Is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a Bodhisattva?

The main question I want to ask this morning is this, “Is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a bodhisattva?” Of course, I am going to take my sweet time getting to my answer so be patient. 

This week I saw a commercial  for Berlitz, a global language educational service, that illustrates how so much can get lost in translation. In it there is a radio operator for the German coast guard sitting at his desk when all of a sudden he gets a message in English, “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! We are sinking! We are sinking! We are sinking!” which seems to intrigue the radio operator. So he leans into the microphone and asks with great curiosity in his voice, “What are you thinking about?” 

I thought that the commercial was very appropriate for a Unitarian Universalist church because when people visit our church on Sunday morning we often ask them, “What are you thinking?” without any recognition that they might also be sinking. Sometimes, it is intellectual curiosity that drives people through our doors but at other times it might be a death in the family or a divorce or a diagnosis or a bankruptcy. 

This morning I want to talk about the friendship between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Thich Nhat Hanh, a Christian minister and a Buddhist monk, an American citizen and citizen of Vietnam. And one of the reasons I want to talk about this relationship is because even though Dr. King had enough challenges of his own leading the civil rights movement in our country in the 1960’s he could not help but be concerned about the people in Vietnam whose boats and whose hopes were sinking. 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Thich Nhat Hanh shared a commitment to peace and nonviolence. Dr King applied these principles in our country, America, and Hanh applied them in his country, Vietnam. Both also spread these ideas all over the world. For this reason Dr. King nominated Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967. 

Dr. King was a Baptist minister and Hanh was a Buddhist monk. Christianity is a theistic religion and Buddhism is a non-theistic religion, and yet the two men were able to find common ground despite their different ideas about God. 

Dr. King made a distinction between what he called “theoretical atheists” and “practical atheists” and he made it clear that he was more interested in practice than theory. He once said, “The most dangerous type of atheism is not theoretical atheism, but practical atheism -that’s the most dangerous type. And the world, even the church, is filled up with people who pay lip service to God and not life service. And there is always a danger that we will make it appear externally that we believe in God when internally we don’t. We say with our mouths that we believe in (God), but we live our lives like (God) never existed. That is the ever-present danger confronting religion. That’s a dangerous type of atheism.” In other words Dr. King was less concerned with what we say and more interested in what we do, less concerned with what we believe and more interested in how we live. 

Dr. King and Thich Nhat Hanh had different ideas about God but they had the same ideas about peace and nonviolence, kindness and compassion, love and understanding. And these ideas are not just about a common way of thinking but about a common way of being present with one another when someone is in times of crisis and pain. How we are present with someone when they have a death in the family or a discouraging diagnosis or a bankruptcy or other catastrophe. 

They were less concerned about orthodoxy (right thinking) and more concerned about orthopraxy (right living.)

Thich Nhat Hanh helped found a movement called engaged Buddhism during the Vietnam war. He described the foundation of this movement with these words, “As monks, nuns and lay people during the war, many of us practiced…meditation. But we could hear the bombs falling around us, and the cries of the children and adults who were wounded. To meditate is to be aware of what is going on. What was going on around us was the suffering of many people and the destruction of life. So we were motivated by the desire to do something to relieve the suffering in us and around us…we wanted to maintain our (spiritual) practice while responding to the suffering.” 

This is what Dr. King and Thich Nhat Hanh had in common, the desire for spirituality to inform our actions in the world and inspire us to work together to build the Beloved Community. Indeed it is this term that inspired a recent book by Marc Andrus, Brothers in the Beloved Community:The Friendship of Thich Nhat Hanh and Martin Luther King Jr. 

Earlier in the service we heard Eddie Chin share his new year’s resolutions in anticipation of the beginning of the Year of the Water Rabbit and one of the resolutions that we share is a desire for our congregation to live more fully into the 8th Principle of Unitarian Universalism which reads. 

“We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.” And this is why we are reflecting on Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. King this morning because they are an excellent example of an interfaith partnership committed to building the Beloved Community together. As we approach the Year of the Water Rabbit we are mindful of members of the Asian community who have been targeted with violence and hate crimes including a recent attack in Bloomington, Indiana. Our meditations and our prayers cannot ignore the suffering around us caused by racism. 

This vision of the Beloved Community is not only the concern of famous people like Dr. King and Thich Nhat Hanh. This vision of the Beloved Community is what brings us to this church on Sunday morning. Yesterday, we held a memorial service for Erven Williams who named his son after Frederick Douglass. Erven was a Unitarian Universalist but he also identified himself as a Christian. And he identified as Christian in the same sense that the 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass identified as a Christian, a follower of Jesus and a fierce critic of every form of religion used to support slavery, racism and white supremacy. 

On more that one occassion Erven read these words by Frederick Douglass from our pulpit, “Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked…I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.”

So when Erven described himself as a Christian he was aligning himself with the Christianity of Christ and not the Christianity too often practiced in this land that is unwilling to challenge white supremacy.. 

And Erven’s religion, like Dr. King’s, was informed by his friendships with members of the Buddhist faith. Erven served in the Air Force and was stationed in both Thailand and Vietnam where he made friends with Buddhist monks, and these friendships would shape his whole life. 

He once told me that it was this experience, more than many others, that set him on the path to becoming a Unitarian Universalist. It was his time in Southeast Asia that revealed to him that there are good people in every faith and wisdom in all the great world religions. 

This week Elnora shared with me some pictures of Erven in Thailand including one with him and a friend who was a Buddhist monk. In my hands I hold two books that belonged to Erven, a cookbook on how to prepare Asian cuisine and another called The Teaching of the Buddha written in Japanese with an English translation, food for the body and the spirit. 

The two books remind us that we often build the beloved community around food. Our church has hosted many interfaith dinners, where people of all faiths can sit at the same table and learn more about each other. And we also study the scriptures of the world’s religions here at TVUUC. Including these verses from Erven’s book about Buddhism, wisdom from the Dhammapadda. 

“Hatreds never cease by hatreds in this world. By love alone they cease. This is the ancient law. 

Though we should conquer a thousand soldiers on a battlefield a thousand times, it is not until we conquer ourselves that we become the noblest victor.” 

After Dr. King’s assassination, Thich Nhat Hanh described some of his last words to Dr. King, “I said to him, ‘Martin do you know something? In Vietnam they call you a bodhisattva, an enlightened being trying to awaken other beings and help them move toward more compassion and understanding.’” 

With these words in mind, the question might be raised, can a Baptist be a bodhisattva? A bodhisattva is someone who reaches the mountaintop of enlightenment but then feels led by compassion to return to the valley to help others struggling to find their way to that experience. And I would argue that in so much as the memory of Dr. King inspires us to live a compassionate life today, to reach out to those who are suffering today, then I believe we can say, “Yes, Dr. King is a bodhisattva,” even now. 

Erven Williams once gave a sermon in this church where he said, “As an individual it is easy to look at differences, but if we are really concerned with living in harmony with each other we look for likeness. What we share together is what holds us together.” 

One way to look at all the different religions of the world is to focus on those differences. Another way to look at them as different languages, differing words trying to speak about the same things. Our challenge is to make an accurate translation. If we adopt this latter point of view then we will spend more time thinking about our similarities than our differences. We will spend more time thinking about what we have in common and not what divides us. And if someone asks us what we are doing we can say, “We are thinking. We are thinking. We are thinking.” For as Mahatma Gandhi reminded us, “Our thoughts become our words. Our words become your actions. Our actions become our habits. Our habits become our values. Our values become our destiny.”

Dr. King used to say to his fellow Americans, “We all came to this country on different boats but we are in the same boat now.” So our challenge is to turn our thoughts into words and our words into actions and do everything in our power to keep this boat (and every boat) from sinking. 

(The Reverend Chris Buice gave this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday January 15, 2023) 

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Kibbitzing Around the Christmas Tree

This week I got a text from Claudia Pressley, our Director of Administration, informing me that the alarm for the church building went off in the middle of the night. Claudia reviewed the video on our security system and discovered a mouse had walked in front of one of our electronic sensors. So it was a week before Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirring except for a mouse.

The season is upon us. Walking through the bustling halls of our church this morning I found myself singing; (to the tune It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas)

 “It’s beginning to look a lot like multiple holidays. Let’s name them all…”

That’s when I had to stop singing because I needed a comprehensive list. There’s Advent, Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, Yule, Festivas for the Rest of Us. There’s Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen. 

This year Chanukah and Christmas overlap so we will  have latkes and mistletoe, dreidels and caroling. Sometimes the pairings seem dissonant. For instance, after church today we are having “Hotdogs for Hanukkah.” Rest assured kosher hot dogs. This year it seems especially important to remember that many of our favorite Christmas songs were written by Jews. White Christmas was written by Irving Berlin. The Most Wonderful Time by George Wyle, Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow by Samuel Kahn, Walkin’ in a Winter Wonderland by Felix Bernard and Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree by Johnny Marks. 

And for this reason I thought a good theme for this year’s service would be Kibbitzing Around the Christmas Tree. Before I say more about Christmas trees let me turn to Rabbi Naomi Levy for a good definition of the word kibbitz. 

“Kibbitz is a Yiddish word that encompasses all that amazing nothingness you do with your friends – hanging around, joking, gossiping, teasing, storytelling, unburdening, listening, laughing and more…” 

And so today seems like a good day for… (to the tune of Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree

Kibbitzing around the Christmas Tree

At the interfaith party hop

Celebrating all the holidays 

So religious rivalries stop. 

All humor aside, our church has hosted many interfaith dinners and interfaith forums and these are the very heart of spirituality for us. In the Unitarian Universalist church we draw wisdom from all the great religions of the world. We also draw joy from all the celebrations. 

This interfaith spirit is not an exercise in postmodern political correctness. It is about “Peace on Earth and Goodwill to All.”  Today we are mindful of the rise of antisemitism and hate crimes in our country. The local synagogues and the Jewish Community Center have increased their security during this season due to possible threats. Today people of all faiths light the candles of the menorah as a sign of solidarity and a prayer for peace. 

Many of us are familiar with the story of a pagan who approached Rabbi Hillel and said to him, “Explain the Torah to me while I stand on one foot.” Rabbi Hillel said, “Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you, this is the Torah, all the rest is commentary.” 

All the great religions of the world have similar teachings. 

“Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful,” teach the Buddhists.

