The Epidemic of Loneliness (and the Cure of Community)

Mother Theresa saw some pretty horrible diseases in her lifetime ministering to the sick around the world, AIDs, cancer, leprosy, however, she would often say the biggest disease in the world today is loneliness.

Mother Theresa felt a calling to work among the poorest of the poor but she understood that material poverty is not the only poverty. There is the poverty of loneliness; the poverty of being disconnected, alienated and alone. And this poverty can be found in people of every race, religion and class.

One of the beatitudes tells us, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice for they shall be satisfied,” reminding us sometimes what we hunger for (and what we thirst for) is community, connection and love.

I spent a month of my recent sabbatical in France, a land where two-hour lunches are common but obesity is rare. Indeed, France, has one of the lowest obesity rates in the world. Why is that?

My observation from sitting down at some of these two-hour meals is that food is not the main course. These two-hour meals are about reconnecting with those we love. They are about feeding our hunger for connection, our hunger for community, our hunger for family and friendships. The food itself could be eaten in a much shorter period of time. However, it takes time to build relationships. It takes time to build connections with others. It’s a process that cannot be rushed.

You see, you can eat a healthy, well-balanced meal with lots of nourishing vegetables and still be malnourished. We need the nourishment of community, the nourishment of connection

Now there is a well known joke that is told about Unitarian Universalists, one that is familiar to most of us. The joke goes, “A group of people come to a fork in the road with two signs. One says, “To heaven,” and the other says, “To a discussion group about heaven,” and you can tell who the Unitarian Universalists are because they start heading for the discussion group.”

Now this joke can mean many different things, but at least one meaning, is that we are a denomination of people who connect through conversation. Because when we get it right a good conversation helps to build community, connection and it nourishes us. . Those of us who are a little French want a meal with that conversation also.

There is a legend about a man who dies and in the afterlife he is guided by an angel to one place where a group of people are sitting around a pot of soup but they are starving to death because their hand is tied to the end of a very long spoon and thus they can’t get the spoon into their mouths. “This is hell,” says the angel. Next the angel leads the man to a room that looks the same, a group of people sitting around a pot of soup, with long spoons but everyone is well nourished and content. “This is heaven,” says the angel. “I don’t get it,” says the man, “What’s the difference?” and the angel replies, “In hell everyone is struggling to feed themselves. In heaven everyone has learned how to feed each other.” The legend, suggests that even when we are going through hell we have all the necessary ingredients to make a heaven.

Today, in our country and in our city there are many people who are starving at a banquet. Many people are lonely in a crowd. Earlier in the service we sang the song, “Peace Like a River” and “Shall We Gather at the River,” songs of hope, however, sometimes we feel like the words of the old country song. We feel like we are “knee deep in the water dying of thirst.”

Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy is one of the noted health professionals to identify loneliness as a public health crisis. He tells us that, “We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates for loneliness have doubled since the 1980’s….The reduction in life span (due to loneliness) is similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and it’s greater than the impact of obesity.” And he goes on to say, “So if you think about how much we put into curbing tobacco use and obesity, compared to how much effort and resources we put into addressing loneliness, there’s no comparison. Look even deeper, and you’ll find loneliness is associated with a greater risk of heart disease, depression, anxiety and dementia.” When we consider these facts you can see why Mother Theresa described loneliness as the biggest disease of all.

So what is the remedy? This morning I want to suggest that the church is an important part of healing this disease. Indeed, addressing this epidemic is central to our mission. But you don’t have to take my word for since I work for a church. You can listen to the voices of people who do not belong to any church.

For instance, the philosopher Alain de Botton has written a book called Religion for Atheists: A Nonbelievers Guide to the Uses of Religion where he notes that, “What is significant (about secular society) is the almost universal lack of venues that help transform strangers into friends.” And so he argues that human beings regardless of their beliefs need something like a church, a community that helps transforms strangers into friends.

In the Unitarian Universalist Church we welcome people of all faiths and beliefs. We aspire to be a church where people of all faiths can find common ground and feel empowered to work for the common good. We may differ in our theology but we share a common mission to create a community, where we can break down the walls of isolation and build bridges of community. When we say the affirmation, “Love is the spirit of this church and service is its law, to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love and to help one another, this is our great covenant,” we are saying that we can have different beliefs and still share common values. One of those values is our desire to build what Dr. King called the Beloved Community, both in this room and outside in the world.

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The Catholic Monk, Thomas Merton, lived up the road in a monastery in Louisville, KY, but he spent time in Asia where he had a chance to study Buddhism and Taoism and other Eastern Religions and he felt a bond with people practicing a faith other than his own. He wrote about this bond saying, “And the deepest level of communication is not communication but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. (It is) Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear brothers and sisters, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. So what we have to recover is our original unity.”

There is a Hindu legend, a creation story among millions of other creation stories told by cultures around the world. The story tells us that in the beginning human beings were gods but the other gods became jealous of their power and decided to steal the divinity away from humans. Once they had the divinity they had to find a place to hide it. “Shall we hide it on top of the tallest mountain?” asked one god. “No,” said another, “Humans will one day be able to climb the tallest mountain and so they will find it again.” “Shall we bury it deep in the earth?” asked another. “No,” said one of the goddesses, “Human are resourceful and will eventually be able to dig that deep.” “Shall we put it at the bottom of the deepest ocean?” asked another, “No,” someone said again, “Humans are inventive and will one day be able to go down to the bottom of the ocean.” Finally a goddess said, “I have an idea let’s hide the divinity deep down inside of each person for no one will think to look there.” And so it is said, that since that time, people have been climbing, digging and diving for something that is already in themselves. (As creation stories go that’s a good one.)

When I was a young adult I came to this church in part because I was lonely. I had studied at the University of Tennessee but many of my close friends were international students so after school I was sort of left high and dry.

So I decided to come to this church were I signed up for an adult education class called BYOT Build Your Own Theology where we were invited to write out our personal definition of the word God. Because we are a UU church no one was going to make us do it or force us to do it, instead we were invited to do it. This is what I wrote, “Whenever two or more are gathered to love and support and encourage each other there is a power greater than ourselves that can renew, restore and sustain us.” That’s my definition of the word, but I don’t have to use that word. The most important thing is not the words. The most important thing is the experience of that power.

I am sort of enamored of the Jewish idea of minyan. A minyan is a group of at least ten people with whom one participates in a ritual. Without the minyan you can’t do the ritual. The idea of a minyan seems to tell us that we cannot be spiritual alone. We cannot be religious alone. But I would go even further and say we can’t be human alone. We need community. We need one another.

So let me say, that one of my goals in ministry has always been to help people find their minyan, a core group, call it what you will. Call it a discussion group about heaven. In my time here I have seen people find their minyan at the potluck dinners, at the church retreats, in a small group ministry or a heart to heart group. I’ve seen people find their minyan in the choir or an adult education class or a youth group or the Personal Beliefs and Commitments group or at Tai Chi or Science Fiction night or an AA or NA meeting, wherever two or more are gathered. Indeed, at the end of our service we have a ritual where I say, “As our last act of worship I invite you to turn and greet your neighbor,” and it is my hope that through that ritual we can advance our work to turn strangers into friends and help each other find our minyan.

