Sermon from February 17: What Passion Makes Possible (text only)


Sometimes we need to take a step away
to see something we care about more clearly,
to size it up in the larger context of our lives.
So, today we gather in different space
with a big screen, stage and theater seating,
but none of this changes who we are:
people who join as one community
in an ongoing journey of religious discovery
inviting each of us to a walk of faith.
This space may feel strange, but it is soon made familiar,
for we hallow it with our hopes;
we bless it with our laughter.
May this time away renew our spirits
and inspire our service to the vision we hold
of peace and freedom, of justice and love
made real in beloved community.

SERMON: Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister–

Randy Pausch would have been the first person to tell you that he had always been a nerdy kind of guy. He was the kind of kid who brought a dictionary to the dinner table and whose hero was Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise.

Growing up in suburban Maryland in the 1960s and 70s, he persuaded his parents to let him decorate the walls of his room with his own drawings of cool stuff. His idea of cool stuff was a rocket ship, a submarine, pieces from a chess set, and the quadratic equation. He even painted a silver elevator door on one wall with up and down buttons and, above the door, floor numbers one through six, with the number “three” illuminated, in his one-story, ranch-style home.

Like many kids, he spent a lot of time in his imagination, dreaming about futuristic things like alien worlds and flying in space ships. So, for Randy the big event of his young life was a trip to Disneyworld in California. He couldn’t believe the amazing rides he went on and all the cool things he could do. He walked away determined to make stuff like that some day.

As you can imagine, Randy was pretty good in school. In fact, he went on to get a PhD in computer science and got a job as a college professor. But even then he hadn’t given up on his dream of getting inside the rides at Disneyland. The funny thing was that when he wrote to the people at Disney who designed the rides – they called themselves Imagineers – they didn’t seem to be interested in hearing from him.

Here he was teaching college students how to create virtual reality scenes on their computers. He felt sure he could contribute something to the people at Disney, but no dice. Randy was undeterred. As he saw it, those hurdles were there just to make him show how badly he wanted to do it.

One day he learned that Disney was developing a new ride based on the movie “Aladdin” that would use elements of virtual reality. So, again he pestered the Disney people until finally one of them agreed to meet with him. He says he probably did 80 hours of research for the interview and talked to every virtual reality expert he could find. In the end the Disney person agreed to let Randy work there during his upcoming six-month sabbatical. So, he finally got to work at Disney.

Randy tells the story of one night on a warm California night driving home from the Imagineering headquarters in a convertible with the soundtrack of “The Lion King” playing on his stereo and tears streaming down his cheeks.

And that wasn’t the end of Randy’s connection with Disney. Coming back to the university where he worked, he arranged for some of his students to have internships at Disney. His class on “Building Virtual Worlds” invited people across academic disciplines to enroll and turned out to be among the most popular at the university. Randy eventually was recruited to write the entry on Virtual Reality for the World Book encyclopedia, and the teaching tool he created to introduce students to virtual reality, called Alice, is being used across the world to teach people computer programming.

By the summer of 2006, at 45 years old, you’d have to say that Randy was a pretty happy, successful man. Not only was he a celebrated college professor, but also he was married to a woman he adored and had three young children.

But then came these strange pains in his abdomen that he couldn’t explain. A battery of tests gave him sobering news. He had pancreatic cancer, a particularly deadly form of the disease. But Randy was determined to stay alive for his family. He underwent difficult surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, but in the end the cancer came back.

Walking out of that appointment after learning that his life could end in months, Randy realized that he’d need to find a different perspective on the days ahead, a perspective that helped him make the best of what life he had left.

One reason we know so much about Randy’s story is that earlier in the same year he received those disappointing test results he had been recruited by the university to take part in a lecture series in which star faculty were invited to reflect on their lives. It was called “The Last Lecture Series.” Never before, though, had the person giving the lecture known for a fact that he or she would not live long after giving the lecture. It really would be Randy’s last.

Randy wasn’t sure at first if it was a good idea to go through with it: preparing a lecture would take time from his family and his energy was waning. But he finally decided to go ahead with it because he hoped that sharing the passion that he had given to his life might encourage others to find a path to fulfilling their own dreams.

I want to tell you a bit more about what Randy had to say at that last lecture. But first I want to talk to you about why it came to my mind to tell you his story at this service where we have gathered here in this downtown performance space in one strong body to celebrate this community and talk about why we support it.

Like Randy, most of us go about our lives knowing in a general kind of way that the days given to us are limited, but figuring that the time when those days would end are far off. Like the boy in our story we have moments in our lives when we receive love, or guidance, or wisdom. We experience how good those moments feel. We have a sense of being deeply connected to each other, to our own inner calling, and to the world. And we say to ourselves, “I’m always going to remember this moment.”

