A UU in Israel

Thoughts from a Unitarian Universalist who landed in Israel

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Full circle is not always a circle

New Year’s Eve was my favorite holiday for many years, and I’ve neglected it lately.

It used to be my way of keeping up with each year. Instead of going out to party, I would curl up quietly with a notebook, taking the time to review each of the past 12 months – noting down all the significant events and changes that had occurred. Back in the 1990s I remember doing this this accompanied by the alternative radio station’s countdown of the top 100 songs of the year. Gradually, I stopped taking the time to write out my goodbye to the year. But I miss it – it helps me get perspective and reorient myself to the next year. Once I look back, I can see more clearly right here and now. Otherwise, time moves quickly, with no natural borders, just carrying me along in its nearly invisible flow. 

My 2013 felt like little change on the surface and major change in the geological plates below the topsoil. I am outwardly still in the same job, same home, same country, same unending immigration entanglements (though the opportunities themselves changed). But underneath I have shifted from care-needing child to care-giving child — in the way that occurs as we all get older I suppose. I’ve grown up again, and wonder at what age, if any, the sense of growing up ends. Perhaps never, which may be a comfort. I’ve started talking to God – according to my own definition of God, which is no-one’s business but my own. I’ve seen one short film travel to festivals around the world and started the next film. I’ve I’ve begun a renewed period of building a life that makes sense to me — and now, more than ever, I am focusing on creation instead of on reaction.

What to look forward to this year? No matter what comes (and much of life right now feels like a hovering mystery to be revealed), I have a faith that I will see my way through it, with the help of love, family, the sun and trees outside my window, the sea and waves, bagels and tangerines, and the divine seed in all of this.


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Christmas is yours

This year, I spent Christmas Eve in Jerusalem. We went to the annual Christmas concert at the Jerusalem YMCA, a place that strives to build peace and dialogue here in this divided region. The concert included a piano, harp, soprano soloist, community choir, and Israeli and Palestinian youth chorus – doing standard Christmas carols along with some songs in Hebrew, Arabic, and a few classical pieces. It was the first Christmas-y thing I have ever done in Israel — though it seems odd, not much goes on for Christmas around these parts.

The concert was lovely, though, and took place in the beautiful stone YMCA building, with its gorgeous dome-topped bell tower that rises high above the surroundings – just a couple of blocks from the old city, and across the street from the King David hotel. After the concert, the tower bells rang out Christmas carols for about half an hour and a crowd congregated there below, looking up at the tower and singing along.

I felt that simple happiness to be there, and the Christmas that lives on in my own heart was revived, even though I’ve been away from home, family and the familiar festive celebrations for years now. And even though I was accompanied by two “bah humbug” types who complained nearly nonstop (note for next year: I need to celebrate in the company of others who want to celebrate).

As I make sense of my own faith, I have been opening my eyes to the many different available interpretations of Christmas (or at least Christmas-time). From the literal-minded celebrations of a Jesus’ birth as a historical event, to the recognition of the Christmas story as a theological metaphor, to festivities that are focused on the themes of hope and peace in the cold of midwinter, to the celebration of family and generosity and time with loved ones. It is a rich season, with a wealth of meaning, tradition and ritual available.

What struck me in the midst of that Christmas concert is that I can practice the holidays in the ways that is right for me. I spent many years of my life running away from my cultural context and background. I felt wandering and driftless for years, intentionally abandoning my roots because I felt as though they were all tainted with bad history that I would rather leave behind. Whether it was American culture’s exceptionalism and smugness, or white racism, or consumer culture, or Christian right wing evangelicals focused on condemnation of others. My approach to it all was just to abandon ship.