“Welcome the stranger for by so doing you may be entertaining angels unawares.” That’s a biblical teaching. There is another biblical teaching that “we are all made in the image of God.” Which reminds me of something a character on Saturday Night Live called Father Guido Sarducci used to say, “If we are all made in God’s image then why aren’t we all invisible?”

Indeed, why are we not invisible? Well the reason is found in the story for all ages we heard earlier this morning about the invisible boy; love has the power to make invisible people visible for as Gandhi once said, “If we do not see God in each other, it is futile to look elsewhere.”

And so let’s work together to help cure the biggest disease of our age. Let’s work together to build community, until all who are invisible are made visible and we can say in the spirit of the beatitudes, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for community for we shall be filled.”

(Rev. Chris Buice  delivered this sermon to the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, September 8, 2019)

 

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Theology in a Yellow Vest

When Kofi Anan was Secretary General of the United Nations someone once remarked, “He’s so diplomatic he could fall out of a boat without making waves.”

Kofi Anan is one of my heroes but this morning I want to focus less on the diplomats of the world and more on those who make waves.

In recent times we have seen protestors in Hong Kong taking to the streets, demonstrating for human rights, refusing to be silent. In Puerto Rico we have seen people take to the streets to demand a change in government, disrupting business as usual. In Brazil we see people taking to the streets as the burning rainforests pollute their air.

In our own country we’ve seen an uptick in street demonstrations also. And this reminds me of something my friend and colleague the Reverend Chris Battle often says, “The church needs to become less interested in getting butts in the seats and more interested in getting disciples in the streets.”

Some of those disciples in the streets will be dedicated to service, responding to the very real needs of the homeless under the bridge. However, some of the disciples in the streets will be dedicated to speaking truth to power, taking on the mantle of the prophet, “To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

This year I went to a conference of the Association of Unitarian Universalists Music Ministries or AUUMM, which I chose to pronounce as AUM. It was a great conference with many different workshops for choral music, worship bands, a cappella groups, song swaps and hymn sings. There was one workshop called, “Why Baritones Get Bored” and there was another workshop on protest songs. Here is one I learned there.

Solid as a rock.
Rooted like a tree.
We are here. We are strong.
In our rightful place.

I like this song. To me it seems to be saying “We are peace-loving people but if you try to push us out of the boat we will make waves.”

In April I served as the minister in residence for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Paris, France. Just before I got on the plane to go there LeRoy Euvrard gave me a parting gift – a yellow vest. As you know the yellow vest has become a symbol of a grassroots movement for economic justice.

Now this movement has friends in high places. For when I was in Paris and I saw Jesus on the Metro wearing a yellow vest. This Jesus had long sandy hair and a beard, a flowing robe and sandals. The feature that made me pretty sure he was Jesus is he was carrying a cross.

Needless to say this was not the real Jesus but someone playing the role in order to make a political and theological point, and this point should be taken seriously. However, I hate to admit it but my first instinct was to see if I could get a “selfie” with Jesus. But then I was worried I might offend him or make him angry or cause a scene so I didn’t. Later I realized my fears were unwarranted because, “Of course, Jesus loves me.” This I know.

Now it will surprise no one to learn that this yellow vest Jesus is something of a celebrity in Paris. He is a distinctly French Jesus in that he is known to shout, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” as he carries his cross down the street (Liberty, equality, brotherhood.) Indeed, these words are engraved on one side of the cross and on the otherside are the words, “Conscience, respect, soldarity, hope.”

Indeed, this Jesus may even be a Unitarian Universalist because I’ve seen a pictures of him carrying a cross with symbols from all the great world’s religions on it – the Star of David, the Islamic Crescent, the AUM letter of Hinduism, the Wheel of Buddhism, the Taoist Yin/Yang symbol, the Torii Gate of Shintoism and the biggest symbol of all, a heart, implying that the most important thing about religion is not what’s in our heads but what’s in our hearts.

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Watching an online video of a protest I saw a woman wearing a hijab walk up and give Jesus bisous, the kiss on each cheek. So this is a very ecumenical, interfaith and yes, very French, Jesus.

Now the historic Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount wheras this yellow vest Jesus has a sermon on YouTube. I got my daughter Sally to translate it for me. So this is not the King James version but the Sally Buice translation. I told her to be careful or someone might accuse her of heresy.

The yellow vest Jesus declares, “There is no more spirituality in politics, only the market! Our government no longer represents a France that respects all of humanity, with or without a yellow vest a human is a human. The government has to hear that we’ll no longer let them impose this destructive economy on us. No matter what our religion we all want to help each other how we can. We are all one.”

The words and presence of this protester reminds us that Jesus was a rebel, someone who might turn over tables in a temple, upsetting our notions of order.

So what is a rebel? Here is where existentialism comes in, the philosopher Albert Camus wrote an entire book on the topic. According to Camus a rebel is someone who says no. When we rebel what we are saying is, “This has been going on for too long now,” “The line must be drawn here – this far and no farther,” “there is a limit beyond which you shall not go.” In other words we affirm the existence of a boundary and the need to say no when those in authority cross it and infringe on our rights or the rights of others.

A rebel is someone who says “no,” but also someone who says “yes.” To rebel is to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. To rebel is to acknowledge the sacredness of every human personality. To rebel is to say yes to life.

Every act of rebellion points to something bigger than our selves. This is why the suffragists carried banners that declared, “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.”

This week I went to visit Bee DeSelm, one of our elders living in a nursing home, who helped sponsor the statue of suffragists in Market Square. During our visit Bee was in a wheelchair and we were out in the common room near the nursing station when she said, “Everybody in here knows me….because I make trouble,” to which I said, “Bee, everybody in Knox County knows you for the same reason.”

Reflecting on Bee DeSelm’s life I realize-to be a woman running for county commission in the 70’s was to make waves. To stand up for GLBT rights in the 80’s and 90’s was to make waves. To switch political parties on a matter of conscience was to make waves. To sue the County because elected officials weren’t obeying the term limit laws was to make waves. Whether as an elected official or private citizen everybody knows who you are if you make waves.

At the Association of Unitarian Universalist Music Ministries conference in Denver we decided to makes some waves. We met with local immigration rights activists who were organizing for justice. We decided to support their efforts by going out to one of the ICE shelters where for-profit corporations are holding refugees and immigrants for up to $700 per person, per night. I can tell you that ‘s a lot more than our conference hotel rooms cost and it was a nice hotel. A busload and some cars went out to the ICE detention center where we sang some of the protest songs we learned in our workshop. Just being there was an education. You could see the American flag and the for-profit corporation flag and the state flag flying above the detention center with the corporate flag above the state flag.

In the presence of those flags we sang. At the time, I have to admit I wondered whether our singing would make a difference. However, a couple of weeks after I got back I saw an article online that announced that the Denver city council voted not to renew contracts with the corporation running the centers causing them to lose millions of dollars. It all happened because one city council woman decided to make waves and made the motion that the contracts not be renewed and to her surprise her motion carried. The name of that councilwoman is Candi CdeBaca, now you know her name.

If every protest vigil was that successful then the baritones would never get bored. However, I attribute most of the success to the tenors….and more importantly and realistically, what made change happen was the willingness of people to work in partnership with each other, each playing a small part in hopes of creating a large change.

