Is she Slovak? A tale as old as time …

Walls3

I grew up in an ethnic neighborhood, the grandchild of Slovak immigrants. When I started dating, I got asked a question: “Is she Slovak?”

That sounds odd, but it makes sense. Immigrants cherished their cultures and traditions. Their food, their language, their polkas – all were a source of comfort in the new world.

They wanted their traditions to persist and thrive, so they thought it important for Slovaks to stay with Slovaks. And Italians with Italians. And Hungarians with Hungarians. And the Polish with the Polish.

And so on, with so on.

Other relatives had very different question when they heard I was dating. They’d ask: “Do you like her?”

Such different approaches to relationship within one family!

It’s a tale as old as time: Is relationship about love primarily, or about something else? The two approaches have been in a constant tug throughout human history.

Although we enjoy fairy tales about love overcoming great obstacles, in reality the other viewpoint has carried the day most often. In real life, lowly Cinderella isn’t invited to dance with a prince. And Beauty can’t love the Beast.

This month highlights that tug again: Is relationship primarily about love or something else?

Beauty isn’t allowed to love the Beast

Fifty years ago this month, the Supreme Court struck down laws against interracial marriage. Two years ago this month, the court ruled for marriage equality.

We saw that clash of ideas clearly defined in the marriage equality ruling. The majority opinion by Justice Kennedy noted that marriage is an enduring bond that brings people into a deeper intimacy and spirituality.

As part of the dissent, Justice Scalia ridiculed the talk of intimacy and spirituality. He wrote that freedom doesn’t encompass spirituality, and that intimacy is “abridged rather than expanded by marriage.”

Well, what a romantic, huh? In his view, love is more of a prison. And the other dissenting justices argued that law takes precedence over love.

It’s understandable why there would be such a backlash against putting love first in relationship. It shakes things up.

For most of human history, love hasn’t been the essential element in the relationship equation. Women have been treated more as property than persons, unable even to choose their spouse. Royalty couldn’t marry a commoner. Interfaith marriages were opposed by religions. People of different races or ethnic backgrounds met resistance. Gay and transgender people were barred.

Relationships were seen as a way to keep people in their assigned places. Everything else was secondary.

What’s love got to do with it? Well, actually: Love has everything to do with it! Or at least it should.

Love is the starting point for every meaningful human endeavor, the heart of anything truly spiritual and God-filled. Without it, our lives and our relationships become empty voids.

What’s love got to do with it?

As Paul puts it in the familiar passage from Corinthians that’s used at many marriages: We can be the most religious, most amazing, most advanced human being ever but if love isn’t the basis of all that we do, then none of it means anything.

Our lack of love doesn’t diminish our faith and actions; it renders them totally meaningless. And that goes especially for relationship.

Of course, Paul got his ideas from a rabbi who was warned by religious leaders to avoid having relationships with certain kinds people — Samaritans, Romans, Gentiles, tax collectors, fishermen, women, lepers, the poor, the needy, the sick, and on and on. Jesus’ response was to seek out those very people for loving, healing relationship.

He said that love and love alone fulfills the law, not anything else. And his followers must live by the same guideline. Their love must transcend and topple all barriers and limitations.

His love-first approach wasn’t popular then or now. Let’s face it: It’s more comfortable and convenient to make relationship about something else. And we all have a problem with love and relationship. Our fears, our insecurities and our self-doubt get in the way. Our selfishness and our egos get confronted and directly challenged.

Who really wants that???

But here’s the flip side: Loving relationships take us to places that we can’t go by ourselves. Here’s where I strongly disagree with Justice Scalia: Loving relationships aren’t prisons. Rather, love alone frees us from the prison of our insecurities and our fear and our shame and our self-absorption.

Only love can do that

And this goes not only for our most intimate relationships, but for all of them. It includes every encounter with another person at home, at work, in our faith community, on the street, on social media.

So this is a fitting time to recommit ourselves to making love the starting point and the reason for all our relationships. Let’s ask ourselves the question: What’s the loving thing to do right now? And then let’s try our best to do it.

Let’s make love the measure of all that we do. Love and love alone.

