No More Mister Nice Guy

My father was once riding his motorcycle into work when a car cut him off in traffic. Without thinking about it, my dad gave the guy “the finger” and the man in the car looked especially horrified. It was only then that my dad remembered he was wearing his clergy collar since he was an Episcopal priest on his way to work at the church. 

I tell that story because I think we need reminders that even the best of us lose our cool. Indeed we are living through a time when tempers are flaring. So this morning I want to speak about how hard it is to be a nice person anymore. How hard it is to be filled with lovingkindness on a daily basis especially when it seems like all of us have reached the limits of our patience and compassion. This global pandemic has tested us all. 

In the old black and white gangster movies it seems like there was always a moment when one of the henchmen would say, “OK, no more mister nice guy.” And I think no matter what our gender identity we find ourselves saying pretty much the same thing. Now my father had his clergy collar to remind him of his better self so this morning let’s ask ourselves the question – what do we have to remind us of our better selves? 

A few weeks ago I heard Bill Haslam interviewed on the Tokens podcast. Tokens is a podcast based out of Nashville that covers many spiritual issues in our times. Bill Haslam is a former mayor of Knoxville, former Governor of Tennessee and author of new book Faithful Presence: The Promise and the Peril of Faith in the Public Square. Haslam pointed out in the interview that while the alignment of religion and politics seems more palpable than ever, the spirit of our politics is very often at odds with the wisdom of scriptures. 

For instance, the apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Phillippians, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Phillipians 2:3-4) “Let your gentleness be evident to all.” (Phillipians 4:5) Or as the apostle James wrote, “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” (James 3:17)

Needless to say this sort of wisdom is in short supply these days in Washington DC and Nashville. This wisdom is in short supply not only among our elected officials but among many constituents or citizens. Of course, the problem is not only about politics. This dynamic can be manifest much closer to home in things like children’s sports. Bill Haslam observes, “In my time watching kids’ sports, I learned something about adults: sports bring out the worst in us. Otherwise mature adults would get red-faced at an umpire’s mistake in a T-ball game where an inning isn’t over until everyone bats. I was guilty of that a few times myself. Politics is the same way…like overzealous parents watching a T-ball game, it often brings out the worst in us.” 

Now Bill Haslam is a Republican, a partisan politician, but I think this observation (especially as it relates to T-ball) can benefit people regardless of political party or ideological leanings. Everyone of us is capable of losing our tempers when we are feeling passionate. So we need tools to remind us of our better selves. 

Many of the conflicts in our society are driven by what I call – the algorithms of alienation. Social media magnates have learned there is a lot of money to be made in divisiveness. Frances Haugen, the famous Facebook whistleblower, has lifted the curtain to reveal what is happening behind the scenes not only in social media but in many other aspects of corporate culture. Before Congress she declared that the products of her company, “harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy.”

Studies show that social media platforms have to engage people to keep them as customers. The more polarizing, divisive and angry the content the more people become engaged. It seems that human beings can get addicted to the adrenaline rush of rage. This insight is being capitalized on not only by social media but by political parties, lobbyists, cultural commentators and other interest groups including religious groups. Polarizing religion gets clicks. Polarizing religion gets likes. Polarizing religion gets shares. Polarizing religion goes viral. 

So next time we feel like giving someone “the finger” we should ask ourselves the question, “Who is going to profit from this? Who is going to cash in on my anger?” Or if we are at a kid’s sports event we can ask ourselves the question, “Will giving someone the finger really help our team win?” Is this really going to help advance the causes we care about? 

The beatitudes tell us that the meek shall inherit the earth, however, in our contemporary political atmosphere meekness is seen as a weakness. Indeed, Unitarian Universalists have sometimes been accused of being weak and indecisive. 

Earlier we sang that old spiritual hymn that became a labor organizing and civil rights anthem. 

We shall not, we shall not be moved

We shall not, we shall not be moved

Just like a tree planted by the water

We shall not be moved

Well what you may not know is but there is a satirical version of the song that suggests that when Unitarian Universalists gather for worship we sing. 

