The historic Universalist side of our religion says something powerful. 

It says, “Love the hell out of this world!” 

Say that with me: “Love the hell out of this world!” 

And we can do that, because, as Universalism teaches, hell is a human creation and therefore healed through human effort. Efforts of many kinds. Feeding someone who is poor, for example. Or, more ambitious yet, changing the system that creates poverty to begin with, and perpetuates it. 

One is about direct service. The other is about systemic change. 

And do you see how direct service is a smaller type of action, while systemic change is larger? How, going from one to the other, we are scaling upwards in terms of the “size” of the action? 

But there is an even larger kind of action than direct service or systemic change. Contemporary liberal scholars Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock aim to “love the hell out of the world” through action that is theological in nature, meaning that it’s about changing nothing less than how we imagine our world and ourselves. You just can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus. Mark Twain said that. Get your imagination right, and then you’ll be able to do justice to what’s right before your eyes. Your systemic change actions and your direct service actions will be all the better for it. 

Parker and Brock want us to get our imagination right and in this way love hell out of the world. 

They do this through scholarship about the early Christian church. Their book is entitled Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, and it revolves around a very curious historical fact that you may not be aware of. I certainly wasn’t, until I read this book. The fact is this: how Christian sanctuaries from earliest times until around 900CE were filled only with images of Paradise. Parker and Brock explain: “Images of paradise in Rome and Ravenna [churches] captured the craggy, scruffy pastoral landscape, the orchards, the clear night skies, and teeming waters of the Mediterranean world, as if they were lit by a power from within. Sparkling mosaics in vivid colors captured the world’s luminosity. The images filled the walls of spaces in which liturgies fostered aesthetic, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual experiences of life in the present, in a world created as good and delightful.” 

Do you see the image of Jesus in this ancient mosaic? He is at bottom center, portrayed as the Good Shepherd who guides people to create communities in which the abundance of life might be realized. 

The image repeats again and again, in church art and architecture before 900 CE. Here’s another image of Jesus the Good Shepherd. This one happens to be one of the oldest images of Jesus in existence: 

Follow the teachings of the Good Shepherd, and abundant life in this world can happen for you. That’s the message. 

Until around 900 CE. That’s when you start finding images of something completely different, and opposite of Paradise: images of Jesus’ crucified body. Horrific, gruesome images of violent sacrifice. Brock and Parker, again: “After searching in vain for images of Jesus’s dead body in the ancient churches of the Mediterranean,” says Rebecca Parker, “we found the corpse of Jesus in northern Europe, in a side chapel of the enormous Gothic cathedral in Cologne, Germany. There, among the mottled light and shadows, hangs the Gero Cross, the earliest surviving crucifix, sculpted from oak in Saxony around 965.”

Now, the broken body of Jesus is pretty much everywhere in Christian churches, to some degree of explicitness or other. This is a given today. But it has not always been so. 

It leads Brock and Parker, in their book, to ask the Christian church today (as my colleague the Rev. Frank Carlson puts it): “Why have you taken the story of Jesus, the radical rabbi, teacher, healer, and liberator, and wrapped it up in images that glorify death and suffering? Why have you focused more on how Jesus died rather than how he lived? Why do we celebrate torture, and glorify suffering with passion play reenactments, and movies like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ?” 

Why why why? Why indeed? 

There is a story in architecture and art that is trying to be told here. A mystery that needs solving. Parker’s and Brock’s book, Saving Paradise, is nothing less than a spiritual biography of the Christian tradition. And as we consider where they lead us, I want us to be aware of how this is not merely about something impersonal and out there. Parker and Brock’s way of telling the spiritual biography of the Christian tradition can inspire and guide how we as individuals tell our own, intensely personal spiritual autobiographies. 

That’s the added benefit to knowing about all this. Even if you do not identify as Christian–even if your preferred images of the sacred and the holy are something decidedly other than Christian–still, there is much to take from this. 

