Be That Guide By Taryn Strauss
Thomas Potter has a message for us.
On the shores of Good Luck, New Jersey, he built a church with no minister, and no congregation at all. Just a hope for a theology more loving and forgiving than one he had ever known.
He was illiterate, so he could not express the theology he so deeply desired to understand. This is not a story of how one man hit the books and became learned so he could be a preacher of a radically loving new theology. This is the story of a man who built the house for love, he created the conditions for something holy to step in, without knowing if it would ever come. God was his guide, and his affirming redeemer in his work.
We have the reverse experience of these hearty early Americans. Here we have the congregation, and we have the theologians and the message. We have each other. We lack a church building! What is guiding our work? We have gone through scary times before, and hard times, and we have suffered losses. What has gotten us through it, and what will we lean on now?
Perhaps there is something new in your life you need to manifest. A vision is brewing, but you have not built a house for it in your heart. Perhaps you have drawn your plans, and taken your measurements, and it is time to build something, ever so humble, and then when that house is sturdy, something new will come from across the ocean, and it needs your hopeful voice to speak it into being.
This is how miracles happen.
One of the other heroes of our story, John Murray, founder of American Universalism, found his guide in an itinerant preacher named James Relly in London in the mid 1700s, who after a Methodist schism, led an innovative theological platform proclaiming Christ’s unity with humankind, and in his death, full grace for all.
James Relly always denied that by enlarging the extent of the atoning grace of Christ’s death, he had become a universalist. However, his followers understood themselves to be Universalists.
Meanwhile John Murray, a devout Calvinist preacher from Ireland, wrote in his autobiography he learned that a young woman “of irreproachable life, remarkable piety, and highly respected, had joined Relly’s congregation. Believing that she had been “ensnared” by a deceiver and blasphemer, and certain he could convince her of her error, he led a small group to pay her a call.
After exchanging pleasantries, she expounded on Relly’s reasoning, leading Murray on a lengthy, breathtaking syllogism about salvation and belief. Its essence: If Jesus is not the savior of unbelievers, then isn’t asking them to believe in him a lie? And if you were once a nonbeliever, did he never die for you until you believed?
Confounded and embarrassed into silence, Murray took his leave. “From this period,” he wrote, “I myself carefully avoided every Universalist.” Yet Murray increasingly found his fellow ministers’ arguments against Rellyism hollow and was drawn to learn more.
He read Relly’s major treatise “Union” more than once, went to hear him preach, and before long was attending regularly and became a disciple. Murray gave an account of Relly’s worship service:
. . .there were no seats save a few benches; and the pulpit was framed of a few rough boards, over which no plane had ever passed. The audience corresponded with the house. They did not appear to be very religious; that is they were not melancholy; and I therefore suspected they had not much piety. I attended to everything. The hymn was good, the prayer excellent, and I was astonished to witness in so bad a man so much apparent devotion. . .’
The Universalists were not somber like the Methodists, nor pained like the Calvinists, they were lively and warm of spirit!
Soon after Murray’s conversion, the life he had known fell apart completely. H is young wife and their one-year-old son became ill and died, as did three sisters and a brother.
He fell into debt and fell out with family and religious colleagues who opposed his new views. He was depressed, considered suicide, and eventually decided to go to America and leave behind his old life, including religion.
Bound for New York, his ship ran aground off the New Jersey coast. To lighten the load, the captain put some cargo onto a local sloop that passed by and asked Murray to oversee it.
The ship was able to get off on the next morning’s tide. Just as it did, the wind shifted, and the sloop with Murray aboard was unable to follow. So he shipwrecked onto Thomas Potter’s property.
This is our Universalist miracle. Nobody walks on water or turns bread into fish, but here we have two men who let hope and love be their guides. Thomas Potter builds a church on an New Jersey coastline, and simply waits for someone to come and preach a loving God and not an angry, punishing God.
Then we have the newly converted preacher John Murray, depressive, tired of being misunderstood, grieving his dead family and all the fulfillment he had been promised earlier in life. Landing on the shores of American wilderness, a stranger in a strange land. And yet, he was recognized. Thomas Potter saw the preacher in him. The miracle was the force of love that brought these two people together, so they could recognize each other, complimentary visionaries, seekers of a loving God. That holy synchronicity. Have you ever felt this?
