Turnings: The Amazing Story of John Murray

From Buddhism we have the following story, about a time when a bandit called Angulimal once threatened the Buddha with death. “Then be good enough to fulfill my dying wish,” said the Buddha. “Cut off the branch of that tree.” And that’s what the bandit did. One slash of the sword, and it was done. “What now?” asked the bandit. Said the Buddha, “Put the branch back.” At this, the bandit laughed. “You must be crazy to think that anyone can do that.” “On the contrary,” said the Buddha, “it is you who are crazy to think that you are mighty because you can wound and destroy. That is the task of children. But to create and to heal-that is the task of the mighty.”

And it is our task as well. From all our various source traditions-from Buddhism and Taoism and Confucianism, from Judaism and Christianity and Islam, from humanist traditions and earth-based traditions, from all these and more-we Unitarian Universalists hear the call to be mighty. We hear it clearly, and there is a reason why. It‘s because of our own spiritual ancestors, who paved the way. They opened up our ears-especially our ancestors from our Universalist side. These Universalists were intimately familiar with what the bandit Angulimal in the Buddha’s story represents: evils coming into our lives to steal and destroy. Specific incidents, but also ideas, visions of reality.  Especially this vision: that there’s just not enough love to go around, not enough grace, not enough forgiveness-the vision in that only some are elected to enjoy eternal salvation, while others are doomed to suffer eternal torment. Faced with a vision of reality like this, our ancestor Universalists could not stay silent. They proclaimed, against this vision of not enough, a vision of abundance, in which there is ALWAYS enough love to go around. Even when the economy of life seems to be in a slump, and people are feeling the pinch, there’s ALWAYS enough of what is essential. Love is eternal and abiding, and God does not take sides; God does not divide sheep from goats. God is good. This is the original Universalist vision, which our spiritual mothers and fathers proclaimed in the face of scarcity-based and fear-based visions of reality. They said to America, in the 1700s and 1800s and 1900s, “Abundance is real. Love is real. This is how the universe is. So our privilege is to live into this. Don’t allow fear to rule our lives; fear is not realistic. Connect with joy instead. Connect with compassion. Feel it. Trust it. Live the life abundant. Experience it for yourself to the degree that you give generously. Give back, even as you have been given to. Be mighty like this. Create, and heal.” This is what they said. Be seized by the vision. Be transformed by it. Know it not just in your head, but in your heart, your actions.

And clearly, this is easier said than done, then and now. The vision of abundance is just not unshakeable. Hurricanes of one sort or another just come roaring in. Events like 9/11. Just a little over a month ago, a gunman entered into our sister congregation in Knoxville, Tennessee during the Sunday morning worship, when around 25 children and youth were presenting a musical called “Annie, Jr.” Before people were able to tackle him and take away his gun, several people had been shot, and in the end, two died, including the hero who tackled him. The shooter, Jim Adkisson, said he did it because he hates liberals; he hates their gay-positive stance; he blames them for ruining our country. The vision of abundance is just not unshakeable. In ways small and large, the circumstances of life can turn us away from it, and we get lost in our angers and resentments, we get lost in our sadness and hopelessness, we get lost in our self-absorption and greed. Fear wins. Scarcity wins. And so the continual challenge: to turn back towards the abundance of life which Universalism says is really there, despite the shake-ups and stress, despite the cruelties and pains. Coming to know abundance even more deeply than before, in fact, because the more our hearts are cracked, the more light can come in. Experiencing restoration and healing, so that when the bandit comes, we can be even mightier than before.

All of this-the call to respond to life from a place of abundance and be mighty, the continual challenge of doing this in the face of life’s troubles, and yet the ever-present possibility of restoration and healing, of turning back to the hope-filled vision-all of this we see in the amazing story of the founder of Universalism in America, John Murray. Let’s take a look. His life speaks to our lives today.

John Murray. Born in England in 1741, died in America in 1815. I want to start in 1769, when he was still in the land of his birth. That year, he became a Universalist. It happened like this. He and his wife Eliza had heard strange rumors about a church across town. People were whispering that in this church, wicked and immoral things were happening, and a strange doctrine was being preached. John and Eliza absolutely had to check it out! But what they ended up finding was nothing wicked and nothing immoral, but a sober group of people instead who believed that no one was going to be damned in hell for all eternity. At first, the teaching repulsed John Murray, because like so many other people then and now, he believed that without threat of eternal hellfire, what’s going to ensure moral order on earth? What’s going to motivate people to refrain from doing bad, or to do good? But he got over that. Universalism, he realized, was true, and it changes lives.

