The Doors of Perception

My mind is prone to tangents. Recently, I’ve been listening to the music of the 1960’s rock group The Doors and pondering the words of William Blake that inspired the name of the band, “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to us as it is, Infinite.” (Well actually he said “man” but I decided to expand it to “us.”)

Perception is a powerful thing. Related to my most recent mental tangent I read the biography of Jim Morrison No One Gets Out of Here Alive. (Apropos of nothing I got a real bargain on it, seventy five cents at a used book store.) Reading this book I couldn’t help but feel that the lead singer of The Doors was a real a$$hole. (I was going to use another word but my computer thesaurus didn’t have one -no results found.) Then I read another book Light My Fire by the band’s keyboardist Ray Manzarek and I came away with the impression that Morrison was sensitive, poetic, polite, witty, wise, prophetic, spiritual, a great friend and also capable of being a real a$$hole.

From these two books I conclude we are saved by friendship. Our friends see the good in us even if others can only see the bad. Our friends appreciate us even when others are repelled. The world may look at us through a glass darkly but our friends see us when the doors of perception are cleansed.

TheDoors_LightMyFire_Digital_Cover

One of the main reasons to join a church is to make friends. We need communities where others see us and value us. For this reason, we all have to do the work of keeping the doors of perception cleansed so that we can see each other and appreciate each other for what we really are, Infinite.

Aldous Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception was about mescaline but one does not need drugs to awaken to realization (and the high levels of addiction in our culture suggest need more sustainable and less consumerist paths to experiences of the transcendent – meditation, music, art, creativity, prayer, mindfulness etc.) The Quakers are known for their sobriety, even so, they tell us to look for “that of God in every person.” Many of 19th century Unitarians were teetotalers but they advised us to seek “the divine spark in every person.” The poet William Blake would tell us that we can hold infinity in the palm of our hand and “eternity in an hour.”

My mental tangent about The Doors began in December when I decided a good title for the homily for the Christmas Eve candlelight service would be, “Come On Baby, Light My Fire” as a way of bringing together the nativity story with the fire related traditions of Hanukkah, Advent, Kwanzaa and  winter solstice. If you missed this homily you can check it out on YouTube and sing along with everybody else (see below link.) To paraphrase the words of the religious educator Sophia Fahs, “When the doors of perception are cleansed every night is a holy night and every child a holy child.” That’s a good thought for Christmas eve or any night or day of the year.

My mind is prone to tangents. I like to explore new areas of thought. “There are the things you know about and the things you don’t,” said Jim Morrison, “the known and the unknown, and in between there are the doors.” I suppose every poet/songwriter has an element of pretentiousness. Even so, this should not deter us from walking through the doors of our church, greeting a new person, turning a stranger into a friend and by so doing discover the Infinite.

 

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All for One, One for All

Hatred can come out of nowhere.

I was once camping on an island in the middle of Lake Ocoee when someone sped by in speedboat shouting a racist slur at my friend Alex who was sitting right next to me. Alex did not seem surprised or alarmed. As the boat sped off into the distance he turned to me and said something he clearly did not really mean, “Now there goes a brave man.”

On another camping trip a group of us were swimming in a swimming hole near a waterfall in the middle of the Cherokee National forest when an old man came out of nowhere and went on a racist diatribe against my friend Creed in an effort to run us all off. He forgot to factor in that he was outnumbered.

Hatred can come out of nowhere

In the Unitarian Universalist church we often speak about the beauty of the earth and the wonders of nature but the truth is we can be camping on a island in the middle of a lake or swimming by a pristine waterfall in the wilderness when hatred comes out of nowhere.

There’s no escaping it.

A friend recently told me about his wife who was working as a nurse in a hospital when a patient insulted her and demanded a white nurse. Such outrages happen daily across the country.

When the President recently referred to Haiti and African and Central American countries as shitholes (that’s one word I though I’d never say from the pulpit) his behavior was shocking to some of us but not surprising to all of us. As the Reverend John Butler says, “The problems in the White House are symptomatic of the problems in every house.”

