Help Wanted: No Gurus or Disciples Need Apply

There is an Indian folktale, in the tradition of “foolish wisdom,” about a guru who was approached by a young fool. The fool asked the guru, “How do I get to heaven?” and the guru who was in a bad mood replied, “Going to heaven is easy. All you have to do is stand right where you are, lift your hands to the sky and you will go to heaven.” After these words, the guru continued walking but the fool stood very still and lifted his hands to the sky. 40 years later the guru walked by the same spot again and saw the same fool standing in the same place with his hands lifted up but now the fool wasn’t so young anymore. The fool had shaggy white hair and a beard, wrinkled skin, his fingernails were long and curled and his clothes were just rags. And yet all of a sudden the fool began to ascend upward into heaven. Thinking quickly the guru grabbed the fool by the leg and traveled upward to heaven with him, which is a good thing because the guru probably would never have gotten into heaven any other way. 

The folktale reminds us that sometimes the fool is the guru and the guru is the fool. I am reminded of the words of Max Ehrmann from his poem Desiderata. 

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,

and remember what peace there may be in silence.

As far as possible without surrender

be on good terms with all persons.

Speak your truth quietly and clearly;

and listen to others,

even the dull and the ignorant;

they too have their story.

The title for today’s sermon is “Help Wanted: No Gurus or Disciples Need Apply.” This week I was visiting with Viren Lalka who is of Indian heritage and he said paradoxically, “Sometimes we need a guru to teach us that we do not need a guru.” Jiddu Krishnamurti might be considered a good example of such a guru. 

“I do not want followers,” he declared, “The moment you follow someone you cease to follow Truth. I am not concerned whether you pay attention to what I say or not…I am concerning myself with only one essential thing; to set (everyone) free.” On another occasion he said, “I maintain that Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect…Truth being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or to coerce people along any particular path. If you first understand that, then you will see how impossible it is to organize a belief. A belief is purely an individual matter, and you cannot and must not organize it. If you do it becomes dead, crystallized, it becomes a creed, a sect, a religion to be imposed on others.” 

So according to Krishnamurti we do not need any religions or priests or clergy or religious education teachers or youth group leaders. We need no hierarchy of any kind. We don’t need guidance. We need awakening. However, paradoxically, the more Krishnamurti said, “You do not need a teacher” the more people adopted him as their teacher. The more he said, “You don’t need a guru” the more people made him into a guru. 

This is significant because Krishnamurti had been groomed since birth to be something of Messiah. He was raised in a religious community where he was considered foreordained to be the next great world teacher who would usher in a new era of enlightenment. However, Krishnamurti decided to abdicate that particular throne. Abdicate the role of guru in order to teach everyone that there was no need for gurus. And yet in many ways his abdication was a form of teaching By refusing to be a guru he also lived into the role of guru. The Quakers described this paradox by saying, “Sometimes we need an outward teacher to introduce us to the inward teacher.” Or as the Greeks might say, “Sometimes we need a sage to introduce us to our own inner wisdom.” 

Unitarian Universalism is full of examples of gurus who teach us that we do not need gurus. Possibly the most famous being Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson  resigned from the Unitarian ministry and by doing so became a minister who taught others that they don’t need ministers. In many ways Emerson was the anti-guru. Emerson took pride that over many years of preaching and teaching he had yet to accumulate “a single disciple.” He did not seek to bring people closer to Emerson. Emerson sought to bring people closer to themselves. He wrote, 

“Every mind has a new compass, a new north, a new direction of its own, differing its genius and aim from every other mind..And none of us will ever accomplish anything excellent or commanding except when we listen to this whisper which is heard by ourselves alone.” Emerson was willing to be a mentor but not a model, an educator but not an exemplar. He sought to offer inspiration but did not want to encourage imitation. Of course, there is a paradox here. As one woman observed one of the things that made Emerson charming was he treated everyone as an equal, even as others recognized as a cut above others. Or as the mystics teach us, “The light shines in everyone but it shines brighter in some than others.” By most accounts the light that shone through Emerson was intense. 