Speaking of which, I forgot to mention that when I met Jesus on the Metro in Paris he was not alone. Jesus was carrying the cross but he wasn’t doing it all by himself. He had a friend with him to help him carry the cross. And let me tell you if you have a friend helping you to carry your cross you’ve got a good friend. Looking at them both reminded me of the old gospel song.

Must Jesus bear the cross alone,
and all the world go free?
No, there’s a cross for everyone,
and there’s a cross for me.

Every one of us can help bear the responsibility of the work that needs to be done. Everyone of us can help carry the cross of liberty, equality, solidarity, respect and hope. Every one of our efforts makes a difference. Even a small pebble thrown into the water will make ripples. However, when we are solid as a rock, we can make waves.

Solid as a rock.
Rooted like a tree.
We are here. We are strong.
In our rightful place.

(Chris Buice is minister of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. He gave this sermon on Sunday, August, 25, 2019)

 

 

Welcome Home!

I am returning to church from my sabbatical for this Sunday’s ingathering service so I know how good it feels when people say, “Welcome home!” So let me say it to you – Welcome home!

If you’ve been on exotic summer vacations or budget necessitated “staycations” – Welcome home.

If you’ve been challenged to entertain children out of school or been lonely, isolated and far away from family and friends – Welcome home.

If you are excited about the vision and mission of the church or angry and frustrated at a recent committee decision – Welcome home.

If you’ve been in the great outdoors or within the confines of a hospital room – Welcome home.

If you can get to the building on Sunday morning or you watch or listen on-line – Welcome home.

If you come to church to see old friends or excited to make new ones – Welcome home.

If you’ve been to this church a million times or are visiting this Sunday for the first time – Welcome home.WELCOME

 

 

 

 

 

Interfaith Vigil at Anoor Mosque in Sympathy for New Zealand

My name is Chris Buice, I am minister of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. My old Quaker seminary professor, Lonnie Valentine, used to say, “If peace is possible anywhere, it is possible everywhere.” One of the reasons I know peace is possible everywhere is because I see it right before my eyes. I see people of all faiths gathered together in peace to support each other during a time of grief, sadness and loss but also a time of recommitment to common values.

The man who killed 50 people and injured many others in New Zealand is in custody tonight. He cannot hurt anyone anymore but his ideology can; the ideology of white supremacy; the ideology of white nationalism; the ideology of hatred, intolerance and Islamaphobia. There are a lot of people spreading hate all over the Internet. So we must spread love. There are many people posting polarizing messages to the whole world. So we must work for unity. Where people sow fear we must bring faith. Where there are violent acts of cowardice we must bring nonviolent acts of courage.

The prophet Isaiah envisioned a day when “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb: and the leopard shall lie down with the kid: the calf and the lion, and the sheep shall abide together, and a little child shall lead them.”

And so we are inspired by the leadership of our young people in the Seed of Abrahams program, Jews, Muslims, Christians and more, working together to feed the homeless, to make gloves and scarves and provide winter clothing to those in need, to work together for peace…but also to have fun.

I had the privilege of watching a Seeds of Abraham open mic talent show where there was a first prize and a second prize and a third prize. My first thought was, “I am not so sure this is a great idea pitting the world’s religions against each other in a talent show.” But then two girls from my church won and I was like “Yeah!”

More importantly I was impressed with the talent of all the kids and their ability to not get caught up in competition but to embrace peaceful cooperation. Let’s do the same. Our children are leading. Let’s follow them.

Mosque Vigil

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Buddha and the Black Church

Once the Buddha gave a sermon without using any words. He stood before a gathering of hundreds of people and simply held up a single flower. Only one person understood what he was trying to say but that person reached enlightenment immediately. This wordless sermon is called the Buddha’s flower sermon and to be honest there are some Sunday’s when I wish I could get away with that…but I can’t (or at least I am too chicken to try.)

So this morning I am going to be speaking about the Buddha and the black church…but as usual it may take me a little bit of time to get to my point. So be patient. You may not know this but the song from our prelude Ella’s Song began as a spoken word statement when the civil rights leader Ella Baker told a group of activists that “Until the killing of black mother’s sons becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of white mother’s sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest.” Later Sweet Honey in the Rock set these words to music and created harmonies to carry the message.

So if a spoken word statement can be turned into music maybe the opposite can happen. Maybe the words of a song can become spoken words that call us to work for freedom and justice, and so I say in the words of the song.

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
let our rejoicing rise,
high as the list’ning skies, let it resound loud as the rolling sea

These words come from the hymn we sang earlier this morning, Lift Every Voice and Sing, which is often referred to as the Black National Anthem. The song was originally a poem written by James Weldon Johnson. Johnson’s brother set the poem to music and it was performed for the first time on February 12, 1900 by 500 school children in honor of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. It quickly became the official song of the NAACP and an anthem of the civil rights movement and a familiar hymn in many churches.

And I believe this song offers a great example of why if Buddha were to come to America today he might go to a black church. For the first Noble Truth of Buddhism is that “life is suffering. ” This hymn reminds us that the spirituality of the black church is grounded in a profound experience of suffering. As the poet wrote,

Sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
let us march on till victory is won.

When we were kids one of the first words we learned “Ouch!” It is a very powerful word. Through this single word we are able express our feelings of pain to another person. However, as we grow older we too often lose our vocabulary to talk about suffering.

All to often when people come up to us and ask, “How are you doing?”we answer, “fine,” when we are anything but fine. We may be crying on the inside, holding back the flood gates, smiling through the pain… and when this happens we need the Buddha and the black church to remind us that its okay to admit that life is suffering, that life is hard, that times get tough.

The scripture tells us that “rain falls on the just”and the participants in the Women’s March yesterday know this to be true. We live in a world were sometimes it rains on our parade. Everyone who has ever organized a movement for social justice knows this is a thing.

And there are other situations as well when we become aware that life is suffering. I remember once when I was at the General Assembly of our denomination we were in the middle of an excruciatingly long business meeting when the moderator announced that the meeting would be extended another thirty minutes and at that exact moment a baby in the audience cried out,“Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh!” And that baby spoke for all of us. Because that baby understood the first Noble truth of Buddhism that life is suffering. We too can be honest about how we feel.

Nevertheless, whether we like it or not, the Buddha would remind us not only that “life is suffering” but also that our efforts to escape suffering often compound our suffering. This is why we have such large opiate addiction problem in our country and so many other addictions. Escapism does not ever lead to a successful escape. So ultimately the spiritual question becomes not, “Will we suffer?” but “How will we suffer?” And is there a basis for hope in the depths of this inescapable suffering. As the poet wrote,

Stony the road we trod,
bitter the chast’ning rod,
felt in the day that hope unborn had died;
yet with a steady beat,
have not our weary feet,
come to the place for which our fathers sighed?

 And our mothers sighed as well, Ella Baker would remind us. This song is written about the bitter history of slavery in our country, that is it’s appropriate historic context. However, in this song there is also an invitation to us all to take the reality of suffering seriously; to stop pretending that everything is ok. That’s why this is not just a great African American hymn, It is quite simply one of the best hymns ever written!!

Does anyone here remember the royal wedding held in Westminster Abby that featured a black preacher, Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church of America? The English did not know what hit them. There was a preacher in the pulpit expressing emotions, feeling his feelings, letting them show. Those members of the Church of England looked shocked and surprised – talk about a white wedding!

