free hugs. June 14, 2011Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
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Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY
June 12, 2011
I know a girl, whose mother tells this story. That from the time the mother was pregnant and had the first butterfly feelings of the baby’s movement in her belly, the girl was constantly tossing and turning, never still, even in sleep. The mother prepared herself for a hyperactive kid.
When the girl was born, the mother was not prepared for the girl’s need to constantly be held. Tossing and turning, squirming away, the baby girl would fuss every time she was not in direct contact with another person. As the girl grew, she could climb into laps, hug, touch, hold hands, and climb into bed with her parents – still tossing and turning, and at the same time needing to be touched.
The mother was very confused for a while, she says. But then one day, the mother was watching the little girl walk down the street with her grandfather. They were holding hands, swinging them back and forth. The grandfather would occasionally swoop the girl up onto his shoulders. Up and down, arms swinging. Constantly in motion, constantly touching. Later, the mother watched as the girl and her grandfather watched TV together, with the girl on her grandfathers lap, tossing and turning, and the grandfather patiently adjusting position.
It occurred to the mother that these were two peas in a pod. Cut from the same cloth, with high needs to be touched – even while they are in motion. And, the mother shares, this gave her insight into her little girl – insight that gave her more patience at the constant grabbing, fussing, tossing, turning needing to snuggle.
Our sense of touch is one of the most interesting of our senses. It is found in our skin, but in other organs of our bodies as well. Our sense of touch tells us if something is hot, or cold, or if it is soft or if it hurts, and so, so much more. It is one of the first senses developed in-utero – with a fetus being able to sense and respond to light touch by 9 weeks.i
Touch is the “main way in which infants learn about their environment and bond with other people. This sense never turns off or takes a break, and it continues to work long after the other senses fail in old age.”ii
A lack of affectionate, loving, gentle touches has an negative effect on our neurological development, on our sense of self and our sense of how lovable we are, on the relationships we have, on our general physical health, and so much more. Violent, hostile or abusive touches affect these aspects of our development and our lives as well. How we are touched as infants, children and as adults, has a strong connection with our mental health and sense of well-being.
“Our Whole Lives,” or OWL, is the comprehensive sexuality curriculum developed by Unitarian Universalists and United Church of Christ experts. In OWL training, facilitators are taught that the term “Touch Hunger” is used to explain our human need to be touched by another human being, and what happens if we don’t get our touch hunger needs met by our family: we look for it elsewhere.
I know a young woman who was told to stop holding her mothers hand – told that she was too old for such a thing. Without her touch hunger being satiated, the young woman describes how she felt rejected, as though there were something wrong with her. As is often the case, she began to seek touches from others and made some not-so-great decisions along the way.
Beyond infancy, childhood, and adolescence, we continue to have a hunger for affectionate touches in our adulthood. “Research by US psychologists Karen Grewen and Karen Light has shown that when people hug the brain releases the chemical oxytocin. This encourages social bonding, increases our willingness to trust and decreases fear.”iii
Particularly in this day of instant messaging, email, twitter, texting and other electronic ways of connecting, technology is redefining our understanding of intimacy. In her new book Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other, psychologist and researcher Sherry Turkle points out that “after an evening of avatar-to-avatar talk in a networked game, we feel, at one moment, in possession of a full social life, and, in the next, curiously isolated.”iv We may be getting our social and psychological needs met through technology, but our touch hunger cannot be satiated by our computers.
For better or for worse, Turkle points out, that is changing as well. The first section of her book is devoted to an explanation of how programmers and scientists have been creating robots that respond to our need for touch. Similar to therapy dogs, which are trained to provide affection and comfort for people in the hospital and other locations, these new robots have the ability to respond when pet, stroked, or even spoken to. Though they can not care for us, these robots can provide important care to people in need of physical contact, and are easier to take care of for these institutions that therapy dogs are.
I don’t know about you, but I personally prefer my touch hunger be met by my loved ones rather than a robot. I was a baby wearing-mama when my children were younger, and continue to try to give them lots of hugs and kisses. It is not uncommon for our whole family to be snuggled together on the couch as we watch TV – sometimes complete with cats and the new puppy. It can get pretty crowded. This is my way of getting this touch hunger met.
I am aware that I am lucky in this regard. I have loved ones nearby who can meet this primal need of mine, and whose needs I can meet in return. This is not the case for everyone. It was not the case for someone who goes by the name “Juan Mann.”
Juan tells the story of becoming depressed as he was more and more isolated in the city he lived in. Family had moved away, friends had moved away. He was alone. “Human contact was limited to a cashier’s hand brushing mine when returning my change in stores.”v He was suffering.
