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emotional cutoff. April 11, 2014

Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
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By the time I was midway through my freshman year of college, I thought I had completely cut ties with Christianity. I was sick of hearing about a God who would wreak violence and destruction on the world in Armageddon, I was sick of a God who could choose to act in the world but didn’t. I was sick of being told that because Eve had eaten a bite of apple eons ago, all humanity was doomed unless we believed the right thing. After years of repenting, years of being born again (multiple times), years of trying to have faith, I was sick of it. Done.

My friends and I explored other religions and we stumbled NeoPaganism. I traded my mean, vengeful God for a life-giving goddess. For a few years, I traded my rituals celebrating the life and death of one man for rituals that celebrated the cycle of all of life.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not angry about this anymore. But I was. I was very angry. That anger also covered up the hurt that I felt. Hurt by a God that would base eternity on one wrong decision. Hurt because I had tried all those years to be a Good Christian Girl and all it had done was left me feeling shut outside of everything. Hurt by a church that told me that, because God had made me a girl, there were certain things I was unfit for (such as Ministry).

When my spouse and I eventually started attending a Unitarian Universalist Church, I wanted nothing to do with any “language of reverence.” In fact, much of my new path had been formed directly in opposition to anything that reminded me of what I had left behind.

In many ways, my story is not unique. Many of the folks in our Unitarian Universalist congregations come out of similar experiences, and carry similar wounds. They have cut themselves off from the faith traditions in which they were raised, and no longer want anything that reminds them of it AT ALL.

So it was with much surprise that I found my world opening and my wounds healing at the Methodist Seminary that I attended. There, I found Christians whose understanding of God was not the old, white-haired pointy-fingered God of my youth but was instead right in line with how I now understood “The Ultimate.” I found Christians, studying to be ministers, who did not believe in the literal interpretation of the virgin birth or resurrection. I found Christians who were trying to follow the teachings of Jesus, not the religion that had been founded upon his death. And I began to heal.

I changed seminaries when we moved, and I started attending a UCC seminary that was even more religiously liberal. There I found professors and ministers whose theology and ethics and sense of the spiritual lined up with mine so well that we could easily worship in the same church, but they chose to stay with Christianity and I chose to leave it. I found my own way to translate and understand such loaded terms like “God” and “Salvation” and “Atonement” – so much so that, though I still understand myself to be more of an agnostic, mystic humanist, I can visit and be comfortable in almost any liberal religious congregation. Quite a difference.

I am reflecting on this right now, because I have recently finished a course in Bowen Family Systems Theory. I took the course to better understand how the way we are in our families is replicated in how we are in our congregations (both as ministers and lay people). It was enlightening.

One of the key concepts in Bowen Family Systems Theory is the concept of emotional cutoff. “The concept of emotional cutoff describes people managing their unresolved emotional issues with parents, siblings, and other family members by reducing or totally cutting off emotional contact with them.” However, the person who cuts themselves off from their family still has all that anxiety and emotional reactivity, and nowhere for it to go. We can try to bottle it up, wall it off, but even if we try to ignore it it can build up and cause stress in unrelated parts of a person’s life, even physical illness.

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Using Bowen Theory, I can describe my experience with Christianity as one of intense anxiety leading to cutoff. But I still had so much reactivity that I could not even hear language that reminded me of the pain I had experienced! My blood pressure went up whenever I heard someone talk about “faith” or “prayer” or anything that reminded me of what I thought I had totally given up on. This left entire areas in which I was bound up and in which I could not grow.

The only way to heal cutoff, according to Bowen, is to bridge it. For me, seminary served that role in unanticipated ways. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to heal, and begin to grow again.

Many of our congregants are still cutoff, hurting from previous experience and trying to distance themselves from the faith traditions in which they were raised. This is particularly problematic now that we are getting more people who are raised in our congregations or come to us without this history and who are more comfortable with a language of reverence. There is a clash between those who are cutoff (and thus unable to form their own understandings of commonly used religious language) and those for whom this language comes naturally.

Plus, cutoff gets passed down through the generations. So if my grandmother was cutoff from her family, I would likely see that tendency arise in my mother’s generation, my own, and even with my children.

This has me wondering about our congregations. If so many folks came to UUism through a cutoff with their previous religious tradition, does this explain why so many people reject UUism as adults? Is cutoff built into our system at this point? If so, how do we begin to help folks bridge the cutoff – for their sakes as individuals and for the sake of our congregations?

Bowen Theory would suggest that the only way I can impact a system is through working on myself. For me, this has meant beginning to utilize this language reverence more often by telling my own story. Perhaps, if others who are cutoff recognize that they are still living their lives in reactivity to the faith tradition in which they were raised, in my story they will realize that there is hope for more – hope for a whole, healthy spirituality that is not formed in reaction against one tradition but instead allows for exploration and growth across the spectrum of human experience. For me, this has been powerful, indeed.

averages. April 9, 2014

Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
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I have another blog post that I am working on, but I just read some of the materials that the UUA Board will be discussing at their next meeting and I am fascinated by some numbers.

First, the average congregation size is 151. In fact, over 68% of our UU congregations have 160 or fewer members.

Our smaller congregations are also growing, particularly in the south and midwest.

With these numbers, I am glad to read that the Board is discussing changing the bylaws to reduce the number of members required to join the UUA. This will also allow small, covenanted communities (of whatever form, congregation or not) to join and have a say in our present and future. That is exciting news.

I hope that these numbers mean that there will be more discussion about how the UUA can more effectively support these smaller congregations (who often feel overlooked) and other emerging covenanted communities. The numbers would indicate that they are our present, and our future.

Love the Hell Out of the World. March 3, 2014

Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
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Love the Hell Out of the World.
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on March 2, 2014


When I was a teenager, I was desperate to save people from spending eternity in hell. The youth group of the fundamentalist, evangelical nondenominational church that I belonged to would drive en-mass to a neighborhood and then go around knocking on doors, distributing tracts that talked about how believing in the wrong things could damn your soul to a future of fire and brimstone.

I tried very hard to fit into this youth group, but all the time, there was a nagging dis-ease in me. I would repent, and dedicate myself to saving others, over and over again, but at my core, this theology based on fear and retribution did not work for me.

It was not long before there came a time when I could no longer believe, or even pretend to believe, that God would inflict such torment on the starving children in Africa who had never heard of the Resurrection. There came a time when I could not longer believe that “Jesus loves the little children” but his Father condemns some of those same children to eternity in hell. There came a time when I realized that, if God truly is a God of love, there is no way that he/she/it could possibly love me any less than my parents do, and they would never, ever do something that horrible, that permanent, to me.

I wish that when I was about 18 I had heard the story about Hosea Ballou that we heard in our Moment for All Ages. I would have become a Universalist on the spot “Father, I remember what you told me when I was small. I believe that even if God is disappointed with people, or a little angry with them, God will always love them and want them to be happy, no matter what they do, and no matter how muddy they are.”

The road was a bit more winding for me, but it was not too long before I found Unitarian Universalism. It was not too long before I came to feel a deep awe that in this vast, mysterious universe, you exist, and I exist, and we all exist and live and love

Love the Hell Out of the World

and are loved in return. That instead of trying to save the world from eternal damnation, I would instead try to love the hell out of it.

Many of us believe that, at the core of Unitarian Universalism, our mission is to love the hell out of the world. Such a fabulous phrase from my friend and colleague, Joanna Crawford. Like all good ideas, it has been seized and claimed by many others, including myself, not only as a personal mission but as a core theological statement. And it continues to capture attention and imagination, not only because you can’t help but smile impishly when you say it, but because it has multiple levels of interpretation.

First, there is the “Love the world a whole heck-of-lot” interpretation. This understanding recognizes the incredible wonder that life exists, that beauty exists, that we are made of star stuff and all a part of the interdependent web of existence. When you love the world a whole, you appreciate a loving relationship, recognize the beauty of a sunset, an embrace, a walk in the woods, marvel at the unending drive of humanity to find meaning and the amazing things we create in the process. E. B. White is rumoured to have said that he wakes up in the morning torn between a desire to save the world, or to savor it. This first interpretation is one of savoring.

