When Everything Isn’t Enough

When I was in college I decided two things. I decided I did not want to be rich or famous. The impressive thing is I’ve been able to achieve both goals at a relatively young age. You might say I am the Bill Gates of underachievers, the Oprah of obscurity, the Adele of anonymity, the Steve Jobs of simplicity. Or you could just say I “nailed it.”

Of course, I am only 55 years old so there is still time for me to blow it. However, at present I seem to be on track to avoid both wealth and fame. And according to Rabbi Harold Kushner that’s a good thing. In his book When Everything You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough he reminds us “Our souls are not hungry for fame, comfort, wealth or power. Those rewards create almost as many problems as they solve. Our souls are hungry for meaning, for the sense that we have figured out how to live so that our lives matter, so that the world will be at least a little different for our having passed through it.”

Of course, in the eyes of much of the world the non-materialistic person is a failure. We give homage to spirituality. We remind each other that “Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” We quote the scripture, “Do not store up your treasures on earth, where moths destroy and thieves break in and steal.” And yet one of the fastest growing industries in America is storage space.

Just the other day I noticed a new self-storage business in West Knoxville that is four stories tall, a veritable high rise of storage. It looks like our clutter is moving on up in the world. Economists estimate that there is 2.3 billion square feet of self-storage space in our country creating a 38 billion dollar industry.

We are in the midst of the holiday season when gift giving is the order of the day. I believe it is no coincidence that the four story self storage business is right across the street from West Town Mall where the parking lots are full and the streets jammed with traffic because of holiday shopping and people are buying more things that may end up in storage.

Of course, you don’t even have to go to the mall to accumulate possessions anymore. All we have to do is click. However we shop, we have to admit that it is a time of year when it can be tempting to store up our treasures on earth.

Many years ago, I taught a class on Buddhism here at the church and I pointed out that the Buddha stated that it is our desires are what make us miserable. I often say that if you doubt our desires make us miserable all you have to do is take a small child to a Toys R Us store and ask yourself, “Is this child happier than they were before?” Anyone who has witnessed a meltdown on aisle three knows the answer to that question. Such moments are a very dramatic example of the ways our desires can make us miserable. Of course, I believe Toys R Us isn’t even a box store anymore. It’s an on-line business. And this should make us think. How much time do our children and youth spend on-line these days? Is all that time leading to more or less happiness?

Speaking of on-line shopping. By now everyone on earth has heard of the show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo and we are all familiar with her advise that we should go through our homes, pick up things and ask ourselves the question, “Does it spark joy?” If it does we should keep it. If it does not we should let it go in order to simplify our lives.

Of course, paradoxically, Marie Kondo now has her own on-line store so that you can buy more stuff. Her website says, “The goal of tidying is to make room for meaningful objects, people and experiences. I can think of no greater happiness in life than being surrounded only by the things I love.” Hmmmmmm, well this may be true, but if we are not carefully even the most meaningful objects might end up in a storage unit.

The proverb tells us, “Money can’t buy happiness.” However, the link between the spiritual world and the material world is not that simple. Those who make less that $10,000 a year report the highest levels of depression in our country. However, those who earn more than $80,000 report more depression than those who make between $30,000-$39,000. How do we account for that? I don’t know for certain – but I do have a theory. Perhaps it is because when we are poor we are depressed because we can’t have anything we want. Whereas when we are wealthier we are depressed because we cannot have everything we want.

To use my Toys R Us metaphor – If we can’t afford to go to the toy store we may be miserable but if we can go to the toy store and we can make it to aisle three then we may be miserable for entirely different reasons.

The Tao Te Ching says that a society where people value owning a lot of possessions will be a society with a lot of burglaries, theft and crime. A society where there is a lot of conspicuous consumption will be a place where there is very little peace.

Greed

When the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association was in Long Beach, CA, I discovered I could take the Metro Rail to Hollywood. On that Metro Line there were moments when I was the only white person in the car as we traveled through neighborhoods of every income level from the poorest of the poor to the richest of the rich. The closer we got to the wealth the more white people there were on the train. By the time I got to Hollywood I understood why Los Angeles periodically erupts in rioting.

Mahatma Gandhi was a religious leader but he said it is wrong to talk about religion to the hungry, “To the poor God can only appear as bread.” To the homeless God can only appear as shelter and warmth. When it comes to basic necessities, food, water, shelter, we need to get some basic requirements met before we can contemplate the more spiritual dimensions of living.

And yet once these basic requirements are met we may begin to hunger for meaning, thirst for purpose, seek the warmth of a spiritual community, a church, a synagogue, a mosque.

Western countries that have doubled or tripled their wealth over the last 50 years have not doubled or tripled their level of happiness. As living standards increase expectations change, new desires emerge and other options open up. So living standards improve but happiness rates remain relatively flat.

If the Unitarian Universalist church has a patron saint of simplicity it is Henry David Thoreau, who grew up in a Unitarian church but chose to live the life of a hermit on the shores of Walden Pond for a period of his life, building his own home, living close to nature, spending less time earning a living and more time on life. When our youth group goes on its Boston Heritage Trip we always take a pilgrimage to Walden Pond.

Here are some things Henry David Thoreau had to say about material possessions, “Superfluous wealth can buy only superfluities. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.””Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity, I say let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumbnail.” “Most luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensible, but positive hindrances to the elevation of (hu)mankind. The ancient philosophers, Chinese, Hindoo, Persian and Greek, were a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich in inward.”

Of course, one of the reasons Thoreau could lead such a simple life is because he was single. He did not have a brood of children looking forward to a visit from Santa Claus. If he ever did have kids I’d hate to think how disappointed they would be on Christmas morning.

Christmas has even influenced Judaism to be more materialistic this time of year. Any rabbi will tell you that Chanukah isn’t even a very important holiday on the Jewish calendar. However, every Jewish parent will tell you that you need something special this time of year to compete with Christmas. That’s how we got presents for Chanukah. It’s like the comedian Adam Sandler sings,

“Hanukkah is
The Festival of Lights
Instead of one day of presents
We have eight crazy nights!”

Our culture encourages consumerism this time of year, for this reason I decided to schedule this sermon after the church auction. So whatever our religious beliefs this is a challenging time of year to focus on the spiritual more than the material.

If you’re a single man living alone in a hut by a remote pond more power to you. However, the rest of us are going to have to struggle a little harder to find simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! None of us is perfect when it comes to simplicity. For instance why did Thoreau write “simplicity” three times? Wouldn’t it have been simpler to write in once? However, Thoreau is correct that the pursuit of outward riches should never distract us from the discovery of inward ones.

Jonathan Haidt is a psychology professor at the University of Virginia who studies human happiness. In his book The Happiness Hypothesis he writes, “Buddhism and Stoicism teach that striving after external goods is always striving after the wind. Happiness can only be found within, by breaking attachments to external things and cultivating an attitude of acceptance.” “…striving to obtain goods and goals in the external world cannot bring you more than momentary happiness. You must work on your internal world….people today devote themselves to the pursuit of goals that won’t make them happier, in the process neglecting the sort of inner growth and spiritual development that could bring lasting satisfaction.”

Many years ago I took my kids on a science field trip with Spartanburg, South Carolina’s answer to Bill Nye the Science Guy. Mr. Green was his name, and he was the head of the local science center. We took a group of kids on a hike in search of a beaver dam. One of the kids seemed particularly excited as we walked but when we got to the beaver dam he had the equivalent of a meltdown on aisle three. The kid cried out, “I thought we were going to see a beaver lodge!” Without skipping a beat Mr. Green pointed to me and said to the kid, “Do you see this man?” Needless to say I felt put on the spot but M. Green continued, “This man has studied philosophy and all of philosophy can be summed up in one sentence – if you don’t have it appreciate what you do have.”

Mr. Green made a very important point. While it might not be a summary of all of philosophy, it was a good condensing of one of the key points of Buddhist and Stoic philosophy, “If you don’t have it, appreciate what you do have.” Another philosopher summarized it by saying, “Want what you have. Do what you can. Be who you are.”

So in conclusion let me say, I may not be Bill Gates. I may not be Oprah or Adele or Steve Jobs or Bono or Lady Gaga, nevertheless, I can want what I have, do what I can and be who I am and so can you. Nothing more can be required of us. If we do this much then we can say we nailed it.

