Evidence of Things Unseen

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Toxic Masculinity and the Divine Feminine

Woman stands shining

This morning I want speak about toxic masculinity but I am aware that not everyone knows exactly what I mean by that term “toxic masculinity” so let me see if I can mansplain it to you.

Now in case you do not know what mansplaining is let me see if I can put it in the simplest possible terms. Mansplaining is when a man explains something to a woman in a very patronizing way.

Now if you are new to the church I know what you may be thinking. Later today you might be talking to a friend and say, “You know what I did today. I went to a church where the minister was mansplaining mansplaining.”

And while this is true, let’s see if we can hit the reset button and begin our explorations of this subject upon higher ground.

Today, what I really want to do is talk about toxic masculinity while hopefully avoiding the tendency to mansplain so let’s begin with a definition of toxic masculinity found in Wikipedia.

“Toxic masculinity is defined by adherence to traditional male gender roles that restrict the kinds of emotions allowable for boys and men to express…and limit their emotional range primarily to expressions of anger..”

The term toxic masculinity is not meant to demonize men. In fact, I would argue that toxic masculinity is an effort to describe the ways our societal norms are harmful to boys and men, girls and women, indeed, all people regardless of our gender identity.

Last week I was at the Festival of Faiths in Louisville, Kentucky where the theme for the week was “Sacred Insight, Feminine Wisdom” and I heard a powerful presentation by Lyla June Johnston, a Native American activist from the Navajo tribe who also happens to be a hip-hop artist. After her talk and musical performance there was a question and answer session where someone asked, “I am having difficulty finding a spiritual response to the toxic masculinity I see coming from the White House, what is your advice?” I think the answer she gave may be helpful to us regardless of which political party we support. She said, “I refer to the President as uncle Trump, in other words he is part of the family.”

Note this statement is grounded in a very Navajo sentiment, where spirituality is about ‘all our relations” the two-legged, the four legged, the winged, the finned, all our relations in the broadest possible sense. So that when we get angry about politics we can reframe it so that we speak of Uncle Trump or Aunt Hillary or cousin Bernie or cousin Mitch. In other words, find the person who drives you nuts the most and add the word cousin or uncle or aunt to it.

It is this understanding of “all our relations” that informs the way I want to speak about toxic masculinity today because toxic masculinity is toxic to everyone including men.

Many years ago, when I was in seminary I served as a hospital chaplain as part of my education and one of things I learned is that there are a lot of angry men in hospitals especially on the children’s floor. In most cases the men are not angry with doctors or nurses or chaplains or family members. In the vast majority of cases the men are angry about being powerless. The men are angry about being helpless. The men are angry about being vulnerable. The men are angry about being sad. The men are angry about being heartbroken and bereft.

When I was a young chaplain I confess I did not always understand this anger but the older I get the more I do understand. The older I get the more I understand feeling angry about powerlessness, vulnerability, helplessness.

In this age of reactionary politics where so often anger clashes with anger, hate clashes with hate, argumentativeness clashes with argumentativeness, the Reverend Bill Sinkford tells us we need to look for “the hurt beneath the hate” the pain beneath the anger, the anxiety behind the argument.

This is not to excuse the message or the actions of hate groups. Our state capitol building has a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest the founder of the Ku Klux Klan in a place of honor in the hallways. There is no excuse for that in the year 2018. That’s bullshit.

However there are ways to be in relationship to hate that either disempower it or actually augment and strengthen the hate. So the challenge of a spiritual response is to find those methods that actually help transform the situation in meaningful ways. During the civil rights movement when policeman were unleashing attack dogs on protestors and knocking them down with fire hoses Dr. King said something that is relevant today, “The disease has to surface before we find the cure.” And right now in our in our time there is a lot of disease coming to the surface, so much so, that I sometimes wonder if it is possible to find a cure for it all.

So one of the challenges I face personally when I am trying to address toxic masculinity is how to respond to an angry white male without becoming an angry white male. The author Salman Rushdie once said, “Be careful when the powerful trample over you because their disease can infect you through the soles of their feet.” When toxic masculinity tramples over us then we can be contaminated by the toxicity.

Whenever I get angry, I try to ask myself the question, “Is my anger helping or hurting me?” Is my anger empowering me to action, helping me to make a difference, inspiring me to be creative? Or is my anger my own worst enemy?

Thursday marked the 20th anniversary of my ordination into ministry and lately I have been thinking about my ordination vows as they relate to our times. Twenty years ago I made this vow.