In his case, though, one of the changes was quite painful. One year later, in 1770, he was excommunicated from his home church in London, a Methodist church, where he served as a lay minister. Fellow members had found out about his conversion to Universalism, and they wanted nothing to do with it. John and Eliza had to go.

This was just the start of wave after wave of misfortune. It’s but another example of the truth in the idea that when we follow a call in our lives-even a call to abundance-we find things disrupted and shaken up. Wave after wave of trouble: John Murray, arrested and imprisoned for debt, though soon released. His infant child succumbing to illness, and then death. Then Eliza became ill, and while struggling to support her and provide medical care, his debts began to pile up again. Then Eliza died. Then his eyesight began to fail. One thing after another. In the end, John Murray found himself contemplating suicide as the only way out.

Ever had a year like that? Is THIS year a year like that? Wave after wave of bad news, illness, disruption, disaster? But now, consider the wisdom in the following saying: “Every problem has a gift for you in its hands.” Rather than commit suicide, my sense is that John Murray started to look for the gifts in the problems. He started to ask of the circumstances of his life, “What are you here to teach me?” For this reason, when he happened to encounter, purely by chance, a traveler from America, he was curious. Didn’t instantly discount the meeting because it was tied up with chance. Wondered instead, “What is the universe trying to say to me now?” “What are you here to teach me, traveler from America?”

It was this: that he could have a new start in his life. A new start in a New World. Which he was desperate for. A totally new start. One that, as far as he was concerned, would no longer have anything to do with preaching. That’s right: this future founder of Universalism in America went to America with hopes that he was leaving religion behind him. The bandit had roared into his life one too many times, and he had run out of answers. John Murray never wanted to preach again.

Oh, life can hurt. There are times when, truly, it feels like there isn’t enough love to go around….

And so, in the fall of 1770, he set sail from the land of his birth, on a ship called the Hand In Hand, for the Port of New York. He had turned away from hellfire and damnation to Universalism; he had turned away from suicide to a new start; and now, without knowing it, he was setting the stage for the next and greatest turning in his life.

Ever since, people have called it the Unitarian Universalist miracle. I prefer to see it as evidence of subtle order in the universe, the abundant web of life into which each of our lives is woven. I’m talking about synchronicity, coincidences that are so fine-tuned to the meaning of our lives that they seem anything but random. Have you ever experienced synchronicity? Here’s how it happened to John Murray.

Three days out from the Port of New York, his journey suddenly goes haywire. The Hand in Hand encounters another ship carrying word that the Port of New York is closed, and with this, the Hand in Hand’s Captain decides to sail to Philadelphia. There, he discovers that the news concerning the New York Port had been wrong, and so, scratching his head, he once again he sets sail again for New York. But midway, off the New Jersey coast, the Hand in Hand runs aground on a sandbar, and it is held there by a strong wind. John Murray and everyone else aboard are stuck.

Stuck at a place called Good Luck. I’m not kidding. The Universe has a weird sense of humor, even as it continually conspires to help us live out our calls. So: John Murray comes ashore, in search of provisions for the crew, and there he has another chance encounter, with a local well-to-do farmer named Thomas Potter. Potter meets him, learns that he has done some preaching before, and enthusiastically invites him to deliver a sermon at his private chapel on Sunday.

Now you should know that Thomas Potter was an uneducated but deeply religious man who had heard about Universalism years earlier and was looking for a preacher to preach it fully and truly. Following the “if you build it he will come” principle, he had built a chapel on his property and invited every preacher he met to come speak. But none of them was able to articulate the abundance vision that was so precious to his heart. Ten years later-lots of sermons later-he was still waiting for the right preacher to come.

Enter, John Murray, the man who never wanted to preach again!

Of course, Murray refuses the offer. But Potter is insistent, doesn’t give up, and Murray finds himself open to relenting-not just because of Potter’s enthusiasm, but also because he’s getting the uncanny feeling that the universe is trying to teach him something. Too many meaningful coincidences, all coming together around Universalism. But Murray tells Potter that he needs one more kind of confirmation before he is willing to break his promise to himself, never to preach again. One more so-called “coincidence”: If, before Sunday, the wind changes and the ship is freed up to sail, he’ll leave. If the wind doesn’t change, he’ll stay, and he’ll preach. Let God decide.

That’s how John Murray put it, and what happened was that the wind, in fact, did not change. The ship remained stuck on the sandbar. Come Saturday evening, John Murray had to face up to the message the universe was sending him. He was gonna have to preach.

