Today’s blogpost consists of the above comic and the below guest column I wrote for the Knoxville News Sentinel both of which try to tap into the healing power of humor.
Today’s blogpost consists of the above comic and the below guest column I wrote for the Knoxville News Sentinel both of which try to tap into the healing power of humor.
There is no official dress code at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church.
“Come, come whoever you are,” we sing on Sunday mornings. “We welcome you whoever you are, wherever you are from, wherever you are on life’s journey,” our greeter tells us. Of course, people have to actually be in the building to hear these messages. So how do we get people into the building? We invite them.
Do you know anyone who might benefit from being a part of our church community? Do you have a friend of another faith who is simply curious about what you do on Sunday morning? Invite a friend to church. Although we live in the age of social media, television and mass communication, most people learn about a church because a friend invited them.
Sometimes we UUs can be reticent about our church because we do not want to impose on others with our own beliefs. However most authoritative medical research confirms that inviting someone to church never killed anyone (either the inviter or the invitee.)
Lauren Hulse informs me that most people in other denominations invite someone to church once every 10 years. For Unitarian Universalists, it is once every 25 years. Why not make this the year?
(The Tao of Tennessee is the written by the Reverend Chris Buice of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church.)
Thomas Jefferson, who described himself as a Unitarian to his friends, once sent some spiritual advice to his nephew in the form of a letter. “Question with boldness even the existence of a God,” he wrote, “because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear.”
Unitarian Universalists feel our beliefs must be open to questioning including a belief in God. I once met a man of another faith who thought this attitude was too risky in his own congregation. He said, “Asking questions in church is my idea of an a extreme sport.” In the UU church we feel that asking questions about religion should be safer than bunji jumping, hang-gliding or roller derby.
We believe that each one of us should be free to state our beliefs without fear of being rejected or ostracized from the community. “The only way a person can be excommunicated from this church,” opined William Ellery Channing, “is through the death of goodness in in his/her own heart.”
In 1966 there was actually a survey to ask people in our denomination what they believed about God.
2.9 percent defined God as a supernatural being, 23.1 percent see God as the ground of all being, while 44.2 percent find God to be a name defining some natural processes within the universe, such as love or creative evolution. On the other hand, 28 percent found God to be an irrelevant concept while 1.8 percent found God to be a harmful concept. (Source: The Challenge of a Liberal Faith by George N. Marshall.
In 1987 there was another survey in which UUs were asked to describe the divine by filling in the statement, “The way I would describe the divine for myself…
Creative force (29%) Highest potential (18%) Harmony with nature (11%) Unknowable power (11%) Uncertain (11%) Superior being (3%) Meaningless (3%) Harmful concept (14%) (Source: Build Your Own Theology by Richard Gilbert)
What would survey results look like in 2017? Good question! No doubt results would vary from year to year, as UUs are free to change their minds about their theological beliefs as they grow in knowledge and experience.
The rocker Tina Turner sings the song, “What’s love got to do with it?” and the Universalist side of our faith replies, “Everything!” If you visit one of the old Universalist church constructed in the 19th century it is common to see the words, “God is love” inscribed above the church entrance or on the altar or on the mantle piece or some other visible location.
What do Unitarian Universalists believe about God? How you answer the question is a part of our answer. The humor in my cartoon aside, you should feel free to express your own ideas on this fundamental question. There is no reason for any of us to feel excluded.
(The Tao of Tennessee is written by Chris Buice, minister of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church)
I used to have a bumper sticker that said, “Question Authority” then I saw the one that said, “Who are you to tell me to question authority?” Point well taken.
Lauren Hulse, our membership coordinator, has been collecting questions for the minister from visitors to the church. So for the next few blogposts I will be responding to some common questions including this one, “Why do UUs talk about Ralph Waldo Emerson so much?”
Emerson lived from 1803-1882. Most of us encountered Emerson for the first time in a high school literature class where we read the essay Self-Reliance or excerpts from his book Nature. What you may not know is that before he was a famous essayist he was a Unitarian minister.
The ministry was not a great fit for Emerson. He once went to visit a parishioner who was ill and was sent back to the church by the man’s wife who said, “He did not know his business.” I’ve read some of his sermons, many of which are arid and pedantic. Indeed, leaving the ministry was a good career decision. It was outside the church that Emerson found his true voice.
Because I have a predisposition to appreciate paradox I am tempted to answer the newcomers question by saying, “We talk about Ralph Waldo Emerson so much because he is our authority for anti-authoritarianism.”
Emerson’s entire theology can be summed up in the words of the Quaker leader George Fox who interrupted a church service and said to the preacher, “You will say, ‘Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;’ but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?”
