Awaiting a Great Light: Advent and Winter Solstice

The prophet Isaiah proclaimed, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” His words seem to echo the sentiment of the Psalmist who declared, “Weeping may last for a night but joy comes in the morning.”

However, in the days before the winter solstice, in this season of advent, we are more aware of the darkness than the dawn. The nights are getting longer. The days are getting shorter. This time of year some of us drive to work in the dark and come home in the dark. Sometimes all this darkness inflicts a cost to the human spirit. This week I saw an Instagram post from a member of the church, Summer Awad, that showed her characteristic dark sense of humor. It was a selfie of her face with flat affect and the words, “This is a picture of me battling seasonal depression and winning.”

Suffice it to say, sometimes we can’t tell from the outside whether someone is winning or losing the battle with seasonal depression. And that’s why this time of year it’s a good thing to check in with each other.

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The acronym for seasonal affective disorder is S.A.D – sad. However, sometimes people look happy on the outside but are sad on the inside (for others it is the reverse.) However, during this season it’s important for us look beyond appearances and be aware that many people are going through dark times.

At times like these it may seem comforting to remember the words of the Chinese proverb, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” However, there is also power in embracing the darkness. One of my mentors in the ministry was Jacqui James. As an African American woman she did not like the fact that the word darkness too often carries negative connotations in our culture.

Jacqui wrote, “We must acknowledge that darkness has a redemptive character, that in darkness there is power and beauty. The dark nurtured and protected us before our birth….Welcome darkness. Don’t be afraid of it or deny it. Darkness brings relief from the blinding sun, from scorching heat, from exhausting labor. Night signals permission to rest, to be with our loved ones, to conceive new life, to search our hearts, to remember our dreams. The dark of winter is a time of hibernation. Seeds grow in the dark… Imagine a world that had only light—or dark. We need both. Dark and light. Light and dark.”

And yet the darkness that is so good for the germinating seeds under the earth, and so necessary for all life to flourish is not always easy on our spirits. I once fell into a conversation with an African Quaker about the negative connotations that so often get attached to the word darkness, and we agreed that it was troubling, but then he added, “Chris, I am African and even I cannot see in the dark.” And the same can be said for seasonal affective disorder, it strikes people of all races, colors, cultures and religions. There is something about the human condition that makes us seek the light.

I once heard a satirical radio show on BBC radio poking fun at this basic human need. There was an official sounding announcement, “Your attention please, in order to conserve energy and save money the government has decided to extinguish the light at the end of the tunnel.” This witticism reminds us that it is in times when we feel we are walking through darkness that we want to see a great light.

This summer I watched a documentary about Martin Luther King Jr. called King in the Wilderness. It’s about the most difficult days of his leadership, the 18 month before his assassination when he felt abandoned by friends and overwhelmed by critics. His popularity was at an all time low. The FBI had him under surveillance. He was receiving death threats. Dr. King’s most famous speech is the one where he says, “I have a dream” but when you look closely at the film footage from the last months of his life his face seems to say, “I have depression.”

We too have reasons to be depressed. As we speak 15,000 migrant children are incarcerated in the United States and border agents are using tear gas against the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breath free. In this festive season we can’t help but notice that there are more homeless people under the bridges and people living in poverty.

However, this week I also went to a great concert at the Bijou to raise money for Bridge Refugee Service and we were all singing, “This Land is Your Land, this land is my land.” And this morning I saw people setting up for the Fair Trade Fair working for the day when people all over the world will earn a living wage. And this week I have been witnessing volunteers sign up to help Family Promise house the homeless in our building over the holiday season. So there is a light in the depths of this darkness.

There is a saying, “Inside of every cynic there is an idealist” and I want to suggest there is a similar truth, “Inside every person suffering from depression there is a dream.” And for this reason I think it is important for each one of us to continual renew our capacity to dream so that when it is darkest we dream of dawn, when it is winter we dream of spring, when our seeds are dormant we dream of blossoming, when our fields are empty we dream of harvest, so that when we are fighting our depression we can sing, “You may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one. I hope some day you’ll join us and the world will be as one.”

