Ugh. Politics.

March 17, 2016

I have voted in every election I have been eligible for my entire adult life.  I vote even when there is nothing on the ballot I am particularly passionate about, and even when, statistically, I know my vote won’t make a difference.    I consider it a sacred responsibility.

I’m not at all shy about sharing my perspective, and as a result, people generally can guess where I fall on the political spectrum.   However, as a minister, I have an obligation to protect my church’s non-profit status.  That means I can talk about issues, but not candidates, at least from the pulpit.  I interpret the rules a little more strictly than some of my colleagues, and refrain from sharing my personal preferences, attending fundraisers or rallies where I know congregants will be present, or posting on social media in support of or opposition to any particular candidate.

I do talk about my deep commitment to civil discourse and cooperation.  The partisan divide in our nation breaks my heart.  I long for a time when statesmen look for middle ground, for the compromise that is the best possible fit for a diverse nation.

Needless to say, that time is not now.  Am I the only one who feels overwhelmed by the manipulation and fear mongering on both sides of the aisle?  Some of this comes from the media, but some of it comes from us, from the citizens who understandably feel that the stakes are very high in this presidential election.  There’s an intensity to people’s defense of their candidate and their rejection of other candidates that I find disconcerting.

The intensity is familiar.  I am still terrified by the moment, twelve years ago, when I almost yielded to the temptation to rear-end a truck with a political bumper sticker I found offensive.  That is not who I am or who I want to be in the world.  My faith teaches me to respect the inherent worth and dignity of everyone…no exceptions.

 

So here are a few truths I will be holding on to:

  • Voting is a complex decision, based on many different factors.
  • People have multiple perspectives, opinions, and priorities.
  • What seems true and obvious to me depends on my personal experience.
  • Multiple points of view are healthy and necessary.
  • We don’t have to think alike OR vote alike to love alike.
  • We can disagree without denigrating or dismissing one another.
  • The intensity, on all sides, comes out of a deep sense of patriotism.
  • Our government is set up with checks and balances.
  • Anyone who is over the age of 40 has already survived at least 8 years of living under the opposing regime.
  • The requirements of citizenship don’t stop at the voting box.  Rather, that’s where they begin.

The caucus for Idaho Democrats is less than a week away.  I find myself feeling caught between a rock and a hard place.  There is no way to avoid having congregants see which candidate I prefer.  I can’t deny that there’s a tightness in my chest.

I will breathe through that tightness.  I will trust my good folks to be accepting and to manage their anxiety.  I will manage my own anxiety.  I will beam love and compassion across the room.  I will remember the most important truth of all:  we are all in this together.

Broken Hearts are Messy

August 10, 2015

I’ve said before that change and progress on Big Complex Issues require letting our hearts break.  This is true of stopping climate change; to find our way forward, we need to feel and learn from the heartbreak of looking at our beautiful planet and acknowledging all the damage that has been done.  It’s also true of eradicating racism.  The reality of our history- that this country was built on the bodies of Native Americans and African slaves- is beyond heartbreaking.  The reality of our present is equally difficult to swallow. Yet we must take it in, must be present to this heart-breaking reality, if we are to have a hope of finding our way to wholeness.

Taking it in breaks our hearts, and broken hearts hurt.  Our reluctance to feel pain all too often keeps us from facing reality.  We numb ourselves.  We build homes in denial instead of just using it as it is meant to be used- a way station on our way to deeper acceptance and greater wisdom.

This week, though, we’re being reminded that not only does that necessary heartbreak hurt, it makes a godawful mess.  When we are feeling those difficult feelings, we can’t always access our best and most graceful communication techniques.  We can’t always maintain open minds and hearts when our hearts are in pieces on the ground at our feet.  We can’t always avoid trampling on or rolling over pieces of other people’s hearts when they’re all over the place, like legos after a kindergarten play date.

This is why we need to try to be gentle, kind, and forgiving with friends who are having a hard time on this heartbreak-and-healing journey.  Like the people who are responding with anger and defensiveness to the action at Bernie Sander’s rally in Seattle last week.  Like the people who committed acts of violence in Ferguson last night.  Like me.  Like all of us.

