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RT @MichaelTruGrit: Who in the world are the 33% of voters who approve of Joe Biden? Are they polling mental institutions and U...

9 June 2022 at 07:24
RT @MichaelTruGrit: Who in the world are the 33% of voters who approve of Joe Biden? Are they polling mental institutions and Unitarian churches? Good grief.

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RT @UnitarianUCE: Have you seen the 8th Principle posted on our Welcome wall? #DismantleRacism #UU #unitarianuniversalists #u...

28 May 2022 at 01:26
By: Scott
RT @UnitarianUCE: Have you seen the 8th Principle posted on our Welcome wall? #DismantleRacism #UU #unitarianuniversalists #uuprinciples #yeg #unitarian #uutwitter

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RT @UnitarianUCE: You can watch "Create Your Own Path" from March 27, 2022 in honour of International Transgender Day of Visibil...

1 April 2022 at 03:47
By: Scott
RT @UnitarianUCE: You can watch "Create Your Own Path" from March 27, 2022 in honour of International Transgender Day of Visibility. #TDOV #TDOV2022 #TransgenderDayofVisibility #UU #UnitarianUniversalist #Unitarian #Church #YEG #WelcomingCongregation https://youtu.be/7GFVOetDAIw via @YouTube

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RT @UnitarianUCE: We unapologetically reject any effort to erase transgender people. We affirm the inherent worth, dignity, and ...

1 April 2022 at 03:47
By: Scott
RT @UnitarianUCE: We unapologetically reject any effort to erase transgender people. We affirm the inherent worth, dignity, and humanity of our trans siblings. #TDOV #TDOV2022 #TransgenderDayofVisibility #UU #UnitarianUniversalist #Unitarian #Church #YEG #WelcomingCongregation

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RT @Karen_UCE: #foundation I was thinking about the word foundation throughout the day ... I kept thinking about house foundatio...

27 March 2022 at 00:50
By: Scott
RT @Karen_UCE: #foundation I was thinking about the word foundation throughout the day ... I kept thinking about house foundations but after the Unitarian Church Annual Garage Sale meeting this afternoon ...our foundation is people. πŸ₯° #UU #UULent #unitarianuniversalist #YEG

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RT @AtlantisBuild: Speaking at the Unitarian Universalist Church of East Aurora [UUEA] to celebrate the recent bicentennial, lif...

RT @AtlantisBuild: Speaking at the Unitarian Universalist Church of East Aurora [UUEA] to celebrate the recent bicentennial, life and legacy of #HarrietTubman You can see more here: https://youtu.be/7iL-6mIaDRQ #AtlantisBuild #FivePercenter #KnowledgeOfSelf #undergroundrailroad https://t.co/Kl0XMXkhSu

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RT @UnitarianUCE: Candlelight Vigil for UkraineπŸ•―οΈ I invite you to come, light candles, & speak to this horror as you need Us...

27 February 2022 at 14:05
By: Scott
RT @UnitarianUCE: Candlelight Vigil for UkraineπŸ•―οΈ I invite you to come, light candles, & speak to this horror as you need Use the Sunday Service link to join us online http://uce.ca #Ukraine #UU #Unitarian #YEG

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RT @UnitarianUCE: Know that you are not alone as we have each other. Now is a good time to reach out to one another for comfort ...

27 February 2022 at 14:05
By: Scott
RT @UnitarianUCE: Know that you are not alone as we have each other. Now is a good time to reach out to one another for comfort & support. In-Person or Online (use Sunday Service Link) http://uce.ca #UU #UnitarianUniversalist #Unitarian #YEG #PeaceNotWar #WelcomingCongregationπŸ³οΈβ€βš§οΈπŸ³οΈβ€πŸŒˆ

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RT @UnitarianUCE: Love Is Love Black Lives Matter Climate Change is Real No Human Being is Illegal All Genders are Whole Holy...

26 January 2022 at 01:43
By: Scott
RT @UnitarianUCE: Love Is Love Black Lives Matter Climate Change is Real No Human Being is Illegal All Genders are Whole Holy and Good Women Have Agency Over Their Bodies #UU #UnitarianUniversalism #Unitarian #YEG

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A smaller web footprint

7 May 2021 at 00:52

Every few years I want to slim down my web properties and internet use. The internet is a globally a large user of electricity, thus a large producer of greenhouse gas emissions. But the bigger pain are overbuilt sites that tax my computers and eat up my mobile phone data. Our “everything online” lives in the pandemic doesn’t work for those without fast internet service, not to mention it’s thrilling to load a site that’s a light as a whisper, even on a phone. And in much of the world, that’s the difference between a site loading or having someone necessarily give up in frustration. Since so many of my sites are dedicated to Universalist Christianity, with the hope of spreading it, that won’t do.

As an interim step, I’m using this lighter theme here, and I shrunk the header image at revscottwells.com. I’ll survey my properties and make them as small as practical.

What inspired this now? The Canadian Broadcasting Company’s recent deployment of a low-bandwidth news site, as a service to dial-up and metered mobile phone users. There are other “lite” news sites, but none as attractive.

Online Universalist church with worship services

3 May 2021 at 01:31

I was happy to recently find the Community Universalist Church at universalist.church. Memorable, no? They are an entirely online church, but are friendly and substantially organized (that is, it's not the exclusive work of one person.) It's a member of the Christian Universalist Association and not the Unitarian Universalist Association (which I see as a plus) and it's worth noting that it makes good use of "off the shelf" ministry and social media services. Smart.

Were it's live services not exactly at the same time as my home church, I'd have more reason to participate, but it may suit your needs. That time being 1500 UTC Sunday. Subtract 4 hours (11 o'clock a.m.) for Eastern Daylight Time or 7 hours (8 o'clock a.m.) for Pacific Daylight Time. They are a global church and timing is a known problem.

Maybe I'll visit when the clocks change…

Resuming commentary

2 May 2021 at 23:31

After moving my main site to RevScottWells.com I just about stopped writing here. Which seems like a waste, and worse makes this seem like an abandoned site.

So I’ve decided to make this blog a weblog again and log helpful or interesting things I find in daily life.

Looking for Sandworms

1 April 2021 at 04:06
By: Scott

One of my favorite books is Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic Dune. The story centers on the desert planet Dune, where enormous sandworms burrow under the sands. People who attempt to mine the valuable substance known as β€œthe spice” constantly have their machines destroyed by the sandworms. Later in the story, the main character, Paul, manages to turn the sand worms into an asset rather than a liability.

I grew up in the Bay Area of California, which is well known for being balmy and temperate. Yet, life’s slings and arrows pushed me south into the blaring hot Central Valley; it might as well have been the desert of Dune as far as I was concerned. Although I did not think of them as such at the time, l was also haunted by my own sandworms: depression that robbed me of my strength and hope, fears that devoured my courage. There is something about these unseen terrors that sabotage the best of intentions. The wounds endured early in life have the tendency to fester and become their own unmanageable monsters. For a long time, I saw no way to overcome them.

In our culture, we have a lot of platitudes related to overcoming adversity. Many have become cliches, and I have never met someone who said they were saved by a cliche, myself included. How do you make lemonade out of lemon without sugar? That is what I always wanted to know. And how exactly do you pass a β€œtest given by God”? Professor G. never gave any lectures, and no angel ever came down to provide some tutoring. The alleged textbooks I was given second hand always left me with more questions than answers, I know people were just trying to be helpful when they told me these things, but their words became bricks in the wall I built around my heart.

That wall was there for a long time. However, no wall stands forever. There came a time when I could no longer hide my pain and was desperate enough to seek help. The healing was slow, but it did happen. My epiphany came when I realized all those problems I had helped make me the person I wanted to be: depression and fear made me sensitive to the struggles of others, making me an adept teacher β€” I now work as a paid tutor and I plan on becoming a professor. In the dark night of my soul, I found grace.

In Dune, Paul turns the sandworms into an asset by cooperating with the indigenous people of the desert. He learns the creatures are actually essential to the production of the sought-after spice. I have found that grace works the same way; it is a gift hidden within our struggles, within the everyday muck of life, rather than being bestowed from on high in the aftermath. So, now I make a habit of looking for sandworms, the power that burrows in the fell clutch of circumstance waiting for me to become its ally.

Recall a board member?

4 March 2021 at 00:12

? for y’all. So apparently one the UUA board members turned out to have been running fake non-profits and some internet scams. Once the truth was revealed she went underground and up and deleted all her SM as a means of damage ctrl. Seems like a real prob having someone charged with governing a large, well funded non-profit be involved with financial fraud. Does anyone know if board members can be recalled when stuff like this happens? Like is that even an option? It’s disturbing to think they could’ve slipped threw the cracks like this. Don’t we vet board candidates or something?

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Sermon: β€œUnderstanding Divine Revelation”

1 March 2021 at 04:08

I preached from this sermon manuscript online for the Universalist National Memorial Church, on February 21, 2021 using lessons from the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 9: 8-17 and Mark 1: 9-15.

Thank you for having me back in the pulpit, and to Pastor Dave for inviting me. Last week, he found us metaphorically on mile twenty-two (or so) of this year-long marathon; the end might still be almost a year away. Solutions take time, and can outstrip a human patience. Despite the vaccine roll-out, the declining death rate, the better-functioning government and even the brighter skies, it could change suddenly. We might face a mutant variant of the virus or that wind storm on Tuesday. We’re not at the end, even if we want to be (I want it to be) and there’s no promise we won’t get something new and awful to replace it. The virus replaced, or rather partially displaced, other troubles for too many of us. They’re still there. This is the first Sunday of Lent. All that was my way of saying I’m not giving up anything for Lent.

Lent is the period of reflection and abstinence leading to Holy Week and Easter. But the last year has already been odd mixture of abstinence and indulgence, but without spiritual benefit or earthly pleasure. Like suffering the hangover without having the party. I’ve gained thirty pounds and lost hair. Ordinary pleasures, like talking to your neighbors or a cup of coffee out, are dangerous, or suspected of being so.

In other years, Lent comes as an opportunity to reflect on one’s spiritual state and to act to improve or develop it. The pandemic is different than other challenges because it has been a common struggle. Our personal griefs and hardships, even unmanageable opportunities; for not all stress is because something bad happens β€” all these happenings that force to look at ourselves and examine ourselves β€” or pay the price if we don’t β€” happen without regard to what’s happening to the mass of humanity. The pandemic is more like more like modern war, where you will be affected whether you like it or not.

All those party-goers and revelers that rightly earn our wrath β€” what are they thinking? β€” are also affected by the pandemic, but in a different light I’m willing to see that they also work under pressures that need release and deliberate misinformation that makes some of their choices makes sense. That’s why I’d like to look at what we have in common β€” an equal distance and access to God β€” rather than our personal self-improvement, and how we can find truth β€” as bruised a concept as any β€” in what we find in God.

So if we’re going keep Lent at all and adopt a spiritual discipline, let it be a really good one; let’s try making some sense of what God reveals to us. Dabbling in revelation sounds like the beginning of a Gothic horror film: β€œoh, what are those kids going to conjure up!?” I can imagine discussing my deep exploration into the mind of at lunch at work – if we ever get to do that again – and try not to sound like a loon or conspiracy theorist. I can imagine not being very successful.

Even if the category of revelation is at odds with our culture, at some point we’re going to have to deal with how God speaks to us. Aloofness about revelation, even to spare public embarrassment, isn’t sophistication; it’s being condemned to being haunted by God. It’s thinking that there’s something deeply true that underscores our lives without ever being able to know anything about it. And it’s precisely because God’s will has been so closely identified in the public mind with proclamations of right-wing politics and an abdication from thinking, that if we’re not clear about seeking God’s will and doing it, then our own lives become a lesson that (1) either God is not important and does not care for us, or (2) that a certain set of people have a monopoly on divine understanding and blessing. That will not stand, if we have faith or even self-respect; that cannot stand.

The problem is that you can’t just summon up an understanding of divine revelation. For one thing, experience shows that if you’re certain about God speaking to you, you’re almost certainly wrong. If there’s not a lump in your throat or pang in your belly when you feel God is speaking to you, you’re almost certainly not. A maxim to preachers I learned long ago: if you go to the pulpit to speak an oracle of God and don’t shudder a little with fear, beware. Like Moses, we go before the Almighty humbled, trembling, with our shoes cast off β€” but we must go. Let us turn to the lessons.

Today’s reading from Mark acts as a rationale for Lent; Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days, and Lent is forty days long. The word Lent doesn’t refer either to wilderness or self-reflection, but refers to spring (think, β€œthe days lengthen”); wilderness somehow seems more appropriate. This past week of strange, hostile weather and this past year of social isolation seems to me to have more in the same wilderness that Jesus met, and where he met Satan, the great adversary.

But why the wilderness? Why not try to meet Satan on the corner or even in the market where he’s so famously overturned the tables of the money changers?

I’ve been in the Judean desert, in fact, once. It was twenty-two years ago, when a friend and minister invited me along as her guest to see Israel for a few days. (She won the trip as a prize in a game show and I was eager to expand my horizons.) But I was flat broke and the only chance we had of seeing some of the famous out-of-the-way sites near Jerusalem was to take what was known as the sixty shekel tour. For about $19, you would meet an antiquated Mercedes bus near the historic Damascus Gate in the middle of the night, and go nonstop from site to site. You didn’t see anything for very long but you were promised the fortress at Masada, wading in the Dead Sea, a chance to see a nature reserve, a stop at Qumran (where the Dead Sea scrolls were found) and a visit to Jericho, one of the oldest cities in the world.

The antiquated bus had other ideas. The road from Jerusalem down towards Masada was very steep. Just as the sun was rising I saw a sign warning in Hebrew, Arabic and English to shift into low gear. That’s when the transmission or the engine failed; I forget which. The bus stopped and we tourists piled out of the bus in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately the tour operator had a radio in the bus and called for a backup, but that left us sometime to contemplate our surroundings. I looked the grapes and Turkish delight I brought along, wondering how long they’d have to last. There were no other cars passing.

On one side of the road, a hill rose sharply covered in the same powdery tan rock we’ve seen all over the region, here little more than gravel. On the other side of the road the hill descended just as sharply, and in the distance we could see the Dead Sea, shimmering with the dawn. In the distance, we could make out the lights of factories or perhaps a refinery, in Jordan. The bus, the road sign and the refinery were the only evidences of modern technology, and having had that theological education it was easy to imagine that we could meet angels or devils. Surely the landscape was too desolate for anything living.

So I can imagine Jesus’ audience knowing and probably fearing the desert, the wilderness, and wondering what wild creatures could survive there. It’s exactly where you would face Satan, and temptation. The context is absolutely crucial. You feel small, vulnerable, out of place. You look for help, divine or automotive. But in such extreme environments you might also find God, in part because the exposure can be both figurative or literal. One is as revealing as the other. Might Jesus’ flight into the wilderness be figurative and spiritual, following the crashing, fluttering experience of the Spirit in his baptism? The narrative is filled with biblical allusions, but little detail. It might easily be an extended metaphor, but well understood.

Maybe that’s why our hour by the roadside is the part of the day that sticks with me the most even now. Being lost, in an unfamiliar setting, wondering what comes next, looking in the distance: these are as true spiritually as literally.

On the other hand, the passage from Genesis recounts the covenant God made with all living things, but also has to do with context. To recap, covenant between God and Noah and his heirs came before the flood. (W. G. Plaut, ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, 68.)

But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. (Genesis 6:18, NRSV)

This covenant was with Noah and his family, excluding the rest of humanity.

As many of you know, an ancient story of an all-consuming, universal flood is not unique. It is seen in the epic of Gilgamesh and in other ancient Middle Eastern literature. The flood was a commonplace, but the outcome in Genesis makes it special.

God says

I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth. (Genesis 9:11)

The rainbow is a sign of this covenant, and a reminder to each generation of what God pledged. I’m sure we’ve covered this in other sermons, or if not, it’s one of those biblical stories that is still widely discussed in the larger culture. I want to focus on another part of the story.

So, why Noah? What made Noah right? Why would he and his family be the basis of a new human race? Why would God make a covenant with him? Was it because of his superlative goodness? Unlikely. As we hear in chapter 6:

Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God. (Genesis 6:9)

β€œBlameless in his generation” is what sticks out. Noah was righteous, but by what measure? Reviewing commentary (see Plaut), it’s possible that Noah wasn’t overwhelmingly exceptional, but simply was the best of a bad lot.

But more, what did Noah think of himself and his family being singled out, alone in the whole world? Was Noah lacking in compassion? It would be a mistake to treat this episode like history, or worse, to apply modern sensibilities or morals to it. But there’s no evidence of longing, of regret or of mercy to all who would die.

But if we treat Noah as a good, but not supernatural figure; and perhaps traumatized and not simply callous, we can appreciate something else about revelation. Throughout scripture, we see God communicate clearly with human beings, either directly or through intermediaries. The days of this kind of special revelation are now past β€” that’s the majority opinion β€” and what we receive is a general revelation through scripture. A constant Universalist witness is that scripture contains this revelation,

the trustworthiness of the Bible as a source of divine revelation (UNMC)

the trustworthiness of the Bible as containing a revelation from God (1899)

Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament contain a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest and final destination of mankind (1803)

(You get the idea.) That revelation is contained in scripture, but in contrast to fundamentalism, isn’t the revelation itself. You have to look for it, find it and interpret it, and that’s not easy. The encouragement we get from this passage is that looking, finding and interpreting God’s intent is not limited to the exceptionally, extraordinarily good, but be taken on by those with a good intent and a willingness to understand.

Friends, both the passages from Genesis and Mark have themes of wildness and liminality. The churning waves, the desert being the Accuser’s domain. And there’s even a connection in the waters: between those that evoked God’s presence in destruction, and God’s presence in the blessing of baptism. (That itself is another sermon.) Both come with blessing, survival for Noah and his family, and for Jesus,

And a voice came from heaven, β€œYou are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (v. 11)

May your searches prove a blessing, too.

In previous sermons, I’ve talked about having an imagination would approach you scripture, as a way of understanding what God is saying. Today, I would add a sense of empathy and curiosity. I encourage you to dig deep wells of patience, or at least thoroughness in your examinations, and a forbearance that values your everyday opinion over others.

This is path which leads to understanding what God may reveal to you.

Sermon: β€œLeading the Kingdom of God”

22 November 2020 at 21:47

I preached from this sermon manuscript online for the Universalist National Memorial Church, on November 22, 2020 using lessons from the Revised Common Lectionary: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 and Matthew 25:31-46.

Good morning and thanks to Pastor Dave Gatton for inviting me back to the pulpit and for you welcoming me.

The kingdom of God is such a basic Christian concept that sometimes it goes without careful examination. After a while, with our private thoughts, we might end up assuming entirely different concepts, some colored by cultural norms or personal desires. I'd like to defend us against that today, by dealing with some of the assumptions and conflicts we have when talking about, understanding and living in the kingdom of God. In the process I hope we will approach the kingdom of God not just as an idea of something to anticipate, but also participate in it as a practical reality today.

And it helps if we can consider this together. A kingdom, if anything, is communal. It's a political polity centered on a particular personality, and extended through family relationships. The kingdom of God is centered on our relationships with God, individual and collective.

But kingdom is a concept that's practically alien to us. Even a hundred years ago much of the world lived in kingdoms or in colonies subject to kingdoms. Some of those monarchs were constrained by parliaments or a shared authority, and others weren't. Some survive today, but they are the minority, and most of those are practical democracies.

It's easy then, perhaps a bit too easy, to speak of kings and queens and princes and princesses with a childlike glee or tasteful nostalgia; Disney has done its damage. While monarchies fell over the twentieth century, some were revived in order to bring about national unity (I'm thinking of Spain and Cambodia particularly) and proposed in other places. For the most part though, at least formally, more of the world is governed by the consent of the government than at any time in history. And recent events show how fragile and important this concept is. Making that work politically, while holding an idea of a divine kingdom religiously takes some work.

Why? Because attaining the kingdom of God can become an excuse for human beings to take on the divine prerogative in governing the world. Dystopian fiction (The Handmaid's Tale comes to mind) and real-life theocratic terror organizations (the so-called Islamic State, for instance) show that the kingdom of God can be made an ideological weapon. The profound moral collapse of organized Evangelicalism in the Trump administration rekindles fears of theocracy overcoming democracy in our governance. I can't blame anyone for resisting when religious people talk about God's plans for the world, myself included.

So we should be circumspect, perhaps cautious, not only for our neighbors' sake, but for our own as we approach the Almighty, who surely knows the hearts of would-be demigods and self-appointed spokespersons. For God has challenged prophets with power. Can we make life? Do we control the seasons or the rising of the sun and the setting of the same? Do our governments and still wonder and laughter? Do rulers comfort the inner soul?

The kingdom of God touches this world but is not restricted to it. And so as Christians we need to be careful to distinguish between what's God's and what belongs to the common human family, whether Christian or not.

But theocratic overreach is not only a problem with right wing and authoritarian power.

There's a temptation in liberal political and theological circles, even though these are different if someone overlapping things. That is, to hope for the kingdom of God without God, or to assume it would be more appealing if were described publicly as a strictly human endeavor. The twentieth-century rise of religious humanism made this transformation complete.

The problem is that there is no appeal to a higher authority when we start confusing what we like and what we esteem with what is actually good.

There's a little example from the history of our own church. Each week, we recite the declaration of faith that our church adopted a few years ago. It was based on a denomination declaration of faith from 1899, which itself was an authoritative interpretation of a statement of faith from 1803. (You'll hear more about these some other time.) The funny thing is that there was a denominational statement developed after 1899, the Washington Declaration of 1935, as an interpretation of the interpretation, updated for the modern age. As the name suggests was adopted by a convention in our own city: at the then-new Mayflower Hotel on Connecticut Avenue, to be exact. (There were religious services at our then-new church building.) But even thought it was officially adopted in the denomination, as far as I can tell it was never used (or used regularly) by our own church. I suspect because it was over-optimistic, a last gasp of pre-World War One, pre-pandemic, pre-ecomomic collapse theology, being sold in the depth of the Great Depression to local church members, some of which were surely in government service or came to town with the New Deal. (I remember of the last, now gone almost twenty years.)

The 1935 declaration declared as an essential feature of Universalist faith, belief in

the power of men of good-will and sacrificial spirit to overcome evil and progressively establish the Kingdom of God.

Certainly some people do good, but this affirmation (in context) suggest a concerted, almost tidal effort to overcome the past and enter a new age by the work of our own hands on God's behalf. We did not march shoulder to shoulder into the dawn. The Second World War and particularly the Holocaust, and other horrors enacted by a set of equally dedicated men put that misplaced hope to rest.

But kingdom isn't the only concept for us to work with, as we turn to today's lessons.

How many of us work regularly with sheep and goats?

I think the closest I get is a goat cheese sandwich. I have a friend who had a flock of goats come over to eat up the weeds in her backyard, and that was such a strange but delightfully comic situation that she took video to share. You might know something about their little square eyes and horns, or the different kind of sheep and the wool they produce but these are optional things to learn today. In Jesus' time, sheep and goats were central to the economy and therefore well-being of the people who heard him. They knew these beasts.

We can infer from the gospel lesson that sheep and goats are not well-behaved. There's only so much grass to be eaten. The pushy sheep gets more. The domineering sheep eats. So a big sheep is a metaphor for someone who takes at the expense of others. Jesus taught his that the kingdom of God inverts our expectations. In those days, God will push aside the greedy and give good things to those who have gone without. This relies on God's purpose and will, an eternal intention, and not our own. If we correspond to God's ways, we will see the rightness of living in goodness, and put aside our own pushy, domineering ways. The more selfish and domineering, the more violent and cruel the more there is to give up. But the final say is God's. This is what we should understand when we hear threatening of "eternal punishment." This is punishment from the Eternal, namely God. And I trust God will act with justice befitting deity and not a human tyrant.

How will this change take place? That part is less clear. Some of it will surely happen in God's ineffable and eternal way. But the fact that the prophets proclaimed this, that Mary sang it, that Jesus preached it but that for millennia even the richest and most powerful people in the world have not expunged it β€” indeed, some having been transformed by it β€” gives me hope. I believe the kingdom of God will be revealed to us individually and collectively. Our portion is not to construct it, but to anticipate it. As Jesus said, "the kingdom of God is within you" so how shall it be known and released.

How then? Conscience has a role, as does teaching the young and advising the mature. Societies have a role in constraining the violent and viscous. We better identify it by reflection and prayer. Be patient for it.

I suspect that patience is the last thing some of you want to give. What makes the last four years so hard is to think about all of the progress that we had made be reversed or destroyed. We've lost four years on a very quickly winding down climate clock, and I'm worried that future courts can undo lifetimes of work in a flash. Time, when gone, doesn't get a do-over. Also, the current crisis over the truth is very troubling. Elections come and go, but whether people can be trusted to see the good and do it depends on them understanding the truth and doing it. People resisting masks because they think it's a conspiracy or thinking that that QAnon might be true or that the president actually won reelection all discourages me gravely. But human nature comes with its own set of self-deceptions and I know that I've not been true to the facts, have chosen something that benefits me over others and I might finesse it in ways that make it sound like less than self-benefit. Mask-denying conspiracy-theory grievance-seeking neighbors are doing something bad and ultimately destructive, but I'm not immune to this way of thinking and acting and neither are you.

Patience, seeking and the understanding that follows is a better place to stand. So the kingdom of God, as an ideal rather than a lived reality, depends on us knowing that our actions are always approximate and tinged with failure.

We keep it as an ideal, in part because we trust God, but also knowing that our contributions have to be tested, reviewed and open to criticism. What seems right in the moment will have consequences, and many of them unintended. We wish to do good but will often find the easiest way to accomplish it even if the results are not very desirable. Think about all the wasted recycling that props up a plastics industry that never believed in it. Or think about all of the tailors in low in middle-income countries put out of work because of floods of used clothing from rich countries. Our good intentions are not enough. Our plans are not enough. We need that spiritual core that guides us with care towards the good.

Dearly beloved: the kingdom of God is within you. Within you, but hidden yet ready to grow. The law of God exists, but is not written on our hearts. The age which is to be is present to the Eternal One, but is so distant from us as to be distorted, or at best seen in fleeting glimpses.

But do not despair. Day by day, if we are careful, caring and kind, we shall make more sense of the promises God has made for us.

God bless us today and forever more.

β€œLife and Trance of George De Benneville”

1 November 2020 at 22:20

I was talking with a friend today about proto-Universalist George De Benneville and asking him if he knew about his mystical experience. He had, but hadn't read the account. I had it on my websites for years, but also realized my copy had errors it it. I quickly compared it to a 1882 reprint and I corrected my old file against it. In the two places where the versions diverse, I put my old version in brackets. There's also a long section in the 1882 version that's duplicated, presumbly a mistake, which I've silently removed.

I've also made an EPUB version of the document.

I'm not ready to fix my old sites, so I'm putting it here in the meantime.

Life and Trance of George deBenneville

An account of what he saw and heard during a trance of forty-two hours, both in the regions of happiness and misery; together with a short account of his cruel persecutions in France for preaching the Gospel. Translated from the French of his own manuscript.

I, George De Benneville, was born in London, July 26th, 1703. My father George De Benneville was a French refugee, persecuted for his religion. He retired with his family and connections into England upon the invitation of his majesty King William, who took a tender care of them, and employed them at his court.

My mother was of the Granville family. She had nine children in five years after marriage, having twins four years successively, and I being the last, she died as soon as I was born. She knew that she should die at that time, and therefore she was very often drawn whilst she was pregnant, to pray for me, and it appears that the Lord heard her prayers and granted her requests.

I was also very young when my father died, and was brought up by one of my uncles. After the death of my mother, Queen Anne herself provided me a nurse, and she had the care of my first years.

When arrived at the age of twelve years, I was very wild, believing myself to be of a different mass from mankind in general, and by this fond imagination I was self-exalted, and believed myself to be more than other men. But God soon convinced me to the contrary.

As it was designed that I should learn navigation, I was sent to sea in a vessel of war belonging to a little fleet bound to the coast of Barbary with presents, and to renew the peace with Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. Being arrived at Algiers, as I walked upon deck I saw some Moors who brought some refreshments to sell. One of them slipped down and tore a piece out of one of his legs. Two of his companions, having lain him on the deck, each of them kissed the wound, shedding tears upon it, then turned towards the rising of the sun, they cried in such a manner that I was much moved with anger at their making such a noise and ordered my waiter to bring them before me. Upon demanding the reason of their noise, they perceived that I was angry, asked my pardon, and told me the cause was owing to one of their brothers having hurt his leg by a fall and that they kissed the wound in order to sympathize with him, and likewise shed tears upon it and took part with him; and as tears were saltish, they were a good remedy to heal the same; and the reason of their turning towards the sun's rising was to invoke Him who created the sun to have compassion upon their poor brother, and prayed he would please to heal him. Upon that I was so convinced, and moved within, that I thought my heart would break, and that my life was about to leave me. My eyes were filled with tears, and I felt such an internal condemnation, that I was obliged to cry out and say, "Are these Heathens? No; I confess before God they are Christians, and I myself am a Heathen!" Behold the first conviction that the grace of our Sovereign Good employed: he was pleased to convince a white person by blacks, one who carried the name of a Christian by a pagan, and who was obliged to confess himself but a heathen. But that was soon overcome and forgot. But God who always seeks to convince and save his poor creatures, did not leave his poor wandering sheep. For some time after my return home, being present by invitation at a ball, and having over-heated myself, I ordered my servant to prepare linen for me to change. And as I was putting it on, I fell into a fainting fit, and had a vision of myself burning as a firebrand in hell. And coming to myself again I cried out, "I am damned!" Prayers were desired in the French churches for one who had lost his senses and was melancholy. The ministers often visited me, and would fain have made me believe that I had not committed any very great sins, and that I had behaved according to my rank and station. Then I was obliged to answer them that if they had no other things than those to tell me, they could answer no purpose but as fig leaves to cover my shame, and my damnable estate; that it was in vain to come and visit me with such comfort, for that I felt myself condemned. Then they answered me in another manner than before, saying, since I would not receive their remonstrances it might be looked upon as a mark that peradventure I was destined from the beginning to condemnation.

