Faitheism: Bridging the God Gap, Building the Beloved Community

There is a Hasidic story of a rabbi who tells his students, “Everything God created has a purpose,” to which a student asks, “What is the purpose of atheism,” and the rabbi replies, “When a poor person asks for your help imagine there is no God to help this man and you alone can help this person.” In this way even atheism can serve a holy purpose.

What this story suggests is that it is possible for atheists and believers to find common ground in working to end poverty and helping others in need.

Dr. Martin Luther King was a Baptist minister, however, when he was organizing the civil rights movement he never hesitated to work with atheists, skeptics and non-believers. When he was criticized for this approach he replied, “I’d rather work with a committed humanist than an uncommitted Christian.”

In more recent times the activist Chris Stedman has written about his efforts to work with interfaith coalitions. His autobiography is called Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. The title came from a derogatory comment when a fellow atheist dismissed Stedman’s interfaith work by calling him a faitheist.

So the term faitheist was not originally intended as a compliment, nevertheless, Stedman openly embraces the term as a positive description of who he is and the work he does.

Stedman argues that being an atheist isn’t enough because there are racist and sexist and xenophobic atheists in the world. For this reason, he’d rather work with a committed person of faith than an uncommitted humanist.

Stedman says he wants to change the trajectory of the relationship of atheists and believers from a story of conflict to a story of cooperation, changing the tone from a monologue to dialogue. He envisions a world where we move beyond toxic atheism and toxic religious reactionary impulses, moving past tearing each other down and toward building a better world together. He is not interested in celebrating diversity in a superficial way but in actively engaged pluralism, recognizing real differences but also making common cause.

So it’s no mystery why his book was published by Beacon Press, a publisher connected to the Unitarian Universalist Association because one of the most important dimensions of our faith is the desire to create the conditions where people of all faiths and beliefs can find common ground and work together for the common good.

Our interfaith approach is not just something we practice “out there” in the world. We practice it “in here” within the walls of our church.

John Murray Atwood, who was a Universalist minister and dean of the Canton Theological School at Saint Lawrence University once commented on the presence of atheists and believers his church by saying, “The Universalist Church includes people who put their faith in God and those who put their faith in humanity and those who put their faith in both.” Ours is a faith grounded in engaged pluralism, not minimizing difference but working together and making common cause.

This week a friend who is a member of another faith posted these words online, “God is bigger than your past, your depression, your pain, your hate, your anger, your doubt, your fear.”

These words stuck with me because I often say, “In the Unitarian Universalist Church we do not have to believe in God but we need to believe in something bigger than ourselves,” something bigger than our past, our depression, our pain, our hate, our anger. We may not all have the same name for that “something bigger” than ourselves, but without a connection to it we experience a failure to thrive.

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Recently I have been leading a class on the book by Bruce Marshall In Later Years: Finding Meaning and Spirit in Aging. Bruce is the person who came in as a consultant to help start our pastoral care program here at TVUUC. Currently he is working as a chaplain for a retirement home and it is this experience he brings to the book.

When Bruce speaks to finding Spirit in aging he is speaking about finding something bigger than ourselves. He defines spirit by saying, “Spirit has to do with the energy of our lives, the life force that keeps us active and dynamic….Spirit connects us the force of existence: the energy that creates, sustains and renews.”

Now if you take this definition and understanding of spirituality seriously then the important questions are not, “Is there a God?” or “Is there life after death?” Instead the essential spiritual question is, “What gives us life?” What animates us and makes us feel fully alive.

Bruce contends that as we age and lose our capacity to do many things we have more time for contemplation, “Contemplative spirituality finds expressions in many faiths. At its center is the affirmation that we can draw closer to the force that gives us life. In some traditions that force is named God, while others use different terms to identify the essential energy of being: the Tao, Allah, nature, the light, the ground of being. The contemplative aspires to be present to what is life-giving, renewing, liberating.”

So whether we are atheists or theists or faitheists we can all benefits from drawing closer to the force that gives us life, and that is what we aspire to do here in this room every Sunday morning, draw closer to the power that makes for abundant living.

