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)

Advertisements

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.)

 

ThanksDiwali: Thanksgiving Meets the Indian Festival of Lights

Religion in America is changing.

This week I was at the KICMA (Knoxville Interdenominational Christian Ministerial Alliance) Thanksgiving Service when the minister began his sermon, “Get out your Bibles and turn to Matthew 14” and people got out their cell phones to look up the verse.

Religion was not like that when I was a kid.

The minister was up to date with those changes because at some point in his sermon he said, “Now I want you to scroll down to the end of the chapter.”

So religion in America is changing and we are changing with it. Traditionally the Unitarian church has been a very intellectual church. We have a tendency to stay in our heads. Well this morning we are also going to be in touch with out bodies.

In other words I am going periodically interrupt this sermon in order to teach you some Bollywood dance moves. So here are the first two moves.

(Teach the dance steps: Hands up push and heart beat moves)

The world is changing in so many ways and we are too. A week ago my family had a family reunion via video chat on the phone. My daughter Sally was in France. My son Christopher and granddaughter Wren were in Colorado. My wife was here in Knoxville. I was standing on the platform of the metro in Washington DC but we were having a family reunion on the phone.

Technology has made the world smaller and so the world’s holidays are growing closer together. This Sunday the American tradition of thanksgiving is merging with the festival of Diwali and so we might call it ThanksDiwali.

In India this mixing of two or more religious and spiritual traditions is not new. The philosophical word for it is syncretism. Syncretism is the amalgamation of different religious traditions and schools of thought into one, combining two or more traditions into a new tradition. So in the spirit of syncretism we are celebrating Thanksdiwali. And what better way to do that than by learning another dance move.

(Teach the dance step -Twisting the Lightbulb/Petting the dog)

When I was in my young adult atheist phase denouncing religion as the opiate of the people as Marx did and dismissing it as an illusion as Freud did, I was approached by a Hindu friend who said, “Chris, are you a Christian?” When I hesitated to answer the question he continued, “The way I see it,” he said, “I am a little bit Hindu, a little bit Buddist, a little bit Christian, a little bit Jewish, a little bit Taoist…” I could continue but you get the point. And since that conversation I’ve changed the way I think about myself. I see myself as little bit of everything I love.

As the world grows smaller, and technology connects us more and more, we get the opportunity to gain wisdom from all the great world’s religions. You can find the scriptures for all the great world religions on your phone. So we are in a position to contemplate the difference but also to see the similarities. I am reminded of the fact that an Anglican bishop speaking about Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The greatest Christian of the 20th Century was a Hindu.” That’s how small the world is getting. We can see the virtues practiced by people of all faiths.

gandhi-6

A few years back Nathan Paki started our congregation’s tradition of celebrating Diwali with our friends in the Hindu community, shortly thereafter I noticed our friends from the Hindu community showing up for our Christmas Eve service. The world is getting smaller and we are beginning to participate in more and more holidays.

And there is no better way to participate than by learning another dance move.

(Teach the dance move Cover eyes/uncover eyes)

When my son was going to college at MTSU we would got out to dinner at an Indian restaurant where there was an endless loop of Bollywood videos playing and so it made sense that over a period of time we might begin to cut our food and eat to the beat of the music. The music is so catchy it is hard not get caught up in it.

It was easy to internalize the music as we were internalizing the food.

Now the fact that young people and college students are catching on to Bollywood doesn’t really surprise us too much. The young are naturally in tune with the fact that we are living in a global society. However, you may not know this but there are some volunteers who are going into nursing homes to teach simple Bollywood dance moves for seniors. And let me tell you it is a beautiful thing to behold; to see that we are never too old to dance; never to old to move.

And so this morning, in this intergenerational service, where we have young and old together, it is good for us to move together. I am going to teach you yet another dance move.

(Teach the dance move: Point upwards and move shoulders)

Now it almost time to dance. The song we are going to dance to is by a group called Dehli2Dublin, which is to say, they are an amalgamation of Irish and Indian music, a joining of musical traditions for the East and West, and that seems very appropriate on this new syncretic holiday of ThanksDiwali. Fortunately, in our day and age we can learn a few simple Indian dance moves by scrolling on our phone.

So here is our last dance move

(Teach the Lotus)

The lotus is a symbol of enlightenment, peace, compassion and love.

So now that you know these dance moves let’s practice them with some music. Because religion is not just about preaching, it’s about practice.

Joseph Campbell tells a story of a group of scholars who visited a Shinto temple and at the end of the visit they said to the priest, “We have seen many of your temples and witnessed many of your ceremonies but we still don’t understand your religion? What is your theology? What is your ideology?” And the priest replied, “I don’t think we have a theology. I don’t think we have an ideology…we dance.”

And so do we. So let’s close this Thanksdiwali celebration with a dance.