The Anglican Church is not the only place where this can happen. There is a story about a visitor to a rather staid New England Unitarian church who shouted “Amen!” in the middle of the sermon unsettling the whole congregation. Later he shouted, “Hallelujah!” once again ruffling feathers. A little bit later he shouted, “Glory!” causing an usher to approach the man and ask, “Is there a problem?” to which the man replied, “There’s no problem. I’ve got religion!” causing the usher to say, “Well, you didn’t get it here.”

I love this story even as I reject is a description of who we are today or where we are going because we too have religion. Can I get an Amen?

Many of the images of the Buddha, show him silent, still, meditating so it may be hard to imagine him shouting “Amen” or “Hallelujah” but I bet he would be very comfortable in a church where people could say, “Ouch!”

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Now here is a difference between Buddha and the black church. An adherent of Buddhism is not required to have faith in God. The Buddha tried to avoid speculative metaphysical matters. He said that too often theologians and philosophers are like someone who has been shot by an arrow who says, “Before I can remove this arrow I need to know the name of the bird that produced these feathers. I need to know the kind of tree that provided the wood that made this shaft. I need to know the variety of metal used to create the point.” We would be silly to insist on answers to all these questions before removing the cause of our suffering.

So a Buddhist is not required to believe in God but if a Buddhist were to believe in God it might be the God of which the poet spoke,

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
thou who has by thy might,
led us into the light,
keep us forever in the path, we pray

Now there is a scripture that tells us, “Suffering breed perseverance. Perseverance breeds character. Character breeds hope and hope will not disappoint.” And yet many of us can relate to a story Reid Frank told me about leading a girl scout troop on a rainy overnight camping trip when one of the girls shook her fist at heaven and said, “Enough character already.”

Theologians often speak of redemptive suffering. This is the suffering that breeds perseverance and character and hope. However, there are many other kinds of suffering that simply wear us down and wear us out. Theologians may not have a term for it but I think we can all agree that there are many forms of non-redemptive suffering. The kind of suffering that makes us all want to say, “Enough is enough.”

I believe we who attend a historically white church have a lot to learn from historically black church especially when it comes to understanding the role that suffering plays in our spiritual journey.

My friend Johnny Skinner, minister of the Mount Zion Baptist Church, frequently says two things that I have committed to memory. He says, “The scripture tells us to be grateful in all circumstances. It does not tell us to be grateful for all circumstances.” And the second thing he says is this, “You do not have to take the Bible literally in order to take it seriously,” and the Bible is full of stories of suffering and hope, and we can draw strength from these stories that help us to overcome difficult circumstances. We can say,

Just like Daniel in the Lion’s Den we shall overcome. Just like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego passing through a fiery furnace, we shall overcome. Just like Paul and Silas went to jail with no money for their bail, we shall overcome. And drawing wisdom from a more modern prophet we can say just like Ella Baker we shall overcome because we who believe in freedom cannot rest.

We can say as the poet said,

Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee,
least our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee,
shadowed beneath thy hand,
may we forever stand,
true to our God,
True to our native land.

Like that Native American leader who was confronted by jeering high school students yesterday in Washington DC, we shall overcome.

We shall find strength for the journey. We shall make a way out of no way. We shall draw wisdom from the Buddha and the black church and sing, “We shall overcome.”

(Rev. Chris Buice gave this sermon on Sunday January 20, 2019 at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church.)

 

 

 

The Gospel of Universalism for Our Times

In order to understand the gospel of Universalism we need to know more than just the theology or doctrine or history. We need to catch the spirit.

So to help you catch the spirit I am going to teach you a song about the Universalist minister, Quillen Hamilton Shinn that kids sing at Ferry Beach Camp in Maine that involves singing as loud as you can and banging on tables in the cafeteria. First I am going to teach you the song and then I am going to talk about the man.

Oh Shinn, O dear ol Quillen Shinn – QUILLEN SHINN!

To you we raise this grateful din –GRATEFUL DIN!

We lift your name to the highest green pine tree

And pledge our love and loyalty – LOYALTY

Very good! Now that you know the song let me tell you about the man. Now you may not know this but the local Unitarian Universalist minister’s group is named after Quillen Shinn. We are called Shinn Splints. Our group is named after Quillen Shinn because he started many Universalist churches in the Southeast and around the country. Oddly enough most of the ministers in our group don’t know this song, but you do so that makes you special. So let’s practice it one more time.

Oh Shinn, O dear ol Quillen Shinn – QUILLEN SHINN!

To you we raise this grateful din –GRATEFUL DIN!

We lift your name to the highest green pine tree

And pledge our love and loyalty – LOYALTY

Quillen Shinn was born in West Virginia in 1845 and he grew up to be a traveling minister who rode from town to town on horseback spreading the gospel of Universalism. The central theme of the Universalist Gospel was the idea that all souls would eventually be reconciled with each other and with God; one big God in one big heaven. Many of the Universalist ministers of this era, especially those on the frontier, were women, as the Universalist Church was the first denomination to ordain women with full denominational authority

Universalists did not believe in eternal damnation because God’s capacity to love is always greater than the human capacity to err or sin or trespass. In Universalist theology God is great and we are small. For this reason Universalists were sometimes called “no hellers.” And it even was suggested by irreverent critics that when Universalists went to church they sang.

No hell, No hell, No hell, No hell (to the tune of Noel)

But Universalism has always been more than a belief that there is no hell. At the center of the founding of this gospel is a faith in a God whose nature is love and whose ultimate goal is reconciliation. Indeed, if you visit any of the historic Universalist churches in our country you are likely to find the words “God is Love’ written above the entrance or on the altar or the hearth of the fireplace in the fellowship hall. You may even see light shining through those words on a stain glass window. The outdoor chapel at Ferry Beach has the words inscribed on the pulpit.

god is love

Now contemporary Universalist will be the first to tell you that this simple statement “God is love” embraces complexity and diversity. A Universalist who is a theist will see the statement “God is love” as an affirmation of the existence of a God whose nature is love. A Universalist humanist will see these words as a reminder that love is our guiding ideal that calls us to our better selves. A Universalist with a global perspective will see the words as pointing toward the fact that love and compassion are taught by all the great world religions. A practical person will see the words “God is love” as a reminder that God is a verb. God is about action and not just talk.

Quillen Shinn was a man of action. He traveled around the country and in every town he tried to start a Universalist church. He visited every state in the Union and most of the Provinces of Canada. He started an estimated 40 churches and recruited over a thousand new members to the faith and inspired at least 30 people to become ministers. He also founded the Ferry Beach conference center, which is why they sing about him today.

If we were to reduce Quillen Shinn’s theology to a single sentence it would be, “Love conquers all things.” He preached, “All who believe it should place the motto…on the wall of the soul, and then prove it to be true, by showing how every day, your own love, combined with wisdom and purpose, is able to conquer some things.”

One hears echoes of Quillen Shinn in the Universalist Declaration of Faith passed by the Universalist General Assemblies in 1935 and reaffirmed in 1955. This declaration is both an affirmation of a more liberal Christianity but also points toward a broader idea of Universalism. In fact the history of Universalism might be described as a journey from a Christian Universalism to a more Universal Universalism. So here is the Universalist Declaration of faith from the early and mid 20th century.