When Guillermo Maduro-Vazquez visited this church for the first time he drove through our upper parking lot and then down to our lower parking lot and he said to himself, “This is the UU church with UU parking lot.” However as he began attending he came up with another way to describe our church. He said, “We are the United Nations of Religions.”

I love that understanding of who we are. “We are the United Nations of Religions.” It’s for this reason that I often go up to the Spring Seminar of the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office, because I do believe that there is a connection between what we believe and the work of the UN for human rights and peace in our world. In many ways the UN is doing a lot of the work “out there” that we are also doing “in here” and in our local community.

When Dag Hammarskjöld was Secretary General of the United Nations he worked tirelessly to prevent nuclear war, genocide, famine and hunger and for this reason he said “The United Nations was not created in order to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell.

Hammarskjöld felt that people of all faiths and beliefs should be able to practice love, compassion, generosity and service including atheists and believers. He wrote, “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.”

When I first came to this church in the late 1980’s one of the first persons I met was Torsti Salo who was an atheist who regularly volunteered with a Christian ministry. Like many others in this church he helped deliver groceries through the FISH program, an effort created by Christian Churches to address hunger in our community. He said to me, “There are some things that everyone should be able to agree about. One of those things is that no child should ever have to go hungry.”

So in a world where atheists and Christians are often in competition Torsti Salo was a role model for cooperation for the common good. And you can too. Anyone of any belief can volunteer to work with the FISH program through our church.

Roger Christian Shriner is a Unitarian Universalist minister who has written a book called Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheist and Agnostics. Unlike Chris Stedman whose efforts were inspired by community organizing Shriner grounds his book in his work as a couple’s counselor. Sometimes the God Gap is the gap between two people in love, two people who are married, two people who share the same home and children.

So like most couple’s counselors he finds that it is task to remind the couple of what they have in common, a reminder that there are core issues that unite both atheists and believers, fundamentally our shared humanity.

“We are all much more alike than we are different…We have much more in common than we have that separates us from each other…We (all) want life to be our ally; helping us, empowering us, enabling us to be safe and happy. We (all) want good things to come our way; our wounds healed, our loneliness banished, our power restored, our fears allayed. We (all) want alienation to be replaced by belonging, impoverishment with abundance, bondage with liberation.” (Shriner)

I began by telling the story of a rabbi who taught how atheism can have a holy purpose. Perhaps he was inspired by these words from the prophet Micah about the value of humility. The bible says, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.”

So let’s hear that verse in the way I faitheist might hear it as an opportunity for us all to be a little more humble whatever we may believe.

For atheists and believers are more alike in our ignorance than we are in our knowledge. We are more alike in what we don’t know than in what we do. Every one of us could stand to cultivate humility to be “mindful of truth ever exceeding our knowledge and community ever exceeding our practice.” We may not be able to share the same beliefs but we can share the same values. We can feed the hungry. We can work for justice. We can protect the earth. We can build the beloved community. When so many are tearing each other down we can build each other up singing together, “We are building a new way, feeling stronger everyday, we are building a new way.”

(This sermon was given by the Reverend Chris Buice at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday September 23, 2018)

 

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All Is Forgiven

“Forgive Yourself.”

That’s the text for today but it doesn’t come from the Bible. It comes from an act of graffiti. I was driving down Broadway in North Knoxville when I noticed someone had spray painted those two words across an abandoned building, “Forgive Yourself.”

Because I have a twisted sense of humor I took a picture of it posted it on Facebook page with the caption, “Are you ever tempted to commit acts of vandalism? Well then…forgive yourself.”

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I was making a joke but then I got this message from my friend Margaret who had been having a very tough year of hurt, heartbreak and loss, and on top of all that she was just coming out of surgery.

She wrote, “Maybe it’s the surgery or post-surgery drugs, but that graffiti made me sob! I’ll be fine, but self-forgiveness is something that I have not succeeded in granting myself. This could take a while. This probably wasn’t quite the reaction you expected from that photo, but I do love it, and it obviously touched me. I hope that you are well. Margaret.”

Margaret’s message touched me. To be honest her words kind of make me want to sob now. Reading her note made me take a new look at that picture and those words, “Forgive yourself.” Maybe forgiveness is such an important message that we should get it out there by any means necessary. Maybe we should be passing out cans of spray paint on Sunday morning and encouraging everyone to spread the good news.