Of course, it has taken many years to learn that though I tried to shed context and culture like a snake’s old skin, I could never leave it behind. There simply is no such thing as a human being with no cultural and historical background. The where and how and why of how we grow up shapes us, whether we like it or not. But – and this is the key – I have finally understood that I have the ability to consciously shape parts of my culture. I can build my family and friends and community. I can seek out the ways that make sense to me to practice my faith, without wholesale buying into someone else’s theology. I can be, and must be, creative. I don’t need to borrow anyone else’s culture, but rather find the ways to look closely at my own and both resuscitate the parts that I appreciate and transform the parts that are in need of change. Maybe I find the way back to a Christmas that is meaningful to me, incorporating some of the most beautiful parts I remember from childhood, while seeking out new parts to build into a tradition. And instead of running away from being American, I find a way to come back to the US to help transform it into the country I hope it will become one day – where there is real equality and real liberation for all people.

Life is a slow process of realization, with many steps along the way that can only be walked in the order that they are walked. No sense bemoaning the pace at which we came to where we are now, or at which we will come to our future.

So I am going to continue to celebrate Christmas, the season filled with the beauty and meaning it always was – the peace, the hints of warmth in the delicious cold of winter, candlelight, cookies, wreaths, holly berries, dark leaves peaking through snow, family and gifts — and now also Advent and the promise of liberation and love that is available in the Jesus story. Christmas is mine, and it is all of ours, if we want it.

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Judgment and generosity

One of the basic Christian teachings is to practice generosity. Whether it is generosity of love and compassion, or generosity in terms of giving what you have to others who are in need.

But in the US, we often practice judgment instead of generosity.  The rhetoric we hear – whether in politics, on the news, or in the street – often says that people are poor because they are lazy, cheats, dependent, or otherwise flawed. And unfortunately this attitude influences public policy. In the latest example, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to cut food stamps by $40 billion, which would cause at least 4 million people to lose food stamps, and 210 million school-age children to lose free school meals (see here for info).

There are a number of disturbing things about the judgmental anti-poor rhetoric.

First, it ignores the structural causes of poverty in the United States – from the historical concentration of wealth and how it is passed down, to failures in the educational and health systems, to the effects of prisons and the “war on drugs”.

Second, it raises the question: Why are we more concerned with judging people who are poor than we are with helping them?

The moment we begin to wriggle out of our own moral imperatives by making claims about the behavior of other people, something has gone terribly wrong. All attempts to we make indict poor people for being poor immediately transforms instead into an indictment of our own failure to live and act in love, compassion and generosity.

If you will follow your moral imperatives only if everyone else around you behaves as you believe they should, then when – if ever – will you actually have to act morally?

Human beings are imperfect – we fail, we behave badly, we fall down again and again. As soon as your judgment of other people comes ahead of your generosity towards other people, you’ve found a convenient excuse to simply never be generous. Unless, of course, you’ve already decided you like the person. But being generous to only the people you approve of doesn’t really ask much of you, does it?

In other words, when we place judgment ahead of generosity, we have lost the way. When we place judgment before compassion, we place ourselves before others – and the teachings of Jesus are left far behind.

We are called to a higher standard of living –  a standard that does not look to what other people are doing before we ourselves act. We are not called to decide who “deserves” and who does not deserve. We are called to act in love, compassion and generosity – no matter what, and without regard to what anyone else is doing. If we fail to act generously, we can only blame ourselves – not the person to whom we are not giving.

So let us leave judgment behind, so that we can truly following Jesus’ teachings on generosity, live in freedom, and act based on love.


A love letter to my homophobic Christian relatives

This is a love letter to you, my Christian relatives who have judged and condemned me for being part of the LGBT community. You know who you are.

It may be a surprise that I am writing a love letter, but I’ve learned that love is the only antidote to the poison of rejection and hatred that so many Christians have directed towards LGBT people.

I have been drummed with the same homophobic Christian messages since I was first able to read or hear, but you have never really had to listen to me. Maybe you have never listened, truly deeply listened, to any LGBT person. When you make time to hear different people, you discover that the world is not only as you see it, and that there is humanity outside of your own life and perspective. So I hope that this time, right now, you will press the pause button on your judgment and respect me enough to hear me, and then to take what I say into your heart and mind and consider it.

