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Standing on the Side of Love

by Elizabeth Lerner Maclay, Parish Minister, Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring, Maryland

Elizabeth Lerner MaclayMay 28th, 2008 was a beautiful day. Tim and I were away on a scuba diving vacation. We went diving that morning and he seemed especially tender in the boat as we were riding back to shore. I was starting to think he might be gearing up to ask me to marry him, but I’d thought that before and been wrong, so I was wary of going down that path again. By any measure, after five years together, we were running out of time to figure out whether our futures would be joined or not. I was on my own in the afternoon and I spent it doing a lot more such figuring and analysis. I ended up confirming to myself that there was a chance that dinner would be one that might be life-changing…. Or not.

When he joined me we settled into beach chairs and looked at the white sand and the sky shot with color and the sailboats in the water and I went off on a spiral in my head. Tim was talking and I was sort of listening, and sort of lost in the beauty, and sort of wondering whether he would ask me later, and what I would do to handle it if it he didn’t. Right about then, I caught a few words of what he was saying and I actually heard them and I realized that they sounded sort of like the preamble to a marriage proposal. So I tuned all the way in fast and looked at him, and listened…. And it was exactly like the preamble to a marriage proposal. And after the preamble…the proposal. No, I didn’t actually say yes right away. Instead I said “I can’t believe you finally asked me.” And he laughed and said “Do you want me to ask you again?” And I said “Yes.” And he did, and then I accepted, laughing and crying. Later that night we went to dinner and the emotion between us was so charged and I was weepy so often that our waitress was clearly worried for us—worried in fact that maybe the exact opposite of our reality was happening—so we explained the situation and she was thrilled and we got desserts from them as our first engagement

I share this story with you because implicit in it is one of the reasons why I am passionate about marriage equality. We could share our story with the
waitress and count on her congratulations. We could struggle over whether to get married knowing that the only impediment was our own emotional baggage. Most of all, we could struggle with marriage, knowing that we shared the same understanding of it not only with each other but with much of the western world—except for the gender angle.

I want to be clear in defining marriage that it is one of the greatest human undertakings because it is a leap of faith in the face of all the imperfections we all possess. It is a commitment to commitment that doesn’t always succeed. As the country singer Brad Paisley tells us, “If love was a plane, no one would get on.” We all know what it feels like to fail in some form of faithfulness, and we also know what it feels like to be betrayed. Some marriages that have been challenged in terms of respect or love or faithfulness can overcome those challenges and live truly into what marriage should be—this can even be part of how it is a great adventure of the soul.

And some cannot meet those challenges, or overcome them, and we all know divorce is a shattering experience. Those are not reasons marriage is an illusion, they are reasons marriage deserves great care and respect, the greatest care and respect, because nothing less is enough.

And it is because marriage deserves the greatest care and respect that I am committed to marriage equality—giving all people, regardless of gender, the opportunity to be married. I work for marriage equality on two levels. I work as a citizen of this country who knows well the risk marriage involves. After 43 years of life as “me,” there is an ultimate risk in choosing “us.” But it’s nothing compared to the amount of risk involved in loving someone of the same gender and changing “me” to “us” with them. The risks of loving someone whose hand we cannot hold in public, someone we cannot sit too close to in public, someone we certainly cannot kiss laughingly or carelessly—knowing in some places we could be killed for showing that kind of love and happiness in each other.

The day I got engaged, the day I got married, each day of my life in love, all are privileged in terrible, unacceptable ways simply because I don’t have to worry about defending or justifying my love. No one will kill me for loving Tim. No one will hit me or stare at me or curl their lip or swallow their words or spew their words. Instead, starting with the waitress at the restaurant that first night, it’s all been cake.

But this isn’t just a social or a civil issue, which is why I work for marriage equality as a religious person. There is a religious justification, and it goes back to my belief in marriage as a sacred institution, a blessing and a sacrament, full of beauty, possibility, and that adventure of the soul. Love is the most powerful, beautiful, spiritual, human quality there is. All love—between family members, between friends, between lovers, it’s all ultimate and precious and spiritual. Because it is with each other that the divine spark can be most fully experienced and expressed. Our longing for love is also our capacity for love, and there is a kind of fulfillment in love, all love, that is worth everything. Find those who deserve and return your love, and love them with everything you have.

We think of personhood as an individual experience, as being fully who we are. But this is a mistake. We are individuals and in many ways we do live, and die, alone. But it is always relationships that grow us, that try us, that teach us, and that sustain us. In that way, our personhood is absolutely dependent on relationship, and none of us is alone, nor can define who we are separate from our relationships. We are the sum of those who have shaped us, especially those who have loved us and whom we have loved. And while my focus is marriage, I include all kinds of relationship—even that between a writer and a reader, or an artist and a viewer, across centuries. All relationships grounded in love offer us opportunities to grow ourselves and each other, to live into the potential of our spirits and our persistent capacity to seek meaning, to praise and to seek the divine. This happens regardless of whether the love is romantic or not, whether lovers wish to marry or not. Love is not all about marriage.

But marriage is all about love. So the issue of marriage equality is fundamentally religious because of the foundational relationship between love and soul. And it is also religious because at the heart of marriage equality are the issues of what is sin, and what is grace. That’s right, sin. We don’t use that word a lot, but you can’t talk about marriage equality without it. So here’s my definition. Sin is what works against humanity’s capacity for compassion, commitment and communion. Sin is choosing me over us, even when the “us” is humanity, or the planet, or the future. And what puts us in sin is never love, but all those things which deny or reject love. Selfishness, jealousy, laziness, prejudice, and, of course, hatred. Grace is what flows from life and the tapestry of all that exists in this world, to uplift us and renew us, reminding us that we are not alone, that we are linked to life in many and beautiful forms, that there is always an us. Love is not God, but it is akin to God in that love gives us strength, hope, happiness, belief in ourselves, relief in grief, endurance in despair. For those of us who do not believe in God, love fills many of the same roles.

And if love is like God, denying or condemning love is a desecration. Such negation has sinful effects not only on a person but also on the soul. Who is anyone to condemn what gives another strength, hope, happiness, belief in themselves, relief in grief and endurance in despair? If you cannot see the humanity in a person because of where they find love and hope, then it is your own humanity that is in jeopardy.

I agree with the Religious Right that faithful, traditional marriage between two believing and committed souls is a social cornerstone and a sacred institution. And I believe that love is sacred because of its transformative power. But sacredness doesn’t belong as an exclusive privilege, bottled up like spring water or reserved on high for members of an exclusive club which gets to decide who can join them and who can’t. That kind of elitism has no place in faith, no place in justice, certainly no place sticking its nose into love.

We have started a change and every single one of us needs to bend our shoulder to this task. We cannot be complacent, we cannot be tired, and we certainly cannot be bored by this issue. We have never said all there is to say and never done all we can do until the day, the shining day everyone deserves for their wedding, when all people can marry their great love, regardless of gender.