The Devil is in the Details

The 20th century traveling evangelist Billy Sunday used to preach a sermon with hand gestures that made it look like he was in a boxing match with the devil. So if I seem a little more animated than usual it may be because I am channeling my inner Billy Sunday.

A few months ago Bill Dockery suggested I preach a sermon about the Devil based on this book The Devil: A Very Short Introduction. So I told him that I would but I warned him that I was going to tell everybody that Bill Dockery made me do it.

Now this may seem like an unusual topic for a Unitarian Universalist Church. In the age of science, reason and empirical evidence the Devil has disappeared from contemporary liberal theological discourse almost without a trace.

In an increasingly secular world many people may identify with the story of the two kids who were walking down the street when one turned to his friend and asked, “Do you believe in the Devil?” and the other one replied, “No, the Devil is like Santa. It’s your dad.”

While that story may not describe your personal theology, it is true that a growing number of people prefer naturalistic explanations of spirituality to supernatural ones. Even so, the idea of the Devil is a persistent one in popular culture. Anyone who watches the cartoons is familiar with the moment when Bugs Bunny or Homer Simpson or some other cartoon character has to make an important decision and an angel appears on one shoulder and a devil on the other. The angel advocates for the good and wise choice while the devil advocates for the selfish and greedy choice.

Now this cartoon picture of a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other may seem overly simplistic, a holdover from medieval times, but believe it or not it does bear some resemblance to some concepts of Freudian psychology. Sigmund Freud divided the human psyche into three parts the id, the ego and the super ego. The superego is that part of us that always wants to do the good, the noble and the altruistic thing. The id is the part of us that wants to do the selfish thing; immediate gratification of our desires regardless of the consequences. In other words the superego is like the angel on one shoulder and the id is like the devil on the other and the ego is trying to reconcile these two competing forces within us and sometimes it seems like they are in a boxing match.

I don’t know about you but personally I’ve never seen a devil or an angel on my shoulder but to be honest I’ve never seen an id or an ego or a super ego either. What we are dealing with here is the effort to create imagery for what might otherwise go unseen and a vocabulary for what might otherwise go unrecognized. We are in the realm of mental constructs, mythologies and metaphors.

Biblical tradition gives us the story of Jesus being tempted by the Devil. In the East we have the story of Buddha being tempted by the demonic figure of Mara. Now in these stories temptation is portrayed as a contest with an outward enemy but I believe these stories are illustrative of an inward struggle with our inner enemies. Spiritually speaking, the ability to conquer an outward Devil demonstrates less real spiritual power than our ability to conquer our own inner demons.

The novelist William Faulkner once spoke about writing his novels where he said, it is “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat”

What is true about writing a novel is also true for spiritual growth. We have to address that our hearts are in conflict with themselves. The apostle Paul described this conflict when he said, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing.” The psychologist Carl Jung once described this conflict by saying, “In each of us there is someone we do not know” or as the rock band Pink Floyd said, “There is someone in my head but it’s not me.

The Lord’s Prayer says, “lead us not into temptation.” And yet there is often voice in our heads leading us in the opposite direction. As Oscar Wilde once said, “I can resist everything except temptation.”

I once came across an irreverent contemporary version of the creation story that captures this inner struggle by portraying it as an outward struggle. Here it is.

In the beginning God created the earth as a garden with broccoli, cauliflower, spinach and vegetables of all kinds, so human beings would live long and healthy lives.
And the Devil created hamburgers, chicken nuggets, delivery pizza, sugary sodas and fast food meals you could supersize.
And human beings gained weight.

And God created the healthy yogurt that human beings could mix with nuts, whole grain oats, fruits, berries and other antioxidants. And the Devil froze the yogurt and mixed it with chocolate chips, cookie dough and brightly colored sprinkle candies. And human beings gained weight.

And God said, “Why not make a fresh salad from my garden.”And the Devil brought forth creamy dressings, bacon bits, and shredded cheese, and there was ice cream for dessert.
And human beings gained weight.