Then, one day, while he was “deep in thought a young lady strolled out of the crowd and right up to [him], smiled into [his] eyes and wrapped her arms around [him]. In that moment” he says, “I discovered something I’d known all along, but hadn’t realized or had simply forgotten in my sadness. I’d found the one thing I’d been truly missing, in all that time I’d spent alone. Hugs are amazing. Everyone involved in a hug benefits, everyone feels better for it!”
This was the start of something called the Free Hugs Campaign, which is an “an international kindness initiative, that has spread to over 80 countries around the world, founded on the simple principle of offering a stranger a hug.” International Free Hugs Day is celebrated on the first Saturday after June 30th every year. This year, that falls on July 2.
Juan started this campaign to help himself, and in the process has helped many others around the world. He says that The Free Hugs Campaign “is about many things, like making someone’s day a little brighter, meeting people and showing the world that strangers aren’t so bad after all. It’s also about bringing people together and sharing a happy moment before heading back out into the world feeling a little lighter….[it's] about people being there for each other.”
Juan points out that “A hug is a universally recognized gesture that demonstrates affection, compassion and support between people. All over the world, people hug at different times and for different reasons. To celebrate, to mourn, to greet and say goodbye….Some cultures enjoy hugs everywhere and from anyone they’re available from. Other cultures treat hugs as sacred things that should only be shared with someone you know and love. Some people don’t know how important a hug is until they no longer share them.”
American author and family therapist expert Virginia Satir would agree – she once said that “The recommended daily requirement for hugs is: four per day for survival, eight per day for maintenance, and twelve per day for growth.”
Juan, and now many many others around the world, simply stand on a busy street with signs that say Free Hugs. And they wait for someone who needs a hug to approach. Or, perhaps, for someone who needs to give a hug. Along the way, he has developed a code of conduct for free hugs, including, but not limited to:
- Don’t Hug somebody unless they offer to hug you – An unwanted, uninvited hug can be threatening and unwelcome. The purpose of the Free Hugs Campaign is to offer Free Hugs to those who want and need them, not to force yourself on those who might be scared, intimidated or uninterested.
- Smile at everyone – They may just smile or maybe double back for a quick hug.
- When hugging someone, be mindful of their physical condition – Don’t pick up a someone frail and twirl them around like you would a dancing partner! Unless they run and leap into your arms, a nice old fashioned hug is just fine.
- When the person you are hugging stops hugging you, let go – Go with the flow and let the person you’re hugging guide the hug.
- Some people don’t want a hug – But they might settle for a handshake.
Juan and others are very excited about this campaign, as it meets a primal human need to be touched. But the benefits go much further. Hugs can make you feel less lonely, can help you feel when you are feeling numb, can boost your self esteem, improve your health, help you relax, are a great way to celebrate, and they feel great.
Let’s take a few moments now to see the Free Hugs Campaign in action. Though there are many free hugs videos, this one from Italy is one of my favorites. Watch the huggers, but also watch the expressions and body language of the people receiving the hugs.
You know what is coming next, right? Some of you are probably excited, others nervous. We are so, so isolated, and many of us have no one with whom we can share a good hug – a hug that lets us know that we are seen, that we matter. Churches, I believe, are places where we explore what it means to be alive, where we can be reminded that we, as individuals, do matter. Churches are places where we are told that we loveable, and that we are loved. And today, this church will demonstrate it. So here is how it is going to work. We are going to give our own hugs right now.
If my volunteer huggers could please come forward. These folks have graciously agreed to be our huggers today. We are going to play the music from the video we just saw, and anyone who wants to is invited to come forward for a hug, or 2 or 3 or as many as you want.
Now, some of you may need a physical touch, but a hug might be too much. I would like all huggers to approach each other with hands out, palms up. If you prefer to just hold hands for a moment, you can approach a hugger with palms down to better hold their hands with.
If you would like to give or receive a hug, but cannot get up due to mobility or other issues, raise your hand and we will make sure you can participate.
As the hugging and hand holding is going on, we will be listening to the song that was the music for the video we saw. Feel free to join in singing the Hallelujahs.
After all hugs have been given and received, we will have a chance to process our experience together.
Hugs, hugs, and more hugs!
How was that for you? Did you get up and get a hug, or hold hands with someone? Were you a hugger, or a huggee? Were you nervous? What feelings did it raise? Did you remain in your seat? What was this experience like for you?
Thank you for your participating, and your sharing. “The recommended daily requirement for hugs is: four per day for survival, eight per day for maintenance, and twelve per day for growth.” So many of us don’t come anywhere near even the survival requirement. I hope today some of you might have moved into the growth category.
We live in a world of fear: fear of sexual harassment, abuse or inappropriate touches. Our fear can cause us to not even look at each other, to further isolate ourselves. This isolation can cause us to dehumanize others, as we dehumanize ourselves as well. As human beings we hunger for each others touch.