(Rev. Chris Buice gave this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, December 14, 2020)

 

 

 

 

 

 

All Will Be Well (or Will It?)

The medieval mystic Julian of Norwich offered us words of comfort that have come down through the ages when she wrote, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’

These are soothing words, the kind of words we use to reassure children when we tuck them into bed at night. For similar reasons we may use these same words to reassure our selves when we are facing challenging circumstances.

Paradoxically, telling ourselves “All shall be well,” may be most helpful in those moments when we feel like all is not well; when a good outcome is not inevitable, when the worst case scenario seems plausible, when everything is falling apart and nothing is going right.

A pure rationalist will want to discount these words. After all how can you prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that all shall be well? To assert, “All shall be well,” is not a very rational thing to do. To say “All shall be well” is to make a statement of faith not fact.

I have a friend who grew up in a Unitarian church in California. She once told a theology school professor about a conversation she had with her father when she was a little girl. The two were watching the sun go down over the Pacific Ocean when she asked, “Will the sun go down every night?” and her father responded, “Well thus far it has gone down every night so it is pretty safe to assume it will continue to do so.” Alice’s professor chimed in, “You’ve just told me a lot about your (Unitarian) faith.”

Yes, Unitarians are different. Of course, a pure rationalist will want to point out that the sun does not actually go down at night. The sun does not rise or set. It is the earth that is turning. So Alice’s father could have just as easily said, “No Alice the sun will not go down at night every night but it is pretty safe to assume that earth will continue rotating on it’s axis.”

I mention this story because we are in that time of year when days are getting shorter and nights are getting longer and there is some evidence that this change caused early human beings a lot of anxiety. When Elton John wrote the song, “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” he was giving voice to a very ancient fear. For this reason, human beings came up with rituals to mark the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, rituals that serve as a reminder that the sun will not go away forever; that we do not live in an arbitrary universe. There are cycles and seasons. Marking such occasions can be our way of telling our selves ““all shall be well.”

Quotation-Julian-of-Norwich-All-shall-be-well-and-all-shall-be-well-and-35-82-04

In other words, the neo-lithic standing stones of Avesbury, Carnac and Stonehenge or the Mayan pyramids of Central America and other monuments throughout the world serve as a sort of comfort to human beings in the midst of a world that is constantly turning and rotating around the sun.

I recently saw a segment from a late night comedy show that really drove home what is wrong with the world today. The host Jimmy Kimmel told his studio audience that the United Nations had released a report that millions of species are in danger of extinction so he decided to send a reporter out on the streets to ask people the question, “Are the homo sapiens worth saving?” A surprising number of people didn’t think so. As one person answered, “ I don’t know what a homo sapien is. If they are going extinct it is very sad. But at the end of the day I don’t care.” Another person suggested our money might be better spent improving the highways and the railroads rather than saving the “homo sapiens.” Another seemed particularly hostile saying, “Homo sapiens, let them die. Save the humans.”

Well that television segment goes a long way toward illustrating the problems we are facing as a species since “homo sapiens” is just another word for human beings. I am reminded of the words of Rabbi Hillel, “If we are not for ourselves who will be?”

Anthropologists have noted that one of the things that make homo sapiens different from other species is our use of ritual. We are ritual creating animals. Many of these rituals involve the mysteries of birth and death or the cycles of the seasons. As the philosopher Immaneul Kant once observed, “Two things fill me with breathless awe-the starry night above and the moral law within.” Rituals are a way to align our inner lives with the outward universe creating a sense of order from what might otherwise feel like chaos.

During the recent celebration of the Hindu festival of lights, Diwali, my friend Bhavna Vora posted these words on her Facebook page, “I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness for it shows me the stars.”

She is touching on a theme that can be found is Diwali but also in Chanukah or Saint Lucia day or Kwaanza or Advent or Christmas or the Winter Solstice. This is a time of year when we participate in rituals that celebrate light in a time of darkness. I hate to admit it but even the tackiest display of holiday lights tends to cheer me up. I remember there was one house where the light show created the image of Santa being shot from a canon into a chimney. It was tacky but it did cheer me up.

The kinds of rituals may have been created to address anxiety; fears that the sun would go down forever and that light might never return. However, the rituals also help in response to depression. For this is the time of seasonal affective disorder or S.A.D. when the absence of light can lead people to feel down and depressed. Indeed medical science has show that there is a very close link between longer periods of darkness and anxiety and depression. So we are in the midst of a season of rituals that help us adjust to the changes in the world around us.

When I was in college my friend Kahin used to throw parties in the middle of winter and Bob Marley was always a big part of the soundtrack and we would all join in singing, “Don’t worry about a thing, ‘cause every little thing is going to be all right.” Friends that’s the reggae version of Julian Norwich’s “All shall be well.”

During the cold winter months it can be tempting to isolate and hibernate. The problem is isolation tends to deepen depression. One of the ways to combat depression is to circulate and socialize. So going to a party or an open house can be such a ritual.

Of course, sometimes the party comes to us in the form of Christmas carolers who knock on our door and put on an impromptu concert. I recognize that in a multi-cultural society Christmas carolers might cause offense if you are Jewish or Muslim or humanist or something else. But in my experience Christmas caroling is not about converting people so much as an effort to brighten someone’s long winter night. It’s less about theology and more about community. A Bob Marley song on our doorstep might have the same effect. It can be a way for strangers to reach out to each other in a season of depression and say, “Don’t worry, every little thing is gonna be alright.” “All shall be well.”

The Sermon the Mount tells us not to worry about a thing; to be like the lilies of the field. This is easier said than done. The problem is we are not lilies of the field. We are homo sapiens. So we may need a different strategy than flowers.

The Dalai Lama of Tibet offers us a more human strategy to combat worries. He reminds us that worrying about a problem does not really address the problem. If we can do something about the problem then we should do it and stop worrying about it. If we cannot do anything about it then we should stop worrying because no amount of worry will do any good.

Of course, in the reading I shared earlier Rosemary Bray McNatt reminds us that some of us worry more than others for good reason. Some of us are more vulnerable than others in an age when it is not abundantly clear that black lives matter. In many ways, worrying is a very logical and rational thing to do based on the evidence. To tell someone else, “Don’t worry” can come across as a very privileged position. So the Sermon on the Mount says don’t worry and Rosemary Bray McNatt says it’s okay to worry and that paradox will not be resolved by this sermon this morning.

Even so, I am reminded of spiritual writer Corrie Ten Boom who belonged to a family in the Netherlands that helped harbor Jews from the Nazi Holocaust. So needless to say her childhood was not anxiety free. Nevertheless she said, “Worrying is carrying tomorrow’s load with today’s strength- carrying two days at once.” To use the language of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 Step programs when it comes to worrying we need to take things one day at a time, to use today’s strength for today.

This winter has been a season of loss for us here at this church. This week there was death close the congregation. Rick Wise, the former spouse of our church administrator Claudia Pressley, died, the father of Arman and Kimmie. On Tuesday Claudia told me that on the week before Rick died one of his friends took it upon herself to decorate his home for the holidays, bringing some Christmas lights into a time of darkness. This ritual might not work for everyone. Bob Porter, of blessed memory, hated Christmas. However, the decorations worked for Rick. Personally, I got a little teary eyed as Claudia was telling me the story because I realized it would work for me under similar circumstances. In a season of darkness it is good to feel surrounded by love and light. We homo sapiens need rituals when we are coming into the world and when we are leaving, rituals of comfort.

This week my sister reminded me that it had been 13 years since our mother died. When my mom was dying my siblings and I warned her that we were going to read all her journals after she died. That gave her time to burn any incriminating evidence.

And so after her death I found myself reading her words in her journal about the day I was born. My birth was not an easy birth. I got the umbilical chord wrapped around my neck. I was at risk of strangulation and so they had to do a cesarean section. So for the rest of her life my mom had a scar on her body where I came into the world. In her diary I read about her fears and anxieties on the day I was born. I also read the words she repeated to herself to give herself comfort during my very problematic and dangerous birth, “all shall be well, all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

So I came into this world with those words and I may very well go out of this world with those words and so I will end this sermon by inviting everyone to say those words to each other, “all shall be well, all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

(Rev. Chris Buice gave this sermon on Sunday, December 8, 2019, at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church)

 

Imperfect Thanksgivings

Recently Anne Whitney shared with me a different version of the song, “If You’re Happy and You Know It,” that goes like this,

If you are happy and you know it overthink. If you are happy and you know it overthink. If you are happy and you know it give your brain a chance to blow it. If you are happy and you know it overthink.