I will put this simply:  You have been engaged in a long war, a campaign of anti-love, against LGBT people. You have told us that we are (take your pick):  unlovable, a sin, contrary to God, an invalid “lifestyle”, an abomination, or worse.

In sum, you have told us that there is something deeply and fundamentally wrong with us. And by pushing that message out to the world, you have helped create an environment that has treated us as though we are “less than”, that shows us that we are not valued as much as other people.

Let me make it more personal. Your words and deeds have hurt me. You have helped build and spread the poison of self-doubt, insecurity, depression and judgment which I have had to spend years recovering from. Like many LGBT people, I have had to work to unlearn the message that there is something wrong with me because of who I am. I have had to unlearn the self-hatred you taught us.

But this extends far beyond me.  Are you aware of the bullying of LGBT people that occurs in the schools? Are you aware of the employment discrimination against LGBT people? Are you aware of the disproportionate poverty rates in LGBT communities? Are you aware of the high rates of homelessness among LGBT youth? Are you aware of the high incidence of violence enacted against the LGBT population? Are you aware of the real consequences of this culture of inequality and rejection, which has been supported by the words and deeds of homophobic Christians?

When I have tried to tell you these things before, your response has been that you are just saying what the Bible says. That’s all. Just reflecting the teachings of the Bible.

But here is the most crucial thing, and it is time for you to hear it: You need to take responsibility for the consequences of what you do, say, and even believe.

You choose your actions, words and thoughts, and they have an impact on other people and on the world as a whole. One of the most basic lessons of life is that you must take responsibility for what you choose to do and say.

Whether or not you believe that you are simply “reflecting what the Bible says”, you are in fact hurting LGBT people in your families, communities, churches, and throughout the country. Hear that you have hurt us. Hear that we have considered suicide and have committed suicide because of the hateful, rejecting words and deeds coming from Christians. When people get the message that we, LGBT people, are not fully part of God’s creation, that we are somehow contradictory to God, they feel justified in rejecting us, sidelining us, judging, beating us, bullying us, firing us, excluding us.  Witness the climate of inequality that you have helped create. You need to understand it, and you need to wrestle with what it means. Put down your automatic defenses for a moment, and allow yourself to understand the hurtful consequences of what you do and say.

Please stop trying to blame your own choices on God or the Bible. You have the responsibility for each word that escapes your lips. You tell me, and you tell yourself, that you don’t make choices when it comes to the Bible and you just follow every word literally. But I’m not sure you can fool yourself on this any longer. You know that each person has a perspective and an interpretation. When it comes to the Bible, every single person selects what they are going to follow and believe and what they are not. You know that you don’t abide by at least some of the rules in the Bible, whether it is wearing mixed fibers, or eating seafood. You don’t stone your children. You don’t condone slavery.

I’m not going to rehash the arguments about the Biblical “clobber verses” that are used against LGBT people. If you are actually interested in that, you will find plenty of fodder in a single Google search. I believe you are smart enough to understand the debates about those Biblical passages, and to see that you are choosing  a specific interpretation.

What I hope is that you no longer try to cop out on your own choices. That you no longer pretend that you are an innocent bystander, as you continue to lay the bricks in the path of inequality. Understand the position you are taking, understand the pain it causes to others, understand the unequal society it supports, and take responsibility for that.

Don’t try to blame it on God any longer. God does not bully us in school. God does not yell at us, threaten us, beat us, or even kill us in the street or in our homes. God does not fire us from our jobs. God does not tear apart our LGBT families.

