Thursday, April 18, 2013

Letter to the Editor re. The Boy Scouts' stance on gays

            I know my story is not unique, but that is all the more reason to tell it. I grew up in the Boy Scouts of America, from the time I was a small child and my mother was the Den Leader of our Cub Scout troop until I went off to college, proud to have earned my Eagle Scout badge. Between the weekly meetings, monthly camp outs, annual summer camps, ski trips and canoe trips, the time and energy that I dedicated to the organization is astounding. That dedication is matched only by the leadership experience, confidence and character that I gained through my relationship with scouting. I wish that the story ended there, but it does not.
            By the time I was finishing high school I was aware that I was gay; shortly after starting college I came out and became politically active. My commitment to integrity compelled me to share the truth about my sexual orientation. And a sense of community responsibility and leadership skills propelled me into working for justice for my GLBT peers. I owe much of my character to my family and church. But, I also recognize the values of integrity, responsibility and leadership were honed in my years with the Boy Scouts of America. It became increasingly clear that I could no longer claim pride in an organization that would not accept me as a gay man. So I returned my Eagle Scout uniform and badge to the Council. It was received there at the headquarters by my former scoutmaster and our family friend. It was one of the hardest days of my then 20 year-old life.
            Again, a part of me wishes that the story ended there. But now over ten years later, The Boy Scouts of America is in the midst of reevaluating its stance. Soon the Scouts' Executive Committee will send out a resolution to the 300 local scouting councils on whether to allow gay scouts, which they'll vote on at their annual meeting next month. As someone who has been there, let me say bluntly that scouting offers what young gay men need most: confidence, comradery, and responsibility. To think that these might be available without  judgment and rejection is why I am reaching out now. If you are or were involved with the Boy Scouts of America, please use this opportunity to make sure that those boys who most need what scouting has to offer, are not left out.

Rev. Kent Doss
Laguna Beach, CA

Monday, April 15, 2013

"Save Yourself" - Sermon

Save Your Self
         I think most of us are familiar with these words. They are the first ones that came to me as I stared at the title for today’s worship. “In the unlikely event of a loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will deploy for the compartment above your head. Please place the yellow mask over your nose and mouth, using the loose ends to tighten. If you are traveling with small children or someone in need of assistance, place the mask over your own nose and mouth before assisting other passengers.”
         Save yourself… first. I’ve never seen this in action but it totally makes sense. If someone with you needs assistance, you have to make sure that you are getting the oxygen that you need first. Otherwise you won’t be able to help other people. Save yourself. It sounds a little selfish, but it is logical. Of course this methodology wasn’t invented with modern air travel. In fact it was around long before airplanes were thought of.
         In a slightly different version, religious traditions have been telling us to save yourself first for a very long time. In the Bible Jesus said,

Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Friend, let me take the speck out of your eye,” when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. [Luke 6:41-42]

         I imagine many of you have heard this passage before. I think of it often when I hear religious piety aimed at condemning other people. But it’s not a Christian message only. Buddhist scriptures have their own version of the save yourself message. They say:

The faults of others are easily seen, for they are sifted like chaff, but one’s own faults are hard to see. This is like the cheat who hides his dice and shows the dice of his opponent, calling attention to the other’s shortcomings, continually thinking of accusing him. [Udanavarga 27.1]

         I like all of these instructions to save yourself, not for the sake of individual enlightenment or benefit. They are not totally personally focused, they are not “spiritual but not religious,” as the saying goes. These great teachings are about embracing personal spirituality to enable you to care for a wider, religious community. It is about making sure that your own needs, both physical and mental are met, so that then we can then reach out and care for the world around us.
         This linkage of personal development and caring for others is a huge component of the Buddhist life. It is deeply understood that when we find peace in our self, we create peace in the world. And each and every person is capable of that peace. Often times the real challenge in the invitation to save yourself, is believe that you can in fact be saved.

