The Other Wholehearted Armory: Honesty About Sexuality

by BC

Our reading today is titled “Vulnerability” by the poet David Whyte from his collection called “Consolations.”

Vulnerability is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without, vulnerability is not a choice , vulnerability is the underlying, ever present and abiding under-current of our natural state. To run from vulnerability is to run from the essence of our nature, the attempt to be invulnerable is the vain attempt to be something we are not and most especially, to close off our understanding of the grief of others. More seriously, refusing our vulnerability we refuse the help needed at every turn of our existence and immobilize the essential, tidal and conversational foundations of our identity. 

To have a temporary, isolated sense of power over all events and circumstances, is one of the privileges and the prime conceits of being human and especially of being youthfully human, but a privilege that must be surrendered with that same youth, with ill health, with accident, with the loss of loved ones who do not share our untouchable powers; powers eventually and most emphatically given up, as we approach our last breath.

The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance, our choice is to inhabit vulnerability as generous citizens of loss, robustly and fully, or conversely, as misers and complainers, reluctant, and fearful, always at the gates of existence, but never bravely and completely attempting to enter, never wanting to risk ourselves, never walking fully through the door.

The teachers would walk apprehensively into the classroom, often feigning a smile here and there, or sometimes with an energy that was so clearly disingenuous and manufactured. 

They would carry the heavy textbooks, visual aids, and other materials with them in and out of the classroom — it was school policy to lock up the materials so no one would steal them or deface them when class wasn’t in session.  With the fake smiles or fake enthusiasm, the students would shift uncomfortably and try not to engage — but once instruction began there were bursts of laughter. 

I never did figure out if the laughter was because of how uncomfortable the teachers were or if because the content was presented in such a clinical and, as a result, amusing way.  Year after year, starting in Middle School, it was nearly the same content, the same awkwardness, the same discomfort from the teachers, the same crossed arms from the students, the same message over and over.  We are, of course, talking about sexual education in school.

Yes, today, you’ve landed in a Unitarian Universalist church on a Sunday where we talk about one of those topics that can make American skin crawl with discomfort.  You can thank the Puritans for that.  Admittedly, I was inadvertently sneaky in doing this. 

How on earth could this sermon title lead to this topic?  I confess my deception was not on purpose.  The researcher Brené Brown has done a great deal of work around vulnerability and wholeheartedness these past few years.  She goes on to describe what she calls her vulnerability and wholehearted armory. 

But how do we clothe ourselves in assuredness around topics in our culture that we want to run from?  All across the country this month, UU ministers have been engaging sexuality from the pulpit.  And most have survived.  Let’s get this out of the way:  positive discussion around sexuality is as much a part of Unitarian Universalism as the flaming chalice.  There is no debating that.

It is one of those topics Unitarian Universalists have pioneered as a faith for some time — we have prided ourselves, rightfully so, on providing a comprehensive sexuality education in our churches for our youth and young adults for years and years.  Education that keeps with the times, education that is honest, open, affirming, and free of the hand-wringing of middle and high schools — at least for the teachers. 

Over the years, as a faith, we have done an excellent job at providing sexuality education for our youth with one minister in our association estimating that over 200,000 kids have taken the classes — called OWL — which means Our Whole Lives, O. W. L. — and even that number is a conservative estimate according to the UU World magazine. 

On top of that, we’ve trained over 7,000 adults to be facilitators of this faith inspired and accurate sexuality curriculum.  These programs have had an immense impact.  But the one demographic where Unitarian Universalists have not had much success is with…any guesses?  Adults. 

There is this heightened resistance from adults within our religion to address sexuality — in classes but most often on Sunday morning.  Ministers are often told, you can’t talk about that!  We are such good ancestors to the Puritans.  Or perhaps many adult Unitarians think that they’ve addressed all matters pertaining to sexuality and have all of the knowledge they need, there is no shame, and as long as the kids are learning about it — we’re good.

How many of you would say you had a fully comprehensive and healthy education around human sexuality in your school years?  The lifelong Unitarians are excluded, of course.  I already know your answer.  And continuing, how many of you discovered things you wish you had learned about in school? 

Whether we want to admit it or not, we’ve all received messages from our awkward gym teachers teaching sex ed or our parents who may have talked about bees and flowers or talked about nothing at all. 

Let’s not forget the dominant religious tradition in our country and the messages it has sent and is still sending, the images we find in the media that offer commentary — subtle or explicit — the pieces of media we discover on our own, the folktales and stories we hear from others.  For a topic that makes many of us want to jump out of our skin and flee, it is a topic that is everywhere you turn.

