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“We are more interested in getting heaven into people than people into heaven.”
Our rather radical view of heaven being in people rather than vice versa is something that can really bother some people. After all, who is keeping score if every one gets to heaven, or even worst if there isn’t even a heaven, heaven forbid! It’s radical but freeing. After all, if hell ceases to be the burning issue of our lives, doesn’t that lower the anxiety level a bit? Worrying about hell is so 20th century, isn’t it? Look around I said, isn’t there enough hell right here on earth?
Indeed, this is exactly what the founder of American Universalism, the Rev. John Murray said some 220 years ago. Murray’s story is itself a testament to this heaven bound faith. Murray was born in Alton, Hampshire, England, on 10 December, 1741 and died in Boston, Massachusetts, 3 September, 1815. Under the influence of George Whitefield and John Wesley he became a convert to Methodism, and was an occasional preacher in that connection. But in 1760 he adopted the doctrines of Universalism as taught by James Relly, and was excommunicated at Whitefield’s tabernacle in London.
Life did not go well for Murray. His first wife died, soon followed by his young son. Convinced that this was a sign from God, he vowed to give up Universalism and preaching and sailed for America in 1770, determined to be a printer in New York. Enroute, his ship blew up on a sand bar off Point Good Luck, NJ and the passengers waded ashore. A certain Thomas Potter, owner of the plantation on which they landed asked Murray what he did for a living and when he told him what he used to do but was giving up, Potter was disappointed. “I was looking for a preacher to speak in my new chapel on God’s everlasting love.” Murray looked up to heaven and said “Oh, all right” and made a deal with Potter. If his ship was loosed by morning he would sail up to New York but if not he would stay and preach. The next day the ship had not moved and Murray proceeded to preach his Universalism in America. Murray moved up the coast and preached in Newport, Rhode Island, Boston, Massachusetts, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and several other New England cities, finally settling in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in the latter part of 1774 in a little church which stands to this day.
Preaching that all souls go to heaven can make people pretty mad and he was suspected of being a spy of the British government, and a vote was passed by the town authorities ordering him to leave, but by the exertions of his friends he was permitted to remain and to preach. The freedom to preach our truth in love is at the heart of heritage as Elizabeth Warren demonstrated last week. Murray was chaplain to the Rhode Island brigade that was encamped before Boston in 1775, and was on intimate terms with several of its officers, including Nathaniel Greene and James Varnum, who united in petitioning Washington to permit him to remain in that capacity, when the rest of the chaplains urged his removal.
In 1783 he was plaintiff in an action to recover property belonging to persons of his denomination which had been appropriated to the expenses of the original parish of Gloucester on the ground that the Universalists were not legally vested with civil and corporate powers. Up until this law suit, New England towns owned the churches. The decision of the court in his favor established an important principle in the separation of church and state.. He accepted the doctrine of the Trinity, and believed in God as one “indivisible first cause,” in a personal devil, and orders of angels. His fundamental doctrine as a Universalist was that Christ literally put away the sin of the whole world, but he distinguished between universal salvation and universal redemption by fixing degrees of punishment that were to be inflicted before the final judgment, after which all the world, he believed, would be saved. (Adapted from Appleton’s Encyclopedia, 2006)
I consider myself more of a Universalist than a Unitarian. I believe that love is the most holy power on earth. Murray is one of my spiritual heroes. I love his hope, his optimism and most of all his willingness to recognize the love of God in all people. He did not sugar coat the wrongs of the world, he was a tireless advocate to doing something about it, “Give them not hell, but hope” he preached, all are bound for heaven but it is up to us to start that work on earth.
Heaven, or hell for that matter, is the most interesting and varied articles of faith. Part of what fascinated, and perhaps unnerved my friend at Staples is that our sort of heaven optional view is in such stark contrast to Western religions. The most difficult part of this belief in universal acceptance is, of course, evil. How do we reconcile evil with an all loving God? Or as my evangelical friends ask me “Does God let us get away with murder?” It’s a good question.
How do we become loving Universalists? We don’t lost hope.
I can still remember the Oklahoma City bombing and watching a firefighter carrying the body of a two year old that had died, tears streaming down his blackened face. I remember turning off the TV, as if I was somehow trespassing on a private moment. The image, like so many we have seen since then, haunts me. The answer to the problem is for me in the face of the firefighter. Here was a person who, like many of us, deals with life’s sorrows and struggles all the time. He could choose to be removed from it but he chose not; just as those police officers and firefighters chose to rush into the collapsing World Trade Center. Those of us who live IN the world, who give not hell but hope, feel through the hell we live in, in order to come out the other side of our humanity. This is to me the critical step in being heaven bound; it does not lie in waiting for heaven to come to us, but storming the gates of hell on earth to bring heaven to others. Heaven for me begins where the hell of suffering leaves off.
To live a worthy life is to realize that life is worth living. It would have been easy for any of us to have shut off these tragedies as far away and not of concern to us. But the heavenly aspect of all of us lays first in seeing that hell on earth is real and then doing something, anything about it. Redemption, for me, is not an afterthought to life, it is the foremost of our thoughts. The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, rushes into the hell of that life, bringing heaven to people on earth all the time. They act for us, making our faith real. They deserve our support for keeping us heaven bound. Hope not hell is what it means to be a loving Universalist
How else to be a loving Universalist? Remember that we are all related. Standing Rock is still in the news. I remember seeing a video recently of Veterans knelling before tribal elders asking for forgiveness for taking their land. As Meg Riley noted, how they can even speak to us is amazing, but then we remember that we are all related. Even if we stole our sisters land. And we are related to those who are on the other side of the political chasm as well. Whether there is a heaven after this life is really not the point. The point is we can start by bringing heaven down to earth right now.
How to be a loving Universalist? You can start with respect. So much of the hell we live through comes from disrespect and misunderstanding. Our anger even at those who are different only keeps us in hell. Last week I found myself screaming at the TV. What had happened to me? It comes in the smallest of ways, holding a loved one, handing out money to those who ask. Smiling when you feel like snarling. Story of Zen Master: When the Samurai warrior approached the Zen Master and commanded him to teach him about heaven and hell, the Master began: “Why you slovenly, dirty excuse for a warrior, look at you, your clothes are dirty, your sword is rusty and you smell.” The Samurai, enraged, drew his sword to cut down the old Master, when, without flinching, he said “That…is hell” Humbled with the realization of such wisdom, the warrior sheathed his sword and bowed before the Master in thanks, to which the Master replied “And that, old friend, is heaven.”
I do not believe that heaven has walls around its bliss or that only some get to go. Through fear, hurts and pains we all too often throw up our hands and say the world cannot change, or even worse, we cannot change. We forget that there is a difference between inevitable suffering and the suffering that can be relieved. After I left that Staples store it occurred to me that I knew nothing about the clerk. Whether his wife was ill, or his daughter had died. I had failed to first see the humanity of someone I disagreed with. What kind of loving Universalist was I? Universalism’ promise is that we are all related, and isn’t that what a God as Love remind us? We are one, even as we are apart from each other. Amen.