Perhaps she was moved to share this with me because I have a tendency to overthink. There are days when I have stock phrase when someone asks me the standard question, “How are things going?” My stock answer is, “Everything is going very, very well but that does not prevent me from having a bad attitude about it.”

I am pretty sure I am not the only person in this room who has brought a bad attitude to an otherwise wonderful day. As John Milton so aptly observed, ““The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven..”

I remember when I was a new minister I found many different ways to make myself miserable. After a service if someone came up to me and said, “That was a great sermon!” instead of feeling grateful I would hear some deeply dysfunctional inner voice say, “Wow, now you’ve got to do the same thing NEXT WEEK.! Man, that’s a lot of PRESSURE!” Now, this sounds comical but I assure you at the time it was very real and led to very real misery. However, I am happy to say that I have experienced spiritual growth since that time and so now if someone compliments a sermon I will simply say, “Thank you.”

One of the obstacles to happiness is the idea that we have to get everything right. Perfectionism is the enemy of inner peace. At such times we are wise to remember the words of the poet Killian McDonnell who reminds us,

the Venus de Milo
has no arms,
the Liberty Bell is
cracked
.

Imperfection need not blind us to the beauty of life. I am reminded of the story of a Buddhist monk who joined a monastery and took a vow of silence. Once a year he was allowed to say two words to his teacher. The first year he said, “Bed hard.” The second year he said, “Food bad.” The third year he said, “Rooms cold.” And on the fourth year he said, “I quit.” His teacher replied, “I’m not surprised, ever since you got here all you’ve done is complain.”

In Buddhism it is believed that good actions result in good consequences or good karma and that bad actions result in bad consequences or bad karma. So occasionally there will be a debate what actions produce the worst karma And while some might suggest that lying or cheating or stealing or killing might be the worst karma I once heard a Buddhist teacher say, “The worst karma is to be ungrateful. If you suffer from ungratefulness then it won’t matter what goodness exists in your life, you won’t be capable of receiving it.”

I think most of us, at some time or another, practice this the worst form of karma. We are so aware of the hard bed that we forget to be grateful for the roof over our head. We are so aware of the bad food that we forget to be grateful that we will not go hungry today.

There is a proverb that tells us, “It is not happy people who are thankful. It is thankful people who are happy.” Oddly enough medical research backs up the proverb. I was recently reading an article published by the Harvard Medical School about an experiment. Researchers created three groups. They asked one group to keep a gratitude journal where they wrote about things they were thankful for. They asked another group to keep a journal of their daily irritations and pet peeves. They asked a third group simply to keep a journal. At the end of the study they discovered that the people who kept the gratitude journal were not only happier but also healthier – reporting fewer medical conditions or trips to a physicians office. For this reason the Harvard Medical School actually prescribes gratitude and recommends specific actions like keep a gratitude journal, write a thank you note, pray or meditate or find some other way to count your blessings on a daily basis. In other words, gratitude is just what the doctor ordered.

Last weekend I was out of town for the ordination and installation of Kim Mason as minister of the First Unitarian Church of Saint Louis. You can give a “Woot!” if you’d like to for our former Director of Lifespan Religious Education. This morning I am also very thankful for Catherine Farmer Loya who so ably leads the program now and has brought so much creativity and hard work to the cornbread communion ritual we will share today.

While in Saint Louis I went to the museum at the Gateway Arch where I spent extra time on a section dedicated to Native American culture I looked up to see these words projected onto the wall, “From 1778 to 1871, the United States government entered into more than 500 treaties with the Native American tribes; all of these treaties have since been violated in some way or outright broken by the US government.”

These words remind us that Thanksgiving is a very problematic holiday so much so that some Native American have renamed it Thanks-grieving – a time to grieve betrayal, grieve genocide, grieve forced relocation, grieve lost cultures. Too often this holiday gives us an oversimplified narrative of a painful history. We hear stories of the Pilgrims and the Indians eating together in peace and not the Trail of Tears or the massacre at Sand Creek. At this year’s General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association we will be taking an honest backward look as part of the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock.

standing rock

When I first heard the term Thanks-grieving it sounded like a contradiction in terms. However, the more I think about it the more I realize how interwoven grief is with thankfulness. Our congregation is in the midst of a season of loss. Last week we had a memorial service for Jerry Anderson. Yesterday we said goodbye to BJ McNair. This afternoon there is an open house where we will say goodbye to Bob Porter. Next Saturday we will say goodbye to Kenneth Honeycutt. I am reminded of the words of the poet William Blake, “Joy and woe are woven fine, a clothing for the soul divine. Under every grief and pine, runs a joy with silken twine.” We are saddened by the death of friends but we are also grateful that they lived and that we had the chance to know them.

On World AIDS Day we are reminded of all the beautiful people who have been taken from us because of this terrible disease. Grateful for life, saddened by death, today is a day of thanks-grieving.

My friend Johnny Skinner, minister of the Mount Zion Baptist Church often says, “The scripture tells us, ‘Give thanks in all circumstances,’ it does not say, ‘Give thanks for all circumstances.” In other words, our thanksgiving can be mixed with thanks-grieving.

The Shawnee chief Tecumseh was no stranger to betrayal or broken treaties. He was no stranger to grieving. He once said (and this is relevant for thanksgiving), “When the white men first set foot on our grounds, they were hungry; they had no place on which to spread their blankets, or to kindle their fires. They were feeble; they could do nothing for themselves. Our fathers commiserated their distress, and shared freely with them whatever the Great Spirit had given his red children. They gave them food when hungry, medicine when sick, spread skins for them to sleep on, and gave them grounds, that they might hunt and raise corn. The white people came among us feeble; and now that we have made them strong, they wish to kill us, or drive us back, as they would wolves and panthers.”

We remember Tecumseh in part because he decided to fight back. He organized a confederacy of tribes to serve as resistance to oppression. But his odds for success were never great and he ultimately died a courageous death for the cause. He could have been a bitter or angry man. Instead history remembers him as a man who practiced gratitude. He did not resist oppression because he was bitter or angry (although those feelings were present.) He resisted because he was grateful for his tribe, grateful for his loved ones, grateful for life.

As he once said, “When you rise in the morning, give thanks for the light, for your life, for your strength. Give thanks for your food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason to give thanks, the fault lies in yourself.”

So in this time of Thanksgiving (and in this time of thanks-grieving) I invite you remember the words of Tecumseh. And if in the midst of your sorrow you can also feel gratitude and joy then – don’t overthink.

(Rev. Chris Buice gave this sermon on Sunday December 1, 2019 at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church.)

Broken Open

The labor organizer Mother Jones used to say, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”

MotherJonesSaint

This morning we are observing All Souls and All Saints Days, a time to remember the dead but also a time to reaffirm our commitment to life.

On All Saints Day we remember the saints and in my book Mother Jones is a saint. She may not be canonized by any church-but she is canonized in the hearts of everyone who works for justice in the world for her tireless efforts on behalf of the living.

One of the ways we remember the saints is by building statues of them. A few weeks ago I was in Boston walking down an unfamiliar street when I came across a statue of Abigail Adams. The statue included words that she wrote to her husband John Adams when he was in Philadelphia with others in 1776 preparing to sign the Declaration of Independence.

“I desire you would remember the ladies,” she wrote, “and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

 Of course, her husband John did not remember the ladies nor did any of the other Founding Fathers as the Declaration would clearly states, “all men are created equal.” I posted the picture of the statue of Abigail Adams on my Facebook and my friend Pam Preston commented, “What?!?!?!? A woman memorialized?!?!? Who is She?”

 I think we can better understand Pam’s reaction (as well as the number of exclamation marks and question marks in her post) when we realize how often men are memorialized and how infrequently women are. For instance there is no statue to Mother Jones anywhere although there is a campaign to put one up in Chicago. And the statue to Abigail Adams went up in 2003, over 200 years after she died. So on All Souls and All Saints days let’s remember the ladies and how their words and work continue to empower us today.