(To witness the congregation dance click on this link https://photos.app.goo.gl/RahEypMPD4JewnV3A

(The Rev. Chris Buice preached this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday November 25, 2108)

 

 

 

 

Vigil for the Tree of Life Synagogue

My name is Chris Buice and I am minister of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. In a world of anti-semitism I consider myself to be a pro-semite. Looking around me I can see I am not alone, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Hindus, people of all faiths, however, tonight we are all members of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

IMG_8712

To the anti-semites of our nation we say America would not be America without the voice of Barbara Streisand, the music of George Gershwin, the humor of Jon Stewart, the magic of Houdini, the architecture of Frank Gehry, the films of Stephen Spielberg, the science of Albert Einstein, the plays of Arthur Miller, the journalism of Barbara Walters, the activism of Gloria Steinem and the conscience of Elie Wiesel.

Since the motives of the shooter were his opposition to the efforts of Jewish groups to work for immigration reform and to support refuges let me say this – America would be a better country if Anne Frank had been able to make it through our broken immigration system. American would be a much better country if the hundreds of passengers on the SS Saint Louis had been able to find safe harbor in our country.

For America would not be America without the poetry of Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free.”

10 years ago there was a shooting in my church, a hate crime, where 2 people were killed and 8 others injured. Members of the Knoxville Jewish Community were quick to respond. Rabbi Schwartz and a crew of people showed up with casseroles. Love walked in the door. There was standing room only at an interfaith service held at 2nd Presbyterian with many people standing outside in the rain to show support for our church during that tragic time. At some point someone decided to do a “roll call” to see what faiths were present in that service, “Are there any Muslims in the house?” Hands went up. “Are there any Catholics in the house?” Hands went up. “Are there any members of the Jewish community here tonight?” and a voice shouted out from down the hall, “We’re in the kitchen!”

And this is true, you were there feeding us in body and spirit. You brought us casseroles and tonight we brought you candle holders. And so I can say America would not be America and Knoxville would not be Knoxville without the conscience and casseroles of the Knoxville Jewish community.

Tonight we grieve. Tonight we pray. Tonight we support each other. Tomorrow we vote. Tomorrow we take action. Tomorrow we organize. Many of us were trained to do just that in this building (the Arnstein Jewish Community Center. ) We were trained to be upstanders not bystanders; to stand up to hate, bias, bigotry and racism. For as the Gates of Prayer, a prayer book found in synagogues across this country, tells us, “Pray like everything depends on God but act as if everything depends on you.” Tonight we pray. Tomorrow we do God’s work.

(These words were given by the Reverend Chris Buice at the Knoxville Vigil for the Tree of Life Synagogue sponsored by the Knoxville Jewish Alliance on Monday, October 29, 2018)

All Creatures Here Below

The mega church pastor Rick Warren has written a book called A Purpose Driven Life in which he states that our spiritual growth begins when we realize, “It’s not about me.”

IMG_8451

Here is how he puts it, “It’s not about you. The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness. It’s far greater than your family, your career, or even your wildest dreams and ambitions.” It’s bigger than all that.

Rick Warren has recently retooled his book, added material and changed the title to, What on Earth am I Here For? Here he focuses on what most philosophers agree are the important philosophical question, “Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose?”

I was thinking about these big picture questions last week when my daughter and I were in walking through the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, only my questions were more like, “What on earth are sea anemone here for? What are stingrays, chambered nautilis, pacific sea nettle and jellyfish here for? What are star sea cucumber, wolf eels, long nose sea horses and percula clownfish here for? What are black grouper, northern hogsucker or spotfin porcupine fish here for? The list could go on an on.

While it might seem presumptuous of me to speak on behalf of all of humanity the only thing I took away from that encounter with so many different varieties of life is the realization that, “It’s not about us. It’s bigger than the human species?” It’s bigger than us. It’s bigger than what we want or need, bigger than our hopes or dreams, bigger than our fears and anxieties.

When I looked into the aquarium I could sometimes see my own reflection on the glass but my takeaway lesson was, “It’s not about me. The meaning of life is much bigger than my own image. It is also bigger than the image of all the other people I could see who were also looking into the glass.”

The theologian Matthew Fox says that spiritual growth is moving from the ego-logical to the eco-logical. In the language of theology school we must move from an anthropocentric and anthropomorphic theology to a broader and deeper meaning of Universalism. Historical Western Christian theology has had a tendency to be anthropocentric (human-centered) and anthropomorphic (a god made in our own image.) However the problem with having a theology that is human centered and made in our own image is that spiritual growth does not happen when we are self-centered, self-focused, where the dominate image in our mind is self. Our spirituality must always be grounded in something bigger than ourselves.

The ocean is bigger than ourselves, which may explain why it has often served as a metaphor for the divine. The mystics tell us that we live and move and have our being in divinity, in much the same ways as a fish swims in water. However, this oceanic image is more often associated with the religions of the East than Western theology.

