntary principle – our freedom of speech and freedom of belief come under what he calls ‘voluntaryism.’ But chief among the freedoms, he argues, is the freedom to associate. And in the early 1970s, while writing “The Voluntary Principle in the Forming of American Religion,” he was concerned with the paradox he saw since the end of World War II, namely instances of the US government of infringing on the rights of Americans to exercise their First Amendment right to demonstrate nonviolently, which he believed were at odds with the image of America as the ‘land of the free.’ 

However, Adams says that these freedoms of speech and belief fall short of the defining distinction of voluntaryism, which is the institutional aspect: that we have the freedom to form voluntary associations, and that this “distinguishes the democratic society from any other” (James Luther Adams, Voluntary Associations, 1986, p.172).

Why is this particular freedom not free from attack in our society? Adams says it is because “freedom of association…represents a dynamic force for social change or for resistance to it” (173). It is a way in which individuals can join together and exercise power through organizations, and can participate “in the process of making social decisions” (173).

The creation of the voluntary church, in our historical context, came about when the primitive Christian church rejected the civic religion of Caesar and the institutional gods, who had to be worshipped by citizens who had to belong to that imperial religion. It called for individuals to make voluntary choices to join the Christian movement, and it used new forms of communication and organization – a covenant and a community serving the ethos of voluntaryism.

Then Christendom was created on the backs of these primitive Christians! And so the call for separation of church and state, Adams writes, was also a call for a self-sustaining freedom of choice. The collection plate – which we really don’t like to talk about except at the annual stewardship drive – actually became the most important symbol of a free faith! According to Adams, “the collection plate symbolizes – indeed it in part also actualizes and institutionalizes – the view that the church as a corporate body is a self-determinative group and that in giving financial support to the church members affirm responsibility to participate in the shaping of the policies of the church” (177).

Do you feel the weight of that responsibility right now? Let me give you a few examples from Unitarian Universalist history that we mark just in the week to come, that show us how beholden we are to liberal religious heroes of voluntaryism.

Tomorrow, the 10th of June, is the day in 1565 when Socinianism was formed. Socinianism is also called the Minor Reformed Church of Poland, and it is named after Faustus Socinus who spread anti-trinitarian ideas. The movement spread from Poland to have a great influence on English and Transylvanian Unitarianism. Socinians wanted to go back to the ways of primitive Christianity, and in particular were pacifists.

In 1569 Hermann van Flekyk was burned in Bruges (now in Belgium) for denying the Trinity and deity of Jesus Christ in a public debate with a Franciscan monk.

In 1645 Paul Best was denounced before the British House of Commons for his blasphemies, which were to deny the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and the Holy Ghost. He was ordered to be hanged but thanks to Oliver Cromwell, who intervened, he lived to write more about Unitarianism.

Still on the 10th of June, in 1841, an American, Minot Judson Savage, was born; he was a Congregational minister who converted and as a Unitarian minister was a popular preacher whose sermons were circulated by the thousands. He played a major role in 1894 in ending a controversy between the Unitarian National Conference and the Western Conference.

Okay, I’ll spare you the rest of this week in UU history …oh well, maybe one more name: Lewis McGee, who was installed on June 13 1948 as an African-American minister of a new interracial Unitarian church in Chicago, called the Free Religious Fellowship (Unitarian).

McGee did not find it easy to find a position in either Unitarian or Universalist congregations, and at one point he was told “If you want to be a Unitarian you’d better build your own church.” (Frank Schulman, This Day in Unitarian Universalism, p. 111)

Without these people, we would not have the free faith that we have now. As the Rev. Paul Rasor writes, “liberal theology is not for the faint of heart. It points us in a general direction without telling us the specific destination. It refuses to make our commitments for us, but holds us accountable to the commitments we make” (Patricia Prevert, ed., Welcome: a Unitarian Universalist Primer, 2009, p. 61)

Right after this service today all of the members of this church will be held to accountability – as voluntary members – in decision-making. The polity, or form, of every Unitarian Universalist congregation is based upon its autonomous democratic exercise of commitment that we call an annual congregational meeting. The meeting needs a quorum, a certain number of members, in order to have a vote and make members’ decisions valid and binding – as Adams described it, this congregation is a self-determinative group.