“Lay not on any soul a load you would not want laid on you,” teach the Bahai. 

“Do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you,” teach the Hindus. 

“No one is truly a believer until you wish for others what you wish for yourself,” teach the Muslims. 

Bill Fields says, “It isn’t the holidays unless there is a baby Jesus in the room” so here he is. Last year we had a hard time finding our baby Jesus for the Christmas pageant (and I was worried we might have a hard time this year.)  However, here he is. Of our baby Jesus we can truly say, “He once was lost but now is found.” 

Jesus taught, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And it is the sentiment found in all of the different versions of the Golden Rule that underlies all of the holidays of the season. In Shintoism followers are taught to look for the religion that underlies all religions. We often find this religion when we spend time in Nature doing what the followers of Shintoism call “forest bathing.” Walking in the woods we get a sense of why Theodore Parker called “The Earth, the Oldest Testament.” 

This time of year I love to go walking in the mountains among the evergreens of the Smokies, the pine and fir,  the cedar and spruce, the mountain laurel and rhododendron, the moss and ferns, against a winter background of gray skies and brown leaves -a hint of life among the omnipresent reminders of death. Walking in the woods every small bit of green becomes an antidepressant and we begin to understand why the Cherokee, the original inhabitants of this land, teach that walking in the woods is Good Medicine. 

When I walk outside in winter I understand why the ancients before any written religion was recorded decided to bring trees inside during the darkest, coldest time of the year and decorated their homes with holly and mistletoe. Oftentimes, the sight of something green is enough to fill us with tidings of comfort and joy. 

For after we’ve had our forest bath it can be good to return to family and friends, hearth and home or come to our congregation on a Sunday morning for some kibbitzing. So let’s finish up this sermon so the kibbitzing can begin. We invite you to come to our fellowship hall for coffee and conversation after the service (or attend the online coffee hour for those watching from home.) For it is beginning to look like multiple holidays and I hope everyone is a holy day of peace for you and your family. So Merry Christmas, Mazel Tov and Shalom. 

(This homily was delivered by the Reverend Chris Buice on Sunday, December 18 at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church)

Charity: Beyond Minimum Help and Maximum Humiliation

Lately, I have been following the controversy over Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter. One of the things I find so intriguing is the combination of two things. First, Musk is fashioning himself as a champion of free speech and second, he is firing anyone who disagrees with him. I am intrigued by the irony of it all. However, if we are wise we can use this kind of irony to practice self-examination. Because oftentimes, if we take an honest look at ourselves in the mirror, we may discover that we are the obstacles to our own goals. We are the ones standing in the way of our  notions of progress. As the comic strip character Pogo used to say, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” 

Today I want to talk about charity but before I do I probably should point out that a sermon unlike a tweet is not limited to 280 characters or less. So I am hoping everyone will be charitable with me about that. Today I want to talk about charity as we enter into the most charitable season of the year. However I want us to reflect on charity with an appreciation of all the ironies involved in the process- for sometimes our efforts to help do harm, our attempts to heal cause hurt, our initiatives to empower can undermine and our good intentions yield bad results. 

 Indeed when I take a close look at our nation’s welfare system and the policies of many other non profit organizations I sometimes feel that the systems in our country are designed to offer the minimum amount of help with the maximum amount of  humiliation. Too often when we offer assistance we do so in ways that undermine human dignity. So this morning my goal is to reflect on charity in a way that helps us all practice self examination and choose to act charitably in ways that affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. My hope is that the work of the church will always be to help and never to humiliate. 

But before I say anymore about charity, I want to remind all of us of the parable of the sower, a parable that should help keep us all humble. Jesus told the following story. 

 A farmer went out to sow his seeds. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. Other seeds fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. Still other seeds fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.

This parable reminds us our efforts to do good will not always yield the results we desire, not every seed we sow is going to yield an abundant harvest. All our efforts to do good involve some level of trial and error. Sometimes our best efforts will be trampled underfoot or eaten by birds or fall on rocky ground or get choked by thorns. However we are called to do good anyhow. We are not in the seed conservation business. We are called to sow seeds anyhow. As Mother Theresa who worked among the poorest of the poor often said, “God does not require me to be successful. God requires me to be faithful.” 

Another thought that should keep us humble comes from Saint Basil the Great who reminds us that the wealth we give away wasn’t created by ourselves alone. Our wealth comes from the commonwealth. He reminded us, “The bread that you keep for yourself belongs to the hungry; to the naked belong the clothes that you hoard in your closet; to the barefooted belongs the shoes that is gathering moth in your home; the indigent have a right to the money you hide in your coffers. The acts of charity you do not perform are the injustices you commit.”

Along these lines there is a Sufi story from the mystical strand of Islam where a man who is caught stealing is brought before the king. The king asks his advisors how the man should be punished. The first advisor says, “He should be roasted alive as a warning to others. The second advisor says, “He should be torn limb from limb.” But the third advisor says, “Ensure that he has the necessities of life so he will not be forced to steal to provide for his family.” The king decided to follow the advice of the last advisor to ensure that the man could live and work in dignity. 

The story reminds us that charity isn’t the solution to every problem. A living wage is worth more than a thousand acts of charity. Working for systemic change often yields far better results than individual acts of kindness. Archbishop Desmund Tutu was right when he said, “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.” Or, I might add, find out who is throwing them in. And this is the work of the church to minister to people downstream AND send people upstream to see what’s going on and change it. 

Charity is important year round. However, there is a reason that the winter season is a time when we increase our acts of charity. In the bleak midwinter the frosty winds make moan, the earth stands hard as iron and water like a stone. Sometimes when the earth is hard, our hearts soften. Sometimes when everything else is frozen our hearts melt. And so we pass the plate at the KICMA Holiday service to raise money for people who need help with their utility bills. We create a Mitten Tree and invite people to bring mittens, hats, gloves and scarves to give to people in need. We make meals for families who would otherwise go homeless through the Family Promise program. We take home a Guest At Your Table Box to help raise money for the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. We buy groceries to stock our church’s free food pantry. This time of year our charity is informed by a sense of solidarity in the face of the common challenge of winter. 

Winter reminds us that charity is not something we do for others. It is what we do with others. It is what we do to face common challenges together. Recently I have been reading the autobiography of the rock star Bono of the group U2. I am interested not only in his music but his activism. He has been a leader in many charitable and justice efforts like Live Aid, Live 8, the One Campaign, the Jubilee Debt Forgiveness movement, Artists Against Apartheid, Amnesty International’s Conspiracy of Hope. He  sometimes leads audiences in the chant, “There is no them. There;s only us.” Let me take the first part and you take the second part, 

There is no them, there is only us.

There is no them, there is only us. 

There is no them, there is only us. 

Believe it or not that chant is theologically sound. Google it and you will find theological commentaries (Catholic, Protestant and more) where those words are referenced as a very simple way to condense thousands and thousands of pages of theological commentary (making it the size of a tweet.)  So let’s say it again, 

There is no them, there is only us.

We can never help others through systems that shame or humiliate. Systems that shame and humiliate are degrading for both the giver and the receiver. For we hunger not only for food. We hunger to be treated with dignity. We not only thirst for something to drink. We thirst to be treated with respect. We long for not only the warmth of winter’s coat or a night’s lodging. We long for the warmth of meaningful human connection, the warmth of compassion, love and mutual respect.  And real human connection includes accountability. Everyone who’s been in a relationship has experienced tough love. My mother knew how to dispense it. Real human connection means realizing that everyone has something to contribute. Everyone has something to offer. We are all called to be part of a solution. Everyone has gifts to give. Everyone has potential to realize. There is nothing that anyone has to offer that we can afford to go to waste. We need everyone, rich and poor, to be a part of the solution. 

In recent years activists have begun to speak about toxic charity, those forms of charity that do more harm than good. Although some of the books on this topic have come from conservative authors there is some significant overlap with insights from the most progressive movements for social change. I am going to focus on that common ground in this sermon. 

One neighborhood organization describes toxic charity this way, 

Toxic Charity shares stuff, but not power or agency – making the recipients into objects of pity.  It usually doesn’t engage with systems of inequity. As a result, it tends not to have a long-term impact on the issue it purports to address.Over time, Toxic Charity can be deeply disempowering. As such, it can end up harming the people who are supposed to benefit from the initiative. It can create an antagonistic or condescending relationship between givers and recipients.” 

Too often, all the power of charity is in the hands of the “giver” and no power in the hands of the “receiver.” One way to detoxify charity is to share power, to share agency and to work in partnership together. The goal is to provide resources without robbing others of human dignity. The goal is to be able to say (in the words of our chalice light song)…

From you I receive, 

to you I give, 

together we share, 

and from this we live. 

Everyone of us needs help sometimes. Recently I was at an interfaith clergy meeting when a member of the group began to complain about the Student Loan Forgiveness plan saying it taught young people the wrong lesson. However, at the risk of ruffling interfaith feathers I pointed out that during the global pandemic many congregations  benefitted from the Payment Protection Program loans offered through the federal government and we also benefitted when those loans were forgiven. Many of us in this room work for organizations, for profit and non-profit,  that  benefited from those loans and that loan forgiveness. And if you meditate on that it gives a whole new meaning to that old familiar prayer, “Forgive us our debts and we forgive those in debt to us.” 

An important aspect of charity is the recognition that we may be givers today and receivers tomorrow. When I was a minister of a church in Spartanburg, South Carolina, we organized a group to support the work of the Interfaith Health Clinic. Our duties were light, welcoming patients, accepting paperwork, minding the bureaucracy of a small clinic. However, it felt good to be able to give back to the community. And yet during our first year one of the members of our congregation found herself in need of essential medical care. She was low income and uninsured. Fortunately, through the Interfaith Health Clinic she was able to get the surgery she needed. I never saw her bill but I am willing to bet that the cost of her surgery was more than the value of all our volunteer hours put together up to that point in time. All of this is to say, we went to the clinic in order to give, only to find ourselves on the receiving end. 

The famous Christmas Carol, Good King Wenceslas, addresses words to Christian men about charity that are equally applicable to people of all faiths and every gender identity. 

Therefore, Christian men, be sure,

Wealth or rank possessing,

Ye who now will bless the poor,

Shall yourselves find blessing.