         For many of us, the biggest challenge in the realm of salvation is accepting it. Peace is not something to struggle over. Salvation is not something that we grind through our lives for. It is just there, available for the taking, for each and every one of us, if we can bring ourselves to choose it.
         When I talk about salvation, I’m not talking about salvation from Hell, Remember last weeks worship service was “Salvation in This Life.” Which means exactly that. We can find peace and fulfillment in this life, here and now. What comes next will work itself out.  As UUs we are invested in finding meaning, comfort and peace in this life. I came across a story that so aptly describes the dilemma that many of us face in life. It come’s from Rev. Tom Owen-Towle’s book, “Theology Ablaze” as he describes and old television skit.
         A woman sits behind a table, and in front of her was a long line of people. The woman behind the table addressed the person at the head of the line and said in a somewhat bored but otherwise business-like voice: “Of course, you know that you are dead. So, all you have to do now is go through the entrance behind me on your right marked heaven or through the left one marked hell.”
         The dead man looked incredulous. “You mean, that I, uh, am to choose whether I want to go to heaven or hell? There’s no judgment or final reckoning?” he asked. “Doesn’t it count how I’ve lived, the good things I’ve done as well as the bad things?” The woman behind the table showed the first signs of impatience. “Look sir,” she said. “I can’t spend the whole day on you. People are dying, the line is lengthening. Come on, make up your mind.”
         The dead man by now was beginning to panic. “I’ve done some wrong and bad things during my life. I want to come clean, I want to confess, I want to be judged fairly; and yes, I want to be forgiven…” The woman behind the table no longer could hide her impatience. “I’m not interested in your sins, and nobody else around here is either. Just make up your mind ,that’s all I’m asking of you.”
         The dead man looked horrified. He buried his face in his hands, then he stepped forward past the table and disappeared through the entrance on his left marked “hell.”

         I love this story. It’s easy to imagine and it describes an experience that many of us face, not at the moment of our death, but every day throughout our lives. Remember, last week we talked about salvation in this life. And we are Unitarian Universalists; we believe in universal salvation. That means that salvation is available to each and every one of us, in this life. And I think it’s available over and over, if we are willing to choose it, if we think we are worthy of it. It’s sad to say, but for many of us, the biggest barrier to our salvation, or our peace, is simply not believing that we are worthy of it. Faced with the choice, over and over again we choose to walk through the door marked Hell.

         The other night I watched a movie called “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” It is a pretty great film. It’s a coming of age story set in the 90s I think.  One of the big themes of the movie was people, particularly women being involved with guys who just were very nice to them. It touched on domestic violence some, but the question was even deeper than that. It wasn’t just why they stayed with people who abused them. It was more a question or why do kind, bright, beautiful, loving people settle for partners who treat them poorly? And the answer offered by an overly wise teenager was… “We accept the love we think we deserve.”
         We accept the love that we think we deserve. Theology comes from a variety of sources, even movies about teenage romance.    
         This is precisely why I say “I love you” at the end of every service. For those of you who are new to our community, this isn’t some customary Unitarian Universalist piece of our liturgy. It’s something that I say in this particular congregation for a particular reason. It is partially about individual affirmation and a personal commitment that I try to make to you and this church family. I do love you in that way. But even more than that, this weekly statement is my way of publicly proclaiming as clearly as I know how, that each of you is worthy of love.
         We accept the love that we think we are worthy of. But here’s the secret, we are all worthy of love, worthy of comfort and healing for the pains that we face in this life.

         We are each whole and worthy souls. Even though we have flaws and we make mistakes, at the same time we are whole. It’s the first of our seven principles. We affirm and promote the INHERENT WORTH AND DIGNITY OF EVERY PERSON.  But how can it be that we have inherent worth and dignity, but at the same time have all these challenges, this pain, these mistakes? How can we be both.
         I don’t know how, but I know that we are. We are both broken and whole at the same time.  You have heard me say this before. It’s the way that I understand our human experience. We have inherent worth and dignity, and yet each and every one of us is in need of healing, we need help to hold our broken pieces together. It’s a belief that I have held deeply for many years. It is a cornerstone of my belief system. And it wasn’t until this week that I realized why it is so important to me.
         It’s because salvation comes to us in that mystery of brokenness and wholeness. We each need salvation, a salve for the wounds of this life. We are each broken to some extent and need help holding the pieces of our lives together. But we are also whole beautiful souls, capable and worthy of love. Our salvation rests in the knowledge of these two equally true facts about our self. That not only do we need salvation, but we are worthy of it.