Western theology tends to be anthropocentric, focused almost entirely on human concerns, but there are exceptions to that rule. The book of Psalms reveals a wider perspective, “Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures and all the ocean depths…wild animals and all cattle, small creatures and flying birds.” And we hear this broader perspective echoed in the traditional doxology that I grew up singing in the Episcopal Church, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Praise God all creatures here below.” This is sort of the Episcopal version of the song, “All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir.” Earlier we sang a hymn based on the Canticle of the Sun by Saint Francis, the most ecological of saints, the patron saint of animals, “All creatures of the earth and sky, come kindred lift your voices high, alleluia, alleluia.”

Because of this earth friendly tradition, perhaps my daughter Sally and my wife Suzanne shouldn’t have been quite so surprised when they went to the tropical bird sanctuary Parrot Mountain in Pigeon Forge and they encountered a parrot that said, “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!”

There is so much variety in the world. At Parrot Mountain there are cockatoos, macaws, toucans, African gray, hornbills, parakeets, kookaburras, starlings, doves, peacocks and pheasants. And if you step out of that particular tourist attraction and get away from the Pigeon Forge traffic and go into The Great Smoky Mountain National Park there is more biodiversity in that park than all of Europe.

This morning we held an animal blessing outside and we celebrated the hawks, the owls, the foxes and the ground hogs we often see on our land here and the river otters that have returned to Third Creek, we blessed people’s companion animals some dogs, a cat, a ferret, a hedge hog and a sugar glider.

So speaking on behalf of our species let me say, “It’s not about us.” Our spirituality changes once we think beyond our self, beyond our species and begin to contemplate all creatures and all creation.

A number of years ago our church hosted a talk by Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow. Michael Dowd is a minister and theologian who has written the book Thank God for Evolution; How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and World. Connie Barlow is a scientist and atheist. However both describe their religious beliefs by using the same word spelled c-r-e-a-t-h-e-i-s-t, only they pronounce differently. The minister Dowd describes himself as a crea-theist and the scientist Barlow describes herself as a cre-atheist. Theirs is an interfaith marriage, however, like the marriage of science and religion, their marriage may just help transform the world.

This use of the word crea-theist or cre-atheist is an example of this couple’s creativity and creativity is at the heart of my understanding of spirituality, theology and evolution. Creativity is important because we do not want to be parrots, simply mimicking someone else’s faith, repeating someone else’s words. We want to be participants in the creative process.

When I was in seminary I read a lot of the works of the Unitarian theologian Henry Nelson Wieman who wrote a lot about creativity. Pulling those books off my shelf I found almost everything he had to say on the subject almost completely unintelligible. So I am going to do some heavy paraphrasing.

Henry Nelson Wieman said the meaning of life is about grounding ourselves in and participating in a life transforming creativity that is bigger than ourselves and beyond all human control. However, when we cooperate with this revolutionary and evolutionary creativity we live more abundantly and our lives are enriched with meaning, purpose and co-creativity in partnership with the larger forces of life. So the goal of living is to open ourselves up to those forces that create and uphold life.

Because of this emphasis on creativity Henry Nelson Wieman was very supportive of scientific ideas about the evolution of life. Of course, not everyone thinks that the relationship between science and religion is a match made in heaven. Just down the road Dayton, Tennessee, was the location of the famous Scopes Monkey Trails in the 1920’s where attorney Clarence Darrow defended the right of a high school teacher to teach the theory of evolution even though it was against state law to teach any theory contrary to the biblical story of creation. Darrow defended his client, spoke out for intellectual and academic freedom and there is a now a statue of Darrow on the lawn of the courthouse.

Rachel Held Evans who is from Dayton speaks out for the harmony of science and religion. She contends that our religious ideas are like a living organism that must adapt to change. She says “our faith must be able to grow fins when we need it to swim and wings when we need it to fly” in order for us to stay vibrant and relevant in a world of constant change. Our faith must evolve. Our religious ideas must evolve.

When we look into an aquarium or visit a bird sanctuary or simply look carefully at the life in our own backyard what we are seeing are many different adaptions to change. In my own backyard there are coyotes and caterpillars, butterflies and bees, garden snakes and ground hogs, lizards and lightening bugs. All god’s critters have a place in my yard.

And so whenever we encounter another form of life we can meditate on how this particular creature has adapted to change and this can help us reflect on a more personal question, “How am I going to adapt to change? How am I going to evolve?” And we can ask the same question of our church, “How is our church going to adapt to change? How are we going to evolve?”