At the same time, we need to hold ourselves and one another accountable; it’s not fair to ask other people to clean up our broken-heart messes.  We need to be patient; if we tidy everything up too quickly, we compromise our ability to learn from the mess.  We need to be aware of privilege, need to remember that the ability to live in denial is a privilege in and of itself.  People who are living in black or brown skin can’t take even short breaks in the imaginary land of “we are a post-racial society.”

No one said it would be easy.  Progress has never been a smooth, straight path.  Can we let the bumps in the road be just bumps- and not turn them into mountains?  Can we let the unexpected twists and turns be part of the adventure, not proof that we don’t know where we’re going?  Can we let the mess be…messy?

The other thing I like to say is that when we let our hearts break, and then heal, they will be bigger and stronger and more resilient.  This has been my experience.  When I’m brave enough to feel the fullness of the grief, despair, and pain, on the other side of the feelings I’ve found peace, acceptance, and a willingness to change.  While my ego longs for tidiness and control, my soul longs for justice, and the only way to get there is to embrace the pain and the messiness of my broken heart.

No doubt many faiths around the world and in Idaho have longstanding traditions of man-woman marriage rooted in scripture. But not all religions share the view that opposite-sex marriage is a theological imperative. In fact, some of the Plaintiffs actively worship in faiths that recognize and support their unions. To the extent Governor Otter argues that Idaho has a legitimate interest in validating a particular religious view of marriage, that argument blithely disregards the religious liberty of congregations active in Idaho. “By recognizing the right to marry a partner of the same sex, the State allows these groups the freedom to practice their religious beliefs without mandating that other groups must adopt similar practices.”

This is my favorite part of Judge Candy Dale’s ruling which struck down Idaho’s DOMA and mandated that marriage licences be granted to all committed couples. Why? Because it is proof positive that it makes a difference when we stand up as people of faith.

Hence, this, my latest letter to the editor:

The Idaho Defense of Marriage Act impinges on my religious freedom. I am one of the many faith leaders who feel the bible’s many references to justice and mercy far overshadow the seven, highly disputable passages that are used to attack the gay, lesbian and bisexual community. My own denomination (Unitarian Universalism) has been performing religious marriages and services of union for same sex couples since the seventies. I assure you, we haven’t seen any lightening bolts or other signs of divine displeasure.

We’ve also been providing pastoral care and support to people who have been bullied and abused because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. We’ve walked (and cried) with people who have been shunned by their families. We’ve consoled people who have been banned from the bedside of the person they have loved and lived with for their entire lives because of the bigotry of the technical ‘next of kin.’ We’ve empathized with folks who have had to spend thousands of dollars to create and protect their family in ways that heterosexual families take for granted. We’ve borne witness to a tremendous amount of pain.

Because of that, I was elated when Judge Dale declared DOMA unconstitutional and issued the order mandating that marriage licenses be granted to same-gendered couples. And I am sick at heart and disappointed that the emergency stay was granted. I feel confident that eventually justice will win out; DOMA is basically legalized discrimination, which is contrary to our laws and our constitution. In the meantime, though, I bear witness once again to the pain of the gay and lesbian couples who dared to hope, only to be denied once again the 1,138 federal rights that come along with a marriage license.

Sincerely,

Rev. Elizabeth Stevens
UU Church of the Palouse
Moscow, ID

Can I be honest? I’m getting really sick of having to write these kinds of letters. But I’ll keep doing it until the day when my gay and lesbian friends and relatives feel safe and at home in this country.

(Below is a “Letter to the Editor” sent to the Moscow-Pullman Daily News.)

What is religion for?

The word “religion” comes from the Latin root, ‘religare,’ which means to re-bind. The purpose of any religion, then, should be to strengthen the ties between people and their God and between people and their brothers and sisters. As we strengthen our ties to God, we deepen our faith, find strength and guidance in our living, and experience the deep peace and unconditional love that has traditionally been labelled ‘grace.’ As we strengthen our ties to one another, we practice compassion, kindness, and civility. We learn to love our enemies, embrace those who are different, and forgive those who have sinned against us. In fact, I, like many of the straight allies who advocate for Gay and Lesbian equality, am moved to do so by my faith.