         And in the intersection of brokenness and wholeness is repentance. No serious look at salvation would be complete without some repentance. I know this word brings with it probably as much baggage as the word salvation. It comes will all sorts of negative connotations of depraved people groveling for their lowly sins so that that they might one day be worthy.
         I want to ask you to reconsider this idea of repentance, because it is a potentially life changing idea. The standard definition of Repentance is the activity of reviewing one's actions and feeling contrition or regret for past wrongs. That’s a worthwhile thing to do. But much of the nuance of the word is lost in translation.
         In the New Testament, the word translated as 'repentance' is the Greek word (metanoia), which is a compound word of 'meta' (after, with), and the verb 'noeo' (to perceive, to think). The word combines the two meanings of time and change to literally mean 'to think differently after'. Repentance is a change of mind accompanied by change of conduct. It is a change of consciousness.
         Repentance is taking a serious account of our mistakes and shortcomings. Repentance is taking our brokenness very seriously, have opened our hearts to change. And no one can open your heart but your self. No one can save you, but yourself. In big ways and in little ways, it is up to each one of us to individually in our moments of brokenness to remember a different way of being, a different possibility for our beautiful life.
         There is a short story that comes out of the Midrash, the Jewish collection of teachings that tells us a great deal about repentance. A Rabbi tells a young man “You should repent one day before you die.”  “But I don’t know when that is!” says the man.
         “That is the point.” Explains the rabbi. We never know what tomorrow will bring. But we know that today is an opportunity to learn and grow, an opportunity to save ourselves, this day. All our lives we are called to choose growth and opportunity. Every moment of every day is an opportunity for salvation, as we hold in our hearts the fact that we are both broken and whole.

         What I want you to see and hear today is that we have to be willing to accept the moments of salvation when they come. Call it enlightenment, transformation, growth, goodness, we have to open our hearts to those moments when they come. Because; you are worthy. No matter how muddy you get, no matter how many mistakes you make, you are worthy of love and peace, here, now, and every day.


Monday, April 8, 2013

"Salvation Today" - Sermon

Salvation Today
         It has been great working from my office in the Fellowship more. I have been using that space for less than a year. Before that I was working mostly from home. The windows are very thin and I can hear all the conversations that walk by, which can be pretty annoying. But it’s also pretty fun sometimes, hearing people that walk by our building. On Thursday I heard a couple of women walk by. One read Mark’s sign out loud, “Salvation is in this Life.” She said, “Oh I like that.” I mention that not only to say thank you Mark for your continued commitment and creativity in our advertising. But also to bring up the question of why we use the language that we use.
         The word salvation has a whole lot of baggage. If you have been a part of, or even in proximity to a religious tradition where God is a bully, dangling us humans over a fiery pit of eternal punishment or even just bottomless guilt, then it’s likely that you have totally blocked the word salvation out of your vocabulary.
         But we use the word, I should say I use the word for two reasons. First is that it is the theological language used in our country. We live in a largely Christian country, and Unitarian Universalism comes out of a Christian background. With that, we inherit a whole set of language that people hold in common, language that we can use to talk about our lives, and the challenges we face together. The women walking by knew what the sign in front of our building meant. “Salvation is in this life.” “Hm, I like that,” she said. She knew what the sign meant.
          The other reason I talk about salvation is that it is rooted in a part of the human experience. We Unitarian Universalist have a very positive anthropology. We believe that people are basically good. It’s our first principle, we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, But that is not the entire extent of our lived experience. We know that we ourselves, and the people around us occasionally are not so good. We know that there is suffering in the world and in our own lives. One of the central pieces of religious life is to make some meaning out of the suffering that we experience as humans, and to explore ways that we might provide a salve for our wounds.
         In religious community we are in the business of talking about, hunting down, and building salvation, here and now.          Since we are talking about salvation today, I thought I would start off with a confession and a testimony. I want to confess something that may be deeply familiar to you, or maybe not. Maybe you confront other demons in your own life.
         But for me, the past couple of weeks have been a sincere and eye-opening journey of how addicted I am to anger. Yes, I am a fairly mild-mannered person, but something about me, somewhere deep inside, really gets motivated by anger. It’s exciting and empowering as an emotion. Whether it’s in my car when I’m late, dealing perhaps with Laguna Beach tourist driversI know you know what I mean. I cuss like a sailor when I’m alone in my car. It’s not pretty. Or if it’s dealing with someone who challenges me, rather than questioning my own beliefs or simply disagreeing, it’s much easier, much more exciting to feel angry. Or sometimes for no apparent reason at all with the people in my life I know and love, I drift toward anger rather more complicated or nuanced negative feelings.
         Part of me finds that anger is easier and more exciting than other responses to the small challenges of life. Part of me is addicted to it and wants to hang on to it. But holding onto anger, I’ve been told, is like holding a hot coal to burn someone else. Part of my journey is learning to let it go. Part of my journey to salvation in this life is to let go of that energizing self-righteous feeling and move beyond it. Maybe you have your own burning coal of anger to let go of, or maybe there is something that you are called to pick on your path to salvation.
         That is my confession. I am seduced by the feeling of anger. But I also want to testify to you this morning. For those of you who are new here, I should tell you that confession and testimonial are rare in this congregation. But since we are talking about what salvation means to us, I thought I’d dig right in. I want to testify about salvation. Not my own, but the salvation I have seen in other people. Probably the singular thing that I am most grateful for in ministry is the opportunities to see real salvation happen in this life.
         I have seen salvation in our Fellowship, and it is amazing. I have seen salvation in people who face tremendous hardships, abuse, addiction, mental illness, financial upheaval, adultery, and an array of other challenges that seminary could never have prepared me for. I have seen people come through these challenges and still have the will to face life with grace and courage. In the midst of all the muck of life, in the midst of all that heartache and evil, these courageous women and men affirm their faith that life is good and beautiful. I have seen salvation in this here. It’s hard to describe, but I promise you I have seen it.