With humility and reverence I accept the joys and responsibilities of this most sacred mission: to make my life’s work a ministry of reconciliation, a ministry which forever seeks the reconciliation of all people to each other, to the Creation which nourishes us and so many other diverse forms of life and to the God in whom we live and move and have our being.

When I began the ministry my heroes were Lucretia Mott, Mahatma Gandhi and other great peacemakers but lately, I have felt more like those angry men in the hospital. In our current cultural conflict I’ve found myself being angry a lot more often than I used to and here’s why that’s a problem.

Anger is a very dangerous emotion for everyone. Anger is connected to high blood pressure, which can lead to heart attacks and strokes. Anger is linked to increased levels of anxiety and depression. Anger can shorten our lives.

Did you know that anger is associated with reduced lung capacity? Which means the angrier we are the harder it is for us to breathe. That fact gives a whole new meaning to the hymn we sing some Sunday mornings, “When I breathe in I breathe in peace, when I breathe out I breathe out love,” Sometimes we need to let go of our anger, just so we can breath.

So I began my ministry with a vision of a ministry of reconciliation and I am still committed to that goal, however, after twenty years I can see the faces of people who’ve taken offense at a congregational decision or a committee vote or a staff judgment call and chosen to sever the bonds of friendship and connection. For this reason remembering these vows puts me in touch with my powerlessness, my vulnerability, my sadness, my limitations and so I know the meaning of the words we said together earlier.

“Blessed are those who know that the church is often imperfect, yet rather than harbor feelings of anger or disappointment, bring their concerns and needs to the attention of the church leaders.” And remain committed to finding solutions.

So before I go any further let me ask you a question: are you ready for me to get all woo-woo on you? I hope so because I am going to.

Last week I was at the Festival of Faiths immersing myself in that theme “Sacred Insights, Feminine Wisdom.” Consciously or unconsciously I went to that conference feeling like one of those angry men in the hospital. However, on the last day I went to a gathering with a Native American elder in teepee set up on the grounds. As I sat in the circle we went through a smudging ritual and I suddenly felt very close to my mother who is no longer living and who had a deep and abiding interest in Native American spirituality. I felt energy coursing through my body and these words came to me, “It’s not you who is angry. Its your mother,” and at that moment I felt my anger lift, disperse and dissipate. I could almost see it rising up in the air through the hole in the top of the teepee toward the sky. As my anger dissipated I heard an elder say, “In my tribe it is the grandmothers who declare war,” and apparently it is the grandmothers who declare peace too.

At some point we left the teepee for a drumming circle and goodbye song out in the open air led by an elder known as Woman Stands Shining. Immediately after the drumming circle I got a message on my phone from my son that read, “Prepare to be wowed.” It was a video of my granddaughter Wrenowyn who is still a baby. She was lying on the floor giving a kind of primal cry when all of a sudden she sat up grabbed a bowl and started beating on it with a spoon like a drum in a way similar to the way Woman Stands Shining beat her drum. So the grandmothers declare peace and the granddaughter says Amen.

So today, if I am a little less like the angry men in the hospital it is because of this encounter with the sacred feminine. As I said last week, “I do not have to be able to explain an experience in order to appreciate it.” Such experiences do not solve every problem, do not heal every wound or reconcile every conflict but sometimes it is good to know that when we are dealing with Uncle Trump or Aunt Hilary or cousin Bernie or cousin Mitch that we can call on our grandmothers wisdom and a granddaughters energy.

Spiritual growth is hard work. It is labor. As Woman Stands Shining said, “Everyone wants to give birth…metaphorically.” However, both physical and spiritual birth is painful and tough work. Nevertheless we are called to do it for “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” And we want to be a part of that new birth of freedom, that new birth of energy and life.

So in conclusion, let me say, next time someone tries to mansplain something and you begin to feel our blood boil and your teeth grind take a deep breathe, be still and sing, “When I breathe in I breathe in peace, when I breathe out I breathe out love.” For when we are giving birth it is very important to pay attention to our breathing.

(This sermon was preached by the Reverend Chris Buice at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday May 6, 2018)

Inspired or Insane?

the-starry-night-1889

Long before John Lennon ever saw Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Ezekiel saw the wheel way up in the middle of the air. Who knew the Bible could be so groovy?