This time of year, when nights are growing longer and the days are getting shorter, when we often drive to work in the dark and come home in the dark, we can give ourselves comfort through singing. I don’t know about you but this time of year when I am driving home in the dark I often sing Christmas carols along with the radio. And that’s another reason to come to church so we don’t have to just sing alone in the car or sing alone in the shower or sing alone in the kitchen but instead gather together as a congregation and sing, “Bright morning stars are rising, bright morning stars are rising, bright morning stars are rising, day is a breakin’ in my soul.”

(This homily was given at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday December 16, 2018 by Rev. Chris Buice)

 

 

 

 

The Atheist Case for the Tooth Fairy

Once two boys were walking home from Sunday School when one turned to the other and said, “Do you believe in the Devil?” and the other responded, “No, it’s like Santa Claus. It’s your dad.”

In the Unitarian Universalist Church we are known for our skepticism. We prize our rationality. In our Sunday Schools we teach kids to think for themselves. And yet we are entering the winter holiday season: a season that has always been marked by a mixture fact and fiction, history and legend, reality and imagination, myth and memory.

So in this season of Santa, elves, flying sleighs, red nosed reindeer and talking snowmen, it seems appropriate to step back and ask ourselves the question, “What’s a Unitarian to do?”

In the UU church we often describe ourselves as a place “where reason and religion meet.” And yet perhaps now is a good time to re-examine our assumptions about reason and religion. And for that purpose, this morning I am going to make what one could call the atheist case for the tooth fairy. Think of me as an attorney. The tooth fairy is my client. Reason and rationality are the prosecution. I am for the defense.

Now I recognize that defense attorneys are not always popular. There is a reason that defense attorney’s are sometimes called the devil’s advocate. However, this morning I am not playing the devil’s advocate. Instead, I am the tooth fairy’s advocate. And let me state for the record that my client is benevolent, good, charitable and noble. I suspect that many in this room have benefited from her largesse and generosity.

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So this morning I am going to state my case for the tooth fairy, but before I do so, I have a professional obligation as a Unitarian Universalist minister to also make sure that reason has at least a token defense.

As the self-described Unitarian Thomas Jefferson once said, “Your own reason is the only oracle given to you by heaven.” Or as William Ellery Channing, the founder of the Unitarian church once said, “We should no more abandon the use of our reason for thinking than we should abandon the use of our eyes for seeing, our ears for hearing, our feet for walking and our hands for doing good works.” Our reason is part and parcel of who we are.

Many years ago I was driving down the road channel surfing on the radio when I heard a radio preacher denouncing the evils of reason. He was condemning intellectualism and rationality with a passion. However, as I listened to him I couldn’t help but notice that he had given the issue a lot of thought. He had a carefully researched and outlined sermon. From this I conclude, “We can’t even make a case against reason without using our reason. We can’t make a case against the intellect without using our intellect.” So in the Unitarian Universalist Church we honor the life of the mind and we embrace our reasoning.

We agree with the advice Thomas Jefferson gave his nephew Peter Carr when he wrote, “Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there is one, (then that God) must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”

So in our tradition where it is acceptable to question the existence of God, I must grudgingly admit that it is must also be permissible to question the existence of the tooth fairy, but nevertheless, I will make my case for her existence and leave the verdict to the jury. If you have any questions, or you just want to get uppity, we can talk about it during the coffee hour.

Of course, before I make my case for the tooth fairy I must anticipate some of your criticisms; for there are other rational people who have made the case for fairies only to have their arguments debunked. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the world’s most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, wrote pamphlets and books in favor of the existence of fairies. Photographs of young girls, the Fox sisters of Yorkshire, posing with fairies, convinced him. He even wrote an article in defense of the girls for the Christmas edition of the Strand magazine. He was widely ridiculed for this.

Many people have wondered how the creator of Sherlock Holmes, the ultimate rationalist, could have fallen for those pictures, which to modern eyes clearly look faked, and all evidence suggests that the fairies were nothing but cardboard cutouts, one dimensional figures. Nevertheless he did believe. He thought the photographs were scientific proof.

However, today, in our age of Photoshop we tend to be even more skeptical of photos. So this morning I want to make my case using a different approach altogether. I want to build my case on a firmer foundation than photography.

As Sherlock Holmes used to say, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” So in so much as I am able I am going to try base my case for the tooth fairy on improbabilities rather than impossibilities, improbabilities of the imagination, rather than impossibilities easily disproven by rational analysis.

