Inviting the Deceased to the Wedding

This time of year it is common in many religious traditions to speak about death whether it be for All Souls, Samhain, the Day of the Dead or some other holy day. 

I think these holy days were created because it isn’t alway easy to speak about death. It isn’t always easy to find the right words to say to someone after they’ve lost a loved one. And so I was particularly moved when I came across this poem recently. 

When You Meet Someone in Deep Grief by Patricia McKernon Runkle 

Slip off your needs

And set them by the door.

Enter barefoot

This darkened chapel

Hollowed by loss

Hallowed by sorrow

Its gray stone walls 

And floor.

You, congregation

of one

Are here to listen

Not to sing.

Kneel in the back pew

Make no sound

Let the candles speak. 

Powerful words. When we lose a loved one, the silent presence of a friend may speak volumes more than platitudes or even well intended words of comfort. And yet occasionally someone does come up with the right words. 

In his poem Things To Do in Providence the poet Ted Berrigan wrote words about death that I believe speak to anyone who has ever lost a loved one. 

The heart stops briefly when someone dies,

A quick pain as you hear the news & someone passes

From your outside life to inside. Slowly the heart


To its new weight, & slowly everything continues,


This poem captures many of the emotions felt by those who have lost someone, the way that time stands still when we get the news, the quick pain that arrives when the news sinks in and the way our relationship to that person passes from our outside life to our inside life. 

Death marks the end of a mortal life but it doesn’t end a relationship. There may still be things that need to be said, words that need to be spoken and experiences that need to be shared. 

Rabbi Naomi Levy, one of my favorite public theologians, tells the story of surprising her fiance by saying, “I want to go to New York so we can invite my father to the wedding.” The statement was a surprise for two reasons, the couple was living in California at the time and the rabbi’s father was no longer living. She explained to her puzzled partner, “It’s a Jewish tradition to invite deceased loved ones to the wedding.” With this explanation her fiance agreed to the trip.

So they took the 7 hour flight to New York City and drove through rush hour traffic toward the New Jersey suburbs until they reached the cemetery where her father was buried. They stood before his grave in silence and then she took a deep breath and said, “Hi, Daddy, this is Rob. I love him. I’m sure that you’re going to love him too. We’re getting married on April fourteenth and we’d like to invite you to the wedding. We hope you can come.” With these simple words a tradition was fulfilled. 

I had never heard of this tradition of inviting the deceased to the wedding until recently, but everything about it feels right. I suspect that ritual does not always include a 7 hour flight or bumper to bumper traffic or even a trip to a cemetery or a visit to a grave. For once those we love have moved from our outside life to our inside life we realize we can invite our loved ones to the wedding wherever we happen to be. Nor should we feel limited to wedding invitations alone. We can issue invitations for any special event. 

For instance, I am inviting my mother of blessed memory to the voting booths this election season. Not literally. I actually voted absentee since I am (to use the language of our state government application for an absentee ballot) a caretaker of a …physically disabled person (this includes voters who care for or reside with persons who have underlying medical or health conditions which…render them more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 or at greater risk should they contract it).

So my invitation to my mother to go to the ballot box is not a literal one. This invitation is not about my outward life. This invitation is about my inner life. My mom cared passionately about democracy, human rights and women’s rights. She cared passionately about the issues confronting us in this election cycle. So it seems appropriate to invite her to be present with me when I vote. 

Of course, the dead cannot vote…legally. However, there is a legend from the first part of the 20th century about Boss Crump in Memphis who invited his aide, Will Gerber, to go with him to a local graveyard so they could get the names of “voters” from the tombstones for the next election. Crump got to one grave where he could not read the name of the deceased. Gerber said to him, “Just put any name down.” Crump disagreed, “No, Willie, you’ve got to have the right name. I want this to be an honest election.” 

So even though the dead cannot vote, their memory can empower us to stay involved and to cast our ballots and advance the causes they cared about and that we continue to care about. Today, I am mindful of some of the members of this congregation who cared about democracy who are no longer living Bee DeSelm, Wade Till, Jack Leflore, Ruth Martin and you could name others. 

Of course, there may be some loved ones we don’t want to invite to the ballot box. Today I am mindful of Ed Goff who used to come to my office on election day just to tell me, “I am going to the ballot box to cancel out your vote.” For the record I never told Ed who I was voting for but he had his suspicions. So I won’t be inviting Ed to the ballot box this year for fear he might somehow find a way to cancel out my vote from the Great Beyond BUT I am inviting him to join us for our potluck picnic after church today. Indeed, if you feel led, feel free to go up to the memorial garden after the service, look at the names on the wall of those who are no longer living and invite them to our homecoming celebration today. 