The art and architecture of Christian churches pre-900s CE evoke the Universalist story of how the world is born in goodness, and how each human being has inherent worth and dignity. The focus is on how Jesus as the Good Shepherd wants to guide people into creating communities with love and justice at the center, so that all can partake in abundant life in our here-and-now world. 

And then that focus is radically shifted to a glorification of death and suffering, and the violence porn of gory crucifixion scenes. It seems to have gotten stuck there, ever since. 

What happened? 

What happened was trauma. Rome co-opted Christianity and violated it. Christianity became Rome’s violent instrument. Says Brock and Parker: “A thousand years after Jesus, the brutal logic of empire twisted the celebration of his life into a perpetual reenactment of his death. The Gero Cross was carved by descendants of the Saxons, baptized against their will by the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne during a three-decade campaign of terror. Charlemagne’s armies slaughtered all who resisted, destroyed shrines representing the Saxons’ tree of life, and deported 10,000 Saxons from their land. Pressed by violence into Christian obedience, the Saxons produced art that bore the marks of their baptism in blood.”

In other words: TRAUMA. And there are so many chapters of this: of Empire victimizing entire peoples and using Christianity as its weapon. Our every Sunday Land Acknowledgement witnesses to just one episode of this, with its shattering impact on Native Americans. And there is episode after episode after episode more to mourn and to witness to. 

You just can’t tell the spiritual biography of Christianity rightly unless you tell this part of the story. 

Same goes for the spiritual autobiography of every one of us. We can’t get to spiritual depths until we come face to face with the traumas that have happened to us. Because when a person or an entire religious tradition are traumatized and violated, invariably what happens next is the adoption of survival strategies and a simultaneous forgetting of the Paradise that came before and was original. We forget that we’d ever lived lives full of grace. The poet William Worsdworth touches on this when he says: 

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,

    The earth, and every common sight,

                       To me did seem

                   Apparelled in celestial light,

         The glory and the freshness of a dream.

It is not now as it hath been of yore;—

                   Turn wheresoe’er I may,

                       By night or day.

The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

Now–now–now: we remember only that life has always been hard, a struggle, a repeat after repeat of the exact people or problems that we want to avoid but fate seems to keep on bringing them our way….

There are several styles of survival. One style is authoritarianism. The traumatized person or the traumatized religious tradition stands with the one that has oppressed them. Some call this Stockholm syndrome. Others think of one of the characteristic instinctive responses people have to threat: not fight, not flight, not freeze, but fawn.  

What we saw in Christianity, after Empire co-opted it, was the proliferation of art and architecture that made Jesus’ violent death the center. We saw theologies that blessed war and conquest and colonization and racism and doomsday end-time scenarios and exploitation of the earth and guns, and we’re still seeing that today. We saw the meaning of the Eucharist (or communion) change FROM celebrating the gifts of the good earth and the gifts of good loving community TO perpetual re-enactments of Jesus’ violent death which are supposed to be necessary because God is supposed to be the sort of God that thirsts for vengeance against an imperfect world and demands sacrifice….


Salvation used to be about entering into Paradise in this life, through the creation and action of loving communities. But, salvation mutated into a focus on a Paradise that was beyond this world, while this world was seen as inherently violent and what you were supposed to do was just keep your head down and keep grinding away. When your leaders called for violence, you’d obey, you’d do your job, you’d see it as your way of securing immortality in some distant heaven. Pope Urban II in 1095 literally taught that. He literally said that if a person joined the Crusades against Muslims, that their violence would earn them eternal life. 


Now don’t get me wrong here. There’s no such thing as Christianity. I’ll say that again: There’s no such thing as Christianity. There are only Christianities. There’s only plural forms of that faith. Some of you who were raised Christian did not experience authoritarianism growing up. If today you are a Unitarian Universalist Christian, you know that your faith is the opposite of authoritarian. 