You have told me that your perspective on the Bible is the only “right” interpretation or even the “only” interpretation. Although you know that your interpretation is not shared by many other Christians, you’ve told me that Christians who don’t see it your way are not Christians at all. You’ve rejected the validity of all Christians who disagree with you, not to mention all the people who don’t subscribe to Christianity in the first place. It amazes me that you think you hold the keys to all truth. That you are the owner and knower of what is right. Don’t you know that attitude is the stuff of wars and dictatorships? All over the world, the gravest danger comes when a group of people believes that only they are right and true, and that anyone who disagrees is false and invalid. Be aware of the dangers and the consequences of the claims you are making. Take responsibility.

I do not believe that you are evil. That is why I am writing you this letter. I have to believe that you want there to be love, peace and joy in the world. That somewhere in your heart, you care about what happens to LGBT people because you still believe that we are human beings. And that you want your fellow human beings to live full and whole lives, in freedom and dignity.

Do you really want to build an image of a small God? One who doesn’t have room for all the people in the world? One who has limited love? There are many of us who gave up long ago on that concept of a judging and restricted God, tied down by worldly categories. Personally, I realized that if God were too limited to contain me in God’s vision, then that God could not possibly exist. For how could a God who created the world then be too small to contain all the beauty of that world?

Here is the key: I finally learned to include myself and my love within that beauty. You still try to place LGBT people somewhere outside of the circle of God’s love, but I have realized that you do not have that power. You cannot take away our very souls, our spiritual lives, our Divine love and guidance. More and more of us are realizing that we don’t need you to bring us back to God, because we are already in God. LGBT people are already part of this infinite creation, part of its love and beauty. God is much much larger than you might imagine, and much much more loving than you might believe.

So consider this: Do you really want to stand between us and God’s love? Do you really want to be a barrier? Do you really take it upon yourself to draw the limits of God, to build that wall, lock the gate and tell us all that you alone hold the key? That your way alone is the way in to the heart of God? Do you not see that your walls cannot contain God, but only close you yourself in? In the infinite reaches of God’s love, your wall is but an inch high.

This is my love letter to you. Sometimes love letters are true love letters because they tell you something you may need to hear, and they do it out of place of love.  Love, because I love you. I truly do. I have no choice but to love you, if I am going to reflect that infinite love of God. Love, because that is what we need to build in this world. Because I want us to become free. Because I want you to stop hurting people, including yourselves.

We are all much smaller in this great creation than we think, and you and I are no exception. But what makes us large, what makes us truly infinite, is the love of God. You can’t take that away from LGBT people. It is impossible. And ask yourself – why would you even want to try?

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Being the leader I would want to follow

I’ve recently gotten this phrase stuck in my mind, and it is helping transform my thought and behavior:

“Be the leader that I would follow.”

In other words, I need to step up and behave like the kind of person that I would look up to and want to emulate. Someone who is dedicated to love, respect, justice, and compassion.

I have spent too much time looking for the perfect role model, instead of just trying to be that person myself. Role models are great, of course, and we certainly need inspiration and guidance. But there are couple of things to keep in mind. First, every leader is going to fail us at some point. Because they are human. Even MLK was not perfect. Even Mother Teresa was not perfect. Even the Dalai Lama is not perfect. Second, even though I have role models, that doesn’t mean that I can stop working hard to grow and improve myself.

There are times when I do things that really don’t come close to what I would want to see in a leader. Shrinking from responsibility, not taking on challenges, failing to act with kindness, giving in to road rage.

So I have started reminding myself to act like the leader I would want to see. Not as a condemnation or guilt trip on myself, but as a word of encouragement. I believe that I can be that leader, and I can’t ask of anyone else what I don’t try to do myself.

I find this self-guidance is really helping. I tell myself this phrase and then I walk taller, I’m slower to anger, I check my responses, I act with greater confidence, I follow through on what I believe in, and I believe in myself more. It is pretty amazing.  A new key piece of my tool kit for transformation.


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Be yourself a place of peace

The drums of war are always beating somewhere, and there are times that their sound swells up, louder across the world.

