Saturday, June 20, 2015

Truth and Meaning: Heart and Mind


My heart weeps for the congregants of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. My heart aches for nine lives snuffed from this earth because of hate and violence. Thinking about their families and loved ones, my heart sinks in my chest, draining my body of energy. The feeling sends me into a state of stunned prayer, pleading for wisdom, reflecting on this tragic waste of human lives.

The sadness in my heart for the murderer becomes an ocean as I imagine the millions of other young men filled with similar bigotry. My chest overflows with sorrow thinking about the people in his life who might have redirected his anger, who might have taught him love and understanding.

My heart reaches out to everyone affected by this tragedy. We share the pain of loss, the futility of helplessness. We cry for the future, knowing that more innocents will die before we live the message of the great prophets — love your neighbor as yourself; judge not lest you be judged.

My heart breaks. But my mind rages, seething against the inhumanity, and the senseless social paradigms that nurture such acts. In my mind, I know that the only difference between Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney and me is the color of our skin. Both men of faith, both preachers of the Beloved Community. Now he and eight of his parishioners lie dead, murdered by evil that I cannot possibly comprehend.

My brain screams at the stupidity and selfishness of a mindset that takes lives of those who are different. I look for a cause, for someone to blame. But I need look no farther than my own mirror — at the reflection of a white face in a society that privileges whiteness. I benefit from the privilege of my whiteness whether I want to or not.

I do not live in fear of a gun-toting bigot walking into my Fellowship and opening fire. I do not worry that someone "standing their ground" will exercise their Second Amendment rights to my detriment. I do not worry when my children go out to play that they will be executed by police seeing them as a lethal threat.

No, my brain works unburdened by concerns that white lives don't matter. I spend no valuable thoughts worried that I will be fired or evicted because of who I love. I walk the streets carefree that wolves view me as meat to be abused and violated.

My mind broils, however, when people spew their vile prejudice against others. When the murderer in South Carolina is labeled a "lone gunman" and not a "thug," I rage at the need for us to continue the call that #BlackLivesMatter. When Rep. Gary Glenn foams at the mouth about homosexuality, spreading his viral ignorance about sexual orientation and gender identity, I struggle to find compassionate words of response. And when another woman is raped or abused by a partner, I wonder whether we deserve Father's Day at all.

So, pray with your heart. Mourn for the victims, ask for guidance, and seek peace. Use your mind, though, to challenge the injustice. Tell the racists that their violence is unacceptable. Tell Gary Glenn that his comments about gay and transgender people are disgusting. And on this Father's Day, honor your wives and daughters, sisters and mothers; for without the women in our lives, we could not be fathers.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Truth and Meaning: Love and Marriage


In a few weeks, I hope to begin officiating weddings for all couples here in Mid-Michigan. When (not if) the U.S. Supreme Court rules Michigan's ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, I will be running to the Midland County Courthouse to greet happy couples. Nothing would make me more jubilant that to be bombarded with requests to preside over glorious ceremonies of love and life.

As we have seen in dozens of other states, the earth will not stop revolving on its axis; the "traditional" family will not crumble; and people will not want to start marrying their dogs. All that will happen is that thousands of loving couples will finally have the rights and privileges that heterosexual couples take for granted.

These rights are not some dreaded "gay agenda." In fact, when people learn about the injustices faced by gay and lesbian couples, they often wonder what took so long to break down these irrational barriers.

For instance:
  • In a same-sex marriage if one partner dies, the other partner is not entitled to bereavement leave from work, to file wrongful death claims, to draw the Social Security of the deceased partner or to automatically inherit a shared home, assets or personal items in the absence of a will.
  • Unlike heterosexual spouses, same-sex partners are usually not considered next of kin for the purposes of hospital visitation and emergency medical decisions.
  • Same-sex partners cannot cover their families on their health plans without paying taxes on the coverage, nor are they eligible for Medicare and Medicaid coverage. 
  • Same-sex couples are denied the automatic right to joint parenting, joint adoption, joint foster care and visitation for non-biological parents. In addition, the children of gay and lesbian couples are denied the guarantee of child support and an automatic legal relationship to both parents, and are sometimes sent a wrongheaded but real negative message about their own status and family.
  • Same-sex couples are excluded from special rules that permit married couples to buy and own property together under favorable terms, rules that protect married couples in their shared homes and rules regarding the distribution of the property in the event of death or divorce.
  • Gay and lesbian couples cannot file joint tax returns and are excluded from tax benefits and claims specific to marriage. In addition, they are denied the right to transfer property to one another and pool the family's resources without adverse tax consequences.
These are just a small sampling of thousands of federal, state and local barriers faced by same-sex couples. Any reasonable person can look at these and see that denying these people the same rights and privileges of heterosexual couples is not only wrong, it is immoral.