This week I came across an article from the Wall Street Journal American Retailers Have a New Target Customer: The 26 Year Old Millennial. Twenty six year olds are the biggest single age group today in the United States, around 4.8 million people. So the question for our faith, indeed the question for every faith, is who is our message targeting? Who do we have in mind when make our decisions as a church? What age group is our music and our sermons aimed at? Hopefully, our message is broad enough to include all of us, but we cannot be complacent because the fossil record is full of examples of creatures that were not ready for change.

Speaking of fossils, a lot of us have been watching the Senate hearings around the Supreme Court Justice pick. The average age of the Senate keeps getting older and older. Many of the same men sitting listening to the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford are also the men (and I do mean that word men) who listened to Anita Hill testify 27 years ago in 1991. We now have the oldest Senate in the history of the country and to be honest they often sound like it. Is our democracy evolving or is it in danger of becoming extinct?

I have nothing against growing old because I am doing it. However, one of the things that attracted me to the Unitarian Universalist Church is because I came into this church as a young adult I encountered some of the youngest old people I’d ever met. Older people open to change. Older people open to new ideas. Older people open to evolution. But we can’t be complacent because I am now as old as they were when I met them. And now it is my job the welcome the 27 year old who walks through the door of this church. Now it is my job to be youngest old person someone else is going to meet. That’s how this faith is going to evolve and change and stay open to new life.

So in conclusion let me say that we must be open to evolution and change – for evolution may be painful, hard, difficult and dangerous, but it is also beautiful. When I was in Baltimore I was aware that I was in one of the cities where the Black Lives Matter movement started so the question is, “Are we ready for diversity? Are we ready to encounter life in its many different forms?

Looking past my own image into the water of that aquarium in Baltimore I could see the beauty of the earth, the wonders of the ocean, life of every conceivable color, every conceivable size and shape. Who knew protoplasm could take so many different forms? Who knew that DNA could shape so many different kinds of life? Sometime all we need to do is take a moment to drink it all that beauty in and appreciate the wonder of it all. You may ask, “Why should we do that?” and the answer is, “Because that’s who we are, that’s why we are here, that is our purpose.”

(This sermon was given by the Reverend Chris Buice at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday October 7, 2018)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Faitheism: Bridging the God Gap, Building the Beloved Community

There is a Hasidic story of a rabbi who tells his students, “Everything God created has a purpose,” to which a student asks, “What is the purpose of atheism,” and the rabbi replies, “When a poor person asks for your help imagine there is no God to help this man and you alone can help this person.” In this way even atheism can serve a holy purpose.

What this story suggests is that it is possible for atheists and believers to find common ground in working to end poverty and helping others in need.

Dr. Martin Luther King was a Baptist minister, however, when he was organizing the civil rights movement he never hesitated to work with atheists, skeptics and non-believers. When he was criticized for this approach he replied, “I’d rather work with a committed humanist than an uncommitted Christian.”

In more recent times the activist Chris Stedman has written about his efforts to work with interfaith coalitions. His autobiography is called Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. The title came from a derogatory comment when a fellow atheist dismissed Stedman’s interfaith work by calling him a faitheist.

So the term faitheist was not originally intended as a compliment, nevertheless, Stedman openly embraces the term as a positive description of who he is and the work he does.

Stedman argues that being an atheist isn’t enough because there are racist and sexist and xenophobic atheists in the world. For this reason, he’d rather work with a committed person of faith than an uncommitted humanist.

Stedman says he wants to change the trajectory of the relationship of atheists and believers from a story of conflict to a story of cooperation, changing the tone from a monologue to dialogue. He envisions a world where we move beyond toxic atheism and toxic religious reactionary impulses, moving past tearing each other down and toward building a better world together. He is not interested in celebrating diversity in a superficial way but in actively engaged pluralism, recognizing real differences but also making common cause.

So it’s no mystery why his book was published by Beacon Press, a publisher connected to the Unitarian Universalist Association because one of the most important dimensions of our faith is the desire to create the conditions where people of all faiths and beliefs can find common ground and work together for the common good.

Our interfaith approach is not just something we practice “out there” in the world. We practice it “in here” within the walls of our church.

John Murray Atwood, who was a Universalist minister and dean of the Canton Theological School at Saint Lawrence University once commented on the presence of atheists and believers his church by saying, “The Universalist Church includes people who put their faith in God and those who put their faith in humanity and those who put their faith in both.” Ours is a faith grounded in engaged pluralism, not minimizing difference but working together and making common cause.

This week a friend who is a member of another faith posted these words online, “God is bigger than your past, your depression, your pain, your hate, your anger, your doubt, your fear.”

These words stuck with me because I often say, “In the Unitarian Universalist Church we do not have to believe in God but we need to believe in something bigger than ourselves,” something bigger than our past, our depression, our pain, our hate, our anger. We may not all have the same name for that “something bigger” than ourselves, but without a connection to it we experience a failure to thrive.