Of course the mystics of all faiths teach this truth, often through sayings that are short enough to be a tweet. We are taught that  “It is by giving that we receive. It is by emptying that we are filled. It is by letting go that we gain.” The book of Proverbs tells us that our “Mercy to the poor is a loan to God and God pays back those loans in full.” Or as the book of Galatians tells us, “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due time we shall reap a harvest, if we do not give up.” Or as a rock star known for championing good causes would remind us…

There is no them, there is only us.

There is no them, there is only us.

There is no them, there is only us.

(Reverend Chris Buice gave this sermon to the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, December 4, 2022)

Thankfulness: A Countercultural Practice

Meister Eckhart once said, “If the only prayer you ever utter is ‘Thank You’ it will be sufficient. So sometimes when I am hiking on a trail in the Smokies, walking by the music of a mountain stream I will sing that Natalie Merchant song we heard earlier as a kind of prayer (Kind and Generous.) I invite you to sing it with me.

I want to thank you, thank you, 

thank you, thank you,

thank you, thank you, 

thank you, thank you. 

thank you, thank you, 

thank you, thank you,

thank you, thank you, 

thank you, thank you. 

As I said, this song can be a kind of prayer or meditation. Sometimes we need tools to help us meditate. When I was younger I used to find it easy to clear my mind and enter into a meditative state. However, the older I get the more I feel the need for some words to replace the spiraling negative thinking of my monkey mind. So it is good to have a musical prayer to clear my head and allow me to be in the present moment and feel grateful for that moment. 

My longtime friend, the Reverend Johnny Skinner of the Mount Zion Baptist Church often says, “The scripture says ‘Give thanks in all circumstances.’ It does not say, ‘Give thanks for all circumstances’.” In this way the song may serve as a prayer no matter what we are going through in life. There may be more than a little bit of truth in our negative thinking. We may have understandable reasons for feeling agitated or anxious or angry or antagonistic. We may have understandable reasons for not being grateful for all circumstances. We may even have good reasons for not wanting to be grateful in all circumstances. Or maybe today our dominant feeling is not gratitude but anxiety. If so, there is a poem by Mary Oliver that can speak to our condition. Her poem is called I Worried. 

I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers

flow in the right direction, will the earth turn

as it was taught, and if not how shall 

I correct it? 

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,

can I do better? 

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows

can do it and I am, well,

hopeless.

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,

am I going to get rheumatism,

lockjaw, dementia?

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing

and gave it up. And took my old body

and went out into the morning,

and sang. 

So maybe we should take Mary Oliver’s poem as a piece of advice, let go of all our worries and imitate the sparrows and the other songbirds and sing.

I want to thank you, thank you, 

thank you, thank you,

thank you, thank you, 

thank you, thank you. 

thank you, thank you, 

thank you, thank you,

thank you, thank you, 

thank you, thank you. 

After all, thankfulness is a countercultural practice. In many ways our culture is built around worry and anxiety. I am reminded of the roadside sign outside a church that read, “Don’t let worry kill you. Let the church help.” All too often a church can be a place that just piles on more worries to an already overburdened spirit. We worry about the earth and forget to appreciate it. We worry about our families or our communities or the state of the world in general and we forget to make room in our hearts for thanksgiving. Our anxiety about ‘what isn’t’ often intrudes on our gratitude for ‘what is.’

Some Native American leaders have renamed this season Thanksgrieving. It is a time to grieve all the losses suffered by this continent’s indigenous people since contact with Europeans. Today we are especially mindful of the Cherokee tribe that was forcibly relocated from this area to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears. We must name the harm that this season so often tries to cover up. However, the holiday is called Thanksgrieving, which is to say there is both “thanks” and “grieving.” Indeed, the indigenous people of this land have many teachings and practices about fostering gratitude. As the Shawnee warrior Tecumseh taught us, “When you rise in the morning, give thanks for the light, for your life, for your strength. Give thanks for your food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason to give thanks, the fault lies in yourself.” 

If we cannot find any reason to give thanks, the problem is within us, not outside of us. Grieve, yes. Grieve for the lost lives at the Club Q in Colorado Springs. Grieve for the people of Chesapeake, Virginia, who lost their lives doing last minute Thanksgiving shopping. Grieve for every empty seat at the Thanksgiving table that once belonged to someone we loved. Grieve for our loneliness and isolation (or grieve for feeling overwhelmed by the demands of family and friends.) Grieve for the Cherokee, the Chickasaw, the Natchez and Shawnee who once lived on this land and now are the names of the streets in our suburban neighborhoods. Grieve, yes, but also give thanks! 

Giving thanks is countercultural. Our economy is built around planned obsolescence and manufactured discontent. There is a reason Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving because our economy isn’t built on being grateful for what we have. Our economy isn’t built on feelings of thanksgiving. Our economy is built on wanting more, more, more, and that my friends is why so many Native Americans lost their land, for standing in the way of more, more, more. 

And so it can be countercultural for us to say, “Thank you.” So let’s say those words together, “Thank you.”  This week I was at the KICMA Thanksgiving Service at Bethel AME Church and the pastor there, the Reverend Myron D. Hill, began the service by saying, “At Bethel AME we are a loud church. Not a quiet church.” So let’s see if we can get a little more volume from the Unitarians this morning. Let’s see we can say, “Thank you”  loud enough that they can hear it all the way over at the Bethel AME church in East Knoxville, “Thank You!” 

Very good! Let’s be members of the counterculture and give thanks. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin reminds us that ungrateful people are rarely happy people. When we hear someone described as an ingrate we do not imagine a happy person, a content person, a peaceful person. We are the ones who benefit from gratitude. That’s why Thomas Acquinas taught us, “God does not need our worship. (God does not need us to give thanks) It is we who need to give thanks and praise.”  When we are grateful, we are the primary beneficiaries. 

A couple of decades ago my friend Dan King was being installed as the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta in Georgia. If the name of that church is familiar to you it may be because it was targeted by vandals with hateful graffiti a couple of years ago which made the news. Many years before that hateful act Dan asked me to give the prayer at his installation service and I remember worrying about getting it right. I was a very new minister. It was the first time I’d been asked to be a part of such a ceremony so I was a little bit worried about messing up. 

And so I began with that familiar quote  from Meister Eckhart, “If the only prayer you ever utter is ‘thank you’ it will be sufficient.” And when I said these words there was an audible gasp from folks in the choir loft behind me. That made me even more nervous. I wasn’t sure what that gasp was about. So I continued by offering the prayer followed by a moment of silence. After that the choir began to sing a song I had never heard in a church before and was not expecting to hear (as I had not looked carefully at the order of service.) The words of that song will be familiar to you now. So let’s sing together and make those words the last words. 

I want to thank you, thank you, 

thank you, thank you,

thank you, thank you, 

thank you, thank you. 

thank you, thank you, 

thank you, thank you,

thank you, thank you, 

thank you, thank you. 

Thank you. 

(This sermon was given at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church by the Reverend Chris Buice on Sunday November 27, 2022)

(Those who would like to hear Natalie Merchant sing the song can go to Natalie Merchant – Kind and Generous – YouTube

The Virtues of Uncertainty

I often describe my brother in law Larry as a bleeding heart conservative. He believes in low taxes and smaller government but he is a sucker for anyone’s hard luck story. This means his generosity is sometimes taken advantage of. He is well known for hiring people who need a second chance in life. One day a truck was stolen from his business and he knew exactly who did it. So he went to the neighborhood of the employee in question, saw the truck, hotwired it and took it back to his house. Since it was late at night he went straight to bed and as he was lying in bed he thought to himself, “I hope I got the right truck.” Well, it turns out it was the wrong truck. In the light of day Larry could see some differences between the truck in his driveway and the one that belonged to his business. Fortunately he lives in a relatively small town where everybody knows everybody. After he called the police to inform them about what he did lots of cop cars came to the house but mainly to laugh about the situation. Understandably the owner of the truck wasn’t as amused at the joke as everyone else but fortunately he did not press charges. 

I think one of the reasons I love this story is that every one of us has been in a similar situation. Maybe not so dramatic but similar. We’ve all been in that situation where we were certain we were right about something, only to discover, sometimes painfully and to our mortification, that we were wrong. 

It is stories like this (and I feel sure that everyone of us has a story like this) that lead me to speak this morning about the virtues of uncertainty. Many of the world’s religions place a lot of emphasis on firm beliefs and strong judgements. Many religions advocate for holding on to our convictions without any compromise. However, in the Unitarian Universalist church we believe in the virtues of uncertainty. What others consider to be a “weakness” we consider to be one of our greatest strengths. 

The Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once opined that “Certitude is not the test of certainty” and this is because human beings have a tendency to be “cocksure of many things that are not so.” This quote sticks in my mind for a variety of reasons. One of the reasons is that the church I served in Spartanburg built a sign by the road where we could put quotes that could be read by passers by. We were certain this was a good idea. After the sign was constructed we belatedly realized that the quotes needed to be pretty short (and the font size large) to be seen by passing cars, ideally 7 words or less. What we learned from this experience is this – there aren’t many great quotes that are 7 words or less but one of them is this, “Certitude is not the test of certainty.” For this reason, if not any other, the virtues of uncertainty have been an important theme in my ministry. 

One of the reasons that it is important to lift up the virtues of uncertainty is because by doing so we help foster peace in our world. The men who hijacked planes and flew them into the World Trade Center were certain they were right. The domestic terrorists responsible for the Oklahoma City Bombing or the Pulse Nightclub shooting or the Club Q shooting or the attack on the Pittsburgh Synagogue or the one who burned down our local Planned Parenthood Center and fired shots at the John Duncan Federal Building have this in common -they are certain they are right, Certitude under the illusion of certainty is one of the largest causes of violence and bloodshed in our world. 

The Unitarian Universalist Church comes out of the left wing of the Radical Reformation where there was a strong distrust of certitude. Our Liberal Christian forebears observed that those who are overzealous about theological clarity are often completely lacking in Christian charity. Those who are most certain of themselves are often the most savage in how they treat others. Those who are most certain that they are good are often capable of the basest forms of evil. 