Call me naïve but up until recent times I thought we were making some progress in this country. However after careful reflection I am coming to understand why Malcolm X once said that when white people talk about racial progress its like a mugger who pulls the knife halfway out and calls it progress.

Now as a white person it is tempting for me to get defensive about such comments but then I remember how hatred can come out of nowhere. I remember that day on island or that afternoon by a waterfall or that nurse who has to figure out how to heal someone who hates her.

Malcolm X said if black people feel wary of white people it might be because , “If all of your ancestors have been snake bitten and you have been snake bitten then you just might want to teach your children to be wary of snakes. “

Over my sabbatical I reread The Autobiography of Malcolm X with special attention to the Epilogue by Alex Haley. I also read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, a book about racism in the criminal justice system. Both books are good books but anyone who has ever read them can tell you than can be some heavy reading and so I decided to read something light, fun, escapist so I picked up a copy the Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas.

I’m told that my choice of an escapist book says something about me-as 19th century literature is not everybody’s idea of escapism. Nevertheless, I picked up the book in the same way someone might go to see a blockbuster action movie. I was hoping to be immersed in a rollicking tale of swashbuckling adventure-and it worked- at least for a little while.

For a little while I escaped into the world of imagination in the company of the musketeers D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramas as they defended the honor of the Queen of France from the Machiavellian maneuvering of Cardinal Richelieu and the fierce vengeance of Milady de Winter.

The book is a good read. Strictly speaking, the musketeers are not paragons of virtue. Many of their choices do not measure up to contemporary ethical standards. The musketeers have a puppy dog quality to them, overly eager and overly energetic and hormone driven. They bumble into each other and other people with testosterone-fueled dreams of fame, honor, glory and romance. Their unity has a sibling like quality full of mutual adoration and mutual competition nevertheless we all know the oath that binds them together, “All for one and one for all.”

I enjoyed the Three Musketeers so much I decided to read the next book in the series and then the next book and then the next book and then the next book and finally finished the series with The Man in the Iron Mask.

 

Over my sabbatical I was in France serving as minister in residence and guest preacher to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Paris. During that time I decided to take a pilgrimage to The Chateau de Monte Cristo, the historic home of the author of the Three Musketeers Alexandre Dumas.

This chateau is named after another one of Dumas’ famous books The Count of Monte Cristo which is a story of revenge about a man who is falsely imprisoned in an island fortress with disastrous consequences for him and eventually for the people who put him there.

In the Chateau de Monte Cristo there was an exhibition where I learned something about the author that I did not know before. During his lifetime Alexandre Dumas was a constant target for racist attacks.

His father, Thomas Alexandre Dumas, was the child of a Haitian slave and a rebellious French nobleman. Although his father was mixed race all existing portraits showing him to be a very black man.(Picture of Thomas Alexandre Dumas below)

The Black Count

If you look closely at photographs of the author Alexander Dumas you can see that his hair is approaching what we might now call an Afro. Because of his heritage he became a target for bigots. The exhibit contained racist broadsides that had been printed in the press and repeated in salons. There were also cartoons depicting Dumas as a cannibal with exaggerated lips and hair and savage-like appearance. The attacks were so constant that sometimes Dumas found ways to deflect them with a witty comment. When someone told him that his family was descended from monkeys he replied, “Yes my family starts where yours ends.” (Picture of the author below)

Alexander_Dumas_père_par_Nadar_-_Google_Art_Project

One of the more interesting things that I’ve learned since the visit to that home is that many characters in Dumas’ novels are patterned after his father Thomas Alexandre-Dumas, who left Haiti and made his way to France where he got military training in fencing, swordsmanship and combat. He came of age in the comparatively egalitarian era of the French Revolution and was able rise from a new recruit to a brigadier general in the French army and commander of over 50,000 men. He was the first person of color to become a brigadier general in France and the highest ranked military person of color in the Western world until Colin Powell surpassed him in rank in the late 20th century.