May this beloved community be a place that meets our spiritual, emotional, and intellectual needs. And may it be a place where we know that we can offer, and receive a hug or a handshake, so that our touch hunger needs are met with love, respect, and care.
i “Prenatal Form and Function – The Making of an Earth Suit” at http://www.ehd.org/dev_article_unit9.php#fb7
ii Leonard, Crystal. “The Sense of Touch and How It Affects Development” at http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/4356
iv Turkle, Sherry. Along Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, p. 11
v Details and stories about the Free Hugs campaign come from “The Illustrated Guide to Free Hugs,” available online at http://www.scribd.com/fullscreen/1871268
what makes a church. June 7, 2011Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
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Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY
June 5, 2011
Reading before the sermon: Excerpted from “Inclusive Evangelism” by Robert Karnan in Salted with Fire. Not included here but I highly recommend reading it!
It was a rather embarrassing moment. I was talking to a parent of one of my kids friends, and she asked the innocent question “What makes your church a, you know, church?” Maybe it was just a bad day, or maybe I was caught off guard. I hemmed, and hawed, rambled on about faith and hope and searching for truth and meaning, and though she seemed to understand, I was completely dissatisfied with my answer.
It took me a while to realize why I was so dissatisfied. It was because I didn’t have a quick, easy to understand answer. It seems much more straightforward if one is talking about a Protestant or Catholic church. But a Unitarian Universalist church is a horse of a different color. And like the horse of a different color in the movie “The Wizard of Oz” – the answer changes depending on how we look at the question. Indeed, this is why so many UU congregations choose instead to call themselves a “congregation” or a “fellowship” or a “society”. But here at First Unitarian Church, which has been here in Louisville since 1830, we are proud of our name and so it seems it would be good to have a way to address this question!
In the reading from a few moments ago, Robert Karnan had one perspective. I will come back to that in pieces in the next few minutes. I am also inspired by this quote from the Rev. Glenn Turner:
“I believe that the mission of the Unitarian Universalist Church is to address the social isolation and rootlessness that is characteristic of modern life, to minister to the hurts and hopes of those in our community, and to radically define our community beyond our membership borders, seeking to bring other people who need our support into our churches and into our lives.”
I wish I had had this quote in my pocket when that parent had asked about what makes us a church – Turner’s answer seems to encapsulate it beautifully. Let’s take the pieces apart and look at them separately.
The first piece of the mission of the UU church, Turner says, is to “address the social isolation and rootlessness that is characteristic of modern life.” The radically independent nature of the culture of the United States is marked by an increasing social isolation.i In 2006, the American Sociological Review published a report that found that “a quarter of Americans say they have no one with whom they can discuss personal troubles, more than double the number who were similarly isolated in 1985. Overall, the number of people Americans have in their closest circle of confidants has dropped from around three to about two.”
Lynn Smith-Lovin, a Duke University sociologist who helped conduct the study, said “There really is less of a safety net of close friends and confidants.” She suggests that “increased professional responsibilities, including working two or more jobs to make ends meet, and long commutes leave many people too exhausted to seek social — as well as family – connections.”
Being social isolated is not good for the human animal. We need these close ties, particularly in bad times, but in good times as well. In our reading, Karnan points out that our churches are places where we can form deep and good friendships, and that the trust and serenity that come with them are transformative. Healing. “Deep friendship makes a healthy life possible, even likely. It makes for peace and for strength in facing the hardest issues.” Our churches “address the social isolation and rootlessness that is characteristic of modern life.”
According to Turner, they also “minister to the hurts and hopes of those in our community.” Internal to this community, we do this through sharing our joys and our sorrows with one another. We share our milestones with each other. Through ritual ceremonies, we honor sacred transitions in each others lives – birth, death, coming of age, graduation, marriage, divorce, retirement – and more.
In our reading, Karnan wrote that our churches “invite us to share our woes, our tears, our laughter, and our joy. They ask us to share our lost moments and our insanity as well as our found ones and our sanity, for each of us has all of these at some time or another.” Boy, do we. And it is so comforting to know that we have a community with whom we can share these moments. Similarly, together we ponder the deep questions of existence, we search together for truth and meaning, and we celebrate life in moments such as these.
But our community is not limited to those who are in this church. Karnan also said that our congregations “invite us..to listen to the cries of injustice and of pain and to do something curative about them.” Our churches invite us to pay attention to the world we live in – not to further isolate ourselves from it, but to engage in what Marge Piercy called the work of the world. And to know that as we engage in this work, we are not alone.
Unitarian Universalist Minister and historian Mark Morrison-Reed tells us that “It is the church that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community. The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed.”ii In this way, with widened view and renewed strength, we are able, as a church, to minister to the hurts and hopes of those in our community.”
Finally, Turner says that part of the mission of the Untiarian Universalist church is to “radically define our community beyond our membership borders, seeking to bring other people who need our support into our churches and into our lives.”