On Friday I went to see the new movie about Harriet Tubman. The audience broke out in applause at the end of the film. It’s a great film even if it is part history and part Hollywood. The film does faithfully convey the personality and the spirituality of Tubman. Recently, I found out that there is an effort to build a statue of her in Beaufort, SC, close to where she led Union soldiers on a raid that freed many slaves. I look forward to seeing when they are finished.

At the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 activists rewrote the words of the Declaration of Independence and declared that “all men and women are created equal” because as Elizabeth Cady Stanton observed, “The world has never yet seen a truly great and virtuous nation, because in the degradation of woman the very fountains of life are poisoned at their source.”

That’s a powerful statement- And that is an important point for All Souls and All Saints Day for when we follow Abigail Adam’s advice and remember the mothers, sisters cousins, grandmothers and great grandmothers, we help we reclaim the fountain at it source. We help everyone to reconnect with the “wellspring of the joy of living” within each one of us.

Today, transgender activists wisely urge us to revise the Declaration of Independence further to say simply that, “all are created equal” for we all proceed from a common source. We all come from the “font of every blessing” and when we work for equality we unleash the powers of that source and make justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.

Recently, I’ve been reading a book about Stanley Ann Dunham, which is to say I’ve been reading a book about Obama’s mama. I am not reading it for partisan reasons. I’m reading to learn a little bit of Unitarian Universalist history. You may not know this but Stanley Ann Dunham used to attend the Unitarian church in Belllevue, Washington, a church so committed to the civil rights movement in the age of McCarthyism it became known as “the red church on the hill.” Ann participated in the Sunday School class called Church Across the Street, where you learn about different religions and visit their houses of worship. She would later become a cultural anthropologist who was very comfortable entering into different cultures and learning from different customs and she taught both of her children how to do the same. She did not live to see her son become president but her influence clearly continues to have ramifications today.

Now Obama wrote a book about his absent father called Dreams of My Father however, he has said on more than one occasion that if he’d known his mom would die so young, at the age of 52, he would have written less about the absent father and more about the present mother.

So I mention this simply to say, “Whoever you are, whatever your politics– remember those who came before us who helped us along the way, gave us some wisdom and perspective, remember the ones who fed us. Western religion is obsessed with the idea of an absentee father, “our father who are in heaven,” and tends to forget the work of women even though more often than not it is, “by her hands we all were fed, she gave us all our daily bread.” That’s the way it worked in my family, I don’t know about yours.

Of course, perhaps my perspective is influenced by the fact that it is my mother who is absent and my father that is still present. My mom died at the age of 72 whereas we just held a big birthday party for my Dad this past summer. So I am not remembering my Dad on All Souls yet and I know he is happy about that.

But I am remembering Mom – and it is possible that in remembering Mother Jones and Abigail Adams and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Stanley Ann Dunham I am also remembering my mom, and recognizing her continuing influence on my life and my ministry. I may even have her to thank for my ministry here.

You may not know this but my two immediate predecessors Lynn Thomas Strauss and Joan Kahn Schneider were women. Apparently during the congregational meeting when the church was trying to decide whether to call me to be minister someone said, “I’m not sure I am comfortable with a male minister,” and someone shouted out, “He has a wonderful mother!” So as much as I’d like to pretend I’m a self made man, my presence her at this pulpit may be a sign of her continuing influence on my life.

My mother lost a son, my brother Bill, who died when we were both teenagers. One of the things I have on the altar is a small statuette I inherited from my mother of Mary holding her son Jesus after he has been taken down from the cross. Mary is one of the Saints most often remembered on All Saints Day, but the statuette reminds me of the grief of my own mother over the loss of her son, and the grief every parent feels for the loss of a child.

My brother Bill may be another reason I am your minister. He died when we were both teenagers and his death taught me an important lesson – what I learned after many people visited our family in the aftermath of his death is that sometimes it is the least religious people who are the most helpful. When someone dies, most people do not want to hear platitudes like “Your brother’s in a better place,” or “God called him home,” or “It was his time to go,” I don’t actually remember any of the platitudes I heard after my brother died but I do remember than none of them seemed helpful.

The people who helped the most were not people who went to church or practiced any religion. This surprised me because at the time I was very active in the Episcopal Church. However, when it came to visitors after my brother died, the less religion the better. The people who helped were just people who showed up. After this experience I realized something I’ve tried to practice ever since that time. After someone dies it’s not about what you do or what you say. It’s about who you are and how you are present.

Since the least religious people were helpful I began to look for a church that had the least religious people in it. I’m joking. (Or at least I am kind of joking.) Another way to say this is – after my brother’s death I felt the need to find a totally different way to be religious.

Of course, Unitarian Universalists are not the only ones to understand that traumatic circumstances require more than platitudes. When Pope Francis was asked how he helped others after a traumatic loss he replied, “I stay silent. The only thing that occurs to me is to remain quiet and, depending on the trust they have in me, to take their hand. And pray for them, because both physical and spiritual pain are borne from within, where no one can enter: it entails a great deal of solitude. What people need to know is that someone is with them, loves them, respects their silence.”

Those are the words of the Pope. What you may not know is that my nickname in high school was “The Pope.” How I got the nickname is a long story, one for another Sunday. However, I mention it because after my brother died, I got a card from my World History Class with a cartoon picture of me as the Pope signed by all the members of the class and a kind of Hallmark poem in it.

This note of consolation could never event start

To tell the thoughts and feelings this brings you from the heart

But if you read between the lines perhaps somehow you’ll see

How much you’re being thought of now in loving sympathy

 Well I’ve save this card for 30 years now but it wasn’t really the poem I fond special. It was what was written between the lines. So now I am a minister, not a pope, not yet, but a minister, and one of the things I know is that most ministry is not done by the clergy. Most ministry is done by whoever is closest at the time, whoever can be present in the midst of the pain, whoever can convey all that is written in between the lines.

Sometimes when we lose a loved one we are broken apart. At other times we are broken open. When we are broken apart we are devastated beyond repair. When we are broken open we are more compassionate, loving, kind and considerate because of our loss not in spite of it. In so much as this is true then death can lead to new life and the Psalmist words can have genuine meaning, “Despair may last for a night but joy comes in the morning.” In the midst of our deepest grief we may not feel joy today or expect it tomorrow. In the meantime we can pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living in the hope that in the fullness of time a new day will dawn.

(This sermon was preached at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church by Rev. Chris Buice on Sunday, November 3, 2019)

It’s a Witch Hunt

What do Unitarians believe? If you’d asked that question in the 19th century someone might have responded, “Unitarians believe in the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man and the neighborhood of Boston.” However, we have expanded our theology and our geography since then.

Last week I was in Boston at a meeting of our denomination’s headquarters and my friend Tom Schade gave me a more current definition of our faith. When he was a child Tom asked his father, “What do Unitarian Universalists believe?” and his father responded, “Not much – but very strongly.”

Needless to say, it isn’t always easy to define what Unitarian Universalists believe, however, one of things we periodically do is taking our youth group on a Boston Heritage Trip so that they can learn more about our history. Mark Evans called this the closest thing Unitarian Universalists have to a pilgrimage to Mecca.

However, our trips aren’t always educational every minute. We always try to plan at least one thing just for fun. However, sometimes even the fun thing turns out to have an educational twist. For instance one year we took the youth to see the Blue Man group and it was only when we were outside waiting in line that I noticed a plaque that told us that theater where the Blue Man group performs used to be a Universalist church. I pointed the plaque out to the youth and added, “Many people do not know that the Universalist church was one of the first churches to be inclusive of blue men.”

On our last Boston journey our fun trip was to go to the Salem Witch Museum, a kind of cheesy, touristy museum dedicated to the 17th century Salem Witch trails. The museum is housed in a very gothic building that looked to me like it was once a church so I decided to look around for a plaque and guess what? I found one. And yes, the building that houses the Salem Witch Museum was once a Unitarian church. And it was that experience that inspired the theme of this service and the title of today’s sermon “It’s a Witch Hunt.”

Salem Witch Museum

In recent times the president of the United States has popularized the phrase, “It’s a witch hunt,” a practice that has garnished him some criticism. As one on-line pundit commented (and for the record I have decided to delete the profanity that is a part of the original quote) “White dudes need to stop using “witch hunt” and “lynch mob.” Invoking the means by which women and people of color were murdered to prop up white patriarchal society is obnoxious.”

