About the good news of our shared faith, the Rev. Clinton Lee Scott once wrote a “Parish Parable” which echoes the old “thee and thou” language of the King James Bible. It goes like this: “Now there was a certain man that for many years did frequent the Temple on the Sabbath day. Then did he cease to be found in the Great Congregation. And a neighbor inquireth of him, saying, “How is it that thou art no more seen in the Temple on the Sabbath day?” And the man did give answer, “I like not the words that the Master speaketh: for he putteth not an end to the questions that vex my mind, neither provideth me with a sure salvation for my soul: verily he leadeth us into deep waters, and leaveth us there without means of rescue.” Now when this conversation was told to the Master of the Temple, he answered, saying, “Go tell him that remaineth away from the Great Congregation that the Temple standeth not to provide life preservers, but is a place wherein one learneth how to swim.”
This is but a classic statement of the Unitarian side of our faith, which is fundamentally a faith in people. It says, to each and every one of us, You have abundant potential. You are not inherently perverse and fatally wrong-headed, doomed unless some higher authority gives you life preservers in the form of detailed answers to which you must submit and never question (at pain of hellfire). You are not fundamentally weak, incapable of rising up to meet that challenges of the day, best kept in the shallow waters of life, best kept self-centered and indifferent to what’s really going on. No! You have inherent worth and dignity. It is a priceless inner wealth, actualized by all the heroes and sheroes that have gone before you, and you can realize this for yourself in your own turn. It naturally attunes you to truth and to justice, if you would but learn to hear; and to this end do Great Congregations and Masters of the Temple exist: to help you learn. To help you nurture and develop the potential that life has given you. Not to give you the answers up front, but to give you space and room in which to follow the nose of your curiosity and conscience, help you come into the integrity of your own answers. Not to protect you from the realities of suffering and evil, but to move you to engage the deep waters of social problems and do your best to make a difference. That’s what classic Unitarianism says. It is faith in the abundance of human potentials to fashion lives of positive wisdom and leadership and citizenship. Don’t treat me like I’m stupid. Don’t say I can’t ask questions. Don’t tell me that there’s nothing I can do to make a difference in the larger world.
Unitarianism says, “Jump in! Swim! Yes you can!” But as for the Universalist side of our faith—the classic message is different. Thomas Starr King, who was a minister in both Unitarianism and Universalism, back in the 19th century and long before the two movements officially came together, once had this to say about the difference: he said that Unitarians think people are too good for hell, whereas for the Universalists, what keeps people out of hell is not people, but God. God is too compassionate, too good. That’s the classic Universalist vision. We are held and supported by an eternal, all-conquering Love that’s far greater than who we are as individuals. And so, if at some point you find yourself thrown out into deep waters and you have been trying the best you can to solve the burning, difficult questions of life but, in the end, you feel that the complete answers will always evade you; or, you have been trying the best you can to make a difference but, in the end, you know economic injustice will still exist and war will still exist and hatred will still exist and, on top of all this, your marriage is in trouble and the recession is hitting you hard—when you find yourself out in deep waters, like this, Universalism will come to you. It will gently take your hand and, with consolation and encouragement, say to you words like those the poet Philip Booth once said to his daughter:
Lie back daughter, let your head
be tipped back in the cup of my hand.
Gently, and I will hold you. Spread
your arms wide, lie out on the stream
and look high at the gulls. A dead-
man’s float is face down. You will dive
and swim soon enough where this tidewater
ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe
me, when you tire on the long thrash
to your island, lie up, and survive.
As you float now, where I held you
and let go, remember when fear
cramps your heart what I told you:
lie gently and wide to the light-year
stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.
Remember, whispers Universalism. No matter what—when you and I are in deep waters, and our strength is seemingly gone—the sea will hold us. Failure is impossible. So lie back. That’s the Universalist message precisely. Let the abundant strength of the sea be our strength. There is nothing we need to do to earn it. We don’t need a Ph. D, we don’t need lots of money or class or beauty or personality. Just open up and let this abundance flow in us; let us dwell in it; and it will surprise us. Suddenly we will find ourselves healed and whole—and more courageous than ever. Bubbling up in our hearts and lives, this abundance will move us spontaneously into works of beauty and service and justice, and we will also find ourselves moved into faith-sharing. For how can we not share this good news? Only in giving to another the hope of abundant love, does our own joy become complete. It spoils if kept. “The joy that isn’t shared,” says one poet, “dies young.”
