Sunday, February 26, 2012

Four Agreements and More

Oh, you better watch out, you better not cry, you better not shout I’m telling you why…
Santa Claus is coming to town.

Yes, I know its February and I’m singing a Christmas song – but I haven’t fully lost my marbles.  Hang with me a bit.

When we sing that song at Christmas – many of us are just singing a happy sounding Christmas song.  But for many young children, it perhaps has a different meaning – especially if they BELIEVE.  Now this sermon is not one that explores what we should do about Santa – I have another sermon you can read online about that.  I’m just using Santa as an example to demonstrate some of the concepts from Toltec Wisdom books written by Don Miguel Ruiz.

According to what was reported to be handed down from the Ancient Toltec civilization thousands of years ago in southern Mexico, we were born very innocent and wild – undomesticated, initially.  But we were born with the capacity to learn how to dream – both night dreams and day dreams – because we dream all the time. It’s just more structured when we are awake.  Some of us call it thinking. And initially we were just taking in light and reflections (and, of course, everything we SEE is a reflection of light) – and hearing sounds, that we eventually recognized as symbols for things.  The adults around us hooked our attention and put information into our minds through repetition.  And by using our attention we learned a whole reality – a whole dream that includes lots of things.  We learned how to behave in society:  what is good and bad, acceptable and unacceptable, beautiful and ugly, right and wrong – and what to believe in—including for many of us, Santa Claus.  The symbols – all the letters and words – were agreed to by others – and that’s what makes them seem true.  They are actually just agreements.  This book (holding book) is a “book” because many of us have agreed to call it a book.  In another place – it may be called something different because others have agreed.  And we agreed to read it left to right and from what we consider the front to the back, while others in other societies made different agreements. 

And in our society – some folks – at some point and time – agreed that the myth of Santa Claus would be good to share with young children and celebrate.  And because the agreement is so widespread, most of us did feel the need to participate.  Now, again – this is NOT an anti-Santa message – and in fact, I DID do the Santa thing with both my children and grandchildren. 

In any case – folks have agreed on things and adults tell them to children.  Adults say: “This is a chair and this is a light and this is the truth.”  And children have no reason not to take in everything adults say and believe it.   

When we are very young, we are building our structure of knowledge in our heads. We are creating our virtual reality by everything we are taking in; and we are using our FAITH – as the mortar to hold it all together.   That is the FAITH that this knowledge is true.  We invest our faith in these knowledge structures we build in our minds.  Then everything we hear or see is filtered through these structures.  In fact, the structures we’ve built then distort what we are really seeing so that it can make sense in the structure that we’ve built and invested our faith in.

SO, what happens when we hear that perhaps the Santa story isn’t true?  At first we may defend what we KNOW is true.  “Yes, Santa does exist – and not just as a metaphor – but as a fat man that comes down my chimney – magically perhaps because the hole is too small – but he comes down that chimney for SURE every Christmas Eve and brings me presents – even though I’m not quite sure why my cousin Tommy – who is really bad – gets more than me.” 

After a while, the evidence becomes too great for us to ignore – and in fact our peers are making fun of us because we still believe – and we start to doubt a little more, and more – and stay up late so we can catch Santa hopefully coming in – but we fall asleep. 
And eventually we have to come to grips that it was all a lie.

Now perhaps our parents try to explain myth and metaphor to us.  But they knew when they told us as little children that were not taking this as a metaphor.  We were taking it literally as the truth.

At first it hurts, then we take back the faith that we put into that structure and the wall comes tumbling down.  And perhaps we realize that we can CHOOSE to believe some things and not believe some things that we hear from adults.  And that is powerful. 

Now I’ve used this Santa Claus analogy – because almost all of us have had that experience – and have somehow been able to give up that view of reality that we had as young children.  Even Rick Santorum probably has worked through that and no longer believes (in Santa Claus).  But for some reason – it seems to be harder for most folks to take that lesson and use it with other symbols and knowledge in their lives; and take back all the faith holding up those inaccurate structures – so that they can freely CHOOSE what they do with that faith.  And that is where Don Miguel Ruiz’ books may be helpful. 

