What Child is This (in the Messy Playroom)

The two-year old child was the most mature person in the room. While adults watched television, older kids wrestled for control of a blob of blue Play Doh they called the “giant meatball” and others played with a menagerie of plastic dinosaurs making ferocious noises, she sat in her stroller the picture of equanimity. She surveyed us all, young and old, the way that royalty surveys the crowd or the Secretary-General of the United Nations presides over a particularly raucous peace conference– benign, imperturbable, a still point in the chaos.

She reminded me of a small Buddha, ebony skin, braids, an embodiment of peace and serenity. We met because I volunteered to be an overnight host for the Family Promise program where we open up our church to families that would otherwise be homeless. Our Sunday school rooms become bedrooms. Our youth group room becomes a living room/playroom. Our church becomes a temporary house and a home. For the time being this child and her family are moving from congregation to congregation, week to week, until permanent housing becomes available. Such circumstances would test the equanimity of most of us.

Another volunteer and I kept an eye on this child while mom worked on a paper for a community college class in the next room. She appeared to have no separation anxiety. Shamans might call her an “old soul.” In Tibet the High Lamas travel from village to village, town to town, in search of the baby that might be the next incarnation of an Enlightened Being. They identify likely candidates and then perform a series of tests to verify their discovery. It wouldn’t have surprised me a bit if that evening a troupe of monks in their maroon and yellow robes had descended on us in that room and informed us that one such being was among us and that we should feel blessed by her presence.

In our case it was a myriad of volunteers who worked hard to make sure she received the respect she deserved. I am grateful to all the people who pitched in to make our Family Promise program work by grocery shopping, cooking meals, cleaning the kitchen, offering childcare, interacting with our guests, building community, providing logistical support and a thousand visible and invisible tasks.

The 19th century Unitarians taught that there is a divine spark in every person. The Zen Masters tell us that each one of us has Buddha Nature in us. My theory is that the light shines brighter and that “nature” is revealed more clearly in some. I have been known to expand on the sentiment of early Quakers and say, “There is that of God in every person – although it may not be readily apparent.” But I do believe that when we honor the inherent worth and dignity of every person and strive for a world where everyone has food, shelter and basic needs met then we all take a step toward becoming more enlightened beings.

Our guest families have moved on to another church now. Other people will help them on their journey. My universal prayer is for the well-being of everyone but my particular hope is that there is one little girl who will continue to know inner calm in the midst of the outward storms of life.





Speedos, Burkinis and Liberal Religion

Sarah and Me at Mont Saint Michel

France may well be the only country where a woman can be forbidden to wear a burka and a man required to wear a speedo. The burka ban was passed by the national legislature ostensibly for security reasons. Anything covering the face or concealing one’s identity is seen as a potential threat. The speedo requirement is a little more complicated.

In France the speedo is considered more hygienic than less revealing swimwear. The French believe that the more fabric in the swimsuit the more likely it is that germs will be transmitted from person to person. The fact that there is not scientific evidence to support this belief does not change anything. So if you are a male and you want to go to a public swimming pool in France expect to be required to wear a speedo.

The burka ban was created to deter terror. Clearly no one thought through how much terror might be generated by the sight of some of us in a speedo. The French are not the only people with contradictions. In America we see rallies for religious freedom where people also speak about banning Muslims from the country. Such human inconsistencies are present in every nation on earth.

I find such contradictions fascinating. In college I once asked someone, “If you are a vegetarian why do you feed your cat meat?” I was genuinely curious and meant no offense but subsequently decided that this is not a great question to ask on a first date. Since that time I have tried to explore the paradoxical nature of humanity with a little more sensitivity to other people’s feelings and a lot more awareness of my own foibles.

The reason I have been reflecting on this topic lately is two beach resorts in France have banned the burkini, a swimming suit preferred by many Muslim women designed to cover up a maximum amount of body. In other words women can go topless but are forbidden to cover up. This is just one way France is very different from Tennessee.

