The building of my home congregation is wedged between three worlds: a funeral home, where people bring their grief and mourning; an old home subdivided into a surprising number of small, crowded, but affordable apartments for those who make little in the tourist industry; and an extraordinarily large, recently constructed stone mansion, complete with gatehouse and dog runs, owned by a couple desperate to make their mark in society – going so far as to shop around a reality show about their life to various cable networks. Down one street is an elite college and equally elite neighborhood, a combination of old and new money, and predominantly white. Down another is a poorer neighborhood, where low-income housing and homeless shelters exist in the predominantly minority neighborhood. Down a third is the thoroughbred race track, a symbol of opulence – hiding the oppressive conditions of living quarters for the migrants who are employed by the track (called the backstretch workers).
Depending on the door you look out, you might think the most pressing social justice concern is emotional pain, or income inequality, or immigration, or the war on workers, or homelessness, or racism.
And the truth is, they are all the most pressing social justice concern.
At General Assembly 2013 in Louisville, I attended a workshop by Rev. Beth Ellen Cooper entitled “Occupy Your Faith.” Rev. Cooper spoke about ways to make our faith real and active; like the Occupy movement, she said, our faith isn’t anarchical; rather, it is immediate and active, not an idea with manifestos and declarations. The call isn’t to declare what issue we want to tackle, but to get out there and tackle it. She challenged us to consider “who is our neighbor, and what is their pain?”
Since General Assembly, I have been thinking about this charge, and have been challenged by it. At Union Theological Seminary, we are in a beautiful, upper class institution, on the edge of Harlem – between the opulence of Columbia University and the struggles of 125th Street, between comfortable middle class apartments and people sleeping on benches in Riverside Park. And that’s just our neighborhood; inside the ‘castle’ we have people and organizations who speak about and work toward justice in a variety of areas – from the Poverty Initiative to the Edible Churchyard, from the Black and Latin@ Caucuses to the Institute for Women, Religion, and Globalization, and more – each group speaking loudly about the call to action our faith demands. Every issue is important. Every concern is vital to people’s lives. Every injustice – to people and to the earth – requires full and immediate attention.
And the call is clear; as Frederick Buechner writes, “There can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”
The call is clear: as Rabbie Arthur Waskow wrote in The Freedom Seder:
For if we were to end a single genocide but not to stop the other wars that kill men and women as we sit here, it would not be sufficient; If we were to end those bloody wars but not disarm the nations of the weapons that could destroy all mankind, it would not be sufficient;
If we were to disarm the nations but not to end the brutality with which the police attack black people in some countries, brown people in others;
Moslems in some countries, Hindus in other; Baptists in some countries, atheists in others; Communists in some countries, conservatives in others—it would not be sufficient;
If we were to end outright police brutality but not prevent some people from wallowing in luxury while others starved, it would not be sufficient;
If we were to make sure that no one starved but were not to free the daring poets from their jails, it would not be sufficient; If we were to free the poets from their jails but to train the minds of people so that they could not understand the poets, it would not be sufficient;
If we educated all men and women to understand the free creative poets but forbade them to explore their own inner ecstasies, it would not be sufficient; If we allowed men and women to explore their inner ecstasies but would not allow them to love one another and share in the human fraternity, it would not be sufficient.
How much then are we in duty bound to struggle, work, share, give, think, plan, feel, organize, sit-in, speak out, hope, and be on behalf of Mankind!
The call is clear. And it is enough to paralyze a person. The list of injustices is so overwhelming , we can be paralyzed in deep anguish so we can’t even register the thousands of ways, big and small, our world is hurting. As Rebecca Parker says in Blessing the World, “our despair keeps us from being able to see.”
So what can I do? How can I engage every social justice concern in my ministry, knowing that alone I cannot solve every problem, knowing that every problem is dependent upon every other problem? It goes back to Rev. Cooper’s challenge: Who is my neighbor, and what is their pain?
As I leave New York City for the warmth of Key West, Florida, and my ministerial internship at One Island Family, I know my first step is to learn who my neighbor is. I already know there are issues of homelessness in Key West, as well as a similar question of income inequality in a tourist town. I already know people come to Key West for a variety of reasons, but that one of those is escape from personal pain. But that’s just what I know from some discussions with Rev. Dr. Randy Becker and a short visit in March. I imagine that in Key West – much like any location I find myself in – the first months will be exegeting the community and learning who these people are and what they face.
The second step, of course, is action. How can I help ease their burdens? And how can the congregations and communities I find myself in help others? We don’t have to take on large tasks – I think of Bishop Desmond Tutu’s comment that “the good news to a hungry person is bread.” If we can offer food to someone who is hungry, or a roof to someone who is homeless, or child care to someone who needs help in order to work, or medicine to someone who is sick, then we should do that first. The letters to politicians, the marches and protests, the large fundraising efforts – those are important too. As Margaret Mead rightly said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Our most pressing social justice concern is the one in front of us – we fail as ministers if we do not act.
Below is the video and script for my thesis project, a 30-minutes chapel service called Nameless, held Monday, March 3, 2014.
Juliana Bateman– Samson’s wife (Judges 14)
Natalie Renee Perkins – Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11:34-40)
Ranwa Hammamy – Pharaoh’s daughter (Exodus 2:1-10)
Ashley Birt – Lot’s wife (Genesis 19:15-26)
Jessica Christy – Job’s wife (Job 2:1-10)
Shamika Goddard – the witch of Endor (1 Sam 28:3-25)
Emily Hamilton – the woman from Tekoa (2 Sam 14:1-22)
Sandra Rivera – widow of Zarephath (I Kings 17:8-16)
Lindsey Nye – guard
AJ Turner – the narrator
Zach Walter– the rhythm
As people enter, Lindsey will be seen guarding the Tomb of the Unnamed Woman.
Zach will be lightly playing a military beat on the cajon.
Samson told his father and mother, “I saw a Philistine woman at Timnah; (Juliana perks up) now get her for me as my wife.’ But his father and mother said to him, ‘Is there not a woman among all our people, that you must go to take a wife from the uncircumcised Philistines?’ But Samson said to his father, ‘Get her for me, because she pleases me.’ His father and mother did not know that this was from the LORD; for he was seeking a pretext to act against the Philistines.