But memory fades. Life moves on. We get busy with other things. In his lecture, Randy talked about how he felt that he “won the lottery” with the parents he had. He grew up always knowing that he was loved and supported. When he headed off to academia – top grades, top honors – he was a kind of golden boy, feeling pretty cocky, like he could do anything. He was, he admitted in his lecture, a bit of a “jerk.”

Randy said it was a legendary computer science professor in college who set him straight. One day the professor took him out for a walk, put an arm around his shoulders and said, “Randy, it’s such a shame that people perceive you as being so arrogant, because it’s going to limit what you’re going to be able to accomplish in life.”

Now, I don’t think that any of us necessarily arrives at this congregation as a “jerk.” But we all come here with things to learn and blind spots that limit how we experience each other and the world. Part of what we offer as a community is safe space for each of us to learn and grow. We gather for small group ministry, in classes, in dinner and hiking groups and more. All of this is religious work, for it connects us to life-affirming values that can help us grow into compassionate, spiritually mature, loving and giving people.

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that Randy showed up to give his “last lecture” wearing his Disney Imagineers polo shirt. Even with his PhD and other academic credentials, that shirt remained special to him because it symbolized a dream that had stayed with him since he was a boy that he was able to achieve.

And what made it important was not just that it was a childhood dream, but that it connected him to an important part of himself, a passion to create scenes and images that help people better understand the world. In a book he wrote about his last lecture, Randy said that as a high-tech guy, he never really understood what actors and artists were talking about when they talked about things inside of themselves that “needed to come out.” His lecture, he said, taught him that throughout his life there had been many things inside him that needed to come out.

And of course that’s true of all of us. The writer and teacher Joseph Campbell studied many different religious traditions, and the advice he gave his students about their own religious searches was, “follow your bliss.”

He was clear, though, that “follow your bliss” meant more than just “do what you like.” It meant finding that path, that pursuit that you are most passionate about and giving yourself to it. And there, he argued, you will find your own fullest potential and the way that you can serve your community to the greatest possible extent.

Here’s what he said: “If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living.”

Notice that Campbell didn’t identify any one track, any one way that he argued would bring you bliss. Rather, he said, it is up to us to find the track that is ours and to be aware that the track will shift and change as we learn and grow.

There are many things we find ourselves passionate about over the course of our lives, from baseball to ballet, from rose gardening to rock and roll. We are all of us Imagineers of a sort, looking for ways to put our passions to work in our lives. But beneath all of that is something more, some way that we feel connected more deeply to each other and everything around us. From time to time something resonates within us, perhaps in a beautiful spot, listening to music, reading a poem, or sitting gathered in worship or with someone we love.

We struggle for words to describe this feeling, this knowing, this emerging truth. And so in each other’s company we try them out. We venture haltingly, listen carefully, reflect what we hear and affirm, or simply let silence work on us.

When I look back at the trajectory of my own life, I am amazed at how I have changed and in ways that I never could have guessed, nor do I believe that I am done with my changes.  But I am grateful for a religious home that makes room for those changes and gives me companions who are ready to journey with me.

That’s what a religious community like this is for, to create a place where we can discover and name our deepest passions, our places of bliss, and put them work in our lives and in service to the greater world.

As your order of service reminds you, this is Stewardship Sunday, when we kick off the Annual Budget Drive that asks you to make financial commitments that will sustain this community for the year ahead. So, here’s my pitch. I promise it will be short.

The colorful brochure you received today describes how this congregation proposes to spend its money in the coming year in worship, education, caring and outreach and to support programs and maintain the campus where all of this happens.

I must tell you, it is such a privilege to serve this vital beacon of liberal religion. In the eight years I’ve been your minister you have grown and deepened as a community and stood fast as an advocate of justice, freedom and love. I’m proud of you.

This year, though, our Annual Budget Drive presents us with a challenge. In recent years, we have used money from a grant and bequests to help fund staff and programming needed to serve the congregation we have grown to be. We need to close that gap with our pledges. I have worked with the staff to keep next year’s budget tight. The only significant increase for the coming year is a 2% cost-of-living increase for all staff. This is important, since many of our staff received no increase last year. And for some of our part-time workers it will ensure that we remain a Living Wage employer.

To do all that, we ask you to consider a one-time major increase in your pledge. Details are in the brochure. We know that not everyone is in a position to increase, although we are encouraged by the results of some of our first visits. So far our team has received commitments of $101,450, well on our way toward our goal of $640,000.

Thank you so much to those who have responded, and as you weigh your options, please bring to mind the hopes and passions that this community serves.

Even though Randy Pausch was, by his own description, a high-tech kind of guy, the religious part of his life mattered to him, too. And that’s why he and his family were members of a Unitarian Universalist church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In an interview with the UU World magazine in the last months of his life, Randy said that the support of his church community had made a big difference to his family.