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody played an incredibly influential role in the history of Unitarianism because she is the one who wrote down William Ellery Channing’s sermons, Channing being the Founder of American Unitarianism. In her early days she was prone to hero-the worship of Great Men like Channing and Emerson but she gradually came to the conclusion that what she admired was not the Great Men but “the divine in them’ which helped her to discover the divine within herself. 

Speaking through the lens of the patriarchal language of the 19th century while also pointing beyond that language she wrote, “There is something within the individual me, which is One with the Father (Ultimate Reality, The Ground of All Being)…above all things (one must) discriminate the traditional God from the real God that is within our own deepest me.” Elizabeth Palmer Peabody lived in close proximity to the first struggles of the American Revolution, the site of the Boston Tea Party and Bunker Hill. And she described this spiritual realization as a “more interior revolution.” 

This spiritual awareness was the foundation for social change because she became the educator most responsible for starting the kindergarten movement in America. She also ran a bookstore which she opened up to Margaret Fuller’s discussions with women which became part of the genesis for American feminism. Her philosophy of education was grounded in helping to get the outward life of human beings aligned with the inner light. In other words she was the closest thing the field of education has to a guru, who taught people that they don’t need a guru. 

In my time here as a minister at TVUUC we have had at least one such guru, Tom Innes, the facilitator of our Personal Beliefs and Commitments class of blessed memory. He was not a minister. He was not clergy. He was wise. Tom Innes often told us that he opposed “the Big Jug/little mug” theory of education and religion. The idea that the teacher is “the Big Jug” full to the brim with wisdom and the students “empty mugs” waiting to be filled. That is why the members of Personal Beliefs and Commitments sit in a circle, everyone is a teacher and everyone is a learner, and this is the philosophy that informs Unitarian Universalism in every form including Sunday services, where the seating arrangement is different. I often say the secret to being a good preacher is to be a good listener, to listen to those all around you, to listen for stories and wisdom and insight. Listening is the secret to wise speaking. 

Whenever someone says a minister does not need a theological education, my friend the Reverend Johnny Skinner says, “The Spirit gave you life but you better put something in your head if you want to preach.” This is another paradox. I value my theological education. I do believe that my ministry is wisely informed from all that I learned from the books I’ve read and the lectures I’ve attended. However, what I value even more is the wisdom I get from listening to others in my day to day life which reminds me to also listen to the still small voice within. 

Authoritarian leadership is popular these days. Authoritarian leadership is infiltrating both church and state. Governments are trying to micromanage what books are available in schools and what books should be banned, so much so that now teachers have to inventory the books in their classroom and provide that information to the state to make sure that the books meet state approval. We have a Supreme Court with 5 men and only three women, a state legislature that is over 80% male dictating what women can do, trying to micromanage the inner workings of the body. We have governments trying to impose one religion on every citizen, trying to micromanage the inner workings of the soul. We have governments obstructing public health ideas and sabotaging best practices by law. Since most teachers are women and most healthcare providers are women and most actively religious people are women we can presume that this is what Susan B. Anthony called “Government of men, by men, for men and against women.” 

So in the Unitarian Universalist Church we reject authoritarian leadership but we do respect the gurus who teach us we do not need gurus. In India it is common for a guru to command you to do something one day and then demand you do the opposite thing the next day. Overwhelming a person with contradictory requests and demands is meant to help break down the ego and foster humility. In this spirit, I have decided to start approaching my email inbox as my guru. Because many days I get a strongly worded email suggesting I do one thing and the next day a strongly worded email suggesting I do the opposite. Recently, our church board of directors has been invited into this dynamic which can be very disorienting and even disheartening. Church leaders are not the only ones facing this dilemma so here is my spiritual advice for anyone checking their email in contentious times, “Center yourself, stay grounded, say a prayer before opening your email and once you open your email be prepared to meet your guru.” 