We avow our faith in
God as eternal and all-conquering love;
the spiritual leadership of Jesus;
the supreme worth of every human personality;
the authority of truth, known or to be known; and
the power of persons of good will and sacrificial spirit to overcome
all evil and progressively establish the kingdom of God.

One hears a little bit of Quillen Shinn in this statement. One also hears more than a little of the social gospel movement in these words. However, this statement of faith was never a creed. The statement contained this proviso, “Neither this nor any other statement shall be imposed as a creedal test.” So Universalism comes from the Christian tradition but is open to the authority of truth, known or to be known.

One of the symbols for the Universalist Church of this era was a circle with a cross inside it (seen below)

universalist cross

This was meant to show the Christian origins of the faith but also openness to wider truth; truth from whatever quarter it might arise. Over time this image became broader. In the 20th century the Charles Street Meeting House designed a sanctuary with an image of the Milky Way in the center, and symbols from all the great world religions along the sides. This particular congregation put the universe into Universalism.

pattonmeetinghouse

So what is the future of Universalism in our times. Well to look forward let’s look back. When our congregation was founded in 1949 at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Church members were invited to join by signing a card that showed how our congregation was aligned with Universalism even though we did not add the name until the 1990’s. This card stated that the purpose of membership in our congregation was, “To uphold freedom…and equal rights for all…to seek and receive the truth, both old and new, believing that the past must always prove itself anew and that a living religion must change as thought advances and must be free to grow; to respect in each other and in all, the authority of the individual conscience and the freedom of mind, holding that the human spirit is most truly guided from within, to discover and proclaim the world unifying faith revealed in the deeper insights of all religions and derived from the universal wisdom of all cultures, and to utilize for religious purposes all available knowledge for the world unifying fields of thought and science.” That is a very Universalist statement of faith.

We can also find a little bit of that Universalist spirit in our current mission statement where we covenant together to transform the world through acts of love and justice. One can almost hear in those words our forbear’s faith in eternal and all conquering love, a love that conquers all things.

However what the apostle Paul wrote in the scriptures is true of Universalism, “The letter killeth but the spirit giveth life.” To understand Universalism we have to move beyond the letter to the spirit.

Universalism is a tradition full of good stories, so good you are never entirely sure where history ends and folklore begins. There are stories about the Reverend John Murray, the founder of Universalism, encountering resistance as he spread this gospel in the early days of the American Republic. It is said, that in in one town a minister named Reverend Bacon tried to prevent John Murray from preaching and some of the more conservative minister’s congregants got out of hand and started throwing eggs at Murray, and so with egg on his face Murray declared, “These are moving arguments, but I must own at the same time, I have never been so fully treated to Bacon and eggs before in all my life.”

Another story is told about a mob assembling outside a church in Boston where John Murray was preaching when someone threw a rock through the window that landed near the pulpit. John Murray walked over, picked up the rock and declared, “This argument is solid and weighty, but it is neither rational or convincing. Not all the stones in Boston except they stop my breath shall shut my mouth.”

In these stories we hear the call to love and courage, a call that is as relevant today as it was in ages past. I am very grateful for the legacy of John Murray and I am grateful for the legacy of Quillen Shinn who continues to inspire summer camp kids to shout his name while banging on tables. Quillen Shinn is a rock star at Ferry Beach so let’s make him a rock star here. So let’s close this sermon by recognizing the many ways our faith from the past continues to guide us toward the future by raising a grateful din and singing one more round of the Quillen Shinn song.

Oh Shinn, O dear ol Quillen Shinn – QUILLEN SHINN!

To you we raise this grateful din –GRATEFUL DIN!

We lift your name to the highest green pine tree

And pledge our love and loyalty – LOYALTY!

 (Rev. Chris Buice preached this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday January 13, 2019.)

 

 

 

 

 

Emmanuel: A Christmas Eve Homily

Warning: what I am about to say may be considered offensive, polarizing, divisive and even inflammatory – Happy Holidays!

On Christmas Eve in the midst of our nations culture wars ‘Tis’ the season to be easily irritated. In all fairness this can be a very stressful season on all of us, so maybe we can be all be forgiven if we get a little bit testy. This week I almost got suck into a Facebook fight over the Happy Holidays controversy – and I’m adult. I know better.

Another thing that happened this week someone shared with me a video of a Christmas pageant that went way wrong. In the pageant two preschool actors got into a fight over the baby Jesus. Mary and one of the sheep got into a tug of war over who should hold the Christ child. And it occurred to me as I watched the situation deteriorate that I was watching a major theme in church history play out before my eyes. Because fighting over Jesus is a well established church tradition – adults do it to.

This evening I want to suggest an alternative to fighting over the baby Jesus. I want to suggest that maybe there is another meaning to this season. This summer I went to the Samuel Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy at the Alex Haley Farm, an event sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund, where I heard a matriarch of the civil rights movement, Marian Wright Edelman, speak to the meaning of this season. She said, “God sent us a poor child so that we could learn to take care of all poor children.” She is echoing one of the major themes of the Poor Peoples Campaign that Christmas should be a holy day for the poor not a holiday for the rich.

The gospel according to Luke tells us that once an argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. Clearly, the disciples were competitive with each other and still working through some of their own ego issues.

 Jesus responded to the argument, this tug of war, when he took a little child and had the child stand beside him. Then Jesus said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little child welcomes me. For the least among you will be the greatest.”

We live in an age where we often hear about greatness like the slogan “Make America Great Again” and this should remind us that our country is in desperate need of a new definition of greatness: Our greatness should be measured by how well we treat our children, how we treat the least, the last, the left out and the overlooked.

Right now there are 15,000 migrant children incarcerated in America. When a White House official went on TV to defend this policy, to defend the indefensible, do you know what the first thing he said to the reporter was? Merry Christmas. That, my friends, is really messed up.

And so Christmas Eve reminds us that our country needs a new definition of greatness. We need to remember that Christmas is a holy day for the poor and that greatness does not come from the White House down but from the manger up. Greatness does not trickle down from the top. Greatness is about the power of Spirit that rises and flows through all people and makes justice roll like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Greatness does not come from the laws that were written by Congress or enforced by the Supreme Court but from the law that has been placed in our minds, and written in our our hearts, the law that says love one another, the law that says go the extra mile, the law that says feed the hungry and house the homeless. As the Christmas carol tells us, “his law is love and his gospel is peace. “

Although I am a grown up now I remember what it was like to be a little kid. It can be hard to be the littlest one. I once heard someone say, “I went to an interfaith camp where I was beaten up by children of all faiths.”

Similarly, I remember being the youngest kid at summer camp and getting picked on by bigger kids but I also remember one of the biggest kids at camp, Creed Emmanuel Brown, (who would later become my camp counselor.) Creed took me aside for a pep talk. He said, “Those kids pick on you because they don’t feel good about themselves. You need to feel good about yourself because God don’t make junk.” He taught me self-respect. Although I was the littlest kid in camp he made me feel like I was the greatest. And that’s how we should make all children feel.

I think of Creed Emanuel Brown every Christmas because his middle name Emmanuel appears in so many Christmas Carols. The word Emmanuel means “God with us,” and when we love one another and look out for the little ones God is with us.