Like you were meant for something, to meet someone, and had a purpose you could not understand? Has someone recognized something in you, and built you a platform so you could do your bold new thing in this world?
In your life, you have known someone who loved you, who saw something special in you. These people who see more in us than we can understand, they are our guides.
Mary Oliver who died last week, writes about the earth as God’s body. In her poems, she frames attention as devotion, with the natural world as her guide.
She writes, in her poem Terns:
The years to come-this is a promise-
Will grant you ample time
To try the difficult steps in the empire of thought
Where you seek for the shining proofs you think you must have.
But nothing you ever understand will be sweeter, or more binding,
Than this deepest affinity between your eyes and the world.
The flock thickens
Over the rolling, salt brightness. Listen,
Maybe such devotion, in which one holds the world
In the clasp of attention, isn’t the perfect prayer,
But it must be close, for the sorrow, whose name is doubt,
Is thus subdued, and not through the weaponry of reason,
But of pure submission. Tell me, what else
Could beauty be for?
Faith is like this. A walk on a beach, without purpose, becomes a destiny fulfilled by a flock of terns who have a message just for you. What else could beauty be for?
Our devotion is our guide. In these times, we must be selective about what draws our attention.
Universalists across history will tell you, let love be that guide.
So when I too watched the iconic image of this last week, the white mob of teenage boys in red hats that read “Make America Great Again” smirking and mocking the Native American elder Nathan Phillips, I tried a new exercise. Instead of reacting and staking my claim in the argument, I waited for love to appear.
NBC news interviewed the cherokee elder Nathan Phillips, and every time the journalist asked him about his experience on the national mall, he responded by talking about his faith. “I asked creator god to protect me and stand with me and witness what was happening. When I put myself in prayer and used the drum to reach to God, that mass of young men surrounded me and the folks that were with me, and when I was in prayer, I wasn’t trying to stop anything, but I was spiritually moved to stay in the center of that whirlwind.” Though none of the boys, nor their teachers nor their parents have offered an apology to Nathan Phillips, has forgiven them.
In truth, this incident was essentially people expressing themselves, however irresponsibly, on the national mall, which is an appropriate national platform for public expression. Ideas and people have clashed in that space for decades, and they will continue to do so.
Some commentaries have accused social media creating a good and evil narrative, and I know we talk of outrage fatigue. But where some people saw performative outrage at that white boy’s smirk, I saw love. The outcry against the boys’ taunting mockery was an expression of love and hope for our country. I was grateful for the massive outrage of Americans who could not stand to see such unrelenting racist sneers in those youth.
I saw a revolutionary love rise up against such blatant disrespect. These boys’ faces and mob mentality are triggering and terrifying for people of color and women. Now I know the details are complex, and I know Nathan Phillips appraoched the boys with the intent to confront them, and there are probably layers of truth deeper than this brief analysis. It’s clear to me, these boys lack a true guide in their lives, and so out of that void they rely on fear and disdain of something beyond their understanding. They have bought into a white supremacist narrative that demands they sell off their humanity, and it is only love that can call them back.
My favorite Universalist sermon is Mark Morrison-Reed’s sermon titled, “Dragged Kicking and Screaming into Heaven.”
He suggests Universalism’s insight is that you cannot coerce people into loving one another. The commandments are not threats. If they are not fulfilled, God will not withdraw a love that is all encompassing. No one has ever, or will ever, draw true love out of another with punishment. God’s love is given to all and is a more a positive force for good than fear ever will be. Love is not just stronger than fear, it is stronger than death. Love survives in us, thus all the departed reside inside us.
Behind this is a simple truth: in being loved we learn to love. Those who are loved will in turn love others. Those who feel God’s infinite love within themselves will feel so good about themselves, so connected to life, so full of compassion that they will not be able to help but to spread that love. They will overflow with love.
You know what this means right? In being loved we learn to love. And Jesus told us to love thy neighbor as thyself. So, we must learn to love ourselves. Love like we are all on a plane that just took a nose-dive, and we have to put the oxygen mask of love unto ourselves before we love others. Thomas Potter built a house for love on that shore. We must build a house for love in our hearts. We need to take down the walls on our borders, and the walls in our hearts, and love ourselves first. This is no easy task, but with love as our guide, we can show ourselves compassion. We can laugh at all the ways we fall short, and love ourselves anyway. Then, once you have love for you, then you can be that guide that we so desperately need in this world.