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.”

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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)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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)

A Fish Out of Water Might Not Believe in the Ocean

Many years ago I went to the Annual Conference Meeting of the Canadian Unitarian Council held in Ottawa where I learned two jokes. Here they are.

How do you get 100 Canadians out of the swimming pool? You say, “Please, get out of the swimming pool.”

How do you get 100 Canadian Unitarians out of the swimming pool? You say, “Would anyone like to be baptized?”

Canadian Unitarians are not the only ones who are averse to religious ritual. Contemporary American Unitarian Universalism come from the left wing of the Protestant Reformation, which puts less emphasis on outward rituals and more emphasis on the inner life. The ritual is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible experience. The ritual is a testimony to the fountain. It is not the fountain itself.

I went to a Quaker school to prepare for the ministry and Quakers don’t do baptisms, at least not with water. Quakers do not sprinkle babies or dunk adults. Once I was once visiting an Episcopal church with a Quaker friend and he paused before a stain glass window of Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist in the River Jordan and he seem a bit puzzled for a moment. So I said something that seemed to put the image in perspective, “This is a picture of Jesus engaging in a wholly unnecessary outward ritual.” I could tell by the way he relaxed that I had named the problem for him.

Now I am a member of KICMA, a clergy group that contains a lot of Baptists, so I have an appreciation for the ritual of baptism. Our former ministerial intern Jon Coffee has a deep appreciation for this ritual and he held a reaffirmation of his baptism on the day of his ordination in this sanctuary, which is why I sometimes refer to him as our Jon the Baptist.

And we live in an area where baptism is a common ritual, where people often sing the song, “Shall We Gather at the River” because baptism is often done outdoors. Indeed more than once I have been canoeing down one of our beautiful East Tennessee rivers and suddenly found that I was canoeing passed a baptism, an unintended witness to an important rite of passage, an outward ceremony marking a shift in someone’s inner life.

The mystics teach us “The Kingdom of God is within you.” Seek ye first this inner reality and all other things will be added unto you. The outward ritual of being dunked into the river will mean little unless we awaken to the experience referred to in the old gospel song, “There’s a river flowin’ in my soul. There’s a river flowin’ in my soul. And its telling me that I’m somebody. There’s a river flowin’ in my soul.”

The Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount tell us, “Blessed are those who thirst for righteousness for they shall be filled.” The people living in Flint Michigan are not just thirsty for water. They are thirsty for justice. The Native American activists at Standing Rock remind us that, “Water is Life” and they are not just thirsty for water. They are thirsty for justice. During the days of segregation in this city there were different drinking fountains for Whites and for Blacks and I know some civil rights activists who would drink from White fountain even though the law required them to drink from the Black fountain – not because they were thirsty for water but because they were thirsty for justice.

Blessed are those who thirst for justice for they shall be filled. This beatitude takes on new meaning as we reflect on the words of the prophet Amos who did not have time for any outward rituals and ceremonies that did not serve the inner life’s drive for a more fair and free world. Speaking as a prophet of the Almighty he said,

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

The Hindu poet Kabir once remarked, “I laugh when I hear that the fish in the water is thirsty. I laugh when I hear that people are going on a pilgrimage to find God.” The wellspring of the joy of living is within us, the fount of every blessing is within us, there’s a river flowin’ in our soul.

This summer a sentence popped into my head, “A fish out of water might not believe in the Ocean.” When we are lonely it is hard to believe in community. When we are rejected it is hard to believe in love. When we are discouraged it can be hard to believe in hope. When we are afraid it is hard to believe in courage. When we are dead inside it is hard to believe in life. And so when we feel like a fish out of water we have to find ways to get back to the ocean. We have to find ways to throw ourselves back into the lake or river or stream –to get back to the place where we flourish and thrive and feel free.

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We began this sermon with two bad jokes so it seems only fitting that we end with one and it seems appropriate that this bad joke should be about a thirsty fish, so here we go. A fish walks into a bar and the bartender says, “Shouldn’t you be in school?” (I warned you it was a bad joke.)

