Have you ever felt like you’re lost, but then you came face-to-face with something that said to you, “You’re not lost. You’re just in process of getting found”?
From all our various source traditions—from Buddhism and Taoism and Confucianism, from Judaism and Christianity and Islam, from humanist traditions and earth-based traditions, from all these and more—we Unitarian Universalists come face to face with this something that says to us, “Keep hope alive. Keep showing up. It’s going to be ok.”
Universalists in particular have championed this hope. For 250 years now, in America, Universalists have named the something God, and they have proclaimed a vision of this God as a God of abundance whose Big Love never fails, and all people and all things will ultimately be united with this Love. So, don’t be afraid of what happens after you die, first of all; the universe is ultimately safe. Second of all, know that this Love goes before you and carries you even as the hurts of life peck away at your spirit, even as the evils of society peck away at the innocent and the downtrodden.
Even so: this Love is with you, when all feels broken and lost, maybe completely lost.
Today, I want to share with you the story of the Universalist who came to America 250 years ago, whose preaching and leadership inspired his successors to call him no less than the Father of American Universalism, and with whom this year’s 250th anniversary celebration of Universalism on American soil is intrinsically connected.
The man called John Murray.
Most of his story is not really triumphal, however. It’s the story of a man worn away by life, who eventually came to feel utterly lost–but that wouldn’t be the end of that. In a most surprising way, he came face-to-face with a something that helped him see that he was just in process of getting found….
It’s one of the best stories that the history of Universalism tells, and it gets told over and over.
But I think that the best year of all to tell it in is our right year now, the year 2020, because of the mindblowing immensity of everything going on. Because it’s been eight months since we’ve shared this space together and we’ve felt each others’ hugs and we’ve felt safety in our togetherness. Because, collectively, things are feeling very ragged right now. Because, for each of us personally: it’s all over the map.
Things kind of feel lost right now.
So, it’s time for the story of John Murray to speak to our story, today.
John Murray. Born in England in 1741, died in America in 1815. I want to start in 1769, when he was still in the land of his birth. That year, he became a Universalist.
He and his wife Eliza had heard strange rumors about a church across town. People were whispering that in this church, wicked things were happening. Immoral things were transpiring. A strange doctrine was being preached. John and Eliza heard the whispers–and they absolutely had to check it out! But what they found was nothing wicked and immoral. No. It was a sober group of people who happened to believe that no one was going to be damned in hell for all eternity. That’s what John and Eliza found.
At first, the teaching repulsed John Murray, because like so many other people then and now, he believed that without threat of eternal hellfire, what’s going to ensure moral order on earth? What’s going to motivate people to refrain from doing bad, or to do good?
But eventually he saw that hellfire really isn’t needed. Love doesn’t need negative motivation. Love just does what it does, for the sake of Love.
Universalism increasingly made sense to him and opened his eyes to a world he had scarcely imagined.
Just one year after this life-changing discovery, though, he heard word that he and Eliza were being excommunicated from their home church in London. It was a Methodist church. Fellow Methodists had found out about his conversion to Universalism, and they wanted nothing to do with it. It didn’t matter that John was serving as a Lay Minister there, integrally involved.
John and Eliza had to go.
The year was 1770, and it saw wave after wave of misfortune. John and Eliza were following a call in their lives—a call to Universalism and its vision of abundance—but as it so often happens when a call comes, the status quo is disrupted. Things get shaken up. It was one thing after another. Wave after wave of trouble: John, arrested and imprisoned for debt, though soon released. His infant child succumbing to illness, and then death. Then Eliza became ill, and as John struggled to support her and provide medical care, his debts began to pile up again. Then Eliza died. Then John’s eyesight began to fail. One thing after another.
In the end, John Murray found himself contemplating suicide as the only way out.
For him, 1770 started out in a very bad way. I think you and I, living in 2020, can empathize with what that might be like.
Wave after wave of bad news, illness, disruption, disaster.
But now, consider the wisdom in the following saying: “Every problem has a gift for you in its hands.” Rather than commit suicide, John Murray started to look for the gifts in the problems. He started to ask of the circumstances of his life, “What are you here to teach me?” For this reason, when he happened to encounter, purely by chance, a traveler from America, he was curious. Didn’t instantly discount the meeting because it seemed random. He wondered instead, “What is the universe trying to say to me now?“ “What are you here to teach me, traveler from America?”
It was this: that he could have a new start in his life. A new start in a New World. One that, as far as he was concerned, would have nothing whatsoever to do with preaching. That’s right: this future founder of Universalism in America went to America with hopes that he was leaving religion behind him. He felt so wounded and so weary. He felt he had run out of answers.
John Murray never wanted to preach again.