IMG_7352

Recently I have been leading a class on the book by Bruce Marshall In Later Years: Finding Meaning and Spirit in Aging. Bruce is the person who came in as a consultant to help start our pastoral care program here at TVUUC. Currently he is working as a chaplain for a retirement home and it is this experience he brings to the book.

When Bruce speaks to finding Spirit in aging he is speaking about finding something bigger than ourselves. He defines spirit by saying, “Spirit has to do with the energy of our lives, the life force that keeps us active and dynamic….Spirit connects us the force of existence: the energy that creates, sustains and renews.”

Now if you take this definition and understanding of spirituality seriously then the important questions are not, “Is there a God?” or “Is there life after death?” Instead the essential spiritual question is, “What gives us life?” What animates us and makes us feel fully alive.

Bruce contends that as we age and lose our capacity to do many things we have more time for contemplation, “Contemplative spirituality finds expressions in many faiths. At its center is the affirmation that we can draw closer to the force that gives us life. In some traditions that force is named God, while others use different terms to identify the essential energy of being: the Tao, Allah, nature, the light, the ground of being. The contemplative aspires to be present to what is life-giving, renewing, liberating.”

So whether we are atheists or theists or faitheists we can all benefits from drawing closer to the force that gives us life, and that is what we aspire to do here in this room every Sunday morning, draw closer to the power that makes for abundant living.

When Guillermo Maduro-Vazquez visited this church for the first time he drove through our upper parking lot and then down to our lower parking lot and he said to himself, “This is the UU church with UU parking lot.” However as he began attending he came up with another way to describe our church. He said, “We are the United Nations of Religions.”

I love that understanding of who we are. “We are the United Nations of Religions.” It’s for this reason that I often go up to the Spring Seminar of the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office, because I do believe that there is a connection between what we believe and the work of the UN for human rights and peace in our world. In many ways the UN is doing a lot of the work “out there” that we are also doing “in here” and in our local community.

When Dag Hammarskjöld was Secretary General of the United Nations he worked tirelessly to prevent nuclear war, genocide, famine and hunger and for this reason he said “The United Nations was not created in order to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell.

Hammarskjöld felt that people of all faiths and beliefs should be able to practice love, compassion, generosity and service including atheists and believers. He wrote, “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.”

When I first came to this church in the late 1980’s one of the first persons I met was Torsti Salo who was an atheist who regularly volunteered with a Christian ministry. Like many others in this church he helped deliver groceries through the FISH program, an effort created by Christian Churches to address hunger in our community. He said to me, “There are some things that everyone should be able to agree about. One of those things is that no child should ever have to go hungry.”

So in a world where atheists and Christians are often in competition Torsti Salo was a role model for cooperation for the common good. And you can too. Anyone of any belief can volunteer to work with the FISH program through our church.

Roger Christian Shriner is a Unitarian Universalist minister who has written a book called Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheist and Agnostics. Unlike Chris Stedman whose efforts were inspired by community organizing Shriner grounds his book in his work as a couple’s counselor. Sometimes the God Gap is the gap between two people in love, two people who are married, two people who share the same home and children.

So like most couple’s counselors he finds that it is task to remind the couple of what they have in common, a reminder that there are core issues that unite both atheists and believers, fundamentally our shared humanity.

“We are all much more alike than we are different…We have much more in common than we have that separates us from each other…We (all) want life to be our ally; helping us, empowering us, enabling us to be safe and happy. We (all) want good things to come our way; our wounds healed, our loneliness banished, our power restored, our fears allayed. We (all) want alienation to be replaced by belonging, impoverishment with abundance, bondage with liberation.” (Shriner)

I began by telling the story of a rabbi who taught how atheism can have a holy purpose. Perhaps he was inspired by these words from the prophet Micah about the value of humility. The bible says, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.”

So let’s hear that verse in the way I faitheist might hear it as an opportunity for us all to be a little more humble whatever we may believe.

For atheists and believers are more alike in our ignorance than we are in our knowledge. We are more alike in what we don’t know than in what we do. Every one of us could stand to cultivate humility to be “mindful of truth ever exceeding our knowledge and community ever exceeding our practice.” We may not be able to share the same beliefs but we can share the same values. We can feed the hungry. We can work for justice. We can protect the earth. We can build the beloved community. When so many are tearing each other down we can build each other up singing together, “We are building a new way, feeling stronger everyday, we are building a new way.”

(This sermon was given by the Reverend Chris Buice at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday September 23, 2018)

 

All Is Forgiven

“Forgive Yourself.”

That’s the text for today but it doesn’t come from the Bible. It comes from an act of graffiti. I was driving down Broadway in North Knoxville when I noticed someone had spray painted those two words across an abandoned building, “Forgive Yourself.”

Because I have a twisted sense of humor I took a picture of it posted it on Facebook page with the caption, “Are you ever tempted to commit acts of vandalism? Well then…forgive yourself.”

