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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

Of Hope and Courage

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, February 8, 2009


            Francis Anderson was a Universalist minister, who was one of my counselors when I was at summer camp at Ferry Beach in Maine , back in the fifth or sixth grade (that would be quite a while ago now). He wrote this little poem about a man he knew, a parishioner perhaps, who always described himself as being “Not very religious”:

 

He wasn’t much on religion, he said.
Seemed like a crutch to him, instead
He’d stand on his own…go it alone;
Because the whole thing is all in the head:
So he drank of beauty, but couldn’t share it…
And seized on truth, but couldn’t swear it…
Craved for love, but couldn’t spare it…
All in his head, he couldn’t bear it…
And only then, when his heart cried out,
Did he find what religion was all about.

 

            Do you remember Jesse Ventura? “The Body” they called him. He was a professional wrestler for many years. Then, somehow, he got himself elected as governor of the otherwise-intelligent and progressive state of Minnesota , where he served a single markedly uneventful and uninspiring and un-noteworthy four-year term.

 

            One of the things Jesse is best remembered for now is an interview he did for Playboy magazine in 2002. In that interview, the “Governing Body” (another of this nicknames), answered questions about a wide range of the issues of the day, including the relationship of religion and public life. Jesse had no place for religion, at all, it seems. “Organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers,” he said—a response which, unsurprisingly, garnered a lot of response in the media.

 

            The columnist E.J. Dionne asked Ventura if that meant that Martin Luther King, Jr., who gave his life for Civil Rights, was “weak-minded” because of the important place faith had played in his life and in his work? What about Dietrich Bonhoffer, the German theologian who was executed by the Nazis because he opposed Hitler? Or Mother Teresa—were her acts of compassion in the slums of Calcutta just a “sham” and a “crutch”, the actions of a “weak-minded” person?

            The lesson here, I guess, is that we should be careful when it comes to generalizing about religion.

 

            I think that when it comes to matters religious, the only criteria we have for judging the veracity of a faith—our own, or someone else’s—is the fruit it produces. Does it make people better men and women? Does it lead them to do something to try to heal the world’s pain, to make the world a more heavenly and beautiful place? That seems to me the only thing we’re really capable of judging, in any way at all, when it comes to the faith of others, or to our own faith, for that matter.

 

            So, if religion is a crutch—if it gives people something to hold onto as they make their way through this life; if it gives us something to cling to as we stumble about in the darkness—is that so bad? Is it so bad if it means that we come through life, through the darkness, through the storm of it all, with just a little more idea of why we’re here, “a little more courage, a little more hope, a little more responsibility, a little more mutual understanding and love.”

 

            Maybe more important than asking if religion is a crutch or not is asking what kind of crutch it provides.

 

            In the years immediately following the American Revolution, John Murray, widely acknowledged as the founder of American Universalism, spoke the stirring words that we shared earlier as our call to worship:

 

“Go out into the highways and byways of America , your new country. Give the people, blanketed with a decaying Calvinism, something of your new vision. You may have but a small light, uncover it, let it shine, use it bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them not hell but hope and courage. Do not push them deeper into their theological despair, but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God."

 

John Murray was always a man who spoke his mind. He was a religious thinker generations ahead of his time. The essential meaning of his words—spoken more than 200 years ago—ring with the same clarity and truth today, perhaps more than ever. Are there any two things that this old world of ours needs more of now than hope and courage?

 

Back in those days, the Universalists held the field against the orthodox Calvinist preachers of hellfire and damnation pretty much to themselves. Universalism—the idea that God was Love, and that a loving God would damn none of his children to Hell; that salvation was universal, for everyone, not just the chosen few. As one early Universalist preacher put it, “Even Almighty God Himself will not rest until the last sinner is pulled kicking and screaming through the gates of heaven!” That was radical stuff back in those days.  It was beyond the pale of the mainstream of American religious life.

 

But those early Universalists didn’t need social acceptance; they had other things going for them: They possessed an inordinate amount of energy and enthusiasm. They never passed up an opportunity for a debate, a discussion, or an argument. They wrote, and published, and spread their word. They organized churches in every town and village in which they settled, in some of the most out-of-the-way places imaginable—even by the standards of the early 19th century.

 

They believed, very simply, that theirs was the faith most in tune with the tenor of the times in which they lived—most in step with the democratic and optimistic spirit of the new American nation that was coming to birth. They knew that they had a mission: that they had a new and exciting and forward-looking faith to share with the whole world.

 

Even by 1835, the Boston Recorder, an orthodox journal, was still asserting that:

 

“Universalism is the reigning heresy of the day. It is spreading itself far and wide. It is poisoning more minds, and ruining more souls, than any, if not all, of the heresies among us.”

 

Well over 200 years ago, John Murray declared that there is within the most ordinary of people—within you, and within me, and within all of us—the most extraordinary shining light, which can pierce the darkness of our lives, and pierce the darkness of our world.