Perfect circles, imperfect people

rings

One of the great challenges of talking about something in public is figuring out what you would like to say. It forces you to think about a subject on many levels and find words that fit your experience and your insight. It’s never easy.

I’ve spent a lot of time the last few months thinking about relationship.

The pastor of my UCC church and his partner, the music director, are retiring at the end of this month. Mike and Vince have been married for 25 years in the deepest sense of the word, but not the legal sense. The marriage equality ruling by the Supreme Court last year gave them the opportunity to remedy that part.

I got to marry them on Sunday at the end of our service – the first time I’ve married anyone.

When Mike and Vince asked me to do the honor, my reaction was two-fold. First, I was deeply touched — they could have asked any number of others. I think I teared up a bit and thanked them and said yes, of course I would.

I don’t marry just anybody

And then I told them of my second reaction: We would have to have some meetings between now and then. I’m not going to go marrying just anybody, after all. I need to know they’re a good fit for one another.

Those words made them a little uneasy, until I laughed and told them I was joking about the meeting part.

As I mentioned at the service on Sunday, we already know that they’re a good fit. Mike pointed out that the marriage service was just a formality, and that’s true. But the more I thought about it, the more I recognized that every wedding ceremony is a formality in a sense. It doesn’t create anything new, per se. Rather, it recognizes and blesses what’s already there, what everybody knows has been there for a long time.

We know what’s there.

In Vince’s case, we all know that he’s given so much of himself to all of us in so many ways. He’s given us his time, his talent, his love. And he’s given us his beautiful, beautiful music, which has touched our hearts and our souls and lives in our hearts and our souls as does he.

With Mike, it’s the same thing. He’s given so much of himself to all of us in so many ways. He’s given us his time, his talent, his love. And he’s given us his beautiful, beautiful words which live in our hearts and souls as does he.

Given to each other first

And we recognize that the reason why they’ve been able to give so much of themselves to us is because they’ve first given those things to each other. That’s what relationship is about.

Love never exists in a vacuum. It takes a village to grow love between people. Love never is confined to just two. The love they give each other makes them grow into more loving people who have more love to give away. Love always gives itself away. And couples need the love of others to help the two of them grow as well.

We all give love and get love from so many people. Love is a perfect circle of imperfect people, trying their best to love how they can on any given day.

Rings are wonderful symbols of that process. Like God’s love, a ring has no starting point and no ending point. We wear it every day. It encircles us and enfolds us in all we do.

We did it together

So after Mike and Vince exchanged rings, we did what we always do in our amazing little church – we did this marriage thing together. And it went like this:

  • By the power vested in all of us by the United Church of Christ, which believes in love always …
  • By the power vested in all of us by the state of Ohio, which charged me $15 to get a license to do this …
  • By the power vested in all of us by the Supreme Court of the United States of America … And we all knew there were many times when Mike and Vince thought they’d never get to hear those words pronounced over them, so it was repeated – by the power vested in all of us by the Supreme Court of the United States of America, hashtag love wins …
  • And by the grace and love of God who is love, we pronounce, proclaim, recognize, bless and celebrate all that they are, all that they have been, and all that they shall be.

And we wished them many, many, many more years of this perfect pairing of music and words, heart and soul, all bound together by love. By their love for each other, our love for them, and God’s love for all of us.

Amen. And woo hoo.

No, thank YOU for the lessons in love

Rainbow

In the past year since the Supreme Court ruled for marriage equality, many of my gay friends have thanked me for being a straight ally. At first, I didn’t know quite how to respond.

I’d say something along the lines of: “You’re welcome, of course! You matter to me. You’re so worth it. I’m just glad I could help in some way.” Somehow, though, that answer seemed inadequate.

Or I might have followed up with: “It’s just sad that it took so long and involved so much pain to get to this point. I’m sorry for that.” Which is better, but still lacking. Something more needed to be said.

One day, it occurred to me. I needed to say more than just “you’re welcome.” I also needed to say something back to them:

Thank you.

First, thank you for inviting me to be your friend. Thank you for the love and encouragement you’ve given me over the years. It means far more than you know.