That is why we should be so happy to welcome new members today: they join other members in determining the future of this church – and, in effect, the future of Phoebe Mae’s church, until she is old enough to become a member and join in herself in preserving this free liberal faith of ours. If you have previously seen the annual meeting as a bit if a drag, if you have entertained the thought that you might slip out before the business is finished, think again. Look at that child, think of our children in the Annex: I can’t believe that anyone here can honestly say that the future of our children’s faith is not important!

Of course, the decisions you make today in this meeting are not earth-shattering; we will not create world peace or solve world hunger in the next hour or two. But what we will do is honor those Unitarians and Universalists – and Unitarian Universalists – who protest injustice today as well as those who have gone before us, ready and willing to radically volunteer to the point of scorn, of public humiliation, of punishment, even of death, in order to give us – today, in this sanctuary – a free faith. A faith that is, in the words of Lewis McGee, “a religion that stresses the dignity and worth of the person as a supreme value and goodwill as the creative force in human relations” (Frevert, p. 58).

Called together as one, May we be the ones who make it so, Blessed Be, Amen.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Pride and Prejudice: Sexual Justice and Unitarian Universalism

Pride and Prejudice: Sexual Justice and Unitarian Universalism
Reverend Doctor Gaye W. Ortiz
Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta
June 2, 2013
What were you doing a couple of weeks ago, on the evening of Friday May 17th? It was a nice evening, we had some showers in the Augusta area, but really didn’t get the storms that were forecast.
Well, that evening in New York City, a 32-year old gay African-American man named Mark Carson was walking down a street when a man came up to him and his friends, yelled "faggot" and "queer," and shot him in the head.
That evening I’d just returned from a wedding rehearsal - for a man and woman who had no problem falling in love and dating, going out in public as a couple, arranging their marriage and inviting family and friends, having a minister help them through the rehearsal of their vows; no problem in expecting to live happily ever after when the next day they would be pronounced husband and wife.
But the horrific death of Mark Carson – who presumably was killed because he dared to be himself – is not an isolated incident: it’s part of a pattern of anti-GLBT violence in New York City and around this country. As of [last weekend], New York City has been home to nine anti-LGBT violent hate crimes this month, and 27 this year — almost double the rate of last year, which saw a double-digit increase over the previous year.” (
An online news article in The Raw Story last Sunday had a striking headline: “America’s top Catholic calls for renewed wave of anti-LGBT sentiment.” The article credits Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, with the writing of a bulletin insert delivered to parishioners around the nation that warns that “the Supreme Court could be preparing to affirm marriage equality.” The Cardinal urges an “outpouring of anti-LGBT sentiment and sermons to push back against the potential change.” And “while other stridently anti-LGBT groups like the Family Research Council and the National Organization for Marriage are denouncing the violence in New York, Cardinal Dolan’s move in the opposite direction is puzzling.
But by encouraging more anti-equality sermons in Catholic churches across the nation and more expressions of anti-LGBT sentiment by parishioners, the potential for conflict and by virtue of that, violence, only grows.” (
And as we await the decision of the Supreme Court on Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act, keep in mind also that in 1996, for a case concerning protection offered to gays by antidiscrimination laws,  Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in a dissenting opinion that opponents of equality are “entitled to be hostile toward homosexual conduct” (Chris Edelson, “The Murder of Mark Carson,” )