The second way to interpret “Love the HELL Out of the World” touches on the saving of it. This “old world is full of sorrow, full of sickness, weak and sore.” You don’t have to look far to see that as beautiful and wonderful as the world can be, so can it also be a hell. A hell that imprisons people in poverty, oppression, injustice. A hell of alienation, isolation and distrust.

Martin Luther King, Jr, once said “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” To love the hell out of the world is to drive out hate with love. It is to create salvation – not in some other world, but in this one, right now. To work to create the beloved community, where the inherent worth and dignity of each person is respected and where all have access to peace and justice.

Loving the hell out of the world means you don’t have to be torn between a desire to save the world, or to savor it – it means that both go hand in hand.

And there is a third way to interpret what it means to love the hell out of the world – a third way that is increasingly apt given the way the religious right tries to use the fear of eternal damnation to oppress people and keep them in line. In this interpretation, loving the Hell out of the world means fighting the forces of that fear, not with anger or frustration, but with love. Again, I appeal to Martin Luther King, Jr, who, in our opening words, said that “Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear, only love can do that.”
I have heard it said, and perhaps you have too, that Unitarian Universalists can “believe anything they want.” This is not true, and I will get to that in a moment. But I see where it comes from. Our Unitarian forebears said that each person possesses the capability to look at Scripture and interpret it for themselves. This expanded to an understanding that each person can experience the divine in our own way. It is from the Unitarian side of our heritage that we uphold freedom, reason and tolerance. Misinterpreted, I can see how someone might shorten all this “You can believe whatever you want.”

But this is incorrect because, at the very least, there is no room for belief in eternal damnation in Unitarian Universalism. And that comes from our Universalist heritage of faith, hope, and love.

In the United States, Universalism arose in the late 18th century. George de Benneville was a French preacher and physician who was imprisoned in France for advocating Universalism. When he immigrated to America, he continued preaching Universalism and gathered quite a following. John Murray founded the first American Universalist meeting house in 1790. And Elhanan Winchester founded the first Universalist church in Philadelphia and wrote several books promoting the universal salvation of all souls. These men, and others, preached a theology of Universal salvation out of protest against Calvinism and it’s theology of predestination – the idea that even before a person was born, God would know whether that person was destined for heaven, or hell. Murray, de Benneville, Winchester and their contemporaries agreed with the Calvinists that God is just, but then argued that this meant that there was nothing a human being could do that would justify eternal damnation. Amongst themselves, they agreed that one’s soul might spend a brief time in purgatory in punishment. But all would be united with God in heaven eventually.

The next generation of Universalists, like Hosea Ballou, were called Ultra-universalists. They understood God as a God of love, the ultimate parent. They believed that no matter how poorly we humans behave, God still wants what is best for us – nothing can separate us from God’s love. And so all people will be united with God in heaven, without any time of punishment or suffering.

There is another wonderful story about Ballou (there are many of them, actually!). He was riding between pulpits, when

“he stopped for the night at a New England farmhouse. The farmer was upset. He confided to Ballou that his son was a terror who got drunk in the village every night and who fooled around with women. The farmer was afraid the son would go to hell. “All right,” said Ballou with a serious face. “We’ll find a place on the path where your son will be coming home drunk, and we’ll build a big fire, and when he comes home, we’ll grab him and throw him into it.” The farmer was shocked: “That’s my son and I love him!” Ballou said, “If you, a human and imperfect father, love your son so much that you wouldn’t throw him in the fire, then how can you possibly believe that God, the perfect father, would do so!”

Today, many, many Christians hold to the theology of eventual universal salvation, even if it is not official church dogma. But back then, it was threatening. People were concerned that the Devil was using Universalism to preach a false doctrine that would inevitable damn its followers. Here in Louisville, the Universalist church (which merged with the Unitarian church in 1870), was called “The Devil’s Chapel.” This was not a term of endearment!

Universalists believe that God loves each and every one of us. And therefore, we should treat each other accordingly. This made them vigilantly evangelical and caused them to be very active in the social justice causes of the times, such as abolition, the separation of church and state, and the ordination of women.

Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Josh Pawelek, writes that today, this positive theology manifests as a “a life-saving, life-giving, life-enhancing religious response to all those theologies that drive arbitrary wedges between people, that seek to frighten people into faith, and that teach people of their inherent sinfulness rather than their beauty, worth, and potential.

Indeed, I see a direct line between historical Universalism and our current “Standing on the Side of Love” campaign. If God won’t be damning people to eternity in hell in the afterlife, shouldn’t we be working to free people from hell in this life? Or, put another way, if we are all connected in sacred mystery, then no one can be free of suffering while others are oppressed.

Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed reminds us that “in being loved we learn to love. Those who are loved will in turn love others. Those who feel God’s infinite love within themselves will feel so good about themselves, so connected to life, so full of compassion that they will not be able to help but to spread that love. They will overflow with love.” We strive to be God’s hands, the embodiment of the divine in the world, to create heaven on earth for one another – to create the beloved community where all are loved because all are loved.

Building on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s statement that only love can defeat fear, blogger Tom Earthman urges us, as Unitarian Universalists, to take up the mission to love the hell out of the world because when we do, love becomes a new kind of battlefield, and we become “fighters in a sort of war against fear, hate, and ignorance. It gets us hurt, to open our hearts to others. We really do share the pain of those who are suffering…We need to focus on healing people, however large or small their hurts, and sending them back into the world to share love.”

I recall a time more recently when I was in the trenches, fighting on the side of love rather than the side of fear, working as a chaplain in the cardiac unit of a local hospital. A woman I was visiting opened up to me. She told me that she was afraid of dying because she was estranged from her brother and wanted to reconcile with him. “But he is gay,” she told me, and her church had told her she was not to associate with him because he was a sinner, doomed to eternity in hell. “Do you believe God is like that?” she cried out to me, obviously in pain – torn between her love of her brother and her fear for her own soul. It would do no good for me to explain to her that I was agnostic, at best. “You love your brother, I can see that.” I told her. “Would you damn him to hell to eternity for being gay?” “Of course not!” she replied. “So how could God be any less loving than you?” She broke down, called her brother, who came in to visit her and they reconciled. She told me later that her heart, which had been so full of pain and fear, was now overflowing with love and gratitude. And she made a speedy physical recovery.

Loving the hell out of the world means being in relationship with the world. It means constantly expanding who “we” are. It means challenging ourselves to not turn away from the pain within ourselves and within others. Loving the hell out of the world means loving each other out of hell. It means listening to one another, learning from one another, helping each other. It does not mean we will always agree – we won’t – but it means we will stay in conversation because our mission is the same, even if our politics or theology are different. Loving the hell out of the world means overcoming fear, bitterness, and hatred, with abounding and embodied love.

This world may be full of sorrow. But a bright new day is dawning – a day when we are able to love each out out of hell, out of suffering, out of injustice. This is the divine vision. It is a Universalist vision, and it is why we stand on the side of love. May we each go our way this morning, knowing we are called to love the hell out of the world, to both save it and savor it. There can be no other way. May it be so. Blessed be.

Aliens, ExtraTerrestrials and Faith February 18, 2014

Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
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I have to be one of the luckiest people in the world, because for the past 2 weeks at church, I got to preach on one of my favorite topics: Astrobiology.  Yes, I preached actual sermons wondering if there is a biological imperative to life and sharing how my personal faith is so bound up in the awe-someness of the cosmos.