Forgive Yourself

I was making a joke but then I got this message from my friend Margaret who had been having a very tough year of hurt, heartbreak and loss, and on top of all that she was just coming out of surgery.

She wrote, “Maybe it’s the surgery or post-surgery drugs, but that graffiti made me sob! I’ll be fine, but self-forgiveness is something that I have not succeeded in granting myself. This could take a while. This probably wasn’t quite the reaction you expected from that photo, but I do love it, and it obviously touched me. I hope that you are well. Margaret.”

Margaret’s message touched me. To be honest her words kind of make me want to sob now. Reading her note made me take a new look at that picture and those words, “Forgive yourself.” Maybe forgiveness is such an important message that we should get it out there by any means necessary. Maybe we should be passing out cans of spray paint on Sunday morning and encouraging everyone to spread the good news.

But before you call the police and report me for suggesting acts of vandalism let me say that when we do the work of the church then vandalism is unnecessary. When we do the work of the church then the message of forgiveness is a part of everything we do, our Sunday Services and our work out in the community.

There is a Buddhist teaching that tell us, “You can search the world over and never find someone more in need of compassion than yourself.” And I would add, “We can travel all over the world and never find someone more in need of forgiveness than ourselves.” So go ahead. Forgive yourself.

Today in the midst of both the High Holy Days of the Jewish calendar and the holiest days of the Jain calendar, we contemplate forgiveness, which is an important part of both traditions. However forgiveness is not just a Jain thing or a Jewish thing or a Christian or Muslim or a Hindu thing. Forgiveness is a fundamentally human thing.

This week I was eating lunch with old college friend Amadou Sall who is Muslim and he was saying to me, “In Islam if you hurt someone you don’t go to God to ask for forgiveness. You go directly to the person you have hurt and ask forgiveness.” And this is not only a tradition in Islam but it also the tradition of the high holy days in Judaism. By not going to God but directly to the person we’ve hurt we eliminate the middleman. It is a direct human-to-human encounter.

The proverb tells us “To err is human, to forgive is divine.” However, what Jainism and Judaism and Islam and Christianity teach us is this, “To forgive is human.”

So this time of year in Jainism and Judaism is about asking for forgiveness and it is about granting forgiveness…and yet if we are having a hard time doing either of these two things…if we are having a hard time asking for forgiveness or granting forgiveness it may be because we haven’t yet learned to forgive ourselves.

In the 12 step programs of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous the 8th step is to make a list of everyone we have harmed and become willing to make amends to them all. The 9th step is to make amends to such people whenever possible except when to do so would injure them or others. This exception is also an important part of the High Holy Days.

One of the problems with completing these steps is once we have made a list of everyone we have harmed we can start feeling pretty bad about ourselves. And once we start feeling bad about ourselves then we can find it difficult get outside of our own head and move toward the giving and receiving forgiveness of others.

Once a student approached a Zen Master and asked, “What is anger?” and the Zen Master replied, “Anger is the punishment we give ourselves for someone else’s mistake.”

However, sometimes we punish ourselves for our own mistakes. This week Nathan Paki sent me a proverb that read, “We are not punished for our deeds we are punished by our deeds,” and I might add, “We are not punished for our anger we are punished by our anger. In India this is called karma and it is an important part of the Jain tradition so much that if you’ve seen Viren Lalka’s car in the parking lot then you know that his license plate says KARMA.

Forgiveness is good for our health. Anger and resentments can increase our heart rate and raise our blood pressure and bring on the stress that leads to heart disease and strokes. An unwillingness to forgive can lead to depression and weaken our overall immune system. Forgiveness is good for our bodies, our minds and our spirits.

In a meditation on the meaning of the High Holy Days Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein tells a story that comes from Spain. It seems a father and son had a huge argument and parted ways completely estranged from each other. The son ran away from home. After a period of time the father began to regret the argument and set out to find his son. The father had moved away from his old home and was worried he would never be able to reconnect with his son so he took out a full-page ad in a Madrid newspaper that read: “Dear Paco, meet me in front of the newspaper office at noon on Saturday. All is forgiven. I love you. Your father.” The next Saturday, 800 men named Paco showed up, all looking for love and forgiveness from their fathers!

All is forgiven. Forgiveness is one. The forgiveness we grant others we must grant also ourselves. And this is a message I have been seeing all week as I’ve explored the books and articles in my efforts to learn about Jainism and Judaism this week, “All is forgiven. All is forgiven. All is forgiven.”

Sometimes the words we see in a book or on someone’s Facebook page or spray painted on the walls of abandoned buildings come to us like the voice of God saying, “All is forgiven, all is forgiven, all is forgiven, all is forgiven, forgive yourself.”