During the Albigensian Crusade of the 13th century the violence wasn’t between different faiths but Christian versus Christian. During one military campaign the papal legate Abbot Arnaud Almaric ordered his men to invade the city of Beziers in the South of France and massacre the residents even though most of the people of the city were aligned with his boss the Pope and only a minority aligned with the opposition group the Cathars. When his soldiers approached him and asked, “Sir, what shall we do, for we cannot distinguish between the faithful and the heretics.” He declared, “Kill them all for God will know his own,” or as the more vernacular translation puts it, “Kill them all and let God sort them out.” By Almaric’s own estimation he killed 20,000 people that day. The trauma of that total massacre in the year 1209 still resonates in the population of the city today in the year 2022 where the impact is sometimes compared to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a devastating explosion of violence killing men, women and children without discrimination and with reverberrations that echo down the corridors of time. Abbot Almaric was able to commit these atrocities because he was certain that he was right. He was certain God was on his side. Such a massacre is one of the strongest arguments I know of for the virtues of uncertainty. 

One of the great champions of the virtues of uncertainty was Sebastion Castellio who lived in the 16th century during the time of the Wars of Religions in France when Catholics were killing Protestants and Protestants were killing Catholics. Certainty meant bloodshed. Castellio  argued that the only commandment we can know for certain is the commandment to love one another. 

“The true Church,” he declared, “will be known by love which precedes from faith…’By this all..shall know that ye are my disciples if ye have love one to another’…The doctrine of piety is to love your enemies, bless those that curse you, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, and endure persecution for righteousness sake…These and similar matters are certain, however dubious may be the obscure questions about the Trinity, predestination, election, and the rest on account of which people are regarded as heretics. Many of the saints knew nothing about (such matters.)” 

There is a Jewish saying, “If I knew God I would be God.” As Abraham Heschel put it, “Any statement about God is an understatement.” If we understood God we would be God. If our religious beliefs were a certainty then we would be godlike in our omniscience. Or as the Christian mystic Evelyn Underhill said, “Any God small enough to be understood by our small minds would not be big enough for our reverence, our awe or our worship.” In other words, the heart of theological reflection is humility and not hubris. Theology should never become claiming to know more than can we know while refusing to practice what we do know – love, compassion, mercy, goodness, kindness. If getting our theology wrong is a sin then it is a small sin because it affects only ourselves. However, fighting a religious war harms many other innocent people making it a very large sin. 

In Sebastian Castellio’s time many people were put to death for the crime of heresy including the Unitarian theologian Michael Servetus leading him to write, “After a careful investigation into the meaning of the term heretic I can discover no more than this, that we regard those as heretics with whom we disagree.” He continued on this theme, “Today in the Christian churches some of the most saintly persons are put to death indiscriminately. If the Christians entertained a doubt about what they are doing they would not perpetrate such dreadful homicides for which they will have to repent very soon.” Castellio argued that many of the subjects of theological dispute and persecution were based on beliefs that were not clearly taught in the Bible while ignoring those beliefs that are clearly taught like, “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The true test of whether or not we are on the right spiritual path is not our abstract metaphysics but our concrete commitment to love and justice. 

This ancient Reformation theology has ramifications for people of all beliefs today. Neuroscientists teach us today that the human mind was not made to know everything or comprehend everything. Indeed the human mind screens out much of reality in order to focus on those aspects of reality that are most useful. Indeed, the direction of science has been to create more and more disciplines that focus attention on smaller more particular parts of reality – biology, anthropology, chemistry, ecology, astronomy and physics. Medical science has done the same thing with general practitioners making referrals to cardiologists, endocrinologists, dermatologists, neurologists, oncologists, ophthalmologists and more. These different disciplines are a reminder of how the human mind likes to specialize and prioritize those aspects of reality that are most applicable to our interests or needs. 

This week I was listening to an interview with Ran Prieur that led me to reflect that the theologies of all the world religions are like icons on a computer screen. Icons are designed to be simple symbols that help us navigate the much more complex computer system. The icon is a referent to something other than itself. Each icon is a small symbol representing something much bigger than itself. So imagine a computer screen with icons that looked like the Christian Cross or the Star of David or the crescent moon or the yin/yang symbol or the Dharmachakra wheel or the Wiccan pentacle or iconographic version of the word AUM. Each icon is a gateway into a larger world of  experience. All we have to do is click on the icon. 

Indeed, in the Sufi tradition the crescent moon of Islam is meant to be a reminder that we never see the whole truth. All we can see is a very thin part of the truth, a very thin reflection of the light that comes from a larger source. The crescent moon is meant to be a reality check for hubris, an image that helps us to maintain our humility. This kind of symbol should help us practice what Dominic Erdozain calls, “A holy reluctance to dogmatize.” 

When the Reverend Duncan Teague was our ministerial intern we were driving out to Oak Ridge for a meeting with ministers in a Mexican restaurant. Along the way I was reflecting with my intern about the nature of conflict within churches. I said to him, “Duncan, the problem with churches is that people get part of the information and then fill in the rest with their own imaginations and then proceed with the certainty they have all the information.” As we were driving I could not find the Mexican restaurant where we were supposed to meet so I called Jake Morrill who was then the minister in Oak Ridge. I said, “Jake, where is this Mexican restaurant where we are supposed to eat,” and Jake said, “We aren’t meeting in a Mexican restaurant. We are meeting at the church and we are eating Mexican food.” I immediately turned to Duncan and said, “See what people do!” 

The philosopher Blaise Pascal once wrote, “If we could only ever act based on a certainty then we could never act for nothing is certain.” Every belief we hold, every choice we make, every action we initiate is made in the face of uncertainty. As the apostle Paul wrote, “We walk by faith not sight.” All we can do in the face of so much uncertainty is follow the advice of the Quaker mystic Caroline Fox who said, “Live up to the light thou hast and more shall be granted thee.” 

So next time someone steals your truck remember to not act too hastily. Let’s remember to give ourselves time to reflect and ponder on the right course of action. And when we do decide to act, let’s strive to act with the kind of love, mercy, compassion and forgiveness we hope to receive in the event that we accidentally hotwire the wrong truck. In this way, we can benefit profoundly from practicing the virtues of uncertainty. 

(The Reverend Chris Buice gave this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday November 20, 2022)

Jesus in Whiteface

My friend Jim McKinley is a Unitarian Universalist minister with a deep interest in Buddhism. So he was surprised when one morning as he was driving down the road he heard his young daughter in the backseat say, “Dad I want to go to the church with Jesus.” He thought for a moment and then gave a reply, “You know if we were to go to the church we wouldn’t actually meet Jesus. We would meet the people who believe in Jesus and try to practice what Jesus taught…” At some point his daughter interrupted him and said, “Dad, I said I wanted to go to Chuck E Cheeses!” 

This morning my sermon title is “Jesus in White Face” but I want to begin by stating the obvious. None of the major religions of the world was founded by a white man. Jesus was not a white man. The disciples were not white men. Moses was not a white man. Muhammed was not a white man. The scribes who wrote the Vedas were not white men. Buddha was not a white man. Confucius was not a white man. Lao Tzu was not a white man. Guru Nanek was not a white man. I could continue on and on but I think you get the point. 

Today, I am speaking about Jesus in particular but I think what I have to say has implications for people of all faiths and beliefs in general. Because when we ponder the founders of all the great world religions we realize that white people do not have a monopoly on wisdom. An honest assessment of the origins of the world religions leads us to the inevitable conclusion that Black Lives Matter, Brown Lives Matter, People of Color Lives Matter. 

Indeed, many historic Native American leaders felt that white people did not even begin to understand religion or Jesus. In the 19th century the Shawnee leader Tecumseh said to the white governor of Indiana territory, “When Jesus Christ came upon the Earth, you killed him. The son of your own God. And only after he was dead did you worship him and start killing those who would not (worship him.)”  

In the last century Ohiyesa declared that Jesus was much more aligned with Native American spiritual values than white Christianity. After all Jesus was nomadic, wandering from place to place. He was opposed to the accumulation of material possessions. He did not store up his treasures on earth. He placed his emphasis on peacemaking not war. He did not charge money for his services. He offered his teachings freely on a mountaintop, in the great outdoors. He never built a church or a cathedral. Ohiyesa observed, “These are not the principles upon which the white man has founded his civilization.” Indeed, many contemporary Native American leaders feel that the Christian missionaries are more interested in spreading the religion about Jesus rather than practicing the religion of Jesus. 

Jesus was a 1rst Century Jew. He was a person of color. In recent times forensic anthropologists have created many images of Jesus based on skeletal structures of first century Jews. You may have even seen some of these pictures yourself. Suffice it to say Jesus would have a difficult time getting through airport security without a search. And yet the images of Jesus that pervade in our culture are images of a white man. Since there is no physical description of Jesus in the Bible, we know that these images are a deliberate effort by white people to make Jesus in our own image. There is an ancient term for this kind of practice. It’s called idolatry. 

The feminist theologians tell us that when our images of God are exclusively male then men become gods, and men begin to lord their power over women. Similarly, if our images of God are exclusively white then white people become gods, and begin to lord their power over other people. Christians often accuse Hindus of practicing idolatry but many Hindu practices challenge this particular form of idolatry for in India the image of God might be blue or green or orange or pink or black or white. In India when you see the face of God you do not necessarily see a white face. 

In the early part of the 20th century many white singers would perform in blackface including Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Frank Sinantra and many more. Today the practice of white people performing in black face is roundly condemned and universally acknowledged as offensive behavior. And yet we continue to lift up an image of Jesus in white face. 

The image of white Jesus is not only perpetuated by the church, it is perpetuated by the state. I can’t tell you how many state funded art museums I’ve visited in cities all around this country that are full of images of white Jesus (and bereft of alternative images.) One of the absurdities of our time is that we have white Christian nationalists trying to overturn free and fair elections by storming the Capitol building in the name of Jesus who was not white or Christian or American. 

In the Unitarian Universalist Church we have 7 principles to which this congregation has added an 8th principle. Our seven principles are not a creed. They cannot be used as a test of membership but they are a statement of our values. In the Unitarian Universalist church we covenant together to affirm and promote..

  1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  2. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  3. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  4. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  5. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  6. The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  7. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part
  8. Journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.

Every single one of those principles is an anti-racist principle. However, we are now in the process of exploring ways to put this 8th principle into practice in all of our work. So let me add a brainstorming idea to the list. What if our church art gallery hosted a show called The World Religions in Living Color where we shared with our community alternatives to the white Jesus. We could also include racially accurate images of Confucious, Buddha and Moses. We could have pictures of saints like Rosa Parks and Fannie Lou Hamer and Delores Huerta. What if we formed partnerships with the African American Appalachian Arts project and Hola Hora Latina and others arts organizations to put on a show that will demonstrate what art does best – showing life in vibrant colors. 

