“Wicked Stepmothers” A Sermon by Reverend Chris Buice delivered on May 13, 2007 at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church O ne of the recurring themes in children’s literature is the appearance of the wicked stepmother. Those of us who grew up on the stories of Cinderella, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel know the character well. She is evil, sinister and without any redeeming qualities. No doubt this perennial character adds more difficulty to the lives of stepparents and their blended families (As a friend once said to me, “Some people have family trees. Some people have family forests.”) Of course, in more recent times the word “wicked” has come to have a whole new meaning in youth culture that is positive in nature. “That’s a wicked guitar solo!” or “What a wicked outfit!” is meant to be a compliment in today’s parlance. Sometimes it is a standalone single word affirmation, “Wicked.” So maybe it’s time to revisit the old stereotype. My stepmother is Hulane George. My parents got divorced when I was a teenager. My Dad started dating Hulane when I was a senior in high school. If I remember correctly, she asked him out. She was an attorney at the time and Dad was a former attorney turned Episcopal priest and their first date was at a Bar Association social, a lawyerly black tie and fancy dress event. Perhaps, I remember this well because it was also the year I went to my senior prom and so tuxes and fancy dress were sort of in the air in our household. This said, I can’t say that I was terribly prepared to watch my Dad go out on a date. It is unusual to see your own father go off to his prom. Certainly, children’s literature does nothing to encourage you to rush out and embrace the new woman in your Dad’s life. A feeling of caution and wariness seems appropriate after all the warnings of folklore. And this probably captured my own feelings at the time. Now the word wicked has many different connotations. For some people who are legalistic in nature a wicked person is someone who breaks the rules. If we accept this definition then I definitely have a wicked stepmother. Every family has rules. More often than not they are unwritten and unspoken rules. When new people enter into the family system they inevitably break the rules usually without even knowing it. Thus the “Wicked Stepmothers” A Sermon by Reverend Chris Buice new person in any family system can become the outlaw, the rule-breaker. Enter Hulane George. From the moment Hulane entered my life it was clear to me that she did not know the rules. In fact, I can’t even say that I knew the rules. Since the rules of most families are unspoken no one even realizes they exist until someone breaks them. One of the ways Hulane breaks the rules is her candor. Hulane is a very straightforward person who gives her opinion in a candid and unvarnished way. Once a colleague told her, “Hulane, you need to learn how to be more diplomatic.” To which she replied, “I am diplomatic. You just don’t know all the things I don’t say.” Compare this to my father who upon returning from a trip to Israel with Hulane said to me, “While traveling through the Holy Land you discover that there are people who have a very different sense of religious aesthetics.” To which I said, “In other words, you saw a lot of tacky stuff.” Now, my father would never put things that way. My words are not nuanced enough. But Hulane might put it that way and that makes all the difference. She is direct and you don’t have to read too far in between the lines. For instance, when Hulane’s son Brian started attending a Unitarian church she observed, “Brian has finally found a church where God is a smart as he is.” Hulane broke unspoken rules in our family in other ways. In some families the rule is you are not supposed to get angry. This was not true in my family. But our unspoken rule was similar and it was this; if you do get angry you had better have a good case to back it up. Most of the time we are calm, rational people comfortable with ambiguities and uncertainties. But once we are convinced we are right, that our cause is just, then the blood of the Hebrew prophets runs through our veins and God Almighty is on our side. Hulane’s rules were different. I remember when I was a teenager she told me that she was angry at me for something she thought I had done; naturally, I can’t even remember what it was. I was able to explain to her that I had not done it and even prove that I had not done it to her own satisfaction. After my calm rational and effective defense she said to me, “Well, I’m still angry.” This totally baffled me, “How can you be angry?” And she said, “I don’t have to be right to be angry. I am just angry.” And there “Wicked Stepmothers” A Sermon by Reverend Chris Buice is something to that you know. It was clear that she was no longer angry at me but she was still angry nevertheless. The more I thought about it, the more I realized Hulane had a real point. Anger is