(This homily was preached by the Reverend Chris Buice at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, September 16, 2018)

 

 

How to Explain Unitarian Universalism Before Your Ice Cream Melts

Many years ago when I was a student in seminary and a student minister in a congregation in Oxford, Ohio, I ordered four ice cream cones from the Dairy Queen and as I turned away from the counter to carry them to my family someone in the line said, “Aren’t you the new minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church? Tell me what do Unitarian Universalist believe?” It was then that I realized that if I were going to come up with some way to explain Unitarian Universalism before my ice cream melts.

IMG_2485

Fortunately, I am not the only person to ever be put in this kind of predicament. Before the Common Era Rabbi Hillel was approached by a man who said to him, “Explain the Torah to me while I stand on one foot.” The rabbi replied, “What is hateful to you do not do to others, this is the Torah, all the rest is commentary.”

This is rabbi Hillel’s formulation of the golden rule, which is found in all the great world religions including our own.

There are other examples of brevity in the history of religion. On the night of the last supper Jesus decided to summarize all his teachings for his followers by saying, “A new commandment give I unto you that you love one another as I have loved you. By this all shall know you are my disciples.”

“Love one another.” That’s a lot of wisdom packed into three words.

Augustine wrote countless books on theology. You could fill up bookshelves with his works. But when asked to sum it all up succinctly he said, “Love God and do what you will.” Augustine was a champion of orthodoxy and no friend to paganism and yet his summary is fairly similar to the Wiccan tradition that says, “Do no harm and do what you will.”

So you have “Love God and do what you will,” on one hand, and “Do no harm and do what you will,” on the other, both are efforts to capture the spirit that underlies rules, regulations and laws, for the letter killeth but the spirit giveth life.

The Prophet Muhammad tried to capture this spirit of Islam by saying to his followers. “None of you will have faith until you wish for others what you want for yourself.”

Abraham Lincoln was also speaking to the spirit deeper than any religion when he said, “When I do good I feel good. When I do bad I feel bad. That’s my religion.”

The Dalai Lama summed up the entire Buddhist tradition in a short sentence when he said, “My true religion is kindness.”

In the aftermath of Parkland shooting our church put up a banner that said, “Thoughts and Prayers and Not Enough,” which reminds me of succinct teaching in a Jewish book of prayer that says, “Pray as if everything depends on God but act as if everything depends on you.”

An anonymous mystic came up with a simple statement that sums up the essence of many religions – an idea called The Law of One, “We are all one. When one is harmed, all are harmed. When one is helped, all are healed.”

Now I mention these statements simply as a reminder that there is a long tradition of trying to summarize the meaning of a religion in the fewest possible words. Of course, in the Zen tradition or the Taoist tradition sometimes there is a preference for no words at all. There is a preference for silence.

When a Zen teacher asks the question, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” it is an effort to go to that place which is beyond words. The philosopher Lao Tsu said that on religious matters, “Those who know don’t say. Those who say don’t know.” You won’t hear many preachers use that quote for obvious reasons.

I studied for the ministry at a Quaker school that placed a lot of emphasis on silence but there was also a lot of emphasis on words, words, words.

In Alcoholics Anonymous they have an acronym K.I.S.S Keep it simple stupid. However, in seminary there seems to be another acronym at work K.I.C.S Keep it complex students.

In seminary the simplest answer did not get the highest grade so we spoke of God as the eschatological manifestation of the Ground of all Being with teleological ramifications for our ecclesiology, the Infinite context for our finitude, the posited principle of limitation that guides the responsiveness of entities within their various contexts, the Architectonic Good, the Unmoved Mover, the Absolute Whole, the Process, the Paradigm, Ultimate Reality, the Creative Interchange of Being-Itself.

Because I have this education in me, and unlike Taylor Swift I can’s seem to shake it off, I am often tempted to go in an explanation for what Unitarian Universalists believe that almost guarantees that my ice cream will melt.

Now I am about to tell a story that might seem like a diversion but stay with me and you will slowly but surely discover its relevance. When I was in seminary I was confronted by a paradox, on one hand, we the students were actively encouraged to use gender inclusive language in our papers and sermons, on the other hand, we students tended to hang out in a nearby restaurant called Pizza King. So when I graduated from seminary I decided to write a letter to Pizza King, which I then read to my fellow classmates at the Senior Roast.

Dear Pizza King, This is a letter to encourage you to adopt more gender inclusive language to describe yourself and your services. Let me suggest some possibilities; The Reign of Pizza, The Realm of Pizza, the Beloved Community of Pizza, We are children of One Pizza, the Spirit of Pizza, the Koinonia of Pizza, the Ecclesiology of Pizza. I offer these suggestions for for your own theological reflection and discernment. I wish you the best in your spiritual and culinary journey. Chris

And the reason I share this story with you is because we live in a patriarchal society, a society of Pizza Kings, Burger Kings, Rural King, Smoothie King and King Size Beds. So let me give you and answer to the question, “What do Unitarian Universalist believe?” that you can use at the Dairy Queen.

