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Standing on the Side of Love

You never know when the moment of decision will come. Perhaps it is on the school playground, when you see the class bully picking on a new victim. Or standing in the check-out line at the grocery store behind a young mother whose screaming child has her at her wits end. Or at a staff forum at work when your pledge to take some unpaid leave days could help save a coworker’s job. Or on a beautiful Minnesota weekend, such as this, when we can choose to stand proudly with our Southwestern Minnesota LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community in support of the rights and dignity of all people or to hear our President engage the debate on health care reform and the basic human rights of the over 46 million uninsured people in our country.

Such moments come in different ways to each of us, but they do come. They remind us that the decisions we make in our day to day lives do make a difference. They point out the ongoing choices we make between standing uncomfortably on the sidelines of our messy world, unsure of what to do, and acting deliberately in small but concrete ways to help create a kinder, more compassionate reality. They return us to the powerful truth that in critical times it is possible to stand on the side of love, and, in the mystic's words, “to help its mighty power to surge upward and surmount every obstacle” by defending, supporting, and advocating for each other as if we all were equals in our humanity.

Or do they? Perhaps you are sitting here on this home-coming Sunday thinking that your minister is once again waxing idealistic. After all, are we fallible human beings really that powerful? If standing on the side of love is so significant, then why isn’t the world a better place already? Don’t most people already think of themselves as standing for love? Or at least as much love as they can manage, given that most of us cannot live as saints?

It is a spiritual paradox. It is precisely because we live in a world which knows the evils of greed and violence and the seas of human indifference that we understand just how sacred it is when our acts of love and compassion actually triumph. And it is precisely because we live in a world which knows such triumphs that we cannot fully give up hope on our imperfect humanity.

If there is one thing that I appreciate about our Unitarian Universalist Association’s invitation to stand on the side of love in these current times, it is that the invitation invites love as an active force in our lives. So much of our understanding of love can be passive—we talk of “falling” in love, or of being “helplessly” in love, or we assume love’s automatic presence in a family or a home or a community and are shocked to learn otherwise. But I do believe that love is more than merely a power that claims us. It is also a power that we claim by choosing our response to the truths of our world.

This weekend in the Twin Cities, our flags stand at half-mast for Officer Richard Crittenden, who was killed providing protection to a woman and her child as he escorted her into her apartment, where her abusive estranged husband was lying in wait with a burning rag. Often in the news we hear stories of law enforcement protection orders failing to provide the protection that is so desperately needed. In this case, Officer Crittenden and his colleague helped to defend a mother and daughter's right to freedom and safety, even though it meant putting themselves in the line of fire. Perhaps Officer Crittenden, known as “Critter,” would have said he was just doing his job, but I think he chose to take a stand—to stand on the side of love despite the sea of violence that can surround us.

Love is a choice. Love is a stand. Whether we are standing by the bedside of a loved one dying, or standing in support by the side of a stranger we have only just met. Whether we are standing side by side in a parade to help end discrimination, or standing up for our children by donating a day’s business profit to Kids Against Hunger. The love which inspires the courage and commitment of such choices is not a sweet or sentimental kind of love. Rather it is a love which recognizes the greater good and the bonds of kinship of which we are a part.

But once we accept love as a choice, then we must also come to terms with where that choice leads us. This was the profound and radical insight of our Universalist forbears – that if Love comes from God, then there can be no exceptions. Love cannot be just for one, or some of us. If it is for any of us, it must be for all. Love cannot be just for those with loud voices, but also for the voiceless. Love cannot be just for those with power, but also for those who are marginalized. Love cannot be just for those who still hope, but also for those who despair that help and hope will ever come.