As he returned to Timnah, a young lion roared at Samson, who tore the lion apart with his bare hands. But he did not tell his father or mother what he had done. Then he went down and talked with the woman, (Juliana perks up again, a little) and she pleased Samson. After a while he returned to marry her, and he turned aside to see that there was honey in the carcass of the lion. He scraped it out into his hands, and went on, eating as he went.
His father went down to the woman, (Juliana a little less enthused) and Samson made a feast there as the young men were accustomed to do. When the people saw him, they brought thirty companions to be with him. Samson said to them, ‘Let me now put a riddle to you. If you can explain it within the seven days of the feast, I will give you thirty linen garments and thirty festal garments. But if you cannot, you shall give the same to me.’ So they said, ‘Ask your riddle.’ He said, ‘Out of the eater came something to eat. Out of the strong came something sweet.’
But for three days they could not explain the riddle.
On the fourth day they said to Samson’s wife, (Juliana visibly and audibly annoyed) ‘Coax your husband to explain the riddle to us, or we will burn you and your father’s house with fire. Have you invited us here to impoverish us?’ So Samson’s wife…
…wept before him, saying, ‘You hate me; you do not really love me. You have asked a riddle of my people, but you have not explained it to me.’ He said to her, ‘Look, I have not told my father or my mother. Why should I tell you?’ She wept before him every day that their feast lasted; and because she nagged him, on the seventh day he told her the answer. Then she explained the riddle to her people. The men of the town said to him on the seventh day before the sun went down, ‘What is sweeter than honey? What is stronger than a lion?’
And he said to them, ‘If you had not ploughed with my heifer, you would not have found out my riddle.’
Seriously?!? (stands, begins ranting)
Then the spirit of the LORD rushed on him, and …. (Juliana confronts him) … WHAT?
“Samson’s wife” this and “Samson’s wife that.”
That’s who you are… isn’t it?
I have a name! Without me, this whole stupid vendetta against my people wouldn’t be close to fulfilled. Without me, there is no story. Samson gets a name. Even his second wife, Delilah, gets a name. What’s MY name?
(AJ is visibly shaken with the realization, sits)
All I did was fall in love with a handsome foreigner. I didn’t know I was going to be used. I didn’t know I was going to be accused of being unfaithful and deceitful just to further some warrior’s tale. The least you could do is the courtesy of a name. What’s my name? WHAT’S MY NAME?
(whisper, in time with drum) What’s my name? What’s my name? What’s my name? What’s my name?
I supported my husband Lot when he asked us to leave my home. Of course I turned back to look once more on Sodom, the town I loved. I sacrificed my life for my husband and daughters, whose own future was uncertain in these terrible times, whose lives I could have protected. But you only call me Lot’s wife. What’s MY name?
(joins whisper) What’s my name? What’s my name? What’s my name? What’s my name?
I saved a Hebrew child in an act of civil disobedience, knowing my father had ordered all the Hebrew children to be killed. I raised him like my own son, and risked further exposure when I let him go to his people to lead them out of Egypt. Without Moses, there is no Exodus. But you only call me Pharaoh’s daughter. What’s MY name
(joins whisper) What’s my name? What’s my name? What’s my name? What’s my name?
I lost everything too. I lost my home, my friends, my children, my livelihood too. I stood by my husband Job through all of the pain and suffering. I was angry at God too, but I also remained faithful to my husband and to my God. But you only call me Job’s wife. What’s MY name?
(joins whisper) What’s my name? What’s my name? What’s my name? What’s my name?
What people forget is that Saul came to me. He sought counsel, and even though I eventually recognized him, I saw how terrified he was, and I not only helped him seek wisdom from the spirit of his father, I fed him. Without me, Saul might not have become a great ruler. But you only call me the Witch of Endor. What’s MY name?
(joins whisper) What’s my name? What’s my name? What’s my name? What’s my name?
I stood before King David to lobby him on behalf of Joab. I alone was strong enough to stand before the king, using my wits to political advantage. And I wanted to – I wanted to ask this king why he had planned destruction of the people of God. I was a powerful political voice for my time, but you only call me the woman of Tekoa. What’s MY name?
(joins whisper) What’s my name? What’s my name? What’s my name? What’s my name?
I was a widow without family or means, the poorest of the poor, when Elijah arrived in my town. He demanded of me a meal, when I could not even feed myself or my young son. Yet this man was compelling, and I did feed this stranger, who went on to become a beloved prophet and miracle worker. But you only call me the widow of Zarephath. What’s MY name?
(joins whisper) What’s my name? What’s my name? What’s my name? What’s my name?
My father was returning, triumphant from battle. How could I know he had made a vow to God that would put my life in jeopardy? I only wanted to welcome him home, but he blamed me for bringing him low, when I was the one to be sacrificed. I lost my life because of my father, but you only call me Jephthah’s daughter. What’s MY name?
(joins whisper) What’s my name? What’s my name? What’s my name? What’s my name?
(stops marching as guard) What of all the other unnamed women? The widows? The wives? The daughters? The sisters? The lovers? The sick? The faithful? The outspoken? What of their names?
(joins whisper, which now gets LOUDER) What’s my name? What’s My Name? WHAT’S MY NAME?
Natalie moves to “her” headstone, places a rose, and sings “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”. At end, Zach begins to drum a heart beat.
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today, to remember these women.
These women – who walked among us.
(Juliana places rose and sits at ‘her’ headstone)
These women – who lived and breathed, who loved and lost.
(Ashley places rose and sits at ‘her’ headstone)
These women – who played as young girls, who learned to cook and sew, who learned to love their family and their God.
(Ranwa places rose and sits at ‘her’ headstone)
These women – who felt and thought and sang and prayed.
(Jessica places rose and sits at ‘her’ headstone)
These women – who made choices.
(Shamika places rose and sits at ‘her’ headstone)
These women – who were chosen.
(Emily places rose and sits at ‘her’ headstone)
These women – who are only known in relation to someone else.
