Putting the Divine into Diva for Diwali: Reflections on the Hindu Festival of Lights

The magazine Psychology Today once published an article called “How to Deal with a Workplace Diva” full of practical advice on how to be in relationship with a co-worker who always seems to need to outshine everyone else in the room. For the record, a diva may be male or female or non-binary. The contemporary way to describe this kind of person is to say they are “extra.” Diva’s need extra attention, extra care, extra recognition, extra patience so young people boil it down to one word and simply say, “That person is extra.” 

I studied for the ministry at a Quaker school which meant that I began my ministry poorly prepared to deal with divas. In the Quaker tradition we are told that the light of God shines brightly in everyone – BUT NOT THAT BRIGHTLY. In the Quaker tradition the idea that the light shines in everyone leads to a very egalitarian kind of ethos. There is an element of leveling. One of the ways Quakers show respect for others is by not trying to demand all the attention in the room. Quakers show respect for the light in everyone by not trying to eclipse, outdo or outshine others. For this reason the Quaker tradition is unlikely to produce someone like Lady Gaga or Beyonce. 

So I studied for the ministry in a Quaker school but I have always served Unitarian Universalist congregations. In our faith we encourage everyone to let their light shine including those who do not seem to have a dimmer switch. Here’s why, because under the right conditions a diva can help us all feel a little more alive. The bright and overpowering  light of a diva may remind us all that we’ve been using our own dimmer switch far too often and for all the wrong reasons. 

As Marriane Williamson once wrote, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.”

The word diva has often been used as a put down. However, this morning I want us to reclaim the word. As we celebrate the Hindu festival of lights let us be mindful of that light that shines in you and me that may have been dimmed for too long and indeed may need to shine brighter in order to illuminate everything. At the risk of too much alliteration this morning I want us to put the divine into diva for Diwali. 

The word diva comes from the Sanskrit word deva. A deva may have characteristics that are human but otherwise partakes more of the divine, possessing god-like qualities, supersized powers and abilities. A deva is a being worthy of our veneration, admiration and worship. So you can see how a variation on that word might begin to be applied to rock stars and pop singers who perform before adoring crowds. Since the words diva and deva share the same origins as the word divine I want to talk a little bit about the nature of the divine so that we can better understand divas. 

For instance, if you travel to Rome, Italy, and take a pilgrimage to the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican and look up at the ceiling you may see a picture of God that looks like an old man with white hair and a beard. What you may not know is that this image of God comes more from Greek mythology than it does Hebrew or Christian scriptures. In the Hebrew tradition there are no images of God, no statues or pictures, no graven images. God transcends all that. Jesus never draws a picture of God either or makes a sculpture or paints a painting. So the old man with the white beard comes from Greek mythology which also includes goddesses – Athena, Alectrona, Artemis, Aphrodite and that’s just the A’s. In Greek mythology (and the mythologies of many other world religions) there are goddesses for every letter in the alphabet. 

So this morning let’s take a moment to contemplate some of the goddesses in the Hindu tradition, because they are images of what the divine light might look like when shining in human forms. We are focusing on the goddesses because it is women who are too often told that they need a dimmer switch. It is women who are often told that they should not try to shine so brightly. So regardless of our gender identity let us take a moment to study the devas in order to reconnect with our inner diva. 

The goddess most closely associated with Diwali is Lakshmi. As Ruchi Gupta said earlier, “Lakshmi is the goddess of both inner wealth and outer wealth.” She embodies both spiritual and material abundance. She reminds us that we have to have something before we can share it. We must possess inner and outer weath before we can give it away to others. We must have light before we can share light with the world. 

The next goddess I invite you to contemplate is Saraswati who is the goddess of wisdom, learning and knowledge, speech, music and the arts. In many ways Saraswati is the goddess of a good liberal arts education, a vision of self actualization, self-expression and creativity. Now just down the road there is a town called Athens, Tennessee, a town named after Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, and in 1857 it became the home of Athens Female College (now known as Tennessee Wesleyan) in a time rampant gender discrimination in education. So in every culture the goddess wants us to learn, grow, develop and blossom. We have to have knowledge before we can share it. We have to have talent before we can share it. We have to cultivate our own light if we want it to shine brightly in the world. 