Ezekiel shared his vision of seeing four living creatures with four wings, each having four faces; the face of a human, the face of an ox, the face of a lion and the face of an eagle. In other words, to use the language of our time – Ezekiel be trippin’.

Some scholars have speculated that Ezekiel may have been under the influence of some sort of hallucinogen as part of a shamanic trance. However, the mystics of the world will tell you can be clean, sober and sane and still be trippin’.

Not everyone trusts such mystic visions and some have gone so far as to give the prophet Ezekiel a clinical diagnosis. One scholar suggests that Ezekiel suffered from depressive psychosis with symptomatic insomnia, moodswings, guilt, unworthiness, self-blame and schizophrenia with symptomatic disordered thinking, visual, auditory, olfactory hallucinations and paranoid delusions. That’s quite the diagnosis.

Is this diagnosis medically warranted or is it blasphemy? This morning I want us to explore how we can know the difference between inspiration and insanity.

I want to begin by telling a story about a time when my family thought I’d gone insane. It was many years ago when I was a teenager, back in the 1980’s, and under tragic circumstances. I was riding in a car after the memorial service. We were driving through downtown Macon, Georgia, which was the 3rd largest city in the state (with many multistoried buildings) and I happen to look out the window as we crossed an intersection and I caught a brief glimpse of something so I said to everyone, “I just saw a cow in the middle of the street back there.” My sister responded, “Chris when we are grieving a loss we sometimes think we see things.” I replied, “No really, there was a cow in the middle of the road.” It was clear that no one in the car believed me, it was all in my head, but we had other things to worry about that day so I let the subject drop. However, the next day when we got the newspaper I made sure that everyone saw the picture on the front page of a cow in the middle of the street in downtown Macon, Georgia. Vindicated!

I mention this story because sometimes it’s hard to know when someone is losing their mind or firmly grounded in reality. Are we hallucinating? Do we really see everything we think we see? Sometimes it can be hard to tell.

Many years ago I heard an interview with the comedienne Julia Sweeney about her journey from Catholicism to atheism. Before the interview I knew that Sweeney was an outspoken atheist so I was surprised when she told this story about the earlier part of her life.

She talked about a time when she was a young adult and she went through a painful breakup with a boyfriend that sent her into a deep depression. One day she was lying in bed and she found herself saying, “Heal me.” Then something powerful happened. “I felt light in the room and I could feel God in the room and I had this great sense of connectedness with the universe. It is hard to put into words the experience I had but it was just a very profound religious experience. I felt very close to God and suddenly knew that things were going to turn out …I felt healed….It was a very positive experience.”

What I found interesting was this is an atheist telling a very spiritual story using very spiritual words. Now that she is an atheist she interprets this experience differently than when she was a believer. She says she now understands more about how the brain works. She thinks what she experienced was a firing of the right temporal lobe in a way similar to an epileptic seizure that induced the feelings of warmth and light associated with this experience. So an experience that she once might have called “God inspiring” she now attributes to her “brain misfiring.” However, here’s what I find interesting, when she tells the story she uses the vocabulary of her younger self rather than her older self.

Here is what I have learned from 20 years in the ministry, people’s experiences do not always line up neatly with their intellectual beliefs. I once met a Unitarian Universalist who said, “I don’t believe in God but I often experience God’s presence and I am okay with that contradiction.” Such paradoxes are common among UU’s. Similarly, I’ve also known UUs who do believe in God but haven’t ever felt God’s presence. So paradoxes abound.

When I served a congregation in Oxford, Ohio, I had a member, John Eicher, who was a rationalist and a materialist and a humanist who was very proactive about sharing his views. So imagine my surprise when I went to see him in the hospital when he was recovering from an operation and he said to me, “Chris, I want to tell you about my out of body experience.” Apparently, while he was on the table being operated on he had a sense of hovering above his own body listening to the doctors talk about his condition, so that he was a witness to his own surgery. After the operation, and body and soul were back together again as it were, he was able to confirm with his doctor that what he heard was what was said during the operation.

What I found interesting about John’s story is this. It wasn’t an experience he was expecting. It was in no way a product of wishful thinking, indeed, it might have been the opposite. And while John was able to give a rational, materialist, humanist explanation for his out of body experience there was something different about his voice (and it was the same quality in Julia Sweeney’s voice.) As I listened to him tell the story I could tell that he was less interested in explaining the experience than appreciating the experience. For this reason, when people come to me to tell me stories about spiritual experiences I will sometimes say, “You don’t have to be able to explain an experience in order to appreciate it.”

