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.

Sermon from January 13: Beginning Again (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister–

Even today, many years later, there is something in me that resists going there. It was 1999, with all its cosmological portent – the coming of a new century, a new millennium. But I didn’t attend to much of it, stuck as I was in my own “slough of despond,” as John Bunyan once called it.

After 20 years in newspaper journalism, 15 of them at one newspaper, steadily working my way up in positions of increasing prominence and visibility, I had, without entirely knowing how or why, been bumped out of a job I loved. Oh, I could say it wasn’t my fault, that it was economic pressure, pressures, really, that were affecting the whole industry that forced the cutbacks that my employer undertook.

I wasn’t the only one affected. Some people lost their jobs. At least I was still working. All the same, the position I ended up with didn’t feel like a plum. I had been a reporter with a byline with relatively flexible hours, hunting out and then writing stories in a field I enjoyed. My new assignment had me working second shift, parked in front of a computer for eight hours a day picking over other people’s copy.

To say I was unhappy doesn’t quite tell it. What it really felt like was repudiation, a judgment that I had been weighed and found wanting, that I had not simply failed but that I was, in fact, “a failure.” The metaphor that Bunyan offers in Pilgrim’s Progress is a good one. This place feels like a swamp where you wallow about, bedaubed by dirt, addled, unsure of any way out with this soul-sapping burden on your back, weighing you down.

Anticipating the direction where my life seemed to be taking me, I asked the people organizing worship services at the UU church we attended whether I might address the subject in a worship service. Sure, they said.

And thus emerged my sermon, “The Art of Failing.” I cringe a bit now looking back at it. I certainly felt very brave standing in front of those folks confessing my misfortune and asserting that there was some “art” to be found in that moment. We’ve all heard the talk – taking lemons and making lemonade, making “beautiful” failures that bring us to some transformative place. In the moment, though, it was hard to see how that happens. Most of what I remember feeling at the time was how hollow the message coming from my mouth felt in my own ears.

Failing isn’t something that we like to dwell on much, and the further on we get in our lives such losses feel less like setbacks and more like existential judgments. It’s said that when you’re in your 20s or early 30s you have this narrative running in your head – “I’m young, I have promise. I have everything going for me.” Setbacks, sure, but you recalibrate, lick your wounds a little and move on.

For me, this sermon came right about the time of my 46th birthday. Whatever narrative I might have thought I was living had faded, and the passing of time was taking on new weight. I was in need of a new story, but where would it come from?

Beginning again – it’s a fact of life. Jobs change, marriages fail, stuff happens. We need to let something go and find a new direction. Where do we start? It’s tempting to begin, as I did, by making our lives as full as possible. I began scrambling for free-lance writing jobs, bearing down on my resume and getting it around. All productive stuff, at one level, but also in many ways it was work to keep my frantic mind occupied. If I was busy, I wouldn’t have to dwell on the fear and sadness I was feeling. But at the same time this busyness kept me from opening to something new.

The Buddhist writer Pema Chodron remarks that fear often arises from a sense of poverty, a feeling that we are lacking something and we need to scramble somehow to find it and fill our gaping need.

We can’t relax with ourselves. Instead, we are preoccupied by this script that runs as if on a loop, repeating over and over, reciting our inadequacies. Wherever we go, it runs like elevator music, below the level of our consciousness, until every once in a while something happens that seems to reinforce this script. Then, the music swells and we’re reminded: there it is again, proof of our inadequacy.

Where’s the way out? I’ve suggested this month that we might think of the process of beginning as a discipline. Oddly enough, in this circumstance, beginning starts with a full stop. Like rebooting a balky hard drive, we need to disrupt the scripts and simply be present to ourselves: unrated, unevaluated, unjudged.

Let the busy mind settle down:
enter into a moment where we are not awaiting,
not hoping, not longing,
just welcoming, accepting.

In that space, Pema Chodron says, in time we experience a pause, as if awakening from a dream. Here we find a moment of what the Buddhist’s call maitri, a complete acceptance, or unconditional friendship with ourselves as we are. It’s not something new that suddenly arises. It’s not a matter of fixing or improving some debility, making up for some lack, but a settled awareness of and appreciation for who we are. It is in essence accepting our inherent worthiness.

Pema Chodron is careful to distinguish this from the phenomenon that she calls “self cherishing.” This is essentially the practice of seeking always to protect and comfort ourselves, seeking to assure that we are always happy and in no distress. To do this, though, we put up walls against potentially disturbing experience and become self-absorbed.

It is, as the Buddhists say, the root of all suffering, and it is the center of our experience of failure.  Failure, after all, is the experience of falling short of our expectation. And where does the expectation come from? Well, it is the dream of the ego. We cherish this image that we have constructed of ourselves. We persuade ourselves that it is us, oh marvelous, wonderful us. We may even grow a feeling of entitlement. It’s what we’re due, after all. We’ve put in the time; we’ve hit the marks.

