Rolling Away the Stone
by Sarah York
In the tomb of the soul, we carry secret yearnings, pains frustrations, loneliness, fears, regrets, worries
In the tomb of the soul, we take refuge from the world and its heaviness.
In the tomb of the soul, we wrap ourselves in the security of darkness.
Sometimes this is a comfort. Sometimes it is an escape.
Sometimes it prepares us for experience. Sometimes it insulates us from life.
Sometimes this tomb-life gives us time to feel the pain of the world and reach out to heal others. Sometimes it numbs us and locks us up with our own concerns.
In this season where light and dark balance the day, we seek balance ourselves.
Grateful for the darkness that has nourished us, we push away the stone and invite the light to awaken us to the possibilities within us and among us – possibilities for new life in ourselves and in our world.
Every religious tradition has its foundational stories, tales that neatly sum up some central message at its heart that invites the hearer into the faith. Just so, is the story of John Murray that you heard Joy tell earlier.
It’s almost too good to be true – like something out of the Book of Jonah – but as far as we know it did happen. Here this bereft Universalist sails off for a new life, only to have his ship caught in a storm and founder on a sand bar just off the property of a man who had built a chapel awaiting the arrival of a Universalist preacher.
In our newcomer classes I say that we call it our own little miracle story, and for many years some of our Universalist forebears tended to treated it like that. I’m told that years ago some churches would hold an annual “John Murray Day” in late September, the time of year when Murray arrived, that would be marked by special services or festivals. They’d gather and sing, “John Murray sailed over the ocean; John Murray sailed over the sea . . . .”
The truth is, though, that Murray’s stumbling upon Thomas Potter may not have been quite so miraculous as it seemed, though it certainly was serendipitous. As it happens, Thomas Potter was not alone in his community in his Universalist beliefs. There were, in fact, quite a few.
Remember that at the time of Murray’s travels – 1770 – many people seeking religious freedom were drawn to what was to become New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania, near colonies founded by the Quaker William Penn. Among them were members of pietistic sects whose faith had strong Universalist tendencies. Included were German Baptists, known as Dunkers, who had settled much of that area and that Potter himself may have had contacts with.
So, in truth, it’s not really accurate to say that John Murray brought Universalism to America. It was already here and eventually it spread out from many centers, ranging from Pennsylvania to the hill country of New Hampshire. That suggests that this story may be less important as an origin tale than as the tale of the journey of faith that even three and a half centuries later still has something to say to us.
With that lens, we can see when we return to the story that it really is one of awakening, an Easter moment of sorts that tells us of the hope of rebirth even at a time that feels most like defeat.
So, where does this hope come from? The Universalist answer to this has evolved over time as the tradition has evolved, but it is grounded in the basic understanding that this hope is not something we need to seek; it is something we are called to recognize.
John Murray’s understanding was different than ours. He felt that Jesus’ death on the cross gave us the assurance that all were saved. But Hosea Ballou, who succeeded Murray as the leader of the movement in the first half of the 19th century, disagreed that such a sacrifice was needed.
The Universalist notion at the time was that a God whose nature was love would not require anyone’s sacrifice, that the spirit of God’s love was present in all life now, that the world is good, our lives were good and we were made for each other. Our work, then, he said, was to feel this, align ourselves with it and to act with love for others and ourselves.
Ballou offered these thoughts in a book that disputed the traditional Christian doctrine of atonement, the notion that Jesus died for our sins and that suffering and sacrifice, such as Jesus experienced on the cross, is required if we are to experience happiness or wholeness. Such a theology, he said, is a good way to make ourselves and each other miserable that in the end makes us no happier or closer to the divine.
We can see how that works: as we each offer ourselves up for the suffering that we hope will earn us a chance at happiness we are locked into a twisted cycle where we accept abuse as the price of redemption.