(Sandra places rose and sits at ‘her’ headstone; Lindsey sits near the tomb of the unnamed woman.)
These women lived in a long ago time in a far away place… but they have been living in me for nearly three years. Their stories – their heartbreak, their pain, their suffering, and their joy – have filled my thoughts. I want to stand next to Lot’s wife as she makes her final goodbyes to the home she loved. I want to comfort Samson’s wife as she finds herself torn between the men of her family and the man she loves. I want to hold Jephthah’s daughter to shield her from her father’s shocking pronouncement. I want to stroke their hair and hold their hands and call them by name.
But we have lost their names, and with them the fullness of their stories.
In this holy book, this Word of God, women are largely unnamed, unnoticed, unremarkable.
But let us be clear. God didn’t do this. This is not God’s problem. We did this to each other. Over centuries and millennia, through tellings and retellings, through writing and redacting, through additions and deletions, women’s names got left on the cutting room floor.
What we are left with is a text that along with serving as inspiration, is a model of how we are to live with each other. This model, which says it’s okay not to name women, even women without whom the story wouldn’t happen. This model, which says it’s okay to withhold names as long as the woman has no family or no means of support. This model, which says it’s okay to rape and dismember, as long as the woman is a concubine. This model, which finds no reason to name daughters who don’t obey… or daughters that do. This model, which says women do not actually get counted, but simply come along, among the masses. This model, which says even powerful and influential women don’t need to be remembered by name.
You might think that God is okay with it. But God didn’t do this. We did this to each other.
And God’s not okay with it.
God’s not okay with our not knowing the names of the women who gave their lives in the Triangle Shirt Factory fire, or in the name of women’s suffrage, or in one of the many devastating wars we have fought, or in back alley abortion clinics.
God’s not okay with our not knowing the names of the women who cross the borderlands and give up their given names in order to escape the notice of INS officials.
God’s not okay with our not knowing the names of the women who are losing their lives while protesting in the streets of Turkey and the Ukraine and Venezuela.
God’s not okay with our not knowing the names of the women who have been sold into slavery or the sex trade.
God’s not okay with our not knowing the names of the women who have been raped and who are shamed into hiding the truth of their trauma.
God’s not okay with our not knowing the names of the women who sleep on the steps outside our buildings and whose basic needs cannot be met by a system that is increasingly ignoring them.
God’s not okay with our not knowing the names of the women who serve us and care for us and protect us every day – the woman at the front desk, the housekeeper, the visiting nurse, the beat cop, the barista, the cashier, the soldier.
These women have names. They have stories. They have influence. But they too are in danger of not being remembered, of joining the unnamed in the great cloud of witnesses.
But we don’t have to keep the cycle going. The scribes and clerics gave us this sacred text, full of women placed in only one particular part of the story, known only in relation to someone else, known only for a place where they existed, known only by the terror of their texts. These scribes and clerics gave us a model we must reject. What happens when we actually speak their stories? Phyllis Tribble suggests that we must speak for these women, to “interpret against narrator, plot, other characters, and the Biblical tradition – because they have shown … neither compassion nor attention.”
Imagine if we give them our attention – how much harder it would be for us to accept some of the situations the Bible describes for us. What if we knew that Jephthah’s daughter was musical and had learned new songs to play for her father when he returned from war? What if we knew that the widow of Zarephath had been known to bake the best bread in town, back when there was plenty? What if we knew that Pharoah’s daughter found out she could not bear children of her own yet loved them desperately? If we had stories like these, suddenly, we might not accept the fate of these women – we might not accept that they weren’t that important to the stories in which they appear, and we would not accept that we should not call them by name. Just as we cannot accept the damage and disregard namelessness does to women today.
Today, let us make a change.
Dearly beloved, let us pray.
God of many names known and unknown,
hear our sorrow as we mourn these unnamed women…
in their death, we are all diminished…
their stories are alive, but all is not well.
Hold us as we take one step today to right this wrong,
to stand for these women,
to hear their stories and bear witness to their power,
to feel their presence and confess their present reality.
God, be with us in our struggle to make sure everyone is known,
to show even the long forgotten their inherent worth and dignity.
Bless us, God, with ever opening and softening hearts
as we remember the women.
We will never know the names of these unnamed women in the Bible – those are lost to history. But there are names of women who have touched our lives that should not be forgotten. They are mothers, and aunts, and cousins. They are teachers, and counselors, and neighbors. They are activists, and preachers, and thinkers. We have all been touched by the lives of incredible women, without whom our own stories would not progress. Let us celebrate and name those women – let us turn this tomb of unnamed women into a space of remembering women and their names.
Folks are invited to write these names on stickers we pass out, and place them on the tomb. Meanwhile, the beat changes from heartbeat to an Afro-Caribbean rhythm.
As people gather, Ranwa leads us in Israel Naughton’s “I Am Not Forgotten”
Today begins Thirty Days of Love – a month of reflection and action centered around the idea that love is the ultimate guiding force. Across the denomination, people are meeting, learning, reflecting, and doing, guided by our Standing on the Side of Love campaign.
Some of us are also writing.
About a month ago, the UU Bloggers Workshop was created as space for support, learning, and collaboration. We thought, we shouldn’t just help each other become better and farther reaching bloggers – we should have public conversations and coordinated explorations. Thirty Days of Love seemed a perfect first such collaboration. Over the next thirty days, bloggers will write and reflect about love and our way forward to create the beloved community – with posts collected here for easy browsing. Together, we’ll take on this big, incredibly expansive compulsion to do good in the world – that crazy little thing called love.
I get to go first.
In reality, Unitarian Universalists are talking about love all the time; many of our congregations use an affirmation each week that begins “Love is the doctrine of this church.” Easily half our readings and hymns contain the word love. More contain “compassion,” which seems to be the preferred word these days. But I like the word “love.” It’s both simple and complex; it’s particular and all encompassing. Love is central to all of the world’s religions. It is a guiding force for our exemplars and pioneers. Love is everywhere – in our practices, prayers, and in our sacred texts.
In fact, one of the most famous passages in sacred texts is about love is found in the New Testament: I Corinthians 13.