Last week I participated in a ritual of remembrance for my father. When my father died last year he was cremated and most of his ashes were interred in Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Milledgeville, GA. However, we set some of the ashes aside for other places special to him. Last week my sister Shannon and I  scattered some of his ashes in the Atlantic Ocean at sunrise, marking both the end of his life and the beginning of a new day. My sister drew a heart into the sand. We placed the ashes in the middle of the heart and then we stood back as the tide slowly took him away. 

I had a good visit with my sister and I decided to stay at the beach a couple of days after she left. I wanted to walk on the beach where my father and I once walked together. Over the years our walks got shorter and shorter. At our last visit we simply walked out to the beach and sat down in beach chairs. 

One evening I was sitting on the porch of the condominium where my father and I used to sit watching the ocean. There was an empty chair beside me. Meister Eckhardt once said, “There is nothing in the world so much like God as stillness,” and my father had a special gift for being able to sit still. So sitting still on the porch I could feel his presence as I watched a group of people gathering at the ocean’s edge. At some point I could hear cheers. It took me a minute to realize I was watching an ocean baptism. People were wading into the water, fully clothed, held in the hands of a loving community and fully immersed into the ocean, coming up to the surface to the sound of raucous cheering. The end of an old life and the beginning of a new day. 

My father was an Episcopal minister, but he grew up in the Baptist church. His decision to become an Episcopalian was not universally understood or appreciated by every member of his family of origin. When my Aunt Jenny learned I was a Unitarian she said, “A Unitarian? I thought he was at least Episcopalion.” 

So sitting on the porch with an empty chair beside me watching a baptism in the ocean felt like an appropriate activity to share with my father. And I think this kind of ritual can be appreciated by people of all faiths and beliefs or even non-beliefs. Because I think we all want to feel fully immersed in Something Bigger Than Ourselves. I think we all want to feel a part of Something Larger Than Ourselves. 

Oddly enough, as I watched this ritual a song I associate with my mother came to mind, a feminist song often shared in women’s spirituality circles. 

We all come from the Goddess

And to Her we shall return

Like a drop of rain

Flowing to the ocean

And in the midst of this song welling up within me I also felt another song I associate with my father and my memories of him standing in the role of the priest at the altar in the Episcopal church he loved. 

Praise God from whom all blessings flow

Praise him all creatures here below

Praise him all of ye heavenly hosts

Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost

I think the folks down on the beach would have appreciated the second song more than the first one. Southern Baptists are not exactly known for their deep interest in the goddess or feminist spirituality. 

When my mom died I inherited a picture of my parents on their wedding day. I had mixed feelings about displaying the picture at first because they were divorced. However, now it just looks like two young people in love unaware of how their story might unfold. And I thought of that picture as I remembered those two songs. For it felt like my parents who were divorced in life were reunited in death as  both have passed from my outward life to my inward life. 

When we meet someone in deep grief we would be wise to remain silent. To slip off our needs and set them by the door. To enter barefoot into this darkened sanctuary and let the candles speak. For the person in grief sitting in that chapel with us may already have a companion on the inside and we do not necessarily want to interrupt their still, calm, quiet moment of communion, their sacred moment of togetherness. For death ends a mortal life but it does not end a relationship. For we all come from mystery and to mystery one day we will return like a drop of rain flowing to meet the ocean. So be it. Amen. 


Salvation By Character

In the 19th Century Unitarian ministers would often preach sermons on the theme of Salvation By Character. Salvation by Character was a very popular topic. And at that time a sermon might go on and on for hours and hours. This practice was apparently based on the idea that suffering breeds character. 

Today, I want to speak about salvation hopefully without making any of you suffer inordinately. And when I use the word salvation I want you to know I am using it in the broadest possible sense of the word. For instance, when we feed the hungry, that’s salvation from hunger. When we provide housing to the homeless, that’s salvation from the brutal elements of life. When we work to make healthcare accessible to everyone, that’s salvation from disease. When we make a good education available to everyone, that’s salvation from ignorance. When we address bias, bigotry, racism and homophobia that’s salvation from hatred. In other words, what I am trying to say is, as we celebrate Pride Week, as we wave the rainbow flag, as we apply the glitter, we are engaged in the work of salvation. 