This little book called, “The Four Agreements” was published in 1997.  And some of you may have read that book back when.  I want to share a little about Ruiz and how he got into this business – if you can call it that.  I’m quoting from the short biography found on the book flap in the back of The Four Agreements.

Don Miguel Ruiz was born into a family of healers, and raised in rural Mexico by a curandera (healer) mother and a nagual (shaman) grandfather.  The family anticipated that Miguel would embrace their centuries-old legacy of healing and teaching, and carry forward the esoteric Toltec knowledge.  Instead, distracted by modern life, Miguel chose to attend medical school and become a surgeon. 

A near-death experience changed his life…. Stunned by this experience, he began an intensive practice of self-inquiry.  He devoted himself to the mastery of the ancient ancestral wisdom, studying earnestly with his mother, and completing and apprenticeship with a powerful shaman in the Mexican desert….  Don Miguel Ruiz, a nagual from the Eagle knight lineage, has dedicated his life to sharing the wisdom of the Toltec.

Now Ruiz has several publications – but the most famous – by far – especially since Oprah Winfrey recommended it – is The Four Agreements.

For a summary of these agreements, I’m going to share this little video that I found on the internet with you. 

Unless you have a lot of time on your hands, I don’t know that I’d recommend that you read both of the books now, because he shares again about all four of these agreements in his new book, The Fifth Agreement.  There is a chapter on each of them:
Be impeccable with your word.
Don’t take anything personally.
Don’t make assumptions.
Always do your best. 

The title should be The Four Agreements and the Fifth Agreement.   Now some of you may ask, as I did, “Well if the Toltec wisdom teachers passed on these FIVE agreements – why didn’t he give us all five in the first book.  And some skeptical folks – like me – may wonder if he needed or wanted to make some more money – and *made up* a fifth agreement.  But Ruiz (in his introduction) explains that he did not include the fifth agreement initially because it was not anything he could easily explain or put into words.  His son, however, who has become a spiritual teacher in the Toltec tradition himself – was much better at sharing about it.  So they decided to write this book together and share it with the rest of us. 

Well, of course – I was STILL very skeptical – then I found out what the fifth agreement is:

Ruiz says that we should question everything – including him – and especially ourselves.

Yes, now – I like this agreement most of all!  That’s one reason I’m a Unitarian Universalist.  Like many of you, I’ve got a questioning mind.  And that doesn’t sit well with some folks.  However Unitarian Universalists lift up doubt as a sacred ideal. 

But – Ruiz – has a qualifier to this 5th Agreement.  The entire agreement reads:
“Be Skeptical, but learn to listen!”  He encourages us to listen and to try to understand the intent behind the words – so that we can understand the real message.

Like when folks tell me they are praying for me because they think I’m LOST and need to be saved.  I don’t say, “Don’t bother, I don’t need your prayers.”  Instead I try to listen and understand their intent.  There are some folks who may just want to be mean or something.  But many of those who share concerns do so because they love us.  And what I try to do is to translate their offers to pray or their comments of concern to an acknowledgement that they love me and care for me.  And I can honestly say to them, “I appreciate your love and concern.  I love you too.”  And depending on whether or not they can take a joke – I tell them that I will light a candle for them at the UU church.

But the main point is to really learn to listen to folks’ stories – and try to understand their points of view – and have respect for them if possible.  SO – I “listened” to Ruiz explain some of the Toltec ideas in this new book.   I’m going to share some ideas related to communication with you – but you don’t have to believe it.  It’s just a framework that he is sharing.  And even Ruiz says – he’s sharing it because it makes sense to him and it made sense to his ancestors.  And he says – if it makes sense to you, then feel free to take it and make it part of your own story.  If it doesn’t make sense, ignore it. 

From the Toltec point of view, there are only three ways to deliver a message, or we can say that there are only three languages in the world of the humans.

The language of gossip is the language of the victim; it’s the language of injustice and punishment.  It’s the language of hell, because all that gossip is made purely by lies

The second language is that of the warrior (because we use it when we become more aware and our authentic selves are warring with the old structures in our minds). When we speak this language sometimes we speak the truth, and sometimes we speak lies, depending on our awareness.  As you can imagine, the language of the warrior is a thousand times better than the language of gossip, but again, humans are programmed to shift the language we speak, and to speak one more language.

