God Loves Donald Trump (But I Don’t) Part I

“I am a Universalist,” says my friend the Reverend Mitra Jafarzadeh, “God loves everyone so I don’t have to.” Mind you she is using her I-am-off-duty voice when she says this sort of thing. Even so I suspect there is a part of us that can identify with this kind of theology in our more jaded moments.

Her words come to mind because I have been wrestling with the fact that I do not like the president-elect of the United States. My dislike is not even a partisan issue. I did not like him when he was a liberal Democrat. I do not like him as a conservative Republican. He’s been a part of pop culture since the 80’s so I’ve had plenty of time to form an opinion. To be honest, I have no idea what he will do as president. I might agree with some things. I might disagree with others. However, there is one thing I do know now – I really don’t like him.

If you are a Hillary hater then you may have the same problem but from a different vantage point. When we disagree with an elected leader’s policies it is a political issue. When we do not like a person it is a spiritual issue. So spiritually speaking, we all have a lot of work to do before love will ever trump hate. I am a minister so I don’t endorse or opposed any political candidate. This is not because such an action would jeopardize my congregation’s tax-exempt status (which it would) but because I think it makes for “bad church.” We live in a technological society where each one of us can get a never-ending stream of polarized sanctimony 24/7. From this barrage of vitriol we all need sanctuary.

Honesty is the first step toward spiritual growth. A cup that is clean on the outside but dirty on the inside is of little use to anyone. The work of the spirit is inner work. It must come from the inside out. We may not like the work. We might prefer another job entirely. However, this is the work we must do if we ever hope to become vessels of living water for a world where so many thirst for justice, meaning and purpose.

Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” He did not say, “Don’t have any enemies.” I could make a laundry list of social justice issues that will inevitably put me into conflict with the powers-that-be at any given moment in history. However, the spiritual challenge for me is to do this work in ways that will make me a better person and not just a bitter person.

I could also make a long list of things I don’t like about our president elect. However, that would put the focus on him when right now I am the one who needs to do some soul work. Occasionally every minister needs to hear the words, “Physician heal thyself.”

I don’t think that you have to believe in God in order to be a good person. However, periodically I find it comforting to delegate to God those tasks I personally find humanly impossible. It keeps me humble and reminds me that I am only human. I also know that when I dislike anyone it always hurts me and rarely if ever hurts anyone else. Animosity can knock me off course when I would otherwise be sailing with the wind in a good direction. In my life I have many friends who belong to a variety of political parties-Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Green, Independent, proudly apolitical etc. and that’s a good thing. One of the benefits of having such good friends in my life is that I know whenever there is someone I cannot love there is always someone else who can.

(This is a pastoral letter by the Reverend Chris Buice to his congregation the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church)

love-trumps-hate

Thanksgiving: Making the Best of a Bad Holiday

“The scriptures say, ‘Give thanks in all things.’ It does not say, ‘Give thanks for all things,” the Reverend Johnny Skinner of the Mount Zion Baptist Church regularly reminds me. I often need that reminder. Here is what I tend to do. A friend walks up and asks, “How’s it going?” and I reply, “Extremely well – but that doesn’t keep me from having a bad attitude about it.”

Caught in between gratitude and ingratitude it is nice to have a middle way. We can be grateful in all circumstances without being grateful for all circumstances. I write these words after surfing the news on-line and seeing videos of the police turning fire hoses on Native Americans at Standing Rock in subzero temperatures. I watch a white nationalist gathering celebrating the election of our new American president with Nazi salutes. I see smoke rise from the forests ignited by unknown arsonists.

If only all of my concerns were so high minded and public spirited. On the level of personal peevishness the web advertisements remind me that at middle age I can no longer eat whatever I want with impunity. Images of the foods available to me inspire me to recite the Lord’s Prayer, “Lead me not into temptation but deliver me from evil.”

Native Americans look on the Thanksgiving holiday from a different point of view. The tribes of New England have declared it a National Day of Mourning and a West Coast tribe has given it the name Un-Thanksgiving Day. It is a time to remember land grabs, broken treaties, forcible internment, death marches, genocide, rape and mass murder. This day of mourning is not only for events of the distant past but also for a pipeline in the Dakotas that has been diverted from white communities and is now intended for Native land.