By now I feel like a shaken-up can of soda. I just can’t talk about this stuff without getting all excited. It’s the good news of our Unitarian Universalist faith, fizzing and frothing and bubbling up, ready to be shared. So today our focus is liberal evangelism—what that can look like for us. Getting us all shaken up like I am, so the pressure of our Unitarian Universalist message becomes so great within us that we have to do something about it. And then to talk a little about what this “something” might be—to offer up some hints that come to us from one of the preeminent evangelists in our history: the Rev. Quillen Shinn, credited with starting at least 40 congregations all across North America, one of which was the First Universalist Church of Atlanta, Georgia, organized February 24, 1895. Because of people like Quillen Shin, we are. Literally. Others may give him fancy names like “the Saint Paul of the Universalist Church,” but here in Atlanta, we can call him grandfather.
There’s something you might want to know up front, however, about Grandfather Shinn, and this actually takes us farther along the road of exploring our Unitarian Universalist good news as it has evolved from classic to contemporary form. Quillen Shin proclaimed an abundance message that, in at least one respect, is significantly different from our own today. He preached a Universalism of dogmas: the centrality of the Bible, the love of God, the parenthood of God, the immortality of the soul, the divinity (though not the deity) of Christ, the certainty of punishment for sin, and the universality of salvation. He preached these dogmas as central to what it meant to be a Universalist, against what he saw as a rising infidelity in many of his fellow ministers and especially against what he called those “go-as-you-please Unitarians.” “Occasionally,” he once thundered, “a church falls into decay under the leadership of an upright pastor because that pastor is too indefinite, too vague and uncertain. He talks too much about ‘Truth for Authority,’ and too little about ‘The spiritual authority of Jesus Christ.’ Of course,” says Quillen Shinn, “’truth is authority,’ when we know what the truth is, and take our affirmation of ‘The universal Fatherhood of God.’ The world received that not by evolution but by revelation. Christ is our authority for this sublimest truth, believed and cherished by man. When a minister ceases to regard Jesus as authority, he steps away from the bed-rock of faith, and drifts into those vague ‘Universals’ fascinating to many who call themselves liberals and who seem to be well equipped with circumference, but without any center.” That’s what Grandfather Shinn said, around the turn of the nineteenth century, and clearly he was feeling the growing trend in liberal religion, which had been building for decades, ever since the advent of such things as modern Biblical scholarship, the comparative study of world religions, and Darwinianism. The trend was away from an exclusive Bible-centered faith, towards one that opened up to the riches of the world’s religions, as well as to the findings of science. The trend was away from Jesus Christ being at the center, towards the Mystery at the center. And all who wanted to live into this Mystery were welcome in our congregations, together with whatever path they chose, whether or not Jesus was meaningful for them, or God a meaningful concept.
Even though Quillen Shinn did not like it, Universalism went the way of all liberal religion, towards a deepening appreciation of the abundance of Mystery. He saw it as decay and as drifting away, and he feared that it would be our doom. But on the side of history we’re on, we know that what happened was what happens to the snake when it sheds its skin. We were simply reborn into something more honest and therefore more vital. This side of history, we affirm that whatever the Sacred is, it is an elephant too complex and too big for any individual blind man to fully comprehend. No single book or system of belief can possibly hold all the truth. What’s at the center is fundamentally a Mystery—and therefore it is endlessly fascinating and provocative, provoking interpretation after interpretation, inviting a personal creative response from each of us. While we can no longer speak about Universalism like Quillen Shinn did, in a one-size-fits-all way, the central abundance insight nevertheless remains: that there is in reality some process or power that is larger than the individual person, and when we connect with it, we are transformed in ways that we cannot transform ourselves. Use whatever language you want to describe it. Some will talk about God. Others will talk instead about the reality of the unconscious, or synchronicity, or the interdependent web, or Buddhamind, or the Goddess, or simply the embracing arms of healthy human relationships. Still others will speak a rich vocabulary of all of these and more, seeing each metaphor as a uniquely valid pathway into an experience of the Sacred. The point, though, is that at our center is Mystery—this is where the past century has brought us—and it means that our faith is abundant with creativity, abundant with diversity, abundant with possibility. The good news message of our faith is all about abundance.
But now, how to share this with the world? Now here’s something that would make Quillen Shinn smile. “In truth,” he once said, “no [person] knows the full joy of Universalism until he sends it to another; and, in fact, he cannot keep it for himself in its fullness, unless he is sending it abroad.” So, how to send it?
First of all, send it and say it with purpose. A humorous story about Quillen Shinn comes to mind. His biographer says that once, when he was at seminary, he delivered a somewhat rambling sermon, and he was asked by his professor to describe the subject he was trying to preach on. He replied, “I didn’t have any subject but I had an object and that was to show that Universalists have the best principles and that they ought to be the best people.” You better believe that his preaching improved over time, but the basic principle never changed: have an object; have a purpose.