So this morning I want to talk about witch hunts but this sermon is not about you know who. Indeed, I planned this sermon over a year ago back when impeachment wasn’t even a gleam in Nancy Pelosi’s eye. So let’s take a step back from current controversies and travel back to 17th century controversies before there was CNN, MSNBC, Fox News or other cable outlets.

Now let me begin with a piece of advice: if you want to learn more about the history of the Salem Witch Trails then don’t go to Salem Witch museum because it offers a sensationalized and largely inaccurate recounting of the story. Instead, I recommend you got to the National Park museum there or find a good book or keep listening to this sermon.

In the 1600’s the village of Salem, Massachusetts was caught in the throws of a huge controversy when young girls began to claim to be possessed by the Devil and accuse some of their elders of being witches. The accusations of witchcraft unleashed a wave of mass hysteria in the community that led to 150 people, mostly women, being accused of witchcraft and 19 people being put to death.

Needless to say those accused did not receive a fair trail. Community leaders did not provide for due process or adequate representation by an attorney. There was no presumption of innocence, the accused were not treated as innocent until proven guilty nor were they given the right to remain silent. Indeed, the Salem Witch trials are the textbook example of bad legal practice.

Furthermore the witch trials illustrate just how difficult it is to defend oneself against metaphysical accusations. If a religious fundamentalist tells you that you are going to go to hell, how do you prove that you’re not? If an evangelist stops you on the street and calls you a miserable sinner, how do you prove that your not? If a Puritan tribunal accuses you of being a witch, how do you prove that you’re not? I could go on and one with other examples.

However, the most important point I want to make is that for the Enlightenment thinkers, the presumption of innocence was a spiritual principle not just a legal one. The presumption of innocence was meant to curb not just abusive government but abusive religion.

While the Salem Witch Museum is not a great history museum there was a thoughtful exhibit at the end that spoke of why women have often been targeted for witch-hunts throughout history. Women are often the ones who study herbs, plants and other resources for their healing properties. Thus women become sources of authority outside the boundaries of church control and so witch-hunts are a decisive move to squash competition and reassert the dominance of the male clergy. In the olden days community leaders did not even have to prove their accusations beyond a reasonable doubt. All they had to do was lead people in the chant, “Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her up!” Of course, fortunately, we’ve made a lot of progress since then (haven’t we?)

The Salem Witch Trail Museum also had a thoughtful exhibit on modern forms of witch-hunts that are relevant to the history of our congregation. Our church was founded in 1949 in the midst of the mass hysteria that was the Red Scare and McCarthyism. During this era Senator McCarthy claimed to have a file of known communists, however, no one ever got to see or review that file. Instead unsubstantiated allegations of communism were hurled in ways that destroyed people’s careers and ruined many lives. It turns out proving you are not a communist is almost as impossible as proving that you are not a witch. Think about it, if someone accuses you of being a communist, how do you prove you are not a communist? No one can see the thought in our heads.

When Queen Elizabeth I of England took steps in the direction of religious freedom in her country she declared that she was not the ultimate arbiter of who was good or bad, “The Queen of England cannot see into her subject’s hearts” she said. The Queen may not be able to do it but there are some people who think they can. There are some people who act like they can read minds and know what is in people’s hearts. Whenever I meet such people I have a tendency to question their omniscience. Queen Elizabeth’s words remind us that claiming to know what is in people’s hearts and minds is not just political abuse. It is spiritual abuse.

So our church came into being in the age of McCarthyism and in our early day our church was accused of being a communist organization. That’s because we refused to discriminate on the basis of race and threw our wholehearted support behind the civil rights movement. In the era the church to out an advertisement in the paper to answer the question, “What do Unitarians believe?” The answer –

  • Individual freedom of belief
  • Discipleship to advancing truth
  • The democratic process in human relations
  • Universal brotherhood, undivided by nation, race or creed
  • Allegiance to the cause of a united world community.

 This was our way of saying that Unitarianism had moved beyond the neighborhood of Boston to the neighborhood of Knoxville. Of course, even this statement is framed in the language of its times. We would use more gender inclusive language today. And while this statement does have a quality we might call Unitarian vagueness, our support for civil rights, our active participation in the sit-ins, our willingness to risk insult, injury and livelihood for social justice caused other people to say, “Those Unitarians may not believe in much – but they believe it very strongly.”

I joined this church in the 1980’s when the slogan was, “Sisterhood is powerful.” If you remember the 70’s and 80’s at all then you will remember that not all churches supported women’s rights. Many opposed the Equal Rights Amendment. The television evangelist Pat Robertson denounced feminism by saying, “Feminism is a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.” Needless to say opposition to women’s rights in every age has sometimes felt like a witch-hunt. As does opposition to LGBT rights that challenge us to move beyond binary thinking, beyond brotherhood and sisterhood, to work for the unity of the human family in all its diversity.

Which takes me back to the Salem Witch Museum. In one of the later exhibits there was some information on modern paganism and all I can say is this, “If you want to learn more about paganism do not go to the Salem Witch Museum because it’s not going to help you one bit.” Once again, I suggest you get a good book or keep listening.

The museum did get one thing right by posting the pagan version of the golden rule, “Harm none, do as you will,” So based on this teaching we can say that paganism is the opposite of a witch-hunt. In a witch hunt the rule is, “Do what you will regardless of who you might harm.” In the pagan tradition the rule is, “First do no harm then do what you will.”

We live in a culture that likes to draw a hard line between paganism and biblical religion. But in our biblical reading today we heard how Saul cleansed his country of witches and pagans, but then later decided to consult a witch and it was from that witch that he received a message from God. So what can I say, to use Facebook terminology you can summarize the relationship between paganism and biblical tradition by saying, “It’s complicated.”

Religious conservatives like to draw a hard line between paganism and Christianity, however, I think you make the case that Jesus was the victim of a witch-hunt. That the cries “Crucify him! Crucify him!” are not that different from “Lock her up! Lock her up!” Jesus was denied due process, a fair trial, a right to representation and was given cruel and unusual punishment. All historical evidence seems to confirm that Jesus was a non-white man living in a white man’s empire, a victim of a witch hunt and a lynching.

So what do Unitarian Universalists believe? At the New Friendship church in Lonsdale they like to say, “We are the church in the hood that can do some good.” Well our church is in a different neighborhood but we can still do some good. In an age where insults too often triumph over ideas, and name-calling becomes a substitute for debate – we can be a house of peace.

As you already know, this is Endowment Fund month here at TVUUC when we are asked to imagine what the church might look like in the future. All I know is I do not want to see this church become a museum. I do not want to see this church converted into a theater. In future years I want people to look at this building a house of peace, a congregation that keeps reminding everyone that before there can be peace in the world, there must be peace among the nations, before there can be peace among the nations there must be peace among the states, before there can be peace among the states there must be peace in the cities, before there can be peace in the cities there must be peace in the neighborhoods, before there can be peace in the neighborhoods there must be peace in the homes, before there can be peace in the homes there must be peace in the heart. Let ours be a house of peace.

(Rev. Chris Buice gave this sermon on Sunday, October 27, 2019 at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church)

Canaries in a Coalmine: How Do We Detect Evil?

In the Unitarian Universalist Church we teach our kids to think for themselves. Of course, not everyone appreciates our denomination’s approach to religion. My friend Doris Wilson once told me the story of how her very young daughter asked a question in Sunday School. It was one of the big theological questions, “Is there a God?” or “Is there life after death?” and the girl’s teacher responded, “What do you think?” After class the little girl walked up to her mom and proclaimed with disgust, “What kind of church asks a 5 year old what they think?!”

She grew up to be a Catholic. So not everyone approves of our approach to religion. Another little girl might have found the question liberating, a chance to share her own ideas on the subject, however, this little girl wanted adult guidance not an invitation to self examination. For that reason, I say to parents, “Tell your kids what you think and then ask them what they think – because they are UU kids and they are going to think for themselves anyway.”

Of course, the UU church is not the only church to disappoint the young. I grew up in the Episcopal Church where we were taught to confess our sins. The liturgy guided us to say, “we have sinned in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.”