My case for the existence of the tooth fairy is based on the power of childhood. I want to make the case that the world would be less without the tooth fairy just as our world would be less without Alice in Wonderland or Hermione Grainger at Hogwarts or Charlotte’s Web. I want to make the case that the inner world of imagination is no less real that the outward. Native Americans and indigenous people understand this. Our eyes see outward. Our ears hear outward. However, there is an inner life that is also real and this inner life is shaped by metaphor, myth and imagination.

Of course, I want to assert the existence of the tooth fairy without disparaging rationalism. There is a statement that is circulating on the Internet that speaks to my point this morning. The statement reads,

“Being an atheist is okay. Being an atheist and shaming religions and spirituality as silly and not real is not okay.
Being religious is okay. Being homophobic, misogynistic, racist, or an otherwise hateful person in the name of religion is not okay.
Being a reindeer is okay. Bullying and excluding another reindeer because he has a shiny red nose is not okay.”

All humor aside, the statement does remind us that even if we are an atheist, rationalists, materialists we can still learn something from the story of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer.

In the Unitarian Universalist Church we do support rational religion but in our support sometimes we forget that our rational mind can also be the source of our problems, our anxieties, our worries and our depression. We live in an age where more and more people are affected by more and more addictions. Jungian psychologists tell us that one of the necessary steps toward overcoming our addictions is to reconnect with our inner child, to reconnect to our original innocence, to reconnect with the original wonder and magic of existence. Because when we lose our childhood it leaves an empty space. When we lose our sense of wonder it’s like a missing tooth. And who better to fill that emptiness than the tooth fairy.

This week I posted a question on my Facebook page, “Does the tooth fairy visit your house, if so what is the going rate?” Here’s what I’ve learned. In some families the tooth fairy brings young girls Sacagawea coins and Susan B Anthony dollars as an act of feminist empowerment. In other families the tooth fairy delivers foreign currency since she travels all over the world and might be disoriented at any given moment. In some households she brings tiny toys like hot wheel cars, a bracelet or a miniature dinosaur. In other households the tooth fairy pays a late fee if delivery is not on schedule. Like any cash business the tooth fairy sometimes has a hard time finding the correct change so a kid might get 1 dollar or 5 dollars or 10 dollars under their pillow depending on what’s in her pocket. In some families the tooth fairy seems to have concerns over the devaluation of the currency so kids get gold coins. Now based on this information you might conclude that tooth fairy is arbitrary, erratic, inconsistent, but what else do you expect a fairy to be?

Someone shared with me an article from National Public Radio that indicates that the amount of money given by the tooth fairy is rising higher than the rate of inflation. The rate of inflation for teeth is 10% compared to the overall average of 2%. So my friends as I make my case this morning no one can accuse me of not doing my research.

However, my most important argument to make on behalf of my client is that we need imagination in order to be fully human. In 1897 an 8 year-old girl named Virginia wrote a very famous letter to the New York Sun to ask the editor if Santa Claus really exists and the editor wrote back,

“Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy…Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies!

Well, that pretty much sums up my argument. Now it is time for the jury to decide. And so I contend that the tooth fairy is not a proposition to argue about. The tooth fairy is love and generosity and kindness, which is why we should always welcome her as a guest in our home.

So for my closing argument let me remind you of the scene in the stage play Peter Pan when the fairy Tinker Bell drinks poison in order to save the life of Peter Pan. Her light begins to get dimmer and dimmer and it looks like she is dying until Peter Pan thinks of a solution. He tells his audience (and I say to you), “Clap if you believe in fairies.” That’s not loud enough, “Clap if you believe in fairies.” That’s pretty good but I think we can do it even better, “Clap if you believe in fairies.” I rest my case.

One last thing before I go. Many years ago Christopher Hamblin told me that I might enjoy going to a gathering of a queer activist group known as the Radical Faeries, an organization dedicated to bringing creativity and imagination to the fight against homophobia. He seemed to think I would be a great Radical Faery. I would fit right in. Maybe one day I will go to a gathering and even join the movement and then when someone asks my children, “Do you believe in fairies?” They can honestly say, “Yes, we do. It’s our dad.”