We shall, we shall change our mind

We shall, we shall change our mind

Like an amphibian in and out of water

We shall change our mind. 

Now the criticism implied by this satire is both entirely unfair and completely valid. It is entirely unfair because we Unitarian Universalists have made important contributions to the labor movement, women’s rights movement, civil rights movement, GLBT rights movement and other good causes. Our support for social justice has been solid as a rock, rooted like a tree. So the criticism is entirely unfair BUT on the other hand, we have been known to change our minds. Indeed, we have been known to listen and learn and incorporate new information in our decision making processes leading to what we hope will be better decisions for all and advancing the causes we care about. So in that sense the satire is right on target. We do change our minds. However, changing our minds in this context is not a weakness but a strength. Sometimes social change is only possible because we are willing to change our minds. 

The combination of religion and politics can be powerful and dramatic like a Molotov cocktail (ka-boom) or it can be undramatically powerful like the fire in a furnace that heats an entire building. Anyone who has ever watched a referee at a T-ball game or another sporting event knows there is power in calmness. There is power in keeping your cool while the rest of the world is on fire. There is power in being centered and grounded and consistent under pressure. In other words, there is more than one kind of power. 

We see both kinds of power in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, a ministry of feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, healing the sick, visiting the homebound,  loving the unloved AND a ministry of turning over tables in the temple, upsetting the status quo, unsettling the established arrangements of society. 

Similarly, we see both kinds of power in the 19th Unitarian minister Theodore Parker who objected to the Mexican War because it was designed to spread the institution of slavery. Challenging the white Christian nationalism of his time he preached an anti-war sermon from his pulpit declaring, “If war is right, Christianity is wrong. If Christianity is right, war is wrong.” However, when the United States Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act making it legal to kidnap African Americans in the North and transport them back to slavery in the South, Theodore Parker wrote his sermons with a pistol on his desk, and he was prepared to use the pistol to defend his friends and congregants who were part of the Underground Railroad movement. 

We see both kinds of power in the women who marched in Market Square for women’s suffrage over a hundred years ago and the women who march in Market’s Square for women’s rights today. We see both kinds of power in the annual Pride Parade that is both a political demonstration and a joyous celebration. 

Spiritually speaking there is a difference between being nice and being good. Good people are often driven to the point when they are compelled to say, “No more Mister Nice Guy!” Indeed the impulse to be nice in congregations often prevents us from having the conversations we need to have about racism, sexism, homophobia, microaggressions and our own role in perpetuating unjust systems. The scripture tells us, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” But those who do are often accused of being impolite or rude. As the liberation theologians declared, “When we give food to the poor they call us saints. When we ask, ‘Why are they poor?’ they call us communists.” 

For this reason it is not enough to be nice. We must insist on being good. We must balance our practice of lovingkindness with our willingness to be critical and confrontational. Toward that goal many theologians and philosophers have written commentary on how to criticize with kindness. When in a disagreement our aim should be to come to a clearer understanding of the truth not to defeat an opponent. In that way if we lose the argument we still win greater understanding and if the other person loses we will still have a friend or family member. Granted, this is easier said than done. Our egos often get involved. However, in the best of possible worlds we can be solid as a rock, rooted like a tree and still be able to change our minds. Like the limbs of trees move with the breeze we can demonstrate the Taoist concept of yin and yang, firmness and flexibility. Sometimes the revolution requires a revolution in our own minds. And sometimes a revolution in our own minds leads to a revolution in the world. 

There is a contemporary proverb that tells us that “Religion is not meant to be a brick to throw at people. Religion is meant to be bread to feed people.” And I would argue that religion is not meant to be a Molotov cocktail but living water, the wellspring of the joy of living, a crystal clear fountainhead, so that none may go thirsty. 