But before you call the police and report me for suggesting acts of vandalism let me say that when we do the work of the church then vandalism is unnecessary. When we do the work of the church then the message of forgiveness is a part of everything we do, our Sunday Services and our work out in the community.

There is a Buddhist teaching that tell us, “You can search the world over and never find someone more in need of compassion than yourself.” And I would add, “We can travel all over the world and never find someone more in need of forgiveness than ourselves.” So go ahead. Forgive yourself.

Today in the midst of both the High Holy Days of the Jewish calendar and the holiest days of the Jain calendar, we contemplate forgiveness, which is an important part of both traditions. However forgiveness is not just a Jain thing or a Jewish thing or a Christian or Muslim or a Hindu thing. Forgiveness is a fundamentally human thing.

This week I was eating lunch with old college friend Amadou Sall who is Muslim and he was saying to me, “In Islam if you hurt someone you don’t go to God to ask for forgiveness. You go directly to the person you have hurt and ask forgiveness.” And this is not only a tradition in Islam but it also the tradition of the high holy days in Judaism. By not going to God but directly to the person we’ve hurt we eliminate the middleman. It is a direct human-to-human encounter.

The proverb tells us “To err is human, to forgive is divine.” However, what Jainism and Judaism and Islam and Christianity teach us is this, “To forgive is human.”

So this time of year in Jainism and Judaism is about asking for forgiveness and it is about granting forgiveness…and yet if we are having a hard time doing either of these two things…if we are having a hard time asking for forgiveness or granting forgiveness it may be because we haven’t yet learned to forgive ourselves.

In the 12 step programs of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous the 8th step is to make a list of everyone we have harmed and become willing to make amends to them all. The 9th step is to make amends to such people whenever possible except when to do so would injure them or others. This exception is also an important part of the High Holy Days.

One of the problems with completing these steps is once we have made a list of everyone we have harmed we can start feeling pretty bad about ourselves. And once we start feeling bad about ourselves then we can find it difficult get outside of our own head and move toward the giving and receiving forgiveness of others.

Once a student approached a Zen Master and asked, “What is anger?” and the Zen Master replied, “Anger is the punishment we give ourselves for someone else’s mistake.”

However, sometimes we punish ourselves for our own mistakes. This week Nathan Paki sent me a proverb that read, “We are not punished for our deeds we are punished by our deeds,” and I might add, “We are not punished for our anger we are punished by our anger. In India this is called karma and it is an important part of the Jain tradition so much that if you’ve seen Viren Lalka’s car in the parking lot then you know that his license plate says KARMA.

Forgiveness is good for our health. Anger and resentments can increase our heart rate and raise our blood pressure and bring on the stress that leads to heart disease and strokes. An unwillingness to forgive can lead to depression and weaken our overall immune system. Forgiveness is good for our bodies, our minds and our spirits.

In a meditation on the meaning of the High Holy Days Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein tells a story that comes from Spain. It seems a father and son had a huge argument and parted ways completely estranged from each other. The son ran away from home. After a period of time the father began to regret the argument and set out to find his son. The father had moved away from his old home and was worried he would never be able to reconnect with his son so he took out a full-page ad in a Madrid newspaper that read: “Dear Paco, meet me in front of the newspaper office at noon on Saturday. All is forgiven. I love you. Your father.” The next Saturday, 800 men named Paco showed up, all looking for love and forgiveness from their fathers!

All is forgiven. Forgiveness is one. The forgiveness we grant others we must grant also ourselves. And this is a message I have been seeing all week as I’ve explored the books and articles in my efforts to learn about Jainism and Judaism this week, “All is forgiven. All is forgiven. All is forgiven.”

Sometimes the words we see in a book or on someone’s Facebook page or spray painted on the walls of abandoned buildings come to us like the voice of God saying, “All is forgiven, all is forgiven, all is forgiven, all is forgiven, forgive yourself.”