Which is interesting to see in Unitarian Universalist adults.  I don’t take any joy in seeing people that weren’t raised UU squirm in discomfort at the topic — but I believe it’s important for all of us to know that Unitarians and Universalists — before they merged to form our present religion, have been talking about this for a very long time. 

Long before Our Whole Lives was even thought of.  In 1929, the General Convention of the Universalist Church of America affirmed and passed a resolution that was in favor of family planning and nearly 20 years later, the American Unitarian Association, in 1947, passed a similar resolution in favor of, “the planning of parenthood.” 

These were not resolutions that were coded language for ensuring the survival of children after birth and how to raise them properly — this language was clear for its time.  the Unitarians and the Universalists were affirming resolutions to educate their members on sexual ethics, education, and conversational skills around sex that were, as you could imagine, not easy in the 20s and 40s. 

From there and on in to the 1960s, after we became a unified religion as Unitarian Universalists, it is no wonder, given our early history, that during the sexual revolution — there was also a revolution in conversations around sexuality in our congregations.  But there was still something missing.  There was still a gap. 

Adults did not feel equipped to engage their children in these discussions.  With the rise in demand for answers to these situations, the Unitarian Universalist Association published AYS in 1971 — standing for “About Your Sexuality.”  It became, as Betty Jo Middleton said,

a flagship program for the UUA with wide use both within and beyond the association.  The course combined keen attention to the real world of young teens and the questions and confusions they had about sexuality with the creation of a trusting forum where information could be openly shared and feelings and issues discussed with honesty. The program affirmed values held by Unitarian Universalists: open inquiry, respect for human diversity, the freedom to make individual choices, and the responsibility to make them in the light of accurate information and with respect for the rights of other persons.

It took great courage for our faith to publish this, and to publish it proudly, openly, and say — yes, as a people of faith and a people that affirm life before death, we believe sexuality must be demystified because we being religious does not mean being elevated above our humanity, it instead means living more fully into all aspects of being human.

From the 20s, 40s, and 70s — the curriculum eventually became what we have today, Our Whole Lives.  And it is a living curriculum, being updated recently, addressing the ever growing knowledge we have about what it means to be fully human and engage sexuality in a meaningful and honest way. 

And with this current iteration, we are not alone.  Our Whole Lives was created in partnership, over ten years in the making, with the United Church of Christ.  The old Puritans, UCC and UU, reunited…to talk about the most unPuritan topic.  Eat your heart out, Scarlet Letter.

Upon being published by the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association, Dan Kennedy, another UU World writer proclaimed,

Our Whole Lives heavily emphasizes respect.  It teaches kids that abstinence is okay, that coercion is unacceptable, that sexually transmitted diseases are real and must be dealt with.  As befits a program that emphasizes responsibility and UU values, Our Whole Lives invites parental involvement more…than [our other programs] did.  The change reflects a subtle shift in UU cultural yearnings—from the radical individuality of the 1970s to a greater emphasis on connectedness, community, and mutual respect.

I speak often about the covenantal nature of Unitarian Universalism — and this is yet another example.  We unite in community to be our best selves and to call each other back to our best selves when we fall away.  We do so lovingly, with respect, and in honor of our principles. 

So, too, with how we are as sexual beings.  Our way of being religious is often misunderstood by the wider culture, it is, in many ways, counter-cultural — and I like to think revolutionary on some days.  And it is true with the education we provide as a faith around sexuality.  It is counter-cultural to its core.  That kind of saddens me in a way. 

There is a baggage in our culture that stigmatizes sexuality and yet, at the same time, is hyper-sexual in its imagery and messaging.  And if you come from a background that lacked greatly in such education, it can lead to a life of shame, a life of risky behavior, a life where this baggage is passed on to the next generation.  Our Whole Lives is all about keeping the conversation going — especially if you carry this baggage with you and even if you do not.  The conversation must continue.

We live in a rapidly changing landscape, and sexual ethics are a part of this.  Don’t tell the conservative pundits but marriage has been redefined.  The divorce rate is higher, people are getting married later in life, gender roles are more fluid, technology around birth control and fertility has improved, and marriage is no longer a mandate from God to procreate only. 

Oh, and we also have marriage equality nationwide for lesbian and gay Americans.  Beyond marriage, casual hookups or dating are available by way of apps on nearly everyones phone, television has more detailed depictions of sexuality,  the internet has made pornography and other sexual imagery available on everyone’s computer, tablet, and phone. 

Most people, even the most conservative amongst us, know of LGBT people in our families, our friends, and our communities — even Kim Davis and Ted Cruz, even if they won’t admit it.   We are hyper-connected, technology is rapidly escalating, and mixed in all of this is all of our humanity — including sexuality.