June is the month of both Augusta Pride and the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly. This morning I want to explore how our faith community can live in to the call to stand up to homophobia and stand up for reproductive justice. You might think those are two very different issues and of course, they are – but they come under one umbrella heading, sexual justice.
Sexual Justice
It’s not the best term – and language is important, we know that – but maybe we can tease out what it is that makes it an appropriate term to use and why we need to fight – yes, a very aggressive word – fight for equal rights and justice for all.
We can fight using our first principle, in affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We can use it to stand firmly on the side of love. And that means rejecting not just hurtful and sometimes deadly homophobic attacks, but also rejecting ‘casual homophobia’, which is the use of derogatory language that we hear in much of our everyday communication. It might be unintended, but the use of terms like ‘faggot’ and ‘that’s so gay’ in everyday language can continue to promote the alienation and injury that so many of our LGBT sisters and brothers have endured. These are terms that are used freely in our high schools, and so bringing our children into the conversation about homophobia and opening their eyes to the power of language is something we all should commit to doing.
Just have a look at the website, set up by the University of Alberta to actually track, in real time, the use each day of these homophobic terms on Twitter. I went to the site when preparing my sermon: by the time I sat down to look at it that day after lunch, the term ‘faggot’ had already been used in tweets more than 14,000 times, and ‘so gay’ almost 5000 times; 2 hours later ‘faggot’ had been used over 2000 more times – ‘so gay’ about 150 times more. As one observer to the site commented, “In isolation, one instance of ‘faggot’ might simply offend. In aggregate, the numbers are dizzying.”
Maybe we aren’t too surprised, and maybe we can look back to see that the acceptance of gay life in the USA, especially in the political arena, is a very recent thing. Just 40 years ago, homosexual acts were illegal in every state but Illinois, lesbians and gays were banned from serving in the federal government, and there were no openly gay politicians. According to an article by Alex Ross in the New Yorker, if in 1969 you looked in the best-selling book Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask you would find the assurance from author David Reuben that “if a homosexual who wants to renounce homosexuality finds a psychiatrist who knows how to cure homosexuality, he has every chance of becoming a happy, well-adjusted heterosexual.” (,
But we don’t have to go all the way back to 1969 – just this week Apple iTunes Store and Google Play made available an app called "Setting Captives Free" - a 60-day course telling gay people they are not "born this way" and offers to help find "freedom from the bondage of homosexuality" ( After 24 hours and 37,000 requests (mobilized by the equality organization All Out) Apple removed the app from iTunes.
“Major health organizations like American Psychiatric Association and Pan-American Health Organization, as well as many governments, have denounced all gay 'cure' practices as dangerous and discriminatory.” There's overwhelming evidence – including from people who are members of our congregation - that these so-called treatments can cause terrible harm to anyone forced to try to change who they are or who they love.

Thirty years ago, as the AIDS panic was spreading across the world and thousands of gay men were dying, Larry Speakes, the Reagan administration spokesman at a press conference, was asked what the president’s response was to the announcement by the Center for Disease Control that AIDS was now an epidemic. His reply was, “What’s AIDS?”  When told it was known as the ‘gay plague’ and that one in three people contracting the disease was dying from it, Speakes joked, “I don’t have it, do you?”

Because of the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic, the idea of same-sex marriage gained traction. The exclusion of gay partners from hospital visits, healthcare decisions and funeral arrangements, as seen in the movie Philadelphia starring Tom Hanks, added to the trend toward monogamous relationships and led to a movement for marriage equality. The religious right has fought this idea every step of the way, and it still has a lot of influence on political issues, and we also remember the controversy over Chick Fil-A funding of anti-gay groups just last year. But with Election Day last year, a shift began to take place in the political will of the American electorate.