The sermons were pulled from a paper I wrote two years ago for my study group, so I suggest you check out the footnote-heavy paper, entitled “Astrobiology as Contemporary Theology or Why Extra-Terrestrial Life Matters.”  Here is the table of contents:

  • Introduction
  • The Vast Cosmos
  • Astrobiology
    • An Imperative to Life?
    • Potential Forms of ETL
    • Potential Forms of Contact
  • Mileage May Vary
    • Attempting to Quantify
    • Cultural Responses
    • Religious Crisis?
      • Historical Search
      • Current Status
  • Arguments Against ETL
  • ETL & Faith: A Personal Reflection
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography

In the services, I included this video from Symphony of Science:

Last week, we started with these words from Robert T. Weston (who served my congregation 50 years ago):

Out of the stars in their flight, out of the dust of eternity,
here have we come,
Stardust and sunlight,
mingling through time and through space.

Out of the stars have we come,
up from time.
Out of the stars have we come.

Time out of time before time
in the vastness of space,
earth spun to orbit the sun,
Earth with the thunder of mountains newborn,
the boiling of seas.

Earth warmed by sun, lit by sunlight;
This is our home;
Out of the stars have we come.

Mystery hidden in mystery,
back through all time;
Mystery rising from rocks
in the storm and the sea.

Out of the stars, rising from rocks
and the sea,
kindled by sunlight on earth,
arose life.

Ponder this thing in your heart,
life up from sea:
Eyes to behold, throats to sing,
mates to love.

Life from the sea, warmed by sun,
washed by rain,
life from within, giving birth,
rose to love.

This is the wonder of time;
this is the marvel of space;
out of the stars swung the earth;
life upon earth rose to love.

This is the marvel of life,
rising to see and to know;
Out of your heart, cry wonder:
sing that we live.

This week, we started with these words from Carl Sagan:

In its encounter with Nature, science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe. The very act of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging, even if on a very modest scale, with the magnificence of the Cosmos…Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.

And we ended with Commander Chris Hadfield’s Space Oddity:

I didn’t get a chance to include this one, but yay for blogging because here it is! The trailer for the new COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey with one of my heros, Neil deGrasse Tyson, which debuts March 9, 2014!!!

May you never cease to wonder when you gaze up into the stars.

Surprised People React Poorly. February 15, 2014

Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
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One of the first things I learned in ministry is that surprised people react poorly.  A corollary to this is that people who feel left out of the process also react poorly.  Combine the two, surprised people who feel left out of the process, and you get the recent burst of energy around the new UUA logo.

UUALogoA little background: On Thursday, the UUA announced and unveiled a new logo as the first step of what seems to be a multistep process to update our image.  You can read about it in this UU World article.  Needless to say, the blogosphere and social media exploded with critique.

I want to take a number of steps back, one at a time, in order to better understand the critique.  I am not going to get into the value or design of the new logo – I want to look at process.

0 Steps back:  This was a surprise.  Most of my clergy colleagues had no idea this was underway.  In addition, the announcement indicates more changes are ahead but, other than an upgrade to the website, does not indicate what those changes may be, or even what the nature of those changes may be.  Surprised people who felt left out of the process reacted poorly.

1 Step back: This is the second surprise in two weeks.  Just 10 days earlier, the UU World reported on the UUA Trustees meeting where the UUA Administration urged a change in how we think of the role of the Association, moving toward being a “religious movement focused on cultural transformation.” Unfortunately, it sounded as though congregations were being left behind in this transformation, and this made many people very upset.

2 Steps back: Many of us are mourning the loss of the historical Beacon Street location as we move to a new building.  Even as we understand the reasoning, we grieve.  Change is hard, as it requires losing something.  It can be hard to focus on what we might gain.  From here, the level of anxiety in the UU system is already  high due to the nature of this identity change.

3 Steps back: Increasing the anxiety in the system is the awareness that the President and previous Moderator had such conflict within the last few years that the UUA Board brought in a paid mediator.

A view from the balcony:  Combine the anxiety in the system with our love/hate relationship with authority (whether it be in the form of a minister or in the form of “the UUA”) recently highlighted in the Commission on Appraisal report “Who’s in Charge Here?” and one could probably predict this reaction.

Towards a 2-part solution: Trust is a 2-way street. I encourage those of us on the sidelines to recognize our own reactivity, our own distrust of authority, and remember that we are the UUA.  The people we tend to point fingers at care very, very deeply about our faith tradition and are hard at work trying to ensure our future.   We do a thorough job of holding them accountable, but can we practice occasionally cutting them some slack? Apparently, this new logo wasn’t a whim and wasn’t created out of thin air, but has been a year-long process of dialogue with 50 different UU stakeholders (according to the recent VUU episode available here, particularly at 30:49).

And, for the UUA Administration, it would be much easier to cut some slack if we had confidence in where we are going.  I am reminded of a GPS I use which won’t ever give me the whole map of where I am going, but only shares one turn at a time. I hate it because I never really know if it is directing me to my desired destination.  Give me the whole map at once (rather than just pieces at a time) and then I will be more likely to trust each individual turn. I want the same from my UUA Administration. You seem to have been working from a plan – please share it in more detail. If it concerns the future direction of our Association, publish it beyond the Board.  The recent Presidents report to the Board mentioned this change in “branding” but if someone isn’t on the Board, or isn’t a geek that goes to read the Board reports and minutes, s/he would not have known this turn was coming up. All of the info I have read about the new logo focuses on how we engaged consultants to come up with this logo, but what matters to me is that UU stakeholders were involved.  Trust us enough to give us information that will better enable us to trust you.

The anxiety in our UU system is quite high right now.  Just as surprised people who feel left out of the process tend to react poorly, so also is the inverse true: Informed people who are brought along in the process tend to be more invested in the outcome.

Reproductive Justice January 29, 2014

Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
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Reproductive Justice
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on January 26, 2014

There is hardly an area of human life that we clergy don’t see our interactions with people. A person will come to us with when there is trouble in her family, when he has questions about a decision he is about to make, when she is not sure what to do next. People come to us to celebrate decisions to bind their lives together, they come when they mourn the loss of such a covenantal relationship, they come when they find themselves facing an a decision about whether to become a parent, or how to make that happen. You can go to your clergy person (me!) seeking guidance, discernment, and support (spiritual, emotional or financial). I don’t think there is an area of human life that clergy don’t see in our interactions with people. As such, we are on the front line when it comes to questions of how to have children, how not to have children, and how to raise children in a safe and healthy environment. And these are the questions fundamental to reproductive justice.

Reproductive justice recognizes that all people and communities should have the social, spiritual, economic and political means to experience the sacred gift of sexuality with health and wholeness. Rather than just telling the government to “butt-out,” reproductive justice asserts that government must have a central role in eliminating the many, many social inequalities that are related to reproductive oppressions.

What are reproductive oppressions? Year after year, in far too many states, there are proposals that go before state legislatures that seek to limit a person’s access to comprehensive sexuality eduction, seek to limit a person’s access to the full range of pregnancy-related healthcare, including contraception and abortion, and seek to deny critical family support.

Friday’s Courier-Journal had an excellent article by Amber Duke, which highlights some of the ways the KY legislature is seeking to impose more reproductive oppressions: Senate Bill 3 would require a woman to come to a clinic in person 24 hours before an abortion; House Bill 163 takes this even further and requires this extra meeting before even a medication prescription that would terminate a pregnancy; Senate Bill 8 would require a woman seeking an abortion to undergo a medically unnecessary ultrasound AND require the doctor to tell her information even if she does not want to hear it; Senate Bill 57 would make it a crime in KY for a doctor to perform an abortion after 20 weeks.

Many of those seeking to further these reproductive oppressions claim that they do so on the basis of their religious tradition, or because their faith calls them to. This leads many, politicians and otherwise, to a severe misunderstanding that to be a religious person means to fit into a particular, narrow box, but that is just not the case. To be religious does not at all mean to oppose reproductive health, rights and justice. This is only one, small religious perspective.