In time, these injustices will not only go away, but we will wonder why we ever enforced them at all.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Truth and Meaning: Notoriety or Notorious?


When called to serve the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Midland, I was pleased to be moving to the City of Modern Explorers. I envisioned living someplace known for innovation, forward thinking and progress. People I spoke with talked proudly of Midland's notoriety as a wonderful place to raise a family, a small city filled with the amenities of a larger metropolitan area.

Lately, however, Midland's notoriety has become overshadowed. We continue to make national, even international news — but not for new inventions, or for cultural achievements. No, Midland has instead become notorious as a bastion of fundamentalist theocracy, intolerance and bigotry. And the latest addition to this sad list...hypocrisy.

The obsession of homophobic and transphobic public figures in our city is not simply disturbing, but a national embarrassment. And the recent revelation of a local minister decrying homosexuals while engaging in sexual discussions with men on a gay dating website colors the credibility of our community.

Beyond this announcement, the subsequent resignation of the clergy in question, and the unimaginable horror in the future for this family, lies another even more insidious evil that remains unaddressed. How many people have read his words, listened to his speech and felt confused and conflicted, and perhaps filled with self-hatred? How many families has this man "counseled" into dysfunction and broken relationships? How many gay teens have sunk into depression, even attempted suicide because their minister told them that they were sinful?

I feel for his wife and children. I can even find a small measure of sympathy for him. But I reserve most of my concern for the victims of his vitriolic attacks on gay and transgender people. I stand with gays and lesbians, bisexual, transgender, and queer folk and offer my support as they face routine discrimination and public shaming by public officials who lack the will to love their neighbors as themselves.

If you are gay and a minister has told you that you are an abomination, then find another minister. If you are a lesbian and have been shamed by your church as sinful, then seek out a welcoming congregation. If you are transgender and been told that your religion has no room for you, then look for a religion that embraces you. And if you are questioning and hear our representative in Lansing compare you to a pedophile, then join with us.

Midland, we should be sick and tired of being notorious for our intolerance of people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The time has come to enhance our notoriety once more. The time is now to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the class of people protected from discrimination in our city. And from now on, our religious and political leaders should know that hate speech is not free speech, and that ancient scriptures do not replace truths proven by verifiable research.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Truth and Meaning: Our Twilight Zone


I grew up watching The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and the original Star Trek television series. Alternative universe stories fascinated me. Contemplating different realities helps me appreciate the challenges we face in this life, at this time.

So, I invite you to the dimension of imagination, to experience the awe and mystery of a strange new world. Imagine a frontier Mid-Michigan just after the Civil War. Timber drives the local economy, but this resource will soon run low. Along comes a free Negro named Dow who invests everything he has in a dream. And his dream pays off.

Dow builds what will eventually become a major international corporation … in Saginaw. The nearest port, Bay City, thrives. And the village of Midland struggles to make lumber stretch as long as possible.

Former slaves stream to Saginaw by the thousands, building a thriving metropolis. When the Depression hits, Saginaw and Bay City ride the storm. Midland, however, loses many of its struggling businesses, and only the poor remain to hold the pieces together.

Through the 1950s and 1960s, Saginaw blossoms. The city builds riverfront condos, major retailers grow downtown, and a stadium attracts a AAA baseball team. Locally-owned businesses flourish as the average income rises. Saginaw becomes the first American city to adopt full civil rights for all citizens and a guaranteed minimum wage higher than any other in the nation. Property values soar, public schools prosper, unemployment disappears and crime remains low.

Midland, on the other hand, struggles to keep schools going. The mostly white residents rent dilapidated houses and apartments and cannot find full-time jobs that pay more than subsistence wages. Drugs and violence are rampant among the vacant lots, and the mostly black police cannot keep pace with crime. After years of annual deficits and cuts to public services, the state installs an emergency manager, and the elected officials lose their authority. Residents of Saginaw driving to their summer cabins avoid Midland whenever possible. They wonder why the residents of Midland cannot do what it takes to clean up their city and get off the public welfare rolls.

One day, a white boy plays in the pavilion of Plymouth Park with a toy gun. He is alone with little to do because there are no playgrounds, no after school programs, and his family cannot afford clothes and food, let alone game systems, computers or cable television. A fearful neighbor calls 911 and two black police officers arrive on the scene. The younger officer — previously rejected by the better police force in Saginaw — jumps from the car shooting. In seconds, the boy lies dead on the ground.

In the ensuing days, the white residents of Midland explode in anger. They feel the weight of decades of economic injustice, feelings of shame and guilt because their kids lack the opportunities available to those in Saginaw, and outrage at the brutal murder of a child. They take to the streets, rioting against the hopelessness of this unfair system. They march down Main Street past the vacant store fronts and bars. Occasionally, someone throws a rock and one liquor store burns. Across the country, the news shows white Midlanders running and looting, and reports that the boy’s shooting was justified.