I mention all of this because as an ordained minister, a “Christophile,” and a human being, I am deeply offended by the so-called “Freedom of Religion” act and some of the tactics and terms being used by its defenders. The biblical case against homosexuality is shaky at best, rife with incorrect translations and verses taken out of context. Even if one chooses to believe otherwise, there is simply no way to make the case that the bible teaches discrimination. Nowhere does it say, “Thou shalt not do business with people whose sexuality makes you uncomfortable.”

If people are advocating for the right to discriminate, I suppose they may do so. However, it would be more accurate to call the proposed legislation the “Freedom of Discrimination” act, or perhaps “Freedom to be Uncivil.” What happens between a person and their God is private. What happens in our bedroom is also private. In the public sphere, our national values are clear: all people are created equal, and deserve to be treated with dignity and kindness.

Luker Laws

February 11, 2014

Here is a letter I am sending off to Rep. Lynn Luker, with copies to Rep. Dan Schmidt, Rep. Lucinda Agidius, and Rep. Shirley Ringo.

Dear Representative Luker,

I am adding my voice to the hundreds of people of faith who are requesting…begging, really…that you reconsider your support of HB427. My primary concern is that it will undo the protections recently extended to my gay, lesbian and transgender neighbors by the Moscow city non-discrimination ordinance.

Many scholars believe that there is no biblical basis for homophobia, and that the homophobic lens is one that was superimposed over the text many hundreds of years after it was written. This is true in my tradition, but also in many others. I’ve studied with Catholics, Baptists, Protestants, and even Evangelicals who believe wholeheartedly that gay and lesbian love is as sacred and precious to God as heterosexual love. A closer look at the bible passages that people typically use to make a case for the sinfulness of homosexuality reveals an extremely shaky case.

The first passage is, of course, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. The idea that God punished Sodom and Gomorrah for the sin of homosexuality didn’t enter Christian discourse until medieval times. In fact, there are several passages in the bible…one in Ezekiel, one in Jeremiah and one in the gospel of Matthew, that point to pride, excess, lack of care for the poor and needy, and lack of hospitality as the ‘wickedness’ that angered God- not homosexuality. The event described in the text is about as far from a loving, committed same-gender relationship as you can get: basically, we’re talking about gang rape. It’s a huge step to get from “God considers gang-rape a sin” to “God considers same-gender love a sin.”

The other passages that are frequently quoted are in Leviticus- 18:22 and 20:13 to be precise. A close reading of the text makes it clear that they are not referencing loving, committed same-gender relationships but designed to warn Israelites in exile against adopting the Canaanite practice of temple prostitution. Read in context, these two verses are part of a long list of rules that make up the ‘purity code.’ According to the code, adulterers and men who sleep with menstruating women are to be put to death, tattoos and piercings are forbidden, and all people should keep kosher. There are also rules governing the taking and treatment of slaves and concubines, and the passing along of widows to ensure a clear line of succession. To lift up just these two verses and to ignore the rest seems disingenuous, to say the least.

That’s it in the Old Testament. When we turn to the New Testament, we find absolutely NOTHING addressing same-gender love or sex in any of the four gospels. Paul has a few nasty things to say in Romans and First Corinthians, but again, careful reading shows that they seemed aimed at sexual excess and dishonesty (unnatural lusts) rather than committed same-gender relationships.

It begs the question how did people get the idea that the bible is ‘against’ homosexuality?

In the years leading up to the reformation, what is now the Catholic church (but which was then just ‘the church’ was full of corruption and nepotism. The way to get ahead, to get a desirable posting, was to have an affair with somebody above you in the hierarchy. In an act of blatant hypocrisy, the church launched what was basically a propaganda campaign, introducing anti-homosexual interpretations of the texts I just referenced, and imposing celibacy on priests. (Marriage among priests was common and accepted until 1129.)