Then they gave me up and came no more to visit me. After that, I continued in the state of condemnation during the space of fifteen months, believing that all the world but myself might be saved, and that I never could be saved because my sins, as I thought, were too many and too great to be forgiven. At length, after the fifteen months were expired, after having passed through many temptations, it happened to me one day, having laid myself down to repose, that I was awakened out of my sleep, and heard a voice within me, which pronounced the sentence of my condemnation, and left me no room to hope. I then discovered the root of all my sins and iniquities within my heart. That discovery brought me into an extreme agony, and despair entered into my soul which was now pressed on all sides with misery, caused especially by such great unbelief and hardness of heart, which was the most insupportable of all my troubles. I could discover no remedy for my disease but thought that my sentence of damnation was going to be executed. The sorrow of my soul was even to death. I desired to die but death fled from me. I could have no remedy but to leave myself to the justice of my judge for a condemned criminal as I was. I knew that his judgments were just and that I had merited much more than I felt.

Thus abandoning myself to justice, and waiting for its accomplishment in me, I discovered between justice and me the criminal, one of a most majestic appearance, whose beauty, brightness and grandeur, can never be described. He cast such a look of grace and mercy upon me, and such a look of love as penetrated through me, the fire of which so embraced my soul that I loved him again with the same love. He persuaded me in my heart that he was my savior, mediator and reconciliator. And while I thought thereon, he began to intercede for me in this manner, saying, "My father, behold me with thy paternal regard. I have made expiation for this sinner, who has received in himself the sentence of condemnation. I have taken human nature for him. I have suffered all kind of ignominy for him. I have shed my blood even to the last drop for him. I have suffered the shameful death of the cross for him. I have descended into the abyss of hell for him, that I might deliver him. I have been put to death for his offences, and raised again for his justification, and where his sins abound, our grace abounds much more. O my heavenly father, pardon this poor sinner, and cause thy mercy to come to him." The judge or justice had nothing more to say. The sentence disappeared. Then I heard his eternal universal voice, which penetrated through me with divine power, saying, "Take courage, my son, thy sins are forgiven thee." Immediately all the burden of my sins and inquities was gone, all the stings and reproaches ceased in a moment; a living faith came in their stead, and the tears of sorrow were all wiped from my eyes. I cast myself at the feet of my mediator, reconciler, savior and intercessor, and embraced him with an enlivening faith, melting into tears of love, humility and nothingness.

O my Lord and my God, thou hast saved me through pure grace. What shall I render to thee for all thy benefits? O my divine love, whom I honor and adore, give me a pure and holy heart, filled with thy virtue and thy love, even such as thou wouldst that I should have; and renew a right spirit within my heart. Now I know that thy marvelous mercy hath given me a savior before I knew my danger and slavery; a physician who had the care of my disease before that I felt or knew the same; a redeemer who undertook to pay the debt that I was neither willing nor able to pay. Oh, my benefactor, guide me by the efficacy of thy spirit to walk in the way of thy truth and universal love. Teach me thy eternal and universal word; speak my Lord and my God, for thy servant heareth. Give me thy grace, O my divine love, that I may have the eyes of my faith fixed constantly upon thee, and that I may follow thee whithersoever thou mayest please to lead me, that thy holy will may be accomplished in time and eternity, to the praise of thy glory, and my complete salvation.

O my dear soul, sink thyself down into nothingness and the deepest humiliation, and adore in spirit and in truth; honor the ocean of love, and the great wonders of the wisdom and power of thy God who hath employed all these boundless incomprehensible miracles to restore and to save thee, and not thee only, but all the human species, through Jesus Christ our Lord. "O the depth of the riches, both of the wisdom and power of God. How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out. For of him and through him and for him are all things." To him be glory eternal.

In the present case his goodness shines, for God hath loved me before that I was born. O what grace! God himself hath loved me in my fallen estate whence I was wholly lost. O what mercy! God hath even loved me when I was altogether unworthy, and that freely too. O what love

He hath given me his well-beloved son. And in giving his beloved son, he hath given me his paternal heart; and at the time that he took human nature he became my parent that by his parentage he might oblige himself to have a right to love and to have the care of me. I feel him, the just, for my offences and wickedness which he had taken to bear as his own, brought before the most righteous judgment seat, where he himself alone paid the last penny of the dreadful debt of all the world. I beheld him upon the cross deface and destroy the obligation that was against me, and after that he entered once for all into the holy place by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption for me. Approach then now, O my soul, to the throne of grace, and adore this unspeakable love which hath loved the first. Love him eternally, with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy might, who has made thee to know by experience the great mysteries of his holy love, respecting all his creatures. Hallelujah! Amen.

O what an alteration from being a child of darkness to a child of light. Now I know in whom I have believed, and desire to consecrate myself to my Lord, my Sovereign Good, the remainder of my days.

My conversion made a great noise among the people, for they saw me praising and adoring my divine savior on all occasions, and before all company where I came without exception, calling and exhorting each one to submit to the love of God, just as they found themselves; and although their sins were many and great, his grace was greater to receive and pardon, but that we must come as we are, for he is the beginning and the end of the conversion of all the human species, and whosoever is not converted by Him and to Him is not converted at all.

The French ministers were very uneasy at what they heard concerning me, doubting that I was a true Protestant, and therefore they demanded a written confession of my faith. I told them paper would suffer anything to be written upon it, truth or falsehood, but that I was not ashamed to confess with my mouth what I believed in my heart, and that if they would let me know when they would meet together, I would be ready to appear before them to give them an account of my faith and the wonders which the most Holy Trinity had wrought within me.

The time was fixed and I appeared before them. They asked me many questions, but we could not agree, for they held predestination, and I held the restoration of all souls; because having myself been the chief of sinners, and that God, through Jesus Christ, by the efficacy of his Holy Spirit, had granted me mercy and the pardon of all my sins, and had plucked me as a brand out of hell, I could not have a doubt but the whole world would be saved by the same power. They answered me that I must not take it ill that they could not own me as a member of their church. I replied that I was very well content to be cast out and that my consolation was that they were not able to blot my name out of the book of life.

Soon after, I got acquainted with some persons who led a very retired life, having received a deep knowledge of themselves through grace. We sometimes met together, but we soon were persecuted with reproach.

After that, I received a voice of grace inwardly to go and preach the gospel in France. I resisted it more than once or twice, fearing persecution. But I was struck with a sickness and had pain like the agony of death, was ready to die; and knowing it was because I had not harkened to that voice that had called me to bear witness to the truth in France, I humbled myself before my God through Jesus Christ my Lord, asked pardon for my offences, and promising to submit myself to follow his voice, upon which I was immediately healed; and grew more robust than I had even been before. Then I heard his voice once more, calling me to go to France to preach the gospel, and I found myself obliged in my soul to follow the voice, though with fear and trembling.

I took passage at Dover for Calais, and immediately upon my arrival I began to preach and proclaim the good news in the market, even the eternal salvation by Jesus Christ within us; and that each one of us might be saved by pure grace, and that whosoever knowing himself, feeling the burden of his iniquities, having recourse to Jesus Christ, resigning himself without reserve, with all his sins, even had he found himself in his damnable estate, should be delivered and obtain the pardon of all his sins.

As soon as I had done, I was taken before a magistrate, who made me to know that my conduct was contrary to the statute of the king. I was then conducted to prison where I was no sooner arrived than all the fear of persecution vanished. My soul was strengthened in the Lord Jesus. I felt the love of my divine savior very near, accompanied with his divine light. After some days had past, I was brought before the justice, and examined by what order I preached. I told him who I was, and that I was drawn by the special grace of my God in Jesus Christ, by the power of his Holy Spirit, to teach the nations, and that for refusing to obey the voice of my God I was taken very sick. While they were examining me, there came in an old man with a white beard. All the justices saluted him. He said to them: "Have nothing to do with this person, for I have suffered much this night past on his account," and retired immediately.

I was then condemned to eight days imprisonment, as it was the first time, and to be conducted by the servant of the magistrate out of the bounds of the city, letting me know that if I was found employed in the same manner a second time my life would be in danger.

I was about 17 years of age when I began to preach in France. In this manner I employed two years in that kingdom, preaching the gospel in high and low Normandy, the country of my father, for he was born in the city of Rouen.

There were many ministers of us together: Messieurs Durant, de la Chevrette, Dumoulin, L'Achar, etc. We met together in mountains and woods, to the number of 300, where God very often wrought great wonders by the power of the gospel, among men and women, even boys and girls of the age of twelve or fifteen years, that did not even know how to read or write. They were convinced by the power of grace and began to proclaim the gospel with a most marvelous strength of spirit, without any fear, being embraced by love divine.

We were many times taken prisoners during the two years, sometimes by means of our own brothers, who would go and inform the soldiers in the marshalsey where we were met together.

Many of us were hanged, others whipped by the hands of the hangman and branded with a hot iron; all their goods confiscated, and they sent on board the galleys. But all that did not weaken us, but on the contrary, the grace of our divine love strengthened us in a wonderful manner.

At last we were surrounded by a party of soldiers one day when we were assembled by the side of Dieppe, where many of us were taken prisoners, among whom was myself, and a M. Durant, a young man about 24 years of age, of Geneva.

After a month imprisonment we were condemned to die β€” he to be hanged, and I to have my head cut off. We were conducted together to the place of execution; he sang the 116th [126th] Psalm when on the ladder, and died joyfully.

I was then conducted to the scaffold. My eyes were ordered to be bound to prevent my seeing, but on my earnest request that was omitted.

I then fell upon my knees, and praying the Lord that he would not require my blood at their hands, as they knew not what they did, my soul was filled with exceeding joy. The executioner bound my hands, and while he was employed in so doing, a courier arrived from the King, which was Louis XV, with a reprieve for the criminal. Immediately the joy of my heart was gone and darkness entered into my soul. I was then reconducted to prison at Paris where I was confined some time before I was liberated through the intercession of the Queen.

Many things happened to me during my exile in France and the time of my confinement. One may easily discover here that the grace of our God never leaves those who trust in him and are faithful until death.

After my releasement, I retired into Germany where I began to learn the language with great difficulty. I found many souls who were convinced by grace and who led a very retired life among the French refugees at Bulin, Magdeburg, Brandenburg, Brunswick in the Palatinate, Hamburg, Altona, Stade, Gluckstadt, Bremen, the country of Hannover, in Flanders, Brabant, the low land of Holland, the country of Waldenses and many other places.

I found work all round β€” souls who desired to be saved. I had also a large acquaintance among the nobility in Germany and Holland. We had a large communion of brethren and sisters in Jesus Christ our Lord.

I was wholly employed in traveling from place to place, in visiting the brethren and preaching to the nations in the German, French and Dutch languages. There were many assemblies of brethren all around. In some places we had liberty, and where that could not be had publicly, we met secretly in particular families. But nevertheless, grace wrought wonders in convincing souls and leading them to a real deep knowledge of themselves and of the damnable estate into which all men are plunged by nature; for none can obtain salvation without being first condemned in themselves.

I was much concerned about the salvation of souls and their estate deeply affected me. I had also an acquaintance with a company of gentry who dwelt together near Seigen. Some of them were married but only dwelt together as brethren and sisters β€” among them the baron of Peuchink, the lords of Fleishbein, and the Count of Marsey, who was employed in writing books which are printed in French and German. They led a very retired life, filled with love and friendship to all the world without bounds, and were very charitable both to friends and enemies.

Our acquaintance with each other happened in a wonderful manner. One day brother Marsey had a vision concerning me, when I had arrived in the Palatinate, being about twenty leagues from him. I was drawn by grace, being engaged in prostrating myself in spirit before the presence of the most Holy Trinity. And having a vision, I discovered a marvelous throne with seven footstools. Upon each footstool were two candlesticks of gold and upon the throne I saw a great table with seven candlesticks of gold placed in a round figure upon it. Then I saw many with robes whiter than snow who stood up near the candlesticks of gold on each side of the foot-stools and around the table. Immediately the candlesticks were lighted and chairs were brought that each one might sit down. Then they began to honor the most high, so that my soul was lost in admiration. Then altogether bending their knees, the whole company adored the most Holy Trinity. The vision vanished in an instant, and I came to myself.

Some little time after, my brother Marsey sent a letter to me, written after this manner:

My well beloved and dear brother in Jesus Christ our Lord, the most Holy Trinity discovers many wonders to his children who are rooted upon the rock of deliverance, and have their eyes of faith fixed upon their Sovereign Good. He honors them with his universal presence and embraces them with the fire of heavenly love; as I have been favored with the consolation of seeing you in his holy presence, I hope you will not deny that communion in the body that we have had together in spirit to the praise of the glory of our God through Jesus Christ our Lord by the efficacy of His Holy Spirit. Thus wishes and dwells for ever, Marsey your Brother, united by the grace of God, Amen."

After I had passed about 18 years in Germany and Holland, I became sickly of a consumptive disorder occasioned by being greatly concerned for the salvation of souls and much disquieted because the greatest part by far walked in the ways of perverseness and neglected their conversion, which caused me great trouble. And I took it so to heart that I believed my happiness would be incomplete while one creature remained miserable. Sometimes I was a little comforted within by grace in some manner, but that did not last long.

I dwelt at that time in the country with the brethren near the city of Mons an [in] Haguiauth, near the borders of France, in the Emperor's dominions.

My fever increased in such a manner as reduced me almost to a skeleton so that they were obliged to feed me as an infant.

While I lay in this weak situation, I was favored through grace with many visions. In one it appeared to me that I was conducted into a fine plain, filled with all kinds of fruit trees agreeable both to the sight and smell, loaded with all kinds of the most delicious fruits which came to my mouth and satisfied me as with a river of pleasure: same time I beheld the inhabitants, they were beautiful beyond expression, clothed in garments as white as snow. They were filled with humility, and their friendship and love was towards all beings. They saluted me with the most profound reverence and most lovely air, saying to me with the voice of love which penetrated through me: "Dear soul, take courage, be comforted, for in a little time you shall see the wonders of God in the restoration of all the human species without exception."

The weakness of my body so increased that I was certain of dying. I exhorted my brethren to be faithful unto death, to be steadfast, immovable, and to be always turning inward with an enlivening faith to behold with a fixed attention the Lamb of God, with believing eyes, and to harken to his eternal word within them, and that they should receive of the fullness of Christ's grace upon grace, by which they should be strengthened to abide steadfast unto the end.

As I had communion with many assemblies of brethren, but in particular with that connected with my dear brother Marsey, the brethren there had a vision of my death and sent brother Marsey to see me.

When he arrived he found me in the agonies of death. He embraced me with a kiss of peace and love and saluted me in the name of the brethren, who recommended themselves to me, and desired that I would remember them before the throne of God and the Lamb.

He then took leave of me and I felt myself die by degrees, and exactly at midnight I was separated from my body and saw the people occupied in watching it according to the custom of the country. I had a great desire to be freed from the sight of my body, and immediately I was drawn up as in a cloud and beheld great wonders where I passed, impossible to be written or expressed. I quickly came to a place which appeared to my eyes as a level plain, so extensive that my sight was not able to reach its limits, filled with all sorts of delightful fruit trees, agreeable to behold, and which sent forth such fragrant odors that all the air was filled as with incense. In this place I found that I had two guardians, one at my right hand and the other at my left, exceeding beautiful beyond expression, whose boundless friendship and love seemed to penetrate through all my inward parts. They had wings and resembled angels, having shining bodies and white garments.

He that was at my right hand came before me and said, "My dear soul and my dear brother, take courage. The most Holy Trinity hath favored you to be comforted with an everlasting and universal consolation, by discovering to you how, and in what manner, he will restore all his creatures without exception, to the praise of his glory, and their eternal salvation. And you shall be witness of this and shall rejoice in singing and triumphing with all the children of God, therefore as a reward for the friendship and love that you have borne for your neighbors, on whose account you had many extreme griefs, and shed many tears, which God himself, who shall turn all your griefs to exceeding great gladness." Then he took his place at my right hand. After that, the second guardian who was at my left hand appeared before me, and spoke thus: "My dear soul, my dear brother, be of good cheer, thou shalt be strengthened and comforted after your griefs with an universal and eternal consolation. You must be prepared to pass through the seven habitations of the damned β€” be of good courage, and prepare yourself to feel something of their sufferings, but be turned inward deeply during the time and you shall thereby be preserved." Then he took his place at my left hand. Immediately we were lifted up in the air, and sometimes after we arrived in a dark obscure place, where nothing but weeping, lamentation and gnashing of teeth, could be understood. A dreadful place, as being the repository of all sorts of damned souls under condemnation with the torments, pains, griefs and sufferings which their sins had merited, for each one had his works to follow him in death. All iniquities and sins were reduced to seven classes or habitations. There was an eternal confusion. That which one made, the other destroyed.

The duellist, in his fire of anger, burns against his enemy, and they pass as a firebrand of hell, one through the other.

You might see fornicators, idolators, adulterers, thieves, the covetous, drunkards, slanderers, ravishers, &c., each laboring and being employed with his sins and iniquities. One might also see all kind of conditions of men: divines, deputies, controvertors, advocates, judges, lawyers, and, in a word, one might discover whatsoever any of them had done upon earth. In each habitation I discovered that those who were abased and that appeared sorrowful for their sins were separated from the others of their sort that were not yet so. I was then conducted into each of the seven habitations of the damned where I knew one I had been acquainted with upon earth. I discovered also that he had an habitation among the damned and that they were able to see the elect from thathabitation where he was, but were not able to pass through because there was a great gulf between them so that all are obliged to dwell where they are.

It is impossible to describe my condition, as I had great compassion towards the sufferers, inasmuch as I had part of their sufferings.

After we had passed through, we were lifted up some distance from the place, where we reposed ourselves; and a messenger was sent to us, who watered or refreshed us as with a river of pleasure, saying, "Eat, my beloved, and drink, my friends, to refresh yourselves after all your toils and pains. My dear soul, and my dear brother (addressing himself to me), the most Holy Trinity always works wonders in all times within his poor creatures without exception, and he will order for a time and half a time that you shall return into your earthly tabernacle to publish and proclaim to the people of the world an universal gospel that shall restore in its time all the human species without exception to its honor and to the glory of its most Holy Trinity. Hallelujah."

Beholding the messenger attentively, I discovered that he had a most glorious body, dressed in a robe whiter than snow, filled with the most exalted love and friendship, joined with the deepest humility, which penetrated me through and through. And suddenly there was heard a great multitude of the heavenly host, and the messenger said, as he flew to join the same, with a sweet voice β€” "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and who is to come."

The multitude were innumerable, and there was one who surpassed in grandeur, beauty, brightness, majesty, magnificence and excellence, all the others; even the Son of the living God, being the brightness of his glory and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power β€” when he had by himself purged our sins ― sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high.

As the multitude approached, the glory caused us to fall down and to adore in spirit and in truth the son of the living God who marched in the midst of the multitude.

After they had passed us, we were lifted up and caused to follow them, for the air carried us the way they went, in a different manner than before. O the wonders of our God! When we arrived in the place of the seven habitations of the damned, we could perceive no more darkness, obscurity, pains, torments, lamentations, afflictions, nor gnashing of teeth. All were still and quiet and an agreeable sweetness appeared through the whole. Then all the heavenly host shouted with one voice and said, "An eternal and everlasting deliverance, an eternal and everlasting restoration, universal and everlasting restitution of all things." Then all the multitude adored the most Holy Trinity, and sang the song of the Lamb, even the song of the triumph for the victory gained by him, in the most harmonious manner. And at the end, all the multitude being upon their knees, said with a loud voice, "Great and marvelous are thy works, O Lord, God Almighty, just and true are thy ways. O King of Saints." Presently they passed through the seven habitations of the damned and a multitude were delivered from each. And being clothed in white robes, they followed the heavenly host, praising and glorifying the most high for their deliverance. One might know them amongst the others: they all retired by a different way than that which they came. The messenger then came and conducted us into a most wonderful place and ordered my two guardians to conduct me into five celestial mansions where the Lord's elect abide; and then to reconduct me to dwell yet a time and half a time in my earthly habitation, and to preach to the lower world the universal everlasting gospel and that the most Holy Trinity has a pure universal love towards all the human race, without exception, and to each one in particular. Then turning himself towards me he said, "My dear soul, thou shalt be favored of the most Holy Trinity to be conducted by thy guardians who shall never leave thee when thou shall have need of their counsel. Thou needest but to call them and they shall be day and night present at thy service. They shall conduct thee into five of the heavenly mansions at this time, where thou shalt partake in a certain degree of the celestial glory as much as thy spirit shall be able to receive, as not being yet sanctified and purified sufficiently. And then thou shalt be reconducted into thine earthly tabernacle for a time and half a time and shall preach to the lower world the universal gospel and that the most Holy Trinity hath a pure universal love towards all the human race without exception, and towards each one in particular. The fountain of grace bless and preserve thee, and cause his face to shine upon and in thee, and enlighten thine understanding both in time and eternity. Amen." Our knees bending of their own accord, he laid his hand upon my head and blessed me, and immediately took wing and swiftly fled away.

After that, my guardian conducted me into five celestial habitations where I discovered many wonders. Some had greater brightness, glory, and majesty than others. And, as the places were, so were the inhabitants: some were clothed in garments whiter then snow, others had transparent bodies, and others again had white bodies resembling crystal. It is impossible to express these things. They were moved by boundless burning love, rising up and then plunging themselves into the deepest humility; all their motions were penetrating, being filled with love and friendship. Their actions and manners are strengthened and animated with brightness, filled with light as with the rays of the sun. It was the fire of heavenly love, which by inflaming all their hearts, causes them all to burn in the same lire and to be animated by the same spirit. They have no need of any way of speaking there but the language and motions of eternal and universal love without words; for all their actions, their motions, speak more than all words. I was then conducted into five habitations of the elect. At the first, a great multitude came before us with songs to the honor and glory of the most high and of the victory gained over the damned. They received us with triumph, great zeal, love and friendship, saluting us with profound humility, and conducting us into a large room; there was a great table covered and furnished with all sorts of fruit, not only pleasant to behold but also exceedingly delicious to the taste.

In the meantime, while we were taking our repast, the celestial multitudes formed songs and sang psalms of praise and thanksgiving to the most Holy Trinity. After that, we were conducted into all the five celestial habitations (that I was to see) where I saw many wonders impossible to describe. First, many thrones lifted up of inexpressible beauty and magnificence and desired that I would remember them before the throne of God and the Lamb.

Upon one of these thrones I beheld the Royal High priest, surrounded with exceeding great brightness and clothed in most excellent majesty, being employed in kind intercession before his father for all human species, pleading the sufficiency of his blood-shedding to deliver and sanctify a thousand such worlds as ours. All the elect, with the heavenly spirits, joined their intercession with that of their Royal High Priest, the only chief king, being reconcilers, saviors, and restorers in the same spirit. This mutual intercession appeared like incense ascending on high into the sanctuary of the Lord. Over against the throne I discovered Adam with Eve rejoicing in the only mediator between God and men and adoring together the most Holy Trinity for the deliverance of their children out of the great miseries and eternal condemnation into which their sin and fall had brought them, and upon their bended knees adoring the only mediator for the intercession he makes in behalf of mankind. Also I beheld a multitude of spirits flying and enflamed with the fire of heavenly love, while we adored, humbled in nothingness, rendering our religious homage to the most high for his intercession and the deliverance of all mankind. Then my guardian, who was at my right hand, coming before me, said thus: "Dear soul, my dear brother, do you see these spirits flying, who are vanished in the spirit of love and gratitude, humbled and self-annihilated as it were, adoring before the throne of grace, and praying the savior for the intercessions he made for them? These are lately delivered from the infernal prisons. It is for them that the tincture of the blood of Jesus Christ hath been shed even to the last drop, notwithstanding they had dwelt a long time shut up in the place of the damned under the power of the second death, and have passed through many agonies, pains and tribulations." Upon that, I perceived that Adam and Eve approached. And Adam spoke to me after his manner: "My dear brother, rejoice with universal and eternal joy, as you are favored with the heavenly visions. It is in this manner that our adorable Royal High Priest, mediator, and intercessor, shall restore all my descendants to the glory of our God. And their eternal and universal salvation for the kingdom of eternal love hath power sufficient to draw all mankind out of their bondage, and to exclaim and say: 'O death, where is thy sting, &c.' But my dear brother, this love of our God in Jesus Christ, by the power of his holy spirit, shall not only gain the victory over all the human species, but also surmount or overflow the kingdom of Satan entirely, with all the principalities of the fallen angels, and shall bring them back in their first glory, which they have had in the beginning. I will make all things new," said the Lord of hosts, and the end shall return into its beginning. O my Lord and my God, what great wonders hast thou caused to pass before mine eyes! Who am I, O my God, dust and ashes, an ungrateful and rebellious creature. I should not dare to lift mine eyes towards the heavens if the blood of Jesus Christ thy son did not plead for me. My soul rejoices and is glad, she shouts for joy. O my God, whom I adore, love, and respect; before whom I desire to be without ceasing, self-annihilated at thy feet. O my God and my love, the seraphims and cherubims, burning with the fire of thy heavenly love, adore and honor thee. Give me thy grace also, O my God, that I may be consumed before thee, while I sing the majesty, glory, and the memory of God, who hath created and redeemed me. I would praise him incessantly, not in shadow or figure, but in reality and truth. I would continue devoted to thee, and always be swallowed up in the ocean of love without a wish to leave it.

Being in this manner conducted into five celestial habitations, I discovered many mysteries, saw many miracles, and beheld the wonders of the most Holy Trinity among the children, the elect, and heavenly inhabitants, and perceiving how some surpassed others in brightness, light, splendor, and majesty, in friendship, love, humiliation, and self-abasement, concerning of which things my tongue is too feeble to speak, and my pen to write. I adore the marvelous ways of my God, with all the happy spirits.

Many thrones, palaces, edifices, temples, and buildings were erected in all parts, with fruit trees intermixed, rivers of pleasure gliding along through the celestial land, which appeared like a garden of heaven, even the paradise of God. It is the court of the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, which the eye has not seen nor the ear heard, and which the hearts of men have not conceived. It is the celestial globe where the New Jerusalem, or Mount Sion, is placed, where the bosom of Abraham is: where the sufferers who came out of their purifications are made to rejoice in Sion. O magnificent globe! O thou city of the Great God! Stately city of this place! Where shall a mortal find convenient phrases to lift out a little of thy glory and splendor? It is the glory and magnificence of the most Holy Trinity, where God is pleased to manifest himself in his pomp and beauty. The blessed angels have their employment in serving God β€” they compose the court of the Great King. O my God, I am not able to express that which penetrates me, of the grandeur, magnificence, splendor, pomp and majesty of thy dwellings or of the inhabitants in those transparent places. Hallelujah and victory for ever. Amen.

Then my guardian took me up and reconducted me to the house from whence I came, where I perceived the people assembled. And discoveriny my body in the coffin, I was re-united with the same and found myself lodged within my earthly tabernacle. And coming to myself, I knew my dear brother Marsey and many others who gave me an account of my being twenty-five hours in the coffin, and seventeen hours before they put me in the coffin, which altogether made forty-two hours. To me they seemed as many years. Beginning then to preach the universal gospel, I was presently put in prison but soon set at liberty again. I visited all my brethren, preaching the gospel and taking leave of them all, because that my God and Sovereign Good called me to go into America and preach the gospel there. I took my departure for the same in the 38th year of my age, and it is 41 years since I first arrived here. The 28th of July next, 1782, I shall be 79 years of age. Blessed be the name of the Lord forever.


Sermon: β€œJohn Murray in 2020”

27 September 2020 at 19:49

I preached from this sermon manuscript online for the Universalist National Memorial Church, on September 27, 2020 using lessons from the Revised Common Lectionary: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 and Matthew 21:28b-32. [shortened lesson]

Wednesday marks the 250th anniversary of John Murray's arrival in America. Later dubbed the "father of American Universalism" and considered for generations its signal pioneer, in a person, John Murray stands for Universalism. The stained-glass window of the ship in our church building (second from the front, pulpit-side) represents the ship that brought Murray to America, so represents Universalism in the life of the Christian church. Our church's original name was the Murray Universalist Society, and for a long time the church was planned to be a memorial to him personally. So, today's anniversary celebrates him, the Universalist church, where it has been and where we are going.

You may have seen the lithograph of Murray in the vestibule at church. Not the big one in the rectangular frame of a man presiding over the Lord's Supper. That's Hosea Ballou, important in his own right, but he belongs to the generation after Murray and in many ways replaced Murray's theology. But rather the profile of a man in an oval frame just before you go down the hallway to the parlor. It's a bit faded, rather small and easy to miss β€” just like our understanding of Murray, and even the world's understanding of Universalism and what it points to: the empowered nature of God, which will save all.

There's a contradiction between John Murray as an emblem, and the common knowledge about him. Why is that?

The story so far

Since we will be joining First Universalist, Minneapolis next week in their service as part of Murray Grove's observance of the anniversary, I won't preach this sermon the way I normally would. There are usual and customary ways to talk about John Murray, his arrival, and ministry β€” Murray Grove, Thomas Potter, "this argument is solid, and weighty, but it is neither rational nor convincing" β€” so there's a good chance we'll hear all about it next week, and if not then, than eventually.

Suffice it today that Murray did not come to America to evangelize, but at age twenty-eight was already a broken man. The ship he was on was bound for Philadelphia, but arrived off the central coast of New Jersey and got stuck on a sandbar. He was part of the landing party to get supplies β€” so no auspicious disembarkation β€” when he met an elderly man, radical in his beliefs, who was convinced that Murray was the preacher of universal salvation that God had long promised. He even had a meeting house ready for him to preach in. Was it providence? A tale later reshaped to sound better? Simple luck? Whatever the case, later generations of Universalists made this the origin story and bought the site as a retreat; it still exists, you can visit, and the center β€” Murray Grove β€” will be our hosts next week.


But first things first: let's celebrate this. We have come far in faith. We're not big but we have survived with our integrity, our community and our legacy intact. He have a heritage that has depths to inspire us and encourage us. It's like being the father of the prodigal son, who thought that his son had died. We have something to celebrate, so let's not take that for granted. I could use a little celebrating about now.

And further by looking at this heritage, and though the lens of today's lessons, we have notes that lead us to a better and more generous spiritual life, and a closeness to God that gives us strength in times of need (and why we gather as a church.) We have much to celebrate.

The anniversary

Of course, we are not the first to mark the day. 150 years ago there was a centennial convention in Gloucester, Massachusetts that attracted twelve thousand participants, the largest meeting either the Unitarians or Universalists ever held. Even fifty years ago George Huntston Williams wrote an essay, American Universalism, which is still a standard source for interpreting the history, and is still in print. (I recommend it.)