If you are interested in learning more about him I highly recommend the book The Black Count by Tom Reiss. Reading the book I could see how Thomas Alexandre Dumas helped inspire his son to create such vivid characters and write such good stories. He had the courage approaching foolhardiness of D’Artagnan, the gravity and brooding nature of Athos, the romantic spirit of Aramis and the brute strength and appetite of Porthos. Indeed, Thomas Alexandre Dumas was such a larger than life human being that his son had to create 4 different fictional white characters to try and capture the essence of one black man. (In the BBC series The Three Musketeers the character Porthos is black as a tip of the hat to this history.)

porthos

General Dumas was like one of those action movie heroes who can fight off five or six people at once only he actually could do it in real life. Incidences of him defeating multiple assailants are well documented. He was constantly volunteering for the most dangerous missions and defying the odds to achieve victory. Napoleon saw him as a rival. He was also once falsely imprisoned in a military fortress so not only was he D’Artagnan and Aramis and Athos and Porthos he was also the Count of Monte Cristo.

So by now you may be wondering why I am telling this story about an immigrant from Haiti, an immigrant from Haiti that fought bravely for the revolutionary ideals of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” , an immigrant from Haiti who inspired his son to write some of the most widely known and celebrated works of literature the world has ever known. Here’s why.

February is Black History month but I am here today to tell you that there is a lot of Black History hiding in the middle of supposed White History. And along those lines let me tell you about another book, one of the hidden gems of world literature, a book by Alexandre Dumas that is rarely if ever mentioned Georges.

 The story is set on the Isle of France, an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa now known as Mauritus. Dumas describes Georges as a mulato, “one of those unfortunate colonial beings that cannot be forgiven for their color no matter how much success or wealth…they attain.” He writes about the sense of inferiority Georges feels in the presence of whites. He feels robbed of his self-respect.

Georges is a man who is tired of feeling like he must spend his entire life apologizing for his own existence. Eventually he becomes angry not only at his oppressors but at those who accept their own oppression. He is able to affirm his own worth and dignity. All of this leads up to Georges’ decision to lead a slave insurrection against the French colonial powers. As he launches this violent revolution he declares, “I have a prejudice to fight. Either it must destroy me or I it.”

One cannot help but feel that the author of this book Alexandre Dumas is working through some of his own emotions about what it is like to be on the receiving end of hatred and racism. The thoughts of Georges seem to offer us a window into his soul.

Because I am a good person I am not going to tell you how this story ends #nospoilers. However I can tell you that this book is an adventure story that could compete with any Spielberg movie. The story has battles at sea, shark attacks, sword fights, hand to hand combat, armies clashing, dramatic rescues, narrow escapes, separated lovers and romantic reunions. Our hero is often in peril. Alexandre Dumas is nothing if not an entertaining storyteller.

However, as I bring this sermon to a close, I want to say that my point this morning is not to recommend good literature to you, even though I do recommend these books to you. Instead today I want to remind you what was true then is true now, the wealthy and the successful are not spared the viciousness of racism. Bryant Gumbel, a wealthy, successful, famous television broadcaster has talked about his own experiences with racism saying, “You can’t buy your way out of it. You can’t educate your way out of it…this is nothing to do with the victims and everything to do with the culture of demeaning a person of color.”

Hatred can come out of nowhere. There is no escaping it. We have yet to create a culture where the knife of racism has been completely withdrawn from the body or where every child is free from the danger of snakebite. And yet the fact is that racism is a lie. Bigotry is a lie. Prejudice is a lie and this is important for us to know because it’s the truth that sets us free.

And the truth is that there is a unity that underlies our diversity. Nothing disempowers the bullies of the world quite like unity. The best way to address intolerant is to be sure the forces of fairness always outnumber them. As Rumi wrote – all of the people, all of the religions, all of the singing is one song. As the Haitian flag tells us “L’union fait la force.” Unity makes strength. Or as Dr. King used to say, We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.  Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” No one is free until everyone is free. There are truly global implications for the oath made famous by the three musketeers, “All for one and one for all.”