Should a person disagree with these arguments, instead clinging to a belief that homosexuality is a sin in the eyes of God, it’s still a very big leap to discriminate against gays and lesbians. The teachings of the bible on how we are to treat one another are too numerous to list…think of the golden rule, the great commandment, and “As you do unto the least of these….” Jesus led by example. He broke almost all of the purity rules. He deliberately sat and spoke and ate with prostitutes and lepers and others considered ‘unclean.’

Nowhere in the bible does it say, “Thou shalt deny sinners health care,” “Thou shalt not sell sinners a wedding cake,” or even “Thou shalt not interact with people whose beliefs or sexual practices you find distasteful.” Who wants to open that door? “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Would it be okay if doctors refused to treat addicts or even people who are overweight? After all, they’re guilty of gluttony, and that’s one of the seven deadly sins.

I know that some people are afraid that priests might be forced to perform a wedding, or sued for refusing. To be clear: there is a difference between religious sacraments and business interactions. Different faith communities have always had the ability to choose who can receive sacraments: we get to decide who gets served communion and who can’t. We get to choose when and how to baptize, and who we are willing to marry. I myself have refused to marry people when I felt their relationship wasn’t healthy. I wouldn’t want Native Americans to be sued because they limit participation in one of their rituals to members of the tribe. That would be a violation of the freedom of religion. However there is a huge difference between being allowed to participate in a sacrament or a religious ritual and having access to a basic service like housing or medical care. Everyone has an equal right to buy a cup of coffee, or go see a movie. This is what our ancestors intended when they declared the separation of church and state.

I am not as familiar with your faith as I’d like to be, and I’d be interested to learn why it is that you feel so strongly that businesspeople shouldn’t have to provide services to people whose lifestyle they see as sinful. One can believe that homosexuality is a sin and still learn and grow from the experience of treating someone who is different with kindness and compassion. I have had many former Mormons in my congregation, and I’ve seen the way the teachings on the sinfulness of homosexuality can rip apart families and damage people’s spirits. I confess I have a hard time believing that this kind of pain is part of God’s plan. Everything that I know of God points toward a desire for healing and love rather than discrimination and pain.

The anti-discrimination ordinance was a welcome step forward here in Moscow; I know people who have been denied service at local restaurants, as well as people who have had a harder time finding a place to live because of their sexual orientation. My faith teaches that everyone deserves to be treated with respect for their inherent worth and dignity. HB 427 runs counter to my faith and my conscience.

It hurts my heart to even think about it becoming law, thus rendering our local ordinance unenforceable. I know of a lot of good people…both gay and straight…who are ready to leave the great state of Idaho over this. I am not one of them; I will stay and become more active in the “Add the Words” campaign instead.

I appreciate your willingness to serve, as well as the time you have taken to read this letter. I would welcome a response, and would also be delighted to meet with you in person. I will be holding you and your fellow Idaho legislators in prayer as you consider this issue.

Sincerely,

The Rev. Elizabeth H. Stevens

In July, I’ll take one last summer intensive class, and then I’ll be officially “ABD”…just a dissertation away from my Doctor of Ministry Degree. I’d like to have my dissertation design approved before I start that final class, which means working with my advisor to clarify and focus my ideas and divide them into chapters. (I find it really helps to think of writing eight 20-40 page chapters rather than one 150-250 page dissertation.)

So what is my dissertation going to be about?

These days, our subjective experience is that we are swimming in rough seas…bombarded by a constant stream of traumatic and tragic news. This experience is based on an objective reality. The Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) maintains an International Disaster Database, in which they’ve tracked the number of natural disasters since 1974. The globe has seen a dramatic eight-fold increase in the number of natural disasters. The scientific consensus is that this change is caused by human patterns of consumption and habitation. That means that in the years to come, things will get worse before they can even begin to get better… even without factoring in human-caused tragedies and disasters.

As if it that weren’t bad enough, we all have a front row seat to each disaster and tragedy as it occurs. A hundred years ago, if there had been a school shooting or a natural disaster somewhere in the world, we might hear about it several months later if it made it into a newspaper…but most likely, we would never know. Editor Harold Evans of the London Times reportedly said that “a single copy of the Sunday Times covers more happenings than an Englishman just a few hundred years ago would have been exposed to in his entire lifetime.”