We hear this passage all too often, most often at weddings. It’s poetic, yet as CS Lewis says, it has become so commonplace that it has lost its potency. But a closer look shows that this, perhaps the most famous passage in the New Testament, tells us how we are with each other and how we act in the world.
This passage is a digression of sorts: In this first letter to the Corinthians, Paul is addressing a number of divisive issues that are coming up in the church, including the question of “spiritual gifts” as a measure of one’s worth. Paul addresses them this way:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
For the Corinthians, and indeed most of the early Christians, the spiritual gifts were signs that God was working in their lives. These gifts are not unlike our own – where they embraced prophesy, healing, and speaking in tongues, we embrace prophetic witness, reason, and generosity.
Now these gifts themselves are fine – in fact, just as Paul preached on them to his flock, we preach on our gifts. They are important ways in which we move through our days, putting our faith into action. Some of us are great at hospitality, others at caring for one another, others still at speaking with a prophetic voice, or using intellect to understand the world. But the problem in Corinth – and the danger among us – is when the gifts become a sign, a shibboleth if you will, that divides the believers from the non-believers, the good UUs from the bad. The gifts are not the thing. They are useful to encourage and develop, but they are not THE thing.
The thing… is love. Without love, Paul says, “I gain nothing”… and frankly, neither does anyone else. Love is what allows our gifts to function.
And what a thing it is:
Love is patient. Love is kind.
Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way.
It is not irritable or resentful.
It does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Paul may not be able to tell us exactly what love is, but he sure knows it when he sees it.
How many times have we gotten irritated when our justice endeavors run into road blocks? Maybe the volunteers don’t show up. Maybe we don’t get the donations we expected. Maybe the people we’re helping don’t seem to appreciate it. There’s a sign that we may not be acting out of love.
How many times have we limited ourselves? Expected the worst, so we didn’t go the full distance? There’s a sign that we may not be acting out of love.
How many times have we been so angry at the injustice in the world that we’ve become paralyzed? There’s a sign we may not be acting out of love.
How many times have we been so proud of our own actions that we look down upon those who don’t – or can’t – do as much justice work? There’s a sign we may not be acting out of love.
How many times have we simply gotten burned out? There’s a sign we may not be acting out of love.
I told you it’s not easy.
But love is permanent. It is eternal – and as the song says, there is more love somewhere. Paul emphasizes this point in the next three verses, which I have tweaked a little for our own time:
Love never ends. But as for our prophetic witness, it will come to an end; as for speaking truth to power, that will cease; as for intellect, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we reason only in part, but when justice and inclusion is complete, the parts will come to an end.
He then continues with two somewhat puzzling thoughts; first is this:
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I thought as a child, I reasoned as a child, but when I became an adult I put away childish things.
My first thought always is “really? I can’t be a kid anymore?” But Paul is saying that we should put aside the petulant, smug, judgmental, and boastful side of promoting our gifts. We don’t want to be that way… and most of the time I don’t think we are… but it’s a danger, and one we should remember. When we act as adults, we put love first.
The second puzzlement comes in the next verse:
For now we see in a glass darkly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part, then I will know fully even as I have been fully known.
Mysterious, and yet: glass in the first century wasn’t clear – they hadn’t quite perfected that yet – so “seeing through a glass darkly” is seeing something obscured by grainy, opaque glass. In other words, we can’t see everything, or know everything. Our knowledge is NOT the be-all, end-all. Because, remember, if I have not love, I am nothing at all.
Put it another way: we can’t know every effect of everything we do. We can only act in love, with our best and highest intentions. Maybe you don’t know the effect your actions will have, but if you do it as an act of love, that is enough. And when you show love? People are not just helped and healed themselves. The also know you in ways you can’t anticipate. They see your generous heart, your kind spirit. They see your passion and compassion, your earnestness and forthrightness.
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three. And the greatest of these is love.
No matter what else is going on, it’s all about love. Love is where we begin – whether it is with each other, with the Divine (however we define it), with our families, our communities, or our world. Without love, anything we do is half a loaf. It’s ineffective. It’s uninspiring. It can cause bitterness.
I think about how large corporations are forced to pay for things like cleaning up the Gulf of Mexico after an oil spill… when philanthropists give large amounts of money just for the tax breaks – and those acts always feel empty to me. Yes, the money is important to solve the issues, but if they walked through the world in love, they maybe wouldn’t have caused the problems in the first place. What if we shared love from the start – not just when things get bad, but pre-emptively? Maybe that’s what Paul is getting at. and what all of our songs and activities and organizations for social justice are about too: starting from a place of love so that the world is better nurtured from the start. In her book Blessing the World, Rebecca Parker implores us to “Choose to bless the world.” She writes,
The choice to bless the world can take you into solitude to search for the sources of power and grace; native wisdom, healing and liberation. More, the choice will draw you into community, the endeavor shared, the heritage passed on, the companionship of struggle, the importance of keeping faith, the life of ritual and praise, the comfort of human friendship, the company of earth, its chorus of life welcoming you. None of us alone can save the world. Together—that is another possibility, waiting.
Together, we must share love, because it IS the greatest gift of all. Ultimately, it is all we have. It burns in us – it is our pilot light, which we can keep low and hidden under a bushel… or we can turn up so it is a beacon bright and clear – a beacon stoked by hope and faith. Everything else may fade away, but first and always, we must love.
I am pretty sure I was not the only person headed for a pulpit this morning who let out an extra moan after hearing the verdict in the Zimmerman trial.
In the midst of weeping for the Martin family, for our young black men, and the failed justice system…and after a while weeping also for women, for immigrants, for students, for the poor, for the marginalized… somewhere in the midst of my uncontrollable weeping, I let out a moan, knowing I had a sermon that felt like half a loaf compared to the shock, anger, sorrow, and fear we were all facing. How could I stand up and talk about a loving, father-mother god, when God was not in heaven and all was wrong with the world? How could I present this hopeful, encouraging service when we were faced with such pain?
That is when Pat Humphrey’s song came to mind (song begins at 1:53)…
I began to sing to myself and slowly began to stop crying. I knew I could not let this travesty of justice go unmentioned, but I also knew I could not write an entirely new sermon at midnight on Saturday.