Thank you for showing me what it means to love someone when there’s a great cost involved. When simply holding someone’s hand in public could have enormous repercussions, and you do it anyway. Thank you for that courageous example.

Thank you for reminding me that it’s important to be myself and to celebrate who I am, even when I’m not exactly sure who I am. Especially when some others would like me to be something that I’m not.

Thank you for showing me what it means to live in a way that’s true to yourself.

Thank you for teaching me what it means to live courageously and to love courageously. And to recognize God at work in all of it.

Thank you for showing me how to keep trying, even when justice seems so absent and distant. Especially when justice is absent and distant.

Thank you for giving me an example of what it means to be graceful in the face of hatred and discrimination. I will never forget that.

Thank you for showing me what it means to respond to hatred with love, time and time again. Orlando is just the latest example.

And thank you for being a visible reminder that love wins. Always does. Sometimes, it just takes a little time.

Thank you.

 

The bolts of hatred

Bolt

One of my roommates in college was gay. He confided in me about his sexual preference, knowing I’d respect his confidence. Back then, gay people were openly ridiculed and rejected and attacked.

I wish I could say this was no longer true, but obviously I can’t. We’ve come a long way, but what happened in Orlando and the reaction to it provide harsh reminders of how people hate those who are different from them in some way.

Still so much hatred.

I’m the associate minister at an open and affirming UCC church. We accept everyone just as they are. I’ve heard many stories about how members of my church family have been treated horrifically by their families, by their former “Christian” churches, and by co-workers because of their sexual orientation.

Their openness touches me. Their courage inspires me. Their stories remind me how I enjoy a sort of “straight” privilege. Nobody has ever threatened me because I was holding a girl’s hand, or refused to rent me an apartment because I was dating a woman. Nobody has ever refused to bake me a cake because I’m straight.

I have never had to worry that my sexual identity was going to get me killed.

One thing about the reaction to Orlando troubles me greatly. People who have said so many hateful and harmful things about LBGT people are now trying to distance themselves from what happened. They’re trying to frame it as merely another instance of extremism by different people from a different country and a different religion.

Nothing could be further from the truth here.

So many self-styled “Christians” have done so many hateful and hurtful things to the LGBT community. It’s tiring to have to remind people of the way so many “Christian” parents have disowned their children simply for being gay, or how many “Christian” churches have invited gay people through their front doors only to attack them from the pulpit, or how many “Christian” evangelists have blamed all of the country’s ills on gay people being treated as equally beloved children of God.

Sorry. No matter where we are in the spectrum of things, none of us can take ourselves completely off the hook for what happened in Orlando. We all contribute our part. None of these horrible things happens in a vacuum.

We’re the ones who create the hot bed in which hatred grows and spreads and eventually strikes out. Or we encourage it with a shrug and indifference. Or we speak out for love and justice, which can pull hatred up by the roots for a while. And we keep at it, responding to hatred with love over and over.

This is on each of us. Are we going to encourage it, hide from it, or push back against it?

And those who like to think they’re totally different from the person who pulled the trigger in Orlando need to remember that our attitudes matter just as much as our actions. Jesus said as much all the time. We’ve seen it play out so many times.

One year ago this week, a young white man walked into an historically black church in Charleston, S.C., participated in a Bible study, and killed nine of the African-American church members. The white man had gotten swept up in the deep current of racial hatred in our country, a current created by the words and attitudes of others.

What we say and how we treat others affects everyone and everything around us. That’s one of the basic tenets of religion – love one another, treat others the way you want to be treated. Do it because how you live has such a big impact on everyone else.

What we say and how we say it create the atmosphere in which we live. Just as each exhaled breath puts something into the air, so does each word.

Hateful attitudes are like an electrical charge that gets sent into the atmosphere. The charge grows and solidifies and forms a lightning bolt that hits some target and causes great harm and destruction.

These bolts never come out of the blue. They come out of us.

So does love. The only way to dissipate hatred is by giving all people the same unconditional and unlimited love that God has for each of us. As the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., put it, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

None of these horrific acts is isolated from us. They happen in a world that we fill each day with either a little more love or a little more hate or a little more indifference. Each of us must chose.