Many people of a variety of religious perspectives, including Unitarian Universalism, support reproductive justice. This does not mean we agree all time the time – we don’t. Even within our faith tradition we disagree on particulars, on specifics. And this disagreement is okay – it is even healthy. This is why the Reproductive Justice Congregational Study/Action Item that we heard about in our reading asks questions rather than providing one-size-fits-all answers. However, what is not healthy, what is not just, is when one particular religious perspective gets written into law. When this happens, it removes an individual’s moral authority – a moral authority that all faith traditions support. When one particular, narrow religious perspective gets written into law, it removes a person’s ability to make choices according to his or her own religious beliefs and conscience. When one particular, narrow religious perspective gets written into law, it denies the reality that there are other religious perspectives that are crying for wholeness and justice.

Many people of a variety of religious perspectives, including Unitarian Universalism, support comprehensive, science-based sex education programs – like our OWL program which we heard about in our Moment for All Ages. In some religious traditions, people are taught that we are all made in the image of God. As Unitarian Universalists, we honor each person’s inherent worth and dignity. The Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing, which many faith leaders have endorsed, reminds us that we celebrate the goodness of creation, including our bodies and our sexuality. We believe “all persons have the right and responsibility to lead sexual lives that express love, justice, mutuality, commitment, consent, and pleasure.” When we celebrate our sexuality with holiness and integrity, we participate in a life-giving and life-fulfilling gift.

And it is important that we understand this gift! This means supporting science-based sexuality education programs that are age-appropriate, accurate, and truthful. People often need support in order to more fully develop their capacity for moral discernment. Sexuality education that respects and empowers people has more integrity than education based on incomplete information, fear, and shame. Programs that teach abstinence only and withhold information about pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease prevention fail our young people.

Our OWL facilitators shared with me some of their reasons for teaching OWL. Several shared that they appreciate the sex positive approach. One said “Having a healthy perspective on sexuality at a young age enables young people to grow into adulthood seeking positive relationships with others and making healthier decisions.” Another shared that “in the rape culture in which we live, it is critically important for everyone from kindergarten to adulthood to understand consent” which is covered extensively at every level of OWL . A common theme from our facilitators was that OWL helps participants become comfortable with their sexuality and that the benefits to this comfort are numerous.

Young people require the skills to make moral and healthy decisions about relationships for themselves now and in their future adult lives. They need help to develop the capacity for personal relationships that express love, justice, mutuality, commitment, consent, and pleasure. We believe that the ability to make informed, moral choices is a sacred part of what it means to be human. To respect a person means to give them accurate information they need to make a meaningful, moral decision about whether, when, and how to parent. Comprehensive, science-based sexuality education gives people the help and skills they need.

In addition to comprehensive sexuality education, many people of a variety of religious perspectives, including Unitarian Universalism, support access to the full range of pregnancy-related healthcare, including contraception and abortion. The decision about becoming a parent is one of the largest decisions a person will make. And yet a small group of religious conservatives wants to limit and restrict access to healthcare services that would best help someone make the decision about whether or not they are able to parent.

As Rev. Thom Belote points out “An employer may have a moral opposition to alcohol, but no employer is trying to deny [healthcare] coverage for liver transplants. An employer may have a moral opposition to smoking, but no employer is trying to deny [healthcare] coverage for lung cancer. An employer may have a moral opposition to red meat, but not a single employer is trying to deny [healthcare] coverage for colon cancer. Why is this?” It is because these conditions are seen as a part of healthcare, but contraception is viewed by a small group of people not as healthcare, but as part of their narrow religious agenda.

It is unacceptable for our laws to willingly and consistently single out women, particularly low-income women, specifically for the purposes of denying access to healthcare. And this is the situation right now with abortion and lack of access to contraception. By making a woman take time off not just one day but two days for a medically unnecessary ultrasound the day before an abortion; Or by allowing doctors and pharmacies to put limits on what medically necessary healthcare treatment, services, and pharmaceuticals they provide; By making it harder for a woman in need to access these services the government is putting up barriers that are unjust and unfair. Besides, as Derek Selznick points out in todays’ Courier-Journal, providing family planning services would actually SAVE the United States $4.3 BILLION annually in maternity and infant care!

We see this injustice in the growing Catholic hospital system. Between the years of 2001 and 2010, the number of Catholic non-profit hospitals in the United States grew by 16%. During this same time, other nonprofit and public hospitals saw a serious decline. Catholic hospitals now make up 10 of the largest 25 healthcare systems in this country. The Ethical and Religious Directives, issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, govern medical care at all Catholic hospitals — “and influence care at secular hospitals that merge or affiliate with Catholic providers. The directives ban elective abortion, sterilization, and birth control and restrict fertility treatments, genetic testing, and end-of-life options.” However, they do not stop there. “Depending on the hospital and the local bishop, they may also be interpreted to limit crisis care for women suffering miscarriages or ectopic pregnancies, emergency contraception for sexual assault, and even the ability of doctors and nurses to discuss treatment options or make referrals.” This is reproductive oppression, particularly for low-income women who may not have access to a high-priced for-profit hospital.

Instead, we seek reproductive justice. We understand compassion to be at the core of our relationships with one another. We may have different beliefs about abortion, and still agree to respect a woman’s right to make decisions according to her own beliefs, according to her own conscience.

A common theme across religious traditions is the importance of caring for people who, for reasons of poverty, race, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status or other factors, struggle against hardship and oppression. This ethical obligation to justice is central to our understanding of faith, and it calls us to eliminate the enormous disparities which exist in access to reproductive healthcare.

Finally, many people of a variety of religious perspectives, including Unitarian Universalism, support healthy families. Our children are not just our future, they are our present. It is the seat of hypocrisy for lawmakers to deny access to contraception and abortion and then penalize families by cutting access to childcare and other supportive services. When food stamp programs are cut and no alternate plan is put in place, then children go to school hungry. And people then wonder why these hungry kids can’t sit still, or can’t learn? People wonder why their test scores are low?

Safe, affordable childcare is also important. When parents don’t have access to reliable, affordable childcare, they are often forced to take unpaid time off to care for children. Kentucky’s child care subsidy program for low-income working families has almost 20% fewer children participants than a year ago due to cuts – but what do you think is happening to those families who relied on this support in order to work or go to school? They are forced to make impossible choices that put their children and their futures at risk.

A family also deserves access to decent, affordable housing. There is a direct link between the stability of a child’s home situation and how well they do in school. It will be interesting to see what becoming an “Innovation District” will do for Jefferson County Public Schools when recent reports are that more than 10% of the students in Jefferson County are homeless.

Because of our belief in the inherent worth and dignity of each person, we are called to create a world where every individual and every family can have access to what they need to thrive. In the United States, we say it is the role of government to ensure domestic tranquility and to promote the general welfare. It is not the job of the government to impose one set of religious views on everyone, but instead to protect each person’s right and ability to make decisions according to their own beliefs.

Reproductive justice is a complex issue that requires a complex response. To pursue reproductive justice means to ask many questions, like How do power structures limit individuals’ access to reproductive justice? Or How can eliminating racism, classism and sexism reduce the need for abortion and enable families to care for the children they do have? Our role is not to stand in judgment of someone in whose shoes we have not walked, not to pressure others to accept our views, but to walk with those in need as they find their own path. It is not acceptable when one group has it’s views written into law such that other people are denied the ability to make their own decisions. Instead, all people deserve to have the social, spiritual, economic and political means to experience the sacred gift of sexuality with health and wholeness. May it be so. May our justice seeking help to make it so.

Loving each other out of hell. January 9, 2014

Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
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On many days, usually in the middle of the evening, I get tired. Exhausted, really. When this happens, I get hurt by things which normally would just bounce off me. I have less patience. I get defensive about things which are no big deal. I have learned that when I get to this point, I have to stop looking at the computer: no reading blogs, no reading news, no email, no facebook, nothing. Because I am not at my best when I hit this point of exhaustion. Not even close.

I suspect there is a lot of this exhaustion being expressed in a discussion of a UUA holiday e-greeting that is making the rounds on facebook. Rather than get into the details of the conflict, I want to get up on the balcony and look at how we are treating one another in this discussion. Because that, my friends, is telling.