But what is it 250 years ago that we are marking, apart from a trans-Atlantic passage? What's the meaning of the story? I think it's the failure of misplaced intent and a redirection towards new life. In other words, life doesn't go according to plan and those changes can have their own consolations. Murray's voyage, or at least the way we usually interpret it, is itself theological.

A bit more context. John Murray was born in Hampshire, England in 1741 but brought up in Ireland, by his father, a merchant. He was a Calvinist within the Church of England; severe and smothering, today we would consider the elder Murray as emotionally abusive. John understandably, if selfishly, left his family when his father died, as a part of the famous evangelist George Whitefield's entourage, later settling in London and attending Whitefield's Tabernacle. That's when he met and later married Eliza Neale. (Her family did not like him.)

Nearby, a former disciple of Whitefield named James Relly was stirring up trouble by teaching that Christ took on human nature completely, and so in his saving acts, saved the human race completely. And the infection was beginning to spread.

So Murray was sent to correct one of these poor deluded Rellyites β€” and you can see this coming, right? β€” she got him thinking that Relly might be right: that all human beings were saved, not maybe or optionally, but as a condition of salvation itself.

But he and Eliza became convinced of Relly's teaching and joined his Universalist church. In falling away, they lost their friends.

Murray in London

He and Eliza might have had a happy life together, even if without material riches, and going down in the annals of English Dissent as a later rival to John Wesley. But their son died in his first year, and then Eliza's health declined. In a dreadful story familiar to people today, John did his best to care for his sick wife. They moved four miles out of town, to a healthier environment, even though that meant he had to walk eight miles each day to earn a living. He spent all he had on doctors, nurses and medications. But nothing worked, and Eliza died too. Widowed and destitute, John ended up in a private prison for debt. If his brother-in-law hadn't paid his debt and and given him a job he might still be there.

He was despondent. It seems he contemplated suicide, but considered a sin and chose instead to "to pass through life, unheard, unseen, unknown to all" in the wilderness of America. That's how he ended up on that ship, landing 250 years ago.

What a strange thing to celebrate.

Why Murray?

So maybe you're wondering, why does John Murray get the pride of place? He wasn't the first person to preach universalism and either Britain or America. There were already Universalists that met him on every important stage of the journey, some of whom had very different ideas of how God would save humanity. One reason surely is that he was the pastor of the first explicitly Universalist church in America, but even it rose out of group that studied the works of James Relly. He later became the minister of the first Universalist church in Boston. And he had a reputation of being a popular preacher. But there were other popular preachers, and (surprisingly) his particular theology barely survived his own lifetime.

Maybe it's because he was a careful and intelligent writer, but that's not really the case either. He didn't leave a systematic theology or textbook, or a series of arguments like other more influential theologians.

Even though three volumes of his letters and sermons exist, they were very hard to come by until the mass scanning of books a few years ago, and I was many years into the ministry before I actually saw a copy! That's because they weren't reprinted and kept alive by later generations, because, to put it nicely, they don't age well.

In the 1780s, Murray had some legal problem about the Universalist church being a separate entity, and so weddings he officiated that might or might not have been legal. He went back to England until the matter was settled. He returned on the same ship as Abigail Adams, and so we have her impressions of her in her journal:

Mr. Murry preachd us a Sermon. The Sailors made them-selves clean and were admitted into the Cabbin, attended with great decency to His discourse from these words, "Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him Guiltless that taketh His Name in vain." He preachd without Notes and in the same Stile which all the Clergymen I ever heard make use of who practice this method, a sort of familiar talking without any kind of dignity yet perhaps better calculated to do good to such an audience, than a more polishd or elegant Stile, but in general I cannot approve of this method. I like to hear a discourse that would read well.

Snobbery aside, we can say that John Murray was not a polished writer. But there was someone who did write in an elegant formal style. In that book study group that became the first Universalist church was a wealthy young widow, Judith Sargent.

In time, John and Judith married, and if you happen to study eighteenth-century American history, you are more likely to know about her than him, in part because she was a published author, and particularly because of her her early 1790 essay On the Equality of the Sexes.

Copley's portarit of Judith SargentIf you visit Gloucester today, the mural on the wall is of her. The research institute is about her, not him. The famous portrait (by John Singleton Copley no less) is of her, not him. And we know more about her inner life, through the preservation of her works and private correspondence, than his. A museum exhibit currently running is about her. And if John didn't write a training manual, Judith did, in the form of a catechism.

The critical John Murray

By contrast, John Murray is little known and little read, even in our church circles. There is no critical edition of his works, and apart from shabby print-on-demand copes, you can only find them in libraries or on-line.

Even the bit of Murray quoted in the gray hymnal (704) is not only not from Murray, but comes from a modern inscription, addressed as if to Murray.

But if I had to bring back one work, and to answer the question, "why John Murray?", it would be his autobiography, the Life of Murray and Universalists read inspirationally for generations. (Judith wrote the last section.) It was kept in print though the nineteenth century, and I have a copy given "from Minnie to Vesta" as a Christmas gift in 1899. I think because it had a reputation of being inspiring rather that deep, but from that must have come affection and recognition; the book is also how we know his story. Here was a man who knew early abuse, the temptations of friends and the allure of the city, grievous loss, imprisonment, a quest, the grace of God and a new chance. And all he wanted from it was the chance to tell you that God is love, and that all of us are included in God's salvation. That's why I think Universalists really cared about him.


Now, as I said before, John Murray barely outlived his own theological contribution to Universalism, but what was it he believed? It was easier for later generations to honor the man rather than his beliefs, so they weren't widely discussed. Precisely because his beliefs were controversial, he preferred to preach around them early in his career, leading hearers to come to the conclusion that all persons would be saved, rather than just saying it outright. We can use some of writings near Murray to get a reasonable reflection of what he believed.

What we do have at hand was the book James Relly wrote, Union; a late profession of faith by a church in Connecticut that was the last reference to a living example of Murray's theology and later secondary writing.

A distinctive feature of Relly-Murray theology is role of Jesus Christ as the captain of humanity. They believed that that God became human in the person of Jesus Christ, meaning that God not only had a knowledge and participation in our human nature, but that as the Second Adam, Christ put on humanity β€” us, collectively β€” as you or I might put on a garment.

Thus it was not Jesus alone who died on the cross, descended to hell, rose from the dead and ascended to heaven; rather, we all did. It is now a part of our human nature. To be human is to be saved.

Then what is the purpose of the Jesus' teaching or the role of the church? In a sense, it is to unlearn what we have come to believe, and be bound by it. Most people don't believe to be human is to be saved, so they (or we) must be saved from our unbelief in the goodness of God. Those who do not believe such will suffer a kind of living hell feeling, but not actually being, alienated from God. Thus we do no earn salvation, but know int. This gives the Universalist church its purpose: to spread the good news of what has already and what must forever be.

Rivals to Murray included Elhanan Winchester in Philadelphia, and his belief that God will fill all promises and salvation shall one day surely occur. (He and Murray did not get along.) Also, Hosea Ballou who made a common-sense argument from the nature of divine justice, that finite beings are not liable for infinite penalty, and this was already taking over in Murray's final years.

A word or two about our lessons.


Ezekiel was one of the prophets, and probably one of the hardest to appreciate and understand. Culturally, he's known from the gospel song, "Ezekiel Saw the Wheel," a reference to a manifestation of heavenly beings. These heavenly beings β€” an amalgam of eyes and wheels and wings β€” that on the one hand is a stunning metaphor for the omnipresence and omniscience of God. But on the other hand have encouraged lurid and literal images of what they would look like. Real nightmare juice. Ezekiel is fodder for 1970s conspiratorial pulp paperbacks to suggest that Ezekiel actually met beings from other worlds, the "wheels" being their spacecraft.

He's hard to understand because of the intensity of his visions. For Murray, that meant Ezekiel pointed a straight line to universal salvation, but from another part of the book. (Surprise, surprise.)

And yet Ezekiel is not so strange as to be ignored; at the church, in the chancel rail there are carvings of the four living creature within wheels, emblems which are also use to depict the writers of the four gospels. So think of Ezekiel like a live electrical wire: hazardous, but helpful with approached carefully and with understanding.

In our passage, God tells the prophet to end an ancient saying: "The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge." What does that mean? That we each bear the guilt for our own actions. What this doesn't mean is that each of us are liberated from the actions of those who go before us. People, much too often, do not get what they deserve because the conditions they're born into. This passage tells us that children (for example) to do deserve to be born into war, into hunger, into being poisoned or threatened by their environment. They do not deserve this, and yet too many get it. Human justice (or injustice) is not God's, and we ought to remember that even if we carry a grudge or anger, that this doesn't compel God to share it. Rather, we should try to see situation from God's point of view, or at least another point of view before deciding what is right or wrong.


In the passage from Matthew, Jesus speaks of the way of righteousness.

The John in the lesson from the Gospel of Matthew was not John Murray, of course, but John the Baptist, who had been teaching and stirring up controversy. Jesus was having a dispute with learned teacher, and made the point that those who do the right thing do the will of God, rather than those who say the right thing. Or put another way, without the correct, corresponding action, pledges and promises are meaningless or worse.

The same is true of beliefs. You can agree with an idea, but if you don't understand it, what do you really believe? Or you can agree with an idea, and profess it, and really understand it, but act like it's not important, what then do you really believe?. In other words, you can be a hypocrite, but you're not fooling God.

What does this have to do with Universalism, past or present? In brief, it is one thing to profess Universalism and its another thing to live it. Living it is far harder, in part because it's not a matter of making a theological commitment and sticking to it. Life that comes from theological commitments requires continuous evaluation and moral decision making. Our life together challenges any hidden self-centeredness. We present one another with carefully considered models of living. This makes it easier to do the right thing, and not merely say it, and so live a life in harmony with God β€” even before the final harmony.

After Murray

I suppose it should go without saying that you can be a devout, sincereΒ  ember of this church without believing anything John Murray preached. You couldΒ  have even done that in 1805. And so we announce each Sunday a definition of liberalism as "having no credal test for membership." At most. Universalists wanted to be known as having a common hope without dwelling in the details of how that might happen or what that might look like. Issues that brought other denominations to their knees barely set a ripple among the Universalists, and when there were controversies, the leadership tended to choose broadness over exclusion. It's a heritage worth keeping.


Dearly beloved, we are with this church because pioneers, founders and leaders built something that has continued to this day. But nothing is given, nothing is guaranteed.

Each of us must decide what is valuable and everlasting, and what is partial and ephemeral. What is essential and life-giving, and what is dispensable and secondary. As St. Paul said, "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good." (1 Thess. 5:21.)

Reputation, legacies, plans and fortunes rise but more easily fall. Commit yourself in word and deed to the good, the God-facing direction that brings life and health.

God bless you this day and evermore.

Sermon for June 7

9 June 2020 at 22:50

What follows is a transcript of the sermon I preached extemporaneously for the Universalist National Memorial Church. Like a flower that’s been pressed into a book, it only gives an impression of what I said: the context and the execution of preaching being lost. But perhaps better a representation of the sermon than none at all, particularly for those who saw it live. I’ve added the occasional bracketed word where the meaning may not make sense.

The texts were from the Revised Common Lectionary: 2 Corinthians 13:11-13 and Matthew 28:16-20, but from the Revised Common Version.

Good morning and thank you to Pastor Gatton for asking me back and for welcoming me into your homes and putting up with the fact that sometimes I don’t see the microphone button. But I want you to know that I’ve been thinking about each of you over the last several weeks, and I’ve been praying for you by name. Uh, special things this week to Lee Folia-Brunt who asked me what the sermon title was going to be. Not knowing that that was such a such a loaded and important question, because when she asked I didn’t have an answer, and that’s therefore there is no title today because how can you know what’s going to come? Two days ago, four days ago, a week ago. Who would believe that we would be where we are at this moment? And where will we be a day, three days a week, a year from now. So I didn’t have an answer.

And what do you then call what you’re not going to know what to say? Now I mean. And how can you even conceptualize the life that you’re in when everything is changing so quickly? So the sermon doesn’t have a title. But I’m hoping that it does have some threads which will carry back a day back, four days back. A week back. A year back. Back centuries and likewise centuries forward.

Let’s recap. It has been up until the last couple of days absolutely terrible. I don’t think this is controversial or news to anybody. When I started writing the sermon back when I thought it had a title. There were helicopters whirling overhead through the neighborhood. We were under curfew. And the only thing that would come up on the news — online or on television — were images of people being shot with rubber bullets or tear gas, or who knows what? And everything just seemed like it was going downhill continuously fast. These are not great conditions under which to write a sermon or for to think, or really to live.

So, we could be undercut by despair. We could be undercut by fear or anger or bitterness. We can certainly feel all these things, but to the fear of being pulled down by all these things is what worried me most of all. To think: what can we pull out of our religious lives in order to overcome this? Not just for this moment, because problems have come before.

Our problems are not a week, or a year, or three years old. Some of them go back decades and centuries. And whomever is elected in November, or whatever decisions are made in the next year or two, those problems will continue unless we are able to make systematic, deep-seated, heartfelt and hard-won changes.

We have a lot of resources. They’re not fairly distributed, of course. Some people have wealth and other people don’t. Some people have comfort at home and other people don’t. Some people have large and supportive families and other people don’t. Some people have health and their right minds and other people don’t. But collectively we have a lot of strength and one of the things that we can [also] call upon is our faith, because even though that is also not evenly spread out through the population, it is a resource which keeps giving and will not be exhausted. So I’m not [going to] talk about your wealth, and I’m not going to talk about your families, and I’m not going to talk about your political opinions and not even going to — and this is really rare for Washington — I’m not even going to talk about policy. But I am going to talk about our faith, because that’s something that we can do here and trust one another with. And that will give us some direction where we need to go with everything else.

Faith is not the same thing as religion, after all. Religion is sort of what we’re doing now. It is the customs and the folkways and the language and the texts and the stuff. Now that Zoom has become part of our religion. It’s the doing of the faith. But I want to talk about the faith part. The faith is what draws us into an understanding of the universe and the nature of God. It’s sort of the meta-level over which religion is the day-to-day piece. And it boils down to one question: What do you have trust in? Because sometimes we’ll talk to one another, and will say “I have a lot of faith in you”, or you may get this at a employment review. Or you may hear this among friends or within your families. “I have faith in you.” But in the larger sense, perhaps in the more proper sense, what we have trust in shows what we’re willing to rely on when we have to make those difficult decisions. And one thing that we can have trust in, and one thing Christian should have trust in, is the nature of God to be love.

Now that is so easily brought out that’s almost as bad as “you’re in my thoughts and prayers.” It’s so easily [used], just thrown out with no particular meaning and falls to Earth without a sound. But for us, who should be taking these things very seriously, there can be no greater and deeper guarantee than God’s nature is love, because it builds connections. And we can trust those connections that whatever else happens in the world, no matter what cruelty or power or strength or principalities, to use Paul’s language, we have that connection to the creator of Heaven and Earth who cares for us. And that’s important to remember when other people are willing —whether in your family or in the neighborhood or in government or around the world — who’re willing to say that you are nothing.

And that you were not important and what you care about is not important, you know, and can trust in your heart that the maker of Heaven and Earth cares for you. And the feeling is [ought to be] returned.

Of course it’s not just us, it’s not just a private property to be a member of a church, even the Universalist Church [it] isn’t to say that I have something that you don’t have. It’s not the AAA. you don’t call them up to jump your battery or to your car away, and if you’re not a member, you don’t get those things. But rather we know that based on that relationship — sometimes we forget — but we know that based on that relationship that same thing is true for everybody else as well. Which means that we are in an elastic but very strong network. Jesus had a word for it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” So that connection that we have runs all ways.

God, we love to deny it though. We love to deny it in our casual habits and in our systems. The ones that we inherit, the ones that we built and the ones that we suffer under, whether we choose to or not. That’s sort of the one thing I think of: the first pillar of Christian faith that I was to come back to. But the other ones a little sneakier. That in a word the world is not what it seems to be. Because if everybody was decent and forthright and believed this way, or at least kind of fell along with the program, we could rely on God being love and God loving us and that we would love everyone and everything would just be OK wouldn’t it ? But it’s not that way. Never has been.

We know that there is another pillar to Christian faith that we have to rely on and that is knowing that the world has this deep strain of sadness in it. Something’s not right. I’m not going to get into whole doctrine of original sin because I think that’s been so overplayed that it kind of misses the point that we just kind of know that things aren’t right. That suffering continues and life ends. And they’re good people don’t get what they deserve. And that sometimes people, even if they’re not good, just don’t get the basics to keep going. We know that there is something sad and continuous in this world, but that the same faith that we have — the same trust we have in that God is good and loves us knows that the world is not as it seems, and that we just cannot trust everything that comes to us.

Just because someone says that the powerful rule does not mean that they have a right to that that the systems that they exist, even though they are long and inherited, does not mean that they are good. And that we can look and think that there are other ways that we can have dreams. And those dreams as they form in our consciousness can become ideas, and that idea is the basis of hope. I mean, you don’t have to take my word for it. I mean God will flip the script on you really quick. There’s a line that I come back to every once in a while. I’m just going to read it.

This is Saint Mary and her praise of God at the in the first chapter of Luke. And she cries out, sings even. Speaking of God:

He has scattered the proud in their imaginations of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree. He has filled the hungry with good things. And the rich, he has sent empty away.

I mean, you don’t have to agree with me on these things because we’re not that kind of church. But one thing I hope that I can encourage you to think about, or at least engage with is there. There are two pillars of Christian faith that we can rely on. [First,] God’s nature is love, not just some sort of thing that God pulls out every once in awhile to impress us or to get us to think that maybe we should join the club, but that God’s nature is love, and that connects everything.

And that just because things seem to be set in stone doesn’t mean that they are. I can’t promise you policy changes. (I told you I wasn’t gonna talk about policy.) Can’t promise you wealth either, or a long life, or all the dreams that you’d cooked up. But I hope that that something that you can carry away and give yourself a little hope, because hope is the anchor of the soul. And without which it doesn’t matter where else we come up with.

But this is Washington after all, and you don’t think I’m going to [not] talk about something that’s happened in practical terms recently. The president came up with a really good idea on Monday. I mean, you’ve seen it. You watch the news. He was going to make a stand, I guess. I don’t know what goes through his mind. So he had some people clear out [the] people who were protesting, which it was their thorough right to do. Clear them out: horses, tear gas, pushed them away. We saw that we’ve seen that. That would be bad enough, galling enough, abusive enough. Boy, he just took it that much further, didn’t he? (And I know that the tear gas and the horses and all that, that’s the serious thing; that’s the important one. I get that.) But then he came out and used a church and a Bible as a prop piece to remind us that power is the first and most important [thing]. We know that’s not true, but it came out to remind us of this “fact.” And I’ll tell you that just sticks, sticks right here. [Points to throat.]

Um, so it’s sticking so much that I actually decided to pay for a subscription to the Washington Post so I can see some of the photos in more detail. Now when I’m gonna spend money for something you know that there’s a problem. OK. So I was able to get a photo of the president in his photo op. Holding the Bible as, like it was a dead fish. And they gotta close up of it, and I saw it, and I saw the spine. And I just about… I saw it in my heart went cold. It said the Revised Standard Version on it, which is not a new Bible. This was the sort of the mainline favorite between the late 40s. President Truman was given the first copy of it. That might be his copy for all I know. I suspect it was a presentation piece left at the White House at some point. Between the Truman administration and say, though the first, Bush administration. That was sort of the highlight of that of that version and so I decided to redeem it a little bit today, and Alex very graciously read today’s lessons from that version.

Because I think that if we take our religious life. Seriously, we need to reinterpret and understand what corrupt and powerful forces would have us believe. This thing, [gestures a bible] we will open it. And we will find strength from within it. We will look into our hearts. We will open them. And we will know what we have to do. Let’s talk about the readings for a second. These actually are the appointed readings for the day. I didn’t come up with these. I didn’t invent these for the purpose, but there’s something that’s really interesting about both of them.Both the second Corinthians and the Matthew are the last passages from their respective books. And Paul offers council to this unsuccessful little church in Corinth that needed his help remotely. If he had Zoom, he would’ve had a much easier time of it. And in Matthew, on the other hand, you have the departing narrative of Jesus, the his earthly ministry is ending and he is transferring authority to his students that he might be — that what disciple means — to his students, so that he might create new students in a world that might understand this way of God’s relationship with the world. But both of them are parting stories; both of them are endings.

Something, something in our sad world is ending right now. Maybe something better will follow. I don’t know; people have said that a lot, too, over the centuries and generations. I’m not going to make any promises. But when it comes to endings, we know that there’s grief that follows. And there’s a lot of tears that haven’t been shed yet. Not only for these people who were slain and had no.… I just can’t say it … Who should be with us here today.

Not only are there not enough tears for them, but for the ones, for them [for whom] there was no camera nearby. An artificial report was written up, which itself is deception and lies. We have not had enough tears for the dead and not enough truth to address the lies.

Something old is ending. But we cannot step to what is new, even if it’s good, even if it’s holy, and wholesome and beautiful until we properly, accountably, and in a holy way remember the hurt and the dead. We’ve been through these things long, I mean. Years and generations. Of course, we know how the story goes. There will be another disease, or there’ll be another crisis, or the economy will probably tank out from under us and will be caught up in all of that. And people who for whom this is not the first concern. (Those people are largely white people. So let’s put a little bit little flag in that.) We want to move on. We will not move on, right? Because our hearts are not yet open for that love which God has for us. And at which we must have for one another! must have! And we have not yet trusted that the world in its stream of sadness, [which] tells us lies about what is right and wrong. It’s not there yet. But I have faith and I have faith in you, each of you, that you will not let this pass away with the next new cycle in the next distraction or the next possibility of something more pleasant.

There’s this evidence of this. There are signs. Last week was horrible. Early on it got a little bit better, and once again, that’s in part due to you. And for the people who turned out on 16th Street in front of church. Who showed up in the smallest little towns across America and around the world to say no. No. “But my life matters.” And the things are not going to be the same. And that is, tt’s not the new, but it is a foretaste of the new which, like someone looking for food in a time of hunger [would] be a taste to allow us to go forward.

I’ve said too much. Let us mourn. Let us reflect. Let us be open. Do not be forgetful or distracted. But have faith, knowing that God is love. And that we must love one another, and that has responsibilities with it, and duties which we will find in order to address our sad world. To cheer it and to create that city which comes down adorned like a bride and be united with God. Amen.

Tomorrow’s (June 7) service may be delayed

6 June 2020 at 13:43

A word to my faithful audience. Tomorrow’s service may be late, but I hope to have it up some time on Sunday. Given the situation, I didn’t want to prepare something too early, and I’m also preaching (on different texts) for Universalist National Memorial Church tomorrow. I’ll have that sermon text posted.

And there’s a good chance I’ll be out in or near the demonstrations, too. Wear your masks and stay as safe as you can be.

Black lives matter.

Audio service, May 31, 2020 (Pentecost)

31 May 2020 at 11:00

The full text of the service for Pentecost Sunday follows. Low bandwidth users might want to download and unzip the lower-quality audio file.

Higher-quality audio:

Download: Lower-quality audio file, zipped (2.1 Mb)


Greetings. This is a service of worship for May 31, 2020, Pentecost Sunday.

Sentence and Votum (Psalm 124:8)

Because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ [Galatians 4:6, NRSV]
Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Collect for the Day

Let us pray:
God, who at this time did teach the hearts of your faithful people, by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit; grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things, and evermore to rejoice in your holy comfort. Amen.

Lord’s Prayer

Let us pray, as Jesus taught, saying:

Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, As it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation; But deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and glory, for ever and ever. Amen.


Let us praise God with words from Psalm 68. [68:4-10, NRSV]

Sing to God, sing praises to his name;
lift up a song to him who rides upon the clouds—
his name is the Lord—
be exultant before him.

Father of orphans and protector of widows
is God in his holy habitation.
God gives the desolate a home to live in;
he leads out the prisoners to prosperity,
but the rebellious live in a parched land.

O God, when you went out before your people,
when you marched through the wilderness,
the earth quaked, the heavens poured down rain
at the presence of God, the God of Sinai,
at the presence of God, the God of Israel.
Rain in abundance, O God, you showered abroad;
you restored your heritage when it languished;
your flock found a dwelling in it;
in your goodness, O God, you provided for the needy.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.


A reading from the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. [2:1-11, NRSV]

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own [native] language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, [and] residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’

Here ends the reading.


On Pentecost, which we commemorate today, the Holy Spirit descended upon the assembly, forming the new Christian church. That alone should attract our attention. But delving into its meaning offers further rewards.

Pentecost was a pre-existing Jewish pilgrimage holiday, and so it makes sense that a global representative group would be present in Jerusalem, and others besides. The Jewish holiday, Shavuot, is still observed. Originally, it marked the wheat harvest. That’s no small thing to celebrate, particularly this year of sourdough and banana bread, and difficult grocery store runs and price increases. I can imagine the wheat harvest being an emblem of the provision of life itself. Jesus certainly made the connection, as we pray “give us this day our daily bread.” Bread is shorthand for what we need; the harvest, the means of receiving it. But Shavuot’s meaning spread to become a commemoration of bestowing of the Law to Israel, thus its religious importance. I’m sure the participants that Pentecost — the Greek alternative name — got the parallel of the descent of the law and the descent of the spirit in their own time.

But let’s not wallow in that common Christian habit of contrasting law and spirit, so often to the denigration of Jews; rather, look at both law and spirit at their best: as a way to know the will of God, and do it. And at Pentecost of all holidays, clarity of understanding is of highest importance. “‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” How is the spirit of God calling you to? What it is empowering you to do?

If God’s promises do not speak to you in a way that you can understand them, then you might think that those promises aren’t made for you. Which is why we must be careful to consider our message to others: what we say and how we say it. We Christians have our own culture, folkways, custom and jargon, or rather many sets of these. And the more we want to distinguish ourselves from other Christians, or from others in the society, the more tempted we are to use distinct, even obscure, ways. A former sign of good preaching, for instance, was the “stained glass” voice which was supposed to suggest other-worldliness or piety, but now would just seem odd. Or worse, using prayer as a weapon, as in the phrase “I’ll pray for you” from someone who’s clearly angry or adversarial.

And yet we can also lose our way by surrendering to the local, dominant culture and using its ways. I want to overcome the violence, delusion and cruelty that our culture assumes is normal. We need a new and renewing language of the spirit, and to make the connections with the global church, and with the historic church to give us the perspective and moral force to not be co-opted. Doing that, and still being understood by people who have no experience or interest in either, is a difficult, but essential balancing act. Failing to do so makes the life-giving way of Christ’s church into a kind of cipher, useful only to a diminishing, self-referential few.

Let the Pentecost blessing come upon us, so that we may have a clear, empowered, holy and loving way of speaking — and the capacity to receive the same words from wherever they come.

Winchester Profession

Let us profess our faith:

We believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament contain a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest and final destination of mankind.

We believe that there is one God, whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.

We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.


Let us pray:

You who called us out into your marvelous spirit, bind us in one fellowship with the helpers of humankind that we may be children of the spirit. Take from us the love of ease and the fear of power, and show us the simple things that we can do to help our neighbors. Brighten the daily rounds of tasks that we have undertaken and are tempted to neglect; make us faithful to the trust that life has put upon us; hold us to the humblest duty. Prepare our hearts in sympathy to be partners in suffering with the weak, partners in eager service with the strong. Reveal to us the wavering ranks of those that are struggling upward, that we may cheer and support our comrades unknown. Remove from us the love of glory and the thirst for praise. Give us in weariness refreshment, and in struggle peace; but when we are idle, send chastisement, and when we are false, send fear, to bring us back to you. By your love restrain our censorious speech and teach us to commend; by your wisdom enlighten our plans and direct our endeavors for the common weal. Give us the vision of that bright city of God on earth where all shall share the best in thought and deed, and none shall harm or make afraid; and establish thou the work of our hands upon us, yea, the work of our hands, establish thou it. Amen. [Adapted from Unity Hymns and Chorales.]

God of all nations, we pray thee for all the peoples of thy earth: for those who are consumed in mutual hatred and bitterness; for those who make bloody war upon their neighbors; for those who tyrannously oppress; for those who groan under cruelty and subjection. We pray thee for all who bear rule and responsibility. We ask you to teach humanity to live together in peace, no-one exploiting the weak, no-one hating the strong, each kindred working out its own destiny, unfettered, self-respecting, fearless. Teach us to be worthy of freedom; free from social wrong, free from individual oppression and contempt, pure of heart and hand, despising none, defrauding none, giving to all, in all the dealings of life, the honor we owe to those who are your children and heirs, wherever their home on our common earth. Amen.

Concluding prayer

Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplication to you; and you have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them: Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of your truth, and in the age to come life everlasting. Amen. (1979 Book of Common Prayer)


The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all forevermore. Amen.


For more information about these services, visit revscottwells.com. The portions of scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version.

This is Scott Wells. God bless.

Attached media: https://web.archive.org/web/20211110143810/https://www.revscottwells.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/2020-05-31_audio-service_good-quality.mp3

Manuals of Faith and Duty revisited

25 May 2020 at 15:07

I don’t know where people get all this time to read; I’m lucky to scratch out ten pages a day. So that prompts me to shorter books and that reminded me of an article I wrote in 2008 about a set of eleven Universalist handbooks, written at the end of the nineteenth century. And if you can read through the breathless optimism and pre-Einstein, pre-Freud thought, you can learn a thing or two. I just finished Heaven and got some food for thought about what the kingdom of heaven means.

Back in 2008, I used Google Books; now I prefer Internet Archive, both to reduce my “Google footprint” and because Internet Archive has a better reading experience, and a wider variety of download options. So, I’m reprinting a period advertisement, with links to the Internet Archive, with two exceptions. Also, I’ve not reviewed these for bad scanning, so leave a comment if you find a book that’s a skew. The Internet Archive often has different versions of the same book so it’s worth a re-search. Enjoy.

“Manuals of Faith and Duty”

Manuals of Faith and Duty
Edited by Rev. J. S. Cantwell, D.D.

A series of short books in exposition of prominent teachings of the Universalist Church, and moral and religious obligations of believers. They are prepared by writers selected for their ability to present in brief compass an instructive and helpful Manual on the subject undertaken. The volumes are affirmative and constructive in statement, avoiding controversy, while specifically unfolding doctrines.

