© Deborah Cuny, 2012. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
December 9, 2012

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Morning, ya'll! What. A. Day, right? Today is a day of amazement, a day of naming small victories, a day to balance the sorrow that is so present in our world. Our beloved Mary Oliver writes, "When it's over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement."

I just came back from celebrating my dad's 70th birthday. For me, going home means beginning a long-distance run away from my progressive Bay Area bubble and towards a land where country stars are the intercom voice at the airport and people give me funny "she don't belong here in these parts" looks. Home is a place where the interstate is littered with billboards that say things such as "There's plenty of room for all of God's creatures...that is, right next to the mashed potatoes". or better yet, " Attention lunatic atheists and their lawyers...anti-God is anti-American; anti-American is treason; traitors lead to civil war."

Toto, we aren't in California anymore...

I came to the Bay Area four years ago seeking a safe haven. Growing up in an evangelical family in the South, when my parents found out I was "different", their first reaction was to start an international prayer chain, to cast the demons out of our house and out of me, and to become activists for the ex-gay ministry, a highly abusive "ministry" that aims to make gay people...straight. For years, I thought my parents had seceded from me and from our original family unit while I desperately craved emancipation. I never anticipated that I would one day travel for my dad's birthday because I fully believed my parents wanted me, fully me, with them.

As you can imagine, walking into my parents' house, I felt all the anxiety that comes with visiting family. Would we fight? Would I be invisible? Would the recent election stir up conflict? Prepared for the worst, I walked in to find my grandparents, aunts and uncles, and my sister, all gathered for a long weekend of Good. Ol. Fashion. Family. Fun.

From the outside, one might think we were having a revival of sorts, because watching Tennessee football on TV is like attending church on Sunday! Shouts of Hallelujah! Oh Holy Spirit, the second coming has arrived and RIGHT before 4th Down. We would celebrate occasionally by jumping out of our La-Z-Boys to do what I would describe as a Slain-in-the-Spirit victory dance. The only dance that comes close to this in Berkeley is in my Zumba class. (I always wanted to dance zumba in front of a congregation. Cross that off the bucket list). And being a somewhat snarky progressive, I constantly wanted to join in and shout things back like, Go Long, Sweet Baby Jesus! Intercept that Devil before those pesky demons tackle your soul in the end zone, oh Holy Day.

Ahh, family, right?

What people may not realize, is that even though my family is often written off as "those evangelicals" - you know, the ones practicing corporal punishment using that darn Bible Belt or soapboxing it for Pro Life outside the Piggly Wiggly - within our family there is actually theological and political diversity. This is most apparent when family members choose their TV channels...

For example, my grandparents spent the weekend bursting into tears at the sound of Obama's name as they watched "the Christian station" aka Fox News, while my parents groaned about my grandparents' misguided theology and poked fun of "Romney Mormons" interviewed on CNN for believing there are multiple heavens after death. (Take it, I once suggested to my mom that, while she thinks Mormonism is "misguided", some people might consider the Immaculate Conception an equally hard-to-grasp concept.) And then there is my sister - more theologically conservative than my parents, yet completely outspoken about environmental rights as she avoided TV altogether because of the unbalanced media depiction of systemic injustice, which ultimately prevents Christianity from effectively spreading to the farthest corners of the world.

So, within my one evangelical family, we actually have different opinions on everything from healthcare to abortion to whether dunking or sprinkling water is the true Biblical baptismal method for the church. For a religious group that is so often categorized as one unified voting bloc, when I visit my family I am reminded that just as I don't want to be "blocked", so too must I see their complexity in order to honor my own.

And for me? Well, my family was the latest Lifetime TV drama (co-starring Muaw!) that I cautiously watched when I wasn't busy hiding away in the closet - my parents' closet to be exact - since there was nowhere else left in the house for me to sleep because all beds were taken. Note: One way to guarantee an endless barrage of gay jokes is to make the "Family Gay" sleep in the closet - a guaranteed "coming out joke" every. single. time I exited my parents bedroom closet. Yet, as the proverbial closet door swung open and closed, I found myself surprised that instead of feeling rejection and isolation, I had suddenly started to experience...amazement.

My family managed to amaze... me.

As part of the weekend, we attended an event where my sister spoke about the organic local food movement. My sister was part of a younger generation of evangelicals who believes that Jesus has called Christians to care for our bodies and our environment - a teaching I was not brought up to believe in - a church where our eyes were set solely on heaven and not the sustainability of our current world. While my sister's theology isn't in line with my more universal one, I watched as she completely inspired 20 southern Christian women who hungered for the knowledge that is second nature in our California neck of the woods. My sister effectively connected food justice with their spiritual beliefs making a case that god IS the bread and wine we eat and drink at the Christian table...just, organically.


Later on in the trip, my family made jokes about people like me who care that their chicken was well-treated before it reached the dinner table. But despite the jokes, I could also tell that they were listening. The evidence was in my family's household. After all, my family is the same family who "pretended to recycle" when we were kids in order to appease my sister's environmental heart, when actually they discarded the separated recyclable materials back into the trash can when my sister wasn't looking. Appalling? yes. But when I considered where they started, I was amazed to learn they had watched the food-justice documentary Food, Inc. and had chosen to buy more local and organic foods despite counter-cultural beliefs within their own Southern religious community. And, yes, their recycling was now being recycled.