Another goddess is Kali who can be a very intimidating goddess. She is often depicted as a warrior on the battlefield, stepping over corpses, swinging her sword, wearing a necklace of skulls. However, in some images she is slaying with a sword even as she nurses a baby at her breast, reminding us that the old order must die so that new life can be born. Kali is the destroyer who clears the way for a new creation. Everytime you weed your garden you are doing the work of Kali, consigning some things to death so that others may live. 

The goddess Durga has some similarity with Kali, only, she is the protector of life, the defender of the vulnerable. She is courageous, often depicted riding on the back of a lion. She protects the way a mother protects. Her motivation is love. If Kali is offense then Durga is defense, defending the innocent and the helpless with a strong mother love that wants to protect your light from being extinguished.  This is a very noble impulse and a reminder of why we need to put the divine back into diva. 

If you’ve ever been to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous or another 12 Step Program then you know that the first step is, “We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol (or drugs or gambling or sex or any other addiction) and that our lives had become unmanageable.” This week I was talking with someone who said to me, “As a teen girl when I was in a 12 step program I was uncomfortable with accepting powerlessness.” Think about it. Maybe the first step for a teen girl is not to admit powerlessness but to become aware of being powerful beyond measure. 

I have a lot of respect for the 12 Step Recovery movement but we should note that the steps were written by middle age white men, so admitting powerlessness might be a good first step if you have a lot of power and privilege. However, with teen girls, women, people of color, LGBT and other historically marginalized groups the first step might be to admit that “We are powerful beyond measure” or to say,“I am not the things my family did. I am not the voices in my head. I am not the pieces of the brokenness inside. I am light.” (India Arie) I am light! 

So what I did not learn about divas in theology school I learned from one of our ministerial interns who is now the Reverend Duncan Teague, minister of Abundant LUUV, congregation in the West End of Atlanta. Duncan is a gay African American man who is a self-described diva. Whenever people use the word diva as a putdown Duncan  reclaims it as an affirmation. Through his ministry he reminds us that those who society would keep powerless are in fact powerful beyond measure. Through worship and song he proclaims, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m gonna let it shine.  Won’t let anyone blow it out, I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine.” Duncan Teague is married to a Quaker and let me tell you, it’s a good combination. Together they bring more light into our world. 

In Hinduism there is a form of singing called kirtan where the song leader sings a verse and the group sings back the same verse. This pattern goes back and forth and has a circular quality to it. The song itself could theoretically go on forever. The song enters into that space that seems to have no beginning or end. In a minute we are going to sing one together. This kirtan is a prayer for peace. And this prayer for peace evokes the feminine faces of God – Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kali and Durga – an invocation of the spirit of generosity, creativity, courage and fierce protective love, inside each one of us. I hope you will join in on the singing. We may not be able to sing like Lady Gaga or have a stage presence like Beyonce but everyone of us has a voice – and everyone of us can help put the divine into diva. 

He Maha Lakshmi (repeat) He Saraswati (repeat) He Mata Kali (repeat) Jagatambe Jai Jai Ma
He Ma Durga He Ma Durga He Ma Durga Jagatambe Jai Jai Ma (repeat) 

Below is the English translation of this kirtan by David Newman 
We call out to the great Divine Mother in the forms of creator, preserver and transformerWe offer our salutations to She who embodies the highest reaches of Love, the Mother of all.

(The Reverend Chris Buice shared this sermon with the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, November 14, 2020)


Loving the Unloveable (A Post Election Sermon Written Before Results Were In)

We are living in very polarized times. People are dividing into different camps, us versus them, good versus evil, right versus wrong. There was an event this past week that brought all that energy out into the open and you know the event I am talking about – Daylight Savings Time. 

This week a friend was telling me how much they  loved Daylight Savings Time. They went on and on about how much they love the extra hour. I told them to be careful where they spoke as I didn’t want anyone to slash their tires or key their car or egg their house or otherwise express their differing point of view with the level of passion many people seem to feel about this issue (at least as it is measured on social media.)