         When the conversation of salvation comes up, the first question is what exactly are we being saved from? I think this is why the idea of salvation is so strange to many of us. Let me assure you, the salvation we are concerned about is not salvation from an angry God who would otherwise dole out eternal punishment for our mistakes. We are not talking about getting a cosmic lifeline to escape some fiery underworld called Hell.
         Even without threats of Hell, there is still in this life for us to be saved from. Plenty of both sin and evil pervade our individual lives and our shared human community. We don’t like to admit it, in fact this probably ruffles some feathers, but we do need salvation. We need a salve for the deep injuries that hurt us and the people we love.
         Whether you want to call it evil or something else, life is hard, often without reason. People are cruel to one another, usually without reason. The earth itself is in desperate need of salvation from the relentless punishment we have inflicted upon it. And the evil that is most pervasive, the evil that most fuels oppression and exploitation isn’t a maniacal greed; it isn’t blatant and cunning. The evil that stains the fabric of human community is the evil of indifference. We need salvation in this life for the evils that pervade this life, the evils that we inflict upon one another and upon ourselves.

         We need salvation in the here and now. But how? Where do we turn for this healing?
         First and foremost, salvation manifests in an affirmation of life’s goodness. I’m not talking about enjoying the good life. I’m talking about a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to live and to love. Life is full of small pleasures, small signs of the goodness of creation. They are present day in and day out if we open ourselves to appreciate them. Enjoying a good meal, a warm bath, a flower in bloom, or a good friend, affirming the goodness of life begins with pausing to affirm the goodness of the little pieces of every day.
         And it is this groundedness in the goodness of life that empowers us to choose a nobler way of being. Because when we appreciate life, we know that it is worth our energy to preserve it, to cherish it, and defend it for others. As the theologian Rebecca Parker puts it, “Apprehension of life’s profound goodness provides emotional aliveness and moral clarity. It is this apprehension of goodness that motivates a life toward life affirming ways.”
         When we open ourselves to the goodness of life and the beauty that surrounds us, we begin to settle into the profound sense of “enough.” We come to realize there are in fact enough resources for all of humanity to thrive. There are enough opportunities to building loving relationships. And we ourselves are enough, not perfect, but enough.
         But salvation is not sugar and spice and all things nice. Actually it is just the opposite. Salvation is a capacity to recognize the goodness of life even in the midst of tragedy. The blessings of salvation are evident in those people who hold tragedy and beauty together, integrating life’s complex and difficult counterpoints. Holding out this kind of affirmation of the goodness of life takes tremendous courage.
         So let us be thankful that this journey is not ours to make alone.  Though I have been talking about it on the individual level, salvation is not an individual thing. The wisdom and courage that I describe here are not only found in personal accomplishment. They are also the fruit of living in community.
         We find salvation in our relationships with one another. We find it in community. That’s what is so magical about the story about the camel driver that we heard earlier in the children’s story. Remember, there was the camel driver who threw a rock at a man who had killed one of his camels. He hadn’t intended to, but the rock struck the man in the head and killed him. The camel driver saw what he had done and tried to flee the scene but he was caught and brought to the town square. According to the law of the land, he was to be beheaded. He pleaded and pleaded to be able to go say his goodbyes to his family. The ruler, the Caliph said, I’ll let you go for three days if you find a friend to take your place for that time. He pleaded with the crowd and no one offered, until finally a holy man, the Caliph’s own teacher stepped forward to take the place of the camel driver for the three day period. He knew that if the camel driver did not return, he would be beheaded in his place. The Caliph was deeply distraught at the arrangement, but consented. The man took his three days to put his affairs in order, and at the very last moment returned to the town square. And in the end, seeing what had happened, the Caliph pardons the camel driver.