So I will leave you with this closing thought, which contains my hope for the whole human race.   It is not our job to determine who is wise and who is a fool. It is not our job to determine who is right or wrong. Our only job is to grab hold of the leg of anyone who seems to be ascending into heaven and hope we get carried along with them. For this may be the only way any of us get into heaven.

(This sermon was delivered at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, August 28, 2022 by the Reverend Chris Buice)


Consent: Let’s Talk About It

After the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade, a group of protestors gathered in downtown Knoxville and a young woman led us all in this chant. 

We will not,

We will not, 

We will not be controlled.

I am sovereign in my body. 

I am sovereign in my soul. 

This chant is very much in line with the spirit of the Radical Reformation that gave birth to the Unitarian Universalist Church. Today, I want to talk about how the values behind that chant inform our faith’s views of both religion and human sexuality. 

One of the things that makes our church a little different in our region is that we  offer a comprehensive human sexuality education curriculum to our young people. We’ve been doing this for decades. In the 1950’s when we met in another building down the street the local politician Cas Walker described us as “the little church with the big roof where they talk about sex on Sunday.” Well our church is bigger now and our roof is flatter but we do continue to talk about sex on Sunday. Some things never change. 

One of the most important themes we lift up in our sexuality classes is the importance of consent. We teach our young people that healthy relationships are consensual, non exploitative, mutual, safe, age appropriate and respectful. However, the world is full of examples of sexuality that is abusive, exploitative and nonconsensual – sexual harrassment, sexual abuse, sexual assault and rape. For this reason our church has very carefully thought out safety policies and procedures to protect our young people and adults from harm and to ensure that church is always a safe space. 

One of the key ingredients to healthy sexuality is consent. Indeed if you travel on any college campus you are likely to see workshops being offered on consent. Silence is not consent. Someone who is asleep or intoxicated cannot give consent.  You cannot badger someone into giving their consent. You cannot use pressure tactics on someone to get their consent. Consent cannot be assumed; it must be expressed openly and clearly. The best way to get consent is to ask and to accept that yes means yes and no means no. 

In our times we hear a lot about consent when we discuss human sexuality. However, during the early days of the Protestant Reformation most of the talk about consent was about spirituality. Both healthy sexuality and healthy religion require consent. Neither religion or any sexual act should be forced on someone against their will. In his early days as reformer  Martin Luther argued eloquently that religion must be spread through persuasion and not coercion. When people asked him, “Why?” He answered the question this way.

 “Because it is not in my power or hand to fashion the hearts of other people  as the potter molds the clay and fashion them at  my pleasure. I can get no further than their ears; their hearts I cannot reach. And since I cannot pour faith into their hearts, I cannot, nor should I, force anyone to have faith. That is God’s work alone, who causes faith to live in the heart.” Speaking of the gospel he said, “I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no one by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion.” 

Of course, Martin Luther was better at preaching peaceful persuasion as a young man than he was at practicing it when he was older. However one of the underlying principles of the Reformation was that  wisdom evaporates the moment force is applied. That we cannot win hearts and minds and souls through force but only through love, kindness, compassion and generosity. The attempt to impose religion by force makes religion violent, evil and stupid. 

Roger Williams, the Baptist founder of the state of Rhode Island understood these principles, and argued passionately for them in very colorful language. He once said, “Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.”  He said we should not force our religion on other any more than we should force “an unwilling spouse” into a sexual act (So in the 17th century he acknowledged the problem of marital rape.)  Forcing people to say things they don’t believe, forcing people to attend a church they don’t support, forcing people to pay for a ministry they cannot affirm, forcing people to conform to teachings to which they do not adhere, these are worse than killing the body because they kill the soul. 