In short, someone shared that the e-greeting had hurt them. And the response was not one of sympathy or empathy, but one of defensive posturing. The people who shared how they were personally hurt were told they should not feel that way. The responses were judgmental and dismissive. It reminded me of how I feel when I break my rule and go ahead and write an email after I have hit the point of exhaustion. This discussion has not typified our best selves and, indeed, is destructive.

Tom Schade points out that we, as Unitarian Universalists, may be exhausted “as a seam of coal might be exhausted in a minining operation.” I think we are the other kind of exhausted as well – the worn out kind. I believe we are exhausted from our attempts to be perfect – perfect as individuals, and perfect as a faith tradition. And since this is a sisyphusian effort, we keep watching that boulder roll back down the hill. I am not sure how much longer we can take it.

I see the message of our failure to be perfect everywhere. We are not growing the way we “should” be. We are not attracting the “nones” the way we “should” be. We are not, we are not, we are not. The message I hear is that we are not perfect, but we “should” be. This is a lot of pressure, and it is exhausting.

In our exhaustion from never being good enough, we turn on each other. We are drawn to the familiar and hunker down with what we know. When we are challenged or confronted with difference, we lash out becuase it is yet another reminder of our imperfections.

But we are not supposed to be perfect. I learned that the hard way, too. Perfection is a noose that chokes creativitity, that chokes our relationship with ourselves, with a higher power, and with one another. And it is not our heritage! Our Universalist forbears didn’t say we had to be perfect to earn the right to be with God. We didn’t have to believe the right thing, do the right thing. Simply being was enough to earn God’s love.

If our mission is perfection, we are doomed to fail. But I don’t think that is our mission. Neither do I believe our mission as Unitarian Universalists is to be larger in numbers or have larger churches. Our mission is not to be the religion of our time, our mission is not to be a religious home for the “nones.” Our mission is not even to make sure we don’t die out. These are all perfectly fine as goals, but they must not be thought of as our mission because they are too self-serving and do nothing to ease the pain and suffering all around us and inside us.

Instead, I believe is our mission is to love the hell out of the world. This means being in relationship with the world. It means constantly expanding who “we” are. It means challenging ourselves to listen more and put down our need to be right all the time. It does not mean we will always agree – we won’t – but it means we will stay in conversation without trying to convince the other person we are right. We will stay in conversation because we will want to hear more about their story.

Loving the hell out of the world means loving each other out of hell. It means realizing how hard it is for someone to say “this hurts” and celebrating their strength and honesty rather than trying to correct them. It means being curious about why I get defensive if someone points out how I might have unintentionally hurt them. It means being aware of when I am more likely to get defensive and setting limits on myself. It means paying attention to the log/plank in my own eye rather than focusing on the speck in someone else’s eye.

Loving the hell out of the world also means not just being willing to fail but actually failing. It means eating some humble pie and getting used to saying “I am sorry” without blaming the other person. It means developing an ego and an identity that is not based on some unobtainable perfection but on our ability to be vulnerable with each other so that we might find strength in that vulnerability.

Because, dear ones, that vulnerability, not perfection, is what connects us. And I believe that in the end, it will be what saves us as well.

Moments of Peace December 22, 2013

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Moments of Peace
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on December 22, 2013

Two weeks ago, the Louisville area shut down due to snow. My Saturday event was rescheduled, and then church was canceled on Sunday (the service will be held next week instead). I found myself with something that I rarely get in this holiday season: time. And so my family seized the moment: music played, the tree was put up and decorated, stockings were hung, and dozens of cookies were made, iced, and (of course) eaten. It was calm, peaceful, and a wonderful respite.

As much as I love the concepts behind this holiday season: ideals of love, hope, giving, and gratitude, I am saddened to see what this time of year is becoming. Instead of giving, it is about receiving. Instead of gratitude, it is about getting the best deal. Instead of hope and love and family it is about getting what is mine, even if it means making someone else work on Thanksgiving so that I can get a good deal. One of these years, I want to start a Black Friday service, as they do at Unity Church -Unitarian in St. Paul. I also want to run the “Unplugging the Christmas Machine” curriculum. But not this year – too busy.

For many of us, this holiday season is just that: too busy. Potlucks, parties, gifts, decorating, and so much more. For a time of year when the ancient tradition is to turn inwards, to become reflective and contemplative as the days grow shorter and shorter, many of us seem to be putting in longer and longer hours and just don’t have time to reflect. For others, it is a sad and lonely time when we feel left out.  And as we get more and more stressed, it can be difficult to capture the joy we think we are supposed to be feeling right now.

Interestingly enough, that Saturday event that got rescheduled due to the snow addressed just this topic. I had been invited by a friend and colleague to speak to the local chapter of Church Women United, a racially, culturally, theologically inclusive Christian women’s movement, celebrating unity in diversity and working for a world of peace and justice. Their theme was “Song, Pray and Praise!” and my colleague told me I could preach on anything I wanted. I ended up choosing something from the Christian Scriptures, 1 Thessalonians chapter 5.

It had been a long time since I preached on the Christian Scriptures, but this passage just called to me. And although normally I would preach on the Solstice this time of year, I would like to share with you what I shared with the Church Women United. This passage has a lot of wisdom in it that is particularly relevant for finding and creating moments of peace in our lives.

Some background, first. The book of 1st Thessalonians is the actually the oldest book in the New Testament of the Christian Scriptures. Scholars date it to having been written in the year 51. Compare this to the Gospel of Mark, the oldest of the gospels, which was written in about the year 70. Plus, unlike all of the gospels, which are attributed to specific followers of Jesus but weren’t actually written by those followers, 1st Thessalonians is actually a letter written by Paul to the new church in Thessaloniki (today, the city of Salonica.)

Paul is an interesting and important character in the Christian Scriptures. There are many letters by him to various churches he founded, and many letters that SAY they are by him but aren’t really. He was born a Jew, and actually persecuted Christians before he had a very intense conversion experience on the Road to Damascus. After that, he went around starting churches and spreading the word about Jesus being the Lord and Savior.

The book of Acts, chapters 16-17, tell us that after a bad experience in Philippi, Paul and his friend Silas came to Thessaloniki to set up a congregation. As was Paul’s custom, he also visited the local Jewish synagogue and told them about this new group he was starting. They did not take too kindly to him, and Paul and Silas ended up having to leave Thessaloniki in the middle of the night. They went to Beroea, and then on to Athens.

In Athens, Paul sent another friend, Timothy, back to Thessaloniki to check on how the church was doing. When Timothy returned, it was with favorable news about the church in Thessaloniki. But Timothy also shared reports about the anxiety the church was dealing with over Paul’s failure to return to them. So Paul wrote 1st Thessalonians to address their anxiety and to encourage them in their endeavors. In the letter, Paul shares his ongoing concern for the new, struggling church and reinforces his original teachings about how the new Christians were to be in relationship with God. And then, most relevant to today, Paul talks about how the church members should behave towards one another, in their own spiritual lives, and in relationship to the larger community.

In chapter 5, verses 12-22, Paul lists 10 qualities that the members of this early Christian community should cultivate, divided up into three sections. In the first section, verses 12-15, Paul addresses how the church members should relate to each other. Respect each other and your leaders, he says. Be at peace among yourselves, “admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them.” And, make sure that none of you repays evil for evil, he says, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. This is how Paul tells the church to be with each other, suggestions that are just as true today as they were almost 2000 years ago.

In the last section, verses 19-22, Paul gives a bit of advice on how the church members should be in the world around them. Don’t stifle the work of the Spirit, Paul says. And pay attention – some of those around you have their finger on the pulse of the truth. But, don’t believe everything you hear: test everything; hold fast to what is good. And, just to make sure he doesn’t leave anything out, as his very last words in the letter he admonish them to “abstain from every form of evil.” Again, good advice today, just as it was so long ago.

But I really want to focus on the three pieces of advice he shares in verses 16-18: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances.