(The Reverend Chris Buice delivered this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday January 28, 2018)

 

 

 

The Courage to Love: An Invitation

elandria

Clear your calendar because the leadership of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) is coming to you. As you may know the headquarters for our denomination is in Boston. Our faith has occasionally been accused of being a bit Boston-centric. In the 19th century it was said, “Unitarians believe in the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man and the Neighborhood of Boston,” although we have expanded geographically, theologically and in our understanding of gender identity since then. In the 1960’s it was said, “You can tell if someone is a Unitarian if they spell god with a small “g” and Boston with a capital “B”.” This is a statement was probably more true then than it is now due to the decline in influence of the poet e.e. cummings. Nevertheless, from January 19-21 Boston is coming to you. The President, Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, and the Board of Trustees for the Unitarian Universalist Association will be here in Knoxville.

There are many ways you can be a part of this weekend (see below for a complete listing) but I would like to highlight one because it is your opportunity to have your voice heard on important questions of the day. The President and the Board are meeting in different parts of the country to get outside the Boston Bubble and learn how our faith is working around the country

On Saturday, January 20, I invite you to come to an event called “Courage to Love: a Values and Vision Conversation with the UUA Board” from 3-5:30 pm here at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. Those paying close attention will know our denomination has been rocked by controversy lately. In March Peter Morales, the first Hispanic President of the UUA resigned over a controversial hiring decision for the lead the Southern Region that involved accusations of white supremacy. There is no short or simple way to summarize all the issues involved here except to say that our denomination is in an intentional listening, learning, healing time with the goal of transformation to a more just and equitable UUA. Your voice and your vision can be a part of this process. This is a chance for your questions, concerns and suggestions to be heard and honored. So do your homework, reread your old World magazines (or review articles online at www.uua.org) Seek out the universe of UU blogs to get a feel for the issues under discussion right now (some of which can be found through this link https://www.uua.org/connect/blogs).

board_of_trustees_102017

An important question that looms large is, “What will our faith look like 50 years from now?” I will not claim to have the gift of prophecy. When I started working for the UU church in 1990 someone donated a computer to the church and I thought, “Why would we need one of those?” Now everyone has a computer on their phone and my days are filled with emails, messengers, social media posts and Zoom meetings. So if you are more farsighted than I your participation will be very important for this discussion about our future.

This meeting will also be a chance to meet the new President of the UUA and to see TVUUC’s own Elandria Williams in her role as co-moderator of the UUA alongside her colleague Barb Greve, the highest volunteer positions in our denomination. Some of the most important challenges of our times may have as much to do with process (the moderator’s job) as it has to do with product.

Let me close with an interesting fact: Gordon Gibson who once served as minister of a church in the neighborhood of Boston regularly reminds us. “Per capita there is a greater percentage of Unitarian Universalists in the Knoxville area than there are in Boston.” Which goes to show you that we have been doing our part to help our faith expand geographically, theologically, spiritually and numerically. So let’s keep up the good work and be a part of the conversation that helps move our faith forward.

-Chris Buice, minister of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church

 

 A Complete Listing of the Weekends Events

WHAT: The Courage to Love: Sustaining Our Souls in the Work for Justice

            Dinner and program with the UUA Board and Highlander staff

The UUA Board is holding its January meeting at the Highlander Center in East Tennessee.  You are invited to join in for dinner and a program led by Highlander Staff, including UUA Co-Moderator Elandria Williams.

You are welcome to arrive earlier than 6pm and sit in on the UUA Board meeting.  Please allow ample time to arrive, as part of the drive is on narrow country roads.

WHEN: Friday, January 19th, 6-9pm

WHO: for UU congregational social justice leaders and high school youth

  • Renew energy within and connections between congregational social justice leaders—adults and youth.
  • Learn about the history of connections between Highlander and UU’ism in East TN
  • Learn from Highlander’s model of long-haul grassroots organizing that centers partnership and cultural work

WHERE: The Highlander Center, 1959 Highlander Way, New Market, TN

RSVP by January 11 HERE: https://goo.gl/forms/XSZZVWZ0tpn0XFZY2

$15 donation for dinner requested.