a human emotion. It may be present even after we realize we are mistaken or that we are directing our anger toward the wrong source. Anger is a powerful emotion and does not always evaporate in the face of a rational explanation. It is better for us to be honest about how we feel than to hide it. It is healthier to be open about our emotions than it is for us to bury them. Ever since that day, I have thought about anger in a new way. I know now that getting angry is a very human thing to do. I no longer feel like I have to have the gods on my side before I can feel this thoroughly human emotion. Another way, Hulane breaks the rules is that she is an unapologetic spender. If she wants something she buys it. Whereas in my family it is a tradition to have a carefully thought-out rationale for every purchase, including why it is a cost-effective, practical and useful investment of our money etc, etc. While we are deliberating on aisle 1 she will have already picked out what she wants and surveyed the items on aisle 2 through 10. My Dad is especially thrifty. While no one knows the inside of any marriage my theory is she is the spender and he is the saver and somehow it all works out in the end through what the Taoists would call the balance of yin and yang. Needless to say when granny Hulane takes the grandkids out they always come back with some loot. I think Hulane would agree with Jeb Bartlett, the fictional President of the United States on the television show the West Wing, when he was asked the question, “Were you trying to buy the love of your own children?” He replied, “It’s for sale and I want it.” Of course, Hulane broke the rules on many other different levels. When she was growing up in Oklahoma girls did not grow up to be lawyers. She broke that rule. Living in Oklahoma you did not challenge the prevalent racist attitudes about Native Americans. She broke that rule. In Georgia where she later moved you did not challenge racism against African Americans. She broke that rule. In many ways her life reminds me that people who are willing to break the rules make all the social progress. As the bumper sticker says, “Well behaved women rarely make history.” “Wicked Stepmothers” A Sermon by Reverend Chris Buice When Hulane married my Dad she became a minister’s wife by default and that certainly can’t be an easy transition for anyone. Hulane is by no means the stereotypical ministers’ wife. Once a member of the church my father was serving came up to him with some feedback that contained within it a sort of veiled complaint. The man said, “A ministers wife should be a quiet, behind the scenes person, supportive, helpful, deferential…” You can imagine where this conversation was going. Finally Dad said, and I can sort of imagine him in his black shirt and clerical collar saying this, he said, “You know I don’t think that kind of woman would turn me on.” Hulane is a good Episcopalian and a trooper in the role of the minister’s wife. Some may feel that she is not as diplomatic as a minister’s wife should be but that is only because they do not realize all the things she doesn’t say. Everyone who knows her well can tell when she is exercising great restraint. Hulane became a circuit court judge a number of years ago. I took my daughter Sarah to see her office courtroom in the courthouse at Milledgeville, GA; a sort of Take Your Daughter to Granny’s Work Day. We watched a trial in progress. After we left I asked Sarah if she thought she might like to be a judge when she grew up and Sarah pointed out to me that even the criminal for whom the verdict was a matter of some importance seemed bored. And so it is, the life of a circuit court judge is not all glamour. There is a fair amount of tedium for all involved. I expect Hulane is a tough judge. I know I would not want to be a criminal in her courtroom. But she is also a vocal opponent of the mandatory sentencing guidelines that make no distinctions between the circumstances of different cases; make no room for mercy as well as justice. She has been active in setting up a drug court to try and streamline drug-related cases in a way that favors treatment, instead of punishment alone. Through it all she continues to be known for her candid observations. Once we were watching scenes from the Live 8 concert, an international concert with the idealist goal of ending extreme poverty in the world. I am idealist so I found the concert inspiring. Of course, when the rock star Bono came on stage Hulane observed, “He could feed a lot of people with the money he spent on those sunglasses.” And she is right. I “Wicked Stepmothers” A Sermon by Reverend Chris Buice think Bono would agree as well. Bono has been known to describe himself as a pampered rock star (although definitely one with a conscience.) The world is served well by such candor. It punctures our pretensions and can prevent our efforts to do good from being overrun by a stultify sense of self-righteousness. Hulane has another son, Kyle