The Standing on the Side of Love campaign was born out of the tragic shootings in our sister congregation, the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church (TVUUC) in Knoxville, TN, last summer. On July 27, 2008, Jim David Adkisson walked into the church’s sanctuary during the performance of a children’s musical and began firing a shotgun, killing two and injuring six. Among the fatalities were members of TVUUC and Westside Unitarian Universalist Church, also in Knoxville. In a letter later found by police, Adkisson said that he targeted the church because of its liberal values—including its openness to gays and lesbians. He wrote of his beliefs that “The UU church is the Fountainhead [sic], the veritable wellspring of anti-American organizations like, Code Pink, and other un-American groups Oh But after the shooting, both Knoxville congregations pledged to remain open and welcoming, and in fact chose to embrace their inclusive and loving spirit even more boldly in the days that followed, supported by their wider community and religious neighbors. In doing so, they also drew on their Unitarian Universalist heritage which consistently urges us to choose love over hate and fear.

As I thought about this homecoming Sunday, I thought of the ways in which this congregation has chosen to stand on the side of love in the almost six years that I have walked with you as your minister. I thought about how we went through the process to become a Welcoming Congregation, how we opened our doors to host the luncheon for the Reconciliation Riders last November, when the Mankato mayor issued a formal apology on behalf of the city for the tragic lynching that is part of our history, how we continue to serve hot meals at the Salvation Army and to pool our resources to make a difference through the Kiva micro-loan program, and how we will become an International Peace Site with the dedication of our Peace Pole, lovingly made by our own Dave and Nancy Allen, next week. And there is so much more that I could lift up as examples.

But I don’t share this list to be “intent on vanities” in the words of Thomas a Kempis, or to pat ourselves on the back. That isn’t why we choose to stand on the side of love in these ways. Instead I lift them up to point out that the love we choose is always contextual. How we act on the side of love in our own lives and in our own community will be different than the choices made by our neighbors a few towns over, or our fellow religionists several states to the south. And different times and moments in history and community call us to stand with our brothers and sisters in the world on different issues and for different needs.

So take a moment to reflect on this particular time, in your own life, in the lives of your family and friends, and in the state of our community and our world. Who needs us to stand with them on the side of love? What moral questions does our commitment to love call us to address in the coming year? Is it time to learn something from our Iowan neighbors and to make same-sex marriage legal in Minnesota, so that we don’t need to organize any more Love Buses to Des Moines? Is it time to create an interfaith voice in Greater Mankato that can speak with a shared voice to the moral issues of our times, whether health care or immigration reform, hunger or homelessness? Is it time, despite the recession, to finally build that elevator to make our spiritual home fully accessible to all? I don’t have the answers, nor are the choices only mine to make. But I lift up these questions to spark a conversation – as individual people who care about this world and as a community of faith, memory and hope.

Recently, reflecting on the opportunities to stand for love, a friend of mine asked, why does it have to be a side? Must there always be a side? I understand her regret. The last thing our world needs is more division. One answer might be that the call to stand on the side of love is made in the spirit of inclusion, in the hope that one day it will be the only place to stand. But I also think that we are being invited to stand in a new place, or on a new side, of understanding about what it means to live spiritually in our world. Our newly-elected Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) President, the Rev. Peter Morales, expresses it with these words: 'There's no difference between spiritual values and social action," he observes. "They're two sides of the same coin. When we experience our connection with that which transcends us and with other people, we become compassionate. We suffer with, not separated from the other. That's a deeply spiritual experience... Standing on the Side of Love... is simply a way in which we can act upon our deepest religious passions." Love is a choice. It is a stand. It is a deep life-changing passion, not just for our hearts, but also for our souls.

In her map of the country, the poet Adrienne Rich ponders whether or not she has described a map or a mural. Her description of our troubled and difficult world reminds me of the maps of olden times, where there would be occasional warnings of danger marked with the words “here there are dragons.” I always pondered that the map makers never quite seemed to create a similar tip for those places of help and safety. Where were the places that could be marked, “here there is love?” As I reflect on my own years, as a child, a youth, and an adult in this faith and I think of the friends and experiences that have shaped my own faith journey, I know that I have found those places of help and safety in the congregations that I have been blessed to know. It is you who remind me of the importance of love, you who remind me of why we are called to find love, and choose it, and act it out in the world, over and over again.

So, welcome back to your Fellowship. Welcome to this house of the spirit, to this caring community, and to this call to service. It is good to stand, here with you, on the side of love—the only place I would ever choose to be. Will you join me, once again?

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