If you have questions, please contact Rev. Laura Bogle at lbogle@uuma.org

WHAT: Courage to Love choir rehearsals to prepare selections for Sunday’s cluster worship

WHO: anyone who likes to sing!

WHEN AND WHERE:
Saturday, January 6 from 10-12 (Westside UU Church, 616 Fretz Rd., Farragut)

Saturday, January 20 from 1-3pm (Rothschild Event Center, 8807 Kingston Pike)

Sunday, January 21: choir call time is 9:30am at Rothschild Event Center, 8807 Kingston Pike)

To join the choir, contact: music@westsideuuc.org

 WHAT: Courage to Love: A values and vision conversation with the UUA Board

This is an opportunity to participate in helping the Board understand the values and visions that shape our faith tradition here in East Tennessee. The Board is intentionally meeting in different parts of the country to learn about the needs and concerns, differences and similarity in many different regions. In the 19th century they said, “Unitarians believe in the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man and the Neighborhood of Boston.” We have expanded geographically, theologically and in our knowledge of gender identity since then. The board is waiting to learn from and with you – don’t miss this chance to be in conversation with the board.

WHEN: Saturday January 20th, 3-5:30 pm

WHO: Congregational leaders (childcare provided)

LOCATION: TVUUC, 2931 Kingston Pike, Knoxville

RSVP to: secretary@tvuuc.org

WHAT: Courage to Love Party: Dinner and Coffeehouse

Gather for catered dinner and informal conversation with our UUA Board. Stay for an evening of entertainment by talented performers from our local congregations.  All ages welcome. The dinner will be from 6-7 followed by a coffee house review featuring members and friends of the Knoxville, Farragut, Maryville and Oak Ridge congregations.

WHEN: 6-9pm

WHERE: TN Valley UU Church, Kingston Pike, Knoxville

            REGISTER and reserve your spot for dinner by Jan. 12.

http://www.oruuc.org/courage-to-love-dinner-and-coffeehouse/

Cost for dinner: $8 ages 10 and up, $4 ages 5 to 10, no charge for children under 5

To volunteer with set-up or clean-up, contact: tandyscheffler@oruuc.org

To perform, contact: lesliegengozian@tvuuc.org

 

WHAT: The Courage to Love: Worship and Fellowship

This will be a special worship service for all area congregations to come together. It is also a great time to invite a friend who would like to learn more about Unitarian Universalism. We will focus on “The Courage to Love,” telling stories of hometown faith, when sometimes simply showing up at church, and living boldly in the places we live, asks great courage of us. The Reverend Susan Frederick-Gray, president of our denomination, will be the preacher.

WHEN: Sunday January 21st, 11am

WHERE: Rothchild Event Center, 8807 Kingston Pike, Knoxville

WHO: All four Knox-area UU congregations, plus open to the public – invite a friend!

UUA President Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray preaching, Rev. Jason Shelton leading music

Worship with hundreds of area UUs.  All-ages worship *and* childcare available.

Share food and fellowship, and check out informational exhibits following worship.

 To volunteer on Sunday morning, contact: revcarol@westsideuuc.org  

To participate in the choir, contact: music@westsideuuc.org

 

 

We Must Speak for Them: A Message Shared at the National Interfaith Vigil Outside the National Rifle Association in Remembrance of Sandy Hook

sandy hook

The scripture tell us. “Speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves.” The children massacred at the Sandy Hook Elementary school cannot speak for themselves. We must speak for them.

The teenagers gunned down at Columbine High School cannot speak for themselves.

We must speak for them.

The college students slaughtered on the campus of Virginia Tech cannot speak for themselves.

We must speak for them.

The young adults murdered at the Pulse Night Club cannot speak for themselves.

We must speak for them.