There are forms of religious harassment that are akin to sexual harrassment. Religious proselytizers who do not have any respect for other people’s boundaries. Zealots who seem unable to understand or respect that no means no. Roger Williams argued that whenever these kinds of boundaries are crossed, whenever individuals or governments try to impose religion on others then it is “soul rape.”

The Supreme Court decision overturning Roe. V. Wade is just the beginning. For the current Supreme Court seems poised to attempt to erase the boundary between church and state. (Indeed some of the justices have suggested that the line between church and state does not even exist.) Many people don’t know this but the separation of church and state was designed to protect both the church AND the state. As James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, wrote, “The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries.” Madison understood that religious disagreements backed by state power produce bloodshed and violence and for this reason he said, “Religion and government will exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together.” 

The current Supreme Court has ruled that taxpayer money can be used to fund private religious schools. In other words people of all faiths can be taxed and that money used to support the teachings of another faith that may be contrary to their conscience. The Supreme Court has ruled that a Christian group can have a Christian flag with a cross on it flown over the city hall. The Supreme Court has ruled that a high school football coach in a public school can lead the team in prayers at the 50 yard line making the football coach into a faith leader while drawing his salary from public funds. Since the power differential between coach and teams is not one of equality, coercion is inevitable. The coach is an adult, the players are teens. The coach gives orders, the team follows orders. If the coach who can tell you to drop and give him twenty, and has the power to put you into the game or take you out,  tells you to pray with him, religious coercion is at work. Whenever people are pressured to join into religious activities the tendency is to go through the motions to get people off your back. Pressuring people to pray with you does not produce religious people. It produces hypocrites. 

In other words the Supreme Court has made it clear that it does not respect your boundaries. The Supreme Court does not respect the boundaries between church and state. The Supreme Court does not respect the boundary between the government and the inner workings of  your body or your soul. 

In 2018 the Tennessee legislature passed a law requiring public schools to display the words “In God We Trust.” After the recent Supreme Court decision those signs have grown larger. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, argued that your beliefs should be between you and your God not you and your government. However, our legislature and many schools seem chosen to blur the line between the government and God. Indeed, when Heather Kistner was describing one at her child’s school she said, “You can see when you approach the doors of the church….I mean school.” Very blurry line that one. Roger Williams would tell our legislature that forcing schools to post the words “In God We Trust” shows a lack of trust in God. 

Now I’ve talked a lot about the politics of the Supreme Court but have done so for religious reasons not political ones. For the idea of non-coercion is a religious idea. Historic leaders who helped found this country have counseled us not to try to force religion on other people without their consent. Respecting people’s boundaries is good religion and not just good politics. As one irreverent observer once said, “When the church and state hookup the offspring do not resemble the Holy Spirit.”

You may have noticed that the politicization of the church in recent years correlates with a decline in church attendance. This is no coincidence. In countries where there is no separation of church and state attendance at worship services tends to be very low. Christianity is the official religion in England as practiced in the Anglican Church, a denomination famous for its empty churches. Indeed, one criticism of the Church of England is that it has become weak and watered down due to political considerations leading one irreverent person to remark, “Thank God for the Church of England. It’s the only thing that stands between us and religion.” The same thing is true of other official churches in European countries, government support is high, church attendance is low. 

From this we can conclude that relationships based on consent are better relationships. Consensual are healthier relationships. Our relationship to our religion  is best when it is consensual, non exploitative, mutual, safe, age appropriate and respectful. This is why Roger Williams founded the state of Rhode Island as a haven for religious freedom.

Williams argued that trying to have one religion for all people was like making one size shoe to fit every foot. Freedom of religion must be for people of all faiths and beliefs. Williams said freedom includes Pagans, Jews, Muslims, Christians and “Antichristian.” Religious freedom includes atheists and unbelievers. He was opposed to religious oaths in courts or for political offices. If you are dishonest in your oath then who will trust your testimony? We must respect what Williams called, “diverse and contrary consciences.” 