I appreciate that there are many different reasons why some of us may be inclined to un-thankful on Thanksgiving. Perhaps, you are dreading the family reunion where you are afraid Election 2016 might come up. Maybe you are grieving because you’ve lost a loved one and there will be an empty place at the table. You may be mourning because your family of origin does not welcome your partner, wife or husband to the family table. You may be angry because “history is written by the winners” and the story of your people does not command attention like the holiday sales and popular myths.

No one has a right to be more ungrateful on Thanksgiving Day than Native Americans. However, even in the midst of many justified resentments the Shawnee leader Tecumseh advised 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.”

While we may be justified in finding fault with the world let’s also take time to find fault with ourselves. If we can’t summon unconditional gratitude we can at least make the best of a bad holiday. In the midst of a National Day of Mourning, we can be grateful for friends, family (biological or acquired), food and fellowship. We can give thanks for the sun, the fall colors and the blue green mountains. We can be thankful in all things without being grateful for everything. Happy Thanksgiving.

(This holiday message was prepared for the newsletter of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church by the Rev. Chris Buice.)

tecumseh

I Can’t Breathe (A Post Election Sermon)

690px-statue_of_liberty_silhouetteThis morning I am going to be talking about Building Our Own Theologies but as is often the case it may take me some time to get around to my topic. For this morning I am thinking of the words of the poet Emma Lazurus inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” AND I am also thinking of the words of Eric Garner as NYPD put him down on the ground in a choke hold for selling cigarette’s without a tax stamp, words he said over and over again before he died in their custody, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”

This morning all of us are aware that we have been through a particularly brutal campaign season where the candidates were not content to simply attack each other but targeted many other people and groups in our society. Today many of us may be feeling like collateral damage in that conflict.

So if you have had an overdose of negative campaign ads, vitriolic social media, home or office micro-agressions then I can understand it if this morning you are thinking, “I can’t breathe.”

If you are a women who has ever been targeted for verbal abuse, objectification, vilification, sexual abuse and violence, then I can understand it if this morning you are feeling like, “I can’t breathe.”

If you are a person of color who has been asked during this campaign season, “Can you speak English?” “Why don’t you go back to your own country?” “Are you here illegally?” then I can understand it if this morning you are thinking, “I can’t breathe.”

If you are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender, queer or questioning you may be feeling like someone just rained on your Pride Parade. You may be worried about your marriage being annulled, your body targeted for violence and so I can understand it if this morning you are feeling like, “I can’t breathe.

If you are anyone else who feels targeted for abuse, disrespect, disenfranchisement, demonization then you are not alone. If you lost a friend or have a family member that will no longer speak to you then we can all understand why you are thinking, “I can’t breathe.”

This morning there may be more than a few people in this room who can’t breathe. However, let me assure you that when you walk through the doors of this congregation you are entering a spiritual home, and the word spirit comes from the word spirare which means to breathe and spiritus which means breathing, inspiration, the breathe of life. So when we walk into this congregation everyone of us needs to know that here, “We can breathe.”

In a moment I will be addressing the topic of Building Our Own Theologies but first let me say something that may seem self-evident and yet controversial. Let me say something that is a biological fact but also may at first seem like Unitarian heresy, here it is – breathing is more important than thinking. Breathing is more important than talking. Breathing is more important creeds or catechisms, doctrines or dogmas. Today our service is about Building Your Own Theology but what we need more than theology, one of our primary spiritual needs is a place, a community a congregation where we can breathe, where we can be inspired, where we can be infused with new life and uplifted by new energy.

In our class called Building Your Own Theology each one of us wrote out our own succinct statements of our own personal beliefs and commitments, our credos. Before we began writing, however, I shared some other succinct theological statements for inspiration. One of those statements came from the Civil Rights marches in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960’s. It was a Commitment Card that civil rights activists were invited to sign before participating in any demonstrations. This card is 50 years old but it is still particularly timely this morning in a week when tens of thousands of people marching in the streets of major cities. The Commitment Card asked participants to do the following things,

  • REMEMBER always that the nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation – not victory.
  • Walk and talk in the manner of love for God is love.
  • PRAY daily to be used by God in order that all might be free.
  • SACRIFICE personal wishes in order that all might be free.
  • OBSERVE with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
  • SEEK to perform regular service for others and for the world.
  • STRIVE to be in good spiritual and bodily health. Refrain from violence of fist, tongue and heart.