Now I invite you to think about some aspect of the work of the church that is important to you. Maybe you are a Sunday School teacher or youth group volunteer. Maybe you are a member of the choir or the building and grounds committee. Maybe you are involved in our efforts to feed the hungry and house the homeless. Maybe you are an usher or a greeter or someone who likes to organize public forums and community events. Maybe you are a member of the board or the program council. Wherever you find yourself in the work of the church I want to invite you to re-imagine our work. And don’t be afraid to let your imagination run wild. 

Maybe we could start a campaign to change the name of Devil’s Food Cake to Angel’s Food Cake (and vice versa) Or maybe we can create our own play, a postmodern Western where the good guys wear black hats and the bad guys wear white hats and the Indians win. Maybe we can find ways to celebrate darkness, the darkness of the womb that nurtured us before our painful birth into the light, the darkness that comes after a long hard day of work allowing us to enjoy a long night’s sleep, the darkness of the soil that nourishes the seeds in our community garden and the darkness of winter that allows those seeds to germinate and blossom in spring and help feed the world. 

These are imaginative ideas but underlying them is a serious purpose. When the Reverend Duncan Teague was a ministerial intern here he told me that people of color in the Unitarian Universalist church often feel like a little bit of pepper in the salt shaker. At present Reverend Teague is ministering to a church he founded himself in Atlanta, Abundant LUUV, which is intentionally trying to blend elements of Unitarian Universalist tradition and the black church tradition. His church meets within walking distance of Morehouse College where Dr. Martin King Jr. went to school and Spelman College where Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, studied and Atlanta University where Whitney Young taught. Young was a Unitarian, and served as the leader of the Urban League during the civil rights movement. Young was in meetings in the White House with Dr. King and other civil rights leaders. The Atlanta University school of social work is named after him. And there is even a TVUUC connection in that the Reverend Peter Sampson, a minister who served our church in the 90’s did his memorial service (which at one point involved sitting between the Reverend Jesse Jackson and George Bush Sr.) 

In other words, Abundant LUUV is located in a place that will allow it not only to make a difference in Atlanta, but to make a difference in the world. This week the comedian Trevor Noah said, “Atlanta is to black people what Boston is to white people.” Chew on that Unitarian Universalists.  In February we will be having the Reverend Teague here to lead a workshop on what he has learned through his work with his congregation and what ideas we at TVUUC can put into practice to make our congregation a step closer to being a Beloved Community for people of all races. 

Today, I am grateful for our 8th Principle Committee for organizing the workshop with the Reverend Teague. I am also grateful to Ted Jones and Beauvais Lyons for creating the slideshow that you see when you enter the building. Included in that slide show are pictures of our church’s work in the civil rights movement. Pictures of an integrated congregation in a segregated city in 1950. Pictures of the Unitarian House where people of all races could meet together when the law forbade it in other public spaces. Pictures of church members walking with protest signs as part of the civil rights sit-ins.  Pictures of our 8th Principle Task Force surrounding the Reverend Jametta Alston at her goodbye reception. And by the way we need to get a picture of the Reverend Jametta Alston on the wall with all the pictures of ministers with white faces. Can I get an “Amen”?

Duncan Teague is right that people of color do have reason to feel like a little bit of pepper in the salt shaker or a little bit of cinnamon or a little bit of saffron or a little bit of sage or a little bit of ginseng or a little bit of salsa. At the last India fest I attended I was proud to see a picture of our own Seema Singh lifted up and honored as the first person of Indian descent to serve on the City Council. A picture can send a powerful message. 

Of course, there are examples of positive action. If you go to the Sequoyah Hills Library you will see a picture of Sequoyah that was painted by a member of this church of blessed memory, Arlene Goff. Sequoyah was the creator of the Cherokee syllabary (sometimes called the Cherokee alphabet.) The Sequoyah Hills neighborhood is predominantly a white but thanks to Arlene we have a very visible reminder that Sequoyah himself did not have a white face.

And this leads me to my point this morning,  in a world where there are lots of pictures of Jesus in whiteface we need to make sure that we never erase our diversity by giving the impression that Unitarian Universalism has a whiteface. We need to remind the world that Unitarian Universalism comes in all the colors of the rainbow and all varieties of the spectrum of light and dark. We need to see that color in our art gallery. We need to hear it in our music. We need to read the stories in our Children’s Diversity and Justice library. We need to witness it in our social action. We need to feel it in our hearts. 

Whenever I see a picture of white Jesus I think of what an Anglican bishop said of Mahatma Gandhi, “The most Christlike person of the 20th century was a Hindu.” In other words the most Christlike man was an Indian, a person of color. So let’s build a church that appreciates the human family in all of its variety. Let’s  take Gandhi’s words seriously. Let’s “Be the change we want to see in the world.” (Chris Buice is minister of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. This sermon was given on Sunday November 6, 2022)

Inviting the Deceased to the Wedding

This time of year it is common in many religious traditions to speak about death whether it be for All Souls, Samhain, the Day of the Dead or some other holy day. 

I think these holy days were created because it isn’t alway easy to speak about death. It isn’t always easy to find the right words to say to someone after they’ve lost a loved one. And so I was particularly moved when I came across this poem recently. 

When You Meet Someone in Deep Grief by Patricia McKernon Runkle 

Slip off your needs

And set them by the door.

Enter barefoot

This darkened chapel

Hollowed by loss

Hallowed by sorrow

Its gray stone walls 

And floor.

You, congregation

of one

Are here to listen

Not to sing.

Kneel in the back pew

Make no sound

Let the candles speak. 

Powerful words. When we lose a loved one, the silent presence of a friend may speak volumes more than platitudes or even well intended words of comfort. And yet occasionally someone does come up with the right words. 

In his poem Things To Do in Providence the poet Ted Berrigan wrote words about death that I believe speak to anyone who has ever lost a loved one. 

The heart stops briefly when someone dies,

A quick pain as you hear the news & someone passes

From your outside life to inside. Slowly the heart

Adjusts

To its new weight, & slowly everything continues,

Sanely. 

This poem captures many of the emotions felt by those who have lost someone, the way that time stands still when we get the news, the quick pain that arrives when the news sinks in and the way our relationship to that person passes from our outside life to our inside life. 

Death marks the end of a mortal life but it doesn’t end a relationship. There may still be things that need to be said, words that need to be spoken and experiences that need to be shared. 

Rabbi Naomi Levy, one of my favorite public theologians, tells the story of surprising her fiance by saying, “I want to go to New York so we can invite my father to the wedding.” The statement was a surprise for two reasons, the couple was living in California at the time and the rabbi’s father was no longer living. She explained to her puzzled partner, “It’s a Jewish tradition to invite deceased loved ones to the wedding.” With this explanation her fiance agreed to the trip.

So they took the 7 hour flight to New York City and drove through rush hour traffic toward the New Jersey suburbs until they reached the cemetery where her father was buried. They stood before his grave in silence and then she took a deep breath and said, “Hi, Daddy, this is Rob. I love him. I’m sure that you’re going to love him too. We’re getting married on April fourteenth and we’d like to invite you to the wedding. We hope you can come.” With these simple words a tradition was fulfilled. 

I had never heard of this tradition of inviting the deceased to the wedding until recently, but everything about it feels right. I suspect that ritual does not always include a 7 hour flight or bumper to bumper traffic or even a trip to a cemetery or a visit to a grave. For once those we love have moved from our outside life to our inside life we realize we can invite our loved ones to the wedding wherever we happen to be. Nor should we feel limited to wedding invitations alone. We can issue invitations for any special event. 

For instance, I am inviting my mother of blessed memory to the voting booths this election season. Not literally. I actually voted absentee since I am (to use the language of our state government application for an absentee ballot) a caretaker of a …physically disabled person (this includes voters who care for or reside with persons who have underlying medical or health conditions which…render them more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 or at greater risk should they contract it).

So my invitation to my mother to go to the ballot box is not a literal one. This invitation is not about my outward life. This invitation is about my inner life. My mom cared passionately about democracy, human rights and women’s rights. She cared passionately about the issues confronting us in this election cycle. So it seems appropriate to invite her to be present with me when I vote. 

Of course, the dead cannot vote…legally. However, there is a legend from the first part of the 20th century about Boss Crump in Memphis who invited his aide, Will Gerber, to go with him to a local graveyard so they could get the names of “voters” from the tombstones for the next election. Crump got to one grave where he could not read the name of the deceased. Gerber said to him, “Just put any name down.” Crump disagreed, “No, Willie, you’ve got to have the right name. I want this to be an honest election.” 

So even though the dead cannot vote, their memory can empower us to stay involved and to cast our ballots and advance the causes they cared about and that we continue to care about. Today, I am mindful of some of the members of this congregation who cared about democracy who are no longer living Bee DeSelm, Wade Till, Jack Leflore, Ruth Martin and you could name others. 

Of course, there may be some loved ones we don’t want to invite to the ballot box. Today I am mindful of Ed Goff who used to come to my office on election day just to tell me, “I am going to the ballot box to cancel out your vote.” For the record I never told Ed who I was voting for but he had his suspicions. So I won’t be inviting Ed to the ballot box this year for fear he might somehow find a way to cancel out my vote from the Great Beyond BUT I am inviting him to join us for our potluck picnic after church today. Indeed, if you feel led, feel free to go up to the memorial garden after the service, look at the names on the wall of those who are no longer living and invite them to our homecoming celebration today. 

Last week I participated in a ritual of remembrance for my father. When my father died last year he was cremated and most of his ashes were interred in Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Milledgeville, GA. However, we set some of the ashes aside for other places special to him. Last week my sister Shannon and I  scattered some of his ashes in the Atlantic Ocean at sunrise, marking both the end of his life and the beginning of a new day. My sister drew a heart into the sand. We placed the ashes in the middle of the heart and then we stood back as the tide slowly took him away. 

I had a good visit with my sister and I decided to stay at the beach a couple of days after she left. I wanted to walk on the beach where my father and I once walked together. Over the years our walks got shorter and shorter. At our last visit we simply walked out to the beach and sat down in beach chairs. 