In the fall of 1770, John Murray set sail from the land of his birth, on a ship called the Hand-in- Hand. He had turned away from hellfire and damnation to Universalism; he had turned away from suicide to a new start; and now, without knowing it, he was setting the stage for the next and greatest turning in his life.
Ever since, people have called it the Unitarian Universalist miracle. I prefer to see it as evidence of a mysterious yet very real dimension to the Interdependent Web of All Existence. I’m talking about synchronicity, coincidences that are so fine-tuned to the meaning of our lives that, when they happen, our jaws drop, and we come to see that there’s more to our Seventh Principle than meets the eye.
Have you ever experienced synchronicity? Here’s how it happened to John Murray.
Three days out from the Port of New York, his journey goes haywire. The Hand-in-Hand encounters another ship carrying word that the Port of New York is closed, and with this, the Hand-in-Hand’s Captain decides to sail to Philadelphia. There, he discovers that the news concerning the New York Port had been wrong, and so, scratching his head, once again he set sail for New York. But midway, off the New Jersey coast, the Hand-in-Hand runs aground on a sandbar, and it is held there by a strong wind. John Murray and everyone else aboard are stuck.
Stuck at a place called Good Luck. That was a real place, back then, though in time it would be incorporated into what’s now called Lacey Township. But you can still find Good Luck Point Park, Good Luck Cemetery, and other reminders of the old Good Luck.
But my main point is: how ironic, to be stuck at Good Luck!
The Universe has a weird sense of humor.
So: John Murray comes ashore, in search of provisions for the crew, and there he encounters a well-to-do local farmer named Thomas Potter. Potter meets him, learns that he has done some preaching before, and enthusiastically invites him to deliver a sermon at his private chapel on Sunday.
Now, you should know that Thomas Potter was an uneducated but deeply religious man who had heard about Universalism years earlier and was looking for a preacher to preach it fully and truly. Following the “if you build it he will come” principle, he had built a chapel on his property and invited every preacher he met to come speak. But none of them was able to articulate the abundance vision that was so precious to his heart. Ten years later—lots of sermons later—he was still waiting for the right preacher to come.
Enter John Murray, the man who promised he’d never preach again!
Of course, Murray initially refused the offer. But Potter was insistent. Potter wouldn’t let up. Murray found himself open to relenting—not just because of Potter’s enthusiasm, but also because he was getting the uncanny feeling that the universe was trying to tell him something. Too many meaningful coincidences, all coming together around Universalism. But Murray told Potter that he needed one more kind of confirmation before he was willing to break his promise of never preaching again. One more so-called “coincidence”: if, before Sunday, the wind didn’t change and he was forced to stay, he’d preach. But if the wind let up, he was outta there.
Between the two, let an act of God decide.
That’s how John Murray put it, and what happened was that the wind, in fact, did not change. The ship remained stuck at Good Luck. Come Saturday evening, John Murray had to face up to the message the universe was sending him.
He was going to have to preach.
Here’s what happened next, in his own words: “I had no rest through the night. What should I say, or how address the people? Yet I recollected the admonition of [Jesus]: ‘Take no thought, what you shall say; it shall be given you, in that same hour, what you shall say.’ Ay, but this promise was made to his disciples. Well, by this, I shall know if I am a disciple….”
Murray continues: “Sunday morning [came]; my host was in transports. I was—I cannot describe how I was. I entered the [chapel]; it was neat and convenient…. There was one large square pew, just before the pulpit; in this sat the venerable [farmer, Potter,] and his family, also particular friends, and visiting strangers. Surely no man, upon this side of heaven, was ever more completely happy. He looked up to the pulpit with eyes sparkling with pleasure … and he reflected on the strong faith, which he had cherished, while his associates would tauntingly question, ‘Well, Potter, where is this minister, who is to be sent to you?’ ‘He is coming, in God’s own good time.’ ‘And do you still believe any such preacher will visit you?’ ‘Oh yes, assuredly.’ He reflected upon all this, and tears of transport filled his eyes; he looked round upon the people, and every feature seemed to say, ‘There, what think you now?’”
Can’t you just see it? John Murray: not knowing if he were a true disciple; not knowing if he’d have words to preach; not knowing, not knowing—but feeling something. Feeling the push of an amazing synchronicity of events towards him taking up, once again, the Good News of Universalism. He starts preaching, and it was in this very act of doing what he resolved he would never do again that he realized, without any doubt, that yes, he was a true disciple; that yes, divine words of Love and Grace were being given to him to say; that yes, the meaning of his life from that point onward would be tied up with spreading Universalism’s Big Love abundance vision.
As for Thomas Potter: can’t you just see his overflowing joy, at his hopes fulfilled?
John Murray preached his sermon, and then he finished. And exactly then, that’s when the chapel door swung wide open. It was a sailor from The Hand-in-Hand, with news. The wind had just changed direction, and they were no longer stuck at Good Luck.