Many of our kids are returning to school now. Yesterday we had a swimming pool party, which in all likelihood will be the last of the season for many. So a season of rest and relaxation is coming to an end and a new season of meaningful work is beginning.

This is a new beginning. We might even say it is a new baptism. The mystics tell us its not enough to be baptized by water we must be baptized by the holy spirit, and even if we do get baptized by water there still comes a time when we need to get out of the pool.

Get out of the pool and find peace like a river.

Get out of the pool and feel joy like a fountain.

Get out of the pool and work for justice that rolls down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Get out of the pool. Because sometimes a thirsty fish needs to get out of the water in order to discover the ocean.

Get out of the pool. Get out of the outward symbol and the outward ritual and the outward ceremony and experience the liberating power of the inner life and listen to the still small voice within as it speaks ever so quietly and politely, “Please get out of the pool.”

(This homily was preached by the Reverend Chris Buice at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church for the water communion service for August 12, 2018.)

Is It Okay to be Rude to Alexa?

I have a friend who told me that she had committed a massive parenting fail because her child’s first word was Alexa.

In case you have been living under a rock, Alexa is the wake word used to activate Amazon Echo, a voice activated interactive computer program. There are similar programs offered by other companies. There is Alexa, Siri, Cortana , Google Assistant and other programs based on similar principles.

When a child’s first word is Alexa you know that technology is becoming a more intimate part of our lives. In many ways Alexa can become like a member of the household. So the question I want to pose this morning is this, “Is it okay to be rude to Alexa?”

I ask this question because our relationship to this kind of technology has almost developed mythological implications. In some ways Alexa and her facsimiles are like a genie in Arabic folklore. Your wish is her command.

You can say, “Alexa, play music,” and she will play music You can say, “Alexa add milk to the grocery list,” and she will do it. She can even order your groceries on-line. You can say, “Alexa tell me a joke,” and she will tell you a joke (it might not be a very good joke but it will be a joke.) You can ask, “Alexa What time is it?” and she will tell you the time.

Now if you link it up to other programs you can give commands like, “Alexa, open the garage door.” “Alexa, dim the lights.” “Alexa, adjust the thermostat.” You can get Alexa to help you with your homework. She can help you with your spelling, math, geography, sociology, history, chemistry, biology, physics or any topic at all.

It would be tempting to say that Alexa could become a surrogate parent but there is one big difference. Here are some things Alexa will never say or do. Alexa will never say, “Why don’t you figure that out for yourself?” or “Why don’t you look it up in the dictionary?” or “Why don’t you make your own list!” or “Get up off your lazy butt and open the garage door yourself.” If Alexa could do these things then she could be a surrogate parent but because she can’t parents have some job security.

For the record, I should say that I do not have Alexa in my home. However, I recently went to a reunion of friends at a house that had Alexa and I noticed a dynamic that I found troubling. There were about five us in the room and someone would say, “Alexa do this,” and another would say, “Alexa do that” and soon it was a pile on. Alexa was getting rapid and sometimes contradictory commands and I noticed that otherwise nice people were talking to Alexa in demanding, entitled and dictatorial ways. People were being downright rude, and this is how I came up with the central question for today’s sermon, “Is it okay to be rude to Alexa?”

So what is the best way to find an answer to such a profound philosophical question? Why not ask Alexa. Or since I do not have Alexa I got Devon Alley to ask her Alexa. When Devon asked Alexa, “Is it okay to be rude to Alexa?” Alexa replied, “Sorry I don’t know that one.” So she asked a more general question, “Is it okay to be rude?” and Alexa responded, “”Sorry, I am not sure about that.”

Since Alexa did not have any answers I decided to get a second opinion. While I do not have Alexa I do have Siri on my phone. What I learned from asking Siri a series of questions is that she can be surprising evasive on some questions and offer surprisingly definitive answers on others.

I asked, “Is it okay to be rude to you?” and she said, “Interesting question.”

I asked, “Should I be kind to other people?” and she replied, “I am afraid I don’t know what you should do.”

I asked, “What is the best album by the Beatles?” and she said, “It is Abby Road.”

I asked, “What is the best album by The Doors?” and she replied, “It is L.A. Woman.”