One evening I was sitting on the porch of the condominium where my father and I used to sit watching the ocean. There was an empty chair beside me. Meister Eckhardt once said, “There is nothing in the world so much like God as stillness,” and my father had a special gift for being able to sit still. So sitting still on the porch I could feel his presence as I watched a group of people gathering at the ocean’s edge. At some point I could hear cheers. It took me a minute to realize I was watching an ocean baptism. People were wading into the water, fully clothed, held in the hands of a loving community and fully immersed into the ocean, coming up to the surface to the sound of raucous cheering. The end of an old life and the beginning of a new day. 

My father was an Episcopal minister, but he grew up in the Baptist church. His decision to become an Episcopalian was not universally understood or appreciated by every member of his family of origin. When my Aunt Jenny learned I was a Unitarian she said, “A Unitarian? I thought he was at least Episcopalion.” 

So sitting on the porch with an empty chair beside me watching a baptism in the ocean felt like an appropriate activity to share with my father. And I think this kind of ritual can be appreciated by people of all faiths and beliefs or even non-beliefs. Because I think we all want to feel fully immersed in Something Bigger Than Ourselves. I think we all want to feel a part of Something Larger Than Ourselves. 

Oddly enough, as I watched this ritual a song I associate with my mother came to mind, a feminist song often shared in women’s spirituality circles. 

We all come from the Goddess

And to Her we shall return

Like a drop of rain

Flowing to the ocean

And in the midst of this song welling up within me I also felt another song I associate with my father and my memories of him standing in the role of the priest at the altar in the Episcopal church he loved. 

Praise God from whom all blessings flow

Praise him all creatures here below

Praise him all of ye heavenly hosts

Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost

I think the folks down on the beach would have appreciated the second song more than the first one. Southern Baptists are not exactly known for their deep interest in the goddess or feminist spirituality. 

When my mom died I inherited a picture of my parents on their wedding day. I had mixed feelings about displaying the picture at first because they were divorced. However, now it just looks like two young people in love unaware of how their story might unfold. And I thought of that picture as I remembered those two songs. For it felt like my parents who were divorced in life were reunited in death as  both have passed from my outward life to my inward life. 

When we meet someone in deep grief we would be wise to remain silent. To slip off our needs and set them by the door. To enter barefoot into this darkened sanctuary and let the candles speak. For the person in grief sitting in that chapel with us may already have a companion on the inside and we do not necessarily want to interrupt their still, calm, quiet moment of communion, their sacred moment of togetherness. For death ends a mortal life but it does not end a relationship. For we all come from mystery and to mystery one day we will return like a drop of rain flowing to meet the ocean. So be it. Amen. 

Salvation By Character

In the 19th Century Unitarian ministers would often preach sermons on the theme of Salvation By Character. Salvation by Character was a very popular topic. And at that time a sermon might go on and on for hours and hours. This practice was apparently based on the idea that suffering breeds character. 

Today, I want to speak about salvation hopefully without making any of you suffer inordinately. And when I use the word salvation I want you to know I am using it in the broadest possible sense of the word. For instance, when we feed the hungry, that’s salvation from hunger. When we provide housing to the homeless, that’s salvation from the brutal elements of life. When we work to make healthcare accessible to everyone, that’s salvation from disease. When we make a good education available to everyone, that’s salvation from ignorance. When we address bias, bigotry, racism and homophobia that’s salvation from hatred. In other words, what I am trying to say is, as we celebrate Pride Week, as we wave the rainbow flag, as we apply the glitter, we are engaged in the work of salvation. 

Many people think the word salvation concerns only otherworldly matters. Many think it applies only to the hereafter and not to the here and now. However in the Torah, the first 5 books of the Bible, you will find there is no mention of an afterlife. You will find frequent references to salvation. In the Torah salvation is not about heaven and hell. Salvation is about moving from slavery in Egypt toward the promised land where there is freedom. In other words, to apply that idea to today, when we work against oppression of any kind we are doing the work of salvation. 

In 1885 the Unitarian minister James Freeman Clarke wrote up a document that he called The Five Points of the New Theology. Although the language may seem somewhat antiquated today steeped in the patriarchal assumptions of the time let me share those 5 points with you. He wrote that Unitarians believe in…

The Fatherhood of God

The Brotherhood of Man

The Leadership of Jesus

Salvation By Character

Progress of Mankind Onward and Upward Forever

In the year 2022 if we were to write up a document called the Five Points of the New Theology it would sound different. Indeed James Freeman Clarke believed in progressive revelation, that every generation would form their own thoughts in their own words and  remain open to new insights and “ever higher conceptions of God and of religious truth.” 

Indeed, he felt that the role of the liberal church was to facilitate this process of progressive revelation. He wrote, “The union of many minds in the earnest investigation of truth, will produce deeper and broader results, than the solitary efforts of any individual mind, no matter how superior…the only way in which every side of truth can be seen, is in the combined investigations of many different intellects. The varied tendencies of thought, their diverse experience, modify and correct all individual onesidedness and eccentricity.” This was his hope for the liberal church in his time and it is at the heart of why I love the Unitarian Universalist Church today, the openness to a variety of perspectives. 

So Clarke’s 5 Points of the New Theology are written in the language of the liberal Christianity of the 1800’s, however, he also wrote one of the first books of comparative religion, a book called Ten Great Religions where he explored Judaism, Islam, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, ancient Greek and Eqyptian religions. So for our purposes today, I am not going to focus on all 5 points. Instead I want to pluck one item from this list of 5 – salvation by character. And to begin with I want to use the words of James Freeman Clarke to explain exactly what he meant by that term. We can use his words as our springboard for reflecting on what that term might mean today. 

Clarke wrote, “Salvation means the highest peace and joy of which the soul is capable. It means heaven here and heaven hereafter. This salvation has been explained as something outside of us, – some outward gift, some outward condition, place or circumstance. We speak of going to heaven, as if we could be made happy solely by being put in a happy place. But the true heaven, the only heaven Jesus ever knew, is a state of the soul. The poor in spirit already possess the kingdom of heaven. The pure in heart already see God.” He argued that once we identify goodness with heaven we make character the essence of salvation. In other words, the work of salvation is not about getting people into heaven. The work of salvation is about getting heaven into people. 

James Freeman Clarke’s words take on a special meaning in the midst of the High Holy Days of the Jewish Calendar. Recently I picked up a book from one of my favorite public theologians, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. The book is called The Ten Commandments of Character: Essential Advice for Living an Honorable, Ethical and Honest Life. In that book the rabbi writes,

“If you ask people what they most want from others, they will usually answer, ‘good character’…but if you ask people what they want most for themselves, they will answer, ‘to be happy and successful’…But what people don’t generally realize…is that achieving the good things in life, such as happiness, success and loving relationships, depends on us developing in ourselves what we most want from others – good character.” 

To illustrate his point he lifts up the virtue of gratitude. One reason to practice gratitude is because it is a virtue and because we aspire to be virtuous people. That’s one reason but another reason is because ungrateful people tend to be unhappy people. Ungrateful people tend to be easily irritated, bitter, miserable, resentful, and angry. When we hear someone described as an ingrate we do not assume this is the description of a happy person. The word ingrate doesn’t carry with it the sense of peace, serenity or equanimity. 

So we have at least three options

  1.  We can practice gratitude because it is a virtue and we want to be virtuous people. 
  2. We can practice gratitude because we hope by being grateful we will be rewarded when we get to heaven. 
  3. We can practice gratitude because it helps us to appreciate the beauty all around us, the wonder of existence, the miracle of life itself. 

In 1805 the Universalists adopted the Winchester Profession as an affirmation of faith in which they declared, “We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.” Once again, some old language from another century, but it points us toward the experience that spiritual living is not about making ourselves miserable. Spiritual living is not about self-flagellation. Spiritual living is not about being melancholy and morose. Spiritual living is about happiness. Spiritual living is about salvation by character. 

With the idea that good character leads to happiness and holiness (or wholeness) Rabbi Telushkin offers thes 10 Commandments of Character. 

  1. Know your weaknesses. 
  2. When ethics and other values conflict, choose ethics.
  3. Treat all people with kindness, and with the understanding that they, like you, are made in God’s image.
  4. Be fair.
  5. Be courageous.
  6. Be honest.
  7. Be grateful.
  8. Practice self-control. 
  9. Exercise common sense.
  10. Admit when you have done wrong, seek forgiveness, and don’t rationalize bad behavior. 

I offer this list as one example of some ideas about how to foster good character. There are others. A few weeks ago we had a memorial service for a member of the church Kim Haynes and afterwards many of her friends came up to talk to me who knew her from the Rotary Club. It was in the midst of those conversations that I was reminded of the Four Way Test every Rotarian is asked to give themselves. The Four Way Test tells us that before we speak we should ask ourselves the following questions. 

  1. Is it the truth?
  2. Is it fair to all concerned?
  3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
  4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

I mention this test not because I ever heard Kim talk about it but because I saw her practice it. And I do believe that the respect and care she showed other people was key to what made her a happy person. She lived a life that built goodwill and friendships. When I went to see her in her hospital room in the last week of her life she told me, “I am at peace.” 

Now Kim did not believe in life after death. She told me that she expected death to be a long dreamless sleep. When people asked her what she thought life after death was going to be like she said, “Like 1847.” In other words, she had no idea. We come from mystery and we return to mystery. Any existence we have after death will be like our existence before we were born. Or as Shakespeare said, ‘We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.’ 

Kim did not believe in life after death, nevertheless she was at peace. James Freeman Clarke did believe in life after death. Rabbi Teluskin doesn’t go on the record either way as belief in life after death is not central to Judaism. And yet all three speak to us about the importance of character. 

I once had a guest speaker come to the church I served in Spartanburg SC to talk about Taoism. Unlike Western concepts of God the Tao is an intangible concept of Ultimate Reality, an ineffable mystery. As the Tao Te Ching says,  “Those who know don’t say. Those who say don’t know.”  And yet our Taoist guest (whose name is lost to my memory) described her beliefs by saying, “If we find the Tao today we can die in peace tomorrow,” and she added, “This is not something we can say about everything. We can’t say, ‘If I  win a million dollars in  the lottery today I can die in peace tomorrow.’ We can’t say that.  Or ‘If I buy tickets for a great vacation today I can die in peace tomorrow.’ In this sense I think the idea of the Tao is akin to this idea of character. If we experience it today, we can die in peace tomorrow. 