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

Shalom, Salaam, Peace

In the 8th chapter of the book of Jeremiah the prophet cries out in despair saying,

“From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit…They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. “Peace, peace,” they say, “when there is no peace.”…We hoped for peace but no good has come, for a time of healing but there is only terror….Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?”

This morning I want to speak of peace when there is no peace. Today we mark the beginning of Chanukah, the 8 Day Jewish Festival of Lights, and we do so in the midst of an environment of increasing anti-Semitism. The Anti-Defamation League reports that last year saw a 60 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents, the largest single year increase on record.

Today we light the first candle on the menorah. However, in October many of us were present at candlelight vigil at the Knoxville Jewish Community Center in remembrance of the 11 people killed by a gunman in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. On that night we were surrounded by the light of hundreds of candles in a gathering of people of all faith in solidarity with the Jewish community.

Today when we light the first candle of the menorah we want it to be light of peace. We want it to be a light of hope, and yet we feel the weight of the words of the prophet, “How can we speak of peace when there is no peace?”

At present our nation is in the midst of its longest war in our history, the War on Terror, with no end in sight. Since there is no clarity of goals there is no clarity about when this war will end.

This is not the first war America that was ever fought without clarity of goals. I recently watched the Ken Burn’s documentary on Vietnam where I learned about a memo that Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton wrote his boss Robert McNamara on March 24, 1965. We did not learn about this memo until it was leaked to the press in 1971 in the Pentagon Papers. In that memo he said that at that stage of the war “70 percent of the goal of the war was to avoid humiliation.”

As of 1965 70% of the goal of the war in Vietnam was to avoid humiliation. What percentage do you think it is today in the midst of our country’s longest running war? I expect we will never know until somebody leaks a memo.

I am not naïve. I know we live in a dangerous world. I know we need to protect the many who are peaceful from the few that are violent. I know it does us no good to say, “Peace, peace, when there is no peace” but neither does it do us any good to blindly trust our leaders regardless of their political party. Blind trust is an idea that has been tested and has failed over and over again.

Everyone in this room born after September 11, 2001 has never known peace. So there are generations of young people who may not even believe that peace is possible or even think it is desirable.

However, when I begin to lose hope I remember the words of my old Quaker seminary professor, Lonnie Valentine, who said, “If peace is possible anywhere, it is possible everywhere.” Those words bear repeating, “If peace is possible anywhere, it is possible everywhere.” We could even turn it into a mantra so say it with me, “If peace is possible anywhere it is possible everywhere.”

What my professor is trying to say with this brief succinct statement is that when we discover what makes peace possible anywhere then we are laying the foundation for what will make peace possible everywhere.

We can compare this statement to the approach medical doctors take to disease. Some doctors focus their attention on diseases and their symptoms. This is called the disease model of treatment. Other doctors focus on health and what makes us healthy. This is called the health and wellness model for treatment. What my old seminary instructor is saying is that we need to study peace and focus on peace in order to create a healthy and peaceful world.

One of the reasons I think peace is possible is because I’ve seen it happen. I was a young teenager in 1978 when peace talks were held at Camp David that led to the end of the war between Egypt and Israel, a peace treaty that has stood the test of time for over 40 years now.

At that age I was not really a great student of political science or international relations but I do remember taking away the hope that peace is possible. I remember seeing a poster that had words from the beatitudes on it, “Blessed are the Peacemakers” with a picture of the Prime minister of Israel, Menachem Begin, the president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, and the President of the United States, Jimmy Carter standing next to each other, a Jew, a Muslim and a Christian who worked together for peace. I am absolutely certain that this image imprinted on me and has influenced more than my politics. It has influenced my spirituality. That image may even play a role in me becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister as we aspire to be a church where people of all faiths can find common ground and work together for the common good.

Blessed are the Peacemakers

So it occurs to me that many young people growing up today have not seen a similar image. That treaty in 1978 was meant to be the first step in a peace process. The second step was meant to address the Israeli/Palestinian issue. However, that second step has never been successfully concluded, and so generations of young people have come of age without a picture or image or example that says, “Peace is possible.”

Our congregation used to host the Jewish/Palestinian dialogue project, however, in recent years the group has not been able to meet. The politics of the region are too polarized. When loved ones are in harms way it is hard to be dispassionate. It is hard to talk about peace.