The martyrs at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston cannot speak for themselves.

We must speak for them.

The people killed at work in San Bernardino, California and the people killed on vacation in Las Vegas cannot speak for themselves.

We must speak for them.

There is an old activist saying, “I’d rather be a guard rail at the top of the hill than an ambulance at the bottom.” We need responsible public policy. We need more guard rails and fewer ambulances.

86% of Americans believe that universal background checks is the responsible thing to do.

83% of Americans agree that preventing people with prior violent crime convictions from obtaining guns is the responsible thing to do.

76 % of Americans believe that requiring gun owners to have a lisences in the same way car drivers do is the responsible thing to do.

We need more guard rails and fewer ambulances.

These are just of few of our options. There are more. The way forward will require deliberation, debate and disagreement but we must move forward not backwards. We must do something not nothing. When the National Rifle Association is for violent anarchy we must be for peace and freedom.

There is a prayer in Alcoholic’s Anonymous, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I refuse to accept that 27 killed in an elementary school is the new normal. I refuse to accept 49 killed in a nightclub and 58 killed at a concert is the new normal. We must refuse to accept the things that we can change. We must have the courage to change the things we can.

We need to enforce the laws we have. When the Air Force failed to follow procedures to report domestic violence allowing a violent offender to obtain a gun and shoot down 26 people in church on a Sunday morning in Texas it was not just a bureaucratic blunder. It was a failure of national security. We need to enforce the laws we have. We need leaders who take seriously our national security.

We need new laws, ones that will prevent someone from firing 600 rounds per minute into a concert crowd, church, nightclub or elementary school.

The words “too soon” are often used to keep us quiet. After a violent massacre we are told it is “too soon” to talk about responsible public policy when in fact it is too late. Now is the time to speak and act before the next tragedy. Now is the time to act before the next Sandy Hook, before the next Columbine, before the next Virginia Tech, before the next tragedy, before it is too late.

The gun lobby is very powerful today just the tobacco lobby was when I was a child. Did you know my junior high school actually took us on field trips to the cigarette factory? The power of the tobacco was unassailable and unquestioned. However, today we are protected from the dangers of second hand smoke so if we act responsibly today we can be protect future generations.

We are told to focus on protection not prevention. We are told that what this country needs is more armed security guards. However, the armed security guard at my high school was killed with his own weapon. A theater manager who is a member of my church was shot with an armed security guard standing right next to her. A police officer (the stepmother of a member of my church) was gunned down by an assault rifle while she was wearing a bullet proof vest.

We need prevention and not just protection.

You may wonder why the clergy would speak out on this issue. The reason is simple. We are the ones who do the memorial services. We comfort the grieving family. We minister to the traumatized communities. We are the chaplains at the bottom of the hill and that’s why we know we need guard rails at the top.

On July 27, 2008, a man opened fire in my church in the middle of a children’s play, a production of Annie Jr. Two people, Greg McKendry and Linda Kraeger, were killed, eight others were injured and all of us were traumatized. Had the man had an automatic weapon like the assailant in Sunderland Springs, the carnage would have been far worse.

Today, I am mindful of the mothers who pushed their children down to the ground and sheltered those children with their bodies. I am mindful of the men who rushed the gunman and tackled him preventing further loss of life. I am mindful of the children who were in the play who surprised us all with their spirit when at a healing service the night after they stood up at the end and began to sing, “The sun will come out tomorrow.”

Today we too must be brave. We must speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves. We must have to courage to change the things we can.

Thoughts and prayers are not enough.

We must pray with our work.

Pray with our organizing.

Pray with our energy.

Pray with our activism.

Pray with our voice

Pray with out votes.

Pray that our world will be safe for our children.

Pray that the sun will come out tomorrow.

(The Reverend Chris Buice shared this message at the first national interfaith clergy vigil outside the headquarters of the National Rifle Association on December 14, 2017, the 5th anniversary of the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.)