So we need reminders to return to our better selves so that we don’t poison the well. We need reminders to return to our better selves to keep this wellspring pure and clear. We need something like my father’s clergy collar, to remind us that we have a calling to be better people. We need something like the words of that traditional Buddhist meditation. 

May we be filled with lovingkindness. May we be well. 

May we be filled with lovingkindness. May we be well. 

May we be peaceful and at ease. May we be whole. 

If we repeat this mantra then maybe just maybe we will be less likely to give someone “the finger” and more likely to give them a peace sign.

(This sermon was delivered by the Reverend Chris Buice at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, October 17, 2021)


Circling Vultures (and the Circle of Life)

When I was a child growing up in the Episcopal Church we used to sing the hymn, “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” 

All things bright and beautiful,

All creatures great and small,

All things wise and wonderful:

The Lord God made them all.

A few years ago I came across another version of this hymn by the comedy group Monty Python. 

All things dull and ugly,

All creatures short and squat,

All things rude and nasty,

The Lord God made the lot.

Each little snake that poisons,

Each little wasp that stings,

He made their brutish venom,

He made their horrid wings.

Each nasty little hornet,

Each beastly little squid,

Who made the spikey urchin,

Who made the sharks, He did.

All things scabbed and ulcerous,

All pox both great and small,

Putrid, foul and gangrenous,

The Lord God made them all.

I was thinking about both versions of the song one day when I was hiking on top of House Mountain. I was on a rock outcropping overlooking the fields and mountains of the Tennessee Valley and observing the flight patterns of a flock of vultures circling in the air. 

Now when we sing the hymn, “All Things Bright and Beautiful” I bet most of us don’t picture vultures. Vultures with their featherless heads are not the most elegant of birds. Added to this, circling vultures are often seen as a harbinger of death. Vultures are birds of prey that feed on carrion so when we see circling vultures we either know or suspect that death is nearby. Vultures feed on the dead. They are scavengers and this is a part of the circle of life that most of us consider dull, ugly and unpleasant, even as it is necessary. 

So on this morning when we celebrate the blessing of the animals let’s remember there are many different kinds of creatures that are all essential. In the Unitarian Universalist Church we teach that one of the sources of our faith is the “Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.” In my experience watching circling vultures can be a meditation on the sacred circle of life, observing their flight patterns can be a meditation on the harmony and rhythms of nature. 

Saint Francis is the patron saint of animals. One day his followers found him preaching to a huge assembly of birds of all varieties gathered around him. Whose to say that there weren’t vultures among them? The birds appeared to be listening intently to Saint Francis and Saint Francis spoke to them in the same way he spoke to people. He told the birds to be grateful for being clothed in feathers, for their wings to fly, for the currents of air that carried them along on their journey. After the saint finished preaching he gave a benediction and it was only after his final words that the birds dispersed and flew off into the air. 

Now if Saint Francis preached to the birds, the Native American leader Black Elk taught us that birds can preach to us. “Everything the Power of the World does is in a circle,” he declared, “The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same, and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a humankind is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves.” 

Think about that next time you see some circling vultures, for theirs is the same religion as ours. In theology school we learned some big words when we were encouraged not to develop an anthropomorphic or anthropocentric theology. Put simply, do not make God into your own image and do not assume that humanity is the center of all things. There is an Apache legend that suggests that human beings were created for the benefit of dogs. The Great Spirit had the happiness of dogs in mind when making the world not humans. Similarly, maybe we exist for the benefit of vultures and other creatures and not the other way around. 

In theology school students are assigned many books to read. Many years ago when I was just thinking about going into the ministry I was visiting a prospective theology school where I met a student who said, “I can’t wait until I graduate then I will have time to read all the books I’ve been assigned.”  In contrast the poet William Wordsworth encouraged us not to live our lives with a head in a book or couped up in dusty libraries but wrote eloquently about the need for us to get out into the natural world. He wrote, 

Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:

Come, hear the woodland linnet,

How sweet his music! on my life,

There’s more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!