This emphasis on confession is shared by many faith traditions. Many denominations practice confession and have issued apologies for their historic stances on slavery or colonialism or their complicity with sexual abuse or misconduct. Every summer, the season of denominational conferences, there are apologies issued by conferences for historical errors. Our denomination is no exception. This summer the UUA will hold its annual gathering in New England in the lead up to 400th anniversary of the landing of the Mayflower and it will be an opportunity for an honest backward look at the treatment of Native American people in American history.

However, I remember that as a young person I was always disappointed by the confessional tone of church. I remember thinking something to the effect of, “What kind of church has 20/20 hindsight but not 20/20 foresight?” How come we only seem to be able to recognize evil after it has already happened? Why don’t we see evil coming? Why are we all about apology after the fact instead of prevention before the fact?

On some level, this is just a young person holding adults to impossibly high standards. We see through a glass darkly, none of us has 20/20 foresight. However, I do think we would be wise to give some thought to prevention, so that our apologies for the past can inform our actions for a better future.

In this congregation we love to sing the hymn, “May Nothing Evil Cross this Door.” For that reason I think we need the theological equivalent of canaries in a coalmine. In the old coalmines they kept canaries that would serve as a warning should dangerous odorless and colorless gasses fill the mine and kill the workers. Now if you think about it, the theological concept of evil is odorless. Evil is colorless. Evil is dangerous. So what warning system do we have in place to prevent disaster?

Now I know right now there is someone out there who wants to ask the questions, “What is evil?” or “What is your personal definition of evil?” And so I will answer those questions by saying, “What do you think?”

This morning I will not attempt to offer a definitive definition of evil instead I will work within the parameters established by Justice Potter Stewart who when asked to define pornography simply said, “I know it when I see it.”

Of course, evil may be more complicated because we don’t always know it when we see it. When I was serving as hospital chaplain 20 years ago I walked by evil everyday and I did not recognize it. Everyday, I walked by posters that offered the benign statement, “You have the right to remain pain free.” On one level this seemed like compassionate medical guidance until you understand who was paying for the posters and understand their motivations.

During that era pharmaceutical companies were marketing new forms of opiates that they claimed were less addictive and dangerous. The claims were misleading and false. For instance, last year more Americans died from opiate addiction than died in the entire Vietnam War. Now think about it. I am a chaplain studying for the Unitarian Universalist ministry at a Quaker school with a peace tradition and everyday I am walking by the marketing campaign that will kill more people in a year than one of America’s most bloody wars and I don’t even see it.

When I was in junior high school teachers took classes on tours of the local cigarette factory. Did you know that lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths. Smoking is responsible for 85% of those deaths. Over 150,000 people die from it each year. And the schools were taking kids on field trips to the cigarette factory. They would never do that now. No doubt many of the people involved in those decisions to offer those field trips have confessed their sins -20/20 hindsight.

When I was in junior high, tobacco executives would testify to Congress under oath that nicotine was not addictive. A parade of them would say the same thing over and over again, the corporate talking points – nicotine is not addictive. They were lying and we know they were lying because someone who worked for Brown and Williamson, the company my junior high school used to tour, leaked the documents so that the whole world would know they were lying.

Someone had the guts and the courage to say enough, enough, enough. Enough with the confession of sins of the past let’s take action for a better future. The pattern established by the tobacco companies has been slavishly followed by other corporations. Lie, lie, lie! We know this because of the people who have been brave enough to leak the documents so that we can see the pattern of deceit.

Many institutions have been funded by the money amassed from this practice of deceit – the Guggenheim, the American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of New York, the Tate Gallery, Cornell, Columbia, Tufts, George Washington Universities, many medical schools. Have you ever been to any of these places? Did you feel like you were in the presence of evil? I will confess that I have been to many of these places and I did not feel it.

The journalist Hannah Arrendt wrote about the banality of evil, how we can be around evil and not even notice it. She wrote, “In the Third Reich evil lost its distinctive characteristic by which most people had until then recognized it.” The Nazis redefined evil as a new civil norm. When she covered the trail of Nazi leader Adolph Eichmann she wrote, “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that they….were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were…terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”

A psychologist who interviewed Adolph Eichmann described him as a, “completely normal man, more normal, at any rate, than I am after examining him.” How scary is that! That one of the architects of genocide would come across as more normal than the mental health professional who interviewed him.

There are those who are trying to disrupt the normal so that we can open our eyes and see. Recently a group of activists staged a protest at the Guggenheim museum where they threw down over 400,000 prescriptions on people who came for a normal day at the museum. The protesters shouted, “400,000 dead. 400,000 dead. 400,000 dead.” Similarly activists have blocked traffic in cities across this country including this one to protest police brutality and affirm that Black Lives Matter.

Last year a teenager name Greta Thunberg was protesting inaction on climate change all by herself. This week many young people across the world joined her including students at the University of Tennessee and Maryville College who went on a Global Climate Strike to point out that the way we are living may seem normal, but it is not normal. These young people, these activists, are our canaries in the coal mine; warning us of danger; trying to save lives, trying to avert disaster chanting, “What do we want? Climate action! When do we want it? Now!”

Did you know that the bird population of the US and Canada has gone down by 3 billion in 50 years – a loss of 29% of North American songbirds? I am reminded of a confessional prayer I once heard next door at 2nd Presbyterian when I was visiting with one of our Sunday school classes, “God help us to see that our present lifestyle is unsustainable, help us to repent and change course.”

Hannah Arendt observed that Adolph Eichmann was not trying to be a villain. He was simply trying to advance in his career according the rules of his society and his times. “It was sheer thoughtlessness…that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals… That such …thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together …”—that is a sobering lesson.

In Al Gore’s movie about climate change The Inconvenient Truth he quotes the journalist Upton Sinclair who warns us, ““It is difficult to get ourselves to understand something, when our salary depends on us not understanding it.” Sometimes, when we do evil it is because it is our job. Sometimes when we do evil it is because it’s the normal thing to do.

And so when we look back on our lives in retrospect it is appropriate that we might be moved to say that we have sinned in thought, word and deed by what we have done and by what we have left undone. Confession is good for the soul but we need more than confession. We need to transform this world through acts of love and justice in order to save the world.

All too often when people do evil it is because it is the normal thing to do. And this leads me back to why I want to be a part of a Unitarian Universalist Church, even if not everyone approves of us. I want to be part of a Unitarian Universalist Church because nobody thinks we are normal. There is no one out there in Knoxville who will say to you, “TVUUC that’s where the normal people go.”

We are the church that teaches our kids to think for themselves and we think for ourselves also. I believe it is our willingness to challenge the world’s ideas about what is normal that helps to make us the hope of the world. Confession is good for the soul, transformation is good for the world. The activist Malala Yousafzai once said, “When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.” Let’s be that voice!

(Chris Buice is minister of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. This sermon was delivered on Sunday, September 22, 2019)

Greta

 

The Epidemic of Loneliness (and the Cure of Community)

Mother Theresa saw some pretty horrible diseases in her lifetime ministering to the sick around the world, AIDs, cancer, leprosy, however, she would often say the biggest disease in the world today is loneliness.

Mother Theresa felt a calling to work among the poorest of the poor but she understood that material poverty is not the only poverty. There is the poverty of loneliness; the poverty of being disconnected, alienated and alone. And this poverty can be found in people of every race, religion and class.

One of the beatitudes tells us, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice for they shall be satisfied,” reminding us sometimes what we hunger for (and what we thirst for) is community, connection and love.

I spent a month of my recent sabbatical in France, a land where two-hour lunches are common but obesity is rare. Indeed, France, has one of the lowest obesity rates in the world. Why is that?

My observation from sitting down at some of these two-hour meals is that food is not the main course. These two-hour meals are about reconnecting with those we love. They are about feeding our hunger for connection, our hunger for community, our hunger for family and friendships. The food itself could be eaten in a much shorter period of time. However, it takes time to build relationships. It takes time to build connections with others. It’s a process that cannot be rushed.

You see, you can eat a healthy, well-balanced meal with lots of nourishing vegetables and still be malnourished. We need the nourishment of community, the nourishment of connection

Now there is a well known joke that is told about Unitarian Universalists, one that is familiar to most of us. The joke goes, “A group of people come to a fork in the road with two signs. One says, “To heaven,” and the other says, “To a discussion group about heaven,” and you can tell who the Unitarian Universalists are because they start heading for the discussion group.”