(This homily was preached by the Reverend Chris Buice at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, September 16, 2018)

 

 

How to Explain Unitarian Universalism Before Your Ice Cream Melts

Many years ago when I was a student in seminary and a student minister in a congregation in Oxford, Ohio, I ordered four ice cream cones from the Dairy Queen and as I turned away from the counter to carry them to my family someone in the line said, “Aren’t you the new minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church? Tell me what do Unitarian Universalist believe?” It was then that I realized that if I were going to come up with some way to explain Unitarian Universalism before my ice cream melts.

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Fortunately, I am not the only person to ever be put in this kind of predicament. Before the Common Era Rabbi Hillel was approached by a man who said to him, “Explain the Torah to me while I stand on one foot.” The rabbi replied, “What is hateful to you do not do to others, this is the Torah, all the rest is commentary.”

This is rabbi Hillel’s formulation of the golden rule, which is found in all the great world religions including our own.

There are other examples of brevity in the history of religion. On the night of the last supper Jesus decided to summarize all his teachings for his followers by saying, “A new commandment give I unto you that you love one another as I have loved you. By this all shall know you are my disciples.”

“Love one another.” That’s a lot of wisdom packed into three words.

Augustine wrote countless books on theology. You could fill up bookshelves with his works. But when asked to sum it all up succinctly he said, “Love God and do what you will.” Augustine was a champion of orthodoxy and no friend to paganism and yet his summary is fairly similar to the Wiccan tradition that says, “Do no harm and do what you will.”

So you have “Love God and do what you will,” on one hand, and “Do no harm and do what you will,” on the other, both are efforts to capture the spirit that underlies rules, regulations and laws, for the letter killeth but the spirit giveth life.

The Prophet Muhammad tried to capture this spirit of Islam by saying to his followers. “None of you will have faith until you wish for others what you want for yourself.”

Abraham Lincoln was also speaking to the spirit deeper than any religion when he said, “When I do good I feel good. When I do bad I feel bad. That’s my religion.”

The Dalai Lama summed up the entire Buddhist tradition in a short sentence when he said, “My true religion is kindness.”

In the aftermath of Parkland shooting our church put up a banner that said, “Thoughts and Prayers and Not Enough,” which reminds me of succinct teaching in a Jewish book of prayer that says, “Pray as if everything depends on God but act as if everything depends on you.”

An anonymous mystic came up with a simple statement that sums up the essence of many religions – an idea called The Law of One, “We are all one. When one is harmed, all are harmed. When one is helped, all are healed.”

Now I mention these statements simply as a reminder that there is a long tradition of trying to summarize the meaning of a religion in the fewest possible words. Of course, in the Zen tradition or the Taoist tradition sometimes there is a preference for no words at all. There is a preference for silence.

When a Zen teacher asks the question, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” it is an effort to go to that place which is beyond words. The philosopher Lao Tsu said that on religious matters, “Those who know don’t say. Those who say don’t know.” You won’t hear many preachers use that quote for obvious reasons.

I studied for the ministry at a Quaker school that placed a lot of emphasis on silence but there was also a lot of emphasis on words, words, words.

In Alcoholics Anonymous they have an acronym K.I.S.S Keep it simple stupid. However, in seminary there seems to be another acronym at work K.I.C.S Keep it complex students.

In seminary the simplest answer did not get the highest grade so we spoke of God as the eschatological manifestation of the Ground of all Being with teleological ramifications for our ecclesiology, the Infinite context for our finitude, the posited principle of limitation that guides the responsiveness of entities within their various contexts, the Architectonic Good, the Unmoved Mover, the Absolute Whole, the Process, the Paradigm, Ultimate Reality, the Creative Interchange of Being-Itself.

Because I have this education in me, and unlike Taylor Swift I can’s seem to shake it off, I am often tempted to go in an explanation for what Unitarian Universalists believe that almost guarantees that my ice cream will melt.

Now I am about to tell a story that might seem like a diversion but stay with me and you will slowly but surely discover its relevance. When I was in seminary I was confronted by a paradox, on one hand, we the students were actively encouraged to use gender inclusive language in our papers and sermons, on the other hand, we students tended to hang out in a nearby restaurant called Pizza King. So when I graduated from seminary I decided to write a letter to Pizza King, which I then read to my fellow classmates at the Senior Roast.

