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By the Rev. Lyn Cox
In the moments when common ground can be hard to come by, we can find each other again at the beginning of the story.
By retelling the facts and legends of our origins, we may feel awe and wonder together, we reconnect with our strengths, and we are called to be in relationship with one another.
The scientific story of the beginning of the universe can do that for us. I believe that origin stories, at their best, have the potential to do these same three things: revive our sense of wonder, remind us of our strengths, and call us to be in relationship.
Personal origin stories, community origin stories, and of course the origin stories of our faith are all powerful narratives.
To begin with, origin stories can revive our sense of wonder. That matters to me. When I am able to experience awe, it makes the difference between existing from day to day and living abundantly. Wonder is a sign that amazing things are possible. It is a source of hope.
Moving forward with hope is often difficult. There are obstacles and tragedies. Again, origin stories can inspire wonder to get us going again. Stories from turning points in our Unitarian Universalist faith serve this purpose very well. One that comes to mind is from the Revolutionary period of the United States. It is a story about one of the pioneers of American Universalism, John Murray.
John Murray had once been a strict Methodist preacher in England. In the process of attempting to convert heretics, he was himself converted to Universalism, the belief that all would eventually be saved. John Murray lost his job for embracing Universalism. His wife and child fell ill, and the Murray family amassed crushing debt for their medical care. His wife and child died anyway, and John Murray was barely rescued from debtor’s prison. Despondent, he was determined to leave everything behind, including his faith, and to start a new life in America. He booked passage on a ship called the “Hand in Hand.”
On the way to New York, the “Hand in Hand” got stuck on a sandbar in Barnegat Bay near Good Luck, New Jersey. John Murray was among those sent ashore in a smaller boat in search of provisions. Local farmer Thomas Potter came to meet Murray. Potter had been preparing for an experience of religious wonder. He listened to the Bible, drew his own conclusions, and built a chapel on his land where preachers could come with fresh interpretations of the gospel. He kept faith by waiting and welcoming the stranger.
Potter explained to Murray about the chapel, and invited him to preach. Murray initially refused, saying he would be leaving just as soon as the wind changed and his vessel was no longer trapped in Barnegat Bay. Potter responded, "The wind will never change, sir, until you have delivered to us, in that meeting-house, a message from God." They agreed that, if the boat had not moved by the following Sunday, Murray would preach in Potter’s chapel.
On Saturday night, Murray tossed and turned with uncertainty. On Sunday morning, September 30, 1770, John Murray preached a Universalist sermon to the Potter family and their neighbors. Indeed, after he preached, the wind turned, the ship was freed, and they left for New York.
Wow! See what I mean by a sense of wonder? I love that story because, even if you leave out the part about the miracle of the sandbar and the shifting winds, we still hang on to the miracle of a resilient spirit. Despair turned into hope.
Origin stories from the history of Unitarian Universalism and from the history of our universe inspire me with awe. I am amazed at the unlikely yet true events of the past. The sense of wonder I get from origin stories is a source of hope.
In addition to a sense of awe and wonder, origin stories can provide reminders about our strengths. Personal and family origin stories and community origin stories carry messages about the assets we have as we face challenges together.
One of the stories I tell about my family of origin is that I was raised in a den of wild nurses. My mother was a nurse. My closest aunts are nurses. My mom had nurse friends who would come over to the house or she would let me come with her when she went out to dinner with them. When I say they were wild nurses, I mean they lived life to the fullest, with joy and humor. They spoke directly, as if they didn’t have a minute to waste. At family gatherings, the other adults would retreat to the patio while the wild nurses compared notes on patient ratios or implementing the latest standards of the Joint Commission on Health or staying focused on patient care.
I learned a lot from the den of wild nurses. I learned what it means to have a calling, that the profession of caring will change you forever. I learned that a watch should count seconds, not just minutes and hours. I learned that joy and vitality come with sustained friendships. I learned to wear comfortable shoes. I learned that there is always room to learn more. My origin story reminds me of my inner resources.
Community origin stories can do the same thing. As your Interim Minister, I have heard about your beginning times at the YMCA, where you partnered for a better York and you worked toward interfaith acceptance. I have heard about your beginning again on Springettsbury Avenue, where you gathered a religious education program for children and inspired the minds of adults.