The Reverend Jesse Jackson is fond of saying, “Suffering breeds character. Character breeds faith. And in the end, faith will not disappoint.” However, I am also mindful of the story Reid Franks tells of leading a Girl Scout troop on a rainy, wet, nasty, muddy hike when all of a sudden one of the girls shook her fist at heaven and shouted, “Enough character already.” And so unlike the Unitarian ministers of the 19th century I will bring this sermon to a close in a timely manner so that we can go out into the world and combat oppression in all of its varied forms. So that we can feed the hungry, give shelter to the homeless, provide care for the sick, bring knowledge and education to the world and to wave the Rainbow Flag – for this is the work of salvation. (This sermon was given at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, October 2, 2022 by the Rev. Chris Buice.) 

 

 

Gentleness and the Law of the Jungle

Henry David Thoreau spoke for many of us when he wrote, “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.” In his journal he included these words,  “Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness.” In Knoxville we are fortunate to live in close proximity to so many beautiful places that allow us to enjoy this tonic of wildness. 

During the worst part of the pandemic the Great Smoky Mountain National Park began a new practice of closing the Cades Cove loop road to cars on Wednesdays and opening it up for hikers and bikers. The results seem to confirm that unwritten rule, “When the automobiles are away the wildlife will play.”

This summer I made it a practice to take Wednesdays off whenever I could. The loop road is a gorgeous route through an Appalachian mountain valley of forests and farmland. Although the loop road stays the same, the wildlife experience is constantly changing. One week I found myself standing among a family of deer on the trail up the John Oliver Cabin. On another occasion I found myself watching a family of otters playing in the creek by the path to Abram’s Falls. Another time I watched a coyote saunter across an open field. Once during a picnic lunch a snake decided to swim by close enough to get a peek at my meal. I’ve never seen a skunk in Cades Cove but I have smelled one. I’ve seen a fox peek up from the tall grass in a meadow. I’ve seen a wide variety of different birds and butterflies. I’ve come across a mama boar and her piglets. And I have encountered many bears, some I have seen from a distance and some were rather too close for my comfort. 

Indeed, I’ve encountered bears so frequently that I no longer think of it as an unusual thing. It feels more like seeing an old relative. There are even Cherokee legends that suggest the boundary between humans and bears may be a thin one. There are legends of bears who have become people and there are other stories about people who have become bears. These stories drive home a belief shared by many indigenous people – that all creatures of the earth and sky are our relatives, the two legged, the four legged, the feathered and the finned. Sometimes old stories shed light on current scientific evidence, the ancient legends reaffirm what contemporary science teaches that bears and humans share 92% of the same DNA. We are relatives. 

I have had many different kinds of encounters with bears over the years. I have watched mama bears and baby bears interacting with each other from a distance. On a less safe note, I once accidentally walked under a tree limb where a bear was sleeping. It was only when another hiker suggested  I look back  behind me that I realized how stupid I’d been. I once turned a corner and encountered a bear walking toward me on a fairly narrow trail and it took me a minute to remember that I needed to clap to encourage the bear to head up the mountain in another direction without me. Fortunately, a strong clap was all it took. 

Respecting bears is about respecting wildness. We may be relatives but we should remain distant relatives, respecting each other’s boundaries. Clapping your hands to scare a bear is good for the relationship. Bears that fear humans are healthier bears and humans that fear bears are healthier humans. 

In ancient Greek tradition Artemis is the goddess of wildness. Artemis is associated with bears but also lionesses, wild horses, rabbits and other forms of wildlife. Artemis is the goddess of everything wild, undomesticated and untamed; the goddess of everything that does not want to be caged or dominated or controlled. Artemis is the life energy that will bolt from every barn, jump over every fence, refuse every bridle or leash.The goddess Artemis herself is immune to love, she spurns all lovers  and swoops in to protect any woman who is on the receiving end of unwanted advances. She cannot be domesticated. Artemis is the tonic of fierce wildness. 

My son Christopher and his wife Amber have a cat named Artemis and she lives into the full meaning of that name. Artemis lives in their house and in their yard on her own terms. Artemis was there before Christopher met Amber. She was there before they had children and Artemis knows it. My grandchildren must adjust to Artemis’ way of life more than the other way round. She is as undomesticated as a domestic animal can be. The relationship has something of the tonic of wildness to it. 

Of course, one of the benefits of being in a relationship with wilder animals is it helps us to realize the wildness in ourselves. China Galland, an organizer for Women in the Wilderness writes, “Going into the wilderness involves the wilderness within us all. This may be the deepest value of such an experience, the recognition of our kinship with the natural world.” And as we seek a closer relationship with our four legged, feathered and finned kindred we can benefit from the wisdom of all who have helped blaze that path for us. 

Rabbi Naomi Levy once did an interview with such a trailblazer for the Jewish Journal. She interviewed Alan Rabinowitz who is a zoologist who has created wildlife sanctuaries around the world for tigers, jaguars and other big cats. Alan’s interest in animals began when he was a small child with a speech impediment. His inability to communicate with other people was instrumental for him forming bonds with other animals. When he spoke to people he stuttered but when he spoke to animals he had no such difficulty. He grew up in New York so he had urban pets as a child, a turtle, a hamster and a chameleon. Speaking to his pets he told them, “You’re just like me; you can think, you have feelings, but you don’t have voices…If I ever find my voice and stop stuttering, I will be your voice.” 

Alan’s parents were frustrated by their inability to find a cure for his speech impediment but they also noticed the places where he felt most at home. One of those places was at the Bronx Zoo in the house for the Great Cats Exhibit. At that time the big cats were kept in cages in a concrete building. The atmosphere was more like a prison house for wild animals than anything else. Alan said, “The place emanated with energy and power but it was a locked up power. All that energy was being held captive and begging to be released.” Alan empathized with the animals and indeed he felt like he shared that same energy. He made a promise to those big cats. He said, “I’ll find a place for us. I’ll find a place for us.” 

Over time Alan was able to overcome his stutter but once he learned how to speak to other people he found that , “Most people did not have anything to say.” He also contends that most communication is non verbal among people. He says of people, “I can hear them loudest when they are not talking.” 

And so even after he conquered his speech impediment he continued to feel a special bond with other animals. As an adult he became a zoologist and helped to found a tiger reserve in Burma that is over 9,000 square miles, which is about the size of the state of Vermont. He also helped to found the first jaguar sanctuary in the world in Belize. He has become an internationally recognized spokesman for wildlife. He kept his promise to the animals. He has become their voice. 

In the midst of their interview Rabbi Levy suggested to Alan that his Jewish heritage may have also been an influence on him. After all, Moses was a stutterer and just as “Moses freed the Jews, Alan freed the tigers.” Alan responded by saying, “Naomi, stuttering gave me my life. It was a gift. I am so grateful to have been born a stutterer, because that’s how I got where I am. Of course, it isn’t a gift I would wish on anybody. But just the same, everything I am today comes from stuttering, which led to my bond with animals, my love of nature, my drive to prove myself to the world.” 

Alan’s story reminds us of how we can all benefit from cultivating a relationship to the wildlife all around us. In my own backyard I sometimes see coyotes. Racoons and opossums have been known to come up to our back porch to steal some cat food that we leave out for some of our feral friends. And every so often a bear makes its way into downtown Knoxville, which is to say that the boundary between human “civilization” and wildlife is permeable. 

It is my belief that everyone of us, has within us tremendous energy and power that is locked up inside us and needs to be unleashed. We all have something in us that is like a big cat in a small cage. We have energy inside us that needs to be set free. Our relationship to this energy is not without its complications. There is a tension between our desire to be “civilized” human beings living in harmony with other human beings in society and our desire to unleash this power. 

Indeed, Henry David Thoreau felt this tension within himself. Thoreau’s ideas of “civilization” included a strong inclination toward vegetarianism. He never fully actualized this ideal. Using today’s language we might describe him as a “reduce-atarian” rather than a vegetarian. However, even with his inclination toward nonviolence and his empathy with wildlife he said that living in the woods also brought out his hunting instincts. He felt the impulse of many wild animals to hunt for his own food. He wrote in his journal, “I found in myself, and still find, an instinct toward a higher, or, as it is named, spiritual life…and another toward a primitive, rank and savage one, and I reverence them both. I love the wild, not less than the good.”

Thoreau’s comments tap into a Cherokee practice of honoring “two truths.” If you ask a member of the Cherokee tribe, “Do you believe in the scientific theory of the origins of life or in the traditional myths and legends?” A Cherokee might respond, “I believe in two truths.” Similarly we can believe two truths about ourselves. That we have both the energy of the wilderness in us and the energy for community in us. We can honor “two truths” and revere them both. We can honor the wild in us as well as the good. 

Honoring the wild in us plays an important part of the Unitarian Universalist ministry. Although we sometimes call our ministers pastors and refer to our work as pastoral care, being a  Unitarian Universalist minister is more like being a wildlife preservationist. We’ve got lots of different kinds of critters in our church. And it is the job of a UU minister to try to create the kind of habitat where all God’s critters can thrive. Indeed, Henry David Thoreau grew up in a Unitarian church but he ultimately bolted from that 19th century church barn. Our challenge is to build a more inclusive church now than he experienced then.  If you follow me on social media and ever wondered why I spend so much time in the forests and the mountains it is because I am always meditating on how to be a good UU minister, a good wildlife preservationist. 

If you ever hike up to the top of Clingmans Dome in the Smokies you may notice a plaque that includes a Cherokee legend. According to tradition there is a secret lake hidden somewhere in the middle of the Smokies. Human beings cannot see this lake. It is invisible to humans, unless they have prepared themselves with much prayer and fasting. The lake is called Ataga’hi and it is the place where animals go to heal from their wounds. If a bear or another animal is ever injured by a hunter (or wounded in a fight with another animal) then they will travel to this lake. The animal will walk into cool refreshing waters, swim to the other side of the lake and emerge from the water completely healed of all wounds. 

Is the story true? Well, I think it speaks to a truth, that we all long for healing and wholeness. In this interdependent web of existence of which we are all apart we know that we animals are close kin with each other. We need each other. If we take the competition for survival too far and we win then we will ultimately lose. What befalls the creatures of the earth befalls the people of the earth. 