Of course, in his Harvard Divinity School Address Emerson took eighteen pages to say what George Fox said in two sentences. Emerson was not spare in his prose. However, he coined many a good phrase to describe that our authority comes not from the church or from the state but from an inward source. “From within…a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all.” He also felt our authority was not rooted in past tradition but in the present moment, “Why should we grope among the dry bones of the past?…the sun shines today also.”
When Emerson was a Unitarian minister, our faith was a liberal Christian denomination. Emerson and other Transcendentalists began reading newly translated copies of The Upanishads, the Vedas and The Bhagavad Gita. They studied Buddhism, a non-theistic tradition, and discovered that they could find wisdom from many different sources. In this way, he helped pave the way for our broader and deeper understanding of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist. His opposition to slavery and the removal of the Cherokee Indians in the Trail of Tears presage our contemporary commitments to the Black Lives Matter and the Standing Rock movements.
So in answer to the question, “Why do UUs talk about Ralph Waldo Emerson so much?” I reply with a sense of paradox, “Because he is our authority for anti-authoritarianism. He is an important part of our tradition of anti-traditionalism.” However, setting the paradox aside, Emerson has left us a legacy of writing that can inspire us to claim our authority, find inspiration in the present moment, seek wisdom beyond our borders, feel illuminated by an inward light and question authority. I don’t know if Emerson was ever asked, “Who are you to tell us to question authority?” but I am sure his answer would’ve been a simple one, “I’m Ralph Waldo Emerson.”
Here is a joke that philosophy majors will get. The philosopher Descartes walks into a fast food restaurant and says, “I’d like a hamburger.” The server asks, “Would you like fries with that?” Descartes says, “”I think not” and then disappears.
Most of us are familiar with Descartes’ maxim, cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am.” He took that idea very seriously. Once he sat completely still in his chair for an entire day. When someone asked what he was doing he said, “Thinking.”
The Unitarian Universalist Church has been called, “a thinking person’s church.” While we do not have a monopoly on that it is a defining quality. For this reason some have said, “Unitarian Universalism is more of a philosophy than a religion.” I prefer to say we are a religion grounded in philosophy-the love of wisdom.
“Unitarian Universalism is a 2,000 year old Jewish Reform movement,” proclaims my friend Barry Whittemore. If so, it is grounded in the wisdom tradition that is found in the Bible and beyond. In this tradition the central question about a teaching is not, “Is it Jewish?” or “Is it Christian?” but “Is it wise?” The book of Proverbs contains wisdom from many different cultures and religions cut and pasted and assembled into one book. This book reminds us that we can seek wisdom wherever it may be found anywhere in the world.
Recently a visitor to the church told me her coworker made a less-than-complimentary remark about our faith saying we are a “spiritual salad bar where you can pick and choose what you want.” I told her, “I find I can get a more nutritious meal at a salad bar than at most set menu restaurants.” Similar, the free and responsible search for truth and meaning is about creating a space where we can make healthy wise choices.
I spent part of my sabbatical in Paris where philosophers are known to congregate in cafes rather than churches. Watching Parisian waiters offer impeccable service to talkative diners inspired my cartoon, “Philosophy Creates Jobs”.
On this side of the Atlantic I can rightly claim to have one of those jobs. I am a Unitarian Universalist minister. Indeed it is the work of all the church staff to help facilitate our shared conversation about the meaning of life through music, art, education, social action, community building, worship and coffee hour. Think of the church staff as the waiters in a philosophical café or the attendants at a spiritual salad bar.
As I write I am in my office ready for duty so that we may continue our shared work that nourishes our spirit, helps heal our planet and empowers the human family. The Unitarian Universalist church will always be a thinking persons church. For this reason I predict we will never disappear.
(The Tao of Tennessee is the blog of the Reverend Chris Buice of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church)
When the President addressed the nation about the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, saying that there was “bad on both sides” it was disorienting to people of goodwill everywhere. To equate the actions of nonviolent protestors to Nazis is to make a comparison that would have been deeply offensive to every President of every political party from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Barrack Obama.
The Southern Poverty Law Center described the rally of Neo-Nazis, white supremacists and Confederate revisionists as “the largest hate-gathering of its kind in decades in the United States.” It was a gathering that quickly turned violent. One young woman, Heather Heyer, died and many others were injured when a car plowed into a sea of counter-protesters.
Heyer died on Saturday. On Sunday there was a rally organized on Market Square here in Knoxville to “Stand Against Hate.” If you had divided the crowd of hundreds of people into groups of ten every single one of those groups would have contained a member or friend of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. Rarely, have I seen so many of us turn up for something so important on such short notice. There we joined people of conscience of every faith and belief; finding common ground and organizing for the common good.