As of this month, according to the Marriage Equality website, “50% of Americans live in 22 states (or counties or cities) that recognize various forms of legal relationships, but 30 states ban all forms of marriage except one-man-one-woman couples” ( ).  If we want to work for equal rights, then all this is encouraging. It could be that the times, they are a changin’…
Reproductive Justice
I always say that I am alive at the best time ever, straddling two centuries with tremendous change and enormously important things being discovered; a time when attitudes and beliefs are being challenged by new knowledge and thinking; and of course a time when we had the Beatles! And when people look back at the 20th century from the vantage point of, say, 500 years on, they might remember the 1900s for three big things:
            One is the integrated circuit, and (more importantly) the Internet and the information revolution that it made possible…  The second is the moon landing… The third one is the silent one… that matters perhaps more deeply than any of the more obvious things that usually come to mind. And that’s the mass  availability of nearly 100% effective contraception. We may have to go back to the invention of the wheel or the discovery of fire to find something that’s  so completely disruptive to the way humans have lived for the entire duration of our remembered history. ('ll_still_be_fighting_about_it_100_years_from_now)
These are the three big inventions that writer Sara Robinson identified just over a year ago, in an article for AlterNet entitled “Why Patriarchal Men Are Utterly Petrified of Birth Control -- And Why We'll Still Be Fighting About it 100 Years From Now” (Why Patriarchal Men Are Utterly Petrified of Birth Control -- And Why We'll Still Be Fighting About it 100 Years From Now By Sara Robinson'll_still_be_fighting_about_it_100_years_from_now).

It’s worth listening to what she had to say in the midst of the 2012 election season, when we saw the ‘war on women’ waged by right-wing politicians and broadcasters. Robinson’s argument goes like this:

            Until… hormonal fertility control came along, anatomy really was destiny — and all of the world’s societies were organized around that central fact. Women were born to bear children; the vast majority of women who’ve ever lived on this planet were tied to home, dependent on men, and subject to all kinds of religious and cultural restrictions designed to guarantee that they bore the right kids to the right man at the right time…

            Men, in return, thrived… They got full economic and social control over our bodies, our labor, our affections, and our futures. They got to make the rules, name the gods we would worship, and dictate the terms we would live under. In most cultures, they had the right to sex on demand within the             marriage, and also to break their marriage vows with impunity — a luxury that would get women banished or killed. As long as pregnancy remained the  defining fact of our lives, men got to run the whole show. The world was their party, and they had a fabulous time. 

            Thousands of generations of men and women have lived under  some variant of this order, going back to where our memory of time ends. Look at it this way, and you get a striking             perspective on just how world-changing it was when, within the span of just a few short decades in the middle of the 20th century, all of that suddenly ended. For the first time in human history, new             technologies made fertility a conscious choice for an ever-growing number of the planet’s females. And that, in turn, changed everything else.
            With that one essential choice came the possibility, for the first time, to make a vast range of other choices for ourselves that were simply never within reach before for so many women. Contraception was the single necessary key that opened the door to the whole new universe of activities that had always been zealously monopolized by the men — education, the trades, the arts,             government, travel, spiritual and cultural leadership, and even (eventually) war making.

            And, over time, it has had the effect of bringing a louder and prouder female voice into the running of the world’s affairs at every level… the effect of  bending our understanding of what sex is about, and when and with whom we can have it -- a wrinkle that created new frontiers for gay folk as well.