Many people think the word salvation concerns only otherworldly matters. Many think it applies only to the hereafter and not to the here and now. However in the Torah, the first 5 books of the Bible, you will find there is no mention of an afterlife. You will find frequent references to salvation. In the Torah salvation is not about heaven and hell. Salvation is about moving from slavery in Egypt toward the promised land where there is freedom. In other words, to apply that idea to today, when we work against oppression of any kind we are doing the work of salvation. 

In 1885 the Unitarian minister James Freeman Clarke wrote up a document that he called The Five Points of the New Theology. Although the language may seem somewhat antiquated today steeped in the patriarchal assumptions of the time let me share those 5 points with you. He wrote that Unitarians believe in…

The Fatherhood of God

The Brotherhood of Man

The Leadership of Jesus

Salvation By Character

Progress of Mankind Onward and Upward Forever

In the year 2022 if we were to write up a document called the Five Points of the New Theology it would sound different. Indeed James Freeman Clarke believed in progressive revelation, that every generation would form their own thoughts in their own words and  remain open to new insights and “ever higher conceptions of God and of religious truth.” 

Indeed, he felt that the role of the liberal church was to facilitate this process of progressive revelation. He wrote, “The union of many minds in the earnest investigation of truth, will produce deeper and broader results, than the solitary efforts of any individual mind, no matter how superior…the only way in which every side of truth can be seen, is in the combined investigations of many different intellects. The varied tendencies of thought, their diverse experience, modify and correct all individual onesidedness and eccentricity.” This was his hope for the liberal church in his time and it is at the heart of why I love the Unitarian Universalist Church today, the openness to a variety of perspectives. 

So Clarke’s 5 Points of the New Theology are written in the language of the liberal Christianity of the 1800’s, however, he also wrote one of the first books of comparative religion, a book called Ten Great Religions where he explored Judaism, Islam, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, ancient Greek and Eqyptian religions. So for our purposes today, I am not going to focus on all 5 points. Instead I want to pluck one item from this list of 5 – salvation by character. And to begin with I want to use the words of James Freeman Clarke to explain exactly what he meant by that term. We can use his words as our springboard for reflecting on what that term might mean today. 

Clarke wrote, “Salvation means the highest peace and joy of which the soul is capable. It means heaven here and heaven hereafter. This salvation has been explained as something outside of us, – some outward gift, some outward condition, place or circumstance. We speak of going to heaven, as if we could be made happy solely by being put in a happy place. But the true heaven, the only heaven Jesus ever knew, is a state of the soul. The poor in spirit already possess the kingdom of heaven. The pure in heart already see God.” He argued that once we identify goodness with heaven we make character the essence of salvation. In other words, the work of salvation is not about getting people into heaven. The work of salvation is about getting heaven into people. 

James Freeman Clarke’s words take on a special meaning in the midst of the High Holy Days of the Jewish Calendar. Recently I picked up a book from one of my favorite public theologians, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. The book is called The Ten Commandments of Character: Essential Advice for Living an Honorable, Ethical and Honest Life. In that book the rabbi writes,

“If you ask people what they most want from others, they will usually answer, ‘good character’…but if you ask people what they want most for themselves, they will answer, ‘to be happy and successful’…But what people don’t generally realize…is that achieving the good things in life, such as happiness, success and loving relationships, depends on us developing in ourselves what we most want from others – good character.” 

To illustrate his point he lifts up the virtue of gratitude. One reason to practice gratitude is because it is a virtue and because we aspire to be virtuous people. That’s one reason but another reason is because ungrateful people tend to be unhappy people. Ungrateful people tend to be easily irritated, bitter, miserable, resentful, and angry. When we hear someone described as an ingrate we do not assume this is the description of a happy person. The word ingrate doesn’t carry with it the sense of peace, serenity or equanimity. 

So we have at least three options

  1.  We can practice gratitude because it is a virtue and we want to be virtuous people. 
  2. We can practice gratitude because we hope by being grateful we will be rewarded when we get to heaven. 
  3. We can practice gratitude because it helps us to appreciate the beauty all around us, the wonder of existence, the miracle of life itself. 

In 1805 the Universalists adopted the Winchester Profession as an affirmation of faith in which they declared, “We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.” Once again, some old language from another century, but it points us toward the experience that spiritual living is not about making ourselves miserable. Spiritual living is not about self-flagellation. Spiritual living is not about being melancholy and morose. Spiritual living is about happiness. Spiritual living is about salvation by character. 

With the idea that good character leads to happiness and holiness (or wholeness) Rabbi Telushkin offers thes 10 Commandments of Character. 