These recent days are one more example of that endless beat, which we have not yet learned to transform into a rhythm of hope and peace.

Presidents raise threats of missiles and here we stand in line for gas masks and prepare to run to shelters. In other places, masks are too late and there is no shelter.

I’ve been angry these days – angry at dictators, elected presidents, military leaders, rebel group leaders. Voices of war in all their forms. And sad again, at the endless senseless deaths, at the endless quests for power. At the endless wielding of violence.

But there is one thing to do in the midst of this – always one thing, an eternal and constant act of life:

Be a place of peace.

In yourself, be peace.

Let all the deafening noise of war fall in you and fade, like snow into an empty field.

Let peace rise up in its place, and there in the infinite stillness that war seeks to obscure, listen to the voice of god, which tells of love, hope and generosity.

Then, live from that place of peace. Speak from that place. Act from that place. Breathe from that place. It will transform the world. It will provide a refuge for all those who are caught in violence.

If the world does not listen and still follows the drums of war, then be yourself that place of peace.

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It’s not about sex – getting beyond “sexual” orientation

A few days ago, I watched a video of Diana Butler Bass and Ross Douthat – two American theologians – having a discussion about the future of Christianity in America. Now, somewhere during the conversation the discussion turned to (what else?) LGBT people.  Amazing how whenever the subject of “morality” comes up in a Christian context, LGBT people have to get dragged in as a topic for debate. A few thoughts occurred to me after listening to this discussion:

First, as long as the discussion of LGBT people’s lives is set within the context of a discussion about morality, there is already a problem. It indicates that the speakers believe there is a moral question inherent within the mere existence of LGBT people. The problem is that you cannot define a another human being as, inherently, a moral issue. Morality is about a set of choices that humans make – the right and wrong actions we carry out as human beings. If you define a set of people as a moral problem – not their actions, but rather their very beings – you have set the stage for their dehumanization. And the dehumanization of other people is one of the foundations of all immoral acts – the corner stone of abuse, oppression, war, genocide, murder, theft, and so on.

Secondly, and deeply connected to the above point, there seems to still be a belief that you can separate LGBT “behavior” from LGBT “people”. But the fact is, you can’t. It is as simple as that. Being LGBT is a core part of our existence. It creates us, shapes our world views, molds our lived experiences, contours our perspectives. Is it not something that can be rooted out of us, but rather it IS us. Herein lies the fundamental problem with the whole “love the sinner, hate the sin” argument. It is flatly impossible. If you hate LGBT-ness, then you can’t love LGBT people. Out LGBT-ness cannot be separated from our humanity.

And so it comes back to sex. In the conversation I watched, Douthat started discussing LGBT people within the context of sexual ethics overall, making reference to other sexual ethics issues like pornography, abstinence, and so on. It seems there is still a belief that LGBT people can be reduced to a sexual act, and if you could just remove the sexual act, then you would remove us, as people. There – problem solved.  But this is the fundamental point that struck me: being LGBT is not about sex. (By “sex”, I am referring to the physical act of having sex – not to gender, which is a whole other world of discussion.)

LGBT lives are not a matter of sexual ethics.

I know that sounds strange. After all, we are used to hearing about homosexuals and heterosexuals. We’re used to talking about sexual orientation. But I think we’ve mis-named the issue, and it seems to be confusing matters. Being an LGBT person is not reducible to sex, any more than being a straight person is. Rather it is about love, connection and relationship. Sure, sex is a part of that, in many cases. But I think that few people would argue that is the only part. You can be straight without having any sex at all. And you can also be LGBT without having any sex at all. What is actually at the core of this issue are the relationships and connections that we form, and who we can form them with. So being LGBT is not simply a “sexual” orientation, but rather a community orientation, a relationship orientation, a love orientation.

Sex is there, in all of our lives. But there is much more to our lives than sex, and we need to move beyond the framework of “sexual orientation” to appreciate the full depth of LGBT lives.