 

What people needed most, he said, was not more theological nit-picking or pecking orders. They needed hope and courage to help get them through life.

 

Way back in 1770, John Murray was telling the world that the true work of religion lay not in imaginings of hellfire and damnation or speculation of what terrible things might await us in the next life. It lay not in dividing the world up into “saved” and “unsaved”—but in trying to bring more understanding and warmth into our lives, and into the life of the world. That was the work we had to do as religious men and women.

 

Now, dome things about our Universalist (and our Unitarian Universalist) faith have changed over the years. (For better? For worse? Who knows? Everyone has an opinion. It has been said that if John Murray were somehow transported into one of our Unitarian Universalist churches today, he’d probably shake his head in amazement at what the faith he had helped to found had become.) Much has changed. But some important things have not changed:

 

Meeting in convention in Washington, DC in 1935, the Universalist Church of America avowed its faith “In the supreme worth and dignity of every human personality.”

 

Every statement of Unitarian Universalist faith since that time has included some variation of that cherished phrase.

 

The very first of our current Unitarian Universalist principles, adopted by our Association in 1985, declares: “We covenant to affirm and promote: The inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

 

“The supreme worth and dignity of every human personality.”

 

 “The inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

 

These are, clearly, words that echo one another.

 

Perhaps this is the most precious legacy which John Murray and our early Universalist forefathers and foremothers have left us.

Perhaps over time, the specific theological doctrines of universal salvation became less important to American Universalists. As the years have passed, maybe we have become less concerned about theological issues of heaven and hell, of salvation and damnation, per se. But the Universalist belief in the magnificent potential of our humanity—our belief in the absolute preciousness of our humanity in the eyes of God—is something that has remained constant and true from generation to generation. Perhaps this is one gift that our faith can still offer to a pained and bruised world today. Perhaps this is still our mission as religious people.

 

If this is “just a crutch” to get our world from where it is now, to where it needs to be, then so be it!

 

There are too many preachers of hellfire and damnation in this world of ours. There are too many that want to go on dividing the world up. There are too many voices of despair—hopeless voices, voices of selfish, narrow-minded salvation. There can never be too many voices of hope and courage.

 

God knows, there’s much in this world worth despairing about. There is much that is hellish and depraved and downright evil.

 

But there are just as many things that are true. There are just as many things that are honorable. There are as many things that are just, and pure, and lovely. I am a realist about this world we live in. I am a realist because I know the immensity of the problems this world faces:

 

Five thousand years ago, there were about 8 billion hectares of forest on this planet; today, half of that is gone, most of it consumed in the last fifty years. What is the Syrian-Lebanese desert today, was once an immense forest of sky-high cedars. More than half of the world’s fresh water resources have been used up or polluted. We’re more than halfway through the ocean’s fish reserves, 90% through most commercial species. We have used up more than half of the planet’s petroleum deposits. The richest 15% of the people in the world are now using up 85% of the world’s resources.

 

I am a realist about the state the world is in.

 

But I am an optimist, too—because I have seen the power that men and women of goodwill and sacrificial spirit have within them.

 

I have seen what people energized by hope can do.

 

I have seen what people inspired by courage can do.

 

And what they can do, very simply, is change the world.

 

That is what we can do in our individual lives when we have hope in our hearts; when we understand that there is a greater calling in life than fear—when we understand that the pain of letting go and changing is so much less than the pain of clinging for dear life to that which is slowly, surely killing us.

 

Religion provides different kinds of tools for us. Sometimes, it gives us crutches: the support of ideals greater than those our little minds can dream up; the eternal support of a Spirit of Life infinitely greater than any of our weak, little spirits; support of a community of blessed souls, who will hold when we need to be comforted, and support us when we are tired, and inspire us when we are confused—and even give us, when needed, a good swift kick to get us up and out on the next stage of our journey.

 

Hope and courage can be crutches.

 

But they can be tools as well: they can be shovels for clearing away the next stage of the road we need to take.

 

We possess, individually and as a church, only a tiny shovel. We possess only a small light. But today, more than ever, we need to uncover it. We need to let it shine.

The people around us don’t need any more hell in their lives. For whatever reasons, there’s enough hell right here, in this world of ours. But we all need more hope and courage.

 

            Let me leave you now with one of my favorite songs (one not by You-Know-Who, for a change). And “Fear not!”—for I am not going to sing it!

 

When you walk through a storm
hold your head up high
And don't be afraid of the dark.
At the end of a storm is a golden sky

And the sweet silver song of a lark.
Walk on through the wind,
Walk on through the rain,
Tho' your dreams be tossed and blown.

Walk on, walk on with hope in your heart
And you'll never walk alone,
You'll never walk alone.

 

            We are not alone. We have one another. We are joined as one with a Spirit of Life which flows through us all, and which inspires our hearts and souls with endless reservoirs of courage and hope.



 


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