I chose this statement for inspiration because it is a distinctly theological statement but it is also about putting theology into action. Because, in the Unitarian Universalist church each one of us is free to build our own theologies but this is not an academic exercise only. For as we build our own theologies we are also building the kind of world we want to live in, we are building a new way. It is about announcing to the world that no one can be free until everyone is free. It is about building a world where everyone can breathe free.

That Commitment Card with the simple statement also included a place where the participant was asked to put their name, address, phone number and the name and contact info of their nearest relative. That last item, the place for the next of kin, was in the event that someone was injured or killed or hospitalized or put into prison. In other words this is a theological statement that involved a very serious level of commitment.

This week many have been asking me my thoughts on Election 2016. On Wednesday morning I posted some of those thoughts on social media and I want to reaffirm some of the principles of that statement.

  • In democracies there are no permanent victors or permanently vanquished.
  • Winners get a chance to prove they are worthy of the office.
  • Losers get the opportunity to organize for the next contest.
  • Most of us have been through many election cycles experiencing both wins and losses. Even so we do not identify as either a victim or a victor. Instead we can be fighters, advocates for the causes in which we believe and for the people we care about.
  • We can remain committed to fighting the good fight, finishing the race and keeping the faith by overcoming evil with good, hatred with love, falsehood with truth, despair with hope, enmity with peace.

Friends I know this is not easy. There has been so much acrimony. Sometimes it can feel like the world is broken beyond repair, but as the singer songwriter Leonard Cohen once wrote, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light get’s in.” This morning we are all to aware that there is a crack in our country. There is a crack in our politics but if we order our lives in the right spirit then that’s where the light will get in. So let us recommit to the work so that we can say, where there is darkness we will bring light.

I also think it is important to state openly that many people are using politics to try to stop changes that cannot be stopped by politics or government. Technology and transportation have made the world smaller and we are going to be living in a more diverse country in terms of race, religion, culture, language, sexual orientation, gender identity, political party affiliation, beliefs and values. No election is going to change that because the forces involved are bigger than government.

No election is going to change the fact that more women than men are enrolling in colleges and universities today which means more women than men are going to be entering into to the jobs of the future, not just grieving the jobs of the past, which means more women are going to be in positions of leadership in the future.

An election can decide who sits on the Supreme Court but no one can tell you who to love or who will be your partner or what your family will look like. The problem with today is too many people are trying to stop changes that governments can’t stop. There are politicians who think they can suck up all the oxygen in the room but “We the people” are an unstoppable force for change whenever we are yearning to breathe free.

In the Unitarian Universalist church I do not assume that everyone voted for the same candidate or is experiencing the same emotions today but I do know that we share some of the basic commitments. The first effort to create a Unitarian church in this city in the early 20th century was through the efforts of suffragists who were also working for a woman’s right to vote. We share the same convictions.

Our current congregation was born in 1949 and became the first historically white congregation to become integrated and has continued to be a leader for civil rights and racial justice from the sit-ins of the 60’s to the Black Lives Matter movement now. We share the same faith.

When the Supreme Court made their ruling for marriage equality our congregation hosted the first legally recognized same-sex marriage right here in this sanctuary, a consummation of decades of activism for the cause of equality. We share the same hope.

So let me say to you that now more than ever our church matters, our mission matters. The words of the Unitarian minister and Nature essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed our spirit well when he said, “Go where freedom is not and I say I am for it.” We are called to be a countercultural church, when the culture is filled with despair we are called to incubate a culture of hope. When the culture is filled with vitriol and violence, we are called to co-create a counterculture of peace, justice and reconciliation – to go where love and understanding are not and say, “we are for it.”

Many years ago when I was a new member at this church I took the BYOT class and I went through an exercise where I was asked to give my own personal definition of the word God. Because this is a Unitarian Universalist I knew I did not have to do it, nobody was going to make me do it. I was simply invited to do it. I wrote “Whenever two or more are gathered to love and support and encourage each other there is a power greater than ourselves that can renew, restore and sustain us.” That power is in this room. That is my definition of God, that is my credo, that is my personal statement of faith, and it is applicable at this moment, in this time, because when we love, support and encourage each other we are building a new way.