  1. Know your weaknesses. 
  2. When ethics and other values conflict, choose ethics.
  3. Treat all people with kindness, and with the understanding that they, like you, are made in God’s image.
  4. Be fair.
  5. Be courageous.
  6. Be honest.
  7. Be grateful.
  8. Practice self-control. 
  9. Exercise common sense.
  10. Admit when you have done wrong, seek forgiveness, and don’t rationalize bad behavior. 

I offer this list as one example of some ideas about how to foster good character. There are others. A few weeks ago we had a memorial service for a member of the church Kim Haynes and afterwards many of her friends came up to talk to me who knew her from the Rotary Club. It was in the midst of those conversations that I was reminded of the Four Way Test every Rotarian is asked to give themselves. The Four Way Test tells us that before we speak we should ask ourselves the following questions. 

  1. Is it the truth?
  2. Is it fair to all concerned?
  3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
  4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

I mention this test not because I ever heard Kim talk about it but because I saw her practice it. And I do believe that the respect and care she showed other people was key to what made her a happy person. She lived a life that built goodwill and friendships. When I went to see her in her hospital room in the last week of her life she told me, “I am at peace.” 

Now Kim did not believe in life after death. She told me that she expected death to be a long dreamless sleep. When people asked her what she thought life after death was going to be like she said, “Like 1847.” In other words, she had no idea. We come from mystery and we return to mystery. Any existence we have after death will be like our existence before we were born. Or as Shakespeare said, ‘We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.’ 

Kim did not believe in life after death, nevertheless she was at peace. James Freeman Clarke did believe in life after death. Rabbi Teluskin doesn’t go on the record either way as belief in life after death is not central to Judaism. And yet all three speak to us about the importance of character. 

I once had a guest speaker come to the church I served in Spartanburg SC to talk about Taoism. Unlike Western concepts of God the Tao is an intangible concept of Ultimate Reality, an ineffable mystery. As the Tao Te Ching says,  “Those who know don’t say. Those who say don’t know.”  And yet our Taoist guest (whose name is lost to my memory) described her beliefs by saying, “If we find the Tao today we can die in peace tomorrow,” and she added, “This is not something we can say about everything. We can’t say, ‘If I  win a million dollars in  the lottery today I can die in peace tomorrow.’ We can’t say that.  Or ‘If I buy tickets for a great vacation today I can die in peace tomorrow.’ In this sense I think the idea of the Tao is akin to this idea of character. If we experience it today, we can die in peace tomorrow. 

The Reverend Jesse Jackson is fond of saying, “Suffering breeds character. Character breeds faith. And in the end, faith will not disappoint.” However, I am also mindful of the story Reid Franks tells of leading a Girl Scout troop on a rainy, wet, nasty, muddy hike when all of a sudden one of the girls shook her fist at heaven and shouted, “Enough character already.” And so unlike the Unitarian ministers of the 19th century I will bring this sermon to a close in a timely manner so that we can go out into the world and combat oppression in all of its varied forms. So that we can feed the hungry, give shelter to the homeless, provide care for the sick, bring knowledge and education to the world and to wave the Rainbow Flag – for this is the work of salvation. (This sermon was given at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, October 2, 2022 by the Rev. Chris Buice.) 



Gentleness and the Law of the Jungle

Henry David Thoreau spoke for many of us when he wrote, “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.” In his journal he included these words,  “Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness.” In Knoxville we are fortunate to live in close proximity to so many beautiful places that allow us to enjoy this tonic of wildness. 

During the worst part of the pandemic the Great Smoky Mountain National Park began a new practice of closing the Cades Cove loop road to cars on Wednesdays and opening it up for hikers and bikers. The results seem to confirm that unwritten rule, “When the automobiles are away the wildlife will play.”

This summer I made it a practice to take Wednesdays off whenever I could. The loop road is a gorgeous route through an Appalachian mountain valley of forests and farmland. Although the loop road stays the same, the wildlife experience is constantly changing. One week I found myself standing among a family of deer on the trail up the John Oliver Cabin. On another occasion I found myself watching a family of otters playing in the creek by the path to Abram’s Falls. Another time I watched a coyote saunter across an open field. Once during a picnic lunch a snake decided to swim by close enough to get a peek at my meal. I’ve never seen a skunk in Cades Cove but I have smelled one. I’ve seen a fox peek up from the tall grass in a meadow. I’ve seen a wide variety of different birds and butterflies. I’ve come across a mama boar and her piglets. And I have encountered many bears, some I have seen from a distance and some were rather too close for my comfort. 