The third language is the language of truth, and when we speak this language, we hardly speak.  At this point, we know without a doubt that the symbols we use are our creation.  We know that we give the meaning to all those symbols to communicate with our own kind, and we use symbols with impeccability, the best we can, to deliver our message, to deliver ourselves, because we are the message.   The language of truth is very exclusive because it’s the language …of the artist who has mastered the dream.  The master artists are always happy.  They are at peace, and they enjoy their lives. 

Ruiz follows this explanation of languages with these simple questions for the reader.

What kind of message do you choose to deliver?  Is it truth or is it lies?  It is love or is it fear?  My choice is to deliver a message of truth and love.  What is yours?

In his epilogue, Ruiz challenges us to change the world.  How – you ask?  Ruiz explains that we start with ourselves and show others how to have a love affair with life. 

I’m listening, Don Miguel Ruiz--- and that love affair sounds good to me! 
But you don’t need a recommendation from me –
Because – of course, you have -- Oprah Winfrey!

Amen and Blessed Be!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Why Marriage Matters

On August 18, 2007,  Greg and I were married here in this church.  Many of you were here and joined with us in that wonderful celebration of love.  Now after my first marriage of almost 30 years, I had said that I would never marry again.  Actually – I wasn’t very high on that institution.  And back in 2002 after Greg moved in with me, I shared a sermon with this congregation entitled, “Marry, marry,….quite contrary,” with lots of reasons for not getting married, including the fact that many of my gay and lesbian friends did not have that opportunity.  And in fact, I had told many of them that I would not consider marriage until they could marry also.

But, Greg Brock is a very persuasive man.  And after five years of non-marital bliss, I finally did say YES and borrowed the dress.  We got married – because we loved each other and wanted to commit ourselves in this way; and we got married – because we could.

It’s a privilege that we, as a mixed gender couple had in Georgia.  My friend Joan Schneider had helped me rationalize this by saying that I had lots of privileges that other folks didn’t have that I took advantage of every day.  I was not giving all of them up – and instead was using those privileges in ways that hopefully were helpful to others.  So, with that nice rationalization and also the encouragement of my minister friend Nan White (who did not HAVE that same privilege with her partner) – we moved forward with our plans.  And I’m glad we did.  As our invitation stated, we had the desire to give our love its fullest expression – and for us, that was marriage.  And then, as a married woman and a Unitarian Universalist minister, I made an equally strong commitment to continue the work to make this privilege – this choice – one that all couples can make.  

(Here I am marching for Equality in Washington, DC with the LOVE sign as my hat. And Greg marched with me.)

 Now, of course, marriage is not the only thing we advocate for as LGBTQ people and allies.  But it’s part of “the Agenda!”   You know about “the agenda” of course.  If not, I’ll let Congressman Barney Frank give you a quick lesson. 

By the way, Barney Frank is retiring after this term in office and will be getting married soon in his home state of Massachusetts.

Now some may ask – Why would anyone want to get married in the first place?  What is marriage for?  Well, although some on the conservative right would have us to believe that the institution has remained unchanged through the ages, it just isn’t so.  The purpose of marriage and its structures have changed with changes in society. 

Most ancient societies needed a secure environment for the perpetuation of the species and a system of rules to handle the granting of property rights. The institution of marriage handled both of these needs.  But most would agree that ancient marriages were not for love.  Historian John Boswell makes this interesting comparison of pre-modern Europe love and marriage with today’s culture.

In premodern Europe marriage usually began as a property arrangement, was in the middle mostly about raising children, and ended about love.   Few couples in fact married "for love," but many grew to love each other in time as they jointly managed their household, reared their offspring, and shared life's experiences. Nearly all surviving epitaphs to spouses evince profound affection. By contrast, in most of the modern West, marriage begins about love, in its middle is still mostly about raising children (if there are children), and ends - often - about property, by which point love is absent or a distant memory.