And that’s why many times when we encounter a bear on a trail it may feel like we are relatives or even like members of the same church. For a moment we dwell together in a wet forest cathedral and we know on some deep level that if the winds of extinction blow for one of us then ultimately they will blow us all away. And for that reason we can only hope and pray and fast that one day we may see that secret lake that holds out the promise of healing for all of us. So next time we go for a walk in the woods let’s keep our eye out for that secret lake, however, let’s also do our part to preserve and protect and defend wildlife in more tangible and measurable ways. Let’s exercise the option to believe in two truths, the mythic and the practical. For in wildness is the preservation of the world.

(This sermon was shared by the Rev. Chris Buice on Sunday October 9, 2022, at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church.)

Oy Vey! The High Holy Days! (Thoughts on Offering Apologies)

The scriptures suggest that since the beginning of time human beings have been bad at offering apologies. The book of Genesis tells us that when God approached Adam in the Garden of Eden and asked him the simple question, “Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” Adam looked God right in the eyes and replied, “The woman YOU put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” Notice how he was not only shifting the blame to Eve but to God. That takes some chutzpah. When God asked Eve the same question, Eve said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” For the record, the serpent doesn’t even get a chance to apologize before God dispenses punishment. Snakes have suffered from bad PR issues ever since. We do not know if the snake would have apologized BUT we do know that neither Adam or Eve took responsibility for their own actions or offered apologies for their behavior and human beings have been following their example ever since. 

Human beings are not very good at giving apologies. So much so that there is an actual blog called Sorry Watch dedicated to tracking the bad apologies given by politicians, celebrities, religious leaders, corporations and others in the public eye. Indeed, in our day and age many high profile people and businesses hire publicists to write their apologies for them. 

Professionally written apologies are often an exercise in public relations, the goal is to repair the image of the offender not address the concerns of those who have experienced the offense.Of course, suffice it to say, spiritually speaking, a good apology is not something we can ever delegate to someone else. We have to do it ourselves. 

This evening at sunset is the beginning of the High Holy Days of the Jewish Calendar. This is a time traditionally set aside for offering apologies and making amends. In our day and age offering an apology is a countercultural thing to do. Rabbi Danya Ruttenburg has written a book called On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World. In her book she suggests that offering an apology “goes against many of our cultural and often individual instincts – to shift blame, to minimize the problem, to focus on our excellent and pure intentions, to put off an uncomfortable conversation to another day.” She notes that apologies are especially countercultural when litigation might result. Many legal strategies designed to reduce liabilities are based on the advice to never apologize for anything but always, “Deny and defend” and sometimes “Turn the tables and attack.” So offering an apology means swimming against the current of a system built around the idea that we should never have to say, “I’m sorry.” 

The rabbi mentions how Alexander de Tocqueville wrote in his 1835 book Democracy in America that Americans tend to be very individualistic. He wrote Americans act like they, “owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody. They form a habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine their whole destiny is in their hands.” With this mindset, if we do not owe anything to anybody then we certainly do not owe anyone an apology. 

Now I am sure when the good rabbi and the book of Genesis suggest human beings have a hard time apologizing they mean for present company to be excluded.  I am sure none of us in this room has ever tried to shift the blame. I’m sure none of us have ever tried to minimize a problem or deflect from the issues by focusing on our noble intentions. I am sure not a single one of us has ever hunkered down into the “deny and defend” posture. Even so,  we might benefit from reflecting on how to give a good apology anyway. If we cannot use this information for ourselves we can at least learn more so that we will be able to teach others. 

Rabbi Ruttenberg tells us that a good apology includes the following ingredients. We need to apologize. We need to own the pain we’ve caused. We need to take steps to change our behavior so something similar won’t happen again. We need to make amends. And finally we need to never do it again. 

Our goal should not be to make ourselves feel better by apologizing. Our goal should be to make the other person feel better because we have apologized. Rabbi Kushner was right, “forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves” however, offering an apology is something we do for others. The mantra for a good apology is always, “This is not about me.” 

An apology is a victim centered process. Whether or not we intended to cause harm is irrelevant. We often hurt people without intending to. Apologizing isn’t about being right or wrong. Apologizing isn’t about being good or evil.  Apologizing  is about valuing our relationship to someone else more than we value our own self image or ego. In other words, a good apology is the opposite of narcissism. 

For this reason offering a good apology is difficult. It involves looking at a situation from another person’s perspective. It requires empathy. It requires a willingness to consider another point of view. It requires us to “let go of our ego” and focus on another person’s needs and feelings. 

Earlier, I mentioned the blog Sorry Watch that tracks bad apologies. Often these are the apologies of the rich and famous, the wealthy and the powerful. However, some irreverent people have created a game that allows you to apply the same principles closer to home. It is called Bad Apology Bingo. On each square there is an example of bad apology practice and if you experience five in a row you can call out Bingo. Here are some examples of bad apologies. 

  1. An apology that begins with the words, “I am sorry but…” The early introduction of the qualifier “but” shifts the focus away from our apology and toward some form of self-justification for our actions. An apology that begins with, “I am sorry but..” will almost always be translated as “I am sorry but not really.” The words, “I am sorry but…” sound like making excuses not making amends. 
  2. An apology that begins with the words, “I am sorry if..” Once again, the early introduction of a qualifier shifts the focus away from our apology. This particular beginning often shifts the focus to the other person as in, “I am sorry if you were offended.” “I am sorry if you took my actions the wrong way.” “I am sorry if you felt hurt by what I did.” The shift is away from our apology for our actions and toward focusing on someone else’s interpretation of our actions as in the sentence, “I am sorry if you were hurt when I beat you up and stole your wallet.” The warning sign here is the words “if you.” In other words when we apologize we must be very careful not to say “if you.” 
  3. An apology often given by politicians and small children is “Mistakes were made” which always leads many of us to wonder – who made them? Did these mistakes make themselves or was anybody in particular responsible for them? Another dodge is to say something like, “What happened was regrettable” without specifying exactly what happened or who regrets it. A good apology isn’t vague. It names exactly what happened and names who was responsible for it happening. 
  4. If we begin our apology with words like, “I feel awful about what I did. I am ashamed of my behavior. I am mortified by actions. I am embarrassed that I did this,” If we do this then we are still focusing on ourselves. We are focusing on how our actions make us feel instead of focusing on how our actions made another person feel. When a famous politician offered an apology along these lines the commentator on Sorry Watch wrote underneath the “apology” this succinct commentary in all caps, ME ME ME ME ME ME…I AM SUFFERING. MEEEEEEEEE.
  5. An apology that begins with “I was so drunk” or “I was not in my right mind” or “I was oblivious” also keeps the focus on “me” rather than the other person. An apology is about taking responsibility for our actions. If we are in the habit of drinking irresponsibly or using other substances that prevent us from being in our “right mind” then we need to own it and own the damage that our inebriated actions have on the other people in our lives (rather than use it to try and get a free pass.) The phrase “I was oblivious..” is more subtle, and certainly we all hurt people without intending it. However, it is my observation that the phrase, “I was oblivious…” is the first line of defense for many narcissists. It implies that it is another person’s responsibility to teach basic empathy to the narcissist, a way to shift focus away from ourselves and shift blame to the other person. 
  6. If we begin our apology by talking about the virtues of forgiveness. This is another way to shift the focus away from our apology and our effort to make amends and move the focus toward someone else’s obligation to forgive us. So always remember, “Forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves. An apology is something we do for others.” We must focus on our work – the apology – and not someone else’s work – the forgiveness. 
  7. If we begin our apology by saying something like, “I understand your point of view but right now America needs unity…” or “our family needs unity…” or “our organization needs unity.” Beginning an apology with an appeal to unity is like trying to begin a journey at the desired destination.  It is an effort to skip over the hard work that leads to unity. 
  8. If we apologize with our words but not our body language then we are not really offering a sincere apology. If we apologize while rolling our eyes or gritting our teeth or biting our tongue then we are not offering a good apology. When we apologize our spoken language and our body language should be in alignment. 
  9. Finally, when we apologize if  we say, “The woman YOU put here with me made me do it” or “the serpent made me do it” or “someone else made me do it.” Even though one of the oldest stories in one of the oldest books reminds us that this is not a good idea, human beings still have a tendency to do it anyhow. 

As Randy Pausch said in The Last Lecture, “A good apology is like an antibiotic. A bad apology is like rubbing salt in a wound.” This is why it is so important for all of us to learn how to offer a good apology. None of us want to be guilty of rubbing salt in the wound. Of course, on the other hand, if we’ve been on the receiving end of at least five bad apologies in a row then we get BINGO. So that’s something. 

In compiling this list of bad apologies from many different sources I have to say I had the very unpleasant realization that I have not only been on the receiving end of bad apologies. I’ve been on the giving end. However, as Rabbi Ruttenberg reminds us, offering an apology is not meant to be self-flagellation. After all, self-flagellation is still about ME ME ME. Self flagellation is about my sins, my failings, my feelings whereas the goal of an apology is to prioritize another person. Indeed, in rabbinic tradition, if an apology might do more harm than good we should refrain from apologizing. If apologizing makes us feel good and makes the other person feel bad we shouldn’t do it. A good apology is about doing something good for someone else, prioritizing another human being. 

So let’s take a moment this morning to think about someone other than ourselves, to reflect on how our actions have impacted other people, to prioritize someone else even if it is counter cultural to do so. We are in the midst of the High Holy Days, a time for making amends. So let’s remember what the good rabbi taught us. 

Rabbi Ruttenberg tells us that a good apology includes the following ingredients. We need to apologize. We need to own the pain we’ve caused. We need to take steps to change our behavior so something similar won’t happen again. We need to make amends. And finally we need to never do it again. 

So in conclusion, I want to tell you about something that happened this week. I was up in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Cades Cove and there was a ranger who had set up a booth to educate people about the snakes that are common in our area. The ranger was trying to counter the irrational fear many people have toward snakes, an irrational prejudice that is very likely based on a certain interpretation of the book of Genesis, an interpretation that has given snakes a lot of bad PR. The ranger had a sign on a bucket that seemed to be an attempt to address the prejudicial statement, “The only good snake is a dead snake” by offering an alternate teaching, “The only good human being is an educated human being.” And so I hope that all of us leave church today as better educated human beings, better educated on how to offer an apology. I hope we all leave feeling better educated on how to be kinder to snakes and to each other. So may it be. 

(This sermon was given by Rev. Chris Buice on Sunday, September 18, 2022, at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church)