Reflecting on his service in Afghanistan, U.S. Army chaplain and Unitarian Universalist minister, the Rev. George Tyger, writes, “I know love / For it is love that has kept me alive / Not bombs / Not bullets / Not body armor / These only kept me from dying / Love keeps me living.” That is essentially the message of this sermon. If our Unitarian Universalist faith is to serve us well in the wilderness—and I’ll say more about how I’m using the word wilderness this morning—then love must live at its center.
I’ve heard it said, and perhaps you have too, that Unitarian Universalism is not a real religion, that our faith works fine when life is good, but offers no reliable assurances in the face of tragedy, injustice, evil, death; that our faith works fine for those who come for worship on Sunday morning, but does not travel well beyond the walls of our buildings. I’ve not yet finished reading George Tyger’s War Zone Faith, but if his ministry in 2011 and 2012 to the 1500 soldiers of the 1st Squadron, 10th US Calvary Regiment stationed in and around Kandahar City, Afghanistan—the “spiritual home of the Taliban”—is any indication, then I feel confident Unitarian Universalism’s liberal faith—its appeal to reason, its tolerance for ambiguity and difference, its call for social justice, its assertion of human dignity and its emphasis on love—holds up under some of the most dangerous conditions on the planet. If Rev. Tyger’s testimony is any indication, this liberal faith travels remarkably well.
Though let me be clear: I am not suggesting that any Unitarian Universalist minister, including me, could do what Rev. Tyger does, or that all one has to do is show up in a war zone and start talking about the love at the heart of his or her Unitarian Universalist faith. That’s not what Rev. Tyger does. He has a gift for battlefield ministry. And while he is clear in his writing that he doesn’t want us to romanticize his ministry or present overstated caricatures of his service, in my view his ability to provide chaplaincy to soldiers in combat is extraordinary. His Unitarian Universalism holds up well in a war zone because of who he is, because of his rare courage, and because of his unique ability to communicate his loving faith—to make it relevant in the midst of bullets, bombs, body armor and body bags. When I say our UU faith travels well beyond the walls of our buildings, I also acknowledge that no faith travels all by itself. People carry their faith with them, and specific people carry their faith into specific situations. Our faith has the greatest impact in the world when our gifts and talents are well-suited to the demands of the situation we find ourselves in—whether we feel called to be there or whether we arrive there by accident. Rev. Tyger has a gift for battlefield ministry. For me, this begs the questions, “What is your gift?” and “Where and how does your love for people and the world express itself most clearly?” I invite you to take these questions into this summer season. It’s important that we know the answer to these questions because, in the end, the measure of the “realness” of any religion has little to do with what that religion says or writes about itself—or how catchy its promotional videos are. It has everything to do with how that religion inspires its people to live their faith by using their gifts to bring more love into the world.
I want to share some thoughts on living our faith not only beyond the walls of our congregation, but in any situation we might call a wilderness situation. As a reminder, our ministry theme for June is wilderness. A few weeks ago I preached about the connection between the wilderness around us and the wilderness within us. I suggested that traditional religion often identifies wilderness as a place of trial, challenge and temptation—a place where something bad happens, where some wicked thing lurks—and if we can overcome it, meet the challenge, resist the temptation, then we can return to the safety of civilization having matured in our faith, having deepened our humanity. While I do think this is one important narrative for understanding the role wilderness plays in our spiritual lives, I also made the case for a second narrative. Wilderness is not only the place where we face challenges and trials. It is also the place where we encounter the things we hold most sacred; where the Holy actually lives and speaks out beyond the bounds of all established jurisdictions; where we find solace and peace; and where we gain strength to resist the various evils civilization has created and perpetuated among human beings.
This morning I want to explore how we engage the wilderness around us. I’m combining elements of both spiritual wilderness narratives. I’m not talking about the forests, the jungles, the deserts or the mountains—though I do believe the Holy lives and speaks there. Rather, I’m talking about difficult, challenging situations, painful situations that demand a faithful response from us—whether they occur in the actual wilderness of the natural world, or in the heart of civilization; whether they occur within the walls of our meeting house, or beyond them. I’m talking about the wilderness of the devastating diagnosis, the death of a loved-one, or the loss of a job. The Holy lives and speaks there too. It must. I’m talking about the wilderness of mental illness, of addiction, of loneliness. I’m talking about the wilderness of estrangement in families, the breakdown of relationships, watching a loved-one engage again and again in self destructive behavior. The Holy lives and speaks there too. It must.