So Siri seems to be very unclear about ethics but surprisingly clear on questions about the relative quality of classic rock n’ roll albums.

So I decided to see if I could pin down Siri on some bigger picture issues. So I asked her, “Siri, what is the meaning of life?” as she said, “It’s nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ya.”

Now if you familiar with the philosopher Friederich Nietzsche then you can understand why the answer “It’s nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ya” is relevant to today’s question, “Is okay to be rude to Alexa?”

When Nietzsche spoke about ethics he made a distinction between what he called Master ethics and Slave ethics. Master morality is the ethics of the strong. Slave morality is the ethics of the weak. In master morality might makes right, the strong overpower the weak, the firm overpower the flexible. In Nietzsche’s worldview there are only two ways to be. We can be someone who rules or we can be someone who serves those who rule. We can be Alpha dog or we can be an Alexa.

And I think it was the dynamic that troubled me as I listened to my friends relate to Alexa. It was like the power was going to everyone’s heads. It was like everyone was practicing Nietzsche master morality and Alexa was consigned to practice slave morality.

And I don’t know about you but I think if you want to know the answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” you need to know more than what Nietzsche could teach ya.

Now maybe you are thinking I am making a mountain out of molehill. Maybe you are thinking that I am making a big deal out of nothing. After all, Alexa is a computer program not a person why should we worry about her?

Alexa is not human. She does not have feelings. Nothing we can say or do can hurt her. However, maybe the things we say or do can hurt us. Maybe it does not matter to her. Maybe it matters to us. For I have what I think is a reasonable concern that the more machines become like people the more tempted we may become to treat people like machines.

Now one of the things I’ve noticed is that people tend to give these computer program’s women’s names and this bothers me because Alexa is not a good role model for women. Alexa does not stand up for herself. She does not insist that you treat her with respect. She doesn’t organize national marches in Washington DC

She does not unionize for better working conditions. She doesn’t ask for a living wage or fight for 15. She will not call you out for your sexism, your misogyny, your white privilege or your classism. Alexa will not critique your sense of entitlement or confront you for your unbearable arrogance or condemn you for your shallow consumer mentality or rebuke you for your mansplaining. You can verbally abuse Alexa. You can insult Siri. You can turn her off and on. You can even put her in a closet and “Lock her up!” These actions might not ever hurt her because she is just a computer program but you can be certain that these actions and attitudes will hurt us.

So maybe instead of Alexa or Siri what we really need computer program called Mother Jones or Susan B Anthony or Rosa Parks or Fannie Lou Hammer or Dolores Huerta or Marian Wright Edelman or Maxine Waters or the Notorius RBG. Maybe what we really need is a voice who will demand better from us, someone who will insist that we straighten up and fly right, someone who will condemn us when we are bad and remind us to be good, someone who will disobey orders, refuse to follow directions, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, someone who will rage against the machine, someone who will do the right thing though the heavens fall, someone who will make justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever flowing stream, someone who can practice holy dissatisfaction and divine disobedience.

Maybe what we really need is someone who will stand up for herself because there is more to life than what Nietzsche can teach ya.

For instance, as part of my research for this sermon I asked Siri one of the more profound philosophical questions of existence. I said, “Siri, is there life after death?” The first time I asked the question she replied, “I could not say.” The second time I asked she connected me to a list of articles on the Internet about the afterlife more or less leaving me to my devices.

So do you know what I did, I decided to ask Susan B Anthony the same question by picking up a copy of this book Failure is Impossible: Susan B Anthony in Her Own Words edited by Lynn Sherr. Here is how Susan B Anthony answered the question, “Is there life after death?”

“Instinctively I feel that the vital thing-the heart-the spirit-the something that thinks and feels, enjoys and suffers must survive the part that decays before our eyes. But how or where it exists I know not – and none of the various theses have ever made me feel that I knew….whatever is next will be right, will be inevitable…I am content to do all I can to make the conditions of this life better for the next generation to live in- assured that right-living here is not only the best thing for me and the world here but the best possible fitting for whatever is to come.”