By temperament, I am a peacemaker not a polarizer. However, there are times when we need to ask ourselves the question made famous by an old labor organizing song, “Which side are you on?” The Unitarian Universalist church is often described as a liberal church. It has been said, “Liberals are people who know both sides of an argument so well they are unable to take their own.” I reject this notion of liberalism. I believe there are times to say with the Unitarian poet James Russell Lowell the words set to music in our hymnbook, “Once to every soul and nation, comes the moment to decide, In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side.” Heather Heyer made a decision. She knew which side she was on. She fought the good fight. She finished the race. She kept the faith.
If you read your church newsletter – or what I like to call fake news – then you will be under the impression that this morning’s sermon is about how to practice a religion of open minds, loving hearts and helping hands – and it will be eventually.
But first I want to speak about building bridges. This season our chalice lighting song is named Building Bridges and it speaks of “building bridges between our divisions” and Lord knows we need some bridge builders in our divided society. But on the first Sunday we sang this song, Will Dunklin, our church organist, said to me, “If we are going to talk about building bridges when are we going to talk about trolls?”
He has a valid point. According to mythology and folklore bridges often serve as shelter for trolls. Add to this that we live in an age that has turned the word troll into a verb so that it is common to hear people talk about trolling or being trolled. So it seems irresponsible to talk about building bridges unless we are willing to confront the reality of trolls.
So this morning I want to talk about what we can do as a people of faith to keep open minds, keep loving hearts, keep helping hands and keep building bridges in time when we might be tempted to troll or be trolled.
As I was meditating on this sermon topic I was inspired to compose the beginning of a modern folktale, which I posted on my Facebook page and I will share with you now.
Once upon a time the Little Billy Goat Gruff posted something on Facebook click-click-clickety-click-post. “WHO DARES POST AN OPINION CONTRARY TO MINE,” commented a troll in all caps. “It is I the Little Billy Goat Gruff,” the young goat replied, “But please don’t flame me and gobble me up. I am too small. Soon the second Billy Goat Gruff will be posting on her page and she is much bigger than me,” and so the troll said, “VERY WELL I WILL BIDE MY TIME.”
You can finish the story for yourselves in your own imaginations. After I posted my beginning on my Facebook page a friend commented, “Can Billy goats be female?” and I replied, “In my stories Billy goats get to choose their own gender identity.”
Suffice it to say that we live in a peculiar time in our history when trolls are not just mythological creatures. Indeed it is hard to go through an entire day without encountering a troll.
But it was not until this month that I realized that there are actually those who self-identify as trolls, indeed, there are troll meet up groups, troll forums, troll conventions and even troll celebrities.
Up until this month I had always assumed that being a troll is something every one of us could be if we happen to be in a bad mood. Every one of us is capable of being snarky, overbearing, petty, angry or spiteful. We do need reminders of that.
For instances, when you drive up to our church on Sunday morning you see that many words are engraved on the outside of our building, words like love, joy, justice, humility, hope and peace. John Bohstedt has suggested that we need to engrave words on the other side of our building, words like withering sarcasm, belittling put downs, snide condescension. In other words, we all need some kind of reminder that every single one of us is capable of becoming a troll.
And I do believe that –that everyone of us is capable of becoming a troll. But it never occurred to me until recently that someone might actually chose to be a troll, relish in being a troll and even be admired for being a troll.
So what does it mean to be a troll to those who admire the name and who aspire to live into the role. To be a troll is to be provocative. The ultimate goal of a troll is to get a reaction. Trolls love to live out their own aggressiveness, to lay waist to conventional ideas about civility and destroy anything that smacks of political correctness or even polite restraint. Trolls pride themselves on being offensive. Trolls love to be inflammatory. Troll comments are often insulting, degrading and belittling. Trolls are the consummate name callers. Because trolls love to get a reaction the more you react the more you will get trolled.
During the last election season it was hard to tell the difference between politicians and trolls whether you were a nasty woman or in the basket of deplorables. Our political campaigns have become less a contest of ideas and more a banquet of insults.
It seems that almost anyone could be drawn into the fray. For instance here in East Tennessee our usually congenial and considerate congressman has taken to calling some of his own constituents “kooks, extremists and radicals.” He claims that in our current political atmosphere it is impossible to have a civil conversation in a town hall meeting. He seems oblivious to the fact that his own name-calling contributes to that atmosphere he says he deplores.
Here is the problem with the politics of name-calling. When Thomas Jefferson wrote the words to the Declaration of Independence declaring, “all men are created equal” he was considered a radical. When Susan B Anthony and other suffragists rewrote those words to declare that “all men and women” are created equal she was considered a kook. When John Lewis and thousands of others marched in the civil rights movement he was considered an extremist.