George, who made a career out of the military. Kyle served in Iraq in the early days of the war. When my daughter and I were visiting Dad and Hulane during the days of Kyle’s deployment she would frequently tune into the news, but her bearing and manner were completely different from the C-SPAN junkies and news addicts that most of us know so well. She looked at the television screen like a woman who knew that any moment she might get heartbreaking news. Fortunately, Kyle made it through his tour of duty. He has since retired from the military but Hulane has not forgotten those who are still there. At her prompting my father the Episcopalian priest has started reading the names of all the soldiers who have died in the past week as part of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in his church service every Sunday. Hulane knows that the name of each person is the name of someone’s child. She thinks whether you support the war or oppose the war you should be willing to hear those names. And so today I am going to read the list of this week casualties and I want us all to hear each name in that way a mother might hear the name of her own child. Spc. Eddie D. Tamez, 21, of Galveston, Texas Pfc. David A. Kirkpatrick, 20, of Upland, Indiana Sgt. Glenn D. Hicks Jr., 24, of College Station, Texas. Pfc. Jay-D H. Ornsby-Adkins, 21, of Ione, California Pvt. Cole E. Spencer, 21, of Gays, Illinois 1st Lt. Ryan P. Jones, 23, of Massachusetts Spc. Astor A. Sunsin-Pineda, 20, of Long Beach, California Sgt. Felix G. Gonzalez-Iraheta, 25, of Sun Valley, California Pfc. John D. Flores, 21, of Barrigada, Guam Staff Sgt. Coby G. Schwab, 25, of Puyallup, Washington Staff Sgt. Michael D. Thomas, 34, of Seffner, Florida ,Spc. Daniel F. Mehringer, 20, of Morgantown, West Virginia “Wicked Stepmothers” A Sermon by Reverend Chris Buice Pfc Nicholas E. Riehl, 21, of Shiocton, Wisconsin Sgt. Peter Woodall, 25, of Sarasota, Florida Cpl. Jeremy R. Greene, 24, of Springfield, Ohio Pfc. Katie M. Soenksen, 19, of Davenport, Iowa Sgt. Norman L. Tollett, 30, of Columbus, Ohio 1st Lt. Colby J. Umbrell, 26, of Doylestown, Pennsylvania Spc. Matthew T. Bolar, 24, of Montgomery, Alabama Spc. Andrew R. Weiss, 28, of Lafayette, Indiana Cpl. Christopher Degiovine, 25, of Lone Tree, Colorado Lance Cpl. Johnathan E. Kirk, 25, of Belhaven, North Carolina ,Pfc. Joseph G. Harris, 19, of Sugar Land, Texas My stepmother Hulane is a woman who would choose a hard truth over a soft spoken platitude or the silence that so often surrounds this subject. There is perhaps no harder truth than this list of names. Except possibly an even longer list that included all the people who died who were not soldiers, all the civilians caught by a car bomb or stray weapons; all the people who too often remain uncounted in official reports. Listening to that list of names we learn more about the nature of war than we can ever learn from any foreign policy study paper, any geo-political strategy session or any State of the Union address. To read those names in a church service might seem disturbing to some, a breach of some kind of unspoken rule of etiquette. But you must remember my stepmother is someone who breaks the rules. Hulane is very different from my mother, Patte Mitchell, who died this past year. Fortunately, I’ve never felt that these two women were competing for the same place in my heart. They are simply too different to be loved in exactly the same way. One is the advocate in court and the judge on the bench. The other is the therapist, the artist, the dancer. I am a stepparent myself, and I tell my stepson, “You can learn something from every adult in your life. You can learn one more way to be a human being. And then you can choose to be the kind of human being you want to be.” “Wicked Stepmothers” A Sermon by Reverend Chris Buice Leslie Venable has written a children’s book called, The Not So Wicked Stepmother to help children process their own ambivalent feelings about new stepparents. It is a welcome addition to the world of children’s literature. But we have a long way to go before this and other stories like it gain the cultural currency of Hansel and Gretel, Snow White and Cinderella et.al. So perhaps in the meantime we can simply go with the flow of the changing attitudes around the word “wicked.” The youth of the world are taking that word and giving it a whole new meaning that is affirming and positive. Perhaps in addition to saying things like, “That’s a wicked song” or “That’s a wicked Tshirt” we can learn to say, “Now there goes a wicked stepmother.” If you agree then instead of saying “Amen” you can give me another one word affirmation, “Wicked.” So may it be. Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church 2931 Kingston Pike Knoxville, Tennessee 37919 (865) 523-4176 January 30, 2010 We invite you to continue your religious/spiritual journey within our congregation which affirms many paths and covenants to a free search for truth and meaning.