My first sermon was not preached in a UU church. It was not carefully constructed with thoughts to both theology and current events on a Google Doc with input from friends. It did not have multiple drafts, quotes from folks, hymns that were thematically appropriate, or readings that both correlated with and enhanced the sermon.
My first sermon was given when I was 12, and I wrote it in purple glittery gel pen in my 7th grade pre-Algebra notebook. The topic was “why bullying is bad” and I basically quoted a bunch of Bible verses where people are nice to the folks who are different and then told people they were going to hell if they bullied people. It was not a good sermon. Yes, I still have a copy and, yes, it makes me cringe and want to crawl under a table and, no, I’m not going to post it.
I gave the sermon in front of about 200 twelve to sixteen year olds at a Wednesday night service in the Children’s Chapel. There was nothing special about the service – that was a fairly typical turnout for the youth group and we always had two sermons; one by our youth minister and one by somebody else, be it one of us, somebody brought in from a special group, a “special guest” such as a missionary or some Christian youth or young adult who had a particularly inspiring story about how God and/or Jesus had saved their life in some kind of real or metaphorical sense.
My rant-against-bullying-disguised-as-a-sermon was much less exciting than the “girl who was killed at the Columbine massacre because she said she believed in God” speaker (even though I later found out that that was totally not true). But it was my first sermon. My first time officially speaking out to a large group of people about religion and how religion could and, moreover, SHOULD influence our lives and I was hooked.
A few short months later I was kicked out of that church because I had come out at school as gay and the pastor had found out.
It was never that I thought that God hated gay people, or that I thought that there was no religion that would accept queer folks. I was from Los Angeles and I wasn’t blind – I knew what a rainbow flag outside a church meant. But I just didn’t want any church, I wanted THAT church. That church with my friends, my grown ups, my church grandparents, and the little kids that I SO loved working with during Sunday School and Children’s Church.
My energies turned elsewhere. I got really involved in activism, learned how to run meetings, speak at political protests, canvass and phone bank and petition and lobby and form committees and run committees and be on committees and combine committees and dissolve committees and occasionally even create meaningful change with committees.
I was angry at that church for years and I let myself get caught up in the hatred of all religion that so many of my peers (rightfully, to tell the truth) harbored in their hearts. I should be angry, I was told, and organized religion was the main thing screwing up our world. And it was true that many, many of the things I fought against were caused by the religious right in the first place.
But that church taught me so much. That church was my first experience with the concept of “chosen” family and for all of the hell and damnation talk that gets publicized what I remember most is a lot of hugs, and helping little kids make flower petal hats and singing songs about a God that loved us all the time. “God is good, all the time. And all the time, God is good.”
I remember hugging people, and feeling so grown up when adults said to me, “Peace be with you” and I knew to respond, “and also with you.” feeling like I was really participating when I knew how to open the hymnal, find the hymn number, and follow along. I remember endless games of tic-tac-toe with my little brother on the back of the offering envelopes and my ex-step-father (the person who brought me to church for years after he and my mother split because he knew I wanted to go) pretending not to notice.
I remember how pleased the pastor was when I came to him and was saved and all my 11 year old sins were washed clean by the blood of Jesus Christ my one True Lord and Savior and the enormous sense of relief and happiness I felt because I was now “in.” I don’t remember feeling better about myself, or that anything big had changed, but I remember how happy other people were when they heard.
Most of all I remember the pastors of that church, both official and unofficial. I remember looking up to them and respecting their faith and how certain they were in God and hoping and praying that someday I’d be that positive that there was a God there for me. I looked up to them because, for the first time, I had adults to look up to and respect. Who were living their lives well and righteously.
I don’t dislike them for it. I did for a long time; I accused them in my heart and to my friends of lying to me and of ruining the lives of so many. But now I come around to it and I can’t find it in my heart to dislike them. The people who intentionally ruin the lives of others are the ones I dislike; but these folks didn’t do that. They did not set out to ruin my life, or even to make it any harder. They wanted me to be so in love with God that I lived my life for Him that I may be greeted at the gates to Heaven with the words of my Father, welcoming me to eternal life, “well done, my good and faithful servant.”
And in their eyes I had chosen something that wasn’t going to lead me anywhere near there. I had chosen a life of sin and wickedness. The devil had a pull on me but clearly I was so young that prayer and study and just some good old fashioned growing up would win me back.
I was right to leave. Even if I don’t dislike the people of that church I know that they are misguided in how they approach a multitude of issues, including LGBTQ folks and people with mental illness, promoting prayer over acceptance, prayer over medication, and prayer over proper psychiatric care. I know that I would never have found acceptance there and I know that I would never have been encouraged to leadership without a lot of deception and unhappiness.
But my finding UUism is not my salvation from Evangelical Protestant Christianity. It’s simply the resolution of my, mostly unknown, want for a faith community and the right circumstances that brought the two together.
In the end I think it had to be queer issues that brought me back to faith; with anything less I would have been skeptical to their true motivations no matter how many rainbow flags streamed from the rafters. In the end I think it had to be a queer minister who said, “welcome. You are wanted here.” in order for me to believe it.
And in the end I think those experiences in middle school with an unaccepting church and my years of working through that to be happy again with religion were necessary for me to see a future for myself as a person of faith. I already knew how much I loved and valued religious community.
Now I know how much a religious community can love and value me for all of who I am. UUism has the necessary systems in place for change and growth and movement and while it may never be as quick as I may like it’s possible and, moreover, it’s expected and wanted. And with this religious community where we, as we say in so many of our faith communities, “strive to live Dr. King’s dream of unconditional love,” we have the chance to say, “you are loved, and you are welcomed, and you are wanted, and you are not less than.”
I do not think that every person in the world needs UUism as so many Christians are told that all of humanity needs to accept Jesus. I do think that every person in the world needs love and if that love happens to come to you in the form of Jesus well, then, awesome. If that love comes to you from your biological family that works. We all, it is hoped, derive love from a multitude of places. One of the places I get love is from my faith community.
I went to a “Unitarian Universalist Revival” a number of weeks back and ended up sitting next to my minister (rather, he sat next to me). We sang and we laughed and I was just as awkward as ever and we heard sermons that inspired and touched us and at one point we were told to turn to those around us and say, “I love you beyond belief.”
I’d just like to say right now that it was weird.
I found myself thinking, on the way home, what exactly “love beyond belief” was. Beyond who’s belief, exactly? “My own” was my eventual answer. The people around me loved me more than I was willing to believe. Just as I love those around me more than, I am sure, they are willing to believe. And just as many millions around the world are told that God loves them more than they can ever believe.
The point here is that love is the glue that holds us all together, and love is our best expression of our faith.
I don’t think that there should ever be qu’ran burnings, legislation based on religious ideals, or 12 year olds getting kicked out of church because of who they kiss in the corner at the 7th grade Valentine’s dance. I don’t think that those are good expressions of love; I don’t think many of the extreme actions of Church’s are actions grounded in love at all. I do think that we have to strive to look at what the perception of theology that actions are based out of is. I think we have to work from there, in love, to change things. Or to show that there is another side that doesn’t feel the same.
Many, many actions are inexcusable. My point here is, essentially, twofold. One is that nobody does something for no reason. Two is that if all actions have an equal and opposite reaction let us make our reaction one of love and expansion and hope not of fear and hate based retaliation. It is the only way we will grow.
And that growth is why my second sermon WAS preached at a Unitarian Universalist church.