Friends, history is on the side of the kooks. History is on the side of the extremists. History is on the side of the radicals.
I don’t see our congressman as someone who aspires to be a troll but someone like you or me who is capable of going there. Our congressman prides himself on being a conservative and so this morning we might do well to remember that conservative icon Barry Goldwater who once said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is not vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.” And when Barry Goldwater learned that his grandson was gay he became a fierce champion for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
Goldwater loved his grandson the way many of us love our neighbors and love our family and friends and for that reason when it comes to basic human rights I know I speak for many when I say we will not be moderate in our pursuit of justice. We will be proud to stand with our Founding Fathers, our reforming mothers and our brothers and sisters from Selma and Stonewall and be extremists on behalf of liberty.
However, to be an extremist does not mean that we have to be a troll. We do not have to insult our way into political power or belittle others in order to feel strong ourselves. We can seek to ground our power in something deeper than political power or economic power or military power. We can ground our efforts in spiritual power.
We can remember the conviction that helped John Lewis stand toe to toe with vicious racists and armed thugs, “Each and everyone of us is imbued with a divine spark…that spark links us to the greatest power in the universe. It unites us with one another and …Creation.” With this conviction we can stand against all who seek to separate and divide us, all who seek to build themselves up by tearing others down.
When we are guided by the still small voice within and illuminated by this inner light then we know that withering sarcasm, belittling put-downs, snide condescension, police dogs and fires houses will not be enough to turn us around.
We will not troll or be trolled but live up to a higher standard and strive to align ourselves with the better angels of our nature.
There is an important message that comes out of the freedom movements all over the world. When we strive for freedom and justice we must not see this as a distant goal to be achieved in the distant future, we must live with the conviction that we are already there.
When we insist on following our conscience and doing the right thing we’re already there.
When we refuse to be silenced but instead speak truth to power we’re already there.
When we do not falter or fumble or waiver we’re already there.
When we feel courage instead of fear, hope instead of despair, energy instead of apathy, love instead of compassion fatigue we’re already there.
We may sing, “Come and Go with me to that Land where I’m bound.” We may sing, “There’ll be freedom in that land.” We may sing, “There’ll be justice in that land,” but as we sing we must ground ourselves in the conviction that we are already living in that land, breathing in that land, moving in that land. We’re already living in the land where we’re bound. We’re already there. We’ve already won.
On Valentine’s Day Suzanne and I went to see the movie Hidden Figures, which I highly recommend. The movie is based around the life of Katherine Johnson, the African American physicist and mathematician, who worked for NASA and did the calculations that allowed John Glenn to become the first American man to orbit the earth and return to earth without burning up in the atmosphere upon re-entry. In many scenes in that movie she is clearly the smartest woman in the room but she often has to undergo the indignities of racism, segregation and sexism simply to do her job.
There is a moment in the film after the first successful manned orbit when her boss a white man named Al Harrison turns to Katherine and asks her if she thinks they can do the next impossible thing – is it possible for NASA to put a human being on the moon and she replies to her boss, “We’re already there.”
And that’s my message this morning. We may not have done all of the math. We may have not computed all the calculations or solved every problem or done all the work but we are already there.
And this is why we gather here on Sunday mornings to remind each other that we are already there. February is black history month, a time to remember our ancestors, to remember how their lives continue to enrich our lives.
Recently our President said something that suggested that he thought Frederick Douglass was still alive. Historically, he is wrong but spiritually he is right. In many ways Frederick Douglass is still very much alive and is still empowering us to speak out for justice.
So it is important to remember that the themes I have been preaching this morning are not new or original for we are aligned with our spiritual ancestors. These themes are as old as the spirituals that empowered the Underground Railroad and as fresh as the convictions that launched humanity into space. Ours is a faith that is informed by those who struggled before us and this month and every month we can avoid the temptation to be a troll but instead aspire to live out the values I recently saw printed on a t-shirt (Friends, sometimes the words of the prophets are in the holy scriptures and other times they are on t-shirts.) We can aspire to…
Speak like Frederick
Lead like Harriet
Think like Garvey
Educate like W.E.B
Believe like Thurgood
Write like Maya
Fight like Malcolm
Dream like Martin
Challenge like Rosa
Build like Oprah
Change like Obama
And we might add do math like Katherine.
For this morning we can hear the harps eternal and we can sing together in the choir invisible and we can celebrate that our church news is not fake news but good news because…
Ours is a church of the open mind.
Ours is a church of the helping hands.
Ours is a church of the loving heart.
Together we care for our Earth
And work for friendship and peace in this world.
So be it.