But, no. Sorry, not going to happen. We can rant, we can weep, we can withdraw, and still, there it is: evidence, in the end, not of our unworthiness, but of the unworthy expectations we have created for ourselves.

And here the Buddhists offer an interesting perspective that takes some reflecting to sort through. They say that we need to just sit with ourselves, letting go of the scripts, the expectations, the assignments we give to ourselves. And with all of that cleared out, something appears: something true, something good. And here’s where the twist comes in: Pema Chodron argues that as soon as we begin to know ourselves, we begin to forget ourselves. We no longer need to be so self-involved. From that settled place we not only fully appreciate ourselves, but we also appreciate others and the wider world.

The story is told that early in his career the writer E.B. White wrote a letter to his wife, Katherine Sergeant Angell saying that he felt like a failure and thought he ought to give up working at the New Yorker, where he was one of its treasured writers. Angell wrote back to say that whatever his misgivings, there was no denying that he was a writer, and a good one. “For you to give up now would be like a violinist good enough to perform in one of the four or five leading orchestras in the world giving up fiddling because he couldn’t be Heifetz. It doesn’t seem sensible for such a person to give up music, the thing he most loved in the world, because he can’t be Heifetz.

It’s a feeling that any of us knows. Given the chance, most of us wouldn’t have any trouble naming half a dozen people who perform whatever calling we may have better then we do.

And? None of that changes the truth that we live, how we are called to be who we are. It is ironic that one of the ways we best assure our own suffering is to create extravagant and heroic visions of ourselves – the best, the richest, the smartest, the foxiest, the suavest – images we can only disappoint.

Part of beginning again is correcting our vision, giving ourselves the space to see who we are, how the world is, the abundant reality we inhabit. I think this is what draws me to Wislawa Szymborska’s poem – her picture of life as scattered images, snapshots of seemingly random moments that knit themselves into our experience. The world for each of us is described not by some overarching scheme but by a collection of these moments – getting covered in leaves, stroking the fur of a dog, a nighttime conversation with the light off, stumbling on a stone, following a spark on the wind with our eyes.

They are our context. That doesn’t give them any privileged meaning, but they do locate us. They are the place where we begin. And so, perhaps life is less like the scroll of a heroic journey than a series of improv workshops. And we could hardly want a better guide on this path than Tina Fey.

So, here we are, you and I, entering this scene. One or another of us, or perhaps the leader of this workshop, or someone from the audience tosses a premise into our midst. What do we do? Well, calling the game off or withdrawing into ourselves isn’t an option. We’re in this. The only way forward is through.

So, what does Tiny say? The first rule of improvisation is: agree. Don’t question the premise, don’t dispute the scene. Accept it and then engage willingly with those that you’re thrown in with. Our own ego fades into the background as we give ourselves to the circumstances before us. Start with a “Yes,” Tina says, and see where that takes you.

But don’t stop there. In improvisation, we need to do more than just say “Yes” to the situation. We also need to add something of our own – our own insight, our own compassion, our own genius to the situation. This doesn’t mean pontificating or philosophizing or otherwise commenting on the situation at hand. It means stepping in and helping to advance the action, to move the situation forward.

That’s the second rule of improvisation. Don’t be afraid to contribute. Forget about second-guessing yourself. “Oh, I don’t think it‘s good enough.” Launch into it. Anything that keeps the action moving will keep the scene alive.

And in making your contributions don’t be timid or tentative. The least helpful addition to the scene is the offering of questions. What’s going on? Where are we? Who are you? Your guess is as good as mine. In posing questions, we take ourselves out of the scene and put the onus on others to move it forward. Take ownership of your perspective, your insight, your vision. You may open a wonderful new direction for the scene to take.

And that, of course, leads to what Tina Fey calls “the best rule,” the fundamental assumption underlying all improv work: There are no mistakes, only opportunities!

Really? Oh, gosh I don’t know. I mean, sure, this is fun – life is an improv workshop. I get it. But there are no mistakes? I don’t know about you, but I make all kinds of mistakes, and some of them are real whoppers. Only opportunities? Isn’t that a little Pollyannaish?

Well, OK. Let me tweak that a little. Yeah, we make mistakes. Perhaps a better way to put it is: there are no failures. Failure, remember, implies exhausting our resources, coming to an end. Our mistakes do not bring us to an end: they merely bring us up short.

Like working through an improv scene that gets convoluted and confused, we discover that we need to shift gears and find a different path. It may not be newspaper journalism any more. Perhaps it’s a line of work that not only provides an outlet for writing but also opens up my heart.

So, yes, opportunities: happy accidents, in Tina Fey’s words. We are offered many opportunities in our lives to begin again: to find our callings, to begin new relationships, to let go of unhelpful scripts. And we begin by making friends with ourselves, the jumble of experience, insight and aptitude that we carry into the abundant reality of the world.

In the end, it’s enough. We’re enough. So may it be.