Now at the same time that all of these religious and civil marriage ceremonies were taking place, we also have evidence of services designed to unite same-sex couples.  Here is Boswell’s book about that.

Through the ages, there have been lots of different forms and varieties of marriage – including polygamy– also now known as “big love.”

And there have been lots of laws and social mores about who could and could not marry.  Here are some maps that make interesting comparisons.  First – here’s the one showing in blue the states where same sex couples can marry. We can add Washington State thanks to events this week.  And if not for Governor Chris Christie’s veto, we could add New Jersey.   Maryland seems to be on the way as well.  But as you can see, we’ve got a long way to go.   

Now here’s a map showing where you can marry your first cousin. 

There also used to be state laws against marrying someone outside your own race.  Here’s a map showing when these laws were repealed.  Only the brown states NEVER had them.  There were 30 states that kept them on the books till the Civil Rights movement.  And these yellow states – didn’t take them off till the Supreme Court ruled in 1967 that they were unconstitutional in the case Loving vs. Virginia. That case is important to our discussion here because the same 14th Amendment rights being violated by these laws can now be called into question as Proposition 8 makes its way to the Supreme Court. 

On June 12, 2007, the late Mildred Loving issued a rare public statement, which commented on same-sex marriage, prepared for delivery on the fortieth anniversary of the Loving v. Virginia decision of the US Supreme Court.  The concluding paragraphs of her statement included the following.

Surrounded as I am now by wonderful children and grandchildren, not a day goes by that I don't think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was "the wrong kind of person" for me to marry.  

I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard's and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, old or young, gay or straight seek in life.  I support the freedom to marry for all.  That's what Loving, and loving are all about.

Now because of the concepts and demeaning legalities that existed in the “traditional” institution of marriage, many feminists have shied away from what they considered a trap.  Even nineteenth century feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton had simply argued for women to consider opting out of marriage – acknowledging that marriage equality would not be possible in their lifetimes.  And Stanton placed part of the blame on the shoulders of women who were unwilling to acknowledge change was possible.  Here’s a quote from Stanton in 1894: 

Women are too proud to admit that they want what they think they cannot get.  They fear the ridicule of the men of their households, of the press, the disapproval of their clergymen who quote the Bible against larger liberties for their sex….   
The women’s movement continued, though, to move….slowly it seemed….but move it did.  And the institution of marriage itself changed.  So much so, that it became acceptable to even feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who married in 2000, and to Jane Page too. 

Now marriage is not viewed as a trap or cage – but rather as a safety net providing rights and protections for both parties.  Is what Greg and I have just a piece of paper certifying our marriage commitment?  No, it is more than that.  Ask any unmarried couple who has paid heaps of money to lawyers to write documents for just some of the same rights and protections. 

I had said I would never marry for benefits – and I did not.  But there are many benefits -- some estimate as many as 1400 specific legal benefits that Greg and I  have access to that couples who cannot marry do not have.  In addition, private employers and institutions often give other economic privileges and other benefits (special rates or memberships for example) only to married couples.

Evan Wolfson is the founder of Freedom to Marry and perhaps the nation’s leading advocate for marriage equality and the author of Why Marriage Matters.  Wolfson provides a long summary of benefits in his book – too long for this little homily.  But I will share the broad categories he uses.  The big one has to do with death and taxes. Others benefits are related to debts, divorce, family leave, health, housing, immigration, inheritance, insurance, parenting, portability of marriage to other states,   privilege (meaning legal privilege), property, and retirement.  And though they CAN address some of these with legal documents; most of these critical, concrete legal incidents of marriage cannot be arranged by shelling out money for an attorney or writing up private agreements – even with lots of forethought. 

Of course some argue that you could get those same things with something less than marriage -- Perhaps legalizing civil unions or domestic partnerships like some states have.  And that’s a step.  But it’s the back of the bus, and we should not settle for that. 

Just ask Janice Langbehn, who had a wonderful domestic partnership in Washington State with her partner of 18 years, Lisa Pond.  In addition to caring for 22 foster children, they had adopted three children and Lisa was a stay at home mom. 