(This sermon was delivered at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday February 19, 2017 by the Reverend Chris Buice)
“Find the good and praise it,” Alex Haley often said. The words are engraved on a stone near a statue of him in Morningside Park here in Knoxville. For over a decade this statue was the largest statue of an African American man in the United States until the dedication of the King Memorial in Washington DC in 2011.
Many years ago I took my mother to see the statue and she loved it but she noticed that while there was a plaque marking the month of the dedication of the statue April 1998 and a list of every single politician present at the dedication ceremony – there was no plaque explaining exactly who Alex Haley was, what he accomplished or why he should be remembered. My mom said, “That makes me mad! That makes me furious!” and then she looked at me like I was supposed to do something about it. After a long pause finally I said, “Well maybe what we can do right now is find the good and praise it.”
All humor aside my mom had a very valid point. Even so, I think Alex Haley would have appreciated this off the cuff response. He was known for similar kinds of observations. Once he was interviewing George Lincoln Rockwell of the American Nazi party for a magazine article who was using lots of racist language including the N-word. Rockwell told Haley it was nothing personal and Haley replied that he had been called that word his who life but then added “but this is the first time I’ve been paid for it.”
Alex Haley got his start as a professional writer when he served in the Coast Guard and his fellow crewmembers would pay him money to write love letters home to their girlfriends. Having had this brush with success he started submitting material to Reader’s Digest and gradually this became a substantial side income.
When I was a student at the University of Tennessee in the late 80’s Alex Haley was an adjunct lecturer and I went to talks he gave that were open to all students and the general public. So I heard him talk a little bit about his early days as a writer.
He said, that early on he decided that when he got a rejection slip that he would post it on his wall like wallpaper. That way when he got a rejection slip instead of beating himself up over it he would look at it like a new piece to his unfinished puzzle saying, “Now I can cover that part of the wall.”
His career took off when he began doing interviews for magazines with leaders like Martin Luther King, Myles Davis and Cassius Clay (who would later be known as Muhammad Ali.) At some point he decided to expand one of his interviews into a book The Autobiography of Malcolm X and this involved even more interviews with the famous leader of the Nation of Islam.
Before I say anything more about that book I should say it would be almost impossible to find two people more temperamentally different that Alex Haley and Malcolm X. If Alex Haley’s philosophy of life was, “Find the good and praise it,” Malcolm X’s was, “Name the evil and condemn it.”
In ministry we often talk about the difference between a pastor and prophet. To adapt a well-known phrase we might say that a pastor comforts the afflicted while the prophet afflicts the comfortable.
Alex Haley had a particular gift for putting other people at ease and this probably helped him get such good interviews. He was remarkably accessible and friendly even to complete strangers, the rich and the poor, the famous and the unknown. When I talked with him after his lectures at UT he did not seem to be in a hurry to be anywhere else. He was present with you and affirming of you.
Recently, I read the new book Alex Haley and the Books that Changed a Nation by Robert Norrell in part to see if the Alex Haley I met was the Alex Haley everyone else knew. The answer to that question is yes. While I am sure everyone has off days, he was by most people’s remembrances a remarkable open, accessible and friendly person.
Alex Haley and Malcolm X were very different people. Despite these differences, the two men became very good friends, so much so that after Malcolm X’s assassination it was Alex Haley who put Malcolm’s daughter through college.
Malcolm was someone who was not afraid to meet the violence of white power with the counterpunch of black power. In our age when leaders have proposed a ban on Muslims entering the country he would remind us that many Muslims came to this country for the first time against their will, in chains as part of the slave trade.
In the autobiography Malcolm notes that the dictionary definition for the word black is negative, “destitute of light, devoid of color, enveloped in darkness, utterly dismal or gloomy, soiled with dirt, foul, sullen, hostile, forbidding, outrageously wicked.” The dictionary definition of white, on the other hand, is positive: “the color of pure snow, the opposite of black, free from spot or blemish, innocent, pure, without evil intent, harmless, square deal, honest.”
Malcolm X looked over the history of our country, slavery, lynching, discrimination, bigotry and hatred. He named the evil and condemned it. He was not afraid to say that the word white can be defined as foul, hostile and wicked. It was the power and strength of his condemnation that was an enormous source of his power.
The paradox is that one of the reasons we know so much about the fiery critique of Malcolm X is because the pastoral presence of Alex Haley who did what pastors do. He paid attention. He listened intently. He heard the pain. He felt compassion. And then he told the story.
Even the most pastoral minister must tell the story of the crucifixion of Christ and so Alex Haley assisted Malcolm in telling the story of the crucifixion on the slave block, the crucifixion of the whipping post, the crucifixion of the lynching tree, the crucifixion in the electric chair, the crucifixion stories that are a part of our nation’s history.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X was a bestseller. His next bestseller would be Roots: The Saga of an American Family. It was his family’s history from their roots in Africa to more contemporary America. His aunt once said to him, “Our history needs to be writ. We can’t expect white folks to write our history for us. They are too busy writing about themselves.”