We know there are people out there who need our support, who need what our church offers. We know there are, because many of us were once them, and in our stories we so often share the feeling of “coming home” when we find Unitarian Universalism. People need us! So who are we to hide our light under a bushel? No, we must let it shine, for that is part of being a church.
In her new book 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life, Karen Armstrong writes “each [faith] has formulated its own version of what is sometimes called the Golden Rule…’Always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.’” She continues, “Further, they all insist that you cannot confine your benevolence to your own group; you must have concern for everybody – even your enemies.”iii
The church is an institutional manifestation of a religion. As such, a Unitarian Universalist church in particular is an institutional manifestation of our covenant. We do not share a creed, or a set of beliefs. We have different politics, different ways of parenting, different opinions on pretty much every issue imaginable. But we have a covenant – a way of living together.
In general, the church as an institution is charged with having concern for everybody and extended benevolence out into the world. In particular to First Unitarian Church, however, we are called to help one another – those of us in the church, but I would say that this covenant extends to those beyond these walls, as well – to help the world, even in small measures.
Karnan would agree. “Our task as a religious society is not to idolize and love God [however you may define God], it is to love one another in just relationship.” We do this when we “radically define our community beyond our membership borders, seeking to bring other people who need our support into our churches and into our lives.”
So what makes us a church? I would answer the question differently today than I did when that parent asked me. I might go back to the old children’s rhyme. It is not the building, beautiful though it may be. It is not the steeple, as uniquely contemporary as our story is historical. It is us, the people, that make us a church: by living together, intentionally, in covenant with one another to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another, and as we do so, we are guided by a love so big it must not be contained. May it be so. May we make it so.
marriage equity. June 6, 2011Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
Yesterday, at our annual meeting, after much conversation and clarification, the congregation passed the following resolution: “We, the members of First Unitarian Church, request that the minister of First Unitarian Church shall decline to sign Kentucky marriage licenses until such time as Kentucky ceases to discriminate against same sex couples with respect to civil marriage.”
I was thrilled to be able to say “With pleasure.”
Many Unitarian Universalist ministers have already made this decision. Indeed, other liberal religious ministers have as well. If I was so thrilled, why had I not made this decision earlier?
As it sometimes happens, it was the conversation during the meeting that helped me to solidify thoughts and convictions that were murky enough that they had not led me to take a stand. But now I get it. Perhaps I am slow, but I finally get it. Here is what I get:
Marriage in the United States currently has two components: a religious component, and a civil component.
The civil component of marriage is what guarantees the many rights that marriage confers. These rights are granted to a couple when their marriage license is signed and then registered with the state authority.
The religious component of marriage contains the vows, and the “till death do us part” part, and for many couples it is the standing before friends and family and making a public declaration of love and commitment.
The conflation of these two separate components happens because religious authorities (like me) are given the rights to sign the official civil document – the marriage license.
However, these two pieces are not equal. Religious authorities can and should be able to decide whose marriages they honor. If they don’t want to honor the marriages of divorcees, or gay couples, or without prior marriage counseling, it is their right to do so. It is also their right to affirmatively choose to honor these (and other) marriages.
Civil marriage, however (the one that grants all sorts of rights and protections), should be between any two consenting adults. Period. The state should not discriminate based on a couples sexuality. Because most states currently do discriminate against gay and lesbian couples, this makes civil marriage an unjust institution.
Because civil marriage is an unjust institution, I will no longer participate in it. I will still officiate as the religious professional at weddings of whomever I choose (including gay and lesbian couples, which I already do!), but I will no longer participate in the signing of marriage licenses. This means that I will be providing all couples (gay and straight) the same service: a religious ceremony to celebrate the covenant of marriage. The legal aspect must be done through the state.
When (and I do believe it is when, not if) civil marriage is a civil right in Kentucky, I will happily participate in it once again and will sign marriage licenses. Not until then.
What does this mean for gay and lesbian couples? I already officiate at weddings for gay and lesbian couples. I don’t call them union ceremonies. I don’t call them something other than what they are – weddings.
What does this mean for hetero couples? I will still officiate at weddings – the only part that I will not do is sign the license. This means that they will have to get a justice of the peace to sign it. It is a small extra step, and couples can have it done at the same time that they get their marriage licenses – it is not terribly complicated, or expensive. Certainly it is much easier, and cheaper, than having to drive 1000 miles (which one couple in my congregation had to do to find a state that would honor their marriage). Or, a hetero couple might choose not to have their licenses signed, and stand with gay & lesbian couples and not participate in civil marriage until it is a civil right.
I am grateful to my church for helping me to clarify my convictions on this subject, and for asking me to take a stand. As we move forward, our board of trustees will be engaging in research to determine other steps in this direction the congregation might take. We are hoping to build on the momentum that another local congregation began. Perhaps others will join the bandwagon.