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.)

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