Lisa died after a stroke while they were on a family vacation in Florida – and she died alone in that hospital while Janice and her children grieved in an small waiting room – not allowed in, because they were not really considered family.  Janice and Lisa had all the paperwork --- But it comes down to more than legalities. 

When LGBTQ people are not allowed to claim MARRIAGE – and all that folks know go with that, then this can happen.  Separate but equal – is never equal!

Now while I and others here will fight for the right for marriage equality – at the same time, we need to be supportive of all kinds of families.  Single folks as well as married folks -- regardless of sexual or affectional orientation, gender identity, or whether or not they have children.  We all just want equal choices – including the ability for two folks who love each other to get married.

Why is this such a difficult battle?  Are people just that prejudiced?  Well, we are products of our society and sometimes it’s hard to get over some of the things we were taught.  Sadly, much of the negative teachings we’ve had came from religious teachings. The Bible has been used through the ages to deny people rights.  Many of us have felt that lash of the Bible Belt – for lots of different reasons -- and sadly it continues to be used. 

I am very proud of the stands that Unitarian Universalists have taken and that we have a long history -- since 1970 -- of calling for the full inclusion of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning people in church and society.  Our Standing on the Side of Love Video that we played before the sermon shared some of this – so I won’t recount all that we’ve done.  But we have much work still to do.

Now it is going to TAKE a Supreme Court ruling for us to have marriage equality in Georgia.  But there are things we can do in the meantime – even here in Georgia.
      Continue support of extending privileges to domestic partners.
      Come out – in our relationships, with our identity, as an ally and advocate!
      Work for and vote for progressive candidates supportive of marriage equality
      Give money and time to those working for this goal.
      Express views via blogs, social media, editorials, letters, wearing ribbons, etc.  

When I was a little girl of about 8 or 9 in the late 50's, I used to have some unusual dreams. In one of my dreams, I saw people driving their house trailers instead of pulling them behind their cars. When I awoke, I thought, “That’s really strange.” But it's not strange to me today. We see motor homes all the time now. I also had a dream that I went to someone's home and lots of people were there. Perhaps it was a party. There were lots of grown-ups and children at this party. Some of the women had their husbands with them. But some of the women were married to other women. And some of the men were married to other men. When I awoke, I thought, “That’s really strange.” But it's not strange to me today. 

I have a vision. I envision a world where there will be no need for words like homophobia or even labels categorizing one's sexual orientation. People will love who they love because they love them. And they'll love each other for as long as they possibly can. And since my higher power is the Power of Love; for me - God is Love; God will look at that world and say,
"It is really good!"

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Letter to the Editor

The letter below was recently submitted to my hometown newspaper.

February 6, 2012

Dear Editor:

After I nailed a rainbow flag to the little column on our building’s front entrance, a friend in town asked me, “Aren’t you afraid that people will think that your congregation is a GAY church?”  My response was, “No, I want them to KNOW we are a gay church – and a church for lesbians, bisexuals, transgender, and questioning people – as well as a church for lots of great straight folks who are advocates and allies!”  Indeed, the rainbow flag is a symbol of our new “Welcoming Congregation” status.  Our denomination encourages congregations to go through a long series of workshops and demonstrate competencies in welcoming and affirming lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) people before providing the congregation with this status.  Although we feel that we’ve been welcoming from the beginning of our existence in the mid-80’s, we are now proud to have this official designation. 

Our Unitarian Universalist denomination has been on record since 1970 in its support of rights of LGBTQ individuals, and voted to support full marriage equality in 1996.  However, many congregations realized the need to prepare themselves further in their efforts to be welcoming and to serve as advocates for the rights of all people, regardless of sexual or affectional orientation.  I am proud that our congregation has now taken those steps.  We will be celebrating our new Welcoming Congregation status in our service at 10:30 on Sunday, February 19 at our building at 609 East Grady Street.

I invite your readers who may identify as LGBTQ or as allies to visit us.  Yes, there is a fully welcoming church community here in Statesboro!  And as a Statesboro native, I am very proud to call this community my home.  Thanks for helping us to spread this good news!

Standing on the Side of Love!

Rev. Jane Altman Page
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro