Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Wishes for the New Year

My family will travel to Charleston, South Carolina this weekend to participate in a wonderful event called Renaissance Weekend. Now in its 25th year, Renaissance brings together nearly 1000 diverse professionals and their families for a weekend of conversations, panels, good food, and fun. We are very grateful to be included.

I will be speaking on a variety of panels and co-leading the New Year's worship service. I will conclude my section with this prayer on the New Year by WB Dubois. It is my prayer for all of you united in the work for justice in the world.

"We pray, oh God, for confidence in ourselves, our powers, and our purposes in the beginning on this New Year. Ward us from all lack of faith and hesitancy and inspire in us not only the determination to do a year's work well, but the unfaltering belief that whht we wish to do, we will. Every deed accomplished finishes not ony itself but is fallow ground for future deeds. Abundantly endow us with this deed-born faith."

Blessings on the New Year.

I'll be back here January 3rd.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas 2006

I offer the Matthew 1:18 - 25 Scripture Reading tonight at our Christmas Eve services (9 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. if you are in Connecticut.) To me, this small pericope contains all of the hope of the holiday season.

Joseph goes to sleep, ready to "dismiss" Mary after finding out she is pregnant. An angel comes to him and tells him to name the baby "Emmanuel’,which means, ‘God is with us.’ "

It is the promise of every new birth...indeed of every life...of every day. God is with us. That is the hope, that is the promise, that is the light to guide us in these dark days.

I will read a poem tonight by Edward Erickson. It ends:

To celebrate Christmas is to attest
the power of love to remake humankind.
May we be renewed in the love which can save the world.

May you and your family be renewed with love, peace, and grace on this Christmas and always.

Rev. Debra

Thursday, December 21, 2006

95% of Americans Have First Sex Before Marriage

While I was away finishing up my new book, a couple of news headlines caught my eye. The Guttmacher Institute released a new analysis of people from 1953 - 2003 and found that 95% of Americans had first intercourse before marriage during those 50 years. Despite impressions to the countrary, the proportion of people having premarital sex has not changed in at least fifty years, and it's nearly everyone. Remember (and I've done other posts about this) that there is a national abstinence-only-until-marriage program that says the "expected standard for human sexual behavior" is no sexual intercourse until marriage. NOT, as my son might say.

There was also a story about Rev. Haggards' church which has now fired its youth minister for a consensual sexual relationship that happened before he was married (no details provided), saying it was against Biblical standards about sex. Apparently Christopher Beard was behaving pretty much like the rest of us, and it cost him his job.

Now, what I wondered when I read the story was "which Biblical standard" they were refering to? Because the Bible isn't really a very good model for us today when it comes to its heroes sexual lives. Could they possibly have meant Jacob with his two wives and two concubines? David with his 21 wives? Solomon with his hundreds of wives and concubines? The levirite law that required women to have sex with their brother-in-laws if their husband died leaving them childless? Mourning Jepthah's daughter because she died a virgin? Paul's admonition about marriage that it was "better to marry" than burn with passion? How about the women at the well with the multiple husbands and lovers that Jesus revealed himself to?

I believe that the Bible offers us a relational ethic -- love your neighbor as yourself -- as well as a sexual ethic that teaches us that our bodies are good, that pleasure is good, that sexuality is a wonderful gift but it can be abused, and that we must exercise that gift responsibly. It doesn't teach a consistent message though that the expected standard for sexual intercourse is wait until you are married.

It is past time for America to recognize that an ethic based on chastity until marriage alone does NOT help people make moral, ethical sexual decisions...according to the Guttmacher Institute study, it didn't help your parents and grandparents; it's not helping your children either.

P.S. For my regular readers, I'm pleased to tell you that the book is 98% finished and will be at the publishers on time for release in August 2007.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Chanukah 2006

Tonight is the first night of Chanukah. I will make potato latkes and we will light our menorah.