He, too, is no mean preacher:

Come forth into the light of things,

Let Nature be your teacher.

Wordsworth’s poem calls to mind another poem by Emily Dickinson.

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –

I keep it, staying at Home –

With a Bobolink for a Chorister –

And an Orchard, for a Dome –

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –

I, just wear my Wings –

And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,

Our little Sexton – sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman –

And the sermon is never long,

So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –

I’m going, all along.

Just like the Bobolink chorister, the woodland linnet and the Throstle singing, circling vultures can be our preachers and our teachers. Watching circling vultures can give an opportunity to meditate on our own mortality. As the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius once wrote, 

“Observe how transient and trivial is all mortal life…Spend, therefore, these fleeting moments on earth as Nature intends, and then go to your rest with good grace, as a 

leaf falls in its season with a blessing for the earth that bore it and thanksgiving to the

 tree that gave it life.”

The average lifespan of a vulture in the wild is 15 to 20 years whereas the average lifespan of a human being in the United States is 78.9 years. Since we tend to live three 

times longer than vultures let’s learn to appreciate their short time with us even as we contemplate our own brief moment of life. 

An estimated 182 species of birds have gone extinct since the year 1500 and we are living through a time of mass extinction due to climate change. All over the world citizens and scientists are organizing to try and change the course of this mass extinction, trying to change government policies, writing their leaders in hopes that the pen is still mightier than the sword. 

One of those species, the Ivory Billed Woodpecker,  is known as the Lord God Bird because it is so breathtakingly beautiful that people were known to cry out “My God” or “My Lord” when they saw it. Seeing the bird was a religious epiphany.  

Of course, there are many different kinds of beauty. Whenever I watch circling vultures from the top of House Mountain I am captivated by the beauty of their flight. One reason I admire vultures is that I’ve always wanted to 

fly. I am not the only one. A few decades ago hang gliders would launch their flights from the top of House Mountain; human beings launching themselves attached to larger than life kites to fly over the earth below.

Whenever I watch hang gliders flying through the air I think of the Greek myth of Icarus who built himself some wings so that he could fly and he was so excited by his flight that he went upward and upward until he got too close to the sun, the wax that held his feathers together melted, and he fell to the earth. Similarly, hang gliding is a very dangerous sport, and the fact that people are willing to do it in spite of the danger shows how much we human beings would like to be able to fly. I do not have any plans to go hang gliding myself. For the time being I am content to live vicariously watching the circling vultures. When they fly over the valley my spirit soars. 

In preparation for this sermon I did a little research where I learned the following facts, “Vultures are high flying birds with the Ruppell’s Vulture being the world’s highest flyer with a record of 37,000 feet. Vultures can fly for a very long time, without becoming tired, as they glide on the thermal updrafts which gives them a ‘free lift’. They fly in circular motions in order to gain height.” 

In the mountains of Tibet the vulture is considered a sacred animal in part because it does not feed on living things but feeds on the dead. In this sense a vulture is a better Buddhist than most human beings. A vulture is more nonviolent than most human beings and thus worthy of our admiration. 

In that country there is also a tradition of a Sky Burial. When someone dies their body may be taken up into the mountains close to where the vultures live where the body becomes an offering. This is seen as a sacred way to end life. It is a ritual reminder of reincarnation, the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. It is believed that the vultures are angels in disguise who take the soul upward into the heavens to await rebirth. 

Of course, even those among us with a more secular view of life might find inspiration in knowing that at the end of our earthbound existence we may be able to take flight and circle above the earth, going higher and higher on the updrafts, experiencing a freedom that gravity does not allow in our lifetime. 

And maybe (and this is my final thought) if we do decide to have a Sky Burial one day here in Tennessee (even though it would involve breaking many state laws) we can include that old Episcopal hymn as part of that Tibetan Buddhist ritual. And as the vultures fly circling upward, higher and higher, those on earth can sing. 

All things bright and beautiful,

All creatures great and small,

All things wise and wonderful:

The Lord God made them all.