But I could do something: I wrote a new call to worship for this morning – one that acknowledges our pain, our frustration, and our need to come together for comfort, for peace, for space, for nourishment. I invited us all to not get stuck, but to keep on moving forward. And we sang. And then we moved on to the rest of the service, talking about the loving, transcendent God that is found in Unitarian Universalism.
Of the many lessons I have learned since entering seminary, the one that’s been most remarkable and meaningful is the lesson about being present to the present moment of a congregation. You can have everything perfectly planned, but if they are hurting, or if there is strife, or if something tragic has happened, you have to be present to that pain and address it in a way that comforts and encourages. People want space for their pain to be acknowledged – and they want something to both nourish and distract them for a bit. We can’t let our inner preacher silence our inner pastor.
Nor can we let our own pains get in the way. Last month, in the midst of a bizarre crisis that hit my village and my family, I was slated to preach on the virtues of theism and humanism; the week, however, was difficult, and in my pain, all I wanted to say was “God’s dead and people suck.” Of course, I didn’t… I found a path through my pain to provide a message that was both authentic to the situation I found myself in and was nourishing to the congregation I spoke to. I had to keep on moving forward.
And that’s the lesson. We can pause and honor our pain. We can weep out of anger, fear, frustration. We can feel paralyzed by injustice. And we can pause with others who feel as we do. But then we have to take that next step. We cannot, CANNOT let injustice and hate win. We have to keep on moving forward.
A survey of stories from recent newspapers, news sites, and news blogs proves what we’ve long thought: the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Evidence includes the following:
Man-made climate change is causing massive disasters, unwieldy temperature fluctuations, species extinctions, and a pile of consequences we can’t imagine. And there are loud and attention-seeking deniers who make the work to address the issues all the more difficult.Voters are being disenfranchised by draconian state governments – with the worst of them targeting miniorities and the elderly.
Veterans are being slighted – they are homeless, suffering with PTSD and often addictions, they aren’t healing form wounds suffered in battle, and they are exhausted. And they aren’t getting their due.
Clean energy solutions are being sidelined in favor of outrageous greed and ill-advised big oil interests.
There are questionable practices over the war on terror that continue in the current administration.
A willful ignorance seems to permeate followers of one of the major political parties, with a clear and present danger to the reality of our all-American, Christian, politically moderate President.
Religion is being used as a weapon against nearly everyone – and ‘freedom of religion’ is being perverted for deleterious causes.
Sexual orientation and gender identity are being so demonized, our LGBTQ and genderqueer youth are killing themselves.
As a country, we have failed the First Nations miserably – and continue to do so.
Income inequality isn’t just a catch-phrase but a horrific reality that is causing starvation, homelessness, disease, and unease.
A party who campaigned on “jobs” hasn’t created one – and has kept the President from creating them, too.
Anti-union sentiments assault workers of every stripe.
Anti-education sentiments are destroying primary and secondary education – and threaten post-secondary education as well.
Freedom of speech and information are threatened by perplexing bills poised to destroy the internet.
I am outraged by them all. Every single cause (along with many more I haven’t listed) is worthwhile, needing support, focus, attention. But I have reached the bottom of my personal well of outrage, so I am asking for help.
As readers here know, I am a full-time seminarian and full-time editor. I did a great deal of my boots-on-the-ground activism in the 90s, when I had energy and youth on my side. But as I near 50, I find I don’t have the energy or the time. I can’t attend every march, can’t donate to every cause, can’t write thorough diaries on every abuse of power.
However, I can pick one, and run with it. The one issue that I’ve been carrying a torch for since I was a teen is the cause of women. And it is this torch that I need to focus on.
I remember as a young teen in the late 1970s, going to Girl Scout camp in upstate NY, learning about independence, strength, and equality from young women who were on the front lines of the women’s movement. In addition to the music of Holly Near and Cris Williamson, they taught us the words of Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Mary Daly. I emerged as a feminist (who knew how to build a camp fire and a lean-to).
I recognize that as a leading-edge GenXer, I inherited a movement already in progress: I didn’t burn my bras, because by the time I was wearing one, that had been done. I didn’t have to get the ERA on the docket, but I did implore state legislatures to ratify it. I didn’t have to fight for a woman’s right to choose, but I have continued the fight to ensure it remains legal. I have fought sexism in classrooms and in the workplace. I have fought for equal pay on a global and intimate scale.
I went for my bachelor’s degree in my early 30s and attended a southern women’s college, where I saw the next generation (closing-edge GenXers) reject the label “feminist;” I cannot count the number of times I heard “I’m not a feminist, but…” as they continued to speak a strong feminist platform. And I got to educate these women, who took the progress we’d made for granted, and show them all the places we still had work to do.
And now, here I am in my late 40s, and some things are better, but some things are horrifically worse.
I am outraged – and this is where my outrage must flourish. I am many things, but I am first a woman (technically a cisgendered woman, as I identify as strong female on the gender continuum). And the assault on me and my sisters has been so blatant lately, it is a wonder I can say we have made any progress at all.
Abortion rights are eroding on the state level, and many in Washington would see it be dismantled on the federal level. State-supported rape seems to be an optimal solution to the abortion problem – at least for men who cannot imagine the degradation and pain of transvaginal ultrasounds.Women’s reproductive rights are hanging in the balance, as the birth control fight surprisingly continues.
Health care is being denied to thousands of poor and marginalized women under the guise of “not supporting abortion.”
Daily, women are raped. And at least one presidential candidate suggests that a woman who conceives from this horrific act should bear the child anyway.
Daily, women are physically and emotionally abused. Yet the House GOP will not renew the Violence Against Women Act because it protects women they don’t care about.
Women are slandered on television and radio – and the typical male response is “it’s a joke.”
Women are vilified on television and radio – including movies, sitcoms, advertisements, and stand-up acts. All in the name of “comedy.”
Women are still being paid less than men, despite the Lilly Ledbetter Act.
There is so little regard for the women’s vote in the GOP, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone proposed repeal of the 19th amendment.