 

 

 

Defense Against the Dark Arts

dark arts

I am an optimist. I like to look for the good in people. This may be why a friend once shared with me some fortune cookie like wisdom, “Those who look at life through rose colored glasses tend to miss red flags.” A psychologist once told me something similar when he said, “Chris, you are the opposite of paranoid. When “they” are out to get you – you will be the last one to know.”

So this morning I am going to try preach against type. I am going to try to take off my rose colored glasses in order to speak about spirituality in those moments when we can no longer be in denial that “they” are out to get us. To use theological language I want to talk about evil and the text for today’s sermon is from the book of Romans, “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.”

In the Harry Potter Books we are told about a class at the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry called the Defense Against the Dark Arts. In these classes students are taught how to use their magic wands for self-defense; how to cast defensive spells and counter jinxes and otherwise protect themselves against malevolent magic.

Severus Snape, one of the teachers for the course, explained to his students, “The Dark Arts are many, varied, ever-changing, and eternal… You are fighting that which is unfixed, mutating, indestructible.”

The Harry Potter books are set in a land of magic and make-believe. However, in real life there are times when all of us need to be on guard to protect ourselves from malevolent powers and toxic relationships. I have a friend who leads a Harry Potter camp at her church that includes a Defense Against the Dark Arts class to help young people learn to deal with bullying, mind-games and other forms of oppression.

The dark arts are a real thing that can enter into our personal relationships and our body politic. When right wing activist Steve Bannon was asked by a reporter if he had any qualms about his polarizing political tactics he replied, “Darkness is good…Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.”

Bannon is simply being more honest that most political operatives. Since time began it has been a temptation felt by people of every political disposition to tap into the powers of darkness, to tap into the power of the ends justify any means.

Howard Thurman, who was an elder and mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King once wrote that in the fight for equal rights it is very important not to look at life through rose colored glasses in, “We must not shrink from …the evilness of evil,” he said, “Over and over we must know that the real target of evil is not destruction of the body, the reduction to rubble of cities; the real target of evil is to corrupt the human spirit and to give the soul the contagion of inner disintegration. When this happens, there is nothing left, the very citadel of the human being is captured and laid waste. Therefore, the evil in the world around us must not be allowed to move from without to within.” In other words we must make sure we work diligently so external oppression never becomes internalized oppression.

The evil that does the most damage is the evil that targets our spirit. “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood,” the apostle told us, “but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

All of this is to say that each one of us can benefit from practicing our defenses against the dark arts, to find a spiritually grounded way to respond to abusive powers and personalities. Sometimes the abusive personality might be our partner and other times it might be our president or it may be someone else entirely.

In the Harry Potter world there is a counter spell for every spell. In our world we need protection from many forms of negativity that may not be supernatural but can be super painful and super destructive.

Many of the dark arts I am about to describe are mind games. They are the techniques that abusive people use to maintain control over their partners or their families or their employees or their neighbors or whoever. The techniques are related to many forms of oppression from racism, sexism, homophobia and other kinds of bias and bigotry. The list of dark arts I will provide today is not exhaustive. Indeed, one might think of this as a crash course, a Defense Against the Dark Arts 101 class.

These techniques are about addressing the spiritual dimension of the problem. Therefore if you ever feel physically threatened or physically unsafe remember safety first. Find a safe place first and then you will be in a better environment to contemplate the problems of the spirit.

As we listen to these techniques we may identify with the victims but it is also possible that we will see ways that we have also been victimizers. Human beings are capable of both, but for today due to limitations of time our focus is going to be on defense not offense.

Technique 1: Practitioners of the dark arts try to undermine our self-esteem. They try to make us feel like we are nobody. They use name-calling, verbal abuse, insults and intimidation to maintain control over us.

Technique 2: Practitioners of the dark arts try to undermine our self-confidence by making us doubt the evidence of our senses, distrust our own perceptions, minimize our legitimate concerns, belittle our feelings and intuitions, sabotage our own efforts to change the relationship or our circumstances.

