“Other People’s Things” by Meg Barnhouse from Did I Say That Out Loud?. ©2006. Boston, MA: Skinner House
Our Universalist forbearers were evangelical Christians with a message and a mission. They handed it down to all of us. The purpose of their faith was to bring “the good news” to a troubled people, an American people, bowed down by prejudice, fear, and the religious fervor of Calvinism which told them that they were damned to eternal hellfires by a judgmental, angry God. God, said Calvinist Jonathan Edwards sees us as a spider hanging over the pit of hell, and he may choose to loose us at any time.
What an obscene view of the world, and I am not sure we are so very far from it, in America today. We worry about the bodies and souls of our children as the world perches on the verge of economic and environmental disaster. We are enveloped in fear, and even suffering, taking pay cuts and losing jobs, worrying about keeping our houses and making sure our parents and children are safe while our national and personal dependence on fossil fuels remains and the warnings about global warming become more dire, and from more trustworthy sources. Perhaps we are not loved and wanted, perhaps our place in the universe is as precarious as that poor spider…Perhaps we have failed, or, worse yet, been abandoned by the Spirit.
But our faith, thanks to Universalism, is a faith of abundance. For over two hundred years we have denied hell and preached hope instead, and every morning, waking up in these frightening economic times, I have heard that old spiritual running through my head…”I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom”…
I am walking, talking, singing and praying, all, with my mind stayed on freedom.
Freedom from the fear mongers, the criticizers, those who are taking advantage of the situation. I am praying for our people, both our people gathered here in this sanctuary, and our people nationally, to be free not only of economic injustice, but more importantly of the hellfire and damnation message that surrounds the current crisis…The television and Internet are suddenly full of Calvinist preachers disguised as news analysts and bankers…My mind and heart and soul are fixed on hope, stayed on freedom, knowing we have faced economic hard times many times before, and we can do so again. I am turning off the television, and being choosy about my media consumption, so that my faith can inform the decisions I make right now. It’s my belief in hope, help, compassion, love and abundance that can see me through. We have not failed, and we are not abandoned. Our faith says that there’s enough, enough money, enough love, and it is only fear and shame that stand in the way of distributing that plenty in a way that makes sure all are fed, in body and in spirit. We are enveloped in a Spirit of plenty that cares for us in good times and in bad, that loves and comforts us, moves through us to warm our hearts and allow us to reach out our hands and help others in need.
This theology of abundance must be met by the practice of abundance. In times of economic crisis synagogues and churches and other sanctuaries of faith often do not suffer economically. We know why, don’t we? Because places of worship that are strong and healthy serve a dual role that no other organization in our society can achieve as well as we can.
Where else but church can you come and sit in a seat of your own choosing….and lay your burdens down? We will not charge you by the hour, nor exclude any of your friends or family members, and when you are really at the end of your rope we will hand down some more, and even begin to pull you up. Because there are no emotional baggage sales out there in the world, you can come in here and we will encourage you to let go of what is not yours to carry, what does not serve you, what hinders your hope, and when you leave we will sort and sweep and cart heavy things away. The next week, if you’ve made the mistake of picking up more of the same, we will not criticize you, but will begin again, in love.
At the very same time the money you’ve invested in church is serving others. We are reaching out. We are feeding and educating children who have lived in nothing but economic hard times their entire lives. We are giving them a chance. “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world, “ says Nelson Mandela, and we live into those words – educating children in Romania and Guatemala, and making sure children in the Yarmouth schools have enough hats and gloves and coats to stay warm, food at Thanksgiving and presents at Christmas….We use our money and time to make sure folks from all over this area have oil to heat their homes. And we are studying and implementing improvements in environmental justice…all of this because even with money, yes, money, we believe in possibility, generosity…we hold it in faith, we use it for good. That’s why we fund our sacred places, our spiritual places, even when the world is telling us that there isn’t enough money: Because hard times are the very times we need our favorite refuge open and functioning at the highest level possible, for ourselves, our families, and to assist our beloved towns and cities through the crisis.
Generosity used to be a term of exclusion. “The modern English word ‘generosity’ derives from the Latin word generōsus, which means ‘of noble birth’.” It has the same root as gentry, gentile and genius, among others. You could only be “generous” with your time and your money if you were a noble, an aristocrat, directly descended from kings. Luckily, the world, and our spoken language, has moved forward. Now we speak not of generosity as born of a noble birth, but eminating from a “noblility of spirit”, from a kind and generous heart, which any person may possess and choose to share through the open-hearted giving of financial resources.
By the same token, honest and compassionate religious behavior was long believed to be the province of a very few – of the “true believers.” History books tell us that our Universalist forbearers were not allowed to serve on juries. They were barred from being witnesses in court cases. “It was presumed that a Universalist would have no motive to be honest”, for if one did not believe in hellfire and damnation what WOULD their motivation to act on behalf of others and the good of the whole of humanity be?! The Universalist reply was simple and profound: “People should be good and do good, they said, because God has given us such a nature that we find it tremendously fulfilling to so conduct ourselves”. In our faith happiness and doing good go hand in hand.
Now, in the 21st century, we are generous and honest in our faith, and in the way we share our financial resources to support and encourage that generous faith, and we are a people of dignity and wholeness, affirming the dignity and wholeness of others, in a world that seems heel-bent on brokeness and pain.
“I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom”….There is speculation that this song and others had a sort of secret code imbedded in them, messages that helped fugitive slaves pass safely through the underground railroad and find their way to freedom. It is merely speculation. Our inability to prove such a theory, however, does not reduce the power of its meaning. In this song there is a message so profound that we speak it in a myriad of ways, in a whole host of religious and philosophical traditions: What you focus on will grow. Allow that focus on brokenness and pain to recede from your life. Deny it your time. Focus on freedom. Let you heart and soul be free of fear. Nurse your own pain with compassion, and allow others to tend to you lovingly, and feel your hope restored. Do not let fear and anxiety carry you away. Instead, know yourself to be part of an abundant faith, a generosity of spirit and of giving, that has changed this country for over 200 years, and can change the pinched and anxious place we are in right now into something expansive, life-giving, and saving for all.
Bring them hope, not hell, and live your life in the spirit of love.
“Brick By Brick” by Meg Barnhouse from Did I Say That Out Loud?. ©2006. Boston, MA: Skinner House
For further discussion on how a church with our membership can and should live into a spirit of abundance see Rev. Robert Latham’s Moving On From Church Folly Lane ©2006. Tucson, AZ: Wheatmark Publishers