Haley grew up listening to his aunts and family talk about their family history over the years on the front porch of his childhood home. There were many references to the African and some of the Mandinka words that he had been passed down to them. The adult Haley took on the task of researching these stories and piecing together a more detailed family history, one that would read like a novel.
There has been much controversy over whether Roots is fiction or non-fiction. It would probably be most accurately categorized as “faction.” Because the outline of the story is based in solid research, however, Haley also wrote dialogue between people and described the interior thoughts of the characters, which no one can really know.
The story is about Kunte Kinte who was captured by slave traders in Africa and endured the unspeakable trauma of the Middle Passage. According to records 30 percent of the captured slaves died on board that ship. Kinte was one of the survivors. Haley said that writing about the Middle Passage was a traumatizing experience so much so that considered suicide. Later the actors who acted out those scenes for the television mini-series had a similar level of trauma, so writing this book and telling this story was an emotionally distressing experience.
Kunte Kinte was sold into slavery in America. After repeated escape attempts his master took an axe and chopped off part of his foot so he could no longer try to escape. Kunte Kinte’s grown daughter Kizzy was raped by her master and she gave birth to a son who would be known as Chicken George.
Chicken George eventually earned his own freedom through his prowess as a chicken fighter and helped his extended family find a new home after Emancipation. My copy of Roots is 899 pages so there is no way to summarize it succinctly. But I mention these details because in this book he does name the evil and condemn it, or at least he tells the story in a way that the evil is so self-evident that the reader has no choice but to condemn it.
The book won a Pulitzer Prize, spent weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and inspired a television mini-series. The show debuted in 1977. This year marks its 40th anniversary. I recently re-watched that series on DVD. It stands the test of time even though I couldn’t help but notice that the American South looked more like Southern California and the soundtrack sounds like it comes straight from 70’s television detective show.
The acting is stellar with an all-star cast and a then new and unknown actor Levar Burton. The spirit of the book shines through if not the letter as the television writers took some liberties with the story in their adaption. The History Channel has put out a remake of Roots this year. I haven’t been able to watch the remake because I do not have cable. The music on the preview is much better built around African drumming rather 70’s muzak. Possibly it will stick more faithfully to the letter as well as the spirit.
Robert Norrell argues convincingly that Roots has shaped our culture even more so than other works that are given greater credit like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Gone with the Wind and I might add To Kill a Mockingbird in part because it reached more people. It was viewed by 130 million people, which to date is the largest television audience in our country’s history.
Before Roots TV depictions of Africa were often negative caricatures leading Haley to say, “One of the most important things about Roots is that it replaced Tarzan and Jungle Jim with Kunte Kinte.” Haley fundamentally changed the way Americans look at Africa. One way to say it is he rewrote the culture’s dictionary so that the words black and Africa are now unambiguously positive words.
Alex Haley’s reputation has suffered since his heyday with accusations of plagiarism. Norrell points out that the parts of Roots in question amount to less than one percent of the text of the book. Some of Haley’s research conclusions have been question by scholars. Of course, research is always being questioned by scholars. That’s what scholars do.
Personally, I think we need to remember Haley not as an academic or a scholar but as a story teller, someone who reached a far larger audience than most academics ever will and thus he affected more people transforming our culture by ensuring that when we do history we tell the whole story and not just part of it.
On a personal level and a spiritual level, let me say that Haley’s phrase, “Find the good and praise it” is my working definition of worship and describes what we are doing here this Sunday and every Sunday. His wallpaper of rejection slips reminds me to always respond to experiences of rejection with creativity. And that moment in the book and the mini-series where Kunte Kinte holds up his baby daughter to the starry night above and says to her, “Behold the only thing greater than yourself,” informs how I feel we should all treat our children both as parents and as a church.
February is Black History Month and a Los Angeles Times reporter once called Alex Haley, “The Man February Forgot,” which brings me back to Morningside Park and the wonderful statue of a storyteller and why it is so important that we remember him.
So this week I wrote to the State Historical Commission to ask how I could apply for a historical marker to be placed near the statue. Also this week I will be meeting with the Mayor Rogero as part of KICMA (Knoxville Interdenominational Christian Ministerial Alliance) and I will raise the same question and I will bring this sermon to a close by offering a first draft of what the marker might say.
Alex Haley 1921 – 1992 spent his last years in East Tennessee. He was a journalist known for his interviews with luminaries such as Myles Davies and Martin Luther King Jr. He was the author of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Roots: The Saga of an American Family books that profoundly changed the way the nation viewed African American history. He was a consultant on the Roots television mini-series that reached the largest television audience in history. He was our neighbor, our friend, our teacher and encourager who constantly reminded us even in the most difficult times to “Find the good and praise it.”