It’s a pattern that unfortunately echoes throughout our culture today and that degrades our humanity and poisons our lives together. Yet, even when we know what it is doing to us, it can be hard for us to break through. When we experience a series of bad moments, something inside us bizarrely assigns them to ourselves as our due, perhaps the consequences of our selfishness or misdeeds, and persuades us that we are unworthy and unloved. It leaves us looking for a rescuer instead of mining our own resources, and so it can be a frightening gyre to be caught in and hard to find a way out of.
Rebecca Parker, former president of Starr King School for the Ministry, describes the faith of Universalism as the belief that there is a fundamental integrity to the world and that the fullness of love is available to us always. But it is, she says, “a fragile faith” because, given what we know about the world and how it works, it is something that we doubt profoundly.
Merit, or worth, we sense, is not something we possess; it’s something we must achieve. We trust in action, in our industrious nature to power our way through our problems. We live in a go-get-em culture that tells us that the way to fix things is to get to work: when the going gets tough, the tough get going. So, rather than trusting in any inner capacity, we shoulder the responsibility ourselves for making things happen.
The problem is, though, that in time, she says, “our will-centered religion comes to a crisis” because no matter how committed we may be, however earnest our efforts, there are limits to what our wills can fix. After banging our heads against the wall for a time, we’re not inclined to find much to celebrate in a world that, she said, seems “full of brokenness, suffering, and injustice.”
We become alienated, and with an alienated mind, Parker says, our care for the world, ourselves and each other that sustains our confidence and even our identity, can break down, resulting in a profound experience of grief.
She tells of her own experience of such grief after a series of terrible events in her life. And she found that nothing could stop her spiraling into despair. One evening, she said, she left her house for a walk with an eye to a nearby lake. Her face wet with tears, she said, she set her course for the water’s edge, determined to find consolation in 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 the Seattle Astronomy Club: a whole club 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.”
I wonder how many of us have had such a moment – not as dramatic, I hope! But I know that I’ve come to discouraging times where I wondered what the future could possibly be, where I was out of options to fix the situation and just dwelt in a pool of uncertainty.
“What saved me in that moment is difficult to fully name,” Parker said. 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.”
It was the most welcome kind of awakening – one not unlike John Murray’s – that cleared the fog and helped reorient her to a life centered in a hope-filled calling that was larger than the cares that dragged her down, a calling that was grounded in the fullness of life.
And so are we each called by a knowing deep within us to life and work that will help us realize who we are, that will carry us beyond our peculiar little universes into a common life in the presence of fellow travelers of all sorts and the vast reaches of stars. It is a moment fitting to hear Handel’s “Hallelujah,” a moment when we waken to a world, a life so rich that it astonishes us and fills us with praise.
As my colleague Sarah York suggests in the poem you heard earlier, many of us learn to hold our troubles within. In the tomb of the soul, we take refuge from all the hurts and yearnings, the disappointments and pain: all the heaviness that weighs us down.
We sit with all of it, perhaps even nurse and console it. But the time comes when our own wholeness calls us, in Sarah’s words, “to push away the stone and invite the light to awaken us to the possibilities within us and among us – possibilities for new life in ourselves and in our world.”
This is the season where we hear that call most urgently. As Robert T. Weston puts it, “this day of cold and gloom, chill wind and wet holds in its grayness the restless urge of upward straining life.”
“Stoop down,” he says, “and listen; thrust aside dead leaves, and see, under the ice crystals, that there is movement, as, undismayed, life steadily thrusts upward, nourished by the dark.”
This spring emergence is something we feel as well, an Easter awakening that assures us of life’s insistent urgings and so the hope of our own awakening.
Running through life, the Universalist Gordon McKeeman once said, “is the urgency to wholeness,” something woven deep into our being. And in that urgency is an enduring source of Universalist hope, something that attests, not to an inner deficit or lack but, but instead to a truth of a deep integrity that dwells within us, that invites us into love of ourselves, our fellows, of this blooming and buzzing world.
In this bounteous and blustery time of year, may you feel that urgency, may you know that love: may it shine, shine, shine.