I’m also talking about the wilderness of war zones, the wilderness of bullets, bombs and body bags, because the Holy must live and speak there too. I’m talking about the wilderness of more than one in five American children living in poverty, because the Holy must live and speak there too. I’m talking about failing schools, gun violence, mass incarceration and the erosion of civil rights for people of color because, in addition to its positive rulings on DOMA and Prop 8 this week, the Supreme Court also eviscerated the Voting Rights Act, opening the doors to a myriad of efforts to restrict access to voting and, in my view, thereby stunting and even reversing the progress of American democracy. The Holy cries out in that wilderness too, demanding a faithful response. I’m also talking about the wilderness of marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples, because yes, the Supreme Court struck down DOMA—an enormous victory for people standing on the side of love and justice. But there are still 38 state DOMAs on the books; and while some of those, I expect, will disappear quickly, most of them will not go down without a fight. Winning that fight will require people of faith to continue bearing witness to the injustice of marriage inequality and to express the tenets of their religion in the public square with courage and conviction. The Holy must live and speak in that struggle too.
Oftentimes the wilderness—whatever form it takes in our lives—feels overwhelming. The word “bewildering” makes sense. It is hard to comprehend at first. There’s an opaqueness to it. It is often unbelievable. Receiving a cancer diagnosis, unless you have some strong prior indication, is unbelievable. The tragic death of a loved-one is unbelievable. The statistics on the number of Black and Hispanic men wrapped up in the criminal justice system are unbelievable. The statistics on the educational achievement gap are unbelievable. Child poverty, unbelievable. Lack of access to quality, affordable health care, still unbelievable. So many lives are at stake. Always at first the wilderness seems overwhelming, unapproachable, insurmountable, dangerous, deadly, bewildering.
Consider this generalization about Unitarian Universalists. Unitarian Universalists often respond to wilderness situations not from the heart but from the head. If this statement rings true to you, please understand it is far less true than it sounds, but it is true enough—and out there in the larger culture enough—that some people allege ours is not a real religion. It’s not the only reason people make this allegation, but it’s one of them. Often our first response to wilderness situations is to seek information and data. These days we Google it. Don’t hear me wrong, I feel strongly that in order to respond faithfully to the wilderness around us, we do need to acquire information about what is going on. We need the facts. Information makes the wilderness less opaque, less bewildering, less unapproachable (though not necessarily less dangerous). Speaking specifically about the wilderness of injustice and oppression, it is essential that we analyze it; that we figure out how it works, why it is so pervasive in so many aspects of our society, and why it is so difficult to dismantle. In conducting such analyses, we ask questions like “Where is the money coming from?” Or “What is the money paying for?” We ask questions like, “Who benefits from this injustice?” or “Who has the power in this institution?” We ask historical questions like, “Why did this injustice come into being in the first place?” In the language of community organizing, we call this a power analysis. For years, working on antiracism organizing within the Unitarian Universalist Association and in different cities and towns in Connecticut I’ve heard myself say over and over again—because I was trained to say it—“We need a common power analysis of racism before we can work to dismantle it.” And those words are true. But in reflecting on this aspect of my ministry over the last fifteen years, I recognize that sometimes I’ve become too mired in analysis. I’ve stayed too much in my head. And my faithful response has been less than effective. There’s some truth to the generalization.
As essential as it is to have an accurate analysis of unjust and oppressive systems, we cannot confuse having an analysis with having a faith adequate for the wilderness. We need something more. We need love. I’m reminding myself of this as much as I’m preaching it to you. Rev Tyger says, “I know love / For it is love that has kept me alive / Not bombs / Not bullets / Not body armor / These only kept me from dying / Love keeps me living.” When I call myself a person of faith, it means I enter the wilderness with a much deeper question than the many analytical questions I might be asking in order to overcome my bewilderment and quell my anxiety. When I enter the wilderness as a person of faith I am looking, quite simply, for opportunities to feel and express love for others. When we enter the wilderness as people of faith, the deeper question is “How can we bring love to bear in this situation?” When we enter the wilderness as people of faith, the deeper question is “How can we be a loving presence to those who are suffering?” “What gifts can we share that will make love come alive in this moment?”