This week a friend who is transgender sent a message to his friends after the election,

The world feels scarier to many, yet for some of us it has always been a scary world.
For some of us, the very act of living is a radical act of resistance. May we each find the strength to continue living. For some of us, our bodies have been battlegrounds for far too long. May we continue to be resilient in the face of hatred, bigotry, and violence…
Now is the time to come together, to support one another and offer each other deep, life-affirming Love.

So let me ask you if we are doing our job right as a congregation this morning by asking you a question, can you breathe? If so, say “We Can Breathe!”

Can you breathe?

We can breathe!

Can you breathe?

We can breathe!

Can you breathe?

We can breathe!

We may be tired this morning. But we can also have a song in our hearts, and you know the song I’m thinking about from the roller rink,

I get knocked down
But I get up again
You’re never gonna keep me down
I get knocked down
But I get up again
You’re never gonna keep me down

 And as we sing our song we remain committed to building a church where we can build our own theologies as we are building a new way and building a land where everyone, our tired our poor our huddled masses yearning to breathe free can say, we can breathe.

Can we say that?

We can breathe!

Can we say it again?

We can breathe!

Can we mean it?

We can breathe!

Let’s make it so!

(This sermon was delivered at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee on Sunday, November 13, 2016)

Lead, Kindly Light (A Pre-Election Diwali Sermon)

mahatma-gandhiThis week the Pew Research organization released a chart of the religious groups with the highest and lowest levels of education. And the two groups with the highest levels of education are Hindus (number 1) and Unitarian Universalists (number 2) so we are in a rarefied atmosphere here today as Hindus and Unitarian Universalists gather together to celebrate Diwali, where like the mythical town of Lake Woebegone “all our children are above average.”

But we are also in the midst of a very contentious election season, one that has tested many a friendship. A few weeks back I told you about Andre Canty’s post on Facebook “2016: The Great Unfriending.”

Of course this is not the first contentious political contest. Once when John Tyler was running for President of the United States he was put on the spot and asked his views on a very controversial issue. He did not hesitate to take a firm stand. He said, “Half my friends are for it and half of my friends are against and I want to assure you that I intend to stand with my friends.”

We are in the midst of an election season when it easy to lose as many as half of our friends. This year the American Psychological Association reported over half of all Americans report that this election season has been a source of major stress. It has been a season of argumentation, name calling, belittling put downs, passive aggressive jabs, hostile social media posts, negative advertising and more.

For this reason the American Psychological Association or the APA has taken the rare step of offering concrete advice and practical steps on how to deal with election year stress. Their recommendations include.

  • Limit your media consumption. Turn off the television, log off the internet, limit your newspaper and other forms of exposure. To sum it up simply, be an informed citizen but don’t overdose.
  • Avoid conversations about the election with friends, family, neighbors and co-workers when such conversations are likely to lead to more conflict and stress.
  • Remember that action is better than anxiety. Choose to be an active participant in making a difference in the community through volunteering (either as part of the democratic process or in some other form of service.)
  • Avoid “catastrophizing”, whatever happens on November 8 life will continue, the sun will still rise and set, the fall colors will continue to be beautiful, the crisp seasonal weather will give you a good reason to get out of doors and enjoy life.
  • Vote because it is better to be an active co-creator of your society rather than a passive consumer. You may be a blue voter in a red state or a red voter in a blue state but your vote always makes a difference for your own mental health.

There it is – the recommendations of the APA as translated by your humble servant. But you may be wondering why am I talking about the election in the middle of our celebration of Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights. Here is the reason, because it is during this time that we look for light in the midst of darkness. Mahatma Gandhi, who understood that politics and religion often align in the cause of justice, was himself a Hindu but he often interacted with Christians and even had his own favorite hymn, “Lead, kindly light.”

Lead, kindly Light, amid th’encircling gloom,
lead thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home;
lead thou me on!
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
the distant scene; one step enough for me.

There is a Chinese proverb that tells us, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” However, the Hindu tradition asks, “Why light just one candle? Why not light ten candles or hundreds of candles or thousands of candles or even millions of candles?” Why have one candle only when we can have a festival of lights.

Looking over the recommendations of the APA I can’t help but notice that they left out a very important thing that can help us with election year stress – meditation. That is why I am grateful for Pradhu and the practitioners of Heartfulness Meditation for leading us in meditation today. I am grateful for you sharing your gifts with us, offering us this time of meditation which helps us all to lower our blood pressure, find inner calm, relax our stressed out bodies, minds and spirits.