And God brought forth running shoes and exercise equipment. And the Devil brought forth a widescreen TV with remote control so that human beings could watch Netflix and chill. And human beings gained weight.

And God brought forth the potato, a vegetable naturally low in fat and brimming with nutrition. And the Devil sliced the potato into thin strips and put them in a deep fat fryer. And human beings gained weight, got a sudden spike in their cholesterol and began to go into cardiac arrest.

And God sighed and created hospitals and quadruple bypass surgery. And the Devil created private health insurance.

 Thus endeth the lesson. It’s that time of year when many people give up things for the season of Lent; things like hamburgers, French fries, sugary sodas, high cholesterol foods. In many ways the Christian season of Lent, like Ramadan in the Muslim tradition or the High Holy Days in the Jewish tradition, is meant to be an antidote to consumerism and addiction. It is a time to ask ourselves the question, “Am I in control of my habits or are my habits in control of me?” Giving something up for Lent can be an exercise in self-control, self-government, conquering ourselves, that pays dividends in other parts of our lives.

As we contemplate life’s many addictions; alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, it is helpful to remember that addiction comes from the same root word as dictator. To suffer from an addiction is to be oppressed. To overcome an addiction is to know freedom.

In the aftermath of Super Tuesday I was reminded that long ago many American evangelists used to preach a stock sermon to their congregations, “Every day is election day for the soul so are you going to vote for God or the Devil?” It’s a pretty simple sermon with either/or choice. It’s one or the other, God or the Devil, Heaven or Hell, with no middle ground. I’m not sure who you voted for on Super Tuesday but I think we can all agree that the inner boxing match continues, the tension between opposites in us continues.

If you’ve every visited a Catholic Church you may have seen an image of Saint Michael fighting with the Devil. According to legend this is a contest where the Saint wins and the Devil loses. This creates a dualistic understanding of the cosmos where good conquers evil, right triumphs over wrong, the devil is defeated and God is triumphant. However, this is not the only way to think about the contest, this tension and struggle between opposites inside us.

Now religions tend to give us myths set in the past whereas science fiction offers us myths set in the future. Myths are the stories that answer the big philosophical questions, “Who are we? Why are we here? What is our purpose?” When I was a kid I grew up watching Star Trek , the original series, and one episode took up this challenging topic. In that episode Captain Kirk was in a molecular transporter accident and he became two people. One was the good Kirk and the other was the bad Kirk. The bad Kirk was aggressive and violent and lustful (even more so than the regular Captain Kirk) but also decisive and action oriented. The good Kirk was kind, gentle and considerate but also weak, indecisive, prone to vacillation. What the crew of the starship Enterprise realized in the end, is that both Kirks need each other – the kindness and the gentleness need the decisiveness and action orientation and vice versa. Fortunately due to the miracles of futuristic technology the Enterprise crew is able to reunite the two Kirks in order to have a fully functional human being. This is science fiction’s way of saying that most of us feel divided and conflicted but we can find wholeness and unity within ourselves.

And so in conclusion let me say, before there can peace in the world (or peace in the universe) there must be peace in our hearts. The prophets tell us that one day the lion and the lamb will lie down together but before this can happen the lion inside of us must lie down with the lamb in us. We must make peace in ourselves before we can make peace in the world. At some point we have to stop the boxing match with an outward devil in order to wrestle with our inner demons so that gentleness can be our greatest strength and our strength tempered by the greatest gentleness, our decisiveness blended with kindness and our kindness empowered by decisiveness. So that the lion will lie down with the lamb and the wolf with the kid and there can be peace in the valley.

(Rev. Chris Buice gave this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, March 8, 2020.)

Homer simpson







Action Not Words: Faith, Activism and Democracy

There is a temptation in ministry to try to cover too many topics in a sermon; to launch a thousand ships without bring a single one to port. Let’s see if I can avoid that temptation this morning.

