The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association

Reflections from the President of the UUA

September/October 1999

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It was a Saturday night at the end of summer. Vacation was over, and the minister had a sermon to write. No inspiration. 

“Preach about something you really enjoyed this summer,” said his wife. 

“I know! I’ll preach about water-skiing!” he replied. “You know, hanging on, riding the waves, keeping your bal-
ance. . . . ”

“Well, that’s a new record for dumb ideas,” she said. “I don’t want to be there when you give that sermon. I’ll just drop the kids.”

The minister knew his spouse was right, as usual. Then it hit him: inspiration. Something he’d really enjoyed that summer but also an important spiritual, moral topic—he’d preach about sex!

Working all night, he wrote one of his most powerful sermons ever. At dawn he went to church to polish the final draft, leaving his wife a note on the breakfast table: “All-nighter. Gone to church.”

When she saw it, she sighed and did exactly what she’d said she would do—dropped the kids at Sunday school and left. Later, as the service ended, she pulled up in the car. An elderly woman in the congregation spotted her and came over. 

“My dear,” she said, “your husband preached the most inspired sermon! A daring theme, of course, but full of experience that I know you must have helped him acquire!”

“Not me!” the minister’s wife laughed. “Experience? Why, as far as I know, he’s only tried it four times. Once he fell off. Another time, he couldn’t get up again.”

The elderly lady fainted.

Sex. Novelist and preacher Frederick Buechner once said it’s like nitroglycerin: you can use it either to blow up bridges or to heal human hearts. In recent months in a number of forums, I’ve been discussing my own perspective on sexuality.

At the Brookings Institution in Washington I appeared on a panel where “abstinence-only” approaches to sexuality education were being contrasted with our more comprehensive yet values-centered approach (see Dan Kennedy’s article about Our Whole Lives). Early research indicates that abstinence-only programs may delay the age of first intercourse (a goal I share). There’s just one small problem: when sexual activity does begin, there’s less prevention of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

More recently, I joined some 25 progressive religious leaders and ethicists in drafting a statement on “the suffering caused by violence against women and sexual minorities, the HIV pandemic, unsustainable population growth, and the commercial exploitation of sexuality.” The statement in its final form will be released in a few months. 

In Salt Lake City for the UUA’s General Assembly, Moderator Denny Davidoff and I called on President Gordon Hinckley of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints (Mormon). He gave us a copy of his church’s proclamation on the family, which I had occasion to reflect on later in the GA, when I sat on a panel with three local religious leaders—Episcopal Bishop Carolyn Irish, Catholic Bishop George Niederauer, and Elder Alexander Morrison, who oversees Mormon life in northern Utah. 

We were each asked to describe our theological perspective on homosexuality. I found myself theologizing in language my Trinitarian colleagues might have found familiar. I started with the Mormon president’s statement, which partakes of what tradition calls “the doctrine of creation.” It says that God’s commandment in Genesis to be fruitful and multiply “remains in force.” It also implies that reproduction is everyone’s vocation. I disagree. If all humanity shares a calling, it’s not to reproduce but to create justice, using our capacity to love. Reading the book of Nature alongside Genesis, I worry that we’re threatening the very creation we were placed in by overpopulating it. Moreover, I believe that how we use sexuality is a question of vocation. All of us must prayerfully discern how and with whom our sexuality can best and most responsibly be expressed. Religious community can help with that discernment, but it cannot prejudge its outcome. Just as I respect a Catholic priest’s call to celibacy as different from my own vocation in marriage, so I respect my friends who are single, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered—all striving to be loving, responsible, and just. 

That brings me to what tradition calls “the doctrine of redemption.” Sexuality can be a source of grace for us, but only when responsibly expressed. Thus, our culture needs a sexual ethic that focuses on responsible relationships and social justice, not on particular sexual acts—the obsession, oddly enough, of both pornographers and moralizers.

Finally, “the doctrine of the Holy Spirit” inspired me to speak out of the lived experience of our small branch of the church universal. Our young people testify that our approach to comprehensive sexuality education actually saves lives, by promoting both responsibility and self-acceptance. Resistance to sexism and heterosexism, in which Unitarian Universalists have been leaders, I believe is the work of the spirit, which calls us all to human wholeness and to realism about our sexuality. 

Welcome back to church this fall! I hope you enjoyed the summer. I sure did. 

Yours in faith,

John Buehrens
President, Unitarian Universalist Association

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