Most of us don’t get our news exclusively from the paper, though. Between television and the internet, we are watching live footage of tragedies as they unfold and recorded footage afterwards…over and over and over again. Watching images is different than reading words. Studies have shown that our biochemical reaction to watching this footage is the same as if we were there—there’s only a slight difference in scale. So everyone who watches the news responds as if they are being traumatized.

Interestingly enough, when we look into the neuro-biochemistry of PTSD, what we learn is that images of trauma enter our brains through the amygdala (the reptilian brain.) Makes sense, right? If big bad things are happening, we want to respond with that fight-or-flight intensity. From there, they must pass through the hippocampus and into the neocortex. PTSD occurs when the pathway between the amygdala and the hippocampus gets flooded. The official name for compassion fatigue is “Secondary Vicarious Traumatization” or “Secondary Vicarious PTSD”…and I sometimes think that our entire society is suffering from it, simply by virtue of watching the news.

Then there’s the flip side of the coin: it turns out that tragedies can bring out the best in the human race, allowing people to cross boundaries of class, race, nationality, and religion and to embrace our common humanity. (Try reading Rebecca Solnit’s “A Paradise Built in Hell” if you don’t believe me.) Stories of loss and tragedy capture people’s attention and elicit an empathic response. We wind up caring deeply about people we’ve never met before, and that is a good thing.

This subject has been an interest of mine for several years, and I’ve taken trainings and classes as well as reading everything I can get my hands on. Yet still, I sometimes feel confused, overwhelmed, and inadequate when it comes to responding to traumatic events as a spiritual leader in the context of the congregation. I know I am not alone. Traffic on the Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Chat message board after a natural disaster or other tragedy regularly reflects similar confusion on the part of my colleagues. My hope is that I can create a resource…possibly a rubric or a decision flow chart…that might help us know how to calibrate our response appropriately.

To some extent, I see our congregations as lifeboats. It’s our job to provide a place where people can rest for a while, experience kindness, reclaim a sense of agency, and turn again toward beauty, life, and hope. We all get knocked off the boat once in a while, and flounder in the grief and the helplessness and the anger. But we need to keep on swimming (“Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming…”) and then climb back in. In the meantime, we are among the keepers of what is good and right and beautiful. It’s our job to foster in ourselves and in one another compassion and empathy and connection and a sense of responsibility and accountability, all of which is needed if our lifeboats are ever to land someplace stable and sustainable.

Faith and Doubt

February 25, 2013

Doubt plays an important role in intellectual and faith development.  As we receive wisdom (from teachers, scripture, etc.), we test it against our own experience, our own sense of what is right and true.  In this way, we create meaning for ourselves.  Making meaning is what humans do. 

 

An inability to admit doubt (aka fundamentalism) masks a deep fear of being wrong.  As Reinhold Niebuhr puts it, “Frantic orthodoxy is never rooted in faith but in doubt. It is when we are unsure that we are doubly sure.”  Fundamentalism comes in all flavors, including atheism and secularism!

 

In James Fowler’s Stages of Faith, doubt lives primarily in the “Individuative/Reflective” stage, though it stays with us as we develop and grow.  Individual Unitarian Universalists and UU congregations can sometimes get stuck here.  We can fall into a trap of defining ourselves by what we reject…what we don’t believe…rather than doing the work of articulating what we do believe. 

 

The opposite of faith isn’t doubt, it is despair.  We all despair; there are times when we lose faith, lose hold of the thread of meaning in our lives.  And so we must articulate our deepest, most sustaining wisdom, and share it with one another, so that in those times, we can be reminded of who we are and why we matter.

Read the full text of the sermon on the UU Church of the Palouse website:

www.palouseuu.com

 

Resource List

 

Faith:  Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience by Sharon Salzberg

Faith without Certainty, by Paul Rasor

 “Faith and Doubt” in The Dynamics of Faith,  by Paul Tillich

James Fowler’s “Stages of Faith,” from Wikipedia: 

“Faith and Fiction” by Frederick Beuchner

“If I Were Asked” by The Rev. Victoria Safford:

The History of Doubt by Jennifer Michael Hecht