Good Luck was going to keep him grounded, apparently, until he was ready to accept the Good Luck….
He accepted it. He was lost and finally got found. The something that is God, that is synchronicity, that is a Thomas Potter who built a chapel and waited for his preacher to come, that is Good Luck—this something unequivocally confirmed John Murray in a career of preaching Universalism far and wide.
So what could stop him now? How could he not go out and find the other Thomas Potters scattered across America who were waiting to hear the hopeful message?
Build this faith? You better believe it. The very universe was saying to him, YES!
John Murray went on to become nothing less than a Johnny Appleseed of the spirit, spreading seeds of hope throughout the country, during the years of the American Revolutionary war, and afterwards. Building spiritual communities that change lives, like you and I are doing here and now, pandemic or no pandemic.
It wasn’t easy. Preaching abundance in a world of fear and scarcity is never easy. Plenty of people hated it, and they did all they could to stop it. They tried to lynch Murray several times, but he escaped. They would heckle him while he preached, but he kept on. Once, in Boston in 1774, he was preaching, and he happened to be standing right in front of a window. Someone outside threw a sharp stone through that window. The stone narrowly missed his head—it could have killed him, the stone was so sharp and big—and this is what happened next. Murray reached down and picked up that stone, showed it to his audience, and said, “This argument is solid, and weighty,
but it is neither rational, nor convincing.” And then got right back to his preaching.
I call this John Murray energy.
Resilience. Focus. Persistence. Belief. Faith.
John Murray may be long dead, but not the energy he embodied. Not at all.
2020 is challenging everyone. But it’s not been the only year to bring troubles. Every year does. Some years more than others, in ways big and small.
A shocking year for many Unitarian Universalists was the year 2008, when Jim David Adkisson went on a shooting rampage at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. It happened during their Sunday morning worship service, when around 25 children and youth were presenting a musical called “Annie, Jr.” Before he was tackled and his gun taken away, several people had been shot, and in the end, two died, including the hero who tackled him. Jim David Adkisson said he did it because he hates liberals; he hates their gay-positive stance; he blames them for ruining our country.
Some days afterwards, a healing service was held, led by Unitarian Universalist Association President Bill Sinkford, and one of the things it featured was a song by the very same children and youth whose performance had been brutally interrupted by gunfire. Those children and youth sang these words from Annie, Jr.:
The sun’ll come out
Bet your bottom dollar
There’ll be sun!
Just thinkin’ about
Clears away the cobwebs,
And the sorrow
‘Til there’s none!
I love ya Tomorrow!
“The congregation,” said one observer, “spontaneously joined in singing with them, and after a few seconds, when the impact of the moment had sunk in, the crowd erupted into applause, tears, shouts, cheers, and many more tears. As the cast finished their grand finale, they took their long-awaited bows to an adoring, grief-stricken, and healing audience.”
John Murray is long dead. But when the worst happens, and yet we are renewed and restored in trust of the Big Love that connects us in community and is larger than ourselves, that’s a John Murray moment. When we face the hate and respond with love, when people throw rocks or shoot bullets but we stay focused in our message and we keep on keeping on—that’s John Murray energy.
You know, Buddhism tells a story about a time when a bandit threatened the Buddha with death. “Then be good enough to fulfill my dying wish,” said the Buddha. “Cut off the branch of that tree.” That’s what the bandit did. One slash of the sword, and it was done. “What now?” asked the bandit. Said the Buddha, “Put the branch back.” This made the bandit laugh, and he said, “You must be crazy to think that anyone could do that.” “On the contrary,” said the Buddha, “it is you who are crazy to think that you are mighty because you can wound and destroy. That is the task of the weak. But to create and to heal—that is the task of the mighty.”
That’s the Buddhist story. Bandits of some kind or other will always come into our lives, cut off a branch, and think they are mighty. But our precious faith teaches us something better. It teaches us that true might is found in spreading hope, and healing. True might is building and nurturing a community where people can heal together and serve together and lovingly serve each other and the world. True might is trusting the Interdependent Web of All Existence which is a genuine Mystery and which winks at us at times through moments of synchronicity and we end up feeling seen and hugged by the Universe.
True might is spreading hope, building spiritual community, and trusting the Universe.
Build THIS faith. Don’t let pandemic chaos win, or the chaos of the election coming up. Channel John Murray energy and build this faith for all the Thomas Potters in the world who have been waiting so long to hear a truly hopeful word. Build this faith for the Thomas Potter that is within our children and is within you and me, hungrily waiting for hopeful words.
I love ya Tomorrow!
Whatever the past has been, you gotta turn towards hope.
What if you renamed every place you may be stuck at … as Good Luck?
Every problem has a gift for us in its hands.
Turn towards hope, and that’s where we’ll find … John Murray.