Meditation reminds us that there is a light within each one of us; “a light that illuminates us from within. There is a source of light that exists in our hearts. It is a starting point, a way to dive deeper into life.” This is what the early Unitarians referred to as the divine spark in every person.

While religions may create many outward structures, cathedrals, temples and synagogues, the ultimate source of religion is within each one of us. While we may build outward structures for support the most important thing is this Inward Light. The outward structures are only the lantern. It is the light within that illuminates all things.

We need this light as we move forward amid the encircling gloom. We may not be able to see everything through the darkness but we can listen to the Quaker sage who advised us to, “Live up to the light thou hast and more will be granted thee.”

The Hindu tradition teaches that there are many paths that lead to the mountaintop. Faith is not a one-way street to a final destination. There are many ways to truth.

The Hindus are not the only ones to have this realization.Earlier this year I was in a conversation with Melanie McGhee, a local counselor and social worker, and she shared with me something her grandmother told her; something about religion that resonated with her experience of the dusty dirt roads that run through the pine forests of South Carolina passing many a Baptist or Methodist or Protestant church. Her grandmother said, “There are many paths in life but some paths are lined with tall trees so the people on those paths can’t see that there are any other paths.”

Another thing that the APA leaves out of its list of ways to cope with a stressful election is music. This morning we have been blessed with the sounds of music from the Hindu tradition by our wonderful singers, thank you for offering your gifts to help us find inner peace in a time of outward turmoil. This morning’s song was a prayer to Vishnu; a prayer of letting go, a prayer of releasing and surrendering to that power that is infinitely larger than all things but also present and shining in everything; the light of every age and every nation.

There are many connections between the Unitarian Universalist Church and the Hindu tradition. !9th century Unitarians like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau read the Hindu scriptures as they first came into translation in English and drew wisdom that influenced their writing and work. The influence worked both ways as Mahatma Gandhi read Emerson and Thoreau during his many stretches in prison and once described Emerson as his American guru and he called Henry David Thoreau a major influence of his own ideas about civil disobedience, ideas which helped lead to a nonviolent revolution and the creation of an independent India.

It is a tradition in our church to take our high school age youth on a field trip to Concord, Massachusetts, where they can see Emerson’s house and visit Thoreau’s homesite on Walden Pond. Throughout the trip I had been telling the kids about the influence of Eastern religions on these New Englanders but I was as surprised as anyone when we hiked out to Thoreau’s homesite and found a Hindu group meditating on that sacred spot. I turned to the youth and said, “See I told you so.”

However, in addition to meditation we need movement. When my son was in college at MTSU we would go to a local Indian restaurant and we would eat our meal to a never-ending parade of Bollywood videos playing on big flat screen TV filling the room with fantastic colors, motion and movement. It was hard to eat without dancing. You had to be carefully you didn’t accidently poke anyone with a fork or a knife.

That’s another thing that the APA left out of its list of stress reducers – movement but we are going to make up for that with our closing song where we are going to teach each and everyone of you some simple Bollywood dance moves so we can truly enter into the spirit of Diwali.

When Christopher Columbus came to America he thought he’d found India. That is how the indigenous peoples of this land, the Native Americans, came to be known as Indians. This weekend people have been traveling across the country to Stand with Standing Rock, to help our indigenous peoples, our Indians, who ware working to protect their water and their sacred sites. The Standing Rock movement is grounded peaceful protest and nonviolent social change and so resonates with another Indian from another continent, Mahatma Gandhi, reminding us that the source of our faith, is within each one of us. Here is one of the chants they have been saying this weekend at Standing Rock. Let’s try it together.

We stand – for our people

We stand – for our water

We stand-we stand, we stand, we stand.

Many Unitarian Universalists are out at Standing Rock this week including the Reverend Theresa Ines Soto who moves around in a wheel chair reminding us that even if we are unable to stand we can still move so let’s revise that chant.

We move – for our people

We move – for our water

We move, we move, we move.

Friends, under this president I’ve heard people say, “We need to take this country back.” But I heard the exact same phrase used for the president before him, so let’s do something better this week. Instead of taking this country back let’s move this country forward. Let’s move with our friends.

Let’s move! Let’s move! Let’s move!

(This sermon was preached by the Reverend Chris Buice at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, November 6, 2016.)