The Manuals of Faith and Duty are sold at 25 cents each. Uniform in size, style, and price.

I. The Fatherhood of God. By Rev. John Coleman Adams, D.D., Brooklyn, N.Y.
II. Jesus The Christ. By S. Crane. D.D., Earlville, Ill.
III. Revelation. By Isaac Morgan Atwood, D.D., President of the Theological School, Canon, N.Y.
IV. Christ in the Life. By Rev. Warren S. Woodbridge, Medford, Mass. [Google]
V. Salvation. By Orello Cone, D.D., President of Buchtel College, Akron, O.
VI. The Birth from Above. By Rev. Charles Follen Lee, Boston, Mass.
VII. The Saviour of the World. By Rev. Charles Ellwood Nash, D.D., Brooklyn, N.Y. (book notice)
VIII. The Church. By Rev. Henry W. Rugg, D.D., Providence, R.I. (1891)
IX. Heaven. By Rev. George Sumner Weaver, D.D., Canton, N.Y.
X. Atonement. by Rev. William Tucker, D.D., Camden, O.
XI. Prayer. by Rev. George H. Deere, D.D., Riverside, Cal. [Google]

Audio service, May 24, 2020

24 May 2020 at 11:00

The full text of the service for the Sixth Sunday after Easter, follows. low bandwidth users might want to download and unzip the lower-quality audio file.

Higher-quality audio:

Download: Lower-quality audio file, zipped (1.9 Mb)


Greetings. This is a service of worship for May 24, 2020, the Sixth Sunday after Easter.

Sentence and Votum

Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord! [Psalm 27:14]

Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth. [Psalm 124:8]

Collect for the Day

Let us pray:

O God, the King of Glory, who hast exalted your Son Jesus Christ with great triumph into your kingdom in heaven; we ask you to not leave us comfortless; but send to us your Holy Spirit to comfort us; and exalt us into the same place where he has gone: your own blessed and glorious presence, there to dwell in fullness of joy forever and ever. Amen.

Lord’s Prayer

Let us pray, as Jesus taught, saying:

Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, As it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation; But deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and glory, for ever and ever. Amen.


Let us praise God with words from Psalm 77 [77:1-12, NRSV]

I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, that he may hear me.
In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted.
I think of God, and I moan; I meditate, and my spirit faints.
You keep my eyelids from closing; I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
I consider the days of old, and remember the years of long ago.
I commune with my heart in the night; I meditate and search my spirit:
“Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable?
Has his steadfast love ceased forever? Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?”
And I say, “It is my grief that the right hand of the Most High has changed.”
I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord; I will remember your wonders of old.
I will meditate on all your work, and muse on your mighty deeds.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.


A reading from the fourth chapter of the first letter of Peter: [1 Peter 4:7-11, NRSV]

The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen.

Here ends the reading.


Today’s reading from the first letter of Peter is good pastoral care in the broader sense of the term: loving-kindness, set in a theological framework.

The letter, whether or not from St. Peter, was written to menaced and derided Christians in what’s now central Turkey. But it was probably not what we think of as organized, official persecution. From the context earlier in the chapter, the blow back comes from people they knew, who did not approve of their new way of life. As Peter puts it, “They are surprised that you no longer join them in the same excesses of dissipation, and so they blaspheme.” Perhaps, the angry people wanted their old party buddies back. And perhaps — this is my imagination — these new Christians were, as we’d say today, preachy and judgy. A revised way of life sometimes does that to you, so be on alert for a spirit of superiority or condescension. But even if you’re minding your own business, living in a healthy, kind, wholesome or moral way can bring out the worst in others, especially if your new life pulls you away from old friends and their hurtful lives. And if that’s the case, the best we can do is say no, firmly but kindly.

Kindly is not optional. Christianity cannot sanctify rude, pretensious or overbearing behavior, or make it acceptable. Peter counseled them to “maintain constant love” and “be hospitable to one another without complaining.” Something had gone wrong; perhaps there was some bad behavior shown by Christians to their former friends, and, and if so that was a mistake.

Remember: we all will be judged, and “for this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead” (that’s in verse six, just before our lesson) and which has long been a source of hope for Universalists. The plan includes everyone. Judgment follows justice, but in seeking the last and the lost, ends in divine mercy. So we starts with carefully kept humility. “Maintain constant love for one another,” to finish the thought, “for love covers a multitude of sins.” We live, not as judges, but as those who are and will be judged. Don’t make your behavior harder for yourself or anyone else.

Let us then be “good stewards” of God’s love, and from it draw courage and goodness to bear up in hard times with courage and goodness. God bless.

Winchester Profession

Let us profess our faith:

We believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament contain a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest and final destination of mankind.

We believe that there is one God, whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.

We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.


Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things we know not to desire or for which we are not worthy to ask. And this we ask for your infinite mercy’s sake. Amen. [Based on Book of Common Prayer]

Holy and eternal Spirit, source of life and light, you are our helper in every need, you fulfill all our joy. Be this day the present help of all who turn to you, here and everywhere, whether hurt or ashamed, whether sick or disheartened. And when we are strong, be a light beyond our present thoughts and pleasures, to guide us into ways of larger right and nobler blessedness. Amen. [Von Ogden Vogt, edited]

Eternal and ever-blessed God, who hast made us heirs of many ages and set us in the midst of many brothers and sisters; deepen our gratitude for your blessings as we have received them from our fathers, our benefactors, and our friends. May we never forget the kindness that surrounds us in the present, nor be careless to the treasures we inherit from the past; but in having a lively sense of debt to our brothers and sisters, and a loving remembrance of departed generations, may we reverently carry forward the work of the ages. We thank you for the fellowship of the living; for partners in duty; for comrades in the good fight; for all who feel with our joys and our sorrows; and especially for those by whom we are beloved and whom we love. We also bless your name for the laborers; for the succession of prophets, apostles, and martyrs, continued even to this day; for leaders and commanders of the people, who have made themselves great by becoming the servants of all; and for the nameless multitude of the loyal and devoted, who have fallen asleep in their generations, leaving their memorial with you. Make us of one heart with all these your worshippers; of one purpose with all these your servants; of one communion with all these your saints; and of one will with thine. Amen. [Orders of Worship for Manchester College, Oxford]

Concluding prayer

Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplication to you; and you have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them: Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of your truth, and in the age to come life everlasting. Amen. [1979 Book of Common Prayer]


The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore. Amen.


For more information about these services, visit revscottwells.com. The portions of scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version.

This is Scott Wells. God bless.

Attached media: https://web.archive.org/web/20211110143137/https://www.revscottwells.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/2020-05-24_audio-service_high-quality.mp3

Audio service, May 21, 2020 (Ascension)

21 May 2020 at 11:00

The full text of the service follows, and low bandwidth users might want to download and unzip the lower-quality audio file.

Download: Lower-quality audio file (MP3) (1.9 Mb)


Greetings. This is a service of worship for May 21, 2020, Ascension Thursday.

Sentence and Votum

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. [Hebrews 4: 14, 16]

Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth. [Psalm 124:8]

Collect for the Day

Let us pray:

Grant, we ask you, Almighty God that as your best-beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, has ascended into the heavens; so we may also in heart and mind follow, and with him continually dwell in your glorious presence, world without end. Amen.

Lord’s Prayer

Let us pray, as Jesus taught, saying:

Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, As it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation; But deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and glory, for ever and ever. Amen.


Let us praise God with words from Psalm 150:

Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament!
Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his surpassing greatness!
Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with clanging cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.


A reading from the twenty-fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, the end of the gospel. [Luke 24:49-53 (end), NRSV]

Jesus said to his disciples:

“And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

Here ends the reading.


The Ascension of Jesus, which we observe today, is not a greeting-card holiday with its own cultural, festive trappings. But it is a natural fit with Universalism, for as we heard in the opening collect, we pray that we “may also in heart and mind follow [Christ] and with him continually dwell.”

Yet many faithful Christians give it less than it deserves. The Universalist point aside, Ascension is an important if bittersweet, moment in Jesus’ life and ministry. His time with his disciples after his Easter resurrection has come to an end. He would no longer be seen on Earth in the flesh. Jesus would return to the heavenly realm, and there prepare a place for us; in his place, the Holy Spirit would come and give life and power to the believers, which we mark in ten days on Pentecost.

I think one reason Christians neglect Ascension comes from the art that depicts it (and in a larger sense they way it gets described) which undercuts the spiritual message and seems rather silly. Here we see Jesus in white robes, blown like a kite out of reach. Or worse, painted stiff as a Saturn rocket, half out of the scene as if he’d just sprung off a trampoline. It’s hard not to smile, even laugh and that’s a problem.

If you’re likely to think that Jesus Christ is some kind of deep space probe, it’s hard to take his departure very seriously, and you’ll miss the point of what’s being communicated: a promise of continuing divine care and connection, even when it’s not standing plainly in front of you. So much of the Gospel comes with this dynamic: “you have heard it was this way, but really this is what happened.” The Gospel frees us from the cruelty of wrong, and gives us hope that God will break decisively into our live as a blessing, countering the hardness and sadness of the world.

So, you have heard that Christ was put up – risen up – on the cross and died. Yet he lives, and now rises himself to glory. You have heard that earthly power establishes what we must believe, but we have seen that might does not make right. You have heard that everyone has a price, but we have seen that some acts of love and courage have no price. You have heard that some people are important, and others aren’t, but we have seen that the Lord of heaven and earth first lived with us, and suffered as we do, and will draw each of us up. Where he goes, we shall follow, and where we live, his promise of the Spirit shall yet dwell.

My blessing at Ascension to you.

Winchester Profession

Let us profess our faith:

We believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament contain a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest and final destination of mankind.

We believe that there is one God, whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.

We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.


O God, the Protector of all who hope in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy, multiply your mercy upon us, that, being our governor and guide, we may so pass through things temporal so we do not lose the things eternal. Amen. [Services of Congregational Worship]

Inspire our thoughts of a higher life, that we may feel how divine a thing it is to rise above ourselves, by out-growing selfish aims — and how we may be lifted into peace though sharpest suffering — and how the kingdom of heaven comes down to the heart, when the affections are set upon things above. [The Gospel Liturgy for Ascension-Exhaltation]

O Thou Guiding Spirit of the souls of men, whom all worship under many names and diverse forms, we pray for thy blessing upon the great company of those who fain would know thy law and do thy will. Grant unto thy Church Universal, wheresoever it may be found, an increasing knowledge of the truth, a deeper understanding of human need, a more generous spirit of sacrificial love. Where it is weak in the presence of evil, strengthen and upbuild it in the hearts of human beings; where it is in error, re-establish it in the right way; where it is corrupt, purify it, though it be by fire; where it is divided by misunderstanding, jealousy or suspicion, bring it into one spirit of good will. Draw together in one accord the spirits of all thy children until each shall labor in his or her appointed way for thy kingdom of righteousness and love; until the discords of earthly strife and clamor shall be lost in one great hymn of praise. So may thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen. [Composite, in Services of Religion]

Concluding prayer

Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplication to you; and you have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them: Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of your truth, and in the age to come life everlasting. Amen. [1979 Book of Common Prayer]


The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore. Amen.


For more information about these services, visit revscottwells.com. The portions of scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version.

This is Scott Wells. God bless.

Attached media: https://web.archive.org/web/20211110142816/https://www.revscottwells.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/2020-05-21_service_good-quality.mp3

Audio service, May 17, 2020

17 May 2020 at 11:00

The full text of the service follows, and low bandwidth users might want to download and unzip the lower-quality audio file.

Download: Lower-quality audio file (MP3) (1.5 Mb)


Greetings. This is a service of worship for May 17, 2020, the Fifth Sunday after Easter

Sentence and Votum

Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. [Matthew 7:7, NRSV]

Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth. [Psalm 124:8, NRSV]

Collect for the Day

O Lord, from whom all good things come; grant to us your humble servants, good things by your holy inspiration, that by your merciful guidance we may perform the same, as true followers of your Son Jesus Christ. Amen.

Lord’s Prayer

Let us pray, as Jesus taught, saying:

Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, As it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation; But deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and glory, for ever and ever. Amen.


Let us praise God with words from Psalm 20: [NRSV]

The Lord answer you in the day of trouble! The name of the God of Jacob protect you!

May he send you help from the sanctuary, and give you support from Zion.

May he remember all your offerings, and regard with favor your burnt sacrifices.

May he grant you your heart’s desire, and fulfill all your plans.

May we shout for joy over your victory, and in the name of our God set up our banners. May the Lord fulfill all your petitions.

Now I know that the Lord will help his anointed; he will answer him from his holy heaven with mighty victories by his right hand.

Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the Lord our God.

They will collapse and fall, but we shall rise and stand upright.

Give victory to the king, O Lord; answer us when we call.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.


A reading from sixteenth chapter of the Gospel of John [NRSV]

Jesus said to his disciples:

Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete. “I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures, but will tell you plainly of the Father. On that day you will ask in my name. I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.

I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father.” His disciples said, “Yes, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech! Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God.” Jesus answered them, “Do you now believe? The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”

Here ends the reading.


We have inherited problematic ideas from today’s passage from the gospel of John, particularly the phrase, “if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.” Too many Christians have take this as a license to desire anything, claim anything, want anything, expect anything. If you have entertained a variety of television evangelists, or their hearers, you will have run across this line of thinking. But when you consider the person of Jesus Christ and the promises of the Gospel, it is a strange attitude and devastating both to the hope of the Gospel, and the spiritual health of the believer. Be on guard against it, even when it tempts you in subtle ways.

First, it runs against the commandment, repeated by Jesus in the wilderness, that you shall not tempt the Lord, your God. God is God, and not some particularly well-connected benefactor. And in the wilderness, it wasn’t God who promised Jesus all things, but the Tempter. Lord: “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”! Second, if this was the chief benefit of Christianity, then Jesus Christ is himself a bad example. There’s little evidence he owned much, not even having a place to lay his head. He and his disciples relied on the support of their hearers. He had no tomb of his own, but was lain in one given to him. There’s nothing in Jesus’ ministry that suggests his blessing will provide you earthly riches. He could not spare himself the betrayal of friends, the jeering of the crowds or a painful, public execution. This is not the path to a big house, a luxury car or even a quiet life.

But the passage means something. I suspect it’s a call to learn what is truly valuable, and to rely on Jesus Christ to receive that call. We are, by this same passage, to call on God in his name to receive what we ask. But what then ought we to ask for, dare to ask for? And this isn’t just my bourgeois aesthetic sensibility speaking. The thinnest fraction of Christians who have ever lived have known opulence and wealth, many knew no peace, and there’s no just reason for thinking that these are false and unfaithful believers. Which makes me think that the deepest prayers and desires of the Christian faithful lie somewhere else. Again, this makes demands on God, when God makes demands on us. What then to ask of God, in Jesus’ name? That’s a lifetime’s meditation, but there are some hints.

Christian faith, well practiced and — even more — well lived, redirects our desires. We might want and not simply obey that commandment that Jesus gave his disciples: that you shall love one another, as he loved them, and he loves us. We might want the fulfillment of the Golden Rule: trusting in God’s will “on earth as it in is heaven.”

Such things last when fortunes fall, when passions cease, when wishes end, and God will be with you. Friends, think on these things.

Winchester Profession

Let us profess our faith:

We believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament contain a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest and final destination of mankind.

We believe that there is one God, whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.

We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.


Let us pray:

Almighty God, we bless and praise you: we have awakened to the light of another earthly day; and now we will think of what a day should be. Our days are yours, let them be spent for you. Our days are few, let them be spent with care. There are dark days behind us, forgive their sinfulness; there may be dark days before us, strengthen us for their trials. We pray that you shine on this day — the day which we may call our own. Lord, we go to our daily work; help us to take pleasure therein. Show us clearly what our duty is; help us to be faithful in doing it. Let all we do be well done, fit for your eye to see. Give us strength to do, patience to bear; let our courage never fail. When we cannot love our work, let us think of it as your task; and, by our true love to you, make unlovely things shine in the light of your great love. Amen. [George Dawson]

O God, who puts into our hearts such deep desires that we cannot be at peace until we rest in you: mercifully grant that the longing of our souls may not go unsatisfied because of any unrighteousness of life that may separate us from you. Open our minds to the counsels of eternal wisdom; breathe into our souls the peace which passes understanding. Let our hunger and thirst be for righteousness, that we may be filled with the bread of heaven. O Lord, give us grace to seek first your kingdom; and we know that you will add unto us all needful things. Amen. [Services for Congregational Worship]

Almighty and ever living God, who has taught us to make prayers and supplications and to give thanks for all persons, we pray that you would inspire the universal church with the spirit of truth, unity and concord; that all they who do confess the name of Christ may live in peace and in godly love. Give grace, O heavenly Father, to all ministers of the gospel, that they may, both by their life and doctrine, set forth your true and living word. And to all your people give your heavenly grace, that with meek heart and due reverence they may serve you in holiness and righteousness all the days of their life. Comfort and succor in your infinite goodness, all those who in this transitory life are in trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any adversity. And we also bless your holy name for all your servants departed this life in your faith and fear; praying you to give us grace so to follow their good examples, that with them we may be partakers of your heavenly kingdom. Grant this, O God, for your infinite mercy’s sake. Amen. [Book of Common Prayer]

Concluding prayer

Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplication to you; and you have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them: Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of your truth, and in the age to come life everlasting. Amen. [1979 Book of Common Prayer]


The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore. Amen.


For more information about these services, visit revscottwells.com. The portions of scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version.

This is Scott Wells. God bless.

Attached media: https://web.archive.org/web/20211110142400/https://www.revscottwells.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/2020-05-17_audio-service_48kbps.mp3

Audio service, May 5, 2020

10 May 2020 at 11:00

This is the first of seven audio services; as you will see, I’m still getting used to the software and the microphone, but I hope it’s a blessing for you.  (Onward and upward, right?) The full text follows, and low bandwidth users might want to download and unzip the lower-quality audio file.

Download: Lower-quality audio file (MP3) (1.3 Mb)


Greetings. This is a service of worship for May 10, 2020, the Fourth Sunday after Easter

Sentence and Votum (Psalm 124:8)

This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it. (Psalm 118:24)

Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Collect for the Day

Let us pray:

Almighty God, who unites the minds of all the faithful: grant your people love for what you command, and desire for what you promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely be pointed to where true joys are to be found, the kingdom and promises of your Son Jesus Christ. Amen.

Lord’s Prayer

Let us pray, as Jesus taught, saying:

Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, As it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation; But deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and glory, for ever and ever. Amen.


Let us praise God with words from Psalm 34 (1-7, NRSV)

I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad.
O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together.
I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.
Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed.
This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble.
The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.


A reading from the first chapter of the letter of James (1:17-21, NRSV)

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

Here ends the reading.


Our passage from the letter of James ends on a hopeful note: “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” The same power which saves us, and all persons, in the span of creation comes to help us in the trials of our daily life. As in fact it must. We don’t profess a faith that only has benefits in an unseen future state. God implants a desire to hope, not just for a string of “perhaps tomorrow, perhaps tomorrow” but also that we might live fully today. Spiritually deep living proves the value of faith more than any turn of logic or theological dispute. From it comes the gift of God “from above” granting us power to be generous givers ourselves, to enjoy good times and to bear up with hard times.

While the virus sickens and kills many people, threatens livelihoods and inconveniences everyone, it is not correct to say that the days before the outbreak were good and today is bad. For many people, perhaps most people on Earth, life was hard before and is harder now. There was death, loss, hunger, sickness and violence then and now. But the burden is lighter on those with more resources. Typically, we speak of these resources as financial or material: money to not worry about lost work or medical bills, a bigger house to shelter in or the means to have food and resources delivered to you. There are other, intangible resources, say, taking comfort in the company of family and friends, but these too are limited, and the pandemic is a special burden for those who live alone. And we also have spiritual resources that give us a context and response to that crisis. Spiritual resources, unlike material resources, can be re-charged by their use. How often do we feel refreshed by being kind, and see that kindness returned, but weary from demanding indulgences from others. Don’t think it comes automatically, or that’s it’s a fraud to put yourselves in an attitude valuing goodness, service and care over, as James puts it, sordidness and wickedness.

This particular pandemic will some day pass, but other challenges will come instead. Prepare yourself — not just with canned food and toilet paper — but with an approach to life that values goodness, and “has the power to save your souls.”

Winchester Profession

Let us profess our faith:

We believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament contain a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest and final destination of mankind.

We believe that there is one God, whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.

We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.


For peace

Let us pray for peace:

O God, who is the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom stands our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom; Grant us, your servants, we humbly ask you, that peace which the world can neither give nor take away; that we, who in all our dangers rely on your goodness, may under your parental protection be defended against all adversities, and rejoice evermore in your blessed service, through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

For grace

Let us pray for grace:

O Lord, our heavenly Father, almighty and everlasting God, who has safely brought us to the beginning of this day; Defend us with your mighty power; and grant that we fall into no sin, nor run into any kind of danger; but that all our doings may be ordered by your governance, to do always that which is righteous in your sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

For healers and caretakers

Let us pray for healers and caretakers

Almighty God, who inspires the hearts of all who would serve you, we ask you to give your special blessing to all healers and caretakers who attend to the sick and afflicted. Give faithfulness and skill to their work, efficiency to the means they employ, and guide them to the understanding that in their best service, they also serve you. In the name of the Divine Physician, Christ our Lord. Amen.

For all conditions of humankind

Let us pray for all people

O God, the Creator and Preserver of all humankind, we humbly ask that you would make your ways known unto the breath and width of the human family, your saving health to all nations. More especially we pray for the good estate of the Church Universal; that it may be so guided and governed by your Spirit, that all who profess and call themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth, and hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life. Finally, we commend to your tender goodness all those who are any ways afflicted or distressed, in mind, body, or estate (particularly sick people and those close to death); that you would comfort and relieve them according to their various needs, giving them patience under their condition, and a happy result from all their afflictions. And this we ask for your mercy’s sake in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Concluding prayer

Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplication to you; and you have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them: Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of your truth, and in the age to come life everlasting. Amen. (attributed to St. John Chrysostom)


The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore. Amen.


For more information about these services, visit revscottwells.com. The portions of scripture are from the New Revised Common Version.

This is Scott Wells. God bless.

Attached media: https://web.archive.org/web/20211110141459/https://www.revscottwells.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/2020-05-10_service_good-quality.mp3

Audio services to begin

29 April 2020 at 12:37

For six weeks, plus Ascension Thursday, I will be creating short audio services of worship and posting them here. I will start this Sunday (May 3) or the Sunday following, depending on how quickly I can work through the logistics.

Why? As always, I think Universalist Christianity is a word of comfort, sorely needed now. In part to share an expression of Universalist Christian worship at time when other expressions of Christian faith are being distributed through internet-published video, audio and text. Also, I want to offer something to readers, a couple of whom wished aloud that the services of my home church, Universalist National Memorial Church, Washington (UNMC) could be available. In fact, they may be in time (that’s not my decision), but for now they can only be experienced live. Six weeks is all I’m ready to commit to, and that also may see us through this wave of the shutdown. (I hope.)

Even if UNMC starts broadcasting, surely there’s room for two Universalist Christian services. But keeping that possibility in mind, I want to distinguish my efforts in several ways:

  1. The services will be rooted in the now little-known Universalist prayer book tradition. It’s close to my heart and I want it to be better appreciated. I hope to show that it’s approachable enough to learn and adopt where there is no Universalist Christian church nearby.
  2. The profession of faith I will use is the one I turn to the most: the Winchester Profession of 1803. UNMC uses a local declaration of faith based on the 1899 Chicago “Five Principles” Declaration.
  3. I will use the older one-year lectionary rather than the Revised Common Lectionary that I almost always use in my preaching.
  4. There will be no sung or choral music; it’s past my ability.
  5. The services will be pre-produced, not live.
  6. The services will serve more a supplement than as a principle worship service, though that may not be an important distinction for many.
  7. The services will be audio only, probably with a text option. This should make them more available for persons with limited internet access. The digital divide is real, and even in the United States, many people live with no internet or a poor connection; streaming or recorded video is not an option for many people.

Pray for me as I take the first steps into a different mode of ministry.

Dream of the Rood 2020

11 April 2020 at 22:19

“I trembled when the Hero clasped me.”

As it is my Holy Saturday custom, I have read The Dream of the Rood, an Old English dream narrative told from the perspective of the Cross itself.

I pick from the various translations online; this year I read Charles W. Kennedy’s version. (PDF)

Sermon: Good Friday 2020

11 April 2020 at 01:44

I preached from this sermon manuscript online for the Universalist National Memorial Church, on Good Friday, April 10, 2020.  The text was the passion of St. Matthew.  (Matthew 27:11-54)

Friends, we turn to the difficult fact of Good Friday. Here, God’s beloved dies before the jeering crowd. Betrayal, cruelty and falsehood triumph. Hope burns to ashes, and light and color drain from the world. We are left with questions, grief and silence.

Good Friday so becomes a spiritual challenge. In good times, we might have to specially direct our spirits to be receptive to this horror and grimness; so when the sun shines and the air is warm, it can seem a strange thing to try and be sad. And when times are bad, well, who needs more sadness? That’s this year, and I’m sad and anxious enough, and don’t like it. The trope, well-shared in social media, is that this Lent has been far more Lenty than anyone expected, perhaps too much to bear. Nevertheless, Good Friday prepares us for hard times, at least giving us familiar concepts to interpret them.

Perhaps we can identify the losses that come from the COVID-19 pandemic, and try to set them directly in a framework that Good Friday presents. It is a natural thing to do: tying Good Friday to the suffering we’re experiencing collectively. There’s a risk, though. It’s a collective hardship, but not an even or fair one. It is not a leveler. Those who suffered before, will suffer more — including the loss of health and life, and anxiety and depression, not to mention the economic impact. Millions of people will be pushed beyond breaking, into lasting or deeper poverty and unemployment. Its results will follow us for many years, perhaps for the rest of our life. Most hardships don’t end in redemption.

Instead of comparing the pandemic to the crucifixion directly, I think about what the disciples must have asked themselves that Friday when all their hope died: where do we go from here?

If Easter’s resurrection brightness is hard for us to conceptualize now, after centuries of meditation and interpretation, it surely must have been unthinkable for the disciples: not even an option to consider, much less weighing the up pros or cons of its likelihood. But Easter did come, and those who survive this crisis will have to decide what we will do next.

The trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate is remarkable for any number of reasons. We know so little of individuals from that period, and what little we know of Pilate is that he crucified a lot of people. I’m not prone to read him as the antihero, swayed by the mob. (Passages which have been used for centuries to justify violence against Jews, I should add. And this scene from Matthew is less troubling that the one from John.) And another odd thing was the choice of the crowd in letting one condemned man go, a practice that has no independent confirmation. So what follows is not an original thought, but one I picked up in college (I was a religion major) about thirty years ago. Consider that there were not two criminals, one of whom might be set free, but one man with two names, Jesus the Messiah, the anointed one, and Jesus Barabbas, Jesus “son of the Father.” The first tinged with triumph and the power of the governance; the other pointing to mystical connection with God. Which seems backwards, doesn’t it? Because Barabbas is described as a bandit, but well, we know not to take one-sided charges too seriously. After all, the man who died on the cross told us, “they know not what they do.” We know he was innocent.

We might have two names, too. Which will we chose? We must seek the good impulse, and live into it, but that won’t protect us. We may not escape hardship, but might, just maybe, choose what we suffer for. For goodness and for the common good. To defend the helpless, and to overcome domination. To chose life in its fullness, rather than to concede to bitterness.

How will we be known? And will that name be a blessing to those who come after us? Challenged by the experience of the Resurrection, the disciples went out to ends of the world, to share the gospel that the world might not despair, because on the cross we saw that all is not as it seems and that God’s purpose and blessing come to those, however grieved and confused, do what is good, and right and true.

Let us pray:

Eternal God, before the cross we stand in awe and trembling. Comfort and console the mourners this day. Confirm in us that mind and spirit you put within Jesus, our comfort and our strength. And lead us from this place, to go forth with your blessing, and to live without fear, waiting in hope.

β€œRemote” communion for Maundy Thursday or Easter

5 April 2020 at 17:27

If  you are on the lower, especially the lower Reformed-ish, end of the church; and if you are having a streamed service where the members are providing their own bread and wine (or wine-ish) this Lord’s Supper framework seems ideal.

A communion service I’d use for a prayer breakfast

(I’m not interested if you think this is heresy.)

Palm crosses during COVID-19

4 April 2020 at 22:49
palm cross with ruler for scaleIf we can make masks out of handkerchiefs, we can make palm crosses out of legal pads. That is, the strip of paper across the top of a legal pad, folded lengthwise.

Communion and COVID-19: limitations and options

14 March 2020 at 20:44

So, I was working up the next installment of my series about using a portable communion set when the coronavirus outbreak created a very long and stressful week. (As you well know.) And this was just the beginning for the United States, western Europe and Australia where most of my readers come from.

Churches and temples of all kinds have closed, at least for this weekend, and for many at least through the end of March. We might still be under some kind of restriction through Holy Week and Easter (April 12) now. That’s a hard thought, but people have had to manage living with epidemics before, and it’s during difficult times that you learn to make alterations and concessions that both keep people safe and fulfill religious desires and duties. This weekend we’ll see a new flowering of online services. What’s next? Perhaps a renaissance of mainstream religious broadcasting?

But with Holy Week (specifically Maundy Thursday) and Easter, you have communion services. Unlike the long-televised Catholic mass “for shut-ins” there’s not much of a custom for broadcasting the Lord’s Supper, at least not at the Reformed end where we come from. In part because, apart from the Campbell-Stone traditions — it’s still a “special service,” a break from the normal Sunday preaching service. The Lord’s Supper, too, is felt but low Reformed administration of the ordinance isn’t much to look at if you’re not in the middle of it. You might ordinarily broadcast a sermon, but not the sacrament.

So, what to do without risking the spread of a deadly illness? I wanted to introduce the thought, and in short order review the history and map out some options.  Publishing this, to make some momentum…

Opening the communion kits

6 March 2020 at 01:21

As I mentioned last time, I bought two vintage portable communion kits from eBay sellers and this article shows what they contain. Readers who aren’t interested in the specifics of these particular items can skip over this article. If I left out a detail you were looking for, ask in the comments.