And Sara Robinson argues that contraception may well prove to be “the one breakthrough most responsible for the survival of the human race, and the future viability of the planet.”
But, a global majority of men has not welcomed this new universe, the end of the male monopoly! They are increasingly “confused, enraged, and terrified by it…and they’re doing their damndest to put a stop to it all, right now, and make it go away.”
The core of the worldwide rash of patriarchal fundamentalist religion, Robinson says, is desperate to get women back under firm control. Its range of tactics vary, from extremes like the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, shooting a teenage girl who dared to speak out about the benefits of education for girls, to the Roman Catholic bishops getting into a row with the nuns on a bus, and the media uproar over the Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke.
Robinson reminds us that because women have embraced their liberation for the past few decades, “it feels like we’ve had this right, and this technology of contraception, forever. We take it so completely for granted that we simply cannot imagine that it could ever go away. It leads to a sweet complacency: birth control is something that’s always been there for us, and we’re rather stunned that anybody could possibly find it controversial enough to pick a fight over.”
But take the longer view, Robinson urges us: “We’re only 50 years into a revolution that may ultimately take two or three centuries to completely work its way through the world’s many cultures and religions.”
Our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will, in all likelihood, still be working out the details of these new gender agreements a century from now; and it may be a century after that before their grandkids can truly start taking any of this for granted. Robinson continues:
            Male privilege has been with us for — how long? Ten thousand years? A hundred thousand? Mass access to reliable contraception, in the mere blink of an eye in historical terms, toppled the core rationale that justified that entire system. And now, every aspect of human society is frantically racing to catch up with that stunning fact. Everything will have to change in response to this — families, business, religion, politics, economics…everything.
Robinson warns that [Patriarchy] “will be marshaling its vast resources to get every last one of Pandora’s frolicking contraception-fueled demons back into the box.  And we need to accept and prepare for the likelihood that much of the history of this 21st century, when it’s finally written, will be the story of our children’s ongoing struggles against the organized powers that intend to seize back the means of our liberation, and turn back the clock to the way things used to be.”
The fight for contraception is not only not over,” Robinson concludes — “it hasn’t even really started yet.”
The War on Women
So maybe the timely choice of Reproductive Justice as a Congregational Study/Action Issue for the next four years, as voted on at last year’s Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly, is pretty understandable. Because we have a proud 50-year history of reproductive rights advocacy, and because we declare a commitment to social justice that is fundamental to our theology and to our UU identity. Reproductive justice is about empowering women “to realize their rights and to take control of their own destinies” (Rev. Harry Knox, Religious Coalition for Reproductive Justice message)
So, Unitarian Universalists can confront the “chilling political debate on reproductive rights with calls for reproductive justice and respect for the fullness of every person’s reproductive and sexual life. The 2012 election and ‘war on women’ are not as much a political argument over information and misinformation as a conflict of values about life, sexuality, and religious freedom. We must be prepared to respond to this conflict as progressive people of faith” (UUA Curriculum Brief).
And we need to respond, because we now realize that the war on women in 2012 was only a warm-up for this year, in which - just in this first quarter alone - states have proposed “694 provisions related to a woman’s body, how she gets pregnant, or how she chooses to end that pregnancy” (Annie-Rose Strasser, ).
According to a report by the Guttmacher Institute, legislatures across the country are busy trying to “restrict sex education, availability of medication, and abortion access for women.” Almost half of these 694 provisions are related to abortion, and all of the ones banning abortion prior to viability are in direct violation of US Supreme Court decisions. But if that is not stopping them, states are also not bothered – in this period of economic fragility - by the expense of legal battles once these proposals become law and are challenged:
‘Last year, Kansas spent $628,000 defending its unconstitutional abortion restrictions. North Dakota is in the middle of spending $400,000 to defend its ban, and Arkansas is set to do the same.’ ( )
The effect of these laws, should they stand, are much more severe for rural and low-income women, and women of color, becoming, in effect, a neo-Jim Crow type of segregation in reproductive health care. Women who have money and resources will always have access to abortion, but restrictions make it much harder for women who are poor. Gloria Feldt, former president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, reminds us that “Abortion is just the tip of a much larger ideological iceberg about women’s place in the world.” (Reproductive Rights Receding More Quickly for Some Women: A Review of "Crow After Roe" )
However, if there is an upside to the Guttmacher report, it could be that some states are beginning to move toward prevention of unplanned pregnancies through sex education. Five states, including Colorado, which is considering banning abstinence-only instruction “because it is more harmful than effective”, are falling into line with popular opinion and seeing the benefits of sex education.
Sexual Justice and Unitarian Universalism
Now, here is where we as Unitarian Universalists can come in. We are good at this; we’ve got this covered. In the year 2000, the Unitarian Universalist Association joined with the United Church of Christ in publishing Our Whole Lives, a multi-volume lifespan sexuality education program. This congregation, for example, has for years sent volunteers to become trained instructors in OWL for all age ranges, and has offered OWL courses.
And of course, this congregation is a designated Welcoming Congregation. So the language of the UUA’s Reproductive Justice curriculum should sound familiar to us: We must be prepared to respond to this situation as progressive people of faith, and live in to our values concerning life, sexuality, and religious freedom.
So the call for reproductive justice is one that we can answer, here in Augusta, as well as in other congregations across this country. Because we know the value of education. We can educate on the values we stand for: self-worth, sexual health, responsibility, justice and inclusivity.