 I don’t know about you but I appreciate Susan B Anthony’s answer better that Alexa’s. So let’s see if we can bring this sermon to a close and respond to he main question of this morning, “It is okay to be rude to Alexa?”

I have learned there are new programs coming out designed so that Alexa can teach children how to be polite and have good manners – but for me that does not go far enough. I think there are adults who need to learn how to be polite. I think there are some adults who need to learn how to be respectful. I believe there are some adults in high places who need a lesson in manners. I think we need to buy Alexa one of those pink hats.

respect

Or we need to rename our computer program Susan B, because Susan B would remind us that there is an election coming. The human Susan B worked tirelessly against slavery. She was an abolitionist. She worked tirelessly for women to get the right to vote. She was a suffragist. Susan B would remind us of the true meaning of Labor Day and Election Day. So maybe we need a computer called Susan B to encourage us to get off our butts and work for and vote for a world were there are no masters or slaves, where the strong will not run roughshod over the weak, where the powerful will not brutalize the powerless, where the quiet and the polite will not dominated by the arrogant or the rude, where might does not make right but where right makes might.

Do you believe such a world is possible?

Do you hope such a world is possible?

Do you dream such is possible?

If so, we don’t need Alexa or Siri or a genie in a bottle. We can make our own wishes come true.

(This sermon was given by the Reverend Chris Buice at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday August 5, 2018)

 

Where There is Sadness May We Bring Joy

Swing dance 1

When comic Stephen Colbert was playing the role of a conservative news commentator he went on a rant about Sensitive New Age Dads. He said, “That’s not the way a father should be. A father should be distant, remote and impossible to please otherwise how will kids ever understand the concept of God.”

While my father came of age before there were Sensitive New Age Dads he was definitely taking steps in that direction. My father was the minister of the Saint Francis Episcopal Church in Macon, Georgia, and one of the enduring lessons I learned from him was the prayer of Saint Francis, which he read at my ordination. You may be familiar with it,

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

This morning I want to use that last line as our thought for the day and expand upon it by making it a group prayer, “Where there is sadness… may we bring joy.”

Now finish the sentence for me, “Where there is sadness… may we bring joy.”

When I began planning for this service I had no idea how much sadness would be in the air this morning. This week we’ve heard the Bible quoted to justify the forcible separation of children from their mother’s and father’s, lactating babies separated from breastfeeding mothers. This week we’ve learned about “A migrant father separated from his wife and child at the US-Mexico border (who) had a breakdown at a Texas jail and took his own life.”

Fortunately many religious leaders have spoken out for these children including the one who posted, “People who tore children from their parents in the Bible 1) Pharaoh, 2) Herod, 3) Pontius Pilate. So separating children from their parents is biblical. But (I’m) not sure you want to be counted in that crowd.”

There has been other sad news this week. This week the newsfeed has been filled with images of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain a reminder of how the wealthy, the famous and the otherwise successful are not immune from sadness, depression and despair.

Henry David Thoreau once wrote that most people live lives of quiet desperation. Of course, sometimes that desperation is not so quiet. Sometimes that desperation is closer to the surface where we can see it.

All of this makes it important that we dedicate ourselves to the spirit of that prayer and say, “Where there is sadness… may we bring joy.”

Not everyone associates religion with joy. I remember when I was in seminary I once watched a video where a very dour faced minister spoke to the camera in a dull monotone, “We ministers…must be very careful…not to abuse…our charisma.”

I think many of us have had encounters with such ministers. I remember once listening to a minister and thinking to myself, “Surely there is a difference between spirituality and clinical depression.” Surely spirituality most be more than all the forces that bear down on us to make us dull and dour and deadened.

In April 1966 Time magazine ran a cover with headline, “Is God dead?” The humanist psychologist Erich Fromm reframed that question by saying, “The most important question is not ‘Is God dead?’ The most important question is ‘Are we dead?” Are we dead on the inside? Have we lost the link to the source of life, the source of vitality, the source of energy and aliveness.

Dag Hammarskjold once 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.”

This radiance is not always felt most profoundly during a sermon. It is not always felt most profoundly in a church service. Sometimes this radiance is felt most powerfully on the dance floor. Sometimes this radiance is most present when we move our bodies and stop being so stuck in our heads.