IMG_8419

Mother Theresa used to say, “At all times preach the gospel, if necessary use words.” This season we could fight over Jesus. We could do that. We could continue that church tradition. However, maybe Jesus would prefer it if we would put an end to this tug of war. So on this night when we hear the choir sing, “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly,” as we remember that night when there was no room at the inn, we can make room in our hearts for all God’s children and remember the words of a modern day proverb that tells us, “Let us feed the hungry, house the homeless, stop the killing, and provide medicine for the sick. When we have accomplished that, then we can sit around and argue about religion.”

Can I get an Amen? Happy Holidays.

(Rev. Chris Buice gave this homily on December 24, 2018 at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. The picture is of Chris with Creed Emmanuel Brown from a reunion this summer.)

 

Awaiting a Great Light: Advent and Winter Solstice

The prophet Isaiah proclaimed, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” His words seem to echo the sentiment of the Psalmist who declared, “Weeping may last for a night but joy comes in the morning.”

However, in the days before the winter solstice, in this season of advent, we are more aware of the darkness than the dawn. The nights are getting longer. The days are getting shorter. This time of year some of us drive to work in the dark and come home in the dark. Sometimes all this darkness inflicts a cost to the human spirit. This week I saw an Instagram post from a member of the church, Summer Awad, that showed her characteristic dark sense of humor. It was a selfie of her face with flat affect and the words, “This is a picture of me battling seasonal depression and winning.”

Suffice it to say, sometimes we can’t tell from the outside whether someone is winning or losing the battle with seasonal depression. And that’s why this time of year it’s a good thing to check in with each other.

IMG_9099

The acronym for seasonal affective disorder is S.A.D – sad. However, sometimes people look happy on the outside but are sad on the inside (for others it is the reverse.) However, during this season it’s important for us look beyond appearances and be aware that many people are going through dark times.

At times like these it may seem comforting to remember the words of the Chinese proverb, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” However, there is also power in embracing the darkness. One of my mentors in the ministry was Jacqui James. As an African American woman she did not like the fact that the word darkness too often carries negative connotations in our culture.

Jacqui wrote, “We must acknowledge that darkness has a redemptive character, that in darkness there is power and beauty. The dark nurtured and protected us before our birth….Welcome darkness. Don’t be afraid of it or deny it. Darkness brings relief from the blinding sun, from scorching heat, from exhausting labor. Night signals permission to rest, to be with our loved ones, to conceive new life, to search our hearts, to remember our dreams. The dark of winter is a time of hibernation. Seeds grow in the dark… Imagine a world that had only light—or dark. We need both. Dark and light. Light and dark.”

And yet the darkness that is so good for the germinating seeds under the earth, and so necessary for all life to flourish is not always easy on our spirits. I once fell into a conversation with an African Quaker about the negative connotations that so often get attached to the word darkness, and we agreed that it was troubling, but then he added, “Chris, I am African and even I cannot see in the dark.” And the same can be said for seasonal affective disorder, it strikes people of all races, colors, cultures and religions. There is something about the human condition that makes us seek the light.

I once heard a satirical radio show on BBC radio poking fun at this basic human need. There was an official sounding announcement, “Your attention please, in order to conserve energy and save money the government has decided to extinguish the light at the end of the tunnel.” This witticism reminds us that it is in times when we feel we are walking through darkness that we want to see a great light.

This summer I watched a documentary about Martin Luther King Jr. called King in the Wilderness. It’s about the most difficult days of his leadership, the 18 month before his assassination when he felt abandoned by friends and overwhelmed by critics. His popularity was at an all time low. The FBI had him under surveillance. He was receiving death threats. Dr. King’s most famous speech is the one where he says, “I have a dream” but when you look closely at the film footage from the last months of his life his face seems to say, “I have depression.”

We too have reasons to be depressed. As we speak 15,000 migrant children are incarcerated in the United States and border agents are using tear gas against the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breath free. In this festive season we can’t help but notice that there are more homeless people under the bridges and people living in poverty.

However, this week I also went to a great concert at the Bijou to raise money for Bridge Refugee Service and we were all singing, “This Land is Your Land, this land is my land.” And this morning I saw people setting up for the Fair Trade Fair working for the day when people all over the world will earn a living wage. And this week I have been witnessing volunteers sign up to help Family Promise house the homeless in our building over the holiday season. So there is a light in the depths of this darkness.

There is a saying, “Inside of every cynic there is an idealist” and I want to suggest there is a similar truth, “Inside every person suffering from depression there is a dream.” And for this reason I think it is important for each one of us to continual renew our capacity to dream so that when it is darkest we dream of dawn, when it is winter we dream of spring, when our seeds are dormant we dream of blossoming, when our fields are empty we dream of harvest, so that when we are fighting our depression we can sing, “You may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one. I hope some day you’ll join us and the world will be as one.”

This time of year, when nights are growing longer and the days are getting shorter, when we often drive to work in the dark and come home in the dark, we can give ourselves comfort through singing. I don’t know about you but this time of year when I am driving home in the dark I often sing Christmas carols along with the radio. And that’s another reason to come to church so we don’t have to just sing alone in the car or sing alone in the shower or sing alone in the kitchen but instead gather together as a congregation and sing, “Bright morning stars are rising, bright morning stars are rising, bright morning stars are rising, day is a breakin’ in my soul.”

(This homily was given at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday December 16, 2018 by Rev. Chris Buice)

 

 

 

 

The Atheist Case for the Tooth Fairy

Once two boys were walking home from Sunday School when one turned to the other and said, “Do you believe in the Devil?” and the other responded, “No, it’s like Santa Claus. It’s your dad.”

In the Unitarian Universalist Church we are known for our skepticism. We prize our rationality. In our Sunday Schools we teach kids to think for themselves. And yet we are entering the winter holiday season: a season that has always been marked by a mixture fact and fiction, history and legend, reality and imagination, myth and memory.

So in this season of Santa, elves, flying sleighs, red nosed reindeer and talking snowmen, it seems appropriate to step back and ask ourselves the question, “What’s a Unitarian to do?”

In the UU church we often describe ourselves as a place “where reason and religion meet.” And yet perhaps now is a good time to re-examine our assumptions about reason and religion. And for that purpose, this morning I am going to make what one could call the atheist case for the tooth fairy. Think of me as an attorney. The tooth fairy is my client. Reason and rationality are the prosecution. I am for the defense.

Now I recognize that defense attorneys are not always popular. There is a reason that defense attorney’s are sometimes called the devil’s advocate. However, this morning I am not playing the devil’s advocate. Instead, I am the tooth fairy’s advocate. And let me state for the record that my client is benevolent, good, charitable and noble. I suspect that many in this room have benefited from her largesse and generosity.

fairy-pictures-to-color-plus-tooth-fairy-coloring-sheet-tooth-fairy-coloring-pages-printable-tooth-fairy-coloring-pages-printable-tooth-fairy-fairy-pictures-to-color-online-xbu

So this morning I am going to state my case for the tooth fairy, but before I do so, I have a professional obligation as a Unitarian Universalist minister to also make sure that reason has at least a token defense.

As the self-described Unitarian Thomas Jefferson once said, “Your own reason is the only oracle given to you by heaven.” Or as William Ellery Channing, the founder of the Unitarian church once said, “We should no more abandon the use of our reason for thinking than we should abandon the use of our eyes for seeing, our ears for hearing, our feet for walking and our hands for doing good works.” Our reason is part and parcel of who we are.