Dear Pizza King, This is a letter to encourage you to adopt more gender inclusive language to describe yourself and your services. Let me suggest some possibilities; The Reign of Pizza, The Realm of Pizza, the Beloved Community of Pizza, We are children of One Pizza, the Spirit of Pizza, the Koinonia of Pizza, the Ecclesiology of Pizza. I offer these suggestions for for your own theological reflection and discernment. I wish you the best in your spiritual and culinary journey. Chris

And the reason I share this story with you is because we live in a patriarchal society, a society of Pizza Kings, Burger Kings, Rural King, Smoothie King and King Size Beds. So let me give you and answer to the question, “What do Unitarian Universalist believe?” that you can use at the Dairy Queen.

Feminist theologians tell us to keep it simple, to make our explanations short and sweet, to make our message accessible, to avoid language that might limit or exclude anyone from the beloved community, to acknowledge that while not everyone can be learned everyone can be wise.

The Universalist Church became the first church to ordain women into the ministry with full denominational authority in 1863. For many of these early women ministers the gospel of Universalism could be summed up with the words, “God is love.”

If you ever go visit one of these historic Universalist congregations you will often find the words, “God is love” engraved above the doors of the church or on the front of the altar or on the hearth above the fireplace in the fellowship hall or you might even see light shine through those words in a stain glass window,

Now this simple statement “God is love” embraces complexity and diversity. A Universalist who is a theist will see the statement “God is love” as an affirmation of the existence of a God whose nature is love. A Universalist humanist will see these words as a reminder that love is our guiding ideal that calls us to our better selves. A practical person will see the words as a reminder that God is a verb. God is about action and not just talk. The words are a call to transform the world with acts of love and justice.

In our church we have an affirmation that we say in each service, “Love is the spirit of this church and services is its law; to dwell together in peace, to see the truth in love and to help one another this is our great covenant.” So if you are ever asked, “What do Unitarian Universalist believe?” and you don’t have much time you can fall back on this statement.

Here is my short answer to the question when I am pressed for time or sense that the questioner wants brevity, “We are a liberal congregation dedicated to social justice and environmental responsibility, a place where people of all faiths can find common ground and work for the common good.”

This week I posted the question of the morning on our church Facebook group, “How do you explain Unitarian Universalism before your ice cream melts?” and here are some of the responses I got.

Colleen Elise said, “I think a good Al Anon quote works here: Take what you like and leave the rest.”

Trevor Palmer wrote, “When people ask me what the Unitarian Church is about I say we accept everyone and every religion and we coexist great together.”

Corinne Smith wrote, “We believe in the Love that is of All That Is and that that Love is present in every Living Being and because of that, we are committed to caring for each other.”

Moni Castenada wrote, “We believe that every person has the responsibility of searching for and finding the answers to the big questions in life, and to treat other people with respect.”

Or as one person said to me, “Our church is like one of those ice cream cones I used to get in my elementary school lunchroom called Drumsticks. We are kind of sweet and a little bit nutty.”

There were more answers than I have time to give but you can see them all on the TVUUC Members and Friends Facebook page. And since we began this sermon with a story about ice cream let’s end with one. This story comes for an episode of The Simpsons.
Lisa Simpson went to an ice cream social at her church and asked, “What flavors do you have?” Rev. Lovejoy, who was working as server replied, “Well, chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, and our new Unitarian flavor ice cream.” Lisa said, “I’ll have that” and Rev. Lovejoy hands her an empty bowl. Lisa exclaimed, “But there’s nothing in there.” Rev Lovejoy, who is clearly not a big fan of our faith, answered, “Eeeexactly.”

Well, on one level this is a cheap shot at our denomination by network television. Curse you network television and your minions! However, as the ancient scriptures the Tao te Ching say, “Clay is used to make a bowl but it is the empty space that makes it useful.” Ours is a faith with substance, we do have beliefs and convictions but we also have an empty space where there is room for new ideas, new dreams, new people and new possibilities. So let me end by saying, welcome friends to the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church.

(This sermon was delivered by the Reverend Chris Buice at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, September 9, 2018.)