It was a place where, like this congregation, people heard the heartbeats of each other’s passions, where they carried the baskets of each other’s gifts to a crossroads where they could be shared.

Randy died on July 25, 2008, a little over four years ago. His family was with him, and he knew he was loved. I reflect that in the past few weeks I’ve conducted memorial services for two of our members, Joe Haun and Joe Major. And it was good to have a number of you there with me helping to tell their stories and comfort their friends and families.

This is what we do for each other. It’s part of the passion that we bring to this community, the love that we give and receive in one another’s company.

When I think of all this, my mind turns back to the words of our opening hymn, “drifting here with my ship’s companions, all we kindred pilgrim souls, making our way by the lights of the heavens in our beautiful blue boat home.”

I’ve said before that sometimes our sanctuary back on Edwin Place feels like a big boat, with all of us gathered together, sometimes sailing under sunny sides, sometimes riding out a storm. And even though this space today really bears no resemblance to that one, with you here I can almost imagine us there: a place where our hopes and passions, where the commitments we make to each other fuel a fire that keeps love alive.

Sermon from February 3: Being Straight (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister–

So, let me begin with myself. All of my life I have identified with the male gender. Growing up I knew myself as a “boy,” placing myself in the same group as people who identified themselves or were identified to me as male, and distinguished myself from “girls,” people I identified, or others identified or who identified themselves as female.

I can’t specifically recall when I began to awaken to myself as a sexual being, but I’m guessing it was around the age of 11 or 12, and, with the exception with some consensual touching with a male friend at around that time, I have always been drawn to people who I identified as women as sexual partners. In my life today I live in a monogamous couple with the only person with whom I am intimate, my wife.

Now, let me acknowledge that this is not the sort of information that we ordinarily exchange with each other, and I am not offering my own tale with the expectation that you will all suddenly start sharing your own stories with each other. We are all entitled to our privacy. We have the right to decide for ourselves how much of the details of our lives to share and with whom to share them.

Instead, I offer my own story to draw attention to several interesting aspects of stories like mine in our culture and the consequences they have for our religious lives. In the vernacular we use today I am identified as “straight” or heterosexual: a man who is attracted sexually exclusively to “the other sex”: women.

But more importantly, and here’s where the trouble starts, my sexual orientation is widely conceived as “normal”: the standard, the way things are supposed to be. As such, it loads me up with all sorts of privilege. In any public setting, people feel comfortable asking me about my wife and making provisions to include her in social gatherings. I am entitled to thousands of benefits under federal, state and local law.

But, beyond all that is a privilege that people with a sexual orientation like mine have a hard time wrapping our heads around. If you are regarded as “normal,” then no matter where you go, you are “just folks”: Nothing out of the ordinary. On meeting you, people give you the benefit of the doubt and are ready to think well of you.

If your sexual orientation is different, it can be otherwise. If it’s true that my sexual orientation is “the norm,” then any other arrangement is, by definition, “deviant.” It deviates, strays from, the norm. Now, technically speaking, all of that is simply the language of science, but part of what this demonstrates is the way in which the language of science can be employed to obscure, misinform and oppress.

So, where do we get this idea of what normal is? It’s true that we humans are issued two basic varieties of plumbing when it comes to the machinery of reproduction. But even there the story isn’t as simple as it looks. There are many variations in our physical make-up as well as in our genetic heritage that shape sexual identity and expression.

And, of course, it’s often remarked that our most important sexual organ is to be found not between our legs but perched on top of our necks. How shall we calibrate anything like “normal” when it comes to the extraordinary variety of human desire?

The writer Hanne Blank sought to track down the history of this notion of a “normal” sexual expression and discovered something interesting, which is contained in the title to her recent book: “Straight – The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality.”

Yes, she writes, men and women have always had sex, but the notion that people have particular sexual orientations and that one might be identified as normal has only existed for something like a century and a half.

She traces the term “heterosexuality” back to Germany in 1869 during efforts to modernize Germany’s ancient legal codes. One legislator had his eye on eliminating a provision that stipulated harsh punishment for men having sex with men, arguing that it was wrong to punish actions that harmed no one. “Homosexuals” and “heterosexuals,” he said, were simply two types of human beings.

Nothing came of his efforts – Hitler later used that provision in German law to imprison and murder homosexuals in concentration camps during World War II – but that new word – heterosexual – later made its way to medical texts. There, though, it took a different turn and was used to describe what was then called “healthy sexuality.”

The word first appeared in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary in 1934, where it was described as “manifestation of sexual passion for one of the opposite sex; normal sexuality.”

Meanwhile, the growing influence of Sigmund Freud carried this conversation in a new direction. Freud held that heterosexuality was the norm among adults, but that to reach that state our innate sexual impulses must be channeled properly as we grow up. He argued that any other orientation – from disinterest in sex to same-sex attraction – was the result of trauma or some arrested development. It was by definition dysfunctional and in need of treatment to be cured.