Feminist theologians tell us to keep it simple, to make our explanations short and sweet, to make our message accessible, to avoid language that might limit or exclude anyone from the beloved community, to acknowledge that while not everyone can be learned everyone can be wise.

The Universalist Church became the first church to ordain women into the ministry with full denominational authority in 1863. For many of these early women ministers the gospel of Universalism could be summed up with the words, “God is love.”

If you ever go visit one of these historic Universalist congregations you will often find the words, “God is love” engraved above the doors of the church or on the front of the altar or on the hearth above the fireplace in the fellowship hall or you might even see light shine through those words in a stain glass window,

Now 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 practical person will see the words as a reminder that God is a verb. God is about action and not just talk. The words are a call to transform the world with acts of love and justice.

In our church we have an affirmation that we say in each service, “Love is the spirit of this church and services is its law; to dwell together in peace, to see the truth in love and to help one another this is our great covenant.” So if you are ever asked, “What do Unitarian Universalist believe?” and you don’t have much time you can fall back on this statement.

Here is my short answer to the question when I am pressed for time or sense that the questioner wants brevity, “We are a liberal congregation dedicated to social justice and environmental responsibility, a place where people of all faiths can find common ground and work for the common good.”

This week I posted the question of the morning on our church Facebook group, “How do you explain Unitarian Universalism before your ice cream melts?” and here are some of the responses I got.

Colleen Elise said, “I think a good Al Anon quote works here: Take what you like and leave the rest.”

Trevor Palmer wrote, “When people ask me what the Unitarian Church is about I say we accept everyone and every religion and we coexist great together.”

Corinne Smith wrote, “We believe in the Love that is of All That Is and that that Love is present in every Living Being and because of that, we are committed to caring for each other.”

Moni Castenada wrote, “We believe that every person has the responsibility of searching for and finding the answers to the big questions in life, and to treat other people with respect.”

Or as one person said to me, “Our church is like one of those ice cream cones I used to get in my elementary school lunchroom called Drumsticks. We are kind of sweet and a little bit nutty.”

There were more answers than I have time to give but you can see them all on the TVUUC Members and Friends Facebook page. And since we began this sermon with a story about ice cream let’s end with one. This story comes for an episode of The Simpsons.
Lisa Simpson went to an ice cream social at her church and asked, “What flavors do you have?” Rev. Lovejoy, who was working as server replied, “Well, chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, and our new Unitarian flavor ice cream.” Lisa said, “I’ll have that” and Rev. Lovejoy hands her an empty bowl. Lisa exclaimed, “But there’s nothing in there.” Rev Lovejoy, who is clearly not a big fan of our faith, answered, “Eeeexactly.”

Well, on one level this is a cheap shot at our denomination by network television. Curse you network television and your minions! However, as the ancient scriptures the Tao te Ching say, “Clay is used to make a bowl but it is the empty space that makes it useful.” Ours is a faith with substance, we do have beliefs and convictions but we also have an empty space where there is room for new ideas, new dreams, new people and new possibilities. So let me end by saying, welcome friends to the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church.

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

 

Invite a Friend to Church, It’s Not a Sin

My stepmother Hulane, who attends an Episcopal church, says, “Unitarian Universalists are like Episcopalians, where we go on Sunday morning is our little secret.” Traditionally we have been reticent to talk about our faith with our friends and neighbors. We do not want to be overbearing. We agree with Roger Williams that, “Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.” We rebel against the idea of forcing people to go to church against their will. Even so, I will put forth the controversial proposition that inviting someone to church is not a sin.

When the cartoon character Marge Simpson encourages her husband Homer to wake up and come to church he resists, “Why can’t I worship the Lord in my own way, by praying like hell on my deathbed.” However, if we get to know our friends and neighbors we may find that not everyone is so resistant.

Homer simpson

Many of my friends in college were Unitarian Universalists only I did not know it at the time. They never talked about it except for an occasional reference. What made us good friends were our common values, our shared commitment to freedom of thought and spiritual exploration. It was only after college that I made the connection between my friends and their church. One day one of those friends invited me to come to TVUUC. In my first year of attending Torsti Salo asked me, “Have you ever thought about the ministry?” and I said, “I am still getting used to the idea of coming to church.”

So I encourage you to invite a friend to church. My best guess is you will not be struck down by lightening or turned into a pillar of salt for doing so. An invitation is an offer that can be accepted or declined freely without fear of any unpleasant odor reaching God’s nostril. Tell your friend we are a church that agrees with G.K. Chesterton, “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.” Who knows, they may even have a good time.

(Chris Buice is minister of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, 2931 Kingston Pike, Knoxville TN 37919. Visitor’s Sunday is September 9, 2018 at 11 am)