Unitarian Universalist martyrs like Viola Liuzzo and the Rev. James Reeb gave their lives in the civil rights struggle. Now, the struggle for equal rights has involved civil rights veterans, like Julian Bonds. He was at the forefront to promote marriage equality legislation in Illinois, calling citizens to say, “Gay and lesbian couples have the same values as everyone else: love, commitment and stable families. They should have the same right to marry as the rest of us.”

Our designation as a Welcoming Congregation – and to those very values of love, commitment, and stable families - demonstrates that the Unitarian Universalists of Augusta practice what they preach; that we may work to make small changes, but that big changes come out of that work; and that we are the leaders of change that benefits not only our faith community, but the larger community of this country and indeed, the world.

Some of us will take part in Augusta Pride, and some of us will attend GA and bring back resources on Reproductive Justice that we can use here. Some of us here may not yet have engaged with the issues I’ve talked about this morning.

Many of our younger folks may follow George Takei, who posted this last week on Facebook: “The next time you feel fatigue from hearing about LGBT issues, ask yourself this: Do we live yet in the kind of society where violence, hate and prejudice is not an issue? Until we do, be part of the solution, and stand always for justice and equality for all people.” (George Takei on Facebook post 5/28/2013)

The struggle for civil rights will still go on, led by determined people. It is not over. It is still a fight. I used that word a few minutes ago: ‘fight’ is a word that could mean we have to stand up against an antagonist, maybe trade punches, maybe get down and dirty. As much as we would like not to fight – because, after all, Holly Near calls us a ‘gentle, angry people’ – still we need to be ready to fight for justice.

Jay Michaelson, in a recent Huffington Post article, says that the anti-gay murder of Mark Carson should be a wake-up call:
             The advent of civil rights for African Americans did not end racial violence, still widespread nearly 50 years after the Civil Rights Act. Feminism has not ended violence against women. Indeed, from Seneca Falls to Selma to  Stonewall, to echo President Obama's historic turn of phrase, legal inequality is only the tip of the iceberg. Submerged beneath it are deep-seated patterns of injustice, privilege, prejudice and fear.
            In an astonishingly short period of time, homophobia has gone from commonplace to contemptible. To take but one example, star athletes are today punished for saying a word - "faggot" -- that was one of the most common slurs of 'trash talk' just five years ago. …
            This change is welcome, but it is also so rapid as to induce whiplash. And banning language from polite speech does not remove it from consciousness. On the contrary: the tamping down of hatred only increases its intensity, leading to tragic bursts of rage. (
We are a Welcoming Congregation; that means we have to turn around and face the outside world, not just stay in here listening to stories about bears. We can live in to our commitment to stand on the side of love; we can take on this call to action to work for sexual justice in our lifetime, so that our grandchildren will not have to fight this battle again.

We say that we are a beacon of liberal religious freedom. We need to be the lighthouse for people who are still afraid to come out, to claim their identity, to even explore their identity; we can each be the lighthouse for people who need us to welcome them:

They’re out there, right now, looking for you,
As it gets darker, shine brighter, be the lighthouse,
become the eternal light, Be the lighthouse. 
(Steve Coffing, "Be the Lighthouse," 

May we be the ones that make it so, Blessed Be, Amen.

- Reverend Doctor Gaye Williams Ortiz
June 2 2013