Indeed Williams was an anabaptist. Anabaptists argue that conversion should be an adult decision. Infant baptism is forbidden. Parents should not try to impose their religion on their own children. Schools should not try to impose their religion on their students. Religion is an adult decision, made voluntarily, not a decision forced on someone against their will. 

And so today, on the first day of Sunday School for the church year we should remember the words of William Ellery Channing, the founder of American Unitarianism who said, 

“The great end in religious instruction is not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own;

Not to make them see with our eyes, but to look inquiringly and steadily with their own;…

Not to impose religion upon them in the form of arbitrary rules, but to awaken the conscience, the moral discernment.

In a word, the great end is to awaken the soul, to excite and cherish spiritual life.” 

So let me try to draw things to a close by opening up a can of worms. I know someone might leave here today saying, “Hey our minister lit a bomb in the last minutes of the sermon, said Amen and ran for the exit.” 

Today our church is in the middle of a debate over the meaning of a face mask. Is it an imposition, a burden, a restriction on personal autonomy, oppression? Or is it a symbol of shared ministry, a reminder that the health and well-being of the congregation is not just the responsibility of the clergy alone or the staff alone or the board of trustees alone or the individual alone but of the whole community. We’ve got people making both arguments right now. And our challenge is to make a decision together to which we can all give our consent. That my friends is no easy task. But in the Unitarian Universalist Church we do hard things. 

Our goal is not to impose our religion on others. Our goal is to respect people’s boundaries. Our goal is good health in both sexuality and spirituality. Our goal is to respect the sovereignty of all bodies and sovereignty of all souls. And to that goal we can all say, “Amen.” 

(The Reverend Chris Buice gave this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, August 21, 2022)

All The Water We Will Ever Need Is Underneath Our Feet

My old seminary professor, Tom Mullen, used to tell his students, “Preaching a sermon is like drilling for oil. If you haven’t struck oil in 20 minutes, stop boring.” 

This is excellent advice. Many preachers should heed this advice. Even so,  over the years I’ve decided to adapt his image into a more carbon neutral metaphor. I think we preachers should do our part to reduce our greenhouse emissions. So today, I want to suggest that preaching a sermon is like drilling for water. Or to take the complicated machinery out of our metaphor we might say – preaching a sermon is like digging a well. 

The major religions of the West, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, come out of a desert environment where water is scarce. The desert is a place where we have to look for water because it is very hard to find. We look for water because it might not be on the surface. The scriptures of the world’s religions are full of stories of people meeting at wells. These stories remind us that one of the things we all have in common as human beings is thirst. 

The Psalmist put this in spiritual terms when he declared, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.”  When the theologian Paul Tillich was asked about his own personal definition of the word God he offered words that may resonate with you regardless of your personal religious beliefs.  

“The name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God. That depth is what the word means. And if that word has not much meaning for you, translate it and speak of the depths of your life, the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, of what you take seriously without reservation. Perhaps, in order to do so, you must forget everything traditional that you have learned about God, perhaps even the word itself. For if you know that God means depth, you know much…You cannot then call yourself an atheist or unbeliever. For you cannot think or say: Life has no depth! Life itself is shallow. Being itself is surface only. If you could say this in complete seriousness, you would be an atheist but otherwise you are not.” In order for us to be religious we must be in touch with the depths of our being. 

Augustine said there is a God-sized hole in every person. The humanist psychologist Victor Frankl said something similar. He said there is an existential vacuum inside of each person. Both ideas suggest that there is something inside of each one of us that is thirsty for Something More. We thirst for connection. We thirst for meaning. We thirst for purpose and direction. We thirst for justice. As the Beatitudes declare, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be filled.” There is something in our depths that thirsts for Something More. 