Tuesday is the Presidential primary here in Tennessee prompting some members of the church to send me many ideas for this Sunday’s sermon. One person sent me a long list of potential sermon themes that bore an uncanny resemblance to the platform of one of the candidates.

In the Unitarian Universalist Church we do believe that our theology has political implications. That’s why this weekend we’ve hosted a forum by the Meadville Lombard Theological School on “Faith, Activism and Democracy.” However when we speak out for human equality, social justice and environmental responsibility we do so to advance causes that are bigger than any one candidate and commitments that will endure longer than any election cycle.

Our church produces a disproportionate number of activists. I know over the last few weeks some of you have been organizing phone banks, going door to door canvassing, hosting house parties, posting on social media, donating your time and money to campaigns and I want to affirm you for your efforts. We live in an age of rampant consumerism but democracy is not a consumer product. Uber Eats may come to your doorstep, Dominoes may deliver but democracy requires more from us than that. Democracy requires our active participation. Democracy is not about passive consumption but active co-creation.

Often times presidential elections take on theological overtones and create messianic expectations fostering the idea that only one person can save us. However, there is a Jewish teaching that is relevant here. Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai once said, “If you are planting a tree and someone tells you that the Messiah has come, first plant the tree then go greet the Messiah.”

I do hope everyone will vote in this election. But don’t stop planting trees. Don’t stop recycling. Don’t stop composting. Don’t stop reducing your carbon footprint. Don’t stop turning out people for school board, city council or county commission meetings. Don’t stop visiting your congressman or your Senator’s office or writing letters or sending emails. Don’t stop welcoming refugees. Don’t stop tutoring inner city kids. Don’t stop challenging racism. Don’t stop feeding the hungry. Don’t stop helping the homeless. Don’t stop organizing marches and rallies agitating for change. Don’t stop because faith without works is dead.

This week I got another email from someone who had less than flattering things to say about our congregation. So heads up here is some criticism. Someone wrote, “I hate that rampant politics, political polarization, righteous condemnation and judgment made me feel unwelcome at TVUUC, a place where I found healing and considered my spiritual home. Unfortunately I’m not sure that I feel that love is the spirit of TVUUC anymore.  That message is drown out by those pushing their …political agenda and participating in the polarization of our nation.”

I am not going to name the person who sent the email or the political party they belong to or any other details because they are unimportant. To be honest, I think we are all tired of the rampant politics, political polarization, righteous condemnation and judgment. I think we are all tired of the toxic atmosphere of our current culture wars. However, I think we also have a tendency to blame others for that problem while being unwilling to look at ourselves.

So I won’t defend my ministry or the congregation except to say that regardless of any criticism I may receive love is still the spirit of this church. I know my mama loved me but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have to listen to her political opinions. My mama taught me that in a healthy relationship you love someone who stands for something. You don’t ask people to be a “nobody” who stands for “nothing.” And so to paraphrase the words of our affirmation, “Love is the spirit of this church… and the inability to escape each other’s opinions is our predicament… and yet it is our hope that we can really mean the words we sing in our chalice lighting song, “May all who seek here find a kindly word; may all who speak here feel they have been heard.” That is our aspiration.

Before Ed Goff went into a retirement home he used to come into my office on Election Day and say, “I am on my way to the polls to cancel out your vote.” That’s love my friends, like it or not. I never told Ed how I was going to vote. He just made an educated guess. As Dr. Ortegas said yesterday, “Safe space is an illusion.” Anyone who goes to church or gets email or goes on to social media knows we are never completely safe from other people’s opinions.

The Dalai Lama of Tibet tells us, “Being aware of a single short-coming in yourself is far more useful than being aware of a thousand in another.” From this statement we can deduce that the Dalai Lama of Tibet will never be elected to office, at least not in the United to States of America where the rule of thumb seems to be – find a thousand faults in others and no fault in your self.