(This sermon was given at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday February 12, 2017, by the Rev. Chris Buice.)
In Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 step groups there is an acronym KISS that stands for Keep it Simple Stupid. But in the Unitarian Universalist church we don’t do that (or at least not all the time.)
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” wrote Shakespeare BUT have you ever tried to teach a preschooler to say the name of our church – the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church? To quote Shakespeare again, the words do not come trippingly off the tongue. If you have ever tried to teach our name to a youngster then you can understand that this business with names is more complicated than the bard suggests.
This morning Bob Porter has asked me to preach a sermon about why we should change our congregation’s name. Our name is a mouthful. So, this morning I am going to honor Bob’s request and make a powerful persuasive argument for why we should change our name AND for no extra cost I will tell you why the very prospect fills me with a nameless dread.
Here’s another way to say the same thing. Once a complete stranger came up to me and said, “”Do you know the difference between Unitarians and Baptists?” I took the bait and answered no. “In the Baptist church when the preacher really gets to preaching someone may shout Amen or Hallelujah whereas in the Unitarian church when the minister really gets to preaching someone may shout out Bullshit!
So today, it is my goal to preach a persuasive sermon arguing that we should change the name of the church but if you object (and one hopes that you will be more diplomatic that story suggests) no one will be happier than me.
As a former Sunday school teacher I totally get how cumbersome our name is especially for the very young. Indeed when the Unitarians and the Universalists merged into one denomination in 1961 they entertained other options. Some names considered were The Liberal Church of America or the Council of Liberal Churches. In the end, it turns out both the Unitarian and Universalist congregations where too attached to their distinct historic names leading to our current denominational name the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.
This name creates a paradox because as Unitarian Universalists we like to say that “ours is a religion of deeds not creeds.” Ours is a non-creedal tradition. The reason we do not have a creed can be summed up in the words from a conversation between Michael Wohlfahrt and Benjamin Franklin. When asked why his church did not have a creed Wohlfarhrt replied, “we are not sure that we have arrived at the end of this progression, and at the perfection of spiritual or theological knowledge; and we fear that, if we should print our confession, we should feel ourselves as if bound and confined by it, and perhaps be unwilling to receive farther improvement, and our successors still more so, as conceiving what we their elders and founders had done, to be something sacred, never to be departed from.’
Benjamin Franklin would later write of this encounter, “This modesty in a sect is perhaps a singular instance in the history of mankind, every other sect supposing itself in possession of all truth, and that those who differ are so far in the wrong.”
So for similar reasons as stated the Unitarian Universalist Church does not have a creed or a doctrine that can be used as a test for membership BUT our name involves to two specific theological positions. Historically, the word Unitarianism is an affirmation of the oneness of God in contrast to the doctrine of the Trinity. Likewise Universalism is an affirmation of the universal salvation of all souls in contrast to the idea that some souls will be damned to hell for all eternity.
I believe it was Alfred North Whitehead who once said that “Unitarians believe in one God at the most.” Here’s the problem with the word Unitarian, in every congregation I have served there have been people who have told me, “I am a Trinitarian Unitarian,” Similarly, there is always someone who says, “I am a Unitarian atheist.” Because I am a Unitarian minister I honor such independent thinking. In other words, as your minister it is not my job to limit the scope of your thoughts.
The same principle applies to the word Universalism. Many people will think outside the box of these two historic theological positions and it is not my job to try to prevent this from happening.
Thus we live with a paradox. The name for our noncreedal tradition seems to imply we do have a creed or a doctrine. Contrast this to the names of other denominations like Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregationalist, none of which have any doctrinal connotations but are all about organizational structure.
Another problem with the name Unitarian Universalist is that it means we are sometimes confused with the Unification church or the “moonies” or the Universal Life church which is an on-line church that sets a low bar for leadership including a place on the website where you can “Click here to be ordained.”
For all these reasons the name Unitarian Universalist is a problem. So now let’s take a closer look at the word church. In the Unitarian Universalist Association not every congregation calls itself a church. According to the UU world magazine almost half (474) use the word “church.” Just over a quarter (273) say “fellowship,” while 146 use “congregation,” 104 “society,” and 58 “parish.” Thirty-four use “community.”
The word church can be an obstacle if you are coming through our doors from a Jewish upbringing or Buddhist or Muslim or humanist or some other tradition that does not use the word church. The word is a reminder that although ours is a free faith we do have our roots in the Christian tradition otherwise we might be the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Synagogue or the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist mosque or Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Sangha or ashram or temple or pagoda. So by using the word church we do identify with a particular tradition from which our free faith emerges.