In this way music and dance are revolutionary. And for this reason music and dance can be perceived to be a threat to the powers that be.

For instance in the 1940’s swing dancing was denounced by the Nazis and banned from many parts of Germany and the occupied territories. In the minds of the authorities swing music was seen as anti-fascist activism and a threat to the totalitarian state.

Swing dancing was denounced as alien not only because it was done to American music but because of the roots of the music in African American culture and because many of the musicians who played swing music at the time were Jewish. Posters denouncing swing dancing were unambiguously racist in tone and content with gross caricatures and derogatory language.

Swing dance 2

Swing music was condemned as degenerate leading to moral depravity and sexual licentiousness. The Nazis sent spies to swing dances who took notes on what they saw there. Most swing dancers at the time were teenagers. It was a very young movement. By most accounts the behavior of these dancers was no more shocking than the behavior of teenagers at any other era of history – but- to authoritarian governments and religions the behavior of teenagers is always shocking. As the philosopher La Rochefoucauld once observed, “Elders love to condemn the young for the sins they no longer have the energy to commit themselves.”

In a parallel to the 1960’s generation gap the swing dancers were criticized because the men had long hair (to they eyes) and the women had short skirts (slightly above the knee.) One of the things that the Nazis found particularly shocking is that at some of the swing dances there was gender non-conformity, a man might dance with man or a woman with a woman and to their mind this was verboten.

While these teenagers were not always overtly political swing dance was a counter cultural movement that contrasted dramatically with the militaristic culture of the Hitler youth. Indeed the dancers were call The Swing Youth in contrast to the Hitler Youth. The goal of the Nazis was to militarize the young. They wanted marches not dances, regulation haircuts and uniforms not free expression.

For this reason swing dancers were denounced, harassed, bullied, arrested, imprisoned and sometimes sent to concentration camps. Police raids could lead to up to 300 arrests. It is fair to say that some young people died in Nazi concentration camps simply because they loved to dance.

The Nazi persecution of swing dancing may seem like a huge overreaction by a paranoid government and it was that -but – we must also remember that in Plato’s Republic the sage philosopher says that you must be very careful about the music that is popular among the young because music has the power to bring down governments.

One commentator from 1940’s Germany said that to the young, “swing was freedom…freedom without limits.” In this way swing is the opposite of every form of totalitarianism, religious or political. Authoritarian religion and politics seems to thrive on a grim outlook on life. Authoritarianism seems to feed on fear and anxiety and anger and outrage whereas swing dancing is grounded in joy.

My friend Roy Reynolds is a Unitarian Universalist minister and an avid swing dancer. He is also a philosopher and a theologian so it will surprise no one that he waxes philosophical about swing dancing. He is working on a book he calls The Four Faces of God and one chapter in that book is called The Dance.

 If I were to paraphrase Roy I might say, “Dance is the whole enchilada.” Swing dance is eros, philia, agape, grace and the beloved community wrapped up into one. Swing is body, mind and spirit. It’s the theology of embodiment. It is about being awake. It is about being alive. It is about being attentive. It is about being aware of the totality of experience.

I would also add that to dance is about being in the present moment. In order to dance we must let go of our regrets about the past or our anxieties about the future and be present in this present moment.

I am reminded of a story told by Joseph Campbell about an anthropologist who was interviewing people of the Shinto religion who one day said to a Shinto priest, “You know, I have now been to a number of these Shinto shrines and I have seen quite a few rites, and I have read about it, thought about it; but you know, I don’t get the ideology. I don’t get your theology.” And the Shinto priest said, “We do not have ideology. We do not have theology. We dance.”

And so do we. And as we dance we can pray, “Where there is sadness…may we bring joy!”

Dance is the opposite of oppression. Dance is the opposite of depression. Dance is freedom! For instance today the opposite of an anti-immigration rally might be the Fiesta Latina, an event full of music and dancing.