I ordered the kits thinking they were identical models and while very similar, this was not the case. Indeed, as only one is marked, so I can’t be sure that they are from the same maker — Sudbury Brass, which no longer makes a kit like this — but if they are, they must come from different periods of production.

Advertisement for communion kit
From Du Bois, Lauriston J. (Editor), “Preacher’s Magazine Volume 30 Number 10” (1955). Preacher’s Magazine. 293. https://digitalcommons.olivet.edu/cotn_pm/293

The smaller kit is the model 1215, and from advertisements in ministers’ magazines seem to have been sold from about 1949 to 1955, perhaps longer. Other than a mark on the clasp of the case (SB 1215) the only markings are “silver on copper” on metal pieces. The larger case and its contents have no markings at all.

While the cases are different sizes, they contain essentially the same items, or did originally. Each has a shallow silverplate basin with a silverplate disc with six holes; this holds the six glasses. The one in the larger case is slightly larger and the disc lifts off easily, while the disc on the smaller one is more closely fitted: a bit harder to clean, but quieter. There is also a shallow bread plate; these are identical between the kits. (A loaf three inches in diameter would fit on the plate, but not in the kit.)

Both cases, seen from above, with lids open

The smaller case with the purple lining has no bread box, but has a place for where it would have rested. The bread box would be suitable for host wafers, small pieces of bread sold to Protestants and perhaps oyster crackers. The smaller kit has its original wine flask, while the larger kit had the original silverplate cap awkwardly wedged onto a modern plastic bottle; they were not threaded the same. The silverplate on both caps is worn. The box and flask are not interchangable with the other kit, which brings us to the cases themselves.

Each seems to be made of masonite or some other hardboard covered with a coated paper or cloth, similar to what would be used in bookbinding. Each is subdivided into three compartments, lined with velveteen: blue in the large case and violet in the small. The combined glasses tray fits in one compartment; the plate in another, while the flask sits in a “well” under a flange that holds the breadbox. The small case originally had a leather strap, now lost; the larger has a metal handle, like those found on small tool boxes of the period.

There’s no room for anything else: candles,  common cup, service book, cross or the like. You might slip in an icon card and a handkerchief, but otherwise what you see is what you can carry here.

I’ll be thinking about how you would use it next.

Next sermon: March 15

3 March 2020 at 23:57

If you are in Washington, D.C. on March 15, please come to worship with Universalist National Memorial Church. I’ll be preaching from the Revised Common Lectionary texts for the third Sunday in Lent, from the Book of Exodus and the Gospel of John.

Reviewing the communion kit

29 February 2020 at 00:09

A couple of weeks ago, I ordered two vintage communion kits from eBay sellers. This is the first of a short, open-ended series about what I bought, what I plan do with them and (since there’s not an endless supply of such kits) what some alternatives are.

Two black oblong hinged cases

I bought two because figured that between them I would have enough parts to have one good kit. But don’t go looking for a chalice or linens. These are the communion kits well known to “low” Protestants, and are often used for communion in home or hospital visitation. They typically include small, individual glasses and a way to present them, a vessel for serving some kind of bread and containers to store the bread and wine. Today (and for the two decades I’ve been ordained) these kits can be quite small: larger than an eyeglasses case, but usually smaller than two combined.

Unfortunately, they’re also often quite cheap looking, made of plastic or some other unknown hard material, lined with acetate cloth or molded plastic. These are nicer than most. Some use disposable plastic cups. (I’ve even seen one that is basically a carrying case for those all-in-one juice and wafer sets. The ones that look like individual coffee creamer cups. Think Keurig for communion; on second thought, don’t. My sacramental theology isn’t so high, but this form is so ugly, that I couldn’t bear it and wouldn’t serve it.) The most you can say for the typical communion set is that it’s convenient and light-weight, but they cost more than they should.

Contrast this with how beautiful and refined other consumer goods have gotten, and it’s clear to me that we can and should do more for worshiping God. The Lord’s Supper shouldn’t compare poorly in form to a take-out cup of coffee.

Next: what’s in the cases.

Sermon: β€œMountaintops”

23 February 2020 at 18:00

I preached from this sermon manuscript at Universalist National Memorial Church, on February 23, 2020 with the lectionary texts from the Book of Exodus and the Gospel of Matthew.

From the twenty-fourth chapter of the Book of Exodus:

Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.

I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for asking me into the pulpit again, and thank you for welcoming me back.

Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration, and this is why that’s important. To transfigure here means to transform in such a way that improves and elevates, namely by being brought closer to God in space and purpose but mostly in spirit, and in so doing becoming more like God. It’s this becoming more like God that I think is the main purpose of life, and how we are able to enjoy a life of blessing here and now. If you want to know the point of the sermon, it’s that. It’s one thing to believe we are loved by God (and we are) but another to become more wise, more loving, more compassionate, more creative, more forgiving and so much more. In other words, to accept the inheritance we have as beloved children of the God who is. So I believe that we can, by grace and patience, grow in a God-like way.

Which makes the Transfiguration — the feast and the concept — very important. The passage we heard in the second reading is its warrant. It’s marked today in some Protestant churches: the capstone of the season following Epiphany. On the day of Epiphany, last month, Jesus’ divine essence was disclosed by the presence of a star and discerned by foreign sages, the “three Wise Men.” Now at the Transfiguration, the dim light of a star has become a light that is unavoidable and blinding, though seen only spiritually and not with the eyes. At Epiphany, we come as seekers, but at the Transfiguration we approach as trusted (if unsettled) friends. But the message is essentially the same: we will have more understanding, and that is what will guide us towards God. The wonder and amazement remain constant.

Today’s last-Sunday-before-Lent observance is a Christian minority opinion though. Catholics, Episcopalians and the Orthodox observe it on August 6, which you will recall is the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. That makes me shudder. But perhaps reminds us that dramatic change can also be traumatic change, and that bright light and power can also utterly destroy. And yet that horrible coincidence, which chills the blood and might move you to tears, is also a reminder that change for the sake of change promises us nothing more than change. What we want is a change towards something better. And yet the Godwards life has no promise of happiness, or sweetness or creature comforts in the usual sense. There’s so much pain and hurt in our world. To both love the people and living things in it, and yet hope for something greater and eternal, will stress us, will tear us, will break our hearts.

And so being changed is usually unwelcome, often distressing, and sometimes painful. But it is not optional. To live is to change. How you change, and what you become, relies in part on what you choose to become. Growing into the likeness of God means taking God as your guide. There are other options, but I cannot recommend them. Becoming an indifferent person (say) with a callous soul is also a change and a path, but one where where others pay the price for your comfort.

Sometimes I complain that the recommended passages from the Bible are hard to preach. After all, in any number of lessons brought together by custom or committee, it’s sometimes hard to see the connection. Or there’s a bit of Iron Age morality that needs to be interpreted for the Silicon Age. But I’m not complaining today; the lessons lock together like puzzle pieces. Someone early on, hearing the passage from Matthew, might have thought, “I know where this is going.” And like any good story, you’re happy to hear it in a new voice or from a new angle. Even in Jesus’ time, the story from Exodus about Moses and the rest was ancient. Arthur and Merlin and Guinevere ancient. Moses took his key deputies to a high place, where God was made manifest to him in the others’ presence. And Jesus took his key deputies to a high place where they had a stunning, divine vision of Moses and Elijah. So Jesus made the connection himself, and it was obvious to the disciples, if overwhelming.

These are both hierophanies, manifestations of a higher power like God, but can also be legendary heroes, angels and the like. We can anticipate them or prepare for the to a degree —that’s part of taking a pilgrimage, say — but we don’t have control over them, and there’s no reason to believe that any of us will have this transcendent experience. But can try and understand experiences like those in the reading. And we do have moments in our lives on which we must pivot or chose, and very often we don’t have control over those either.

But what if we have experienced something. Moses experienced hierophanies, and one can say that Jesus was a hierophany. What makes a manifestation a manifestation? Perhaps you’ve had an experience that defies description, or didn’t demand an explanation: an experience where you were called by God without words, or were just pulled up by a sense — somewhere between grief and elation — to a new place where you understood something in a new way. And that leads us to the devouring fire atop the holy mountain. Its light reveals what we carry in our hearts.

On the mountain in the gospel reading, Jesus was also joined by a manifestation of Elijah, and Elijah also had a hierophany It was one of my preaching texts a few months ago, but I don’t expect you to recall the details. He had just slain the priests of Baal — that’s another sermon — and now was on the run for his life. From the first book of Kings, chapter nineteen (7-12):

And the angel of the Lord came again the second time, and touched him, and said, Arise and eat; because the journey is too great for thee. And he arose, and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God. And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said unto him, What doest thou here, Elijah? And he said, I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away. And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

The New International Version translates the sound of God as “a gentle whisper” and the New Revised Standard Version as “the sound of sheer silence.”

And so seems to me that the violent storm surrounding Elijah, the “devouring fire” on the top of Moses’ mountain or even Jesus’ sure crucifixion mentioned in his disclosure to his disciples that a hierophany isn’t made up of troubles and tumult, violence and strife, but that they surround and perhaps hide it.

And one thing is sure: you don’t return from the mountaintop the way you came. The experience changes you. And even as we live, we are not exactly the same people we were. We do have some choices: to grow or to wither; to learn or to ignore; to take on a greater likeness to God or withdraw and betray what we might be.

Hierophanies give an experience of great and holy things, but not the means to interpret them to others. That is what we add to our experience of the holy. But direct language fails, even though we have vocabulary and concepts the people living millennia ago didn’t. We can speak meaningfully (if partially) of the working of our minds, of language, of various religious experience, of economics, of the natural world in the micro and macro scale and much more besides. Little wonder we turn to figurative descriptions and the arts to help. Little wonder we relive them though ritual. Preaching is supposed to help explain or at least describe sacred encounters, but can only go so far with the words and gestures we have in common.

Nevertheless, once we have experience of the Holy (if we have it) and once we have some interpretive means for understanding it in our lives — and this interpretation will take on new meanings over the years — you have to do something with it. Growing into a greater likeness with God has responsibilities.

Universalists have not, historically, made much of the Feast of the Transfiguration. An exception is Edwin Hubble Chapin, long-time minister of the church now known as Fourth Universalist in New York. He described a painting in the Vatican by Raphael depicting the Transfiguration, and what its moral implications were.

Writing in his Living Words (1860), he had to paint his own pictures in words of what he saw. The first thing you would see is Jesus is blazing white garments, lifted up as if swimming in the air.

But [Rafael] saw what the apostles at that moment did not see, and in another portion of his picture has represented the scene at the foot of the hill, — the group that awaited the descent of Jesus, the poor possessed boy, writhing, and foaming, and gnashing his teeth, — his eyes, as some say, in their wild, rolling agony, already catching a glimpse of the glorified Christ above; the baffled disciples, the cavilling scribes, the impotent physicians, the grief-worn father, seeking in vain for help. Suppose Jesus had stayed upon the mount, what would have become of that group of want, and helplessness, and agony? Suppose Christ had remained in the brightness of that vision forever, — himself only a vision of glory, and not an example of toil, and sorrow, and suffering, and death, — alas! for the great world at large, waiting at the foot of the hill ; — the [280] groups of humanity in all ages: — the sin-possessed sufferers: the cavilling sceptics; the philosophers, with their books and instruments; the bereaved and frantic mourners in their need! (pp. 279-80)

Raphael tied the scene of the Transfiguration with the next passage in Matthew, where Jesus healed the boy with epilepsy and scolded the faithless around him. Chapin carried the point in his own ministry in New York. The experience of God demands a change, and that change demands positive action that shows that each of us are heirs to God, whether we know it or not. And it shows God that we have heard and seen.

Now, if you know your Moses, Elijah and Jesus, you’ll recall a span of forty days. It’s a biblical convention for a long period of time. Elijah survived forty days on the divinely provided food he ate. Jesus fasted in the desert for forty days. And Noah had his forty days of rain and flood when all the earth was destroyed.

Friends, starting this Wednesday, we are beginning our own forty days with the coming of Lent.

In our society, Lent has become something between a self-improvement opportunity and a running joke, if it is known or understood at all. This is fine, so long we see the forty days as a preparation for a persistent change in our lives. We wouldn’t give up cruelty for Lent, only to re-adopt it for Easter. At its best, Lenten discipline changes you for the better, putting your steps in a Godwards direction. So I charge you not simply to do better but to be better. If you choose a Lenten discipline, make it something practical than will stretch you, but you can accomplish. Tie it to the direction that you feel God leading you towards. If you do not have a clear sense of how God is directing you, make your discipline an act of discovery. Review your life, so as to get a better scope of your life. Learn from the example of others who have gone before you, both to test your self-examination and to encourage you.

And with renewed focus, you can be better by adopting those habits of love and mercy that the logic of this world can not readily understand. Or if it does understand it, it is through the evidence of our lives made glad, living in a way that honor loving kindness.

In short, we will be known by our love for one another, with love to spare and overflow.

Thank you for the book

3 February 2020 at 01:53

Last week, I was musing in front of minister friends about how I should read David Bentley Hart’s That All Should Be Saved: Heaven, Hell and Universal Salvation (Yale, 2019) for reasons that should be obvious to even casual readers of this site. And past the obvious: who would be the best audience for the book? I’ll write about it as I get deeper into it.

Well, muse in front of friends and what happens? One ordered a copy and had it shipped to me. My thanks to the Rev. Victoria Weinstein, D. Min. for the gift.

Last week was full of unhappy (personal) news, and a token was a balm and an encouragement. (It worked.) That’s a benefit of having friends for a long time. But she is not only a friend, but a colleague. The graces of collegial support aren’t always formal or programmatic, though it’s tempting in professional spaces to privilege structures and forms. Indeed, I wonder if most acts of ministerial collegiality are informal, or at last the ones that have lasting impact. Informal but not unimportant. It’s no secret that I don’t participate in formal, institutional collegial structures; my reasons are several and have changed in priority over the years. But my informal connections — some deep, some momentary — are now as wide as ever, and that’s a gift that also deserves thanks.

Board member recall?

9 January 2020 at 05:37

? for y’all. So apparently one the UUA board members turned out to have been running fake non-profits and some internet scams. Once the truth was revealed she went underground and up and deleted all her SM as a means of damage ctrl. Seems like a real prob having someone charged with governing a large, well funded non-profit be involved with financial fraud. Does anyone know if board members can be recalled when stuff like this happens? Like is that even an option? It’s disturbing to think they could’ve slipped threw the cracks like this. Don’t we vet board candidates or something?

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Only in the Dual Realm

1 January 2020 at 05:06
By: Scott

There is a passage from the Sonnets to Orpheus, by Rainer Maria Rilke, that has given me inspiration when confronted by the need to change:

Though the reflection in the pool
Often swims before our eyes:
Know the image
Only in the dual realm
do voices become
eternal and mild

I like to think of this as a formula for self-transformation. The verses are about the myth of Narcissus: the youth Narcissus, who cares only for himself, sees his reflection in a forest pool. He does not know it is his own image.

We are all like Narcissus in a way. We only know a part of ourselves, the collection of identities that is our answer to the question, “Who are you?” Yet, we are each so much more. There is an otherness within us all, facets disowned and unrecognized. Rilke counsels us to know the image, the face of the hidden other in our souls. It does swim before our eyes (though we usually ignore it), surfacing in subtle ways—odd thoughts from nowhere and behaviors, both good and bad, of which we never knew we were capable.

Narcissus fell in love with the face he saw. Without realizing it, he began to love his own otherness. This is where inner change occurs, at the surface of the pool—the threshold between our known and unknown selves. Rilke calls this the dual realm. If we have the courage to look into our own uncharted depths, we may just find something worthy of love—beautiful vulnerability, reservoirs of strength and other sunken treasure.

After Narcissus discovers he is the image he adores, the goddess Nemesis turns him into a flower. As a moral lesson, we can understand this as a curse for egotism, but on a deeper level it is a paradoxical blessing and a model to follow: we can pull up the others from our depths and let them transform us. The self and other can become one at the liminal boundary. Our identities anchor and fuse with the new otherness, just as a flower is rooted in fertile soil, constantly fed by new fresh water. The other of Narcissus was Echo, a nymph whose love he had refused. Yet in his flower state he could forever hear her voice, eternal and mild.

When we embrace our otherness, it becomes easier to embrace the otherness of people different from us. It gives us the perspective needed to change. Yet it only happens in the dual realm, the uncomfortable threshold. Albert Einstein said, “We never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we are born.” Many try to suppress this curiosity, but I believe Unitarian Universalism calls us to revel in it. Like Narcissus forever looking into the pool, may we forever plumb the otherness of ourselves and everyone else, letting it transform us into ever more beautiful beings, eternally listening to the voice of the other.

Attached media: https://web.archive.org/web/20211110095633/https://www.questformeaning.org/podcasts/20_01/05.mp3

Christmas sermon, 2019

25 December 2019 at 18:00

I preached from this sermon manuscript at Universalist National Memorial Church, on December 25, 2019 with the lectionary texts from the Letter to Titus and the Gospel of Luke.

The service format was drawn from the twelfth order of service (for Christmas Day) from the 1937 Services of Religion prepended to the Hymns of the Spirit. The responsive reading used the alternative, second-person text of the Magnificat from the English Language Liturgical Consultation.

Merry Christmas.

I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for asking me to preach again, and thank you for welcoming me back.

Plainly put, Christmas sermons tend to write themselves. The stories are well-known and well-loved, and they say something different to us in our different stages of life. And we fill in the details with the singing, the shared companionship and the general warm feeling. My sincere hope for anyone struggling now (and struggling with Christmas in particular) that these moments will bring you rest and refreshment; you’re among friends.

And yet for the familiarity of the Christmas stories — I learned part of today’s lesson in King James English through repeated viewing of A Charlie Brown Christmas — it takes years of living to recognize what strange stories they are, and to appreciate the differences between them. Today, we have two lessons from the Gospel of Luke, the most familiar version of Jesus’ origin story. We heard the part about the manger, the shepherds and the actual birth from chapter two, and Mary’s song from chapter one, which we read as the responsive reading. Though considered separately, they are part of a whole. In Mary’s song, she recounts her place in cosmic history. We took her part, and declared to God:

You have mercy on those who fear you from generation to generation. You have shown strength with your arm and scattered the proud in their conceit, casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. You have filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.

This is perhaps less familiar than the angel and Bethlehem, but it is very much part of the same story.

Mary speaks of those who fear God; they will receive mercy. Similarly, the shepherds were terrified: God was being revealed for them, as an infant and nearby. Yet it’s awkward to speak of fear and think of the love of God at the same time. Too often, we fear that which can and would hurt us. This is not what we mean by the fear of God. Rather we also fear what we cannot understand, and we fear disruption to our customary and ordinary life, even it means something good might be coming.

Divine living is not customary or ordinary, and we can scarcely understand how it might come about. That itself is frightening, but also gives us cause for hope. God’s ways are not our ways. In Mary’s time and ours, the proud get their way, the mighty get their way, the rich get their way and it’s hard living for the rest. When Jesus said “the poor will be with you always” we was not mandating poverty, but recognizing what had always been, casting a light on it, dignifying the suffering rather than ignoring it. Divine living is living with a God who knows us and sees us, and desires our good. And God acts by confusing our expectations. Thus a baby, not a warrior or Caesar. Thus Bethlehem, not Rome. Thus a word and not a sword.

And so too, the confusing, unexpected love that God shows us. It can make us afraid because we may not want to love so deeply. God would not hurt us, but love often does. It breaks our hearts, but also gives us life. We can be afraid of being loved so deeply. Consciousness of God’s love pulls out out ourselves, and away from anything low and self-serving. It can lead us to a life of serving one another, as Deacon Eliserena spoke of on Sunday. Is this how God scattered the proud, and cast down the mighty? And it is how God lifts up the lowly?

Or as the author of the letter to Titus puts it, “when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy…” We do not earn this love and cannot earn it; it’s God’s unreserved gift. Accept it. Let it take you to a moment of tenderness, answered by gentle tears. Let it take you, like the shepherds, to the manger.

And then, on returning, what? Where then do the Christmas stories take us? At the very least, this tender goodness and loving kindness should lead us to reflect on how we regard one other in families, among friend or at work, as a nation and in the world. Have been too hard on one another? And in doing, have you been too hard on yourself? For the gift and goal of Christmas is that nearness to God which draws out our likeness to God. Day by day, we can (by God’s grace) strengthen and express those same divine qualities, and above all, a heartfelt love for the world and the people in it. By it, we fulfill the angel’s song of peace and goodwill.

God bless each and all of you this Christmas morning.

Christmas Day service in Washington, D.C.

24 December 2019 at 18:15

If you are looking for a Christmas Day service in Washington, D.C., I’ll be preaching and leading worship at Universalist National Memorial Church,  at the corner of 16th and S Streets, N. W. at 11 am.  (Map)

Update! Four well-loved carols!

We will meet in the parlor — easier to heat and cheerier for a small congregation — with refreshment to follow.  (There will, of course, also be a Christmas Eve service at 8 pm.)  Hope to see you there.

Christmas Day service in Washington, D.C.

4 December 2019 at 00:00

If you are looking for a Christmas Day service in Washington, D.C., I’ll be preaching and leading worship at Universalist National Memorial Church,  at the corner of 16th and S Streets, N. W. at 11am.  (Map)

We will probably meet in the parlor — easier to heat and cheerier for a small congregation — with refreshment to follow.  (There will, of course, also be a Christmas Eve service.)  Hope to see you there.

Sermon: β€œWork”

17 November 2019 at 19:35

I preached from this sermon manuscript at Universalist National Memorial Church, on November 17, 2019 with the lectionary texts from the Second Letter to the Thessalonians and the Gospel of Luke.

I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for asking me into the pulpit again, and thank you for welcoming me back. And I’d like to start, not with the sermon directly, but with an illustration I really wanted to work into the sermon, but doesn’t really fit.

Back in 1982 Ridley Scott’s neo-Film Noir movie Blade Runner introduced viewers to a dystopian future Los Angeles, where nearly perfect copies of human beings — essentially slave labor on other planets ― would only live (or last) three years, by design. They were forbidden from coming to earth, but some do, with hopes of extending their lives. The blade runners, one is the lead played by Harrison Ford, are the agents sent to find and destroy them. The title suggest our identification with the blade runners, with humanity and order, but is that how it works out? Watch and see.

That disturbing future took place in the far future of November 2019. That future is now, and so I wanted to work it into the sermon, in part to reflect on today, and also because science fiction provides such an easy and accessible window into theological discourse.

If you want to talk about human nature, what better contrast is there than to introduce a non-human character with human characteristics, whether living or an automaton. If you want a metaphor for a spiritual journey, you can depict it as a journey through space, into the literal heavens, where you will find nothing familiar except yourself. If you want an idea of what God is, or properly what God is not, have the characters meet a force which is greater than humanity — perhaps unseen — and whose good or evil works force crises and decisions.

Blade Runner adds another twist. There are several, slightly variant versions of the film, edited to suggest the different answers to the mystery underlying the story. (In fact, my brother worked on one of them.) So it’s not clear which version is canonical, or authoritative. All of them, perhaps? We approach biblical interpretation the same way, so this is another way to look at the film theologically.

But I’ve not seen Blade Runner in two or three years, certainly not contrasting the variations, and haven’t seen the recent sequel. Apart from the coincidence of dates, I couldn’t work it into the sermon. And (ironically, you’ll see) it was a heavy week at work, so I didn’t have time to run down all the leads: I’ll leave Blade Runner aside. I hope to come back to it, and other films, some day.

Instead, I started by going back to that article that Pastor Gatton referred to last week — the one from the New York Times (5-Hour Workdays? 4-Day Workweeks? Yes, Please”) by Cal Newport — since he preached from the prior passage from Luke. (I have his book on hold at the library; there’s quite the wait.) The editorial’s main illustration was an experiment by a small German tech firm to have a distraction-free five hour work day instead of a longer day peppered with Twitter, email and urgent texts.

Imagining a world where we work less is also something frequently posited by futurists and in science fiction. It prompted me to lift out the ideas about work in the lesson from Second Thessalonians.

It’s funny that work itself isn’t more of a theological topic. For most of us, it takes up most of our waking hours, working either outside the house, in it, or both. Work for pay gives us access to the necessities and pleasures of life, even as it keeps us from them. A good work life will make you happy, a bad work life will make you unhappy and not having work or not being sure of what work would be good can be the worst of all. Work, like sleep, growth, family and food, is one of those foundational realities of human existence.

And yet, any number of commentators would have us believe that the future of work is optional or minimal, and with a science fiction-like zeal that the robots will take care of us, and so we need to look past work for both fulfillment and the distribution of goods. I’m not convinced, but not because I think people should be forced to work, but that it’s not so easily brushed away.

To be sure, work doesn’t mean the same thing as it did in St. Paul’s time.

Technological advances in the last nineteen centuries have moved us past the power of human and animal power and faster than sailboats. Electric light makes us a little like God for the day and the night are alike to us — but that means we can or must work longer than ever before, not to mention faster communication than even the last generation knew. The ideas of retirement and vacation are revolutionary. And we are less stuck — I can’t say not stuck — in the work paths our parents and grandparents set before us. Indeed, we may not work (and live) in the same place they were born or where we were born. And tomorrow we might be working halfway around the world, or speaking with someone who is. For most of us, and by us I mean the whole human family, work doesn’t mean farming or finding the next meal. It’s different, less physically demanding, but easier or better? I’ll leave that for you to decide. But work is different now than in the first century.

The first and second letters from St. Paul to the Thessalonians — that is, what’s now the the city of Salonica, in northern Greece — are essentially practical advice to that young church, and he was helping them in their own time. The churches were very young at this point, as old (more or less) as social media is to us, and the “rules” were still being developed. We take from the context that some of the people in the church in Salonica didn’t think they should work, or that they needed to work. Were some of the people taking the message of a liberating gospel so literally that they didn’t feel that they needed to work. Or perhaps took the injection to “give away all you have” so literally that they became dependent on the good-will of others. Or perhaps they believed that God would provide in all things, and too that to mean the supernatural supply of natural needs. Well, eventually. It’s not clear, but there’s indirect evidence of conflict.

So his warning, “if they don’t work, they don’t eat” should be read not as a kind of punishment but set a standard of how they members of the community should regard one another. Egalitarianism is implied for one thing. And that bit about “not being busybodies” might be translated idiomatically as an injunction to work, but not work each others’ nerves.

But this is a short passage, and to read it without inquiring and generous minds would miss the point. What about those who really cannot work? The sick or injuried or debilitated? The very old, and the very young? Are they left hungry? Of course not. This goes against good sense, and cuts against the kind of care that drew people to the gospel in the first place. So the lesson for us is that work is important, it resources our needs, it can build mutual understanding, but it’s not the ultimate good. Work has its place.

Five days a week I work as the operations director of a small international health nonprofit, working up budget, payroll, contracts and the like. It’s typical office work, with the typical mix of rewards and challenges.

It’s no secret that I used to be the minister of this church, but after that pastorate ended I didn’t want to leave town. The quality of life is good here, particularly for gay couples, and there were few if any churches that might appeal elsewhere. Those that did would pay very poorly in isolated communities, and would offer my husband few good opportunities. So I traded ministry for administration. I bring my theological training into my work: active listening, a kind word, and a willingness to get the bottom of a story have all been a part of my nonprofit life.

But I do miss church work, sometimes, and I do feel that God is keeping me in the ministry. One of the reasons I like preaching here, in fact is that it helps me work out my ministerial vocation when that will never again be my main source of income. St. Paul was himself famously and literally a tent maker, from which we get the term “tent-making ministries” when you refer to a minister who has a day job to cover most of the expenses.

Work has a value apart from earnings. It’s not an original thought to say that you get a lot of our sense of self from my work. We build collegial relationships with sometimes turn into friendships. Our work structures our daily lives. The problem is when our work let’s become our daily lives. When we have no other sources of validation or encouragement apart from work. Which also means that work has a power over us in more than providing earnings. And then subsumes that you somehow enjoy your job, or have one. I recall being unemployed and hating it. It was like I was always waiting for my life to restart.

I know that one from personal experience. I’ve had four multi-month long spells of unemployment and I remember how corrosive the experience was. I was lonely. I started missing the presence of co-workers who annoyed me. I worried about money. I doubted my worth. In one case, I’m pretty sure I took a job just to make the grind of not-having go away. That’s also why I don’t believe the stories of the “end of work” and that robots will do everything, and that we will have to prepare for a time past work. You need something to make life seem meaningful, and we have millennia finding that kind of value in our work.

But what if your job stinks, and you don’t have very good options? Sometimes you need to take or keep a job because there’s no time or energy to change. Or the one you have took a long time to get, and you don’t want to go through that again. Or it provides medical insurance you or a family member needs. Or if you can get through three more years you can retire without imperiling your retirement years. Or a hundred other variations.

Then take my advice: find your vocation, even if it’s not your day job. This is opposite of that cloying work advice, “Do what you love” which sounds like the kind of advice given by people with lots of options and cash to fall back on. Instead, find out what God is leading you towards, and be prepared to follow that off the clock.

That brings us to our lesson from Luke. The passage in Luke is different than the Thessalonian letter, both in that it’s not meant to be practical, and not meant to be clear. In it, Jesus is speaking of a final time, but doesn’t say when it will be, or clearly how to anticipate it. A time when nothing will be the same. It’s heavy and apocalyptic, and can unsettle you deeply if you’re not aware.

Time, of course, means nothing to God, but it does to us. So this future time, when even the Temple, falls in meant for us. The most we know, and this is so banal that I resist even mentioning it — the most we can know is that it’s terribly important. And that we should be ready.

But a cautious, moderate kind of readiness, I think. We cannot become extreme by denying what we can have now. We cannot become extreme by predicting exactitudes we cannot know. I feel a bit of sympathy towards those people who prepare not only for disasters but prepare for a full collapse of society.

They act as though it is inevitable that everything will collapse around us. Food supplies, safe water, public safety, the rule of law and the electrical grid. All things which human beings have built and must maintain. It makes me deeply sad that it makes more sense to some to run to the boondocks and try to reproduce society rather than to make it part of your life’s work to preserve all these things from collapse in the first place.

When we find our calling, and pursue it where or not it’s our job, we orient ourselves to that Day that Jesus speaks of. We live for the future. The past is done. Nobody can add anything to it, or take anything from it. We can, and should, be grateful for those who worked and struggled, usually unnamed and unrecognized, for us to be where we are.