Definitely our purpose in sharing Unitarian Universalism can’t be about declaring what is best in general; we are too modest for that. It definitely can’t be about declaring what’s best for you, or else; we don’t even believe that. But what the purpose can be is this: to share how it has been best for us. How the message about abundant human potentials has enabled us to think thoughts and do deeds that other contexts and communities would have stifled or denied. How the message about abundant love that is larger than us as separate individuals has lifted us up and supported us when we were in the deep end and could not swim anymore—abundant support of this caring community, abundant arms of Life. How the message about abundant Mystery has encouraged active exploration of our spiritual depths, opened us up to the riches of the world’s religions and of science, invited us to be creative in our religious lives. Our purpose in sharing Unitarian Universalism is helping another person know how powerful this abundance faith has been for us—and perhaps they are in a place in life that makes them ready to receive. Perhaps. We can share it with the same graciousness as we would news about a fantastic restaurant, or a brilliant movie. Without any heavy-handedness, and only to say: it has brought wonderful things into my family and my life, and maybe it can do the same for you.
Say it with purpose. Also say it with structure. Don’t ramble on like Quillen Shinn did in his seminary attempts at preaching. One of the ways of preventing this—of ensuring that you have a focus to your conversation—is by developing for yourself an “elevator speech,” or a short statement about Unitarian Universalism’s value to you that, theoretically, you could give in the three or so minutes it takes you to go from the bottom floor to the top. While real conversations often aren’t as tightly compartmentalized as this, and tend to go on or spill over, still, the discipline of the elevator speech is a good one. It challenges you to think about what’s especially important and meaningful to you about our faith. Clearly, It won’t say everything, but it can at least get you started, get your foot in the door—either plant a seed that will ripen sometimes later, or move a person to open up right then and there for a richer conversation.
I’d actually recommend having several elevator speeches on hand, each one doing a different thing, to be called on depending on circumstances. Practice developing these with each other. Sometimes just a general historical orientation seems to be called for, so you might say, “Unitarian Universalism comes out of the Protestant tradition in Christianity, and some of the oldest churches in America are UU churches. Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson were UUs.” In other words: not many people may be familiar with us, but we are as American as apple pie. Other times you will want talk theology, and you could say this: “Unitarian Universalism says that God is bigger than any single book or single religion. That’s why we draw from many sources of wisdom and truth.” Another good one is this: “Unitarian Universalism doesn’t tell me what to believe about such things as God or an afterlife because it knows that all such specific beliefs are way too important to be answered for us by someone else. It tells me that people have to come to their own answers, first-hand, for them to be truly meaningful.” Yet a third category of elevator speech addresses current events—you draw on recent things you did at UUCA that were meaningful for you. As in, “A couple Sundays ago, there was a guest speaker who talked about slavery after the Civil War, and I had no idea. I love the fact that my congregation gives me new insights into justice issues and expands my sense of things!” And it IS cool—it is evidence of the core abundance of our faith.
Say it with purpose. Say it with structure. And then also say it with confidence. Some years, Quillen Shinn traveled 25 to 30,000 miles, and you better believe that, to be received as he was, he needed to be nonanxious. Surely we can model this same calmness in the relatively few conversational miles we will travel!
How we say something communicates far more than what is actually said. When evangelism comes out of a place of anxiety, you might stutter and stumble over your carefully prepared elevator speech. You might actually look offended, get defensive, even get angry. Or you might come across as cool as an ice cube—giving off the impression that, for you, Unitarian Universalism is of no more than clinical interest. All would raise red flags in the questioner, make them wonder if the emperor has no clothes, if there’s something to be ashamed of, if there’s some terrible secret to hide, or if it’s somehow not OK to ask. But our goal is to make the abundance of our faith contagious. Not to force it on anyone. Just to share something that has meant so much to us. What moved Quillen Shinn to plant his first church was the memory of his mother, and all that she had given him. Same thing goes for us. We give because we have received. So let this thought relax us. We can take a deep breath. We can ungrit our teeth, relax our bodies, and take a curiosity stance towards the journey that each conversation will take us on. See where things go.
Yes, sometimes the other person will use it as an opportunity to tell us we’re wrong, but we’re allowed to agree to disagree. We don’t have to allow ourselves to be abused. We can rest confidently in our experience, knowing what our faith has done for us. Uncomfortable conversations will happen. But then there will be the conversations that make it all worth while. Because you say yes to evangelism and make yourself available, in your own person you will transmit some of the abundance of our faith to another, and they will catch a glimpse, and what they see is something they have been looking for but never even knew existed, never even knew it had a name. Someone wanting to get out into deeper waters, just waiting for permission. Someone in deep waters over their head, looking for encouragement. And you give them what they need. That’s what you do.
There are times when deeds don’t go far enough. The hungers of others require words that only we can give, and evangelism becomes the means. Walking the talk must be matched with talking the talk. Our faith tradition is all about abundance, and it fizzes and froths and bubbles up, ready to be shared. So let’s do that. Let’s make our Grandfather Shinn proud. He helped start us up, so let’s start something up too. Make him proud.