So these are some very good reasons for changing our name. It’s a mouthful. Our name is an albatross around our neck. It’s a curse. It’s a vexation. It is hard for kids to say. People mistake us for other faiths. It does not accurately convey what we believe and think to the world. Add to this the trend that many church are distancing themselves from denominations or their denominational names by choosing names like One Life or The Table or All Souls. And so let me state categorically that it is imperative that we change our name.
Now let me tell you why the prospect of changing our name fills me with a nameless dread. Many years ago I serve a church that decided to undergo the process of changing their name and it was during this process that I learned it is possible to take offense at every conceivable name that you can imagine. I learned that the word church was too traditional, the word fellowship was sexist because it had the word fellow in it, the word congregation too formal, the word society to abstract which eventually left us with the word community. Thus we chose to be the Hopedale Unitarian Universalist Community – but the truth is even the word community was not universally popular. One argued it made us sound like a subdivision or a condo complex.
The process was more excruciating than I can possibly communicate and it took forever. And while the congregation was leisurely debating its name it was almost completely neglecting it’s long range planning process and establishing goals and objectives and missing opportunities for social action and outreach.
And it occurred to me that this whole process of deciding a name has an adolescent quality because it focuses on the questions of identity, “Who are we? Why are we here? What is our purpose?” BUT once we have a sense of identity then we are focused on being who we are, knowing why we are here and taking action to fulfill our purpose.
And let me make it clear here at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church we know who we are, we know why we are here and we are actively engaged in fulfilling our purpose. Of course, there is a paradox here too. I often say “At our church we know exactly what we believe even though we may not be able to explain it to you.” But I do believe our beliefs are nicely summarized in the words we say each Sunday,
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 have freedom of thought and common values. Earlier this year I got a call from a reporter when I was travelling out of state who asked, “Is it true your church is hosting the local organizational meeting for the Woman’s March in Washington DC?” I told the reporter that I was driving and I would call back when I pulled over somewhere safe. So I pulled into a parking lot and called the church office and asked, “Is it true our church is hosting the local organizational meeting for the Woman’s March in Washington?” And the answer was, “Yes.”
I tell this story because it illustrates that here at TVUUC we know what we are doing even when we don’t know what we are doing. Our congregation has roots in the suffragist movement. We know who we are, why we are here, what our purposes is, so much so that we can act decisively when the minister is out of town or out of touch.
We can show up for a march for refugees on Market Square on a Wednesday at noon in large numbers with our churcg banner in the air on almost no notice because we know who we are. We know why we are here. We know our purpose.
Here in Knoxville the name Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church means something. When I was a brand new minister I would walk into a room somewhere in the community I was immediately given more respect than I deserved because the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church means over half a century of commitment to civil rights, it means a spirit of resistance to segregation, Jim Crow, bigotry and hatred. Our name means a spirit of resistance to sexism and discrimination everything that belittles, undermines and oppresses the sacred worth of every human personality. Our name means that fear will not silence us nor hate crimes deter us for we will meet hatred with love, fear with courage, prejudice with understanding, hostility with goodwill, chaos with community.
Here in our community the name Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church really means something and I am unspeakably proud of what it means. We are not a perfect community. We are a progressive community, which means we are a church in progress, always growing, always changing, always learning as we go.
I would go so far as to say that the abbreviation TVUUC means something. In most cases the use of an abbreviation obscures the meaning of an organization. For instance it is common in our city to shorten the term Vacation Bible School to VBS. Once a member of this church drove by a congregation that had a sign out front that gave the dates for their “Vacation BS” Just one way an abbreviation can be a problem.
But here in our community the abbreviation TVUUC means something. The term TVUUC is a brand. If you say it people will know what you mean. So while I wholeheartedly agree with Bob Porter on all the reasons we should change our name I also believe that ours is a name to be proud of. And when I say that ours is a name to be proud of it’s not just bullshit.
Of course, I also agree with the bard, that rose by any other name would smell as sweet and just as Romeo was willing to give up his name in order to be with Juliet I would be willing to give up any name that was an obstacle to love and say as he did, “Call me love, and I’ll be new baptized.” Or we can say together to each other, “Call us love and we will be new baptized.”
But just in case you think it is impossible for us practice simplicity let me share with you something I learned from watching Jeff Mellor teach our preschool class. He would begin the class by asking the kids to repeat after him some opening words that he would break down into bite size pieces.
“Here we are/at the Tennessee Valley/Unitarian/Universalist/Church/with our friends/and we hope/that one day/all the people of the world/can be friends.”
Which just goes to show that when we try we can keep it simple.
(This sermon was preached at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday February 5, 2017 by Rev. Chris Buice)