Hatred or love? Violence or peace? Holy wars or holiness? Being silent or speaking up? Loving everyone or no one at all?

Who would Jesus pee with?

Urinals

When my kids were in high school, their girls’ volleyball team made it to the district finals of the state tournament. I went to watch the match and used the men’s restroom beforehand.

As I stood at the urinal, I noticed someone wearing a girl’s skirt move into the urinal next to mine. The school is co-ed. The skirt was worn by a young man on the football team. The conversation went like this:

Me: Hey, nice skirt.

Him: Thanks. The football team is wearing them to show support for the girls.

Me: Great idea. Very clever.

Him: Yeah, we liked it. Thanks.

I peed, he peed, and off we went. It was a funny moment. Of course, in North Carolina and some other places, it probably wouldn’t be funny at all. Who knows? There would likely be some big dust-up over a person in a skirt using a urinal.

And isn’t that so sad? And more than a little creepy? Why are so many politicians and religious leaders so obsessed with where people pee and what’s in their pants?

And since religion inevitably gets dragged into it, let’s ask a pertinent question: Who would Jesus pee with?

First things first. Why are folks so caught up in others’ sexuality?

Historians point out that religions and politicians have always spent a lot of time trying to legislate sexuality and push away the people that made them uncomfortable. I’ve seen that in my lifetime. Jim Crow laws were still in place when I was growing up. White people didn’t want black people peeing next to them. Or drinking from the same water fountain. Or eating at the same lunch counter. Or sleeping in the same hotel. Or marrying white people.

Black people made them uncomfortable, so they tried to legislate to keep them away.

And so it goes today. People who are uncomfortable with gay people or transgender people are trying to legislate to keep them away. And just like the defenders of Jim Crow, they’re using their “religious beliefs” to support their arguments.

So, let’s get to that bigger question: Who would Jesus pee with?

The gospels provide short, thumbnail descriptions of what Jesus is passionate about: Feeding the hungry, healing the broken, sheltering the homeless, visiting the imprisoned, sharing everything with those in need. Trying to love everyone unconditionally. Being compassionate and accepting. The gospels go on and on about this.

Peeing? Not a word. So he probably wasn’t much concerned about it. In fact, he chose to surround himself with friends who were the religious, cultural and sexual outcasts of his society — the ones that others wanted nothing to do with. He ate with them, laughed with them, lived with them. And, undoubtedly, he would have peed with them.

Why wouldn’t he?

And how different is all of that from how we’re acting? Instead of growing in wisdom and age and grace, we’re more like junior high kids caught up in hormonal drama. Instead of being concerned about what’s in people’s hearts and in their stomachs, we’re fixated on what’s in their pants.

Doesn’t it creep you out, this fixation with people’s private parts and private lives? How religious leaders have turned Doubting Thomas into Peeping Tom?

And nobody buys the rationale that it’s about protecting children. There are no issues of transgender people hurting children. However, there have been many cases of politicians and religious leaders doing horrific things to children. And what about the homeless children in our country and the refugee children worldwide who desperately need our help right now?

Instead, we’re fixating on who’s peeing where.

So, let’s ask the question again: Who would Jesus pee with?

Even though there’s no mention of how he peed in the gospels, there’s lots of stories about how he did other things. As the stories go, when a crowd gathered to spend time with him, he would make sure that everyone had some fishes and loaves to eat, regardless of their age or religion or sexuality or anything else. In fact, sharing the bread with everyone – especially the marginalized and the outcasts — became his signature act.

He healed anyone who asked for healing, loved anyone who needed his love, and invited everyone to do the same. In one story, he washes the feet of everyone – including those who are about to betray and deny him – and says they must go and do the same to everyone else.

Serve everybody. Unconditionally. No questions asked.

So I suppose Jesus would pee next to the young man wearing a skirt to support a volleyball team. And next to the transgender person. And next to the self-righteous religious person. And while doing so, he would maybe strike up a conversation and say some kind words to them, show them a little love.

Who would he pee with? You know the answer to that.

And then he would tell us to go and do the same.