Indeed, I’ve encountered bears so frequently that I no longer think of it as an unusual thing. It feels more like seeing an old relative. There are even Cherokee legends that suggest the boundary between humans and bears may be a thin one. There are legends of bears who have become people and there are other stories about people who have become bears. These stories drive home a belief shared by many indigenous people – that all creatures of the earth and sky are our relatives, the two legged, the four legged, the feathered and the finned. Sometimes old stories shed light on current scientific evidence, the ancient legends reaffirm what contemporary science teaches that bears and humans share 92% of the same DNA. We are relatives. 

I have had many different kinds of encounters with bears over the years. I have watched mama bears and baby bears interacting with each other from a distance. On a less safe note, I once accidentally walked under a tree limb where a bear was sleeping. It was only when another hiker suggested  I look back  behind me that I realized how stupid I’d been. I once turned a corner and encountered a bear walking toward me on a fairly narrow trail and it took me a minute to remember that I needed to clap to encourage the bear to head up the mountain in another direction without me. Fortunately, a strong clap was all it took. 

Respecting bears is about respecting wildness. We may be relatives but we should remain distant relatives, respecting each other’s boundaries. Clapping your hands to scare a bear is good for the relationship. Bears that fear humans are healthier bears and humans that fear bears are healthier humans. 

In ancient Greek tradition Artemis is the goddess of wildness. Artemis is associated with bears but also lionesses, wild horses, rabbits and other forms of wildlife. Artemis is the goddess of everything wild, undomesticated and untamed; the goddess of everything that does not want to be caged or dominated or controlled. Artemis is the life energy that will bolt from every barn, jump over every fence, refuse every bridle or leash.The goddess Artemis herself is immune to love, she spurns all lovers  and swoops in to protect any woman who is on the receiving end of unwanted advances. She cannot be domesticated. Artemis is the tonic of fierce wildness. 

My son Christopher and his wife Amber have a cat named Artemis and she lives into the full meaning of that name. Artemis lives in their house and in their yard on her own terms. Artemis was there before Christopher met Amber. She was there before they had children and Artemis knows it. My grandchildren must adjust to Artemis’ way of life more than the other way round. She is as undomesticated as a domestic animal can be. The relationship has something of the tonic of wildness to it. 

Of course, one of the benefits of being in a relationship with wilder animals is it helps us to realize the wildness in ourselves. China Galland, an organizer for Women in the Wilderness writes, “Going into the wilderness involves the wilderness within us all. This may be the deepest value of such an experience, the recognition of our kinship with the natural world.” And as we seek a closer relationship with our four legged, feathered and finned kindred we can benefit from the wisdom of all who have helped blaze that path for us. 

Rabbi Naomi Levy once did an interview with such a trailblazer for the Jewish Journal. She interviewed Alan Rabinowitz who is a zoologist who has created wildlife sanctuaries around the world for tigers, jaguars and other big cats. Alan’s interest in animals began when he was a small child with a speech impediment. His inability to communicate with other people was instrumental for him forming bonds with other animals. When he spoke to people he stuttered but when he spoke to animals he had no such difficulty. He grew up in New York so he had urban pets as a child, a turtle, a hamster and a chameleon. Speaking to his pets he told them, “You’re just like me; you can think, you have feelings, but you don’t have voices…If I ever find my voice and stop stuttering, I will be your voice.” 

Alan’s parents were frustrated by their inability to find a cure for his speech impediment but they also noticed the places where he felt most at home. One of those places was at the Bronx Zoo in the house for the Great Cats Exhibit. At that time the big cats were kept in cages in a concrete building. The atmosphere was more like a prison house for wild animals than anything else. Alan said, “The place emanated with energy and power but it was a locked up power. All that energy was being held captive and begging to be released.” Alan empathized with the animals and indeed he felt like he shared that same energy. He made a promise to those big cats. He said, “I’ll find a place for us. I’ll find a place for us.” 

Over time Alan was able to overcome his stutter but once he learned how to speak to other people he found that , “Most people did not have anything to say.” He also contends that most communication is non verbal among people. He says of people, “I can hear them loudest when they are not talking.” 

And so even after he conquered his speech impediment he continued to feel a special bond with other animals. As an adult he became a zoologist and helped to found a tiger reserve in Burma that is over 9,000 square miles, which is about the size of the state of Vermont. He also helped to found the first jaguar sanctuary in the world in Belize. He has become an internationally recognized spokesman for wildlife. He kept his promise to the animals. He has become their voice. 