Mental health professionals have since repudiated this theory of Freud’s, though it took the American Psychiatric Association until 1973 to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder. In the meantime, the notion that there is something wrong with anyone who doesn’t identify exclusively as heterosexual suffused our culture and remains embedded in many people’s understanding.

Alfred Kinsey’s work in the 1950s opened a door beyond that. From interviews with thousands of men and women about their sex lives he learned that the variety of people’s sexual desires and experiences were far greater than most suspected. He proposed that people’s sexual responses ran on a continuum of seven stages from exclusively heterosexual to exclusively homosexual. But what was especially important is that he offered the data without judgment.

His studies opened a conversation about not only sexual orientation, but also practices. Where do you draw the line? What counts as heterosexual, homosexual, and what else? As scientific as these distinctions are made to sound, the actual science is pretty hazy.

As Hanne Blank puts it, “science has yet to prove that heterosexuality – or indeed any sexuality – exists in any way that is relevant to material science.” Researchers have gone hunting for the “gay gene,” sought traces of the “heterosexual brain” and tried to tease out the ingredients of the hormonal cocktail that determines sexual orientation. None of it has paid out yet.

It may be, she says, that for these categories that seem so important to us – homosexual, heterosexual – there simply aren’t any physical, biological distinctions significant enough to separate people into what’s called “natural kinds.” Perhaps this is just one of many aspects of human variability.

Also, as the conversation around sexual orientation has continued we’ve come to realize how limiting these old notions are. People today identify not only as gay or straight, but also as bisexual, attracted to both genders, and gender queer, rejecting traditional images of either masculinity or femininity.

And the whole notion gender itself is proving problematic. Different combinations of our X and Y chromosomes may place us on one side or another of what is traditionally recognized as male and female, and that designation may or may not gibe with the sexual identity we claim. Some people born with what is considered a conventional physical identity grow into a different sexual identity and so come to know themselves as transgender. One researcher has suggested that instead of two genders we might recognize as many as five.

We’ve also come to realize that what we call sexual orientation encompasses a broader range of feelings and identities than were previously considered. Researchers who have updated Kinsey’s scale have expanded the reach of questions they pursue.

Participants are asked not only about who they have had sex with but also about who their sexual fantasies are about, who they are attracted to, who they are emotionally drawn to, who they prefer to exchange non-sexual physical affection with, who they prefer to socialize with, what sexual identity they socialize with, how they identify themselves and how they identify the political personality they express to the world.

Each of these areas touches on different ways we relate to others, how we are drawn to them and how we interact with them in ways we don’t often think of as sexual yet that shape our experience of our sexual being.

As a straight man who came of age some 50 years ago I have to admit that much of this is still a little hard for me to understand. But as a religious person who is committed to affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person I recognize that my understanding it is not the point. Ultimately, my concern is not how or why people are drawn to each other, but that their interaction is not exploitive, harmful, or abusive. If, in the words of Marge Piercy, they are living a life they can endure; if they are making love that is loving, then it is something I can honor and bless.

When we define a narrow standard and declare all outside it to be deviant, we shut people off from the reality of their lives. And, as Adrienne Rich warned, whatever is unnamed, undepicted, censored, misnamed, made difficult-to-come-by, buried in memory under inadequate or lying language becomes not merely unspoken, but unspeakable. And so, is it any wonder how often people declared to be other, outsider, deviant choose to hide themselves or even end their lives rather than suffer disapprobation and shame?

We as a religious community have a duty to call those people back from the edge, to be, as Holly Near urged, a gentle, loving people, to widen the tent of acceptance and affirmation, to declare a new normal that embraces the broad diversity of human identity and expression.

Walt Whitman, poet of America and flamboyantly gay man, captured a truth of our lives in his poem. In the 1890s, highpoint of the Victorian Era, that laced up period where human intimacies were not discussed in polite society, he declared, “I sing the body electric.”

And isn’t it so? From early in infancy we are aware of an electricity that moves in our bodies, that sings to us – different songs in different seasons, to be sure – but singing all the same. We’re not always sure what we hear, and sometimes the tune changes – louder, softer, suddenly shifting to a different key.

In the end, as Whitman puts it, that passion that arises within us “balks account.” There is no telling whence it comes, or even, really, fully describing it, but in and of itself it is perfect. That is to say, it is what it is; it is ours.

It is not something that needs to be explained. It is merely something that is to be known. And that knowing in all its full dimensions is not easy, not for any of us. We test and experiment, bounce in and out of relationship, and if we’re lucky come to an understanding, an understanding grounded in loving relationship.

In such relationships, we learn, it is possible to find fulfillment, to find peace in the expression of our truth, embracing the curious, breathing, laughing flesh of our physical being, and being content to affirm that, while all things please the soul, these please the soul well.