And still, for some reason beyond reckoning, a majority of our middle schools and high schools still teach a severely lacking abstinence-only education.  Whether or not people actually believe in abstinence-only education, it is clear that this is not what people actually practice — or did they ever? 

Yes, what we teach our youth and young adults is counter-cultural in 2015, while we continue to hear viewpoints from the public realm that would make our Puritans ancestors stop and go, “whoa, that’s a little too much, even for us.”

On top of all of this is an overwhelming sense that in our country there is a pervasive ignorance around sexuality, anatomy, and the ethics of both.  I find it disturbing that many people don’t know the proper care or workings of their bodies. 

I find it disturbing that many politicians think rape is a choice for the victims. I find it disturbing that myths and lies around how one gets pregnant, or contracts an STD, or how “no means no” are prevalent amongst not just youth but also adults.  I find it most disturbing, though, how the religious dialogue around our physical bodies is that they are something to be overcome, to be cast away, to be ignored, to be abused, or to not be important.  It is clear to me that we need comprehensive sexuality education.

If it is one thing Unitarian Universalism teaches very clearly, it is that our physical selves are to be cherished, loved, valued, and cared for.  Our principles speak to this.  Our marches and advocacy for justice cry out for this.  Our theology, yes, we have a theology — resoundingly says that our full humanity is to be honored.  And this is why, as a faith, we offer comprehensive sexuality education.

But here is where there is tension in Unitarian Universalism.  As I mentioned earlier, we are so good at offering these programs to our youth and young adults, but for our adult populations, we can barely get them to even consider it as something useful for themselves. 

Why on earth is that?  Don’t take me wrong, I am not scolding anyone here, but these are questions we need to ask ourselves.  Why is it so?  Is it because there is a deep shame?  Is it because we think we are lost causes?  Or is it because we feel that it is not important in adulthood?

Some of you certainly were Unitarian Universalists in the 70s and I suspect you remember the transgressions of many ministers within our association around sexual ethics — and also, of many of our congregations themselves.  It is not just the Catholics or the Baptists, but all religious traditions that did not hold themselves accountable. 

And it needs to be acknowledge that part of why Unitarian Universalists engage sexuality education is not to re-open the wounds for those who were harmed by unethical behavior of the 70s in churches, but to foster conversations around healing those wounds.

I was privileged as a Unitarian Universalist kid to have these resources readily available to me — whether or not I was in the classes.  The resources were there.  In my church.  And I know now as an adult that my education is not done. 

While much of the education yet to come will cause me to reflect on my own story and sexuality, it will also call me to greater awareness of the diversity around me.  Sexuality education for Unitarian Universalist adults opens our minds to the complexity of human relationships — monogamous or non-monogamous. 

It educates us so that we may educate others around transgender, gender fluid, and sexual orientation issues and diversity.  And if you’ve survived this sermon without crawling out of your skin, you can survive a unit of Our Whole Lives. 

This month we’ve been talking about what it means to live a wholehearted life.  And sexuality is a part of this.  To be wholehearted, it says it right there in the name, whole. 

If we are to have any authentic claim to what we tell people — that we are a religion that focuses on the here and now — it does not serve us well to deny basic facets of our lives, such as sexuality.  To be whole is to be not just be content with our bodies and our physical nature, but to be happy with them.  Truly happy.  That is one of the goals of Our Whole Lives — for all ages.

The most current issue of UU World, the magazine for members of our faith, has an article praising OWL and the impact it has had on one young adult, Savannah Hemmig. 

She writes: 

Unitarian Universalism, to me, has always been about empowering its believers to search for their own truth, and Our Whole Lives was no different.  Our instructors openly declared that sex could become a positive and life-enhancing experience when in a consensual, non-exploitive, mutually pleasurable, safe, respectful, and developmentally appropriate setting based on shared expectations.  But after endowing us with accurate information they stepped back to let us come to our own conclusions about what was right for us as individuals, treating us as young adults before I even thought of myself as one.  OWL helped me to form and question my own values in a safe environment without judgement because it addressed sexuality not as a series of unmentionable behaviors but as an integral piece of the human puzzle.

Our youth and young adults have long shed the shame around our physical bodies passed down from our Puritan ancestors.  Why should we, the adults, keep it alive?  To be good and responsible sexuality educators, we, too, need to be educated — and educated, and educated. 

It never ends.  It is one of those Unitarian truths, the learning never ends and you never know quite where it will take you.  Our values want us to feel our own worth and dignity — and this means living a life free from shame around all of who we are.  Let us commit ourselves to being good stewards of our values — the world needs this message.  Blessed Be.  Amen.