So this week we had a very polarizing event in our country AND we also had an election. I am writing this sermon (and videoing it) on Wednesday when we still don’t know the election results will be. This sermon will be broadcast on a Sunday so a lot could happen between now and then. So this morning I want to talk about “Loving the Unloveable.” How do we love those who think, act or vote differently than we do? How do we love people whose views may even be the opposite of our own?

And I want to begin by focusing on the goal of spiritual growth. A friend once shared this confession with me. He said, “When I wake up in the morning I hate everyone but then I have a cup of coffee and I feel better about hating everyone.” So the thing about spiritual growth is we all begin from different starting points. The most important thing is to be moving in the right direction. 

The scholar and mystic Howard Thurman once made an observation about forgiveness that we might also make about love. He said, “Sometimes I pray to forgive and other times I pray to want to forgive and still other times I pray to want to want to forgive,” so we might say, “Sometimes we pray to love and other times we pray to want to love and still other times we pray to want to want to love.” For love is a journey and not just a destination. 

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who persecute you.” My theology school professor Dr. Lonnie Valentine had a good insight into this teaching. He said, “Your enemy is someone whose good news is your bad news and whose bad news is your good news.” Our enemy might not even be someone we hate. Our enemy might be someone who thinks that Daylight Savings Time is good news when we think it is bad news. Our enemy might be the person who did not get the job that we got or did not get the promotion that we got or in some other way did not get the good news we got. 

So when it comes to spiritual growth, loving our enemies does not have to begin with the people we hate most. Instead it can begin by asking ourselves the question, “Whose good news is my bad news? Whose bad news is my good news?” Spiritual growth can be simply the growing awareness of how our lives impact other people’s lives. Spiritual growth can simply be growing to be a little more sensitive and compassionate than we were before. Spiritual growth might begin with a very small step like having a cup of coffee. 


The other day I got one of the best compliments ever. Will Dunklin, our often irreverent organist, said to me, “Even when I hate you, you are still my favorite minister.” The reason that l love this compliment is that it captures the genuine love and inescapable challenges of any close relationship. 

For instance, I bet there is someone in your extended family, an uncle, an aunt, a cousin, a brother or sister or parent who voted differently than you did in this week’s election. I know that is true of my family. I bet there is a neighbor or co-worker (or even dare I say it – a fellow church member) who voted differently than you. I know this is true for myself. I think we all know someone we love who has supported something or someone we hate. 

Our nation was once divided by a Civil War, and we feel some of that same energy in the present moment, but we can also remember the words of Abraham Lincoln who said in his First Inaugural Address, 

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

We remember Lincoln not only for these words of peace but also because he served as president during a civil war. Lincoln became a casualty of this nation’s toxic politics through assasination. In his life he called us to return to the better angels of our nature and by his death he continues to remind us of the demonic dimension that can possess our civic life  in his time and ours. 

For this reason, we can strive to love the unloveable without becoming anyone’s walking mat. As Rabbi Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I?” We need not apologize when we stick up for ourselves in ways that further the cause of justice for everyone. We need not apologize when we speak out for the marginalized, the least, the last and the lost. We need not apologize when we speak out for justice. We can love without capitulating to the overbearing or surrendering to the forces of intimidation. 

There are those who profess to love this country while showing contempt for many of the people who live in this country. Where there is this hatred we can bring love. Where there is this contempt we can bring courage. Where there is this animosity we can bring action. Where there is calcification may we can bring change. 

Once an old man approached a young woman, the great Sufi Muslim mystic Rabia, and asked her, “Do you love God?” She replied, “Yes,” and so he asked, “Do you hate the Devil?” and she replied, “No my love of God leaves me no time to hate the devil.” Similarly, we can aspire to love our country in such a way that we have no time for hatred for anyone.


There is a Sufi proverb that tells us, “If you want to draw near to God you must seek God in the hearts of others.” I can’t think of anyone who lived out this teaching more than Elandria Williams. After she died I found myself going through one of the books she donated to the church, a book about Radical Hospitality, and going to one of the pages that she marked where I found this sentiment, “This is the cry of every single human heart. It is a cry against everything that would make us less than human…the cry of the abandoned and misunderstood and the excluded..I am not an outcaste. I am not a token. I am not a statistic. I am not an object. I am human. I have a mind. I have a heart. I have a soul. I dream. I feel. I care. I am a human being.”