This is quite a list. The folks in Thessaloniki were having a hard time – their leader had left them, they were being persecuted by others in the city. It was a crazy time. And check out what three of those pieces of advice are: rejoice, pray, and be thankful – always rejoice, pray, and be thankful.

These are personal instructions for how to develop a spiritual practice that will give us strength and sustenance in the midst of conflict and change, or even in the midst of a holiday season that is supposed to be about peace and instead has become a flurry of consumerism. These instructions from Paul are ways to nurture our spirits so that we might find peace within ourselves, even against the chaos of the world around us.

But I have a disagreement with Paul. I think he put these in the wrong order. I think the order should instead be that first, we adopt an attitude of gratitude. Second, we cultivate an active prayer life, and (finally) that with these will come the ability to experience great depths of joy.

First, give thanks. Having an “Attitude of gratitude” has become has become pretty popular in the past few years, and indeed the psychological benefits of gratitude are numerous. Being grateful has “been linked to better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others, including romantic partners.” And, a 2011 study shows “that feeling grateful makes people less likely to turn aggressive when provoked.” So it is no wonder that Paul would suggest that the Thessalonians work on their gratitude.

It is easy to add a practice of gratitude to our lives – in the evening, do a quick review of the day on your own or maybe at a family meal. Think of at least one, maybe even as many as 3 or 5 things, for which you are grateful. Write them down if you want, or not. I know one couple that was having difficulties in their marriage. So every night, before going to bed, each of them would write down in a notebook 3 things about the other person for which they had been grateful that day. They would put the notebooks somewhere so that their partner would read those three things first thing in the morning. They credit this practice with saving their marriage as they learned to appreciate each other at a deeper level, and they felt that appreciation from their partner. Cultivating an attitude of gratitude changes us, for the good.

I would like you to take a moment, right now, and think of one thing that you are grateful for this morning that you can share with someone else….Now turn to someone sitting near you and share that one thing you are grateful for.

In verse 17, Paul also says “Pray without ceasing.” Prayer is sometimes a loaded word for Unitarian Universalists, so I want you to feel free to interpret this one however it works best for you. Paul came from the Jewish tradition, and in Hebrew the word for prayer is tefilah, which is derived from another word that means “to judge oneself. This surprising word origin provides insight into the purpose of Jewish prayer. The most important part of any Jewish prayer, whether it be a prayer of petition, of thanksgiving, of praise of G-d, or of confession, is the introspection it provides, the moment that we spend looking inside ourselves, seeing our role in the universe and our relationship to G-d.” When we pray without ceasing, we increase our awareness of the many ways the Spirit of Life is present in our lives. It deepens our relationship and experience of the divine. Another way to understand this recommendation is to practice mindfulness. As we become aware of something larger than us, a Higher Power perhaps, moment by moment, it helps to put things into perspective. The ultra-long line at the checkout becomes an opportunity to look, really look at all those around us, to think about how we are connected to each person in line, to the person who is doing the check-out, to the clerks in the back who stock the shelves, to the production line employees who package the items, and all the way back to those who created the materials for whatever it is we are buying. In this way, we connect with the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part, and this puts our own rush into perspective. When we do this, we slow down, our anxiety decreases, and then we have even more to be thankful about!

I invite you now to take a moment in the spirit of prayer or meditation. In whatever way works best for you, take a moment to connect with or become aware of the divine, your higher power, the spirit of life and love…

And then the remaining instruction: “Rejoice always.” If we practice the other two: if we cultivate an attitude of gratitude and if we pray without ceasing, we are stretching the muscles that allow us to feel joy and happiness. Like a balloon being blown up, if we are constantly in prayer and gratitude, we will find ourselves able to hold more and more joy. It becomes a cycle: we deepen in our relationship with the Holy, and then will find many reasons to rejoice. Then we feel grateful and respond with prayer and praise. As we continue in this cycle, we also find ourselves focusing on the positive – we become optimistic and hopeful. We are more likely to feel moments of peace, event amidst the turmoil going on around us.

So I ask you now to give me an expression of joy. Perhaps a Huzzah! Or an Alleluia! or an Amen! or maybe throwing your arms into the air, or a big heavy sigh. Imagine yourself feeling a surge of joy…How would you express it?

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks” This is a timeless recipe for a spiritual practice that will sustain us through just about anything – a stressful holiday season, a changing culture, difficult times in the lives of our families, and so much more. It is a practice that can help us create those moments of peace that so many of us crave.

And so I invite us now to join in a song that is more of a chant, really. #388, Dona Nobis Pacem, Latin for “God give us Peace”. As we sing, I invite you to let your words become a prayer of gratitude, for this time that we have shared, for the beloved people around us, for the moments of peace we might find and create. Blessed Be.

becoming sexually healthy. November 12, 2013

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Becoming Sexually Healthy
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on November 10, 2013

Let’s talk about sex. In our society, we show it, sell it, display it, do it but we don’t seem to talk about it with each other very much. At least not in depth. The urgent need for this type of conversation was brought home for me recently. I was at a workshop with other religious professionals, and we were listening to a presentation by the Rev. Debra Haffner, co-founder of the Religious Institute – a multifaith organization dedicated to advocating for sexual health, education, and justice in faith communities and society. Haffner is a Unitarian Universalist minister herself, and has dedicated her life to helping individuals and institutions move toward sexual health.

She started by asking us to brainstorm ways that sexuality intersects with the lives of our congregants. Within just a few minutes, the list stretched across numerous sheets of newsprint: marriage, childbirth, people discovering or exploring their sexual orientation or their gender identity, miscarriages, abortion, reproductive justice, early sexuality, lack of sexual desire, parents of intersex children, people exploring a kink identity, infertility issues, assisted reproduction, impotence, frigidity, different sexual expectations in relationship, polyamorous families, dating after a long-term relationship, stalking, sexual abuse, rape, rape culture and how that affects our children, pornography addiction, sexting, and so much more.

It was a great way to start a workshop because it became apparent, very quickly, that issues around sexuality touch on some of the most important aspects of our lives as human beings. And it brought home to me the importance of talking about sex and sexuality from the pulpit, because to not talk about it is to ignore a crucial part of what it means to be a human being, what it means to search for that which has meaning (which we often find in our relationships with others,) and what it means to live knowing we will all eventually die. And these are the very issues that, as a minister, I am called to address!

Sexual health is just as important as physical health, mental health, and spiritual health. In her book A Time To Build: Creating Sexually Healthy Faith Communities, Haffner reminds us that “Our religious traditions affirm that sexuality is a divinely bestowed blessing for the purposes of expressing love, generating new life, and providing companionship and pleasure…[Our religious traditions] celebrate the goodness of creation, including our bodies and our sexuality…They teach that it is in our relationships with others that we understand God’s love for us, and it is in our experience of our sexuality that we come closest to being revealed to others.”

This is a positive affirmation of our human sexuality which, unfortunately, stands in stark contrast to the cultural messages about sex and sexuality that we receive. All around us, we see bodies portrayed as commodities, used to sell everything from soda to cars, from jeans to kitchen appliances. You can hardly turn on the television without coming across a show that either uses sex as a joke or contains steamy heterosexual sex scenes. Monica Nickelsburg, a production assistant at the online magazine “The Week” recently pointed out that “sexual violence is incredibly prevalent in primetime; it is the central premise of shows like Law and Order SVU and CSI, which week after week churn out episodes focused on rape, abduction, and violence against children. Meanwhile, the CW’s Gossip Girl and NBC’s Friday Night Lights, both geared toward teens, have jarring attempted rape scenes.”

But not “everything goes” on primetime. Gay and lesbian love scenes are still rare. And there are very, very few transgender characters. The rules are not really consistent and showcase the inherent sexism and bias between men and women’s sexuality. A recent show received quite a bit of attention for editing out a female masturbation scene but allowing, in its place, a very graphic sex scene between an older, powerful male character and younger female character. Nickelsburg observed “While not advocating for more censorship, such inconsistent and illogical methodology telegraphs to viewers that rape, sex between adults and minors, and violence are less obscene than a harmless scene depicting an activity most teens are probably already familiar with.”