To briefly recap the story: In 167 b.c.e., a Greek leader named Antiochus attempted to institute a Greek state religion. He ordered the takeover of the temple in Jerusalem, had a statute of Zeus built on its altar, and called for ritual sacrifice there and in other Jewish temples throughout the countryside. Mattathias killed the first Jew who came forward to offer a sacrifice as well as a state official, and he and his five sons were forced to escape to the hills. Together, they organized first a small band of rebels to resist Antiochus, which grew to a 6000 person army that retook Jerusalem and the Temple. Three years from the day that Zeus was erected, the 25th of Kislav, Judas Maccabeus and his followers rededicated and purified the Temple in an 8 day celebration. Chanukah has been celebrated more or less continuously for 2,170 years.

Chanukah is the first recorded battle for religious freedom and against efforts to have a minority religion assimilated into a larger whole, reason enough for us as Americans to celebrate it. But it is in the legend that grew up in the 2nd century of the common era that I think we can find our greatest inspiration.

You probably know that legend: according to a very short passage in the Talmud, the Maccabees came into the temple and after purifying it, went to relight the eternal flame. They only had enough oil for one day. Pressing new oil from the olive trees would take another week. Miraculously the oil lasted for the entire eight days. The Rabbis who wrote the Talmud transformed the telling of the history from a heroic military battle into a story of God’s miracle and grace to the Jewish people. They moved it from a story based on the facts to a story based on the universal need for faith and hope and redemption. It is a truth story, not a true story.

And that’s where I think the stories of this season converge. They are stories of miracles – the ordinary story of the poor unwed teenage mother and her older boyfriend cast off by society that becomes the miracle of the baby to be named “Emmanuel”: God is with us…the story of the ordinary drop of oil that lasts for eight days to show us that God’s will prevails...the story that remind us that one person's actions can change the world -- that that person could be us.

Robert F. Kennedy once said, "Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, these ripples build a current taht can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance." It did for the Macabbees -- it could for us.

The stories remind us that in the darkest of winters, in the physical world or in the dark parts of our souls, even the tiniest light can with faith become brighter and stronger, until the whole world is filled with that light once again – and that every human life, no matter how humble his or her beginnings, can indeed bless the entire world.

Happy Chanukah!

Like the Chanukah oil, I hope this blog post can last eight days. I am taking the next week off to finish my new book which is due to the publisher by the end of the year. Have a great week! I'll let you know how it went next Thursday.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Sin is NOT Homosexuality

I've read a lot of the news reports on Rev. Barnes' resignation from his megachurch after he "confessed" his homosexuality. They all quoted a religious leader on the right who declared homosexuality a sin, and several stated their belief that homosexuality was a choice.

None directly quoted a religious leader who flatly countered these positions. Let me do that here.

There is no sin in being homosexual or in engaging in same sex eroticism in a loving, just relationship. The sin is homophobia, the denigration of our neighbors because they are physically and emotionally attracted to people of the same sex. The sin is heterosexism, the presumption that heterosexuality is normative for all people and morally superior. The sin is forcing people to deny their God-given gift of their sexuality and to suffer to try to live their lives in a way that is antithetical to who they really are. The sin is violence and discrimination against GLBT persons and denial of their civil rights. The sin is when any of us, whether heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual, violate our commitments to our partner and hurt our families. The sin is making sexual decisions that hurt us and hurt others.

Reverends Haggard and Barnes are primary evidence against the myth that people choose their sexual orientation. Both confess that they have struggled with their same sex attractions their whole lives. They tried to pray it away; they tried to marry it away; they tried to make it go away by having sex with women they loved; they tried counseling to make it go away. From the news reports, it certainly seems that they did everything they could to "change."

But, they couldn't. No more than I could change my sexual orientation...or you change your's.

It's time for the churches that condemn homosexuality to learn that lesson. It's time for the congregants to think through what it means to "love your neighbor as yourself." I am reminded of this line from I believe Meister Eckart, "When will grown men and women stop believing in a God that makes them sad? It is a lie, any talk of God that does not comfort you."

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Another Evangelical Minister Resigns Over Sex With Men

The Denver Post reported yesterday that Rev. Paul Barnes resigned on Sunday from his 2100 person evangelical megachurch after "confessing" in a 32 minute video that he had had sex with men during his marriage.

Read the article at

Barnes, who was apparently about to be "outed", called his attraction to men "the thorn in my flesh" and recounted a not unfamiliar story of homophobic comments from his father and his church and desperate attempts to deny his sexual orientation. He said that he had been to counseling about these issues three times but he could "never find anyone to talk to."