Women are being murdered for being women, are being mutilated, are being enslaved. Not just in other countries, but here in the United States.
Women are silenced.
Women are marginalized.
A few years ago, I thought I was at the end of my activism days – been there, done that, now it’s time for me to become a minister in order to help people of faith maintain that faith in the fight for justice. I heard my calling as a continuum of a life’s work – from learning to action to supporting.
But no more.
Oh, I’m still going to seminary and pursuing ordination. But I’m also standing up and taking active steps to fight against the invading hordes of 21st century medievalists who wish to silence my gender. I’ve rejoined NOW and Planned Parenthood. I’m attending various actions in my community. I’m writing letters and talking to people. I’m even helping in the fight against gender inequality in my seminary – a place that is light-years ahead of many theological schools but still suffering from the history of religion’s abuse against women. I’m seeking ways to ensure the very advances my generation took for granted don’t become part of a ‘used to be’ wish list for the next ones.
So please, I ask you, you who are outraged by the things I listed at the top of the page but may not have the energy to take up the cause of women, it’s okay. And please understand if I can’t engage in your outrage, as I’m too busy engaging in my own. Between us, we will share the burden and together, on many fronts, we WILL turn the tide.
For the record, I am estatic that New York State is now allowing any committed couple to legally wed – gay or straight. It’s been a hard fight and a sweet victory… and yes, there are still many battles for LGBT rights left to fight (repeal of DOMA, federal marriage equality, etc.) but..it is a sweet sweet victory.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the last couple of days viewing pictures of newly married couples, some who have waited decades for the day to come. I’ve read their stories, heard their cheers. I have cheered with them. And I’ve cried.
And not all the tears were tears of joy.
This seems to be giving me an opportunity to talk a little about my own history… to explore a rich piece of who I am, and begin to find language to explain where I have been and where I am now without people freaking out. I am, as it happens, one of those people – like Holly Near and Anne Heche – who have loved both men and women, and after many years being actively and happily labeled a lesbian, now consider myself bisexual. No, I didn’t “get cured.” No, it wasn’t “a phase.” As a teen, I was attracted to men and women… and in my early 20s, after some meandering, found that I was most comfortable identifying myself as a lesbian. I had a couple of great (and a handful of terrible) relationships. I embraced my phsyical and emotional attraction to women. I fought for equality. I marched in parades, protested with the Lesbian Avengers, even appeared on local news, and was on the front page of several state-wide newspapers, me kissing my girlfriend in front of a parade banner.
In other words, I was out, I was proud, and I was active.
In the mid-90s, I had met the person I thought I would spend the rest of my life with. Tricia was vibrant and brilliant – she lived life large. She was passionate, funny, earnest. And she loved me fiercely. In 1997, we decided to make steps toward as legally permanent a relationship as we could have in North Carolina. We were beneficiaries on as many policies as would allow us. We had medical power of attorney for each other. We were on our way to buying a house together and working with a gay attorney to ensure we were as protected as we could be, even as we began to talk about plans for a ceremony.
Parallel to this, I was completing my bachelor’s degree at Meredith College…. and Tricia was slipping back into a narcotics addiction I thought she had beaten in the late 80s. Using debilitating migraines as her excuse, and not telling her several doctors about the previous addiction – or in fact, even about each other – she amassed a stockpile of narcotics and used them to “help” her headaches.
I should have known, the day she got a new doctor to give her methodone as as way to manage the pain. But I didn’t. I didn’t know about addiction, about prescription drug abuse. I hadn’t had any experience with it. So I trusted her doctors… trusted her… and on April 7, 1998, Tricia had a heart attack, likely induced by the narcotics, and died that afternoon.
Now I tell you this because for a long time after she died, I was convinced I would never love again. And then, as I crawled out of the cave of blinding grief, it was men who offered the kind of comfort I seemed most to need. Women seemed harsh, or overbearing. Men were more measured, giving me space, and time, and a rather appealing kind of support.
Several years later, in considering relationships again, I found I was turning toward men – something I hadn’t done since my early 20s. It wasn’t that I suddenly found women revolting – it was just that, well, something had changed. I went from looking for women, to “if it really is about loving the person, not the gender, I have to be open to it being male or female”, to simply knowing I wanted a relationship with a man.
Since Tricia’s death, I have had a small handful of relationships with men – all were what I needed at the time, although I think I spent a few years learning the things always-straight women learned about men in their early 20s. I also spent a few years learning how different relationships with women and with men can be. This is NOT a judgment on either one – both are great, both are terrible, both are what they are. I am blessed right now to be in a great relationship with a man who is kind, open, funny, brilliant, and charming. I am unsure where the relationship is heading – but it is steady and positive, and I feel loved and supported. I still have moments when I miss Tricia, but they are fleeting, and I – like many young widows and widowers – have moved on to a new phase.
But I have cried the last few days because I wish she was here to see these pictures…to have the chance to marry me, legally, in my home state… I wish she was here to see that the work we did in the 90s was NOT in vain… I wish we could have been part of that celebration.
It may surprise you to know that not that long ago, I was not beautiful. Not like I am now.
Well, not to myself, anyway.
But something happened a little over a year ago that made me beautiful… someone noticed. And…he keeps noticing. And I continue to grow more beautiful.
Now let me go back a bit – as a child, I was skinny, klutzy, and gawky. My middle name, Grace, seemed a cosmic joke. Puberty brought curves – and acne – and unruly hair. And like many kids who didn’t mature gracefully, I was teased and put down, and I had veryfew dates. The things I thought made up for my less-than-stellar outward appearance, namely my singing voice and my acting talent, were condemned as being not beautiful either.
And thus – I spent my twenties, and thirties, and the first half of my forties, believing that I was not beautiful. Now in the process, I did learn that indeed I was talented and I got over that particular hurdle of self-esteem. But I have spent decades sure I had no place at the table with the “beautiful people.”
This was confirmed over and over again – I was excluded from a company fashion show because I was the only plus-sized member of the buying staff. I watched a less experienced, less knowledgeable but petite and pretty woman get the promotion I should have received. And I have seen the looks when people I have only talked to by phone meet me in person. They expect someone less…substantial.