Then there is the issue of porn. A pornography addiction website asserts that “Children are becoming addicted to pornography at startling rates. Most children view their first pornographic image online at the age of 11, and by the time they are 17, about 80 percent of them have watched pornographic videos online.” This is leading not only to an increase in pornography addiction but also to the normalization of pornographic sex acts. Young people are getting their ideas about what sex is “supposed” to be like – not from their parents, not from their schools sex educations programs (which are often nonexistant,) but from porn, either directly through their own viewing or indirectly through their peers who are watching it.

And lest we think that this is the extent our our ill health around about sex and sexuality in this country, let me me share some more sobering statistics from A Time to Build:

  • With ¾ of a million teenage women becoming pregnant each year, the United States teen pregnancy rate is almost 3x that of Germany and France, despite the similar age of sexual debut;
  • There are approximately 19 million new sexually transmitted infections (STI) each year – almost half of them among young people 15-24 years old. 65 million Americans have at least one viral STI, most commonly genital herpes;
  • Since the AIDS epidemic began, more than half a million people with AIDS have died, and more than 18,000 still die each year. More than a million people live with HIV infection in the United States, but one in five are unaware of their infection;
  • 85% of LGBT teens report being verbally harassed, 40% report being physically harassed, and nearly 20% report being physically assaulted at school due to their sexual orientation;
  • 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men experience child sexual abuse before age 18;
  • 1 in 6 women has been or will be a victim of attempted or completed rape. The numbers for male victims are hard to come by due to the extreme stigmatism, but indications are that at least 3% of men have experienced an attempted or completed rape.

We are not a sexually healthy country. Not by a long shot.

As Unitarian Universalists, we like to think of ourselves as generally counter-cultural but in truth we often have a hard time creating sexually healthy congregations. Many of our congregations, including this one, went through the Welcoming Congregation program years ago, but haven’t revisited it. Also, it is not uncommon for our congregations to treat sexuality education like an immunization – we give it to our children once when they are in middle-school and then pat ourselves on the back for being so progressive. I have been pleased with how important sexuality education is here at First Unitarian Church – we offer the full range of Our Whole Lives (OWL) programming to our children (our 4th and 5th graders are in OWL right now!!) and, for what I believe is the first time, we are going to be offering the Adult OWL class starting next month.

These are important steps towards being a sexually healthy congregation. But there is much more that we can do. There are three foundational steps that I would like to see us take as individuals and as a congregation – foundational steps that can help guide us onto the road towards a becoming more sexually healthy.

First, we can make sure we are using the correct terminology when we are talking about issues of identity.

1bodyWe cannot be welcoming to people if we are not clear about the differences between biology and gender expression, between sexual orientation and gender identity. Our alphabet soup of BGLTIQQAA (bi-sexual, gay, lesbian, transgender, intersex, queer, questioning, asexual and allies) is unwieldy and lumps all sorts of identities in together. The European convention of SO-GI (sexual orientation and gender identity) does better, but is still lacking. Thankfully, there is a lovely graphic that can help us understand this terminology.

Biological or natal sex refers to the type of genitalia a child is born with. 2bodyFor a long time, many assumed there were two sexes: male or female. However, western science has recently begun to understand a third option, intersex, meaning that a child has both male and female biological characteristics.

Sexual orientation refers to who we are sexually and romantically attracted to. This is who we love. 3bodyThe Kinsey Scale is the most common way of understanding sexual orientation, with 0 being purely attracted to the opposite sex and 6 being purely attracted to the same sex. Most people, however, fall somewhere in-between. A “3” on the Kinsey scale used to be called bi-sexual, but with our expanded understanding of sex and gender, it is starting to be referred to as pansexual or ambisexual.

Gender identity is how we think of ourselves as either male, female, or 3rd gender or gender-queer. 4bodyWhen a person’s gender identity and biological sex are not the same, the individual may identify as transsexual or as another transgender category.

Gender expression refers to how we present ourselves to the rest of the world in terms of clothing, communication patterns and interests.5body

A person’s gender expression may or may not be consistent with socially prescribed gender roles, and may or may not reflect his or her gender identity.

Media portrayals often only show the polar ends of these identities, leaving the middle lacking in representation. That means people in the middle often don’t see themselves represented in the media, and this can make them feel like they don’t exist or are somehow not ok. If we want to be truly welcoming to people across the broad spectrums of biological sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, we will become fluent in the language of identity.

To be a sexually healthy individual or congregation, we also should educate ourselves about sex and recent developments in the science of sex and intimacy. There have been quite a few really interesting developments, and there is a lot of misinformation out there! And contrary to what many of us might think, we really don’t know everything.  For instance, Rev. Haffner shared with us that contrary to how many people usually feel, everyone is not actually having hotter, better, and more frequent sex than you are (except in the media)! In fact, there is such a wide range of normal that the term is virtually useless. As an example, take an average American heterosexual married couple. They generally have sex 57 times a year for between 15-20 minutes at a time. However, 10% of these couples never have sex. And 33% of them have sex more than once per week.

For longterm couples of any sexual orientation, sex is a recommitment ritual. It is a way to declare “We are more than co-parents – more than business partners.” The biggest sexual problem people have in long term relationships is not attraction, it is anger and boredom, which can lead to lack of desire to engage in the recommitment ritual.

There has also been quite a bit of discovery on the differences between men and women in regards to desire and arousal. Men experience the desire for sex before they experience physical arousal. Since men were used as the norm against which to measure all things, this was assumed to be true of women as well. However, a recent study of female sexuality produced a startling discovery. University of British Columbia psychiatrist Rosemary Basson, M.D., discovered in interviews with hundreds of women that for many women desire is not the cause of lovemaking, but rather, its result. “Women,” Basson explains, “often begin sexual experiences feeling sexually neutral.” But as things heat up, so do they, and they eventually experience desire.

To be sexually healthy as an individual and as a congregation, we need to continue to educate ourselves about sexuality. I highly recommend the Adult OWL course coming up in December – don’t worry, you don’t have to share intimate details in the class!

A third foundational thing we can do to be sexually healthy is to advocate and practice new ways of talking about sex. In particular, moving from a baseball metaphor for sex to a pizza metaphor.

In baseball, Al Vernacchio says in this wonderful TED talk, there is a pitcher who performs a sex acts, and a catcher, who receives a sex act. A “home run” usually refers to penile-vaginal intercourse (PVI) with an orgasm for the guy (not necessarily the woman). If you “strike out,” you don’t get any. If you are “warming the bench,” you are either a virgin or someone who is not in the game due to age, ability or skill-set. A “glove” is a condom, a “switch-hitter” refers to someone who is bisexual, and gay and lesbian people are “playing for the other team.” You can only play baseball when it is in season, and there are certain times where you are expected to play whether you want to or not, such as at prom or on your wedding night. And baseball is competitive – you are not playing with each other, you playing against each other: one person is on offense, the other is on defense.

Baseball also has strict rules. You have to hit the ball and then run the bases in order. You can’t just go running into right field. And if you get to second base and decide you like it there, you can’t just hang out there. In baseball, you play to win, scoring as many runs as you can. There is always a winner, and always a loser. And there is no communicating: everyone knows rules, take their position and plays the game. Vernacchio says that this model is sexist, heterosexist, competitive, goal-directed, and, he says, it cannot result in young people or adults developing healthy sexuality.

Pizza, however, is universally understood and most people associate it with a positive experience. You have pizza when you are hungry for it. It starts with an internal sense or desire, so there is some sense of control. You might decide you are hungry but know it is not a great time to eat. You can eat pizza by yourself and be perfectly content, no matter wht the television stations seem to think. When you eat pizza with someone, you are not competing but are instead hoping that it will be a satisfying experience for everyone involved. You talk about it with whomever is joining you: what do you feel like? Pepperoni? Mushrooms? Vernacchio points out that even if you have had pizza with someone for a very long time, you still communicate: So, do you want the usual? Or something more spicy and adventurous?