Which leads, then, to the other survival style that trauma can trigger–the other style I want to explore today. It’s the liberal and progressive style. It is characterized by an insistent and uncompromising battle against all forms of social oppression and injustice. Social Gospel Christianity of the early 20th century is a great example of this liberal form of the Christian faith. 

This was Rebecca Parker’s own version of Christianity in her youth. She says, “When I was a child, the Social Gospel meant that we as faithful Christians campaigned for integrated, nonrestricted neighborhoods to counteract racism in our community, marched for civil rights, and worked to end the war in Vietnam and advance economic self-determination for people around the world.” 

But she goes on to say, “Immersed in this tradition of Christianity, I learned firsthand its strengths—and limitations. The hoped-for future perpetually condemns the present. The failure of the world to conform to God’s vision of justice and abundance is laid at humanity’s feet: We have not yet worked smart enough, been well-enough organized, convinced enough people, or corrected the flaws in our approach. Social Gospel Christianity,” she says, “has had a home in the heart of mainline Protestantism. It is a great vision, but perhaps it has flagged in zeal because weary spirits have labored for an ideal world but have neglected to attend to their own soul’s thirst. In the absence of a divine wellspring in the present, when the going gets tough, there is nothing to fall back on.”

That’s what Parker says, and you don’t have to be a liberal Christian or a Unitarian Universalist Christian to empathize with what she’s saying. Compassion fatigue cuts across all theologies! Perfectionism cuts across them all! 

Liberal perfectionism is as much a survival strategy as authoritarianism, and while the authoritarian sells their soul to the oppressive establishment, the liberal perfectionist becomes subject to what Buddhists call the “second arrow.” As in, not only are we caught up in the pain that has traumatized us to begin with, but we are condemning ourselves for never being able to solve all the injustices of human existence and for always falling short. 

The bitter irony of liberal perfectionism is that all the pain just makes us too fragile to do the work that truly is ours to do. That’s the bitter irony in our liberalism. Perfectionism blocks progress. 

But whatever the survival strategy we’re talking about–militaristic authoritarianism or moral perfectionism–it’s just about fragile people trying to cope with trauma and trying to do the best they can as best as they understand it in the moment. 

People are just trying to love the hell out of the world as best as they can.

God, let us bring compassion to each other. 

Right now, just breathe compassion into each other and into our hurting world. 

We must honor the survival strategies, but they are a form of ignorance and they don’t heal the trauma and they don’t help things get to a better place. 

Let’s not just survive any more. Let’s thrive. Let’s remember what trauma has jarred out of consciousness. Let’s lift our eyes from death and towards life. “Once upon a time,” says Terry Tempest Williams,

There was the simple understanding 

that to sing at dawn 

and to sing at dusk 

was to heal the world through joy.

The birds still remember

What we have forgotten,

That the world was meant to be celebrated.

Let’s find our way back to remembering this, our birthright. Let it be possible for us again. The gracious space that birds are still in, that we once lived in, and could live in again.

Any complete spiritual autobiography must answer the question: what has helped an entire religious tradition or an individual person to remember? What has jarred them out of survival strategy mode and put them on the path of healing? 

For Parker, with regard to Christianity, we already know it was the testimony of ancient church art and architecture, before 900CE, which defies the militaristic authoritarianism of the right and the moral perfectionism of the left. But it was also this: discovering the brilliant 17th century mystic and church founder Jane Lead (1624-1704). This brilliant woman, says Parker, laid the groundwork which, in a later time and in a different continent, would be picked up and professed by American Universalists we know better, like Hosea Ballou. 

In the church she founded, Jane Lead preached that people’s senses could be ecstatically opened to tasting, seeing, and hearing the this-world Paradise that is within, among, and all around us. “For Lead, entering paradise meant being spiritually transformed into a person rooted in love, who was growing and unfolding as a plant in the Garden of God.” It is a vision full of mother-love–so appropriate for a Mother’s Day. She told people they could become trees springing up from the rich loam of wisdom and goodness, drawing sustenance from the river of life, yielding fruits of compassion, generosity, and healing. Paradise could be now, she taught, and our own lives could be part of the renewal of paradise.”