Rev. Barnes, I'm sorry that that was true. You obviously didn't look very hard. If you had looked beyond your own church you would have found that there are faith based organizations in almost every denomination that affirm and welcome GLBT people. There's even a group called Evangelicals Concerned. There are hundreds if not thousands of gay clergy that live their lives honestly and faithfully that would have been happy to talk with you.

I am angry for you that you have lived in a world where you had to hide who you were from the people closest to you and where you have experienced such self-loathing. At the Religious Institute we believe that sexual difference is a blessed part of our endowment and that God loves and welcomes all of us. It is the integrity of our relationships that are important, not the sex or gender of our partner.

We can suggest lots of people -- even people in Colorado -- for you to talk to...Give us a call.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Mid December musings

No, that's not our tree...but our tree is up and decorated with the almost 30 years of ornaments that my husband and I have collected. I am trying not to think of it as one more thing off of my December "to do" list. I have to admit that I often feel abit overwhelmed in December -- both as a minister and as a member of a multifaith family.

We have been cutting down our holiday tree at the Audubon Society with another family for the past 18 years; it’s one of my favorite rituals. We invite a family of Jewish friends over each year to help us decorate the tree. We play dreidel, make latkes, go into New York City to see the trees and windows, and open stockings while eating cinnamon buns on Christmas morning. We do something to serve others during the holiday.

Rituals offer us a sense of community and continuity and a way to celebrate our faith. But, I think we also need to give ourselves permission to let go of some of them if they no longer make us happy. I've decided that I am not going to write a newsy holiday letter this year. My house will not be perfectly decorated. I am not baking cookies or making big holiday meals. My gift list is considerably shorter. Take a minute to think about what you can do to make the next month simpler and less stressful.

For me, I will remember to breathe and exercise and make sure I follow through on my good intention of daily spiritual practice. I am making a public commitment here to do what sustains me and let go of the “shoulds.” As someone once said to me, “we need to stop shoulding on ourselves.” I remind myself it is time with people I love that is most important this season – and always.

I hope you will take that time -- as well as time for yourself. I had my coffee in front of the lit tree this morning; it was a good way to start the week.

Friday, December 08, 2006

More on Conservative Rabbi's: A Mixed Blessing

It turns out the story of the Conservative ruling Wednesday was much more complex than the original Washington Post and NY Times stories.

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards actually passed three conflicting opinions. In the long history of Rabbi's debates going back before the midrash, the opinions leave it up to each seminary and each local rabbi to decide what is appropriate. The most liberal of the opinons calls commitment ceremonies "appropriate" and "welcomes" clergy who are gay while prohibiting anal intercourse (presumably only by male couples.) But a conservative opinion was also passed by enough votes for adoption that upheld the ban on marriages and clergy, and a third opinion calling for "reparative therapy" for gays also was adopted.

The end result is that with God's grace, some seminaries will begin ordaining gay and lesbian Conservative rabbis, and some Rabbis will perform unions for same sex couples.

I agree wholeheartedly with Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum's assessment: “It’s absolutely a step in the right direction. But justice demands full inclusion of gay and lesbians in Jewish life with no conditions attached. Functionally, the option of equality for gay men and lesbians has been achieved. A religious ideology of equality is still far away.”

That day is surely to come.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Conservative Rabbis Move to Fuller Inclusion

Yesterday a high level group of Conservative Rabbis voted to allow seminaries to ordain openly gay and lesbian Rabbis and to allow their Rabbis to perform commitment ceremonies for same sex couples.

They join the Reform and Reconstructionist Jewish denominations in moving to full inclusion of gay and lesbian people.

The vote was close, and the report was not without controversy. As I understand it from the press report, the Rabbis decided that the Leviticus texts only prohibited a very specific sexual act -- an act incidently that about one in four married heterosexual couples have tried. See the article at:

We applaud this move to recognizing the full humanity and gifts of gay and lesbian people, but as the Religious Declaration says, we need to move beyond an act-centered morality, to one that is based on relationships. The fact that a specific act makes many people uncomfortable does not make it immoral or unethical; only the context of the relationship can determine that.