Here’s what happened next, in his own words:

I had no rest through the night. What should I say, or how address the people? Yet I recollected the admonition of [Jesus]: ‘Take no thought, what you shall say; it shall be given you, in that same hour, what you shall say.’ Ay, but this promise was made to his disciples. Well, by this, I shall know if I am a disciple….

Murray continues:

Sunday morning [came]; my host was in transports. I was-I cannot describe how I was. I entered the [chapel]; it was neat and convenient…. There was one large square pew, just before the pulpit; in this sat the venerable [farmer, Potter,] and his family, also particular friends, and visiting strangers. Surely no man, upon this side of heaven, was ever more completely happy. He looked up to the pulpit with eyes sparkling with pleasure … and he reflected on the strong faith, which he had cherished, while his associates would tauntingly question, ‘Well, Potter, where is this minister, who is to be sent to you?’ ‘He is coming, in God’s own good time.’ ‘And do you still believe any such preacher will visit you?’ ‘Oh yes, assuredly.’ He reflected upon all this, and tears of transport filled his eyes; he looked round upon the people, and every feature seemed to say, ‘There, what think you now?’

Can’t you just see it? Thomas Potter’s overflowing joy, at his hopes fulfilled? And John Murray: his anxiety as he feels the push of an amazing synchronicity of events towards taking up, once again, the Good News of Universalism. And then this, above all: in the very act of doing what he resolved he would never do again-in the very act of preaching-John Murray recovering and rediscovering his life purpose. His feeling for the abundance vision going to the next level, stronger and fuller than before. His life and his heart cracked wide open, and all the light and all the joy streaming inside….

And there’s more! The very moment his sermon was done, a sailor came from the ship with news that the wind had just changed direction, and they were free to go. I mean, after all these meaningful coincidences, astonishingly attuned to his psychological and spiritual state,
how could he not be confirmed in a career of preaching Universalism far and wide? How could he not go out and find the other Thomas Potters scattered across America who were waiting to hear the hopeful message? Build this faith? You better believe it. The very universe was saying to him, YES!

Build this faith. And that’s what he did. John Murray. A Johnny Appleseed of the spirit, spreading seeds of hope throughout the country, during the years of the American Revolutionary war, and afterwards. Building spiritual communities that change lives, like you and I are doing here and now. It wasn’t easy. Preaching abundance in a world of fear and scarcity is never easy. People hated it, so they did all they could to stop it. Tried to lynch Murray several times, but he escaped. Interrupted him while he was preaching, but he kept on. Once, in Boston in 1774, he was preaching, and he happened to be standing right in front of a window. Someone outside threw a sharp stone through that window. The stone narrowly missed his head-it could have killed him, the stone was so sharp and big-and this is what happened next. Murray reached down and picked up that stone, showed it to his audience, and said, “This argument is solid, and weighty,
but it is neither rational, nor convincing.” And then got right back to his preaching.

Build this faith. That’s our task too. Build it for all the Thomas Potters in the world who are waiting to hear a good word. Build it for the Thomas Potter that is within our children, and within us. Be mighty in the face of people who hate us because of what we stand for. Whenever it feels like there’s not enough-whenever the fear strikes-to turn back to the abundance vision, to help eachother find that vision again, to remember that for what is truly essential in life, always always, there is enough.

Which takes us to what happened at our sister church in Knoxville after the shooting. Afterwards, during the healing service led by Unitarian Universalist Association President Bill Sinkford, those 25 or so children and youth whose performance was so brutally interrupted sang these words from Annie, Jr. (sing along with me if you like):

The sun’ll come out
Bet your bottom dollar
That tomorrow
There’ll be sun!
Just thinkin’ about
Clears away the cobwebs,
And the sorrow
‘Til there’s none!

Tomorrow! Tomorrow!
I love ya Tomorrow!
You’re always
A day
A way!

“The congregation,” said one observer, “spontaneously joined in singing with them, and after a few seconds, when the impact of this moment had sunk in, the crowd erupted into applause, tears, shouts, cheers, and many more tears. As the cast finished their grande finale, they took their long-awaited bows to an adoring, grief-stricken, and healing audience.”

John Murray’s story is our story. Tragedy, like the bandit in the Buddha’s parable, will enter into our lives. But our precious faith teaches us that there is a better way than to respond out of fear. The task of the mighty is to dwell within a place of triumphant love and, and out of this, to create and heal. The Life Abundant is real. We can help create it for each other. Whatever our personal beliefs today may be about God, we know that, as we build up this community which sustains us, we can still lay hold of that essential Universalist vision. What is real is love. What is real is service. What is real is compassion. What is real is generosity. Abundance is yesterday, abundance is today, abundance is forever.