This week I received a package in the mail that I did not order. I have no clue where it came from. I opened it and what I saw was something called The Nap Ministry’s Rest Deck: 50 Practices to Resist Grind Culture. It’s a literal deck of cards. It’s about self-care. Here’s what some of them say: 

  • There is no urgency. There is no perfection. I am enough now. 
  • To rest in a capitalist world takes practice and meticulous care. 
  • Rest is not a privilege. Rest is a human right. I don’t have to earn rest. 
  • Rest makes me hopeful, open, and tender. I will snatch rest today. 

The deck contains 50 of these kinds of meditations, together with related practices. I swear, it’s as if Jane Lead somehow time-traveled to the present moment and somehow knew I would be preaching about Brock and Parker and about her, and she wanted to shine mother-love upon me and give me a very clear sense of what she’s talking about when she talks about spiritual restoration and the need to educate/re-educate our senses and what might lead to genuinely feeling like you are indeed a being planted in God’s garden and your roots sip from the River of Life. 

By no means is the suggestion here that evil and injustice have somehow magically disappeared. In this good world there will still be ugliness. The issue is how a sense of fundamental belongingness to grace can help anyone heal survival strategies of authoritarianism or perfectionism and use their power far more wisely and responsibly than before. 

And we are back to the beginning of this sermon. Loving the hell out of the world, through direct service and through systemic change. But with a Universalist mind and a Universalist imagination, that helps our eyes see the ever-present possibility of Paradise in this world no matter how daunting things feel. 

With a Universalist mind, too, that understands that sometimes, the best you can do is rest in the grace of the world and trust in the divine wellspring in the present, and be free. 

An imagination expanded like this can save your life. 

Rebecca Parker knows. 

She tells a story about a time in her life (relayed by Rev. Mark Ward) when terrible things were happening to her, one after another, and in her grief and in her despair she was suicidal. One evening she left her house for a walk with an eye to a nearby lake. Her face wet with tears, she set her course for the water’s edge, determined to find consolation in the lake’s cold darkness.

Entering a park leading to the lake, she walked onto the wet grass and discovered between her and the lake what seemed like a barricade that she would have to cross. She didn’t remember the barricade being there, but when she got closer she saw it was a line of people hunched over what seemed strange spindly-looking equipment.

It was telescopes! It was the Seattle Astronomy Club: a whole gaggle of amateur scientists up and alert in the middle of the night, because the sky was clear and the planets were aligned. 

On her way to the lake, she was stopped by an enthusiast who assumed that she had come to look at the stars.

“Here,” he said. “Let me show you.”

And he began to describe the star cluster that his telescope was focused on. Brushing tears away, she peered in the lens and focused her eyes. And there it was: a red-orange spiral galaxy. That ended her walk to the lake. As she put it, “In a world where people get up in the middle of the night to look at the stars, I could not end my life.”

“What saved me in that moment is difficult to fully name,” Parker says. But in the end, she decided, “I was saved by the human capacity to love the world . . . by being met, right in the center of the pathway of my despair by one – actually one hundred – who wouldn’t let me go that way . . . by the stars themselves, by the cool green grass under my feet, by the earth, the cosmos, its presence, which won me over, persuaded me to stay.”

Whenever we find ourselves crushed, or dry, or in deepest grief and despair, may we be met right in our pathway by reminders of Paradise. Anything can help nudge us back to that. If not amateur astronomer enthusiasm on a gorgeous night with a sky full of wondrous stars–then maybe a mysterious package that comes to you out of the blue, delivering a card deck with wisdom about rest. 

The world hurts us all. Terrible trauma can result, and survival strategies develop that initially save us but in the end only make things worse. Yet the way of religion is the way of remembering who we really are, ultimately, fundamentally, no matter what the surface appearances look like: planted in God’s garden, with roots sipping from the River of Life. 

That is our origin. 

That is our destiny.