And sadly, I am not alone. A 2009 study by the University of Florida showed that attractive people make up to 10% more money on average than those considered less attractive. A similar study at the University of Wisconsin showed that people deemed unattractive or overweight are up to 8% less likely to get the second interview or be hired. Good looking students tend to be favored by teachers. Handsome criminals receive lighter sentences.
Now oddly, discrimination for looks does seem to go both ways – exceptionally attractive people have a harder time getting jobs in engineering or the sciences – which tells me there is a bias that links intelligence to looks. Recently a woman was fired from a job at Citibank because she was ‘too beautiful and too distracting’. But who decides? Part of the challenge in defining discrimination based on looks is the challenge of defining beauty standards, which as we know vary from culture to culture. Japanese women want oval eyes. Ubangi tribeswomen value stretched lower lips. In some cultures, the Rubenesque figure is prized. In others, the skin-and-bones look is in. But within each culture, there are some general standards, and it is these standards that create a beauty bias, or what we call lookism.
If you doubt lookism exists, consider a comment made by Jason Mattera, editor-in-chief of HumanEvents.com: “Why do Janet Napolitano, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan all look like linebackers for the New York Jets?”
Consider the comment of Conan O’Brien, remarking on the firing of a female TV meteorologist because she looked too dowdy: her problem is “partly saggy with a chance of menopause.”
Consider the fact that Janet Reno and Linda Tripp were played by men on Saturday Night Live.
Consider an experiment by the ABC news magazine 20/20: they hired two women to stand next to cars that had run out of gas. Both cars were identical; both women wore the same outfits. Both stood helplessly by the cars with their hoods up. For the average-looking Michelle, a few pedestrians stopped but only made suggestions as where she could walk to get gasoline. But for the beautiful Tracey, cars came screeching to a halt. More than a dozen cars stopped and six people went to get Tracey gas.
Now I don’t think people necessarily know they’re discriminating against looks. As Tom Cash, a psychologist at Old Dominion University, says, “It’s a non-conscious process. People assume that more attractive people have an array of valued characteristics.”
On the other hand, not all lookism is non-conscious. There is a dating site specifically for beautiful people, unimaginatively named BeautifulPeople.com, and they only accept people they consider beautiful. It has been so successful; they now have a spinoff sperm bank – where you can make sure the baby gets ‘beautiful genes’. I wish I was making this up. The animated sitcom Family Guy poked fun of the beautiful people’s club – but it really exists.
And whether we want to join or not, we pay a price. Deborah Rhode, author of The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law, says
“…conventional wisdom understates the advantages that attractiveness confers, the costs of its pursuit, and the injustices that result. Many individuals pay a substantial price in time, money, and physical health. Although discrimination based on appearance is by no means our most serious form of bias, its impact is often far more insidious than we suppose.”
Rhode notes that compared to “other inequities the contemporary women’s movement has targeted, those related to appearance have shown strikingly little improvement. In fact, by some measures, such as the rise in cosmetic surgery and eating disorders, our preoccupation with attractiveness is getting worse.”
And so we go to plastic surgeons and do invasive damage to our bodies. We buy cosmetics and get chemical treatments that may not only harm our skin but also our planet. We go on diet after diet, all the while getting fatter and fatter and causing myriad health problems. In the extreme, the pursuit of beauty leads to depression and eating disorders. We spend over $200 billion a year on appearance, with $40 billion alone on diets – and more billions in mental health treatment. We spend more on cosmetic surgery per capita than any other nation; the top procedures? Breast augmentation and liposuction.
All because we know there is a value to being attractive. We know there is a financial reason – we will get paid more. And there is a social reason – acceptance.
Now if you are an attractive, slender person, there are some indignities you have never faced. You haven’t had to pay five dollars more for a t-shirt because there’s an extra inch of cloth. You haven’t had a blind date turn around at the door of the restaurant, pretending he didn’t see you. You haven’t watched, discouraged, as lookism gets played out in a sitcom not called Betty, but Ugly Betty.
If it sounds like I’m whining, forgive me. I suppose it’s like trying to get you to understand what it is to be discriminated against for being gay, or being from another country, or being disabled. There are big – and little – indignities – that go along with any kind of discrimination. My point here is that lookism DOES exist… and it permeates our entertainment, our marketing, our work, our lives. Naomi Wolf suggested in her 1991 book The Beauty Myth that images of beauty may actually subjugate women and be a tool for discrimination.
Now I want to take a small but important detour here… and address the question of whether physical beauty truly matters.
We can’t discount it: we are always in pursuit of beauty. We look around at our surroundings and find peace – and solace – and even God – in beauty. We sing hymns, like our opening today, which praise beauty as a sacred gift. You would be hard pressed to find someone who does not love a beautiful mountain, or a flowing stream, or an explosion of flowers, or a stretch of sand and foam. Even those who do not think they have a beautiful cell in their bodies love and seek the beauty in nature. And we bring beauty into our homes through décor, music, art, scents. How beautiful is the anticipation of a Thanksgiving table groaning with great tastes, smells, and sights. How beautiful is the promise of a perfectly placed painting above the perfect reading chair. How beautiful is the sound of a Chopin concerto wafting in the air.
Beauty is important. So important that it can reduce crime – I recall hearing a study that showed if abandoned buildings were covered with murals, crime rates go down. It is so important that three members of the Saratoga congregation went to El Salvador this past February to bring crime-fighting art to a crime-ridden neighborhood.
We seek beauty in truth, truth in beauty.
So why do we draw the line for human beauty? Why is it okay to surround ourselves with the most beautiful settings but scorn those who would make themselves beautiful?
Are we not nature too? Shouldn’t our physical beauty matter?
I would maintain that it does. But not because we should all join the beautiful people club, but because, if we are to be – as we say in one of our denomination’s readings – in harmony with the divine, we must take our place as part of that beauty.
Human beauty is praised across the world’s religions. Take as the prime example this passage from the Song of Solomon:
How beautiful are thy feet with shoes, O prince’s daughter! the joints of thy thighs are like jewels, the work of the hands of a cunning workman.