In the Unitarian Universalist Church we have room for many different points of view on matters of theology. Theologically speaking our community includes believers and unbelievers, theists, atheists, agnostics and more. The Universalist minister John Murray Atwood used to put it this way, “Some of us have faith in God, some of us have faith in humanity and some of us have faith in both.” However underneath this diversity there is unity because we share a strong conviction that life has depth. We are discontent with the surface level of life. We are impatient with superficiality. We want to live lives that are deep and meaningful. We understand the meaning of life will not be found on the surface of this desert landscape. We want to dig deep. 

I have a friend who is an engineer who volunteers for a non-profit organization that helps remote villages all around the world drill for water. The organization is dedicated to the idea that access to water is a human right. Since the organization was created by engineers it is dedicated to bringing those skills to that vision. The engineers work with local communities, to build the appropriate competencies to be able to dig and maintain the well. Rather than “us” helping “them”, it is about collaborating together for a common goal. 

In many parts of our world people have to walk for miles to get access to clean drinking water and then they have to carry that water miles back to their homes. There is an African proverb that reminds us of how hard that task can be. The proverb tells us, “Once you carry your  own water you will appreciate the value of every drop.” And I might add, “Once you’ve carried your own water for miles and miles you appreciate the value of a nearby well.” 

The mystics of all the great world religions speaking about spirituality tell us that “All the water we will ever need is underneath our feet.” All we have to do is dig the well. And the soil we need to dig in is not outside of ourselves but in our own depths. There is an infinite source of water within us and yet all too often we travel for miles and miles to beg for a cup of water from someone else instead of looking deep within ourselves. The Gnostic gospel of Thomas put it this way, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

In his lifetime Mahatma Gandhi noted that there were villages in India where there was a well for Muslims and another well for Hindus. A Muslim would never dream of drinking from a Hindu well and a Hindu would never dream of drinking from a Muslim well. However, Gandhi was quick to note that both wells tapped into the same water. And that’s what the mystics tell us about all the great world religions, there are many different wells but it is the same water. And the goal of all these religions is to help us dig deeply into the depths of life. 

Of course sometimes it is when we encounter a body of water outside of ourselves that we are reminded of our depths within – an ocean, a river, a lake or a pond. Every so often I travel with  our church youth group on a Boston Heritage trip to learn more about Unitarian Universalist history. One of my favorite stops on that trip is Walden Pond where Henry David Thoreau built a cabin in the woods so that he might practice contemplative living. The contemplative life is an effort to dive below the surface of things. Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal about why he moved to the woods in order to live a life of mindfulness. 

“I wished to ally myself to the powers that rule the universe. I wished to dive into some deep stream of thoughtful and devoted life, which meandered through retired and fertile meadows far from towns. I wished to do again, or for once, things quite congenial to my highest inmost and most sacred nature, to lurk in crystalline thought like the trout under verdurous banks, where stray mankind should only see my bubble come to the surface. I wished to live…to let my life flow in its proper channels, with its proper currents.” 

I love these words because they invite us to live a life that is so deep that all anyone else may see is our bubbles on the surface. This invitation to live deeply is available at all times even when it seems most inconvenient. This past Spring I was hoping to go to Boston for a meeting of the Board of Trustees of Unitarian Universalist Association where I serve as chaplain. However, Covid levels were high there in the spring so the meeting was canceled. But the good news is we do not have to travel to Walden Pond in order to live deep lives. We can live deep lives in our own homes as we drink water from our kitchen sink or turn on the sprinkler to water the garden. We can live deep lives swimming in Fort Dickenson or Mead’s Quarry here in town. We can live deep lives wading in the Little River or jumping off the rock into Midnight Hole on Big Creek. We can live deep lives wherever we find ourselves. And this spiritual way of living will make us richer than any Texas millionaire who struck oil. For ur goal is to tap into Something More, to tap into that Fount of Every Blessing, that wellspring of the joy of living within us, our highest and inmost nature until we get a gusher and we are able to sing with real feeling, “There’s a river flowin’ in my soul. There’s a river flowin’ in my soul. And it’s telling me that I’m somebody. There’s a river flowin’ in my soul.”