Pizza is all about what we feel like – there are a million different topping combinations, and a million ways to eat it. You can eat it in the standard way, or roll it up or eat the crust first.  There is no wrong way.  And with pizza, there is no winner and no loser. We eat until we are satisfied and we get to decide when that is. Vernacchio says that the pizza metaphor leads to a way of understanding sexuality that is inclusive, cooperative, communicative, internally controlled, invites exploration and aims for satisfaction. Much better than baseball!

And much healthier, which is the goal. So here are three are some foundational steps towards a countercultural model of sexual health in our congregations and in our individual lives: becoming fluent in the language of identity, educating ourselves about sex and recent developments in the science of sex and intimacy, and starting to use a more inclusive metaphor when we talk about sex. Once we take these steps, we can begin the rest of the journey towards sexual health. As we make the journey as a congregation, both the Religious Institute and the Unitarian Universalist Association have some wonderful tools that can help us.

The Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing says: “Our faith traditions celebrate the goodness of creation, including our bodies and our sexuality….the great promise of our traditions is love, healing and restored relationships…All persons have the right and responsibility to lead sexual lives that express love, justice, mutuality, commitment, consent and pleasure. ”

May we work to make this the reality in our own lives, in our congregations, and in our culture. For sexuality is, indeed, a crucial part of what it means to be human. Blessed Be.

Reproductive Justice November 6, 2013

Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
2 comments

On November 2, 2013, I spoke at the Kentucky Road Rally for Reproductive Rights.  Here is what I said.

KY Road Rally There is hardly an area of human life that clergy don’t see our interactions with people. We are on the front line when it comes to questions of how to have children, how not to be pregnant, and how to raise children in a safe and healthy environment. Because these are some of the meaning-of-life questions that people struggle with. And these are also the questions fundamental to reproductive justice.

Reproductive justice recognizes that all people and communities should have the social, spiritual, economic and political means to experience the sacred gift of sexuality with health and wholeness. Rather than just telling the government to “butt-out,” reproductive justice asserts that government must have a central role in eliminating the myriad social inequalities that are related to reproductive oppressions.

Reproductive justice is why we are gathered here at the rally today. In Kentucky, year after year there are proposals that continue to go before the legislature that would seek to limit a person’s access to comprehensive sexuality eduction, seek to limit a person’s access to the full range of pregnancy-related healthcare, including contraception and abortion, and seek to deny critical family support. Many of those seeking to further these reproductive oppressions claim that they do so on the basis of their religious tradition, or because their faith calls them to do so. This leads many politicians and voters to a severe misunderstanding that to be a person of faith means to fit into a particular, narrow box. But that is just not the case.

Many, many people of faith support reproductive justice. Many of us even find it to be a core principle of our faith. This does not mean supporters of reproductive justice agree with each other all of the time – we don’t. Even within a specific faith tradition, we often disagree on particulars. But this disagreement is healthy because it encourages further discussion and exploration. What is not healthy, what is not just, is when one particular religious perspective gets written into law. When this happens, it removes a person’s ability to make choices according to his or her religious beliefs and conscience. When one particular, narrow religious perspective gets written into law, it denies the reality that there are other faith perspectives that are crying for wholeness and justice.

Such is the case with sexuality education. Many people of faith DO support comprehensive, science-based sex education. In some of our traditions, we are taught that we are made in the image of God. We celebrate the goodness of creation, including our bodies and our sexuality. We believe “all persons have the right and responsibility to lead sexual lives that express love, justice, mutuality, commitment, consent, and pleasure.”* When we celebrate our sexuality with holiness and integrity, we participate in a life-giving and life-fulfilling gift.

And it is important that we understand this gift! This means supporting science-based sexuality education programs that are age-appropriate, accurate, and truthful. “Programs that teach abstinence exclusively and withhold information about pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease prevention fail our young people.”* Sexuality education that respects and empowers young people has more integrity than education based on incomplete information, fear, and shame.

“Our culture too often models sexuality without responsibility, and many adolescents are left on their own to struggle through these conflicting sexual messages. It is with adult guidance and comprehensive information and education about sexuality that young people are able to make responsible decisions; education that includes what consent means and who can give it, that includes abstinence, contraception, and STD prevention.” This type of education gives a person the skills to make moral and healthy decisions about relationships for themselves now and in their future adult lives.

People of faith also support access to the full range of pregnancy-related healthcare services, including contraception and abortion. The decision about becoming a parent is one of the biggest decisions a person will make. And yet a small group of religious conservatives want to limit and restrict access to healthcare services that would best help someone make the decision about whether or not they want to parent. Contraception and abortion are viewed by this faction not as health care services, but as part of their narrow religious agenda.

It is unacceptable for our laws to willingly and consistently single out women, particularly low-income women, specifically for the purposes to denying access to healthcare. And this is the situation right now with lack of access to contraception and abortion. By making it harder for a woman in need to access these services, by making her take time off not just one day but also for a medically unnecessary ultrasound, by allowing doctors and pharmacies to put limits on what healthcare treatment, services, and pharmaceuticals they provide, the government is putting up barriers that are unjust and unfair.

As people of faith, we understand compassion to be at the core of our relationships with one another. We may have different personal and religious beliefs about abortion, and still agree to respect a woman’s right to make decisions according to her own beliefs, according to her own conscience.**

As people of faith, we believe that the ability to make informed, moral choices is a sacred part of what it means to be human. To respect a person means to give them accurate information they need to make a meaningful, moral decision about whether and how to parent.

As people of faith, we also support healthy families. We believe that each person has inherent worth and dignity. For some of us, this comes as having been created in the image of God. For others, it comes to us by virtue of simply being human. Because of this, we are called to create a world where every individual and every family can have access to what they need to thrive. It is the seat of hypocrisy for lawmakers to deny access to contraception and abortion and then further penalize families by cutting access to childcare and other supportive services. When food stamp programs are cut, children go to school hungry and then some wonder why they can’t learn. When parents don’t have access to reliable, affordable childcare, they are often forced to take unpaid time off to care for children, furthering the cycle of poverty. A family also deserves access to decent, affordable housing. There is a direct link between the stability of a child’s home situation and how well they do in school. When we deny a child food, childcare, or stable housing, how can we expect that child to thrive? How can we expect that family to thrive?

Families deserve better. In the United States, it is the role of government, not to impose one set of religious views on everyone, but to protect each person’s rights, each family’s rights.

Legislators, please: listen to your constituents. All of them. Reproductive justice is a complex issue that requires a complex response. Families deserve better than passing one narrow religious perspective as law. And doing so is unethical and unjust. It does not recognize the moral agency of your constituents who find themselves faced with these difficult, life-changing decisions every day. It is not acceptable when one group has it’s views written into law such that other people are denied the ability to make their own moral decisions. Our laws and policies should protect the rights and abilities of each person to make decisions according to their own beliefs and conscience.

To those of you out there who perhaps feel alone in the struggle for reproductive justice, know that you are not! There are many, many of us who find that our faith encourages us to have a deep concern about perennial legislative failures to mandate science-based sexuality education and child care services, and are concerned about the equally predictable efforts to block access to reproductive health care, including abortion and contraception. To those who feel alone, you are not, and your voice matters. People of faith support reproductive justice!

We rally today as people from across Kentucky, from various faith traditions ranging from atheist to evangelical, from pagan to Pentecostal, from unaffiliated to Unitarian Universalist, but in common we have a vision of a Kentucky where all people and all communities have the social, spiritual, economic and political means to experience the sacred gift of sexuality with health and with wholeness. May it be so.

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Please note: Due to the nature of this speech, I did not attribute my quotes as well as I normally would have. The following are specifically quoted:
* Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Sexuality Education
** Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Abortion as a Moral Decision

Other inspiration came from the following sources, which I highly recommend you check out:

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