Now this joke can mean many different things, but at least one meaning, is that we are a denomination of people who connect through conversation. Because when we get it right a good conversation helps to build community, connection and it nourishes us. . Those of us who are a little French want a meal with that conversation also.

There is a legend about a man who dies and in the afterlife he is guided by an angel to one place where a group of people are sitting around a pot of soup but they are starving to death because their hand is tied to the end of a very long spoon and thus they can’t get the spoon into their mouths. “This is hell,” says the angel. Next the angel leads the man to a room that looks the same, a group of people sitting around a pot of soup, with long spoons but everyone is well nourished and content. “This is heaven,” says the angel. “I don’t get it,” says the man, “What’s the difference?” and the angel replies, “In hell everyone is struggling to feed themselves. In heaven everyone has learned how to feed each other.” The legend, suggests that even when we are going through hell we have all the necessary ingredients to make a heaven.

Today, in our country and in our city there are many people who are starving at a banquet. Many people are lonely in a crowd. Earlier in the service we sang the song, “Peace Like a River” and “Shall We Gather at the River,” songs of hope, however, sometimes we feel like the words of the old country song. We feel like we are “knee deep in the water dying of thirst.”

Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy is one of the noted health professionals to identify loneliness as a public health crisis. He tells us that, “We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates for loneliness have doubled since the 1980’s….The reduction in life span (due to loneliness) is similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and it’s greater than the impact of obesity.” And he goes on to say, “So if you think about how much we put into curbing tobacco use and obesity, compared to how much effort and resources we put into addressing loneliness, there’s no comparison. Look even deeper, and you’ll find loneliness is associated with a greater risk of heart disease, depression, anxiety and dementia.” When we consider these facts you can see why Mother Theresa described loneliness as the biggest disease of all.

So what is the remedy? This morning I want to suggest that the church is an important part of healing this disease. Indeed, addressing this epidemic is central to our mission. But you don’t have to take my word for since I work for a church. You can listen to the voices of people who do not belong to any church.

For instance, the philosopher Alain de Botton has written a book called Religion for Atheists: A Nonbelievers Guide to the Uses of Religion where he notes that, “What is significant (about secular society) is the almost universal lack of venues that help transform strangers into friends.” And so he argues that human beings regardless of their beliefs need something like a church, a community that helps transforms strangers into friends.

In the Unitarian Universalist Church we welcome people of all faiths and beliefs. We aspire to be a church where people of all faiths can find common ground and feel empowered to work for the common good. We may differ in our theology but we share a common mission to create a community, where we can break down the walls of isolation and build bridges of community. When we say the affirmation, “Love is the spirit of this church and service is its law, to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love and to help one another, this is our great covenant,” we are saying that we can have different beliefs and still share common values. One of those values is our desire to build what Dr. King called the Beloved Community, both in this room and outside in the world.

wordpress-banner-beloved-community

The Catholic Monk, Thomas Merton, lived up the road in a monastery in Louisville, KY, but he spent time in Asia where he had a chance to study Buddhism and Taoism and other Eastern Religions and he felt a bond with people practicing a faith other than his own. He wrote about this bond saying, “And the deepest level of communication is not communication but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. (It is) Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear brothers and sisters, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. So what we have to recover is our original unity.”

There is a Hindu legend, a creation story among millions of other creation stories told by cultures around the world. The story tells us that in the beginning human beings were gods but the other gods became jealous of their power and decided to steal the divinity away from humans. Once they had the divinity they had to find a place to hide it. “Shall we hide it on top of the tallest mountain?” asked one god. “No,” said another, “Humans will one day be able to climb the tallest mountain and so they will find it again.” “Shall we bury it deep in the earth?” asked another. “No,” said one of the goddesses, “Human are resourceful and will eventually be able to dig that deep.” “Shall we put it at the bottom of the deepest ocean?” asked another, “No,” someone said again, “Humans are inventive and will one day be able to go down to the bottom of the ocean.” Finally a goddess said, “I have an idea let’s hide the divinity deep down inside of each person for no one will think to look there.” And so it is said, that since that time, people have been climbing, digging and diving for something that is already in themselves. (As creation stories go that’s a good one.)

When I was a young adult I came to this church in part because I was lonely. I had studied at the University of Tennessee but many of my close friends were international students so after school I was sort of left high and dry.

So I decided to come to this church were I signed up for an adult education class called BYOT Build Your Own Theology where we were invited to write out our personal definition of the word God. Because we are a UU church no one was going to make us do it or force us to do it, instead we were invited to do it. This is what I wrote, “Whenever two or more are gathered to love and support and encourage each other there is a power greater than ourselves that can renew, restore and sustain us.” That’s my definition of the word, but I don’t have to use that word. The most important thing is not the words. The most important thing is the experience of that power.

I am sort of enamored of the Jewish idea of minyan. A minyan is a group of at least ten people with whom one participates in a ritual. Without the minyan you can’t do the ritual. The idea of a minyan seems to tell us that we cannot be spiritual alone. We cannot be religious alone. But I would go even further and say we can’t be human alone. We need community. We need one another.

So let me say, that one of my goals in ministry has always been to help people find their minyan, a core group, call it what you will. Call it a discussion group about heaven. In my time here I have seen people find their minyan at the potluck dinners, at the church retreats, in a small group ministry or a heart to heart group. I’ve seen people find their minyan in the choir or an adult education class or a youth group or the Personal Beliefs and Commitments group or at Tai Chi or Science Fiction night or an AA or NA meeting, wherever two or more are gathered. Indeed, at the end of our service we have a ritual where I say, “As our last act of worship I invite you to turn and greet your neighbor,” and it is my hope that through that ritual we can advance our work to turn strangers into friends and help each other find our minyan.

“Welcome the stranger for by so doing you may be entertaining angels unawares.” That’s a biblical teaching. There is another biblical teaching that “we are all made in the image of God.” Which reminds me of something a character on Saturday Night Live called Father Guido Sarducci used to say, “If we are all made in God’s image then why aren’t we all invisible?”

Indeed, why are we not invisible? Well the reason is found in the story for all ages we heard earlier this morning about the invisible boy; love has the power to make invisible people visible for as Gandhi once said, “If we do not see God in each other, it is futile to look elsewhere.”

And so let’s work together to help cure the biggest disease of our age. Let’s work together to build community, until all who are invisible are made visible and we can say in the spirit of the beatitudes, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for community for we shall be filled.”

(Rev. Chris Buice  delivered this sermon to the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, September 8, 2019)

 

Theology in a Yellow Vest

When Kofi Anan was Secretary General of the United Nations someone once remarked, “He’s so diplomatic he could fall out of a boat without making waves.”

Kofi Anan is one of my heroes but this morning I want to focus less on the diplomats of the world and more on those who make waves.

In recent times we have seen protestors in Hong Kong taking to the streets, demonstrating for human rights, refusing to be silent. In Puerto Rico we have seen people take to the streets to demand a change in government, disrupting business as usual. In Brazil we see people taking to the streets as the burning rainforests pollute their air.

In our own country we’ve seen an uptick in street demonstrations also. And this reminds me of something my friend and colleague the Reverend Chris Battle often says, “The church needs to become less interested in getting butts in the seats and more interested in getting disciples in the streets.”

Some of those disciples in the streets will be dedicated to service, responding to the very real needs of the homeless under the bridge. However, some of the disciples in the streets will be dedicated to speaking truth to power, taking on the mantle of the prophet, “To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

This year I went to a conference of the Association of Unitarian Universalists Music Ministries or AUUMM, which I chose to pronounce as AUM. It was a great conference with many different workshops for choral music, worship bands, a cappella groups, song swaps and hymn sings. There was one workshop called, “Why Baritones Get Bored” and there was another workshop on protest songs. Here is one I learned there.

Solid as a rock.
Rooted like a tree.
We are here. We are strong.
In our rightful place.

I like this song. To me it seems to be saying “We are peace-loving people but if you try to push us out of the boat we will make waves.”

In April I served as the minister in residence for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Paris, France. Just before I got on the plane to go there LeRoy Euvrard gave me a parting gift – a yellow vest. As you know the yellow vest has become a symbol of a grassroots movement for economic justice.

