Continuing to reveal 10 stories I wish every Unitarian Universalist knew….here are stories 4 – 6.
Story 4. The Winds of Hope – The Story of John Murray, adapted by the Rev. Barbara Palmer from the version found in Tapestry of Faith.
A person never knows for sure about the wind: where it comes from, what it blows in, what it takes away, how, suddenly it changes directions, and how it can turn a life up-side-down. It happened that way to one special man – unpredictable winds kept buffeting and reshaping his life.
For John Murray, an ambitious, young Englishman, excellent fortune had blown his way. He had a fine education, a steady job, a loving wife, and a beautiful young son. Life was so sweet. Then, without warning, an ill-wind blew, and everything changed. John’s wife and son grew gravely ill. They soon died. John lost his job, his possessions, and, finally, he found himself in jail because he was unable to pay his bills. Until this tragic time, John had been a very religious man, a Universalist in fact, who had preached the good news of a loving God.
After losing everything that mattered to him, he fell into a deep depression, and he was no longer certain what he believed. He felt as if all meaning and purpose had gone out of his life. However, caring friends continue to love him and finally convinced him to leave England for a new home where he could begin his life over again.
And so, on July 21, 1770, John Murray set sail for America on a ship named the “Hand In Hand.” A wholesome wind blew the “Hand in Hand,” its passengers and crew toward its final destination – New York City. As the ship neared the coastline, and everything seemed to be going well, suddenly a heavy, dense fog rolled in and enveloped the “Hand in Hand.” With visibility at zero, the ship was forced to slow down, for everyone aboard feared a shipwreck. In the confusion, rather than landing in New York Harbor, the ship drifted southward and finally ran aground in New Jersey – at a place known as Good Luck Point, to be exact.
Trying to figure out what to do next, John and a few other passengers volunteered to disembark, in order to go ashore for directions and to gather supplies. As he made his way on land, John encountered a farmhouse with a small chapel adjacent to it. The farm belonged to a man named, Thomas Potter. Spotting John and his companions on his land, Thomas Potter ran out to greet them, offering food for everyone onboard ship, and, curiously, inviting John to return later and join him for dinner.
What John did not know at the time, was that this humble farmer had taken very seriously a vision he’d experienced several years earlier. The vision was that one-day, a minister would come to his chapel to preach the good news of an astounding kind of love – the kind of love that would nourish every person and triumph over every circumstance.
Thomas Potter had built the chapel, this small meeting-house next to his home, for that expected preacher. When Thomas saw the “Hand-in-Hand” run aground, he had the overwhelming conviction that his preacher was on that ship.
That evening, as John returned to Thomas’ home for dinner, Thomas greeted him with these words: “Come … my friend, I’m glad you have returned. I have longed to see you, and I have been expecting you for a long time.” (The Life of John Murray, p. 125)
Before dinner, Thomas showed John the chapel and explained his dream of how his chapel would be the place where a truthful, loving, inclusive religion would be preached – a religion without the popular themes of the day: judgment and damnation. John confessed that he had once held the same beliefs.
Thomas Potter told John that he had built the chapel and had been waiting for that particular minister to arrive. “You, John, are that minister.” John did not want to hear this. He wasn’t a preacher anymore and he’d promised himself never, ever to preach again. After all the pain he’d endured, and his deep suspicion of the divine, John wanted nothing more than to flee from all religion entirely. Yet, Thomas knew in his heart that John Murray was, indeed, the preacher he’d been waiting for, and he begged John to preach that coming Sunday.
“I can’t preach on Sunday, because as soon as the wind changes, my boat will sail, and I will be on it.”
“If the boat doesn’t set sail by Sunday, then will you preach?”
John relented, “If I am still here on Sunday, then I will preach.”
The wind did not blow. The “Hand In Hand” did not sail away.
Thomas, realizing his dream-nearly-come-true, quickly sent out word to his friends and neighbors that there would finally be a service in the meeting-house on Sunday morning, and that the man envisioned in his dream, so many years earlier, had finally arrived and would be preaching.
On Sunday, September 30, 1770, John Murray preached from that chapel the message of universal love, a love wholly and ultimately available to all people everywhere. The Universalist message of love was good news to all who heard it, and it was especially good news to John. His experience that Sunday morning, and the winds of change and hope that had brought him to this place, finally overpowered him. Rather than fleeing from religion and the pulpit, he realized he wanted to preach more than anything else in the world, and he did so, for many, many years. John Murray, today, is considered the founder of Universalism in America.
And so, today, we offer gratitude to the wind – the wind that blew the Hand in Hand onto Good Luck Point, and would not blow out John Murray before changing his life – and all of our lives with the power of hope, and the message of the transformative power of love.
Story 5: Rising Water by the Rev. Rebecca Parker
In 1976 I began a cross-country road trip, on my way to seminary. I traveled with a friend. We had time, so we decided to take back roads. One afternoon the road passed through rural western Pennsylvania. Late in the day, we came down through hill country into a valley. It had been raining hard, and as we neared a small town, we noticed blinking yellow lights warning of danger. We saw fields covered in standing water and passed several side roads blocked off with signs saying: Road Closed.
“Looks like they’ve had a flood here,” we said.
Coming into town, we crossed a bridge over a wide river. The water was high, muddy, flowing fast. Sandbags lined the roadway.
“Gosh,” we said, “They must have had quite a bit of high water to contend with here. Looks like it was a major flood!”
We headed out of town, following a winding country road, captivated by the evidence all around us that there had been a dramatic flood. Then we rounded a bend, and in front of us, a sheet of water covered the roadway. The water was rising fast, like a huge silver balloon being inflated before our eyes.
We stopped and started to turn the car around. The water was rising behind us as well. Suddenly we realized the flood hadn’t happened yesterday or last week. It was happening here and now. Dry ground was disappearing fast. We hurriedly clambered out of the car and scrambled to higher ground. Soaked to the bone, we huddled under a fir tree. No longer were we lodged in our familiar vehicle; the cold water of the storm poured down on us, baptizing us into the present—a present from which we had been insulated by both our car and our misjudgments about the country we were traveling through.
Story 6: African Song – adapted by the Rev. Nancy Bowen
It is or perhaps was the practice of some African villages to prepare for the birth of every child by sequestering the women of the tribe with each pregnant woman until together they discovered the song of this child. Throughout the pregnancy this unborn child would hear its song. At the child’s birth he is welcomed into the tribe in a circle ceremony surrounding the family as the village sings his unique song. Throughout his life any transgression of rule or civility severe enough to merit discipline is met by the village standing in a circle around this beloved member singing his song until he comes back to himself and understands who he really is and how life among them is sustained. It is the song of life that companions one in recovering from illness, in grieving loss, and at the time of leaving this life.
Can you imagine knowing one another well enough, loving one another deeply enough to call each other back to authentic self when one among us is lost in grief or greed or fear or confusion? Can you imagine? This is what it means at the deepest level to live the covenant between us –calling one another back to our truest selves –over and over and over again as each of us comes to recognize the unique song, that is ours.