Update: I wrote about the fetal pain bill earlier this week. It failed in the Republican dominated House of Representatives yesterday -- but barely. These is still so much we need to do.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

New Baby for the White House

The front page of the today's Washington Post online features this headline, "Mary Cheney expecting."

Here's the link:

Mary Cheney and her partner Heather Poe are having a baby -- and that's front page news. Now, I don't know about you, but I don't remember hearing about Dick Cheney's other five grandchildren being born.

One can just begin to imagine the conversation between Mr. Cheney and Mr. Bush this morning -- after of course, they deal with that pesky report that calls the Iraq War a disaster. I wonder if Mr. Bush congratulated Mr. Cheney or called Mary and Heather to offer best wishes. I wonder if even for a moment he paused at how his efforts to deny couples like them the rights to all of the protections and privileges of marriage might one day hurt this coming child.

I look forward to the day -- and I believe it is coming -- where this might not be front page news. But, for now, Ms. Cheney and Ms. Poe, congratulations. And as soon as I find an address for you, I'll be sending you a copy of my book, "From Diapers to Dating."

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Latest Attempt to Mandate Bad Information

The House of Representatives this week is scheduled to vote on a bill titled the "Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act of 2006." Republicans are hurrying to have this bill considered before the new Congress takes over.

The bill requires that every woman in America who is having an abortion after 20 weeks receive a pamphlet that says that abortion causes pain to the fetus and that they have been offered fetal anesthesia.

The problem? Well according to a review article by the American Medical Association, "Evidence regarding the capacity for fetal pain is limited but indicates that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester," and there is "little or no evidence" of the effectiveness of fetal anesthesia and "limited or no data" on the safety of administering it.

In other words, anti-choice legislators are attempting to pass a bill that is not consistent with what science is telling us in order to discourage women from having abortions. They are also trying to legislate medical practice based on false information.

That's not just bad medicine -- it's bad ethics. Women have the right to complete and unbiased information when they are making decisions about the future of pregnancies. Mu understanding is that most abortions after 20 weeks are because of fetal abnormality and the mother's health. Adding to the mother's pain at this time is wrong. Tell your Congressperson to vote no.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Advent reflection

Yesterday was the first Sunday of Advent in Christian churches. In that tradition, Advent is the beginning of the preparation for the birth of Jesus, a time of waiting, a time of reflection about the miracle to come.

I like the symbolism and the metaphor -- it reminds me to open my heart to what is waiting to happen next, both externally but also deep inside of me. I once read a book that suggested that we periodically ask ourselves three questions: What is it too soon for? What is it too late for? What is it the right time for?

I just finished reading "Leaving Church" by Barbara Brown Taylor this weekend. I recommend it highly. It is the story of her move from parish ministry to teaching and writing. She writes that "the call to serve God is first and last the call to be fully human." I resonated to her desire to move more deeply into ministry in the world beyond the doors of a particular congregation. She asks "What if the church's job were to move people out of the door instead of trying to keep them in, by convincing them that God needed them more in the world than in the church?"

Advent. What is waiting to happen in your life? What miracle might emerge if you began to prepare for it today?

Friday, December 01, 2006

World AIDS Day, Part II

I remember the first time I saw the AIDS memorial quilt. I was stunned to tears and silence by the enormity of the losses that each stitch represented.

In the mid to late eighties it seemed like every week someone I knew died of AIDS. It's actually been at least three years since I've lost a friend or colleague to this disease. But each year around the world three million die. 3,000,000. It's a huge loss.

I hold in my heart the memories of Bill Travis, who helped me design the Teen for AIDS program; Danny Jacobs, the membership coordinator at SIECUS; Carolyn's best friend Billy; my college friends: Marjorie, Lacey, Stuart; Rosella's brother John; my dear friend and colleague Jim A.; too many colleagues in HIV prevention to name.

I invite you today to pause and say a prayer for those you have lost...for all of those who the world has lost...and to recommit yourself. Preach about AIDS. Reach out to your local AIDS service provider. Make a donation. Teach your child about sexuality. Teach an adult about safer sex. Get tested. Write a letter to your Congressperson. Do something. Keep the promise.