A member of this church, John Bohstedt, once said something that I am probably in danger of over-quoting. He noted that our church building has words that are carved into stone that face the public parking lot that lift up our highest values; words like “love, justice, hope, peace.” So John has suggested we need words for the back of the building, the part that does not face the public, words carved into stone like, “belittling sarcasm, snide put-downs, curt dismissiveness etc. etc.” Which is to say we need words to remind ourselves that we are human, capable of error and insensitivity even as we aspire for justice and peace.

There is a Buddhist teaching that says, “An act of compassion is like a flash of lightening in the dark of night.” Have you ever been outside on a dark night when there was a flash of lightening? I have! Many, many years ago when I was a teenager and a summer camp counselor I was walking with my friends at night when it was pitch dark and then all of sudden a bolt of heat lighting illuminated everything– mountains, trees, fields, hills, leaves, grass, the faces of my friends. I can still see that moment in my mind’s eye with all the power of the present moment – and from this I know that one act of compassion is an amazingly powerful experience. We need more of it in our politics. We need more of it in our churches. We need more of it in our lives. We experience this compassion most often through action not words. It is by our works that we see each other’s faith.

I will not claim to be completely above the fray in politics. When Archbishop Helda Camara of Brazil was asked about his politics he would say, “The right hand and the left hand – both belong to the same body but the heart is a little to the left.” Similarly, I have to admit that my heart is a little to the left.

However, when I sit down at a table at a church potluck dinner or church board meeting or some other church event I often have someone to the right of me and someone to the left of me, and I mean that in more ways than one, and yet we are still members of the same church. To paraphrase the words of scripture, “the right hand cannot say to the left hand I have no need of thee and the left hand cannot say to the right hand I have no need of thee for we are members of one body and both sides need the human heart.”

And so here are some issues I think should concern us regardless of who we vote for. America has proven it is willing to elect an angry white man but is our country ready to elect an angry black man or an angry woman? Or will anyone who expresses their anger in public go down in the polls because they do not have white male privilege? Our current president has a picture of Andrew Jackson in his office – an angry white man if ever there was one. Are we ready for a president to hang a picture of Geronimo or Crazy Horse or Malcolm X or Angela Davis? I think we have a lot of work to do that is going to last longer than this election cycle.

This week our Director of Religious Education, Catherine Farmer Loya, asked her kindergarten aged son who his favorite candidate was and he named someone but then he said, “But she will not win.” When Catherine asked him why this little boy said, “Because a lot of people like men more than women.” Regardless of who we vote for I think we can agree that this statement by a child reveals we have a whole lot of work to do that will go on well beyond Tuesday.

This week Chaz Barber told me about going to Nashville to lobby on behalf of Planned Parenthood where he met with his state representative who said to him, “You and I have nothing to talk about.” That might have ended the conversation right there. Even so, Chaz kept showing kindness and compassion and respect toward the man and after thirty minutes his representative said, “Well, maybe you and I have more in common after all .” This is the story of a beginning, not an ending and it is a reminder of the work that is cut out for us well beyond this Tuesday and well beyond November’s election; the work of faith, activism and democracy.

Well this morning, I have covered a lot of topics. You might say that I’ve launched a lot of ships. What you may not know is that I’ve got more ships I could launch. I’ve got a thousand more. Nevertheless let me see if I can bring the ones I have launched to port.

So in conclusion, let me say Dr. Martin Luther King once described the separation of church and state by saying, “The church is not the master of the state or the servant of the state but the conscience of the state.” We are the conscience of democracy. The work of the church is not to dictate outcomes but to awaken the conscience. So this morning if I did not repeat the talking points of your favorite candidate or endorse your choice from the pulpit I hope you will forgive me for my restraint. For our church stands in that tradition that says our elected leaders are like sailors on the sea and even if they want to take the country in a particular direction they can’t do it if the wind is blowing in the opposite direction. For that reason the mission of our church is not to endorse the sailor or be the sailboat. The mission of our church is to be the wind.

(Rev. Chris Buice gave this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday March 1, 2020) UU Vote