I heard about your beginning again on this campus, and the courage it took to dream of a sanctuary you could grow into. In that third beginning, you came through fire and a difficult ministerial transition. You learned that being excited about this congregation and inviting people into it gave you joy and gave you the energy to look outward together into your city and your world. All of those strengths are still within you, like the idea of branches and leaves inside an acorn. You have origins that can power your way forward, even as you acknowledge that the future will require some new strengths and skills.
As a congregation, you are now facing a call to a new beginning, because these times need spiritual communities ready for transformation. You need to be more committed to a mission of doing justice, loving mercy, and traveling humbly together on the path of spiritual discipline than you are committed to the notion of protecting against the authority to get things done, or to the idea of a church that divides people by generation, or to the aesthetic of worship as a symphony performance rather than the expression of a spiritually alive religious community on the move. The strengths of your origin stories can bring you together and help you grow and change as you embrace the beginnings that are yet to come.
So far, we’ve talked about two things that origin stories can do for us: they inspire a sense of wonder, and they remind us of our strengths. When we take a third look at narratives, they can call us to be in relationship.
One major origin story for Unitarian Universalism goes back to Transylvania in the 1500’s. Dávid Ferenc, court preacher to King John Sigismund, came to the conclusion that there was no scriptural basis to the doctrine of the Trinity. This was kind of a problem, since he was officially a Calvinist bishop. Dávid Ferenc debated at the Diet of Torda in 1568. As a result of the debates, King John Sigismund issued the Edict of Toleration, which officially recognized the Unitarian church for the first time, making it one of four protected churches in Transylvania. This was the broadest application of religious pluralism in Europe at the time. Dávid Ferenc transferred to the Unitarian church, retaining his title of court preacher for the rest of the king’s short life.
There are two things I want to note about the Edict of Toleration. First, it spoke of preachers and congregations, not individuals. Furthermore, the Edict of Toleration did not fully protect all religions or all religious people. It was, however, a step in the direction of religious freedom. Taking this lesson from a turning point in our history, Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists have advanced the cause of religious freedom ever since.
The story did not end so happily for King John Sigismund or Dávid Ferenc. In time, a new king arose who knew not Dávid. The new king kept the four recognized religions intact, but outlawed further revisions to their doctrine. Dávid Ferenc continued to grow and change in his religious ideas, which resulted in his death in prison around 1579.
On the other hand, the Unitarian church in Transylvania survives to this day, mainly in what is now Romania. You can go visit them. The Unitarian Church in Transylvania takes as its motto a verse from the Gospel of Matthew (10:16), “Be ye as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.” They know something about surviving through difficult times. Congregations might have given up after the death of Dávid Ferenc. They could have given up during the 20th century regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu. They did not give up.
Unitarianism was able to make the leap from being an idea to being a religion because of the members of congregations. They were able to survive a totalitarian regime because of the members of congregations. Sometimes we get the idea the history is a single-file line of exceptional people, each one handing off the tradition of greatness to the next. On our first look at origin stories, we might take narratives about famous individuals at face value, being inspired by their remarkable stories. With a second look, we find out more of the rich details, and see some of the implications for our own lives. With a third look at origin stories, we see that the stage of history is brought to life by an ensemble cast. There is always more than one character, more than one storyline that brings us through time to the present moment.
That’s why I believe that origin stories call us to be in right relationship. Our forerunners accomplished great things because of their ability to work together. We do not have to wait for an exceptional prophet like Dávid Ferenc or John Murray; we have to organize, to face our challenges squarely, and to speak the truth in love.
I also believe our origin stories can help us to be in relationship if we claim them as shared stories. Even with our mix of newcomers and longtimers, we can claim the beginnings of our congregations and our faith as our own. Retelling those stories gives us a shared experience. Each time we return to the narrative, we can lift up a new thread and learn something else. Origin stories, at their best, offer a sense of wonder, reminders of our strengths, and a calling to right relationship.
Some origin stories are unequivocally shared, such as the beginnings of the universe. That’s one final reason why origin stories call us to relationship: we remember that we have all come from stardust. The elements of our bodies were forged together in the hearts of stars. Every atom of which we and our earth and our solar system are comprised was once part of the same seed, the same blossom of dust and heat and gas and primordial elemental energy that grew to become the universe. Each one of us belongs in the universe as an unlikely, unique manifestation of life longing for itself. Let us begin again together.
So be it. Blessed be. Amen.
“Beginnings” by Rev.