In one of those dialogues I remember my friend Fathi Hussein saying, “What we need to do is start a Jewish/Palestinian soccer team for our children so that our kids can have the experience of being on the same team and adults can have the experience of rooting for each other’s children.”

I heard other creative ideas, many of which came to life for a time, but as of now, the Jewish Palestinian Dialogue project is taking a hiatus until conditions are more conducive to peaceful dialogue. And so young people are left without examples of adults of differing faiths working on peace together; reminders that peace is possible.

So where do we look for hope. Well, recently, when I was in a well known used book store I came across a book called Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David by Lawrence Wright. I decided to pick up the book and read it. Since I was a teenager when the peace treaty was negotiated I decided it would good to learn more about that peace process from an adult perspective.

If peace was possible then. Maybe peace is possible now. If peace was possible between two countries. Maybe peace is possible between every country. So here are some lessons I’ve learned by familiarizing myself with those 13 days in the September of 1978, which may help us in these days of December 2018. Here are the lessons I’ve learned.

The first thing I learned is that making peace is difficult work. When Jimmy Carter first convened the peace talks he thought the process would be a lot easier. He thought the talks might conclude in two day but they dragged on for 13 days. He thought he would simply facilitate the talks and support Begin and Sadat as they did most of the work. Instead there were times when the two would not even speak to each other. So Carter took responsibility for drafting the peace agreement and shuttling between the two parties until they could get a version where they could sit down together. Once they sat down together there was one moment when both Begin and Sadat got up to walk out the door in anger and Jimmy Carter blocked the door.

The author Lawrence Wright concludes that what Carter learned (and possibly the others as well) is that war is easier than peace. Hatred is easier than reconciliation. Revenge is easier than redemption. In war no compromises are required. War promises total victory with no bruises to our ego, no dangers of losing face, no horror of humiliation. All three men, of three different faiths, had to take huge risks in order to achieve peace. Carter may have blocked the door but Sadat and Begin had to choose not to go out the other door. It took everybody working together.

The second thing, I learned is that the people who make peace are not perfect people. Carter, Begin and Sadat, none of them were pacifists. These were not hippies or flower children. All had military experience. All had flaws. Both Begin and Sadat were considered terrorists by their own governments before they gained political power and became peacemakers. Carter could be naïve, stubborn and overly righteous in his efforts. Everyone at the table had a massive ego (You do not get to be a president or prime minister without one.) From this we can conclude that peace never comes to us through perfect people.

The last thing I learned is that people who make peace never do so under ideal circumstances. Many of the representatives of the Egyptian government at Camp David did not want to make peace. Many of the representatives of Israel did not want to make peace. Many of the representatives of the United States government wished that the Carter had chosen another issue to focus his time and attention on instead of peace in the Middle East. So circumstances were less than perfect, however, the delegates were nevertheless able to persevere. The results were not perfect either. However, the negotiators were able to achieve something not nothing. And in this case it was a peace treaty that has lasted over 40 years.

And this gives me hope for the future. Because peace does not come through perfect people, because peace does not come under ideal circumstances, this is the basis for my hope because we are not perfect people and now is not the perfect time and these are not the ideal circumstance, so we have all the right ingredients to make peace possible because today we can say (and you can say it with me) “If peace is possible anywhere it is possible everywhere.” For as Rabbi Hillel once asked, “If not now, when?”

So whereas the prophet Jeremiah was filled with despair we can give a word of hope. We can say, “Peace, peace and there might be peace,” We can be like physicians that work from the wellness model for health. We can say there is a balm in Gilead that makes the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead that heals the sin-sick soul.

There is another moment that gives me hope for peace. Many years ago I did a wedding with a rabbi for two women before same sex marriage was legal. And not everyone in the room agreed was happy about the situation (but to be honest this is true at many other kinds of weddings as well.) But when the time came to lift the couple up in their chairs and dance the hora, everyone joined in. It was a truly wonderful moment. Such moments give me hope for peace. Such moments make me hope that one day we will all be able to pray as the Psalmist prayed, You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with a garment of joy.” So may it be. Shalom. Salaam, Peace.

(Rev. Chris Buice gave this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, December 2, 2018.)