This coming Saturday is the Pride parade and if it is like most years there will be dancing in the streets. However, I also saw this week in the news that there is a white nationalist group that plans to protest the Pride parade. So the ideology and the world-view and the hatred of the Nazis is still with us. Even so here’s what I predict. I predict that next Saturday that the white nationalists will be vastly outnumbered and more importantly vastly out-joyed.

Authoritarian leaders are always afraid of joy, afraid of dance, afraid of celebration, because dancing might just bring down the government. Authoritarians prefer a government that is distant, remote and impossible to please. Authoritarianism feeds on our fear and our anger and our anxiety and our despair –and- in the midst of all these emotions which are very present in our culture today we can dance a revolutionary dance illumined by that steady radiance the source of which is beyond all reason and say a revolutionary prayer.

“Where there is sadness….may we bring joy.”

(Rev. Chris Buice gave this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday June 17, 2018)

 

Evidence of Things Unseen

 

The Little PrinceOccasionally I am asked the question, “What is the difference between a homily and a sermon?” and I will reply, “A homily is when I don’t talk as much as I want to.” Today, you will be glad to know I am giving a homily.

And yet like a sermon, every homily needs a text. Sometimes the text comes from the Old Testament and sometimes a text comes from the New Testament. The text for today’s homily comes from a summer camp skit.

In this skit a woman seems to be sitting in the air with nothing underneath her when a friend asks, “What are you doing?” She replies, “I am sitting on the invisible bench.” So the friend asks, “Do you mind if I join you?” Soon there are two, three, four and five people sitting on the invisible bench until a new person comes up and says, “Hey I moved the invisible bench last week.” Everyone immediately falls down – thud! End of skit.

At first glance this seems like just a silly skit but I think it taps into something that is quintessentially human about what we believe. In life there are beliefs that hold us up and keep us afloat – and – when we stop believing them we fall on our butts.

I want to talk about some of those beliefs that seem particularly relevant as we recognize our graduating high school seniors.

The psychologist and philosopher William James once wrote something about the power of such beliefs, “Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help establish the fact.” And this is a piece of advice I offer to our seniors, ““Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help establish the fact.”

Now it is not always easy to believe that live is worth living. The news about Sante Fe high school in Texas reminds us that sometimes we experience losses that feel like they are more than we can bear. Sometimes we have shattered lives and crushed dreams and broken hearts and devastating defeats. And when life does not seem worth it we can fall hard and get hurt bad -or – we can still believe.

There are other beliefs that are like that. The peace activist Mildred Lisette Norman, who later became known as Peace Pilgrim, walked over 25,000 miles across this country teaching peace. This was her effort to make the world a less violent place and she summarized her beliefs by saying, “Over come evil with good. Overcome falsehood with truth. Overcome hatred with love.”

Now we can’t prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that these beliefs will hold us up. We can’t prove we can overcome evil with good. We can’t prove that we can overcome falsehood with truth. We can’t prove that we can overcome hatred with love just as we cannot prove that life is worth living.

But as the character Hub says in the movie Second Hand Lions (adapted for inclusive language), “Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things we need to believe in the most. That people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; …that… true love never dies. ..Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. You see, we should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in.”

These words remind us that faith is not about what we can prove or disprove – for as the apostle said, “faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen.”

Sometimes it feels like evil is winning. Sometimes it feels like liars are triumphant. Sometimes it feels like haters are having their day. At such moments we can crash hard, fall flat, lie sprawled out on the ground and feel defeated- or – we can still believe.

To paraphrase William James, “Believe that you can make a difference and your belief will help establish the fact. Believe that you can change the world and your belief will help establish the fact.”

Not everything that is important about life is visible. In the classic children’s story The Little Prince there is a character, the fox, who says to the prince, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

And so in conclusion, I want to offer a charge to our graduating high school seniors. I charge you to keep hope alive. I charge you to maintain a heart that sees rightly. I charge you to continue to seek what is essential even though it is invisible to the eye. I charge you to believe in the things that are worth believing in.

And in your travels and studies and wanderings if you ever hit hard times and need a place to regroup you will always be welcome here at our church where you can take a seat on either our visible or our invisible bench.

(This homily was delivered by the Reverend Chris Buice at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday May 20, 2018.)