Many years ago I was driving down the road channel surfing on the radio when I heard a radio preacher denouncing the evils of reason. He was condemning intellectualism and rationality with a passion. However, as I listened to him I couldn’t help but notice that he had given the issue a lot of thought. He had a carefully researched and outlined sermon. From this I conclude, “We can’t even make a case against reason without using our reason. We can’t make a case against the intellect without using our intellect.” So in the Unitarian Universalist Church we honor the life of the mind and we embrace our reasoning.

We agree with the advice Thomas Jefferson gave his nephew Peter Carr when he wrote, “Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there is one, (then that God) must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”

So in our tradition where it is acceptable to question the existence of God, I must grudgingly admit that it is must also be permissible to question the existence of the tooth fairy, but nevertheless, I will make my case for her existence and leave the verdict to the jury. If you have any questions, or you just want to get uppity, we can talk about it during the coffee hour.

Of course, before I make my case for the tooth fairy I must anticipate some of your criticisms; for there are other rational people who have made the case for fairies only to have their arguments debunked. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the world’s most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, wrote pamphlets and books in favor of the existence of fairies. Photographs of young girls, the Fox sisters of Yorkshire, posing with fairies, convinced him. He even wrote an article in defense of the girls for the Christmas edition of the Strand magazine. He was widely ridiculed for this.

Many people have wondered how the creator of Sherlock Holmes, the ultimate rationalist, could have fallen for those pictures, which to modern eyes clearly look faked, and all evidence suggests that the fairies were nothing but cardboard cutouts, one dimensional figures. Nevertheless he did believe. He thought the photographs were scientific proof.

However, today, in our age of Photoshop we tend to be even more skeptical of photos. So this morning I want to make my case using a different approach altogether. I want to build my case on a firmer foundation than photography.

As Sherlock Holmes used to say, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” So in so much as I am able I am going to try base my case for the tooth fairy on improbabilities rather than impossibilities, improbabilities of the imagination, rather than impossibilities easily disproven by rational analysis.

My case for the existence of the tooth fairy is based on the power of childhood. I want to make the case that the world would be less without the tooth fairy just as our world would be less without Alice in Wonderland or Hermione Grainger at Hogwarts or Charlotte’s Web. I want to make the case that the inner world of imagination is no less real that the outward. Native Americans and indigenous people understand this. Our eyes see outward. Our ears hear outward. However, there is an inner life that is also real and this inner life is shaped by metaphor, myth and imagination.

Of course, I want to assert the existence of the tooth fairy without disparaging rationalism. There is a statement that is circulating on the Internet that speaks to my point this morning. The statement reads,

“Being an atheist is okay. Being an atheist and shaming religions and spirituality as silly and not real is not okay.
Being religious is okay. Being homophobic, misogynistic, racist, or an otherwise hateful person in the name of religion is not okay.
Being a reindeer is okay. Bullying and excluding another reindeer because he has a shiny red nose is not okay.”

All humor aside, the statement does remind us that even if we are an atheist, rationalists, materialists we can still learn something from the story of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer.

In the Unitarian Universalist Church we do support rational religion but in our support sometimes we forget that our rational mind can also be the source of our problems, our anxieties, our worries and our depression. We live in an age where more and more people are affected by more and more addictions. Jungian psychologists tell us that one of the necessary steps toward overcoming our addictions is to reconnect with our inner child, to reconnect to our original innocence, to reconnect with the original wonder and magic of existence. Because when we lose our childhood it leaves an empty space. When we lose our sense of wonder it’s like a missing tooth. And who better to fill that emptiness than the tooth fairy.

This week I posted a question on my Facebook page, “Does the tooth fairy visit your house, if so what is the going rate?” Here’s what I’ve learned. In some families the tooth fairy brings young girls Sacagawea coins and Susan B Anthony dollars as an act of feminist empowerment. In other families the tooth fairy delivers foreign currency since she travels all over the world and might be disoriented at any given moment. In some households she brings tiny toys like hot wheel cars, a bracelet or a miniature dinosaur. In other households the tooth fairy pays a late fee if delivery is not on schedule. Like any cash business the tooth fairy sometimes has a hard time finding the correct change so a kid might get 1 dollar or 5 dollars or 10 dollars under their pillow depending on what’s in her pocket. In some families the tooth fairy seems to have concerns over the devaluation of the currency so kids get gold coins. Now based on this information you might conclude that tooth fairy is arbitrary, erratic, inconsistent, but what else do you expect a fairy to be?

Someone shared with me an article from National Public Radio that indicates that the amount of money given by the tooth fairy is rising higher than the rate of inflation. The rate of inflation for teeth is 10% compared to the overall average of 2%. So my friends as I make my case this morning no one can accuse me of not doing my research.

However, my most important argument to make on behalf of my client is that we need imagination in order to be fully human. In 1897 an 8 year-old girl named Virginia wrote a very famous letter to the New York Sun to ask the editor if Santa Claus really exists and the editor wrote back,

“Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy…Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies!

Well, that pretty much sums up my argument. Now it is time for the jury to decide. And so I contend that the tooth fairy is not a proposition to argue about. The tooth fairy is love and generosity and kindness, which is why we should always welcome her as a guest in our home.

So for my closing argument let me remind you of the scene in the stage play Peter Pan when the fairy Tinker Bell drinks poison in order to save the life of Peter Pan. Her light begins to get dimmer and dimmer and it looks like she is dying until Peter Pan thinks of a solution. He tells his audience (and I say to you), “Clap if you believe in fairies.” That’s not loud enough, “Clap if you believe in fairies.” That’s pretty good but I think we can do it even better, “Clap if you believe in fairies.” I rest my case.

One last thing before I go. Many years ago Christopher Hamblin told me that I might enjoy going to a gathering of a queer activist group known as the Radical Faeries, an organization dedicated to bringing creativity and imagination to the fight against homophobia. He seemed to think I would be a great Radical Faery. I would fit right in. Maybe one day I will go to a gathering and even join the movement and then when someone asks my children, “Do you believe in fairies?” They can honestly say, “Yes, we do. It’s our dad.”

(This sermon was given at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, December 9, 2018, by the Reverend Chris Buice)

Shalom, Salaam, Peace

In the 8th chapter of the book of Jeremiah the prophet cries out in despair saying,

“From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit…They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. “Peace, peace,” they say, “when there is no peace.”…We hoped for peace but no good has come, for a time of healing but there is only terror….Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?”

This morning I want to speak of peace when there is no peace. Today we mark the beginning of Chanukah, the 8 Day Jewish Festival of Lights, and we do so in the midst of an environment of increasing anti-Semitism. The Anti-Defamation League reports that last year saw a 60 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents, the largest single year increase on record.

Today we light the first candle on the menorah. However, in October many of us were present at candlelight vigil at the Knoxville Jewish Community Center in remembrance of the 11 people killed by a gunman in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. On that night we were surrounded by the light of hundreds of candles in a gathering of people of all faith in solidarity with the Jewish community.

Today when we light the first candle of the menorah we want it to be light of peace. We want it to be a light of hope, and yet we feel the weight of the words of the prophet, “How can we speak of peace when there is no peace?”

At present our nation is in the midst of its longest war in our history, the War on Terror, with no end in sight. Since there is no clarity of goals there is no clarity about when this war will end.