In the meantime, what can we do until we find our calling. Reflect your faith in daily life.

To jump from Sunday prayer to Monday work then means taking on new habits that we may not directly benefit from. For instance, we might try and create virtuous circles in the workplace. No winking at little cheats or pilferage. We show our workplace — our coworkers and vendors, if not our bosses and clients — our honest, kind and careful intentions.

Be thankful and show thankfulness for the special contributions others bring to their work, including taking on work that’s unpleasant to do or has low status.

And outside of the workplace, we find alternatives to the Washington question. You know the one at social occasions? where we categorize each other by what we do.

In short, work to live, and find a better way of living. But do not live to work.

Find places were we have friends and not just coworkers or contacts, and interests that makes life interesting and rewarding that is not dependent on having any particular job. I will include church in that number.

Don’t treat your religion as a niche interest just because others project theirs badly. Your religion can be deep without being intrusive. The good ones are out there; you just may not know their religious motivations. May your behavior at work, at home and wherever you are the first way you express your faith.

Let your life’s work be a blessing for you and for others.


Peeking in on the United Universalist Convention, 1939

17 October 2019 at 00:40

Eighty years ago today, the United Universalist Convention began at the Universalist National Memorial Church, Washington, D.C. It’s my home church, so a moment of pride.

The convention was not for the national denominational body (Universalist General Convention) alone, but included the meetings of the ministers association, the women’s association and the Sunday school association. For four days, they worshiped, heard reports, passed resolutions, broke into small groups and saw demonstrations. Given the size of the church, and the polity that sent 214 delegates from state conventions rather than every church, it was a smaller affair than today’s General Assembly. The banquet was, however, held at the Mayflower Hotel, which became famous later for other reasons.

Of the ministers welcomed into fellowship after the communion service, I recognize the names of Brainard Gibbons, later a General Superintendent, and Albert C. Niles, who wrote a biography of George De Benneville. A proposed pension plan never came to fruition. A rule change allowing dual fellowship (with the Unitarians and Congregationalists) passed, but I’ll have to research to see if this was an expansion of an earlier change; the Universalists entered comity talks with both the Unitarians and Congregationalists in the 1920s. Resolutions for co-ops and against gambling reflect their morals.

I don’t have access to the denominational magazines, so it’s hard to gauge the tone. Recall that the Germany had invaded Poland the month before, and Britain had declared war on September 3; a “phony war” to this point. The countries of the Americas had decided on neutrality. Yet the Universalists passed a resolution on conscientious objectors “which provoked considerable discussion but was finally adopted with a few dissenting votes.” I’m guessing the memories of the Great War were too fresh, and the writing (“times of war hysteria”) was on the wall. I can only imagine what Owen D. Young must have felt: he was the toastmaster for the banquet! The church’s tower was named for him and dedicated to international peace, recognizing the plan he proposed to restructure German war reparations a decade prior. But war was here.

You can read the official record of the proceedings here.

The most important part in β€œAm I Still…”

13 October 2019 at 18:14

Yesterday, Unitarian Universalist minister and writer Kate Braestrup wrote an article called “Am I Still a Unitarian Universalist Minister?” Comments pro and con (so far as I’m algorithmically allowed to see on Facebook) seem to be splitting on the same terms and among the same people as Todd Eklof/The Gadfly Papers controversy. I won’t be rehashing that.

What’s new is the response, sometimes thinly coded, to Braestrup’s prior claim to be Unitarian Universalist minister at all. She is plainly states that she is neither a member of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, and has not fellowship of the Unitarian Universalist Association through the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, but was ordained “by my beloved UU congregation in Rockland, Maine!” That’s allowed in our tradition, and since I have long regarded other locally ordained ministers as colleagues, I’m satisfied to count her as a Unitarian Universalist minister. Had all this been a century ago, and Universalist, my answer would be different. But the polity first merged, then changed and now is burning to the ground. I’d rather have what we had then, but we don’t and so I’ll say yes to her based on (what’s left of) what we do have.

Braestrup recounts her bonafides at length, and an ungenerous person might think she was simply bragging. I think it’s a sign of her being a decent writer. What I hear without her being explicit is “I can have this ministry, it can succeed reaching many people and it’s without the blessing or strictures of the UUA.” An equally ungenerous person might think her detractors have the taste of sour grapes in their mouths.

I think DIY ministries are going to have to become the norm; again recalling a secularizing culture, the cost of formal preparation and the thinning out of paying pastorates. We should be able to rely on the UUA and UUMA to help overcome these limitations, and in those terms Braestrup could not and should not rely on that help. Local ordination cuts both ways. (Local ordinands also the subject of whisper campaigns; I’ve heard those for decades, and don’t take them seriously.)

But neither the UUMA or UUA shows firm or sustained interest in functioning religiously to meet these challenges, and hasn’t for years. Where are the services? Where are the leaders? Not to mention that it’s clear that fellowship is no guarantee of ethics or capability. The UUA in particular seems to exist to fix its own problems. Who needs that? Add this fixation on white supremacy within the gates, and you get a system that’s completely unworkable and frantic. (It’ll be interesting if there’s another cultural shift if President Trump loses the 2020 election. If there’s anything left.)

The most important part in “Am I Still a Unitarian Universalist Minister?” is the underlying theme that you can make a ministry without the legacy systems, and that doesn’t make it illegitimate. And further I’ll add: a guild without benefits isn’t worth the time or loyalty.

Reformed Communion service using tumblers

8 October 2019 at 23:59

I feel wholly proper for suggesting using a Japanese titanium beer tumbler for the Lord’s Supper now that I’ve read Andrew Spicer’s “The Material Culture of the Lord’s Supper. Adiaphora, Beakers and Communion Plate in the Dutch Republic” — down to the re-purposing a vessel formerly used domestically, and perhaps using something even simpler for the bread plate.

And if you read this site, you might enjoy it, too.

Sermon: β€œMemory”

6 October 2019 at 21:04

I preached this sermon at Universalist National Memorial Church, on October 6, 2019 with the lectionary texts from the First Letter to Timothy and the Gospel of Luke.


I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for asking me into the pulpit again, and thank you for having me back.

Now that the weather has finally turned cooler(-ish), it’s beginning to feel like October. The Halloween advertisements and displays begin to make some sense: the gently spooky ones that combine pumpkins, the changing color of leaves, ancient headstones, bed-sheet ghosts and big bags of chocolate candy.

But truth be told, the candy seems like an inadequate bribe for the ever-present truth that life ends. The pretty red and orange leaves will soon dry out and fall. We see the pumpkins in their patch because the green leaves that fed them have withered away. For new life to thrive, it means that old life has to give way.

And yet the dead are present with us.

Washington, more than most places, is stuffed with constructed memorials: Greek temples, pavilions, engraved stones, benches, ceremonial walls and pathways, grottoes, pillars and obelisks, statues and fountains. Not to mention lecture series, endowed faculty chairs, scholarship funds, arts centers, even commemorative walls and plaques. We are surrounded by remembrances of the dead.

There are also the burial places, both those as famous as Arlington National Cemetery, but also the private and religious cemeteries that ring this and most cities. Places where even the rock-ribbed cry.

And then, as in every town or city, there are the informal, spontaneous memorials — made up of candles and flowers, pictures and signs, made up of teddy bears and crosses and too many tears — those memorials that that pop up on street corners and plazas or on lonely stretches of highways when something terrible happens, like when someone dies violently or senselessly. The dead may be gone, but we put up a fight to keep them.

Some of the memorials were created after a life of service or a moment of heroism, and are the people’s thanksgiving. Others were secured by substantial philanthropic giving. Some are homemade, the loved-one known by relatively few in this life. And each is evidence of dedication and love, that the dead may have their “part and lot with all thy saints.” We even pray in this memorial church, one of many in D.C. in dedicated that way.

So, who really, is the Universalist National Memorial Church a memorial to? John Murray? The people mentioned on the fading “scrolls” in the lobby? Someone else? That answer is now out of the hands of its builders. Because before the stone constructions, before those flowers laid, before a child’s toy left with sobbing, before any visible reminder were words. Perhaps thought and not spoken, because voices crack under grief. But words that say I loved her, and she’s gone. I miss her. I will remember her.

So in this church and all temples, at heroic monuments and roadsides, the memorial begins with our words, and our words become our prayers.

Memorials aren’t necessarily religious, but the answer to the questions they raise are. And in a Christian setting, the answers to those questions relate to God’s relationship and promises to us. Why do we make memorials of word and stone? Will they touch the heart of God?

I didn’t pull this theme out of the air. The first Sunday in October is, or was, Universalist Memorial Sunday, “for commemorating those friends who, during the year, have been taken away by death.” Although I don’t know of any churches that still celebrate it. It was one of a number of observances commended by the Universalist denomination that became a part of today’s Unitarian Universalist Association.

It was originally combined with All Souls Day, on November 2 or the nearest Sunday. All Souls, however, is an ancient observance, and served a different purpose. Ecumenically, it is for those Christians not included the day before, on All Saints Day. In the Episcopal Church is is officially called the “Commemoration of All Faithful Departed”. But it could also be to remember all who lived. That second one is the Universalist take.

It’s hard not to see the bigness of All Souls Day if it includes everyone who has ever lived and arguably everyone who will yet live. Possibly angels, too, possibly pre-human ancestors, maybe beings on other worlds if they exist, perhaps all that lives. There’s a vastness and inclusion in this vision of God’s reconciliation of all souls. So great perhaps that our own personal need to remember those we love gets lost in its vastness. What about Grandma and Cousin Joe? So in the 1870s Universalist Memorial Sunday became a thing. The memories of the Civil War must have been fresh and raw; in any case, it must have been perfectly clear that life was fragile. Our religious ancestors needed to say so in their own words.

Speaking of the Civil War, of the monuments on the National Mall, I think the greatest among them is the one dedicated to Abraham Lincoln. Having been brought up mostly in the South, where Lincoln is not as revered as he is in other parts of the country, I nonetheless choke up a little when I see the words above the seated statue of Lincoln there:

“In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.”

And his memory is a blessing.

When I think of Lincoln, Washington, D.C. and the Civil War, I also think of Walt Whitman. In part, because May 31 was the two hundredth anniversary of his birth. In part because I see his poetry every time I take the subway (more about that later). In part because a new commemorative stamp came out last month: a portrait of Whitman with a lilac bush and a hermit thrush, a reference to one of his more famous poems, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” That’s the one many of us read in school, about his grief and the nation’s grief over the death of Abraham Lincoln.

Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the inloop’d flags with the cities draped in black,
With the show of the States themselves as of crape-veil’d womenstanding,
With processions long and winding and the flambeaus of the night,
With the countless torches lit, with the silent sea of faces and the unbared heads,
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong and solemn,
With all the mournful voices of the dirges pour’d around the coffin,
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs—where amid these you journey,
With the tolling tolling bells’ perpetual clang,
Here, coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.

and ending

I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them,
I saw the debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war,
But I saw they were not as was thought,
They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer’d not,
The living remain’d and suffer’d, the mother suffer’d,
And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer’d,
And the armies that remain’d suffer’d.

Comrades mine and I in the midst, and their memory ever to keep, for the dead I loved so well,
For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands—and this for his dear sake,
Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.

Whitman gave us a new, free way to feel and so to speak. He gave people words to grieve by. He came to Washington during the Civil War to look for his not-very-hurt brother: a soldier listed as a casualty at Fredricksburg. He stayed (ten years in all) to care for the broken and dying in the hospitals as something of a one-man volunteer morale officer.

Washington was swollen during the war. Universalist ministers started holding services here, perhaps in response to members relocated from the north, and Whitman attended services in that period. (A note. Ford’s Theater; the Lincoln death house; Whitman’s hospital, now the National Portrait Gallery; the Masonic Temple, the site of the Universalist services in D.C.; and Clara Barton’s missing soldiers bureau are within a short walk of each other, and all are still standing, if you wish to see for yourself.)

If you came today by subway, that inscription around the north entrance of the Dupont Circle Metro station is from the end of his poem, “The Wound-Dresser” and shows us what he saw and felt, but earlier he writes:

But in silence, in dreams’ projections,
While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on,
So soon what is over forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the sand,
With hinged knees returning I enter the doors, (while for you up there,
Whoever you are, follow without noise and be of strong heart.)
Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground,
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital,
To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return,
To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss,
An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.
I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds,
I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,
One turns to me his appealing eyes—poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.

Let us thank and remember Walt Whitman, a poet for the living and the dying.

I’d like to talk about the two lessons today.

As those of you who’ve heard me preach before know, I use the Revised Common Lectionary, an ecumenical reading list for worship. It’s one of the few places Unitarian Universalist Christians have had an impact in the ecumenical church for decades. It keeps me from cherry-picking lessons, and in return there are a lot of resources out there, as so many churches use in world wide. Today’s lessons are from the Revised Common Lectionary, and I didn’t want to avoid the passage from the Gospel of Luke just because it was hard. The fact there’s no obvious tie to Universalist Memorial Sunday doesn’t help.

The thing that sticks out is the reference to slavery; that you wouldn’t thank a slave for doing their job. Formal legal slavery was the norm in the Roman Empire and would remain a formal part of human relations for centuries. There were slaves in these lands four hundred years ago, with first-hand survivors of American slavery surviving into the middle of the twentieth century. The echoes of the African slave trade continue to this day: people who too often have to be remembered en masse, for there was nobody to write their names, save the Almighty, who inscribes them in the book of life. The recognition and memorials to slaves owned and sold by Georgetown and George Washington Universities, though relatively few in number, multiply in the mind to how many millions of lives were disrupted and destroyed by the slave trade. Of the many losses, sufferings and indignities the enslaved faced, I’m thinking today (in connection with memorials) of the broken connection with home. To never know what happened to the kidnapped, and to those left behind. To have families broken as a commercial transaction: the grief without recourse and without resolution.

And that makes me think of migrant children separated from their parents today. Or of those kept in human trafficking: modern slavery. Will they ever be reunited with their families? Will that break be healed? It’s not history, it’s not even the past. Something could be done about it. It’s not really the point of the passage from Luke, but if it sensitizes us to what must be and what must not be, then it has given us a blessing.

The passage from the second letter to Timothy is closer to the theme. While internally attributed to St. Paul, the consensus is that it (with the first letter to Timothy and the letter to Titus) weren’t written by St. Paul but together make up a set of letters offering advice to the very early church. So, we heard:

I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

The rest of the passage is about remaining firm and strong in faith. This is the only place in the Bible we hear about Eunice and Lois, and given the context we might think that they were both dead, but remembered and respected. What’s true of Timothy is true of us; he could hold on their memory as encouragement. We also carry traces of the characters of those who influence and molded us. When we act out of those influences to do the good, we honor the memory of those who went before us. Which doesn’t mean necessarily mean those influences started good. Take pigheadedness, for instance. You can transform pigheadedness into perseverance to defend the what’s right. Or remembering someone who struggled and faltered with addictions. That might make us more compassionate toward someone who struggle, knowing that some challenges can’t be wished away, but are are extraordinarily difficult to overcome. My point is this: someone doesn’t have to be perfect to deserve our memory, and those who are the most imperfect need it the most. That includes ourselves. We can and should pray for one another. For in prayer we witness to one another before the living God.

What then, will touch the heart of God when we remember those who have lived before us, and especially those whom we love? Nothing we can add. We trust that God already leans towards us. Our memorials of stone and candle and prayer reach to the mystery of God call out, and say “hear us.” “Hear us, and make us whole again.” God waits to hear. We are bound together across life and death, by love, and by God “whose nature is Love” for whom time is no thing.

Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

May God bless you all, this day and forever more.

Cooling off from September

30 September 2019 at 12:00

It been quite a month. A new article posted every day, and going back into August. But it’s not sustainable: making sure there’s something here every day keeps me from researching and writing deeper pieces, like that long promised connection between the Independent Sacramental Movement and Unitarianism. I’ve been reading less, too. There are more readers, but I’m not convinced that most of “them” aren’t bots indexing the new articles.

So, starting tomorrow I’ll post when I have something to say, perhaps in a longer format. Indeed, I have a sermon to write (and later post) for October 6. And for the human readers, thanks for coming by.

Reviewing Unitarian College

29 September 2019 at 12:00

I’m trying to understand the new Unitarian College, formerly a residential ministerial training college in Manchester and now (2019) a non-residential and broader training college for the General Assembly of Unitarians and Free Christian Churches, in Great Britain,  and perhaps others. My interest is in the ministerial training role, and in the institutional and economic sustainability of the venture.

This is not an analysis of it, but only my “open notebook” of details I’ve found: mainly their new website and notes taken from a video of an introductory lecture, given at the Unitarian and Free Christian annual meeting, back in April.

First, the website, but also the ministry training student handbook (PDF) and the list of thirty-two required competencies from the General Assembly website (PDF). Their application is also helpful (PDF).

I’m also referring to the video “Unitarian Ministry Training” presented by the National Unitarian Fellowship; I have not watched it in full; rather, I read the auto-generated transcript and made notes of what I think are the interesting parts.

  • 8:45. Is non-geographical
  • 9:09. There are residential lessons
  • 11:42. Program will take two years full-time or up to five years part-time
  • 11:55. There is a required academic theological qualification
  • 12:02. Two required placements in Unitarian congregations
  • 18:48. “Ministry Strategy Group” for the GA: how lay leaders are trained, which can build on the one before it
  • 26:26. Dr. Rob Whiteman is helping with two modules: Unitarian history, and the other legal and government
  • 28:15. “Placement assessor” to observe ministry students in their placements, perhaps a retired minister
  • 33:32. £150,000 a year to run the college; more if it grows
  • 33:54. Generous giving, “pump priming” from General Assembly; possible NSPCI students
  • 34:34. Online history module based on Len Smith’s book
  • 37:50. Training related to the National Youth Program
  • 41:22. One-third of the churches in the GAUFCC have fewer than ten members and two-thirds have fewer than twenty
  • 42:18. GA selects ministry trainees; growth is possible.

Up next

28 September 2019 at 12:00

Looking back at the last two “what I’ll be writing about next” shows I’ve let some ideas slide. This is as much for me as you, the reader.

I’ll be focusing on

  • Wrapping up (for now) the series on the Independent Sacramental Movement by looking at its historic intersections (plural) with Unitarianism
  • Uncovering themes for those using the Revised Common Lectionary
  • Looking back on Universalist non-geographic churches
  • Revisiting by text workflow
  • Reviewing Allin’s Christ Triumphant, which I have started reading

And, of course, preaching. I have a sermon to preach next week and in one in November. I’ll put those texts here, too.

What you say when you say β€œall are welcome”

27 September 2019 at 12:00

It’s become an article of faith in mainline churches to declare that “all are welcome.” Sometimes there will be a rainbow flag to seal the deal, implying that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are welcome to attend services, become members and possibly engage in leadership. Maybe. Since it all depends on attitudes and policy, and if and where these differs from actual practice. Sometimes a vague welcome to skirt a denominational policy, or to manage internal conflict. But nothing objectively welcoming LGBT people, and for a long time that’s as good as it got. But it’s not the 90s and that’s not good enough any more.

I’ve disliked the formula “all are welcome” for years. The logic reads to me this way: that LGBT people are so outre, so exceptional, so horrible that everybody else has to be included before their needs are recognized. Um, thanks. In practice, some people are not welcome at any particular church, say, at the very least persons who are an immediate harm to other people should not be welcomed.  (If they’re welcome, their victims aren’t.) Other churches can pick up the slack for that abusive husband, thank you. “All are welcome” gently merges LGBT people and the truly despicable or dangerous.

Also, welcoming assumes an attitude from one group to another, as if LGBT people haven’t been in the churches all along to welcome newcomers.

The initiative Church Clarity provides defined standards for LGBT inclusion and women’s leadership. Churches can self-report, but anyone can ask out loud how clear a church’s policies are.

So, to the churches, liberal or not:  be true to yourself, but be honest with those who are coming to you. (This is especially the case with churches with a progressive aesthetic but conservative morality, particularly among the non-denominational Evangelicals.)

Don’t wink and nod and think that makes progress. State your policies clearly, and stand by them.

Making this site lighter

26 September 2019 at 12:00

Three days ago, this site weighed in at about 1.1 megabytes. Not the end of the world, but not keeping with a lighter internet and a shared responsibility for reduced server energy demand. It’s now just under 600 kilobytes, so quicker loading and better for your data plan.

Here’s what I did:

  • I think I have removed all my trackers.
  • Downgraded the “hero image” of the Jersey Universalist Church — though it now has a lot of artifacts (visual static) and it is still 100 kilobytes by itself. I should see if I can find an attractive theme without the hero image feature.
  • Removed the large version of my photo from the bottom of the page.
  • Hid large images below a “more” fold.
  • Disabled the Jetpack plugin. Now I don’t see where people come from or what article drew them in. (Though the answer is almost always, “the United States” and “anything controversial about the UUA.”)
  • Turned off Gravatars in the comments. I’m the only one who uses them, and my picture is already at the top of the page.

So now my site is more private, for you, too. Not sure if I’ll keep to all these reductions, and I might add more because those changes were those I could do quickly.  Though if you really want to see a page fly, visit my Universalist Christian Initiative site, built in Jekyll with no images and a whisper-thin 16 kilobyte download.


Favorite gluten-free communion bread?

25 September 2019 at 12:00

A request to the readers.

You now have a choice for gluten-free breads for communion, but which are the best to use? The best tasting? Those available from church supply houses are usually wafers. I want to know if there are any communicants or pastors who have experience with these, and can make recommendations by brand.

I’m a bit cautious about commercial gluten-free table bread; many of these contain egg, and that’s another common food allergen. I’m also interested in a homemade option, especially for a soft or sliceable bread without any of the major allergens.

A Universalist Lutheran jurisdiction

24 September 2019 at 12:00

Add to the collection of universalist-theology jurisdictions the General Lutherans.

They’re not big (who is?) but claim ministers and ministries in several countries; that’s worth noting. Their polity is congregationalist and they “subcontract” their institutional endorsements through the The Coalition of Spirit-filled Churches, which is one of the go-to endorsers.  Nothing so strange there. They are social conservatives, and even more distinctively, a poor church: it has “no salaried employees, bank accounts, or cash assets.” That’s different, and should temper your expectations. But they do have a free-of-charge training program and a PDF magazine.

Their dean and General Minister, James Clifton, has been in the para-Universalist-sphere for years, so I don’t thinking I’m getting his theology wrong.

I hesitated to post the link, but not because of their traditionalist morality towards (or should I say, against) LGBT people; after all, I take a big tent approach to Universalism. But because when you browse there, you will be audio attacked with Judy Collins singing “Amazing Grace.” Be warned.

Two new Universalist books

23 September 2019 at 12:00

We are in a silver age of Universalist Christian writing: new works and reprints, for popular and academic readers and from across the confessional spectrum. I’ll be posting book notices, partly to spread the word and partly to keep a record for myself. (I sometimes forget where I see books.)

Here are two that came on the radar:

With this article, I open the category Universalist literature.

The perfect ordination

22 September 2019 at 12:00

I’ve been thinking about my own ordination lately, though from the excitement that day I don’t remember all that much about it. Specific episodes, such as the laying on of hands, but not a complete narrative of the day. (The same is true of my wedding.)

I do remember other people’s, and usually it’s because they were long, self-indulgent, or both. What might have made them better? (This, of course, applies to the free churches, where ordinations are held in the local church and usually one at a time.)

A better ordination is not primarily about taste, though I think there’s something to be said about a more conservative approach, which at least can be appreciated ironically. Being too novel or eccentric in such a ceremony is like putting salt in soup: you can add more (or not), but not take it out once added.

My rubric: the ordination is about the order of the ministry, not the particular ordinand. You, the ordinand, are entering a stream that has carried the pastoral ministry of the church for centuries. That should give you a chill. You will meet challenges, joys, temptations, horrors and accomplishments. Don’t try to go it alone; as a sign of this, don’t make the ordination about you.

A few practical thoughts. Seek first a good and experienced marshal (master of ceremonies) to keep the proceedings in order. Rely on more experienced ministers for your ordination; you will need them later as colleagues. That goes double for local ministers. Again, the ordination should not be long, because if it’s too long that’s all that people will talk about; I think 75 minutes is about right. If you are called to your first church, wait to be ordained there and not at your home or internship church; this is an old tradition too often lost these days (I’m talking to the Unitarian Universalists now) but it’s one of the few ways that small churches (who often call first-timers) celebrate their place in the communion of churches.

How green is your website? Browsing habits?

21 September 2019 at 13:00

Is reading this article helping or hurting the environment?

Reducing human imprints on the climate are going to take changes large and small. I’m not too hopeful we will find a workable solution.  Governments who impose one will be voted out, and voluntary measures will appeal to a few, even if that means millions, and to meaningful risks the “sucker factor.” Involuntary measures, whether through environmental, economic or democratic collapse are terrifying. By the time we move it may be too late; it may be too late now.

But if there is an answer, it will probably be one cobbled together. That’s why I don’t overlook legislative changes (where they can happen) or undermine personal choices: we will need them all. I’m a vegetarian with no children and no car. My last long-distance trip was by rail. I wash my relatively small wardrobe in a low-water washer. Yet I know that demand-driven economy I live in is intensely energy intensive. I’m sure I have more clothes that most people in the world, and that washer didn’t spout out of the earth. Apples and broccoli are good, but they are produced, preserved and transported at huge energy cost. My green beans are better traveled than I am. The better choice us rarely the easy choice, so it takes work. And there is one sector that seems ready for conservation attention: internet use.

Using the internet uses an immense amount of electricity, from the servers that store and share files, to the electrical use for devices to the energy embedded in making them. Storing and distributing ever larger amount of data — websites but mainly on-demand video and audio — means that our internet use will require more power. If that power comes from unsustainable sources, it contributes that more to greenhouse gas production and climate change.

So, make your computers and phones last as long as possible, build and use lighter websites (that’s a long term fix; one I’ve begun with my side projects like universalistchristian.org) and cut back on streaming video.

Gauthier Roussilhe writes on this subject, making the case for a lighter internet and more prudent use, and offering concrete suggestions.  Or go to his work at The Shift Project (“Lean ICT: Towards digital sobriety”: Our new report on the environmental impact of ICT) if you want to dive in now.


Decline of Universalism: posted works about polity and administration

20 September 2019 at 12:00

To continue the preparation towards considering the pre-war decline of Universalism and how Universalists responded to it. Last time, I looked at documents I’d already published about ecumenical overtures; this time, works related to polity and administration.

I need more from the Thirties, and the documents I found a few months ago will help fill the gap.

While slightly post-war:

I think I need to look at the scope of programs and budgets soon.

Twenty years ordained

19 September 2019 at 12:00

If you will excuse a moment for me to reflect on my ordination, which took place twenty years ago today with the Canon Universalist Church, Canon, Georgia.

Receiving right hand of fellowship
Receiving right hand of fellowship from the Rev. Roy Reynolds

I’ve spent more of that time out of pastoral ministry than in it, but I have never forgotten the vow I made. I try to fulfill those vows through preaching, writing (here mostly) and prayer.

My heartfelt thanks to those who have supported me over the years; some are still living, others have gone before us.

To read and review: Allin’s Christ Triumphant

18 September 2019 at 12:00

The moment I saw Thomas Allin’s Christ Triumphant: Universalism Asserted as the Hope of the Gospel on the Authority of Reason, the Fathers, and Holy Scripture, I knew I needed to read it.

I got my copy — a reviewer’s copy, free of charge from the publisher, to be clear; thank you — last night and will update you as soon as I have reached a convenient stopping point. My keenness and my glacial reading pace will be at war with one another.

It is not, to be sure, a new book. It dates to 1885, and I’ve seen ads for it in old Universalist newspapers. But this edition is annotated by Robin A. Perry (well known among Universalist Christians under his pseudonym Gregory MacDonald ) and that makes it something else. Follow my page count, if you like, here.

β€œGadfly Papers” discussion continues

17 September 2019 at 12:00

I suppose it’s a bit obvious to say that “Gadfly Papers” discussion continues because it never ended. But I intend to write here about commentary that is both constructive and public. I have a particular point of view, but I don’t think that keeps me from giving opponents a fair hearing; neither does it oblige me to dignify manipulative rhetoric. Facebook is such shifting sand that there’s little point linking to something. When I find something that passes muster, I may link to it.

I put Dan Harper, Unitarian Universalist minister and writer, into that category. He wrote about The Gadfly Papers, and in reference to my analysis recently. (I’m just now seeing it.) I think he confuses my analysis of Todd Eklof’s work with disapproval, but the distinction isn’t fatal. Yes, I wish the book were better written, but Eklof wrote when others wouldn’t, and that makes it the best of its kind to date.

But we’re past the book itself. Institutionally, the issues have exposed deep fault lines, and whether Eklof’s intent or an incidental development, that’s the real story.

Looking back on my ordination order of service

16 September 2019 at 12:00

Twenty years ago, on the nineteeth of September, the Canon Universalist Church ordained me to the Ministry of the Gospel.

I’m feeling a little nostalgic about it. Here is the order of service; I made it into a web page which I think was still something of a novelty back then.

The file has remained unchanged (and readable) all these years, though cleaned up for publication here.

Service of Ordination and Installation of William Scott Wells
Sunday, September 19, 1999
Three o’clock p.m.

Processional Hymn

Rank by rank again we stand,
From the four winds gathered hither
Loud the hallowed walls demand
Whence we come, and how and whither?
From their stillness breaking clear,
Echoes wake to warn or cheer.
Higher truth and holier good
Call our mustered brotherhood.

Ours the years’ memorial store,
Hero days and names we reckon;
Days of brethren gone before,
Lives that speak, and deeds that beckon.
One in name, in honour, one,
Guard we well the crown they won;
What they dreamed be ours to do,
Hope their hopes and seal them true.

Brother, if with lure unblest,
Tempter wise the past betray thee,
Rise once more to war addressed,
Fair the field, thy God to aid thee;
Lo! Once more the morn begins,
Scatters as the clouds thy sins;
Rise, and bid thy morrow slay
Shades or shames of yesterday.

Forward then to battle go,
Comrades sworn, one troth to render;
Life by fellow life upgrow,
Strong for war – for helping, tender:
Strong for war, whom Christ hath led,
Tender for whose weal he bled;
Pure, for mute above us moves
Wings of the Immortal Love.

