The Rational Mind and Its Demons

A funny thing happened to me on the way to a funeral. This is a true story from my teenage years. My family was in the car driving through downtown Macon, Georgia, an urban center with tall office buildings, when I looked out the window and saw a cow in the middle of a side street. I only saw it for a second because our car was moving fast so I said, “I just saw a cow in the middle of the street back there.” And my sister Merrianne said very patiently, “Chris, when people are grieving they sometimes see things that aren’t there.” I didn’t want to make an issue of it as the family had more important things to worry about. After all, we were on the way to a funeral. But the next day when the newspaper came out there was a picture of a cow in the middle of the street on the front page. Apparently, the cow had escaped from the Middle Georgia State Fairground and wandered into the city. Needless to say, I made sure my sister got to see the front page of the newspaper that morning. 

I share this story because today I want to talk about the rational mind and how our sense of rationality may (or may not) help us to be in touch with reality. In elementary school my teacher got us to memorize a poem (and maybe your teacher gave you the same assignment.)

I never saw a purple cow

I never hope to see one

But I can tell you anyhow

I’d rather see than be one. 

Like the poet, I’ve never seen a purple cow. My rational mind convinces me that I am very unlikely to ever see one. Even so, my personal experience has taught me that I just might see an ordinary cow in an extraordinary situation. 

The country music singer Waylon Jennings used to sing a song with the line, “I’ve always been crazy but it’s kept me from going insane.” Indeed, sometimes when we are in touch with reality other people may think we are going crazy. 

Last week I was talking with Morgan Wilson who came by to donate some books for our Used Book Sale. Morgan does not circulate much in public because no mitigation measures are in place or enforced. She has blood cancer and has to be very careful because she is at high risk for blood clots. 

She said to me, “Chris, I am a very rational person. I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in astrology. And yet now when I wear a mask in public people look at me like I’m the Covid Crazy Lady.” She is not alone. 

My wife Suzanne is immunocompromised as is our community minister the Reverend Jon Coffee as is our membership and publicity staff member Mark Mohundro….I could go on and on. Morgan says, “It is hard to be an outlier.” Sometimes being very rational about the scientific laws of epidemiology means other people will think we are crazy. 

When I asked Morgan if I could quote her this morning she said with a smile, “Sure, you can use my name, unless you think the astrologists will come after me :)” And it is true that the Unitarian Universalist Church includes people who do believe in astrology and people who do not, people who believe in God and people who do not. Indeed, when I tell people that I am a minister of such a church they sometimes look at me like I am crazy. 

Our rationality and our sanity are connected but not always in the way we think. Indeed, I have sometimes been known to make the argument that sanity is the last acceptable way to escape reality. Our sanity is often based on limiting the amount of reality that we let into our lives. Have you ever been on a media fast where you turned off the television, radio and computer because 24/7 information about every mass shooting, every earthquake, every bombing, every hurricane, every drone strike, every flood, every hate crime, every pandemic, everything can be more than we can let in and remain sane. We have to screen out parts of reality for our mental health. 

Sometimes our efforts to be rational mean we screen out important parts of ourselves. Once in another church I served, a man came up to me and said in a very passionate way, “Your sermons are too emotional. I want logical sermons. I want rational sermons.” I had to resist the temptation to say, “There’s no reason to get so emotional about it.” Sometimes in our efforts to be rational we forget that there are other dimensions to our human nature. Yes, we are thinking creatures but we are also feeling creatures. 

Rationality is a part of who we are but not all we are. We also should remember the demon possessed man who said to Jesus, “My name is legion for we are many.” Rationality is a part of who we are but we are also legion. In addition to reason we contain what the Buddhists call the afflicted emotions – anger, bitterness, resentment, avarice, jealousy, envy, guilt, fear and hate. If we try to repress these emotions we may erupt and take it out on others. Have you ever known someone who was nice in person but  surprised you with a scathing email or a scorcher of a text message. We are many. It is not enough to have respect for our rational mind. We must respect our rational mind and its demons. 

On more than one level I can really relate to the angry man demanding rational sermons. I too prize reason and rationality. William Ellery Channing, the founder of American Unitarianism, told his congregations in the 19th century that we should no more abandon the use of our minds for thinking than we should abandon the use of our eyes for seeing or our ears for hearing or our feet for walking. Reason and rationality are a part of who we are as human beings and as Unitarian Universalists. So much so that one satirist suggested that when UUs get together on Sunday morning we sing, “Oh, what a friend we have in reason.” 

Of course, sometimes our rationality creates more problems than it solves. As in the rewritten version of an old children’s song. 

If you’re happy and you know it, overthink.

If you’re happy and you know it, overthink.

If you’re happy and you know it, give your brain a chance to blow it. 

If you’re happy and you know it, overthink.