In the midst of their interview Rabbi Levy suggested to Alan that his Jewish heritage may have also been an influence on him. After all, Moses was a stutterer and just as “Moses freed the Jews, Alan freed the tigers.” Alan responded by saying, “Naomi, stuttering gave me my life. It was a gift. I am so grateful to have been born a stutterer, because that’s how I got where I am. Of course, it isn’t a gift I would wish on anybody. But just the same, everything I am today comes from stuttering, which led to my bond with animals, my love of nature, my drive to prove myself to the world.” 

Alan’s story reminds us of how we can all benefit from cultivating a relationship to the wildlife all around us. In my own backyard I sometimes see coyotes. Racoons and opossums have been known to come up to our back porch to steal some cat food that we leave out for some of our feral friends. And every so often a bear makes its way into downtown Knoxville, which is to say that the boundary between human “civilization” and wildlife is permeable. 

It is my belief that everyone of us, has within us tremendous energy and power that is locked up inside us and needs to be unleashed. We all have something in us that is like a big cat in a small cage. We have energy inside us that needs to be set free. Our relationship to this energy is not without its complications. There is a tension between our desire to be “civilized” human beings living in harmony with other human beings in society and our desire to unleash this power. 

Indeed, Henry David Thoreau felt this tension within himself. Thoreau’s ideas of “civilization” included a strong inclination toward vegetarianism. He never fully actualized this ideal. Using today’s language we might describe him as a “reduce-atarian” rather than a vegetarian. However, even with his inclination toward nonviolence and his empathy with wildlife he said that living in the woods also brought out his hunting instincts. He felt the impulse of many wild animals to hunt for his own food. He wrote in his journal, “I found in myself, and still find, an instinct toward a higher, or, as it is named, spiritual life…and another toward a primitive, rank and savage one, and I reverence them both. I love the wild, not less than the good.”

Thoreau’s comments tap into a Cherokee practice of honoring “two truths.” If you ask a member of the Cherokee tribe, “Do you believe in the scientific theory of the origins of life or in the traditional myths and legends?” A Cherokee might respond, “I believe in two truths.” Similarly we can believe two truths about ourselves. That we have both the energy of the wilderness in us and the energy for community in us. We can honor “two truths” and revere them both. We can honor the wild in us as well as the good. 

Honoring the wild in us plays an important part of the Unitarian Universalist ministry. Although we sometimes call our ministers pastors and refer to our work as pastoral care, being a  Unitarian Universalist minister is more like being a wildlife preservationist. We’ve got lots of different kinds of critters in our church. And it is the job of a UU minister to try to create the kind of habitat where all God’s critters can thrive. Indeed, Henry David Thoreau grew up in a Unitarian church but he ultimately bolted from that 19th century church barn. Our challenge is to build a more inclusive church now than he experienced then.  If you follow me on social media and ever wondered why I spend so much time in the forests and the mountains it is because I am always meditating on how to be a good UU minister, a good wildlife preservationist. 

If you ever hike up to the top of Clingmans Dome in the Smokies you may notice a plaque that includes a Cherokee legend. According to tradition there is a secret lake hidden somewhere in the middle of the Smokies. Human beings cannot see this lake. It is invisible to humans, unless they have prepared themselves with much prayer and fasting. The lake is called Ataga’hi and it is the place where animals go to heal from their wounds. If a bear or another animal is ever injured by a hunter (or wounded in a fight with another animal) then they will travel to this lake. The animal will walk into cool refreshing waters, swim to the other side of the lake and emerge from the water completely healed of all wounds. 

Is the story true? Well, I think it speaks to a truth, that we all long for healing and wholeness. In this interdependent web of existence of which we are all apart we know that we animals are close kin with each other. We need each other. If we take the competition for survival too far and we win then we will ultimately lose. What befalls the creatures of the earth befalls the people of the earth. 

And that’s why many times when we encounter a bear on a trail it may feel like we are relatives or even like members of the same church. For a moment we dwell together in a wet forest cathedral and we know on some deep level that if the winds of extinction blow for one of us then ultimately they will blow us all away. And for that reason we can only hope and pray and fast that one day we may see that secret lake that holds out the promise of healing for all of us. So next time we go for a walk in the woods let’s keep our eye out for that secret lake, however, let’s also do our part to preserve and protect and defend wildlife in more tangible and measurable ways. Let’s exercise the option to believe in two truths, the mythic and the practical. For in wildness is the preservation of the world.

(This sermon was shared by the Rev. Chris Buice on Sunday October 9, 2022, at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church.)