Having the facts is essential. Knowing what’s really going on is essential. Doing the power analysis is essential. But the Holy that lives and speaks in the wilderness—in the depths of pain, suffering, loneliness, depression; in the war zone, the grieving spouse, the broken family the impoverished neighborhood, the failing school, the over-crowded emergency room, the addict’s needle, the prison cell—the Holy that lives and speaks there, no matter how we understand it, no matter what name we ascribe to it, cries out for a courageous, loving response. The heart of a faith adequate for the wilderness is love. In the end, the measure of the “realness” of a religion has little to do with what that religion says about itself. It has everything to do with how that religion inspires its people to live their faith by using their gifts to bring more love into the world. What are your gifts? Where and how does your love for people and the world express itself most clearly?
Tomorrow I have the honor of saying a few words at a press conference Senator Blumenthal is holding in response to the Supreme Court’s rulings on DOMA and Prop 8. (I received this invitation because I served for many years as chairperson of CT Clergy for Marriage Equality and, later, CT Clergy for Full Equality.) There are many ways to talk about these rulings that involve facts. If you read Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion—which I highly recommend—you’ll find it very factual, very analytical.  I expect nothing less from a Supreme Court Justice’s opinion. He clearly understands the nature and the full extent of the injustice DOMA visited upon gay and lesbian couples and their children. Reading his opinion I learned facts I hadn’t known before, like the fact that under DOMA the partner of a gay or lesbian veteran could not be buried next to their beloved in a veterans cemetery.
But I don’t want to address facts tomorrow. I want to speak of love, because I am a person of faith, and a Unitarian Universalist, and love has been at the center of our faithful response to this particular wilderness for a generation. In fact, I want to remind the media that it has largely mischaracterized the sides in the American debate over marriage equality. It has largely reported the debate as one between secular, non-religious people in favor of marriage equality, and religious people against it. But that has never been the case. Unitarian Univeralists, the United Church of Christ, Episcopalians, American Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, Presbyterians, the Metropolitan Community Church, Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, even some Pentecostals—and the list goes on—have been coming again and again into the wilderness of homophobic laws, of painful silences and closets, of fear and hatred towards gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people, of bullying, bashing and suicides—people of faith have been coming into this wilderness and proclaiming a message of love, singing “we are standing on the side of love,” singing “Love will guide us,” praying prayers of love, praying, in the words of Rev. Tyger when he gave the invocation at last Tuesday’s LGBT pride celebration at the Pentagon that “love refuses to be constrained by culture, by creed or by fear,”—coming into this wilderness and bearing witness to a Holy power in the world so vast that no one is left out, that all may come as they are, that all may love according to the dictates of their own heart. If I may be so bold, we are winning in this wilderness struggle, because love wins. Love wins.
We’ve heard it said that the poor will always be among us. Some say there will always be poverty. If nothing else, it’s a Biblical notion. I’ve never been convinced of its truth. But I am convinced there will always be wilderness, and that the encounter with wilderness is part of the human condition, part of the human experience. Therefore, we will always need love—to give it and to receive it—to courageously speak it, proclaim it, sing it, pray it. Love is the essence of a faith adequate for the wilderness. Love wins. I believe it. May we go out from this place and into this summer season ready to give and receive love.
Amen and blessed be.
 Tyger, George, War Zone Faith: An Army Chaplain’s Reflections From Afghanistan (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2013) p. xiv.
 See data from the National Poverty Center at http://www.npc.umich.edu/poverty/. Also see: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/18/child-poverty-2011_n_2323383.html.
 Tyger, George, War Zone Faith: An Army Chaplain’s Reflections From Afghanistan (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2013) p. xiv.
 Read Justice Kennedy’s opinion at http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/12pdf/12-307_6j37.pdf.
 Shelton, Jason, “Standing on the Side of Love,” Singing the Journey (Boston: UUA, 2005) #1014.
 Rogers, Sally, “Love Will Guide Us,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUS, 1993) #131.
 The Pentagon’s June 25 LGBT Pride event is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h7vkpOYQiIo&feature=share.