Indeed, our tendency to overthink, our tendency to take rationalism to an extreme is at the heart of many addictions, eating disorders, compulsive behaviors and depression. Psychologists warn us that we must be careful to ensure that our rational brains do not become too efficient, too meticulous, too fastidious and too exacting . Indeed, this is at the heart of the practice of meditation, to quiet the noise of the brain, to quiet our thinking and our overthinking, to rest from the hard work of human thinking in order to become a human being. 

Whenever I look at a painting by Vincent Van Gogh, such as The Starry Night, I am struck by how much the beauty of the art contrasts with the painfulness of the artist’s existence. By many measures, Vincent Van Gogh was not a sane man. He checked himself into an asylum for help. He did not screen out all the horrors of existence but neither did he screen out all the beauty. Many people do not know that during his lifetime he only sold one painting and felt like a failure. He once wrote of himself, 

“What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion. Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me.”

As a Unitarian Universalist I affirm the use of reason and rationality in religion but I also believe we must be very careful to ensure that our rationality does not screen out the harmony and the music in us. I once worked in a mental health program for the chronically mentally ill and there was a man there who could barely communicate with words because of his mental illness but when he sat down at the piano you could hear the harmony and the music in him. 

William Wordsworth once had this to say about his fellow poet William Blake. He wrote, “There is no doubt this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man, which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott!”

What is remarkable about the poetry of William Blake is that it invites us to see the world in a new way. Of course, Blake’s poetry can feel like such an overload of sensory data so much so that we have to screen out parts of it to even begin to understand the whole of it. It was William Blake who taught us that when the doors of perception are cleansed everything will appear to us as it is -infinite. 

He invited us to, 

To see a World in a grain of sand,

And a Heaven in a wild flower,

Hold Infinity it the palm of your hand, 

And Eternity in an hour

He reminded us that “everything that lives is holy” and that “all deities reside in the human breast.” and it is only our “mind forged manacles” that keeps us from seeing life this way. Our mind forged manacles keep us from beauty, truth and love within us and around us. He wrote, 

In your Bosom you bear your Heaven

And Earth, & all you behold, tho it appears Without, it is Within

The angels are not “up there” but “in here.” The demons are not “down there” but “in here.” William Blake was not content to have us look for heaven only in the palm of our own hands, but to look for heaven in the face of a stranger, in the face of the outsider or those of other faiths or in the face of the outlier. He wrote, 

To Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love

All pray in their distress;

And to these virtues of delight

Return their thankfulness…

And all must love the human form

In heathen, Turk or Jew

Where Mercy, Love and Pity dwell

There God is dwelling too. 

In the way society measures sanity a scientist who develops weapons of mass destruction is sane whereas the poet who can see divinity in every living thing is insane. What if the truth is the reverse? What if the poet is closer to reality than the rationalist. The bombs that are being dropped on Ukraine were designed by very rational people.Many other weapons of mass destruction are being designed by very rational people – biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. Should this kind of rationality get the last word? Or should we pay attention to the artists, the poets and the people society calls crazy. 

Which brings me back to the cow in the middle of the road in downtown Macon, Georgia. In Hinduism the cow is considered a sacred animal, an idea that seems irrational to many outside of that faith. Of course, there are 1.2 billion Hindus in the world so the idea cannot be ignored outright by those inclined to do so. 

 All I know is this – I’ve never seen a purple cow (so to some extent my sanity and my rationality are intact) but I have seen an ordinary cow in extraordinary circumstances and I have read poetry that has led me to affirm- that everything that lives is holy. And so I am inclined to be respectful of other people’s truth claims even when they are outside the boundaries of what I can understand with my rational mind. After Shakespeare may have had a point when he wrote, “There may be more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio,  than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” 

(Rev. Chris Buice delivered this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday February 19, 2023) 


One Love

An old professor in seminary once told me, “Chris, nothing makes a congregation more nervous than a minister getting in the pulpit with a ukulele.” Nevertheless, this morning I am willing to take that risk. 

The reason being that we are approaching Valentine’s Day and the mystics of all the great world religions tell us that when we love someone we tap into love that is larger than ourselves – the One Love that Bob Marley sang about. Let’s sing about it too. 

One love, one heart, 

Let’s get together and feel alright. 

One love, one heart, 

Let’s get together and feel alright. 

Valentine’s Day is Tuesday and so it seems appropriate that we reflect on the meaning of love today. Jeff Foxworthy once said, “Some men say they have no idea what their wife wants for Valentine’s Day but I know exactly what my wife wants. She wants me to take down the Christmas Tree.” 

Loving a church is the same way. In a church sometimes love is singing together, celebrating life together and other times it is putting up and taking down the Christmas tree, putting up tables, setting up chairs and cleaning out the refrigerator. 

This Sunday we are launching our stewardship drive which doesn’t always feel like the most romantic thing to do. And yet pledging to a church is an act of love. Earlier in Ted Jones’ Ted Talk he suggested there are four ways of giving. We can think of ourselves as customers or dues payers. Or we can think of ourselves as partners or members of one family. Today I want to invite you to be partners together. I want to invite you to be members of One Family. 