Call to Worship
The Rev. Jack Pride

Rockwell Universalist Church, Winder

Ms. Kristin Felton

Canon Universalist Church


Greetings of the Georgia Universalist Convention

Greetings of the Mid-South District

Ms. Eunice Benton, Executive Director
Ms. Lyn Conley, President

Mr. Townley McGiffert, M.Div.

Intern, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Athens

For the Fund of the Living Tradition, which assists with ministerial education,
emergency ministerial relief, and pension assistance

The Rev. Clarence Stokes
Camden, South Carolina 

Act of Ordination and Installation Mr. Charles Bowers
Moderator, Canon Universalist Church

Addressing the ordinand:

We desire to ordain you as our minister. We would have you dwell among us preaching the word of truth in freedom and in love; rebuking evil and maintaining righteousness; ministering to us alike in our joys and in our sorrows; setting the gospel in word and deed.

Turning to the congregation, the Moderator shall then say:

I now ask you, my fellow-worshippers, to rise and say with me:
We, the congregation of Canon Universalist Church do hereby ordain you, William Scott Wells, to the ministry of the Gospel, in accordance with the accepted usage of our free churches, and do install you as minister of this church. On our part, we solemnly pledge ourselves, so far as in us lies, to walk with you in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in all the ways of God, known or to be made known unto us.

, recited in unison by the congregation and whomsoever will.

The bond of fellowship in this church shall be a common purpose to do the will of God as Jesus revealed it and to co-operate in establishing the kingdom for which he lived and died.

To that end, we avow our faith in God as Eternal and All-conquering Love, in the spiritual leadership of Jesus, in the supreme worth of every human personality, in the authority of truth known or to be known, and in the power of persons of good-will and sacrificial spirit to overcome evil and progressively establish the Kingdom of God.

The Washington Declaration of 1935

The Ordinand’s Response

Friends: With a deep sense of responsibility, trusting not in my own strength, but in the grace and power of God, I take up the ministry to which you ordain me. I do pledge myself, so far as in me lieth, worthily to maintain the freedom of this pulpit; to speak the truth in love, both publicly and privately, without fear of persons; diligently to fulfill the several offices of worship, instruction and administration, according to the customs of this congregation and fellowship; and in all things so to live as to promote piety and righteousness, peace and love among this people and with all men.

Prayer of Ordination
The Rev. Daniel King

Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta

Laying On of Hands
The Rev. Lauralyn Bellamy, leading

Roswell, Georgia


With heavenly power, O Lord, defend
Him whom we now to thee commend;
His person bless, his faith secure,
And make him to the end endure.

Gird him with all-sufficient grace;
Direct his feet in paths of peace;
Thy truth and faithfulness fulfill,
And help him to obey thy will.

Before him thy protection send;
O love him, save him to the end!
Nor let him, as thy pilgrim, rove
Without the convoy of thy love.

Enlarge, inform, and fill his heart;
In him thy mighty power exert;
That thousands yet unborn may praise
The wonders of redeeming grace.

Hymn used at the Ordination of the Rev. David H. Porter, in 1839, who was the first Universalist minister ordained in Georgia
Right Hand of Fellowship
Charge to the Ordinand
The Rev. Terre Balof

Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Athens

Charge to the Congregation
The Rev. Daniel Weck
Pomaria, South Carolina

The Rev. William Scott Wells

Accompanist: Dr. Herschal V. Beasley, Jr., Americus, Georgia

Clergy Marshall: The Rev. Heather Collins, Unitarian Universalist Church of Lawrenceville

Documents I’ve already posted about the decline of Universalism: ecumenical options

15 September 2019 at 12:00

Following up on the request I posted on September 13, I thought I’d collect up the documents from that era that I’ve already posted over the years. These are not all doom and gloom. If fact, Universalists were optimistic, earnest or a least put on a brave face. First, ecumenical actions.

Back in 2006, I posted several documents about the overtures towards a working relationship with either the Congregationalists, the Unitarians or perhaps both. I’ve posted these below.

Was there an interest in the Christian Connection (O’Kelleyites) prior to 1931, with the Congregational-Christian merger? That merger is how the 1920s merger dance seems to have ended. Might be a fun bit of research. For someone else.

And a loose (but now wholly incomplete thought) following up on those: UCC getting the Universalists anyway

Recalling β€œEconomic Sustainability”

14 September 2019 at 12:00

One request begets another; my comment yesterday about the situation about the UUA today being different than the Universalists in the first half of the twentieth century must have struck a note.

So, by request, I’m recalling the UUA’s report of The Economic Sustainability of Ministries Summit June 2015. You can download the PDF report and read the summary here: www.uua.org/careers/ministers/economic-sustainability

Sometimes I hear, seminarians should be warned about how bad things are. So it’s worth mentioning that there was another report in 2015 about the “economic realities of the ministry”. You can read that here. (Also a PDF.)

But unless you’re going to say “nobody should be a minister” then there need to be some solutions. A fund for service-dischargeable loans and alternate training models (more about those later) come to mind. Overtures (“CWG Approved Revision To M. Div. Equivalency Process”) in that direction were made in a Ministerial Fellowship Committee meeting at the end of 2018 and that is linked here. (Another PDF!)

How did the Universalists manage the twentieth-century decline?

13 September 2019 at 12:00

I take reader requests, and reader asked what the Universalists did to address the decline prior to World War Two. This squib of an article is what I plan to do.

  • I’ll consider denomination theological and social adaptation, institutional plans and budgets. I’ll use reports, directories and where available newspapers and books.
  • I’ll work from a hypothesis that the decline in denominational Universalism began in the 1920s and lead to a choice to either merge with another denomination or collapse. There were two contenders: the Unitarians and the Congregationalists. As we know, the Unitarians “won” overall, and some individual parishes joined the Congregationalists.
  • I’ll look at the initiatives to encourage loyalty, minimize the parish losses and raise funds. I’ll try to identify what fell off the table.
  • As I review period documents, I’ll point out and transcribe documents that illuminate the truth, and I’ll modify my hypothesis as needed.

This is a long-term project, and to be clear I don’t think there are parallels to the UUA today. (The money and ministerial supply couldn’t be more different.)

Continuing Congregationalist worship resources

12 September 2019 at 12:00

The “continuing Congregationalists” are probably the closest relatives to the Universalists (probably) apart from the Unitarians, so it’s worth to look at their resources.

The National Association of Congregational Christian Churches has a page of worship resources, especially ordinations and installations. There’s a 1978 book, The Congregational Worshipbook, that’s now out of print but can be downloaded. I’ve held it and read from it before, and do not recommend it. An absolute brick, and a bit too particular to its author. Do you really need services with the particular anthems filled in? The very specific dedication services (a Bible? a window? a pulpit?) is the flip side to this particularity and maybe the most useful part of the book.

Hedge’s Communion Service is up

11 September 2019 at 12:00

I have posted the communion service of Fredric Henry Hedge, from his 1853 Christian Liturgy: For the Use of the Church, as a resource page. You can find it and others in the menu from the main page; I intend to post other items in time.

Properly speaking, it is the anaphora, or as Hedge puts it “the concluding or cenatory act. In a service so liable to excess of formality, it was judged best to leave a wide margin for such voluntary exercises or such spontaneous expressions of thought and devotion as the Minister or Church may be moved to connect with it.”

I wouldn’t expect anyone to use it today as-is. For one thing, it has phrasings — such as dumb for unable to speak — that reasonable people would find offensive. To tell the truth, I wonder how often it was used then. But it was a source for other Unitarian liturgies (and Universalist, as they seemed to borrow heavily from the Unitarians) particularly via the work of James Martineau.

Or so I think. I’ve never traced out the influences, and liturgical primitivism was in the air. But that’s a future project to prove or refute.

These ministerial ethics look familiar…

10 September 2019 at 12:00

I was casting around on the website of the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches. My home church was once an honorary member of it, and the Jersey Universalist Church in the header image was once a full member. I was looking for inspiration and resources; I’ll roll out what I find as I analyze them.

One of the things I found was this statement of ministerial ethics (“Personal Code of Professional Practice“) subscription to which is required for ministers using the NACCC for settlement (placement) services. I thought, “this looks familiar.”

Then, at the bottom

NACCC Division for Ministry, 2009, originally adapted from the Code of Professional Practice of the Unitarian-Universalist Ministers’ Association, 1985 version

Revised 11/2010

Of course, a lot has changed for the UUMA since then, but it’s interesting to see the influences. I would be fun to see what that UUMA 1985 version was, and how it developed since. Fun might not be the right word. No other thought or subtext to add.

What would it take for the Universalists to have four new churches?

9 September 2019 at 12:00

I’m watching the development of the Universalist Orthodox Church with a lot of admiration and a little bit of envy. In about a year it has grown to four parishes and two emerging missions. (Their site has a new page that better explains their approach and what they mean by Universalism.)

Are any of these parishes large? No. Do any have a building that they own for worship? No. Are their clergy compensated for their labor? Doubtful. But do they exist and grow? Yes. Do they ordain or receive new clergy? Yes. Do they have regular, public services of worship (liturgies)? Yes. I’ll take what they have over the unrealized plans for a large institutional church any day.

What what would it take for us on liberal Reformed end of Universalism to have four parishes and two emerging missions? That’s behind so many of the articles I write here. I’m fortunate to live in a city with a Universalist Christian church, where I am a member and preach occasionally. There’s one in Providence, and Tokyo. You might find others, historically related to the Universalist denomination or not. If I were in a city with a Universalist Orthodox church, I’d probably attend liturgies, at least occasionally. But people in most places don’t have the option.

I’m not going to build a church where one’s not needed but you may need to do so. A monthly service of morning and evening prayer led by a lay person for a congregation of three is a hundred times better than wishing that there was a church.

What would it take for the Universalists to have four new churches? A hundred? Even one? Most of all: desire to have one, even if there’s no institution “out there” to help. (That said, I’d gladly do what I could to help a new church. I bet others would as well.)

A look into ministerial formation

8 September 2019 at 12:00

I got caught in a YouTube hole and just watched the first of four episodes of the 2012 BBC Wales (“We’re more than Doctor Who“) series Vicar Academy. It is a look into the formation of priests in the Church in Wales.

Even though I went to seminary a quarter-century ago, in a Disciples of Christ school and in Texas, the scenes seemed familiar. (Certainly that first time in the collar was harrowing.) I was also impressed with the practical training.

Worth a watch, and I look forward to the other three episodes.

The church and parish, contrasted (1855 edition)

7 September 2019 at 12:00

I’ve twice lately tried to not to make too much of the way Universalists distinguished between the parish (or society) and church, but it’s an important distinction to understand the polity and institutional processes. So dang if I didn’t run into this again as the reason a 1850 committee of seventeen ministers north of Boston presented in 1855 an alternative and resource to what they saw, namely:

1. As a general rule, our societies are organized merely so far as to give them a legal existence, and enable them to hold property, and perform, according to law, the business necessary for the maintenance of public worship.

2. Connected with most of our societies, there are churches, having an organization about as meagre as can well be imagined, in any body claiming to have a corporate existence. These churches meet, at stated periods, at the communion table, and for the reception of members, or the election of officers ; and beyond this, there is little that they attempt to do.

3. While our societies are, for the most part, in a flourishing condition, so far as pecuniary support and attendance upon public worship are concerned, a general apathy prevails in regard to our churches; many of our most active and zealous, as well as worthy and respectable men, not being, even nominally, members thereof.

4. Beyond the mere support of public worship, there is little that either our societies or churches have attempted to perform; that object being attained by the former, the latter have few claims to present, for countenance or support. For this cause, it is apprehended, our churches languish, and are asleep — simply because they have nothing to do, or rather because they have never set themselves, unitedly and systematically, about the great work that they ought to do. The fault is not so much in the men, as in the system of their organization. Our churches are not thus languishing, inactive and neglected, because of a general lack of zeal, or Christian benevolence and charity, among our people. But they do next to nothing, for the simple reason that their organization does not propose to do anything of importance, beyond what could be done by any society having a legal existence. The result is, that the church is looked upon as an extra affair altogether; a thing to bind men’s consciences, rather than engage their hearts and hands in works of charity and love.

The rest of the introduction from which this comes defends the propriety of using modern technology and culture to advance the church, and that the church’s mission needs adequate structures. This anticipated (or prepared) the post-Civil War institutionalization of Universalism, but perhaps conditions did not change so much even then.

Merrimack River Ministerial Circle, The Universalist Church Companion, 10-12.

Write briefly

6 September 2019 at 12:00

Writing as briefly and clearly as possible is best for teaching and explaining.

My mouth feels better so I could write a long article, but three, unrelated recent comments have reminded me how much most people appreciate a short and direct message. Unitarian Universalists, as Protestants, make a value of heaping up words, but to what end? As alternatives, there’s the BLUF model, and the inverted pyramid, of course.

It takes time and effort to write briefly, but it respects your readers, who then benefit from quicker, clearer understanding. Your reputation as a truth-teller grows, too. How many word salads add nothing but frustration and papers to the trash? Additionally, this plain language guide has helped me limit jargon, and this typography guide (I cited it yesterday, too) helps make printed works more enticing to read.

Printing out sermon or service book pages

5 September 2019 at 12:00

My face is still a bit sore from dental work, so another shortish article.

Back in 2015, I shared my workflow for printing out pages of a sermon or service that can be put in an attractive binder using half-size pace protectors. It’s neat and professional looking and not hard to assemble.

Here am I bringing that up to date. I use LibreOffice, which you can download and use for free. I’ve used it for years at home and in my day job, and can attest that it makes a good replacement for Microsoft Office. Since 2015, LibreOffice has added new features. In particular, it supports OpenType features, including the much desired small caps and old-style numerals, if they’re embedded in the font. This is a good tutorial for using this feature, and this is a good reason why you shouldn’t use your word processor’s “small caps” feature, in so far as they’re not true small caps and not good replacements. The Libertine (formerly Linux Libertine) font has those features, and you can now make use them in the standard release, rather than the Graphite text features I wrote about in 2015. Very few fonts support Graphite, so I won’t labor the subject.

I’ve also been modifying the template I use. Here it is to download. Or copy it to your own Google Drive and try it out with one of their available fonts.

Adapting prayers you find

4 September 2019 at 12:00

I’m writing this after three and a half hours in a dentist’s chair; it will not be exhaustive.

As I’ve written before, I often use published prayers, particularly older ones and mostly the form known as the collect (accent on the first syllable). But I rarely use them untouched.

Here are three ways to modify a prayer you might find.

First, give in an introduction. If it’s not clear why you are using a topical prayer, introduce it and bid the congregation to pray. Second, to make the prayer more fitting to the occasion, insert petitions. Third, if the prayer has phrasing that broadly impedes prayer, modify it, but try to keep the rhythm intact.  This one is, I think, abused as license to do what you want, no matter how it flows thereafter. I’ll retain some male language for God, but will smooth out excesses; I’ll also remove generic male language where men means human beings. More about inclusion in prayer some time when my mouth doesn’t throb so much.

Here’s a worked example, from the section “Prayers for Family; Parents and Children; Children’s Sunday” in Additional Prayers and Collects from Hymns of the Spirit.

Here is how it originally appears:

Almighty Father of all, who dost set the children of men in families, enable us, we pray thee, so to guide the children committed to our care that they may love the ways of truth and of righteousness, of peace and of goodwill. Fulfill in them our divinest dreams, and through them carry forward the coming of thy kingdom upon earth. Amen.

Here is how I might change it.

Let us pray for children in the church :

Our One Parent, universal and gracious, who dost set children in families, enable us, we pray thee, so to guide those children committed to our care, especially Andrea, Bartholomew and Chiana, that they may love the ways of truth and of righteousness, of peace and of goodwill. Fulfill in them our divinest dreams, and through them carry forward the coming of thy kingdom upon earth. Amen.

These are all straight-forward, common-sense changes… unless you’ve never done it. Using prayer resources is more than pulling them out of the book.

Up next in September

3 September 2019 at 12:00

Apart from clearing out half-started old draft articles and making some progress on the Independent Sacramental Movement, this month I’ll write on:

  • Adapting liturgical elements
  • Finding themes in the Revised Common Lectionary
  • Revisiting free and open source tools for their church use
  • Preparing for Universalist “Memorial Day”
  • Perfecting the communion loaf

I take requests, too. Is there anything you, dear readers, would like me to research and write about?

Universalist Christian site from the Ukraine

2 September 2019 at 12:00

Saturday afternoon, I got a short email from the editor of a site called Тринитарный библейский универсализм (Trinitarian Biblical Universalism) at universalist.org.ua. It’s all in Ukrainian, of course.

It would be a lie to say I didn’t weep a little. It’s gratifying to know that time and time again, God speaks to the people and calls them to a complete Gospel. Note the reference to Paul Dean, one of the last of the leading squarely Trinitarian Universalists (though they never completely disappeared, or should I say we?) and Edward Mitchell, who led an independent stream of New York-based Universalists early in the nineteenth century. Google Translate got me a little ways (it’s not so good for theology) but the other Ukrainian books the editor publishes are beyond me; perhaps they’ve been translated.

79 years ago, today

1 September 2019 at 18:42

I’ve been enjoying “WW2 in Real Time“, a YouTube-based week-by-week documentary wrap up events in the war 79 years ago. (Go, and subscribe if that’s your kind of thing.) That means we’re in 1940, during the Battle of Britain.

I’ve thought about reading the Radio Times in tandem since they’re available, to get a better sense of the nature of the religious broadcasting. So, “today” Sunday, September 1, 1940 I see on the Forces radio schedule a variety of short religious programs, lasting from about five to thirty minutes, and ranging from talks, to hymn sings, to services. Smart: serving people who might not be able to break for a local, organized service or to listen to a fifty minute “full” service on the Home service. Serving people as they are is good ministry. I look forward to other insights.

Also, I note on that day an early show for the Forces featuring that epitome of World War Two home-fires entertainment, Vera Lynn. She is still living, aged 102. This is the past, but not ancient history.

Site updates

1 September 2019 at 12:00

I’m going through and cleaning up parts of the site, adding text where text is missing, moving links from the old Boyinthebands.com site and the like. The categories list is now a dropdown menu, and there’s a search bar in the site panel (desktop view).

The obvious change is the header image; it was time for something new. This is the Jersey Universalist Church, Jersey, Ohio, not so far from Columbus. I found the image at Wikimedia Commons, and although it was committed to the public domain, I want to thank user Nyttend for taking and sharing it.

Closeup of door and signI first learned of the Jersey church back in the 1990s but it wasn’t a member of the UUA but the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches. Here it is in the 1998 NACCC yearbook, under Pataskala, Ohio. Several Universalist churches became members of the NACCC instead of the UUA, but none with the word Universalist in their names remain today, Jersey included. But guessing by the sign there was some activity as late as 2010.  Perhaps only a burial, as there is a cemetery next door. I wonder if they’re still going.

You can find it today on this Google map.

Updating the joined-since-2003 UUA membership list

31 August 2019 at 12:00

In my article about the Western Unitarians, I mentioned my doubts about the UUA effectively starting new churches. And yes, you can correctly read into any number of my articles the suggestion that new churches will be independent, small and boot-strapped. But what has been created? (And surely, this isn’t to suggest they were air-dropped from Boston.)

In 2010, I made up a chart of the 33 congregations that joined the UUA in the seven years since 2003; joined, not formed. (At least three have long histories.) I’ll bring that up to date.

So all those churches since 2003

As before, these are congregations that have been admitted to the UUA, whether or not they had a prior existence. The ones from before 2010 are in the first group. The membership then and now are in parentheses, separated by a slash.

The congregations admitted since are in the second group, with the current membership at the end. The “cite” is a link back to my article about their admission.

  1. Adirondack Unitarian Universalist Community: Saranac Lake, NY (40/38)
  2. Aiken Unitarian Universalist Church: Aiken, SC (68/80)
  3. All Souls Free Religious Fellowship (All Souls UU Society): Chicago: IL, (14/14)
  4. Florence UU Fellowship: Florence, OR (23/43)
  5. Foothills Unitarian Universalist Fellowship: Maryville, TN (72/80)
  6. Ginger Hill Unitarian Universalist Congregation: Slippery Rock, PA (32/15)
  7. Heartland Unitarian Universalist Church: Indianapolis, IN (25/55)
  8. Mosaic Unitarian Universalist Congregation: Orange City, FL (34/22)
  9. New Hope Congregation: New Hudson, MI (30/29)
  10. Northeast Iowa Unitarian Universalist Fellowship: Decorah, IA (57/47)
  11. Northwoods/Chequamegon Unitarian Universalist Fellowship: Ashland, WI (31/84)
  12. Open Circle Unitarian Universalist Fellowship: Fond du Lac, WI (52/70)
  13. Open Circle UU: Boulder, CO (15/disbanded)
  14. Pathways Church: Southlake, TX (90/80)
  15. Prairie Circle Unitarian Universalist Congregation: Grayslake, IL (72/93)
  16. Seward Unitarian Universalist of Seward: Seward, AK (9/disbanded)
  17. The Unitarian Universalists of Central Delaware: Dover, DE (51/53)
  18. Unitarian Church of Hubbardstown: Hubbardstown, MA (13/13)
  19. Unitarian Universalist Church of Blanchard Valley: Findlay, OH (26/20)
  20. Unitarian Universalist Church of Hot Springs: Hot Springs, AR (43/102)
  21. Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Chesapeake: California/Barstow, MD (43/30)
  22. Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tupelo: Tupelo, MS (36/34)
  23. Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Rocky Mount: Rocky Mount, NC (40/28)
  24. Unitarian Universalist of Petaluma: Petaluma, CA (71/89)
  25. Unitarian Universalist of Santa Clarita: Santa Clarita, CA (59/57)
  26. Unitarian Universalist Peace Fellowship: Raleigh, NC (44/57)
  27. Unitarian Universalists of Fallston, MD: Bel Air, MD (41/25)
  28. Unitarian Universalists of Gettysburg: Gettysburg, PA (53/55)
  29. Unitarian Universalists of the Big Bend, TX: Big Bend, TX (31/39)
  30. Washington Ethical Society: Washington, DC (150/166)
  31. WellSprings Congregation: Chester Springs, PA (143/271)
  32. Wildflower Church: Austin, TX (181/123)

And joining in the nine years since. I think you can see the difference.

  1. All Faiths Unitarian Congregation: Fort Myers, FL cite (139)
  2. All Souls: Miami, FL cite (84)
  3. Iowa Lakes Unitarian Universalist Fellowship: Okoboji, IA cite (39)
  4. Original Blessing: Brooklyn, NY cite (since disbanded)
  5. Tapestry UU: Houston, TX (withdrew from multi-site congregation) cite (32)
  6. Unitarian Universalist Fellowship: Lake Norman/Davidson, NC cite (45)
  7. Unitarian Universalists of Blue Ridge: Rappahannock/Washington, VA cite (55)
  8. UU Congregation: Petoskey, Michigan cite (26)

As for the matching list of congregations that disbanded or merged: well, only if there’s time. Not nearly so pleasant.

β€œRadio Times” archive expanded

30 August 2019 at 12:00

Last year I wrote a series of articles on two service books, New Every Morning and Each Returning Day, used by the BBC during (and after) World War Two in their fifteen-minute Daily Service. My goal was to see if there were any lessons to be learned for conducting worship today, and I think there are at least hints. Particularly how much you can simplify worship, and how you can identify themes for worship. (I may pick up this series later.) The series begins here:

“New Every Morning” for radio worshipers

The other articles are here, here, and here.

So, what’s changed? Last year, I used the BBC Genome to read schedules from the Radio Times, which had a little blurb for the Daily Service and longer outlines for the longer weekly services. Unfortunately, when I was writing the series, only the Radio Times issues for 1939 were online. So only the opening months of the war. The BBC’s schedule was still being retooled for wartime (all of the local services were merged into a single Home Service, and later one for the Forces) and Each Returning Day hadn’t been published yet.

Glancing back to that series, I was prompted to look again at the BBC Genome, and lo! the many years of issues filled in! (Which you probably guessed if you saw the title.) Now I have more data to get a sense of the services.

Here is the service for June 5, 1944, the day before D-Day.

from page 61 of ‘ New Every Morning,’ and page 38 of ‘ Each Returning Day.’ Jesu thy mercies are untold ; Psalm 32 ; Help us to help each other, Lord

That is New Every Morning service 14, “Suffered under Pontius Pilate.” The alternate Psalm is 16; I suspect Psalm 32 was the Coverdale version. There is a touching prayer for “the afflictions of thy people.”  I would like to think it was used. Besides “Jesus, thy mercies are untold,” there are five other suggested hymns, but “Help us to help each other, Lord” isn’t one. The service continues at some point with Day 17 in Each Returning Day, “For the gift of sympathy.”

Amen to that.

Theistic worship: notes from β€œthe Unity Men”

29 August 2019 at 12:00

I’ve been writing at this site (and earlier, at boyinthebands.org) since 2003, and it amazes me that I’ve written so little about “Western Unitarianism” or “the Unity Men”: those Unitarians of the Western Unitarian Conference who promoted a theistic moral religion, in contrast to the Unitarian Christianity of New England.

This is all I found of mine in 16 years of writing:

A fiddle-and-lecture order of service

To be honest, it’s not my thing. But it is an honest expression of religious faith, has a genuine appeal and is a honorable part of the Unitarian tradition.

And more: I worry that they’re not going to be any new Unitarian or Universalist congregations. The UUA seems to have gone out of the church planting business. Perhaps this is just as well since there’s been noted tendency, even among the Christians, to encourage congregations to have an all-inclusive Unitarian Universalist identity, rather than being true to a particular vision. It never made sense to me, either on theological or polity grounds. This kind of society (and it probably would be called a society) might be very desirable today.

Without banging my “parish and church” drum too hard, the Theist church looks to me to be the perfect modernist parish without a church. By which I mean it’s a public service body, dedicated to education and morals though worship and service. Its “sacrament” is the pulpit. The (missing) church is that body of believers who seek (to keep it brief) closeness to God through profession of faith, and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It is specific in much the same way the parish is general. Can you guess which side the Unitarians have defaulted to? (And most, but far from all, of the Universalists.)

Of course, the Western Unitarians had a particular focus and context: public morals, personal development and a calm sense of awe and devotion. I’ll defer to those who know it better to describe it in depth. It was progressive in a way that might make us roll our eyes, but what doesn’t these days? Revivals, if anyone wants one, require interpretation.

Looking back to when they Western Unitarians were at their strength, you can also see a parallel movement in Reform Judaism. With its emphasis on the prophetic and universal, and a strong reduction in the use of Hebrew, Classic Reform offer something of a similar liturgical experience to the Western Unitarians. At least you could be excused if you stumbled into either service and confuse it for the other. Classic Reform at its most Classic Reformist had organs in worship, some used hymnals, might refer their pulpit-gowned rabbis as “The Rev.” and some even met on Sundays. I would love to visit one of the remaining Classic Reform congregations, though watching the livestream of services from Temple Emanu-el (New York) or reading the Union Prayer Book, Sinai Edition, Revised puts me close to the tone if not the text of the Western Unitarians.  I think the clearest “bridge” is the hymn “Praise to the Living God,” a traditional Jewish synagogue song, translated into English by a Unitarian minister. It was found both in the Union Hymnal (Reform Jewish, 1897) and Unity Hymns and Chorales (Western Unitarian, 1911). This is the same hymn that would open Hymns of the Spirit, and a version is found in Singing the Living Tradition.

Of course,  Unity Hymns and Chorales is where you go for a words, if you wanted it as a period piece. (Or perhaps from the Hymns of the Spirit, the fourth, fifth, sixth and eleventh services.) It’s lovely, but a new Theist society, eastern or western, will need to find its own voice and its own take on that vital if emotionally constrained approach to speak in this anxious age, beset by demons.

In praise of the pipe organs of Greenland

28 August 2019 at 12:00

I don’t travel as much as I like, or I think I’d like, so I let my mind wander instead. As a child, I occupied myself with atlases and encyclopedia. In college, I heard the Iron Curtain fall by shortwave and met strangers by Usenet. Since the early 1990s, I’ve trekked down the back alleys of the internet. Today, I remembered a site I once enjoyed about the pipe organs of Greenland. I could have picked something else as a window into Greenland; indeed, I also look at sales flyers. (Frozen pizza, anyone?) But with pipe organs, I not only get something of obvious ecclesiastic interest — I know nothing of organs but I do like to snoop around a church — but also a slice of what Greenlanders value in music, architecture and religion.

Pipe Organs of Greenland (randallharlow.net)

I’ve written about churches in Greenland before, but not for ten years or so.

The site has been nicely updated since I last looked it up. Be sure to click on the photos, which cycle you through the images for the town or village. The dramatic landscapes! Both the spare Nordic modernism of the larger towns, and the colorful historic churches. The lighting fixtures!

I think I prefer the more homespun choices. For example, I rather like what appear to be metal house numbers used in lieu of cards on hymnboards. (I’ve seen something like this before, at the now-demolished Third Church of Christ, Scientist, here in D.C.)

That little church in Nutaarmiut (2010 population, 36) is simple but endearing, and I might harbor wistful, romantic notions of the hamlet if it hadn’t been the scene of a triple murder in 2012. (I think that was about the time I stopped looking at Greenlandic churches.) Which, I suppose, is the value of travel — in fact, or by armchair — namely, the appreciation of what is, and not you would imagine to be.

Sharing my articles

26 August 2019 at 12:00

I’ve gotten a lot of interesting messages lately and some requests to share the articles that I’ve written. I wish I could say it’s about my reviews of prayer resources or research into Universalist polity. No, it’s almost always about the UUA, the UUMA or their action against Todd Eklof. There’s a lot of anger towards the signers of that letter out there.

Sure, share my articles. I post them in public to be read. (And if I said no, how would I stop you?)

But if the point of sharing the article is to stir up trouble in your church, please consider speaking directly and clearly to whom you have the conflict instead. Use the systems of accountability you have at hand, rather than relying on gossip and back-channel. While sometimes effective in the short run, gossip and back-channel are intensely corrosive to a church and that way nobody wins anything.

Another prayer collection for your reference

25 August 2019 at 13:22

Following some fan mail yesterday, I think I’m going to continue this thread of prayer resources for a couple of days more at least.