I believe we are all called to embrace this insight and let it empower us to offer radical hospitality. Dorothy Day is one of the patron saints of radical hospitality, opening up Fellowship Houses all across the country to offer hospitality to those who might otherwise go homeless and  live on the streets. She did not romanticize the work. She warned new volunteers that they would be living and working with people who didn’t smell good, didn’t always seem grateful and were apt to steal things. She warned them that they might experience threats, intimidation, verbal abuse, vandalism and assaults. Even so she believed that the best way to find God was to be in community with other people. She once said “I only love God as much as the person I love the least.” 

It is interesting to me that many of the things Dorothy Day warned her Fellowship House volunteers about in her time are common occurrences in today’s political atmosphere – threats, intimidation, verbal abuse, vandalism and violence. The problems of the homeless shelter in the 1940’s, 50’s, 60’s and 70’s are now common problems in an election year in 2020. So we might ask ourselves how do we bring the politics of radical hospitality to our times?  How do we embrace a politics that helps everyone feel more fully human. 

In the Jewish tradition the rabbis do not teach, “Love your enemy,” instead they lift up the words of the book of Proverbs, “If your enemy is hungry give them bread bread to eat.” The command here is not to love our enemies. Instead the command is to treat them with respect, to be just, to be fair, to be a decent human being. You might keep this teaching in mind if you can’t bring yourself to love a person or want to love or want to want to love them. Sometimes the destination is not as important as the commitment to move in a good direction. 

The mystics of every faith remind us that “The gates of hell are locked from the inside and we have the keys. For hatred imprisons the hater. And the first step toward freedom  is to unlock the door and start moving in a good direction. 


As we contemplate loving the unloveable, we might be wise to contemplate the relationship between Shirley Chisolm and George Wallace. Shirley Chisolm was the first African American woman to launch a serious campaign to become President of the United States. George Wallace was a competitor in that race, a staunch segregationist who stood in the schoolhouse door saying, “Segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever.” Wallace was reviled in the black community and revered by white supremacists. Nevertheless, when George Wallace was shot in an assassination attempt Shirley Chisolm suspended her campaign and flew all the way across the country to visit him in his hospital room. 

Shirley Chisolm’s decision made many on her campaign angry. How dare she suspend her campaign to visit that racist SOB?! However, she was not deterred. She went to see her competitor as he lay in his bed grappling with the fact that he was paralyzed for life and would never walk again. No one was more surprised to see Shirley Chisolm than George Wallace himself and so he asked her, “What are people going to say about your coming here,” and she replied, “I know what they are going to say but I wouldn’t want what happened to you to happen to anyone.” 

Peggy Wallace Kennedy, George Wallace’s daughter, credits this visit for changing her father’s heart, changing him for the better, the beginning of his journey toward repentance for his racist past and willingness to work for a more just future. Not everyone trusts George Wallace’s conversion. Some saw it as a political calculation to secure needed black votes in his next campaign. However, as a political scientist once observed, “There is a difference between a hater and a callow opportunist. A hater is inflexible, unable or uninterested in compromise whereas a callow opportunist is open to change and willing to adapt to new circumstances.” Some civil rights activists were convinced by Wallace’s conversion. Others were not. But all were willing to embrace the change. Shirley Chisolm went on the work with George Wallace on common causes like raising the minimum wage. And that is something we need to do again today, to support the Fight for 15 and the Living Wage Campaign. 

Last Sunday I was part of interfaith online service as part of the Alliance for Community Transformation, an interfaith organization working to revive democracy at the grassroots level, so that we can be more than passive consumers  of top down leadership and become active co-creators of change from the bottom up. In that service, Rabbi Alon Ferency shared these words from rabbi Ben Azzai who once wrote, “Despise no man and deem nothing impossible. For there is no man who does not have his day and there is no thing that does not have its place.” 

So as the nights grow longer and the days shorter, and we adjust grudgingly (or not so grudgingly)  to Daylight Savings Time let us aspire to love or to want to love or to want to want to love so that we can create a world where everyone will have their day, everything will have its place and everyone will find God in the heart of another.

(Chris Buice is minister of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. This sermon was delivered online on Sunday, November 8, 2020)