Technique 3: Practitioners of the dark arts know that the best defense is an overwhelming offense so they blur the issues by blaming the victim, attacking the critic, changing the subject, creating distractions and redirecting attention away from their own behavior to someone or something else, anything that keeps anyone from shining a light on to their own actions.

Technique 4: Practitioners of the dark arts try to isolate us, make us feel like we are the only one with a problem, that no one shares our concerns, that no one agrees with us or supports us or loves us.

These are four techniques. There are many others. In the Harry Potter books the students of Hogwarts have to take the Defense Against the Dark Arts class every year, which seems to suggest that it is a continual learning process. We are never done. Defense against the dark arts takes a commitment to lifelong learning.

So here are a few defenses we can use against the dark arts. Rather than be prescriptive let me be descriptive. Let me share some things that have proven helpful in my own spiritual journey and in my own efforts to overcome evil with good.

Speaking for myself, coming to this church is a defense against the dark arts. Coming to church reminds me that there are others who share my concerns, a place where – at our best – we love each other, support each other and encourage each other, a place where I am not isolated or alone.

Many years ago, I was in a class called Build Your Own Theology where each of us were invited to write down on an index card our own personal definition of the word God. Since we are Unitarian Universalists you could opt out of the exercise but I decided to do it and I wrote, “Whenever two or more are gathered to love, support and encourage each other there is a power greater than ourselves that can renew, restore and sustain us. That’s my definition of God,” but it is also an excellent defense against the dark arts.

Another defense against the dark arts is prayer or meditation. This is because practitioners of the dark arts have a way of getting into our heads, dominating our thoughts and our imaginations. And we need to find way to clear our minds and open ourselves in order to experience greater freedom. And in such moments I often remember the prayer of Howard Thurman,

Open unto me, light for my darkness
Open unto me, courage for my fear
Open unto me, hope for my despair
Open unto me, strength for my weakness

And I might add

Open unto me, pride for times of humiliation. Open unto me clear vision when I want to wear rose-colored glasses. Open unto me dignity in the face of discrimination. Open unto me the self-respect that overcomes evil with good.

However, sometimes the most effective prayer is with our actions. If we are in an abusive situation we need to pray with our feet, get to a safe place and then we will be in a better position to pray and meditate, but once we are in a safe space, prayer and meditation can be a good thing, a way of bring inner resistance to outward oppression. Don’t let the bad come from the outside in, but let the good come from the inside out.

If spoken prayer doesn’t help us we can always try silent meditation. If you take a cup of water with dirt and debris at the bottom and you stir it up it will be dark and murky but if you let it be still and wait for all the sediment to slowly sink to the bottom then we can see clearness and clarity and light can shine through it. So it is with our minds and our spirits when we meditate.

Practitioners of the dark arts love to make us angry because they know that angry people are often not as effective as we would be otherwise. We can get so caught up in our own emotions that we start to make mistakes, to react instead of act. So meditation can help keep us grounded in that clarity and clearness that can be a very effective defense against the dark arts.

These are just some of the techniques we can use in our defense against the dark arts. I’m sure there are many, many more techniques we can use. This week I was in one of our church restrooms. If you know anything about our restrooms then you may know that the lights are on a timer that is connected to a motion detector. So I was in the restroom when suddenly everything went completely dark. I couldn’t see a thing. But I knew what to do. I waved my arms and that enacted the motion detector and the lights came on. And for a moment I felt like a wizard practicing defense against the dark arts – a very powerful wizard.

And so in conclusion let me say that I hope you leave church today feeling equally empowered to address the problems in your life. The prayer of Saint Francis tells us, “where there is darkness may we bring light,” and this describes to me the mission of our church. There are many different kinds of people in this church. Some of us look at life through rose colored glasses and some of us see red flags (and some of both are on the church board together.) Some of us are cynical to the point of paranoia and some of us are the opposite of paranoid. However, everyone of us can work together to build the kind of community that will our best defense against the dark arts.

(This sermon was preached by the Rev. Chris Buice at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, December 3, 2017.)