Mother Theresa once said something that is relevant for our stewardship campaign. She said, “It is not about what we do but about how much love we put into doing it.” It is not just about our giving but how much love we put into the giving. 

Now there are some people who think that Unitarian Universalists are rational, logical, scientific and not in touch with our deeper more romantic emotions but I invited friends and members to write love letters to the church and one of the first responses came from Nathan Paki who delegated the assignment to a computer program called Chat GPT a form of artificial intelligence. And here is the love letter the computer wrote for us. 

My dearest Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church

Where do I even begin to express my love for you?.. 

From the moment I first walked through your doors, I felt a sense of belonging and community that I had never experienced before. Your inclusive and accepting spirit …welcoming me with open arms and a loving heart. Your messages of love, hope, and equality….Your commitment to social justice and making a positive impact in the world is truly inspiring…Whether it’s through supporting environmental initiatives, working towards LGBTQ+ rights, or standing up for marginalized communities, you are always at the forefront of the fight for a better world.

Most of all, I love the sense of family that exists among all of us … Whether I’m in need of a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, or a hand to help me up, I know that you will always be there for me. In conclusion, my love for you,…will never wane. I am forever grateful to be a part of this community, and I look forward to continuing to grow and learn with you.

With all my love  (Insert Name Here)

Who knew that an AI program could bring a tear to your eyes. The computer program is surprisingly on point. Can I get an “Amen”? Who knew a computer program could know us so well? Who knew that artificial intelligence could remind us of that Larger Love in which we live and move and have our being. 

One love, one heart, 

Let’s get together and feel alright. 

One love, one heart, 

Let’s get together and feel alright. 

I guess I could end right there but for those who are not content to give the final word to a computer program I will share these words from real living and breathing human beings. 

Trish Adams wrote her thanks for all the church has done for her family surrounding the treatment of her son Chance Adams at Saint Jude’s Children’s hospital and the many trips to East Tennessee Children’s Hospital. Trish wrote, “No one has celebrated with us more than our church family. From day one, all of the very dark days in 2021-2022, and now, our loudest celebrants are TVUUC.” 

Ken Stephenson, the President of our congregation shared these words, “Chris, I love our activists, those who are committed to Justice Work in the wider community. Getting to know and be inspired by these folks is what cemented me to the church over 40 years ago.” Folks, that is the long view. 

Betty Coleman built on that sentiment with these words, “Dear Chris, I love TVUUC because it is a beacon of light and a shelter in the storm, not only to me but to the larger community.”

Barbara Thayer Bacon celebrated the ways our church offers small group opportunities for everyone, “Sending love to the heart-to-heart groups, and those who took the lead in those efforts.  It was a warm, supportive, enriching experience.  I also want to send love to the gardeners in our church, who are bringing beauty to our grounds and teaching us about native plants.Much love, Barbara.” 

Ginna Mashburn conveyed this message to me, “I love the people who make up our church; their intelligence, kindness, humanitarian focus and steadfast support of congregational life. And add a strong sense of humor to all of the above.”  Sue Vaughn seconded those sentiments with her words, “I enjoy my social interactions with UUs. UUs are GOOD people.” 

Judy Gibson wrote, “What I love about TVUUC:The opportunity to build community through many connections – discussions, interest groups, supper groups, sponsored events, and even coffee hours!” 

Love sometimes brings out the poet in us and these words by Patsy Farmer could serve as a very poetic mission statement for our congregation. 

TVUUC, our Beloved Community:

a welcoming sanctuary of love, beauty, and light,

a comforting refuge of darkness, rest, and peace,

an intentional cradle of spiritual growth and exploration,

a caring, accountable dismantler of racism and oppression

in ourselves, our congregation, and the world beyond.

TVUUC – somebody loves you. I love you. I love you when you’re rolling out groceries to our free food pantry. I love you when you’re delivering bags of food to people in need through the FISH program. I love you when you are speaking out for those who cannot speak for themselves.  I love you when you are rallying to do all the work involved with hosting a wedding or a memorial service or an interfaith dinner or youth group lock in. I love you when you are watching our kids on the playground keeping them safe. I love you because this church contains the youngest old people and the wisest young people of any community I know. 

So this morning if you are in the room I invite you to pick up one of these green pledge cards in the hymnal racks and fill out the form. If you are watching online go to our church’s website look in the right hand corner for the words Pledge Now and click on them to make a pledge. The more you give the less we have to talk about money (or simply click on this link Pledge Now (  Remember the more you give the less we have to talk about it. So give generously. 

If you want to know why it is important to give to the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, don’t ask me. Ask your computer. Because even our computers know that the world needs our messages of love, hope and equality. The world needs us to be on the forefront of the fight for a better world. The world needs our inclusive and accepting spirit. The world needs our vision and our voice. Most importantly the world needs our love. 

One love, one heart, 

Let’s get together and feel alright. 

One love, one heart, 

Let’s get together and feel alright.

(This sermon was given by the Reverend Chris Buice on Sunday February 12, 2023, at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church.)