         Obviously, the holy man is wise and brave, and is the apparent hero in this story. But the real magic of this story is that we saw three distinct roles that come together to cerate salvation, and they are roles that each of us play at some time or another in our life.
         The first is the camel driver. He threw a rock at a man in anger, and he accidentally killed him. Now as far as I know, none of us have killed another person, but none of us are camel drivers either. I can guarantee that each and every one of us has made mistakes. We have reacted in anger and injured another person with our words or attitude. We have acted in ways that we know we shouldn’t have. Sometimes we get away with it, but often we are caught. If nothing else we are caught by our own conscience. And we are judged for our actions.
         In our moments of guilt we want to return to those we love to make our life right again. And we look around desperately for a friend. Who out there, we ask is still noble. Who out there is trusting enough to stand with me in my moment of repentance?
         But we are not only the camel driver in our lives; we are not the only ones that make mistakes. Over and over again we are witness to others who don’t live up to their best selves. And we have an opportunity to show that there is a different way. Sometimes reaching out to a sinner comes with tremendous risk; sometimes we put our own reputation on the line to show to the downtrodden that it is still possible to choose the noble path. Sometimes we have the opportunity and responsibility to act as holy men and women, demonstrating to the community that we trust our friends, even in the midst of their errors. We trust them and we would stake our own well-being on their goodness.
         And finally, of course we are also the Caliph. No we don’t have the power to pardon criminals and prevent beheadings. But we do have the power to forgive people. In little ways we can forgive people we don’t know. But in my more powerful ways, we can really forgive people who have done wrong. I don’t mean just saying “Oh it’s no big deal.” I mean saying “I acknowledge that you made a mistake and you are sorry for that mistake. I forgive you.”  This gift of sincere forgiveness costs us little, but it can change lives, it can offer salvation.
         At the end of the story, when the Caliph pardoned the camel driver an old man shouted out from the crowd, “Why?”
         And the Caliph said, “In pardoning this man I see now that there are still in the world those who are noble. There are those also who are truthful. It remains for me to show that there are still those who can be forgiving.”
         Salvation in this life is a web that we are all tied together in. We find forgiveness and healing not just through our individual spiritual experience, but also through our relationships with others. We find literal forgiveness, we find healing and trust, we find inspiration, and we find that our own heart can be open with trust.

         This journey is not ours to make alone. It is the fruit of our relationships with others, and it rests solidly on the shoulders of countless women and men who have gone before. Some have shown us personal models of deep fulfillment, appreciating the goodness of life. Some have shown us trust, some have shown us honesty, and still others have shown us models of forgiveness.
         Though we do not talk about it often, salvation is real, it is needed, and it is available to anyone willing to make the journey. Let us then be grateful for this life and the opportunities it provides. Let us be grateful for the community of travelers that accompanies us on the journey. Let us be grateful for true peace and comfort that are available in this life.