I was once told that there isn't one finish line that we must cross to measure success; but that to judge success and see evidence of growth, we must look at where a person's journey begins. For my mom, a poor immigrant brought up by an abusive father, or my dad, a poverty-stricken Louisiana Catholic bred into great racism, or my grandmother, a concentration camp survivor, or my bipolar grandfather who had multiple siblings killed right in front of him, and of course my sister who, well, lets face it, grew up in my family - if I measured the distance each had run from their unique starting lines, their endurance would inspire the greatest of runners. I mean, going from ex-gay activism to a mom who said she would attend a pride parade is something to be amazed by. Or a dad who argued that Muslims have a rightful place in this country, including in leadership. Or my grandmother offering to sew me, her queer granddaughter, a clergy robe. Or my grandfather who paused just to say he loves me. Me.

But the pinnacle of my amazing weekend with my family happened when I attended my sister's church. Brought up without women in church leadership, it was to my amazement that my very own sister served me communion. My sister has always been outspoken against feminism. So for her to serve me, the lesbian sister she had rejected for so many years, and in her very own conservative church from the very Christian table she told me I had no place at amazes me.

As tears poured down both of our faces, I experienced a type of healing and hope that let me know that people DO change, they DO. And it is absolutely possible to heal this world because look how far my own sister had come.

Joanna Macy, Eco-Philosopher writes:

"Because the relationship between self and world is reciprocal, it is not a matter of first getting enlightened or saved and then acting. As we work to heal the Earth, the Earth heals us. No need to wait. As we care enough to take risks, we loosen the grip of ego and begin to come home to our true nature. For in the co-arising nature of things, the world itself, if we are bold enough to love it, acts through us. It does not ask us to be pure or perfect, or wait until we are detached from all passions, but only to care to harness the sweet, pure intention of our deepest passions."

I spent most of my life living in shame because of my sexuality and gender. I never felt like a child of God, much less a worthy child of my parents. Yet, flying away from my family, it was during my flight back to California that I finally realized that I had amazed...myself. I had amazed ME. I realized that if it were not for my coming out, for my unwillingness to remain in a house of hate, and my choice to stand up for what I felt was right and just, then my parents would not have voted for justice in this election - a decision they made even though the consequence was facing rejection and isolation within their own religious community. They came out anyways and that makes me feel... freakin' awesome. And because of my family's willingness to be unstuck again and again - an act of faith based on a belief that humans have the amazing capacity to improve and change - their own growth now challenges me to increase my own endurance and to remember that even though I live in the beautiful bay area, I too, have a lot more running still left to do.

Judy Cannato, author of Radical Amazement, writes, "I think every discovery of the world plunges us into jubilation, a radical amazement that tears apart the veil of triviality." While the stories I share are stories specific to the gay community, this is not a gay story, but a story we all share. After all, all of us here know what it is like to feel rejection from a family member, church, friend, society. We know the pain of isolation, the pain of separation, the pain of division that hinders our ability to experience even our own awe and amazement.

In a world of so much political, religious, and socioeconomic division, if we are to come together and embrace a new world, we need to tear down our veils by cultivating amazement in order to remind ourselves that, at our root, we are just as capable of loving this world as destroying it. We tend to destroy what we believe lacks worth, causes pain, or prevents growth. So what then would happen if we increased our worth, dared to remain unstuck, and allowed ourselves, imperfections and all, to live into our own potential? After all, if we allow ourselves to be rebirthed again and again, will not the world be rebirthed too?

While none of my family went away from the weekend with drastically different political or spiritual beliefs - my grandparents will still buy their third online Christian-customized generator so they are really prepared for the End of the World. (This is true.) My parents will continue to argue that 'those' people are more absurd and nutty than they are. My sister will go on scrutinizing my parents' liberal theology although, as a woman, she is now in church leadership. And I will return home to Berkeley to continue on my path in seminary fighting against systemic injustice, even though it is religion that has so deeply rejected me. Despite all of this - our many contradictions and miles that have yet to be run, maybe - just maybe - my family actually helped heal the world a little bit by gathering together anyway, despite our differences, to celebrate what we also share and how far we have journeyed as One.

So, as you leave here today I encourage you to spend a few moments looking for amazement, not in the people who already inspire you, but instead, in the people that you least expect it from, even if that person is...yourself. Think about their starting lines, what it would be like to run miles in their shoes. Ask yourself how this type of mindfulness practice changes the way you see others? Is it possible to leave here today married to amazement even when returning to the broken and imperfect communities we all belong to?

While this may be a sermon about seeing the world more positively, make no mistake, this is not a rosy-cheeked way of sort-of naming the Truth. Amazement is a matter of life and death. Quoting a president I am working to cultivate amazement for, read my lips when I say that if we don't practice cultivated amazement even for our enemy, we will see the world continue to divide and eventually be destroyed. Fortunately, I believe humans have the innate capacity to love. And the choice to love, to see the spark that is within each of us, IS a radical action in this society. It is one the most radical actions we can take because when we really see the humanity of another, we can no longer make them "the other" - something separate from us. For me, acknowledging my parents' growth, imperfections and all, prevents me from falling into the safe progressive bubble that so easily makes it us against them.

After all, today is a day of amazement; a day to balance the sorrow that is so present in our world; to celebrate small victories, and I have only named a few. But because of my trip home, I am choosing to err on the side of amazement and believe that if my family can change as much as they have, then this world and myself, can change too.

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