In this age of skin cancer awareness it seems like there might be a growing interest in the burkini from people regardless of gender identity. If so the French will probably not be leaders for this cause. The burka/burkini bans are often framed as instruments for the liberation for women. However, the laws and rules are usually made by men and imposed on women. It is hard to see how you can liberate people by forcing them to do something against their will. Requiring someone to forgo her burkina is a lot like requiring someone else to wear a speedo. It might lead to more embarrassment than liberation.

Whenever I am asked to explain what it means to be a religious liberal I will sometimes quote from the Declaration of the Rights of Man that came out of the French Revolution, “Liberty consists of doing anything which does not harm others: thus, the exercise of our natural rights has only those borders which assure other members of the society the enjoyment of these same rights.”

The “Rights of Man” is a document that uses male language and was drafted by men. I think we can all agree that men don’t get to decide what constitutes women’s liberation. However, if we allow each other the freedom to chose our own swim attire I believe we will be taking a step in the right direction for freedom for all people. If we exercise our freedom in ways that undergird and support the freedom of others we come closer to “Liberté, égalité, fraternité, sororité, transgenderité.” allowing us to see someone in a burkini or bikini, a speedo or swimming trunks and say, “vive la différence.” – Chris









Star Trek/Star Wars Rites of Passage

Sometimes watching a movie can trigger an unanticipated rite of passage. I was in elementary school when the first Star Wars movie came out. I waited in a long line that wrapped around the building in order to see the young Luke Skywalker learn to be a Jedi knight under the tutelage of the older and grayer Obi Wan Kenobi. So, of course, I had to see the new movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens! However, I was unprepared for how I felt when in the final scene of that film a new apprentice, a young woman named Rey, approached the Jedi knight who pushed back the hood of his robes and we saw for the first time a very middle aged Luke Skywalker with streaks of gray in his hair and beard. For some reason this moment hit me hard. It wasn’t the awareness that he had aged. I was the sudden realization that I had aged. Luke was not the only young kid who now had gray in his beard. I am sure I was not the only one in the movie theater who felt the passage of time in that moment.

When I first started working for this congregation as the Director of Religious Education I was a young adult bursting with energy and enthusiasm like Luke Skywalker in the first film. Now I have equal enthusiasm but it is tempered by experience. When Luke lowered his hood in the last film I not only recognized him. I recognized myself. Somewhere in the last few decades I went from young upstart to a mentor to the next generation. Something about that scene in a movie triggered my awareness of my own rite of passage.

Some people love Star Wars to the exclusion of Star Trek but I enjoy both science fiction epics. I grew up watching reruns of the original Star Trek TV series vacillating between whether Dr. McCoy or Mr. Spock was my favorite character. This summer I went to see the latest movie Star Trek Beyond, where screen writers and actors did an excellent job capturing the McCoy/Spock rivalry, a continuing contest between “head” and “heart” like the one that goes on inside of each one of us.

However, the character I identified with most (at least for one moment) was Captain Kirk when Starfleet offered Kirk a promotion to admiral and he declined the offer. While this ‘declining the promotion’ is a common them in Star Trek (after all who wouldn’t rather be a starship captain than a Starfleet bureaucrat) this time it struck me in a personal way. Today, August 1 marks 15 years as the minister of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. While we tend to think of rites of passage as being in sync with promotions, moving from student to teacher or apprentice to mentor there is another rite of passage. It is called refusing the promotion. This can also be an important realization about who we are and what we are about. Athletes call this “being in the zone.” Psychologists call this “being in the flow.” All I know is that when people ask me, “What do you plan to do after being the minister of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church?” I often say, “I don’t know but I already know I don’t want to do it.” Every time I walk down the curved hallways of our church I feel a little bit like the captain of the starship Enterprise.

All of this is to say that I am ready for a new church year. Let’s boldly go where no one has gone before. May the force be with us. – Chris Buice