Thy navel is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor: thy belly is like a heap of wheat set about with lilies.
Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins.
Thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon, by the gate of Bathrabbim: thy nose is as the tower of Lebanon which looketh toward Damascus.
Thine head upon thee is like Carmel, and the hair of thine head like purple; the king is held in the galleries.
How fair and how pleasant art thou, O love, for delights!
Similar passages can be found in sacred texts around the world. And yet… what of inner beauty? You may be asking yourself why I am focusing so much on the outward when there is so much inner beauty to celebrate, and isn’t that more important?.
It is true –inner beauty is important. Vitally important. We recognize the value of the inner self – the good, the compassionate, the loving, the strong, the welcoming, the courageous, the accepting, the graceful. We know it enough to see when someone is ugly despite their beautiful physical appearance.
There was a recent reality show called True Beauty that pitted ten gorgeous people against each other to determine the most beautiful; what they didn’t know is that they were being judged on their inner beauty. Of course, there were easy eliminations at the start – reality shows tend to bring out the worst in people. And yes, the show’s judges did look at their outer beauty as well – perhaps to validate the fake premise. Despite it being just another reality show, I suspect we as a culture are starting to think about our outrageous obsessions with outer beauty. And it certainly proved St. Augustine right when he wrote, “Beauty is indeed a good gift of God; but that the good may not think it a great good, God dispenses it even to the wicked.”
There were two things I found interesting about the show. The first was that when they had just three contestants left, they were told the truth – that this was about inner beauty – and they were made to face moments of inner ugliness as they watched video footage of their worst moments. You could see it was hard for them to watch as they talked behind people’s backs, tried to sabotage each other, and behaved selfishly. But you could see these three finalists were humbled. One of the contestants remarked, “I was thankful to see that side of myself. I didn’t realize it was there. I will make a change.”
The second thing I found interesting about the show was seeing that it was only as these contestants began to get to know each other that you saw them see each other as people, not as physical specimens. I suspect part of our lookism problem is that we don’t have often have the time to go any deeper. We are so busy, we have so much information to process, and we only have moments to make judgments about one another. In a society where we don’t know each other, we don’t have enough of a relationship to get beyond the surface. And we get stuck on the outside.
Oh sure, we try to get to know people – but when your congregation is bigger than say, 25 people, that’s awfully hard. And the bigger it gets, the harder it gets. In 2007, I spent a year between beds and doctors and operating rooms to fix an injured back, and it wasn’t until the next spring that I returned to my own congregation in Saratoga. When I left, I fairly well knew the 100 or so regulars. When I returned, there were dozens of new faces for whom I was as new as the visitor who’d just walked in. Now since then, I’ve gotten to know some of them, but maybe not as deeply as I’d like. I’m sure those I don’t know are amazing, beautiful people – and they probably don’t know as much about my inner beauty either.
The challenge of course is getting our inner beauty to shine. A challenge which has established another multi-billion dollar industry: the self help industry. The titles of self-help books promise as much as the commercials for L’Oreal and Revlon: Learning to Love Yourself. Five Simple Steps to Emotional Healing. The Power of Self-Coaching. The Self-Esteem Workbook. The Courage to Be Yourself. The Courage to Heal. Healing Your Emotional Self. Maximum Confidence. The list goes on and on, and on and on. If you’re like me, you’ve spent too much money on books like this, seeking a way to boost inner beauty from within. We console ourselves with affirmations, my favorite from the Al Franken character Stuart Smalley: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darnit, people like me.”
But just as all the cosmetic treatments in the world can’t make you perfectly beautiful on the outside, all the self talk in the world doesn’t stand alone in doing the trick for inner beauty either.
Yes, it takes a beloved community.
I know it’s contrary to all we say about not caring what others think, about being our true authentic selves, etc. etc. But what feels more powerful to you, saying to yourself “I am somebody” – or having someone tell you “you are somebody”? Self-affirmations are important, but I suspect mostly what they do is get our heads ready to hear the affirmations from others.
There are many people who don’t feel beautiful, on varying levels. And what happens, when you don’t feel beautiful on the outside is that your confidence shakes on the inside. It is subtle…it starts with apologizing for a bad hair day and then wearing clothing that covers up the bulges… but soon you’re building walls instead of building confidence. You figure if people don’t think you’re attractive, then why bother making the effort? And soon you are closed and cold, and as desperately as you want connection, your entire Being pushes people away. And this feeds your frustration, and you think, ‘who needs people anyway?’
But you do. Partly because humans thrive best in community, but partly because other people are the best evidence of your own best self. Other people are a mirror; what we see in others is reflective of what exists in ourselves.
Yes. Beauty IS in the eye of the beholder. Rodgers and Hammerstein asked, “do I love you because you’re beautiful, or are you beautiful because I love you?” When we show that we prize all beauty, we help others – and ourselves – become more confident and dismantle the subtle cuts of lookism.
As I said at the start, I became beautiful when someone noticed. I remember the moment; I was going out to an event that evening, and was talking to my boyfriend on the phone that afternoon. I looked at the clock, knowing it was time to get ready, and I said, “I need to go make myself look beautiful.” He replied, “Well, it won’t take much because you’re starting from such a high base.” It sounds like a little thing now, but at that moment, it was huge. Someone told me I was beautiful. All of me – beautiful.
Oddly, I found myself caring a bit more – buying more dresses, taking better care of my hair and face and nails, watching what I ate. It wasn’t that I wanted to become beautiful for him – I just wanted to keep being beautiful. And when I started taking a little bit better care of myself, I noticed that my gentleness, and compassion, and strength, and yes, even grace, started to come through too. Others noticed it and commented on how beautiful and happy I seemed. Which made me feel more beautiful. And on and on, and on and on.
Have you told anyone they are beautiful recently? Have you seen the goodness and sweetness and courageousness and gracefulness of the people around you and told them?
I invite you now to take that opportunity. I chose Libby Roderick’s simple tune to end my talk today, and as we sing it through four times, I want you to sing it to each other – and to yourself – and to each other again. Our beauty – inner and outer – is a miracle. It is nothing to be discriminated against – it is something to be celebrated. Let us affirm that.