These days, I rarely write my own prayers. There are so many established prayers with deep and sensitive wordings, and written in the rhythm of human speech, that it makes sense to use those and take what time I have for worship preparation and put it into the sermon. These are not usually new published prayers, which too often look and read like free verse, are breathy in their self-satisfactions and stumble into cliche. I’d rather take something old and tweak it; say, if there are too many generic men or fathers.

One of the reasons I set up hymnsofthespirit.org was so that I could share the liturgical elements I scanned for easier searching. (Despite it being dedicated to the hymnal, the site now is really for the associated Services of Religion.)

I’m looking for other similar resources, and I think I found one: Morgan Phelps Noyes’s 1934 Prayers For Services: A Manual For Leaders Of Worship.

This work obviously isn’t a denominational work, but comes out of that thought-filled mainline Protestant stream, which included Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Unitarians. Several prayers from the then-standard Unitarian hymn-service book and James Martineau, with Anglo-Catholic Pearcy Dearmer and the evangelical-tinged YMCA being the other bounding limits.  I think it has promise, even if I might not think every prayer is appropriate.

Plus, it’s large and well-organized. The table of contents and index are useful alone for inspiring sermon themes. The selection of opening words is well-chosen, and includes occasions outside the liturgical church year, like Children’s Sunday.

There are, of course, many prayers. But one feature I look forward to using are “addresses to deity.” Fundamentally, collects are modular. You might remove the first part where you address God and replace it with something appropriate. Each section of the book (“The Prayer of Invocation,” “The Prayer of Thanksgiving,” “…Petition,” “…Intercession,” “…for Special Days and Seasons,” “… for the Funeral Service”) starts with these open-ended addresses. This can also be useful for prompting prayers that would be better for you to write or heavily adapt.

Lastly, the prayers are well-cited and the bibliography seems ripe for further exploration. I know I will.

The prayer from Malabar

24 August 2019 at 12:59

So, the last prayer choice under “Close of Worship” in the Additional Prayers and Collects, in the 1937 joint Unitarian and Universalist Hymns of the Spirit is cited in the index as coming from “Liturgy of Malabar, adapted.”

Grant, O Lord, that the ears which have heard the voice of thy songs may be closed to the voice of clamor and dispute; that the eyes which have seen thy great love may also behold thy blessed hope; that the tongues which have sung thy praise may speak the truth; that the feet which have walked in thy courts may walk in the region of light; and that the souls of all who here receive thy blessed Spirit may be restored to newness of life. Glory be to thee for thine unspeakable gift. Amen.

I think it’s lovely.

Loveliness aside, you may ask, how did a prayer from fifth-century India get into something as New England-bound as the old red hymnal?

My first suspicion is that a Unitarian member of the committee recommended it rather than a Universalist member. I keep finding traces of early twentieth-century interest in antiquarian liturgy among Unitarians: an attempt to find the earliest, most authentic and most lowercase-c catholic strata on which to base liturgical devotion.  What keeps this from being simple primitivism is looking past the apostolic age and outside the New Testament. The Liturgy of Malabar is very old, but is the work of a developed church, and one that would have been very foreign to American Protestants. (And provides an link between the Unitarians and their later though brief interest in what we would call the Independent Sacramental Movement. More about that some other time.) Let’s put a pin in that curiousity: we will see this interest in a more universal Christian liturgical expression among the Unitarians again, and those influences on the Universalists.

While the prayer appears in different works before the red hymnal and since, its inclusion in W. E. Orchard’s The Order of Divine Service for Public Worship is the likely source, as the red hymnal also includes one of his own prayers. (Again, for another time.) This prayer is noted in that index as “(? 5th cent.) Neale and Littledale’s Translation.” John Mason Neale, better known as a translator of hymns, also translated liturgies. His translation of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” perhaps his best known.

But their translation of what? The Liturgies of SS. Mark, James, Clement, Chrysostom, and Basil, and the Church of Malabar. Is this Malabar liturgy the original East Syriac rite of the St. Thomas Christians, the restored East Syriac rite of the Eastern Catholics or the adopted West Syriac rite of the indiginizing church? There have been Christians in South India from antiquity, and the traditional founder of these churches was St. Thomas. Today the St. Thomas Christians range in theology and jurisdiction from the Nestorian to Eastern Catholic to Anglican. I ask all this with huge caveats: this is not my field, is centuries old and in languages I don’t read. Any clarification from readers would be well appreciated. Neale, in his introduction, isn’t clear about the source of the text he translated, but presumably from the Eastern Catholics with noted and obvious changes removed.

So what was the prayer originally? One given by a deacon, at the communion of the faithful. You can read it here.

The prayer has appeared in the Armed Forces Hymnal (1950); also here, here (for use after communion), and this textbook on worship.

It’s use as a post-communion prayer fits will with a liberal-Reformed use; I’ll use it at my next opportunity.

Liminal spaces, providing sacraments and Universalist theology

23 August 2019 at 11:30

Responding to Tuesday’s post, Demas asked in the comments:

I’d be interested in reading your thoughts on what modern churches with less-than-optimal resources could do about the sacraments, and what your underlying beliefs about those are, if you wish to share them.

Dear Readers: You know I live for this, so I’ll reply as much as makes sense in one post, with a Universalist hook, of course.

First, what do I mean by the sacraments?

I’ll speak out of my belief and tradition, and even there only in brief. Sacramental theology is the kind of thing that could take up a lifetime so I’m not even going to pretend to scratch the surface. I hold two sacraments, or ordinances if you prefer: baptism, and the communion of the Lord’s Supper, as commended and ordained by Jesus Christ. I group all other actions, like confirmation, marriage and funerals as pastoral acts, though in practical terms providing them probably requires the same solutions in small and liminal communities.

And yet the sacraments derive not only their origin but their authority from Jesus Christ. He is the great and eternal High Priest, and we have, with boldness, a hope through those who gather in his name. The sacraments are valid and effective because they fulfill his promises. These promises include being known, being present and drawing us towards him. Which is to say the sacraments encourage, revive and sanctify us. They do not contort us into a state of being better or apart from other people, but throw us both morally and mysteriously into a greater likeness to God. Which is hardly a Zwinglian interpretation of the sacraments, though that’s probably more typical among denominational Universalists historically.

And the liminal communities?

While I’ve read about religious services in submarines and on Tristan da Cuhna, communities can be isolated in other, more ordinary ways. Dying towns, linguistic minorities, or cultural minorities — say a predominately gay church — might have a hard time getting a minister for the sacraments, even as an occasional visiting supply, to give three examples. I’d think the greatest isolator would be poverty, which might also rob a church of a pastor, or subject them to bad options out of necessity.

Two typical solutions are lay presidency and local ordination, which are likely to become more common in time. But there are risks. The former rejects officiating the sacraments as proper to, or necessarily from, the clergy, while the later tends to create different classes of clergy. I suppose neither is ideal, but being without the sacraments is worse. King’s Chapel in Boston, not Universalist but Unitarian, pivoted away from the Church of England when, denied the sacraments for years because of the Revolution, ordained their reader whom the Bishop of London wouldn’t. Thus a local ordination by the laity!

Back to the present. I would think that either a lay president or local minister would need training, perhaps something practical under the mentorship of a minister or (better) a group or association of ministers. That will depend on the setting. But even more, I would hope there would be plural presidents or ordinands as a practical matter, and to ease the responsibility of a single person being the last of last options for each and every service. Indeed, plural eldership (if coming from a low Reformed tradition) might be better still.

Universalist notes

As with most theological points apart from the final salvation of the world, Universalists held a variety of opinions and usually didn’t let those opinions get away of the essentials, of which the sacraments were not included. Yet there was tolerance. So while some ministers would not abide communion, it would always be found at meetings of the conventions, for instance. An open table was a condition of ministerial and parochial fellowship for generations, not being removed from the Laws of Fellowship well into the 1950s. In short, the sacraments were recognized, even if there wasn’t agreement about what they were or that they were necessary. There was this one point of agreement though: with two particular exceptions, their administration was the province of the clergy.

The first exception came very early on. Delegates at the 1790 convention at Philadelphia passed:

Whereas a great diversity of opinions has prevailed in all ages of the Church upon the subjects of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper; as also upon the subject of Confirmation, the Washing of Feet, Love Feasts, and the anointing the Sick with oil, &c. and as this diversity of opinions has often been the means of dividing Christians, who were united by the same spirit in more essential articles, we agree to admit all such persons who hold the articles of our faith, and maintain good works, into membership, whatever their opinion may be as to the nature, form, obligation of any or all of the above named ordinances. If it shall so happen that an application shall be made to a Minister to perform any of the said of ordinances, who does not believe in the present obligations of Christians to submit to them; or if he shall be applied to to perform them at a time, or in a way that is contrary to his conscience, in such a case a Neighbouring minister, who shall hold like principles respecting the ordinance or ordinances required by any member, shall be invited to perform them; or, if it be thought more expedient, each Church may appoint or Ordain one of their own members to administer the ordinances in such a way as to each Church may seem proper.

In other words, don’t get into fights about the ordinances. If your minister doesn’t agree, he (women weren’t ordained yet) should invite another minister who does to fill in. Or you can “appoint or Ordain” a member to do it. Appoint suggests a lay role within a church. A friend once pointed out to me that the resolutions at this convention were never repealed or repudiated.

The other example came late before the 1961 consolidation with the Unitarians. By that point, the ministerial shortage had become acute. Universalists had long had licensure: originally a probationary year before ordination where a lay person could preach and pastor a church, but could not “administer Christian ordinances.” Licensure was also a way to induct ministers from other denominations, and later became a status in its own right. (I think the last of the Universalist licensed ministers lived into the 1990s, and the rule allowing for them was quietly removed shortly thereafter.) By no later than 1946, licensed ministers were permitted “to administer Christian ordinances” “with the approval of the Central Committee of Fellowship,” a concession to the ministerial shortage.

But it’s worth noting that in both cases, this is an extension of church authority to a lay person to meet a particular need. Which is to say, there is a solution where people do not have access to the sacraments, but not one that individuals can confect in the presence of an orderly church.

Which is not to make it entirely about the Universalists, of course. At least in the United States, and perhaps anywhere Protestant missionaries (foreign or domestic) served: a shortage of ministers and a can-do spirit tends to make exceptions, and consider new options. Distance (literal or social) from seats of power intensifies the process.

And what if there’s not an orderly process? In such cases, God provides and ecclesiastical authority yields.

About the Bisbee trial

20 August 2019 at 12:00

Because of the controversy around the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association’s public censure of Todd Eklof, there’s been talk of heresy trials. Of course, there’s no trial yet, just the censure and waves of accusation, though some formal action could happen. (I wonder what the euphemism will be?)

There was a trial of a Universalist minister, Herman Bisbee, that’s widely regarded as a heresy trial — and a mistake. Naturally, it’s come up in the Facebook conversations (with Michael Servetus, whom I’ll leave for someone else to write about) so good to give some context to those unfamiliar with the situation. I’m going to pull together what I’ve written about it plus any original documents I can scare up.

But Charles Howe’s article at the Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography is detailed, and rather than re-write one, I’ll point to his.

Not interested in apologetics

18 August 2019 at 23:00

Now that I found the world of Universalist Christians outside the Unitarian Universalist Association, I’m having to come to terms with the other theologies and ecclesiologies they have. Some are squarely catholic, a few mainliners or mystics, though most are evangelical or possibly charismatic. Some things that are valuable to me are not valuable to them, and vice versa. Among the things that many of these other Universalists appreciate that I don’t is apologetics.

Apologetics is an approach to theology that defends Christian theological propositions through reasoning and argument, with the goal of refuting opponents or convincing potential converts. If you went back a hundred and fifty or more years, mainline, denominational Universalists relied on apologetics, and particularly the public theological debate, to defend their positions and attract new members, so it could be a part of my inherited tradition. But it died by the 1920s and I’m not looking for it to return.

The problem with apologetics is that once people make up their minds it’s hard to convince them to change. Universalism is counter-cultural, and therefore suspect. If people suspect you, they’ll also suspect you’re trying to deceive them. Perversely, the more clever you are, the less effective you become. As for those Universalists of old, I think too many of them liked the fight more than being right, or being right more than being joyful in God. That’s no way to live.

An apologetic tact is also difficult for Universalists (then and now) because of our numbers. We’ve never been numerous, and so it’s been important to overcome differences, including serious differences, in order to have a critical mass to form congregations to share in common work. The question of whether or not there would be future punishment (the so-called Restorationist Controversy) led to a split, but I think it healed from organizations being too small as much from changing opinions among Universalists. And life’s too short to get caught up in the mechanics of God’s activity when it’s impossible to prove any of it.

I take the tack that Universalism is the kind of Christianity that most people would imagine God would want for us. It’s implausibility is really a reflection on the world we live in, not a reflection of the God who made us. Perhaps that’s what gives it a perverse moral strength, even while those who get sniffy claim that would allow its believers get away with anything. Do you think I ignore the goodness shown me? I didn’t earn that. Universalism isn’t for the haughty.

I’ve been a Universalist long enough to let its truth guide my decisions. I think it’s made me less fearful and perhaps kinder. I’m less impressed by political appeals that lift up the United States over other countries, for instance. That — with the clear profession of faith, not seeking contention — is  how I hope to promote the faith. Let your behavior and mode of living be your argument.

[Typos cleaned up from the original.]

Not worrying about the Unitarian Universalist Association

15 August 2019 at 22:40

This is more of a process note than anything.

Ever since General Assembly this year, I’ve made it a point to reduce my interaction related to the Unitarian Universalist Association. I’ve gone off of mailing lists and have cut down (nearly to zero) my interactions on social media. I skim the magazine but discard the fundraising pieces. I will, for the time being, maintain my fellowship and any interest in things that have value to me, like my retirement plan. (So I’ll read the board minutes, say, to defend those interests if need be.)

But it’s clear that there’s not enough left in Unitarian Universalism on an institutional level to justify the downsides. OK, that’s not news. But the fact the messages have gone from “Scott, don’t leave” to “I understand” to “I’m getting out” is new. And those are people I trust and respect.

Since programmatic work has ground to nothing, there’s nothing to miss.  The work of the UUA has been replaced with taking care of its own sins, real or imagined. Why support that? Worse, some people who I would normally call colleagues are so embarrassing, caustic or bullying that I wouldn’t want to be seen in public with them much less the identify professionally with them.  And I’m a Universalist Christian, which should mean this is a natural home. But that’s not been regarded as a good thing in Unitarian Universalist circles in decades. Universalist Christianity is having a theological renaissance but Universalist Christians in the rest of the world make a point of distinguishing themselves from the kind of religion practiced in the UUA. So the UUA’s not only not helping, but it’s actually hurting my religious life.

And I know I’m not alone in believing this. Some of you have been kind enough to write and express your frustrations and reservations, and even ask my advice. The most I can suggest is double your effort in your own local church, if you can, and leave the national body to its own devices.

Once I decided that, my mood improved. I can figure out what’s coming next, and who I can work with instead. Save your money for something you love. Time to cut the ties that bind and chafe. Time to stop worrying.

Universalism in Indiana

14 August 2019 at 23:40

Elmo Arnold Robinson, who wrote the newly-in-the-public-domain The Universalist Church in Ohio also wrote a two-part article (published in 1917) about the Universalists in Indiana.

Both the Indiana and Ohio works are interesting reads, and doesn’t hide the warts about what didn’t go well, including serious conflict between the ministers. Conflict, I should add, which didn’t kill them.

Issues of β€œThe Universalist” online

13 August 2019 at 23:28

I’ve fallen down an internet research hole and found 280 complete issues of Chicago-published The Universalist at the Illinois Digital Newspapers Collection, ranging from 1886 to 1887.

Three images of the church with captions

And yes! the preview issue for the 1897 Universalist General Convention, held at Chicago with pictures of St. Paul’s Church, where it was held, and a defense of “the creed,” meaning the Winchester Profession. It was at the 1897 convention that the “Five Points” were proposed, and adopted at the 1899 convention.

A former Universalist center in New York

12 August 2019 at 12:00

While I was noodling through the 1939 records of the Universalist General Convention, I saw a description in the Directory (under New York) to the Prescott Neighborhood House, sponsored by the Church of the Divine Paternity, Manhattan, New York, now known by its parish name, Fourth Universalist.

I didn’t know there was Universalist settlement work that late — and indeed, it wouldn’t last much longer. But remarkably for Manhattan, the building is still there and this article gives the highlights of the mission, the building and the controversy over its closure.



β€œβ€˜Canned’ sermons wrapped up in celophane”

11 August 2019 at 18:12

Could well-mobilized lay preaching have helped the Universalists in their toughest days?

By 1939, deep into the Great Depression, Universalist institutions — conventions and parishes — were disintegrating. General Superintendent Robert Cummins prodded the Universalist General Convention and the affiliated units for women, Sunday School, publications, young adults and men (in about that order of vitality) towards more effective and coordinated work. And work that got past simply having preaching services in otherwise dormant parishes. Ministers were in short supply; money to pay them even shorter.  He reserved his pique for the support of churches that couldn’t ween themselves off mission support, to free up that money for new work. (I wonder if that experience poisoned later mission support of new churches.) How bad was the situation? (Link to the original)

Of our 544 churches, 71 are receiving the services of a resident minister, supporting themselves and contributing to denominational programs; 171 are supporting resident ministers and carrying on independently of outside help, but are lending no support to the Church’s program beyond that sector of it presided over by their own local parishes; 99 are not aided, yet are unable to support a resident minister or the larger work; 100 are receiving aid from some source or sources; and 97 are dormant, although 14 of these make some contribution to the program of the denomination. One of the most serious problems facing us is the large number of our small parishes. 99 are without ministers, 97 are dormant. Populations have shifted. Transportation has altered conditions. Either these parishes have to be put on “circuits” with ministers serving them only part-time (73 are already operating on this basis), or be satisfied with “occasional” preaching (there are 33 of these and 43 holding summer services only), or be persuaded to use a mail-order variety of service such as might go to them in the form of “canned” sermons wrapped in celophane and devised for use by the laity, or the properties should be sold for whatever they will bring and the money used to re-locate the movement….

I pull this out to say that the problems with the Universalist long predate their flirtation and later consolidation with the Unitarians.  (Allowance of dual ministerial fellowship with the better-paying Unitarians was surely devastating, but that was a Universalist problem.)  Population, economic and transportation changes never stopped, of course. As for transportation, I’m sure he means discontinued rail lines, which killed towns as well as churches. A foretaste of the Interstate Highway System. There will never be enough money or labor to do everything. And I have doubts about the seven-day church in a secular era when people have well packed-seven day lives.

The line that really popped for me was that bit about the celophane (Cummins’s spelling) and the role of the laity in worship. Universalists had, at best, an ambivalent view of lay preaching. If your church was on a circuit, it simply wouldn’t meet for worship when the preacher wasn’t in town. (That’s why the railroads were so important.) As early as the 1850s, Universalist leaders recognized that having laypersons leading morning or evening prayer from a published liturgy, plus perhaps one of those canned sermons, was better than doing without services ― but I don’t get a sense that it made much impact.

As a society, far broader than the Universalists who may stand as an object lesson, if we want religious services, we will either have to change how we treat ordination (a nod to my Independent Sacramental Movement series) or have more lay liturgical leadership. Some denominations do this very well. And there are lay preachers who are very good. Besides, I think there’s a lot to be said for a church with a college of clergy and lay preachers, as opposed to “our pastor.” I’d even be willing to hear something carefully pulled out of cellophane.

Every time I find this tension in Universalist sources, I’ll mark it with the tag lay-led-liturgy.

A communion service I’d use for a prayer breakfast

10 August 2019 at 19:26

Many years ago a friend and colleague invited me to join him in an ecumenical prayer breakfast with communion. I alluded to it in a 2012 article when I described the communion ware they used.

The prayer breakfast looks like one of those observances that was once more centrist and mainline but has become identified with conservatives today. Or maybe it’s that I’m in too secular an urban center. Or that I don’t like waking up early enough to have a prayer breakfast before work. Or that I’m not in the military or the Chamber of Commerce. Take your pick.

But I enjoyed that one years ago: there was an earnest, retro quality to it and the piety was sincere. I got to visit with new people. It was more of a men’s space than you normally find in devotional life, and I doubt that was accidental. (Butching up devotion has a long and mixed history.) The format can be adapted to many constituencies though, and some I’ve found online are all-women. Let your imagination roam. Church picnics or camps? It might be good for mission church starts that first meet in restaurant party rooms, even.

Surveying the prayer breakfast landscape, I don’t see communion offered as much as I would have thought, but then again eucharistic fellowship is that bridge too far, when simple prayer and singing doesn’t aggravate ecclesiastic sensibilities. Catholics might have one following a mass.

But when I found this from W. E. Orchard’s 1921 The Order of Divine Service for Public Worship I knew I had a winner because it solved the “problem” of distributing the emblems (a commonly-used term among Universalists of yore for the  bread and wine; I love it and will keep it) though you might think it creates new problems for the consecration.

The service is interesting for its simplicity, not the least because Orchard later “crossed the Tiber” and became a Roman Catholic priest. But perhaps he meant, in his developing view of the sacraments, the simplest that was appropriate and effective. Certainly the bare recitation of the Institution from St. Paul would be simpler, and you see that in the “lower” Reformed Churches, ours included, but it’s also wanting in form and piety. I do.

I’d love some feedback and (even better) links to any prayer breakfasts you’ve attended or conducted.


This Order provides for the simplest possible Observance of the Lord’s Supper, giving the words of Scripture to be read by the President, indicating (in brackets) the appropriate actions, and suggesting (in italics) the subjects for silent prayer and private devotion.

The President shall commence by saying.
The disciples did as Jesus appointed them; and they made ready the Passover.

(Here the elements maybe distributed, and those who are to partake may prepare themselves by prayer.)
Now when even was come, he was sitting at meat with the twelve disciples ; and as they were eating, he said, Verily I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me. And they were exceeding sorrowful, and began to say unto him every one, Is it I, Lord?

Self-examination and Confession.
And as they were eating, Jesus took bread,

(Here the President may take the bread into his hands.)
and blessed.

Here the Holy Spirit should be silently invoked.
and brake it ;

(Here the President may break the bread.)
and he gave to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body which is broken for you.

This do in remembrance of me.
(Here all partake of the bread.)

After the same manner also, he took a cup,
(Here the President may take the cup into his hands.)
and gave thanks,

and gave to them saying, Drink ye all of it ; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is shed for many unto remission of sins.

This do as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.
(Here all partake of the cup.)

For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink the cup, ye proclaim the Lord’s death till he come.

Prayer pleading the sacrifice of Christ and making offering
of self to God.

(The offerings for the Poor may now be collected, the President
saying: Brethren, ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might become rich.)


Jesus, lifting up his eyes unto heaven, said, Father, I pray not for the world, but for those whom thou hast given me; for they are thine and I am glorified in them.

Remembrance of the saints and the departed.
Neither for these only do I pray, but for them also that believe on me through their word;

Remembrance of the living.
That they may all be one ; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee:

Prayer for the unity of the Church.
That the world may believe that thou didst send me.

Prayer for the conversion of the world and the coming
of the Kingdom.

(Here the President may announce a Hymn, saying. And when they had sung a hymn they went out.)



Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.

Universalist Society of Sutton, New Hampshire

9 August 2019 at 23:28

I sometimes find nice Universalist bits in local histories, but in this history of Sutton, New Hampshire, you get an extended passage on the long-extinct Universalist society (think: parish) there, with organizing documents and a profession of faith.

The history of Sutton, New Hampshire: consisting of the historical collections of Erastus Wadleigh, Esq., and A. H. Worthen (1890)

And speaking of extinct, there is on page 175 this chilling note in the chapter “Casualties and Sudden Deaths”:

Rev. Thompson Barron, a Universalist minister of Newport, N.H., was found dead at the home of Jacob Nelson, about twenty years ago.

That’s all it says. What a mystery!
And that chapter. Gotta love local history.

(His 1871 obituary, reprinted at uudb.orc, is more detailed but still harrowing. Perhaps a heart attack or stroke?)

Independent Sacramental Movement: a Universalist connection

7 August 2019 at 03:24

At my home church there is an abandoned copy of Leadbeater’s The Science of the Sacraments on a shelf in the pastor’s office. It’s with a deacon’s stole, a gospel book, and a box of hosts which must be so old as to be unusable now. These are evidence of an Independent Sacramental community that once worshipped in the church but is long gone and either precipitously disbanded or moved.

What kind of Independent Sacramental community? The book is a tell. Charles Leadbeater was an early bishop of the Liberal Catholic Church, and devised its liturgy. Today, it has broken up into a number of jurisdictions which I’ll get to in a moment. Also, don’t confuse them with politically or theologically progressive Catholics.

The Liberal Catholics is one of the reasons I became interested in the Independent Sacramental Movement in the first place. It would be a lie to say I understand the ins-and-outs of the Liberal Catholics, particularly what distinguishes their various jurisdictions, except to say that they are philosophically and historically dependent on Theosophy, which is also a blurry area for me, as my faith isn’t what you’d call esoteric. None of that is so important here as that the Liberal Catholics are theologically universalist.

The first Liberal Catholics I met — this was in 1994 and I don’t know which jurisdiction —were in a storefront church near my little house in Tulsa, Oklahoma. One of the bishops described (if I can recall back a quarter century) his church as being liberal in the interpretation of belief, provided that the liturgy is observed properly. We were standing at the back of the church at the time, surrounded by the largest collection of antique vestments I have ever seen, so I took him at his word about the liturgy

Here’s the Creed or Act of Faith used in Liberal Catholic rite jurisdictions, or some of them. It exists in variant forms, sometimes tweaking the sons and brothers to something that includes women:

We believe that God is Love and Power and Truth and Light; that perfect justice rules the world; that all His sons shall one day reach His Feet, however far they stray. We hold the Fatherhood of God,  the Brotherhood of man; we know that we do serve Him best when best we serve our brother man. So shall His blessing rest upon us and peace for evermore. Amen.

I’ve noticed that Liberal Catholic jurisdictions vary on particular parts: is Theosophy optional? Likewise vegetarianism? So I assume some are more forthrightly universalist (as I understand it) than others. But the Catholic Universalist Church just puts it out there. And look at that mid-century Off-Center Cross. (I had the pleasure to worship with their parish in Queens a few years ago.)  Of note, they don’t use the Act of Faith on their site. Even more of note, some of the language in their theses are used by the Christian Universalist Association (or vice versa).

And also there’s the Liberal Catholic Universalist Church, based in the northeast of England. I wonder if there are others? Well, there was that vanished community. Were they drawn to a Universalist church? In any case, and no matter how small they may be, it does my heart good. What vanishes quickly can also reappear as fast.

Twentieth-century Universalist records available online at Harvard

24 July 2019 at 23:30

I’d known for some time that the run of printed Unitarian Universalist Association directories were available to be read online from Harvard Library’s site, so I wondered if any of the hard-to-get and not-public-domain (1924 on) Universalist directories and records, prior to the 1961 consolidation, were available there.

Indeed, there are. Here’s what I found in chronological order, and I’ll add more if I find any. Note that except were stated, the resources were published on a biennial basis.

Independent Sacramental Movement: what is a church?

29 June 2019 at 17:49

Because this site is mainly directed to Protestants in congregational polity churches, I should talk about the church itself a bit before talking about the Independent Sacramental Movement (ISM), to identify differences of focus that might otherwise turn into a confusing blur. I’m also working out of my comfort zone here and in future, so there’s probably going to be mistakes, or at least phrasings that those in the ISM wouldn’t use. If so, please comment.

(Since the ISM attracts a certain kind of viscous internet troll, I will be applying a heavier than usual editorial hand in approving comments. If you’re here to stir up trouble about the ISM, don’t bother. This series is not for you.)

The Cambridge Platform of 1648 was a New England response to the Westminster Confession; the main differences were with polity, or the system of church governance, and persists (often in wildly modified forms) in the inheriting churches of New England Congregationalism, which includes the Unitarians and Universalists. So even in these late days, we respect it and go back to its understanding. Chapter two of the platform starts “[t]he catholic church is the whole company of those elected, redeemed, and in time effectively called from the state of sin and death, unto a state of grace and salvation in Jesus Christ.” But that’s a spiritual state: it doesn’t distinguish between the living and the dead; or the past, present or future. A series of no, not that clauses follow leading to the proposition that there is no Church — that is, a single visible organization of living Christians around the world — but churches, particular instances that keep communion (both access to the Lord’s table and the disciplines of church cooperation) with one another.  Explicitly, “we deny a universal visible church.” (chapter 2.4)

Section 6 lays out what a church is: “A Congregational church is by the institution of Christ a part of the militant visible church, consisting of a company of saints by calling, united into one body by a holy covenant, for the public worship of God, and the mutual edification of one another, in the fellowship of the Lord Jesus.”

In short, Christ’s promise of the life-giving promise of the Holy Spirit leaps the generations and is present in the gathered church. To follow the thought, a group of wholly isolated persons could individually have experience of salvation (I’ll leave what that means for now), baptize one another, establish a covenant, elect and ordain “officers” (the elders or ministers, and deacons) and be a fully-formed church. Sounds good to me, as unlikely as that might be.

Among the diversity of the ISM, this certainly stands out: there are three orders of ministry (deacon, priest and bishop) and that these orders are transmitted as a sacrament from generation to generation in a succession of bishops in a line of consecration back to Christ’s apostles. Without bishops, there is no access to the other six (maybe more) sacraments, which mediate grace. No doubt the Holy Spirit empowers the consecrations, but even without wading into the ISM views of the constitution of the church, there’s a basic difference in concept. In the congregational view, the “faith once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 1:3) is held by the faithful, while in the ISM (as with other churches with apostolic succession) there is a personal continuity. (Which is not to suggest that the laity are optional in the ISM, but that’s an issue of the constitution of the church that I’m not qualified to speak about. I would be interested how the Vatican II document, Lumen Gentium has been received.) In congregationalism, at least in its “purest ” form, the deacons and ministers fill a role more than experiencing the basic, ontological change of nature as expressed in the ordinations of the ISM. Of course, what’s so pure any more? Ideas about the ministry have developed over time, including what might be called (but never is in this way) its mystical constitution. Perhaps I should ask how Lumen Gentium has influenced the Unitarian Universalists, if perhaps through the side door. After all, James Luther Adams was an observer at Vatican II.

Next time, a bit about who the ISM are in the context of the churches in apostolic succession.