In 1902 the philosopher William James published the classic book The Varieties of Religious Experience in which he collected many people’s first hand autobiographical experiences – people’s own stories in their own words. What I find interesting about so many of these stories is that the experiences come unexpected. They come unasked for. Often they come unwished for. These experiences do not depend on people’s beliefs and they tend to be bigger than those beliefs or outside the boundaries of those beliefs. These experiences sometimes make people question their own sanity or their grasp of reality.

One such experience has been called the unitive experience or oceanic experience. It is an all pervading sense of Oneness and Unity with everything. When we have these experiences it might feel like we are going crazy but here’s the thing. Psychologists tell us we need to have these experiences in order to stay sane. Our sanity depends on these experiences. Which gives new meaning to the chorus of a country song by Waylon Jennings, “I’ve always been crazy but it’s kept me from going insane.”

This week I was up in Louisville, Kentucky for an interfaith conference. One of the interesting things about Louisville is that it has a historic marker for the place where the Catholic mystic and Vietnam era peace activist Thomas Merton had a spiritual experience, which he wrote about in his autobiography.

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers…if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.…If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . . . But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’.

Now if you were to go back in time and see Thomas Merton standing on the corner you might (or might not) come to the conclusion that he was a madman. It’s sort of like those people who walking around in public places carrying a “Free Hugs” sign. Part of us wants to say it is a wonderful thing but another part of us isn’t ready to receive unconditional love from a complete stranger. There is a part of us that wants to trust and another part that wants to distrust.

The mystics, the shamans and the prophets are often thought to be crazy. In the 19th century Margaret Fuller once wrote about a spiritual experience in her memoirs, “I saw there was no self; that selfishness was all folly, and the result of circumstance; that it was only because I thought self real that I suffered; that I had only to live in the idea of the ALL, and all was mine.  This truth came to me, and I received it unhesitatingly; so that I was for that hour taken up into God.”

Now many people thought Margaret Fuller was crazy, and not just because of her mystical experiences. Many people thought Margaret Fuller was crazy because she believed in women’s equality. Her book Woman in the 19th Century was one the earliest arguments for equal rights. In her time when women spoke out for equality they were often accused of being mentally ill. Sometimes women who asserted equal rights were put away in asylums or given mental health treatments.

Today many people do the same thing to transgender activists, accuse them of mental illness. Indeed, some of Margaret Fuller’s writings seem to presage the current controversies over transgender issues for as she once remarked, “Male and female (seem to) represent the two sides of the great radical dualism. But, in fact, they are perpetually passing into one another. Fluid hardens to solid, solid rushes to fluid. There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.”

Transgender activists are saying the same thing a hundred years later, “There is no wholly masculine male, no purely feminine woman.” Last week, church member Juniper Stinnet, was given the Artist for Change award by Community Shares for her work with the Transgender Empowerment Project and her use of music to promote justice, equality and freedom in the world. Among some of her best work is the work she does as our youth programs coordinator here at TVUUC.

And this leads me to our final point. There have been times in our congregation’s history when many people thought our church was crazy. People thought we were crazy in the 1950’s when Knoxville was segregated but this church was integrated. People thought we were crazy in the 1960’s when members participated in the sit-ins and the civil rights movement and hosted the Poor Peoples Campaign. People thought we were crazy in the 1970’s when we spoke out for the Equal Rights Amendment. People thought we were crazy in the 1980’s because we were offering comprehensive sex education to our children and youth at church. People thought we were crazy in the 1990’s when spoke out for the GLBT rights…and in this new millennium there are still people who think we are crazy….but you know what? I don’t think we are insane. I think we are inspired!!

Recently a friend send me a picture of a church with a message board out front that read, “Bring your marshmallows to church because our pastor is on fire.” And I’d like to expand on that sentiment by saying, “Bring your marshmallows to church because our church is on fire. Our church is inspired.”

Ezekiel saw the wheel way up in the middle of the air, in much the same way as Van Gogh saw the spiraling heavens on a starry, starry night.

And we too have visions. The Spirit is upon us. Our children prophesy. Our young see visions. Our old dream dreams. Who knew church could be so groovy?

And so we sing:

Wake, now, our senses, and hear the earth call;

Feel the deep power of being in all;

Keep, with this spiraling web of creation our vow,
Giving, receiving as love shows us how.

So may it be.

(The Reverend Chris Buice preached this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday April 29, 2018)