Pat Robertson leads a largely-ignored march in Washington, D.C., with the families of the slain boy, and of other white men gunned down by black police officers across the country. But the media call him an opportunist. The lone white commentator on Fox News opines about how welfare keeps the white people unmotivated and poor. A black sports writer in Saginaw pens an editorial calling on all people to simply engage in hard work; commitment and perseverance; effort, energy and sacrifice; respect for others; serving others; helping others. And a black Unitarian Universalist minister in Saginaw responds, calling the sports writer’s piece racist and an example of privilege.
http://www.hulu.com/watch/440892
Is this scenario difficult to imagine? Perhaps. This alternative reality might be especially difficult to imagine if you were born privileged and cannot dream of such patent unfairness. If you were born white, understanding institutionalized racism is challenging. If you were born male, the economic impossibilities facing poor, single mothers are unfathomable. If you were born financially comfortable, you think that anyone who works hard enough can accomplish whatever they want in life. And if you were born straight, you might simply assume that heterosexuality is the norm for all people and disapprove of the gay “lifestyle.”

Open your eyes. Nothing is as simple as the pundits want you to believe. Our problems do not derive from poor people believing they are entitled. Our problems derive from privileged people — people who did nothing to earn their privilege but be born that way — doing everything possible to skew social systems and maintain their own sense of entitlement.

At the end of the episode titled “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” Rod Serling stated: “The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs, and explosions, and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, ideas, prejudices. For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy. A thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own for the children and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is, these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.”

In this reality, Black Lives Matter.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Truth and Meaning" Religion as Abuse


Spiritual practice provides us fulfillment in a world of chaos and sadness. Like an intimate relationship with a partner, spiritual practice connects us deeply with the awe and mystery of existence. Whether you pray, meditate, worship, study, create or provide service, your spiritual practice protects you and fosters within you joy and love.

All too frequently, however, intimate partners become abusive. We suffer from an epidemic of domestic abuse and violence no less harmful than a divine plague. We suffer from abuse not only within our homes, but in our society as well. Just as an abusive partner uses coercion, intimidation, and threats to control another, some people seek to coerce, intimidate, and threaten others with their religious beliefs.

This religious intolerance represents a particularly insidious evil. By robbing us of a pure source of joy and enlightenment, these zealots seek to control our actions, our choices, even our thoughts. Through physical, emotional, and economic routes, religious bullies seek the power to limit our freedoms and cancel our basic human rights.

Beyond the obvious reasons, this behavior is immoral because it chases people away from religion entirely. As fundamentalists seek to increasingly tighten their grip on our laws and our freedoms, more people leave organized religion to carve their own moral code in the secular world. This saddens me because there are religious communities that do not preach hate and intolerance. There are religious communities that welcome everyone as they are and that help people along their spiritual path.

If you are the victim of religious abuse, look for the welcoming congregations. Whatever your reason for being battered by theocrats — different theology, sexual orientation, attitudes regarding women's health, climate change, gun violence, etc. — there are religious communities that accept you as you are.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Truth and Meaning: Hope


Nepal.  Baltimore.  Marriage Equality.  Black Lives Matter.  Deportations.  Bomb Trains.  Benghazi (again?!).  The list goes on and on.

Anger. Frustration.  Exhaustion.  Helplessness.  Betrayal.  Hopelessness. We feel them all because we are human and because we care.

I remain convinced, however, that each and every one of us can take these emotions and constructively turn them into actions to address every one of these issues. All of these emotions save one — hopelessness.

Hopelessness is a terminal disease that destroys our ability to get up each morning and face the realities of life. Hopelessness blocks our spiritual immune system from facing the fear and dread of catastrophe, ignorance and hate.

But there is a cure for this disease. For while we might be unable to cure our selves, we can cure each other. We can promise to devote ourselves to each other, come what may and whatever our differences.

But if your church tells you to judge others, to be intolerant of our differences, then hopelessness will win. Only through respect and love can we rid ourselves of the viral epidemic invading the social body today.

In 1770, Universalist minister John Murray had lost everything — his wife, his child, his financial means, and his faith. He gave up his ministry to lose himself in America. Thanks to a farmer with a dream, Murray overcame his hopelessness and rediscovered his calling. Later, he wrote: 
"You may possess a small light. Uncover it, let it shine. Use it to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women."

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Elephants in the Room Interfaith Presentation

I led this presentation at the Mid-Michigan Interfaith Dialogue Symposium in Freeland on April 19, 2015.  The topic was how to make "church" more relevant, especially for Millennials, by rationally addressing difficult moral issues, such as abortion and homosexuality.  My contention is that many religions are declining because of dualistic thinking on these issues when, in fact, the sacred texts are ambiguous at best.