This is not the first war America that was ever fought without clarity of goals. I recently watched the Ken Burn’s documentary on Vietnam where I learned about a memo that Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton wrote his boss Robert McNamara on March 24, 1965. We did not learn about this memo until it was leaked to the press in 1971 in the Pentagon Papers. In that memo he said that at that stage of the war “70 percent of the goal of the war was to avoid humiliation.”

As of 1965 70% of the goal of the war in Vietnam was to avoid humiliation. What percentage do you think it is today in the midst of our country’s longest running war? I expect we will never know until somebody leaks a memo.

I am not naïve. I know we live in a dangerous world. I know we need to protect the many who are peaceful from the few that are violent. I know it does us no good to say, “Peace, peace, when there is no peace” but neither does it do us any good to blindly trust our leaders regardless of their political party. Blind trust is an idea that has been tested and has failed over and over again.

Everyone in this room born after September 11, 2001 has never known peace. So there are generations of young people who may not even believe that peace is possible or even think it is desirable.

However, when I begin to lose hope I remember the words of my old Quaker seminary professor, Lonnie Valentine, who said, “If peace is possible anywhere, it is possible everywhere.” Those words bear repeating, “If peace is possible anywhere, it is possible everywhere.” We could even turn it into a mantra so say it with me, “If peace is possible anywhere it is possible everywhere.”

What my professor is trying to say with this brief succinct statement is that when we discover what makes peace possible anywhere then we are laying the foundation for what will make peace possible everywhere.

We can compare this statement to the approach medical doctors take to disease. Some doctors focus their attention on diseases and their symptoms. This is called the disease model of treatment. Other doctors focus on health and what makes us healthy. This is called the health and wellness model for treatment. What my old seminary instructor is saying is that we need to study peace and focus on peace in order to create a healthy and peaceful world.

One of the reasons I think peace is possible is because I’ve seen it happen. I was a young teenager in 1978 when peace talks were held at Camp David that led to the end of the war between Egypt and Israel, a peace treaty that has stood the test of time for over 40 years now.

At that age I was not really a great student of political science or international relations but I do remember taking away the hope that peace is possible. I remember seeing a poster that had words from the beatitudes on it, “Blessed are the Peacemakers” with a picture of the Prime minister of Israel, Menachem Begin, the president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, and the President of the United States, Jimmy Carter standing next to each other, a Jew, a Muslim and a Christian who worked together for peace. I am absolutely certain that this image imprinted on me and has influenced more than my politics. It has influenced my spirituality. That image may even play a role in me becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister as we aspire to be a church where people of all faiths can find common ground and work together for the common good.

Blessed are the Peacemakers

So it occurs to me that many young people growing up today have not seen a similar image. That treaty in 1978 was meant to be the first step in a peace process. The second step was meant to address the Israeli/Palestinian issue. However, that second step has never been successfully concluded, and so generations of young people have come of age without a picture or image or example that says, “Peace is possible.”

Our congregation used to host the Jewish/Palestinian dialogue project, however, in recent years the group has not been able to meet. The politics of the region are too polarized. When loved ones are in harms way it is hard to be dispassionate. It is hard to talk about peace.

In one of those dialogues I remember my friend Fathi Hussein saying, “What we need to do is start a Jewish/Palestinian soccer team for our children so that our kids can have the experience of being on the same team and adults can have the experience of rooting for each other’s children.”

I heard other creative ideas, many of which came to life for a time, but as of now, the Jewish Palestinian Dialogue project is taking a hiatus until conditions are more conducive to peaceful dialogue. And so young people are left without examples of adults of differing faiths working on peace together; reminders that peace is possible.

So where do we look for hope. Well, recently, when I was in a well known used book store I came across a book called Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David by Lawrence Wright. I decided to pick up the book and read it. Since I was a teenager when the peace treaty was negotiated I decided it would good to learn more about that peace process from an adult perspective.

If peace was possible then. Maybe peace is possible now. If peace was possible between two countries. Maybe peace is possible between every country. So here are some lessons I’ve learned by familiarizing myself with those 13 days in the September of 1978, which may help us in these days of December 2018. Here are the lessons I’ve learned.

The first thing I learned is that making peace is difficult work. When Jimmy Carter first convened the peace talks he thought the process would be a lot easier. He thought the talks might conclude in two day but they dragged on for 13 days. He thought he would simply facilitate the talks and support Begin and Sadat as they did most of the work. Instead there were times when the two would not even speak to each other. So Carter took responsibility for drafting the peace agreement and shuttling between the two parties until they could get a version where they could sit down together. Once they sat down together there was one moment when both Begin and Sadat got up to walk out the door in anger and Jimmy Carter blocked the door.

The author Lawrence Wright concludes that what Carter learned (and possibly the others as well) is that war is easier than peace. Hatred is easier than reconciliation. Revenge is easier than redemption. In war no compromises are required. War promises total victory with no bruises to our ego, no dangers of losing face, no horror of humiliation. All three men, of three different faiths, had to take huge risks in order to achieve peace. Carter may have blocked the door but Sadat and Begin had to choose not to go out the other door. It took everybody working together.

The second thing, I learned is that the people who make peace are not perfect people. Carter, Begin and Sadat, none of them were pacifists. These were not hippies or flower children. All had military experience. All had flaws. Both Begin and Sadat were considered terrorists by their own governments before they gained political power and became peacemakers. Carter could be naïve, stubborn and overly righteous in his efforts. Everyone at the table had a massive ego (You do not get to be a president or prime minister without one.) From this we can conclude that peace never comes to us through perfect people.

The last thing I learned is that people who make peace never do so under ideal circumstances. Many of the representatives of the Egyptian government at Camp David did not want to make peace. Many of the representatives of Israel did not want to make peace. Many of the representatives of the United States government wished that the Carter had chosen another issue to focus his time and attention on instead of peace in the Middle East. So circumstances were less than perfect, however, the delegates were nevertheless able to persevere. The results were not perfect either. However, the negotiators were able to achieve something not nothing. And in this case it was a peace treaty that has lasted over 40 years.

And this gives me hope for the future. Because peace does not come through perfect people, because peace does not come under ideal circumstances, this is the basis for my hope because we are not perfect people and now is not the perfect time and these are not the ideal circumstance, so we have all the right ingredients to make peace possible because today we can say (and you can say it with me) “If peace is possible anywhere it is possible everywhere.” For as Rabbi Hillel once asked, “If not now, when?”

So whereas the prophet Jeremiah was filled with despair we can give a word of hope. We can say, “Peace, peace and there might be peace,” We can be like physicians that work from the wellness model for health. We can say there is a balm in Gilead that makes the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead that heals the sin-sick soul.

There is another moment that gives me hope for peace. Many years ago I did a wedding with a rabbi for two women before same sex marriage was legal. And not everyone in the room agreed was happy about the situation (but to be honest this is true at many other kinds of weddings as well.) But when the time came to lift the couple up in their chairs and dance the hora, everyone joined in. It was a truly wonderful moment. Such moments give me hope for peace. Such moments make me hope that one day we will all be able to pray as the Psalmist prayed, You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with a garment of joy.” So may it be. Shalom. Salaam, Peace.

(Rev. Chris Buice gave this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, December 2, 2018.)