Now this movement has friends in high places. For when I was in Paris and I saw Jesus on the Metro wearing a yellow vest. This Jesus had long sandy hair and a beard, a flowing robe and sandals. The feature that made me pretty sure he was Jesus is he was carrying a cross.

Needless to say this was not the real Jesus but someone playing the role in order to make a political and theological point, and this point should be taken seriously. However, I hate to admit it but my first instinct was to see if I could get a “selfie” with Jesus. But then I was worried I might offend him or make him angry or cause a scene so I didn’t. Later I realized my fears were unwarranted because, “Of course, Jesus loves me.” This I know.

Now it will surprise no one to learn that this yellow vest Jesus is something of a celebrity in Paris. He is a distinctly French Jesus in that he is known to shout, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” as he carries his cross down the street (Liberty, equality, brotherhood.) Indeed, these words are engraved on one side of the cross and on the otherside are the words, “Conscience, respect, soldarity, hope.”

Indeed, this Jesus may even be a Unitarian Universalist because I’ve seen a pictures of him carrying a cross with symbols from all the great world’s religions on it – the Star of David, the Islamic Crescent, the AUM letter of Hinduism, the Wheel of Buddhism, the Taoist Yin/Yang symbol, the Torii Gate of Shintoism and the biggest symbol of all, a heart, implying that the most important thing about religion is not what’s in our heads but what’s in our hearts.

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Watching an online video of a protest I saw a woman wearing a hijab walk up and give Jesus bisous, the kiss on each cheek. So this is a very ecumenical, interfaith and yes, very French, Jesus.

Now the historic Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount wheras this yellow vest Jesus has a sermon on YouTube. I got my daughter Sally to translate it for me. So this is not the King James version but the Sally Buice translation. I told her to be careful or someone might accuse her of heresy.

The yellow vest Jesus declares, “There is no more spirituality in politics, only the market! Our government no longer represents a France that respects all of humanity, with or without a yellow vest a human is a human. The government has to hear that we’ll no longer let them impose this destructive economy on us. No matter what our religion we all want to help each other how we can. We are all one.”

The words and presence of this protester reminds us that Jesus was a rebel, someone who might turn over tables in a temple, upsetting our notions of order.

So what is a rebel? Here is where existentialism comes in, the philosopher Albert Camus wrote an entire book on the topic. According to Camus a rebel is someone who says no. When we rebel what we are saying is, “This has been going on for too long now,” “The line must be drawn here – this far and no farther,” “there is a limit beyond which you shall not go.” In other words we affirm the existence of a boundary and the need to say no when those in authority cross it and infringe on our rights or the rights of others.

A rebel is someone who says “no,” but also someone who says “yes.” To rebel is to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. To rebel is to acknowledge the sacredness of every human personality. To rebel is to say yes to life.

Every act of rebellion points to something bigger than our selves. This is why the suffragists carried banners that declared, “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.”

This week I went to visit Bee DeSelm, one of our elders living in a nursing home, who helped sponsor the statue of suffragists in Market Square. During our visit Bee was in a wheelchair and we were out in the common room near the nursing station when she said, “Everybody in here knows me….because I make trouble,” to which I said, “Bee, everybody in Knox County knows you for the same reason.”

Reflecting on Bee DeSelm’s life I realize-to be a woman running for county commission in the 70’s was to make waves. To stand up for GLBT rights in the 80’s and 90’s was to make waves. To switch political parties on a matter of conscience was to make waves. To sue the County because elected officials weren’t obeying the term limit laws was to make waves. Whether as an elected official or private citizen everybody knows who you are if you make waves.

At the Association of Unitarian Universalist Music Ministries conference in Denver we decided to makes some waves. We met with local immigration rights activists who were organizing for justice. We decided to support their efforts by going out to one of the ICE shelters where for-profit corporations are holding refugees and immigrants for up to $700 per person, per night. I can tell you that ‘s a lot more than our conference hotel rooms cost and it was a nice hotel. A busload and some cars went out to the ICE detention center where we sang some of the protest songs we learned in our workshop. Just being there was an education. You could see the American flag and the for-profit corporation flag and the state flag flying above the detention center with the corporate flag above the state flag.

In the presence of those flags we sang. At the time, I have to admit I wondered whether our singing would make a difference. However, a couple of weeks after I got back I saw an article online that announced that the Denver city council voted not to renew contracts with the corporation running the centers causing them to lose millions of dollars. It all happened because one city council woman decided to make waves and made the motion that the contracts not be renewed and to her surprise her motion carried. The name of that councilwoman is Candi CdeBaca, now you know her name.

If every protest vigil was that successful then the baritones would never get bored. However, I attribute most of the success to the tenors….and more importantly and realistically, what made change happen was the willingness of people to work in partnership with each other, each playing a small part in hopes of creating a large change.

Speaking of which, I forgot to mention that when I met Jesus on the Metro in Paris he was not alone. Jesus was carrying the cross but he wasn’t doing it all by himself. He had a friend with him to help him carry the cross. And let me tell you if you have a friend helping you to carry your cross you’ve got a good friend. Looking at them both reminded me of the old gospel song.

Must Jesus bear the cross alone,
and all the world go free?
No, there’s a cross for everyone,
and there’s a cross for me.

Every one of us can help bear the responsibility of the work that needs to be done. Everyone of us can help carry the cross of liberty, equality, solidarity, respect and hope. Every one of our efforts makes a difference. Even a small pebble thrown into the water will make ripples. However, when we are solid as a rock, we can make waves.

Solid as a rock.
Rooted like a tree.
We are here. We are strong.
In our rightful place.

(Chris Buice is minister of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. He gave this sermon on Sunday, August, 25, 2019)

 

 

Welcome Home!

I am returning to church from my sabbatical for this Sunday’s ingathering service so I know how good it feels when people say, “Welcome home!” So let me say it to you – Welcome home!

If you’ve been on exotic summer vacations or budget necessitated “staycations” – Welcome home.

If you’ve been challenged to entertain children out of school or been lonely, isolated and far away from family and friends – Welcome home.

If you are excited about the vision and mission of the church or angry and frustrated at a recent committee decision – Welcome home.

If you’ve been in the great outdoors or within the confines of a hospital room – Welcome home.

If you can get to the building on Sunday morning or you watch or listen on-line – Welcome home.

If you come to church to see old friends or excited to make new ones – Welcome home.

If you’ve been to this church a million times or are visiting this Sunday for the first time – Welcome home.WELCOME

 

 

 

 

 

Interfaith Vigil at Anoor Mosque in Sympathy for New Zealand

My name is Chris Buice, I am minister of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. My old Quaker seminary professor, Lonnie Valentine, used to say, “If peace is possible anywhere, it is possible everywhere.” One of the reasons I know peace is possible everywhere is because I see it right before my eyes. I see people of all faiths gathered together in peace to support each other during a time of grief, sadness and loss but also a time of recommitment to common values.

The man who killed 50 people and injured many others in New Zealand is in custody tonight. He cannot hurt anyone anymore but his ideology can; the ideology of white supremacy; the ideology of white nationalism; the ideology of hatred, intolerance and Islamaphobia. There are a lot of people spreading hate all over the Internet. So we must spread love. There are many people posting polarizing messages to the whole world. So we must work for unity. Where people sow fear we must bring faith. Where there are violent acts of cowardice we must bring nonviolent acts of courage.

The prophet Isaiah envisioned a day when “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb: and the leopard shall lie down with the kid: the calf and the lion, and the sheep shall abide together, and a little child shall lead them.”

And so we are inspired by the leadership of our young people in the Seed of Abrahams program, Jews, Muslims, Christians and more, working together to feed the homeless, to make gloves and scarves and provide winter clothing to those in need, to work together for peace…but also to have fun.

I had the privilege of watching a Seeds of Abraham open mic talent show where there was a first prize and a second prize and a third prize. My first thought was, “I am not so sure this is a great idea pitting the world’s religions against each other in a talent show.” But then two girls from my church won and I was like “Yeah!”

More importantly I was impressed with the talent of all the kids and their ability to not get caught up in competition but to embrace peaceful cooperation. Let’s do the same. Our children are leading. Let’s follow them.

Mosque Vigil