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April 3, 2016: “Unitarian Universalism Saves the World”

Personal Reflection “Breathing in a Huge World” Diana Packer

Save the world. Are you kidding me? That concept is huge. Just hearing myself say those three words out loud makes me feel completely overwhelmed. How am I supposed to save the world?

Well, I figured out that the first thing I need to do is reduce the size of the world.

I don’t think I have to look far to find those in need. When I was reeling from an abusive marriage, someone would greet me by name, warmly and genuinely ask, “How are you?” and then listen. When my daughter was in the hospital, someone unexpectedly appeared at the doorway of her room holding a vase of wildflowers. When my kitchen cupboards were empty, someone left a bag of groceries on my doorstep, more than once. When my house was going into foreclosure, someone introduced me to their friend who worked for Housing Advocates. Someone helped me establish a business. Someone helped me find a home. Someone helped me land a job. Many of these “someones” have been you. The way that I can be part of our church’s service to others is by serving those in my church. I can be a “someone” to those who are close to me. This is the size of world I can manage right now.

The other thing I need to do is expand my “oneness,” to remember that I am not alone but part of a community. There are two places where I have learned much about community, one is this church and the other is where I work, at Hershey Montessori School. The Montessori adolescent community is a place where adults and students live and learn within the context of a working farm. I have discovered that the shared responsibility of meaningful work is at the essence of a healthy community.

It is a remarkable feeling to discard the burden of “oneness,” to acknowledge that you are amongst many, doing your part, whatever that may be, which is of equal value to all others’ because it is a contribution to the larger goal or principle. For example, on the farm, one student may contribute to making the school’s lunch by peeling four potatoes in an hour while, during that same hour, another student may contribute by preparing a twenty-part salad bar and setting tables for sixty. In this church, one person may take a cause to the state legislature or organize a march in Washington, while another person may generously give out hugs and words of support. Some of us will hone in on the larger, broader tasks; others will concentrate on what is nearer to home. Each contribution is important and each creates an exponentially increasing affect on what follows.

So, I’ve decided not to worry about saving the world. I know that I have a place in this church as we, as a strong religious community, reach out to help, to practice UU salvation as advocates, givers, guardian angels to strangers and to friends. We all, at different times, both give and receive help. Whether I directly help those in need or help the helpers is a moot point. Often they are one and the same.

Sermon “Unitarian Universalism Saves the World,” Rev. Denis Paul

George deBenneville was born in London in 1703 to French protestant parents, Huguenots who had relocated in order to find refuge from religious persecution in Roman Catholic France. He was a physician, but before reaching adulthood, according to historian Ernest Cassara, deBenneville “was excluded from the church of his parents when he admitted that all souls would be restored to God’s love in the afterlife.” (1) It was at that point that he began preaching his own brand of Christianity.

DeBenneville was a Pietist. He believed in the soul-cleansing quality of a physically rigorous and pure life. He believed that the human soul is flawlessly wholesome, but that the body, while not inherently evil, was the location of sinfulness. The human project, he believed, was to live so rigorously that the body and mind would become as pure as the soul. His kinship to German Pietists is what finally attracted him to Pennsylvania, where he lived until his death at the age of 90. (2)

In his book calledThe Life and Trance of Dr. George De Benneville, he described what was probably a near death experience that formed his conviction that hell is not for punishment, but rather, that hell exists for the express purpose of redeeming the soul. His experience convinced him that God is pure in his love for humanity, and that God would never damn anyone to hell for all of eternity.

He wrote:

“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 the deck I saw some Moors who brought some refreshments to sell. One of them slipped down and tore a piece out of his leg. Two of his companions, having lain him upon 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 for their noise, they perceived that I was angry, asked my pardon, and told me this 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] good remedy to heal 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!'”

When deBenneville got to France at the end of his journey – I don’t know if it was hours later, or weeks – he had what then would have been called a spell. He was overheated, feeling faint, and needed the care of a servant. Delirious, he called out, “I am damned!” Ministers were called. For some time, even after he was well, they told him the same thing: that he had behaved according to his “rank and station.”

Still, he felt ashamed for his sins, no matter how small they may have seemed to the ministers, in the gran scheme of things. They provided young George no comfort, gave him no answers, so they told him that if he would not receive their reassurances then, it must be a sign that he was “destined from the beginning to condemnation.”

“Then they gave me up and came no more to visit me. After that, I continued in a 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 for 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 unsupportable 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 find no remedy but to leave myself to the justice of my judge for a condemned criminal that I was. I knew that his judgments were just and that I had merited much more than I felt.”

He was seventeen year old.

In the 18th Century, fear of hell was real.

Calvinism reigned supreme in Europe and the United States at the time. Just about everyone believed in an angry God who decided at the beginning of creation, millennia before the birth of anyone living, who would and who would not go to heaven. Only an elect few would make it to the Pearly gates, and the rest, no matter how well they behaved, no matter how much good they did in the world, would be damned to eternal fire.

In Europe, to believe differently, and to express a belief in the flawless love of a beneficent god as deBenneville did, was to risk persecution, even execution.

In the United States, the land of religious tolerance, to preach of a loving God was to risk becoming an outcast.

Today, the fear of hell is still real.

The political landscape, shaped so much by religious belief, is rendered in black and white, stark in its contrasts of good and evil, with no room for compromise. The resistance to compromise seems to be based in a fear of impurity, as if mere closeness to the other side of an issue will contaminate one’s beliefs.

We live in a world where the idea of salvation still looms large. More than one third of all American adults have been born again, claiming Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior, and that claim, that belief, they are sure is the only thing that will get them, or anyone else, into heaven.

Meanwhile, no one can know how many people feel so broken, so sinful, that they could never be forgiven by God or anyone else. “I am terrible,” they think. “I deserve nothing.” They fear the afterlife

Others seem to be saying “I have done nothing wrong. I act as I should, take what I deserve, and have no responsibility to worry about others, who create their own fate through their own actions.” They expect glory in the afterlife.

In many ways, things haven’t changed much since 1720 when young George fell into despair. But then, an incredible, unbelievable thing happened to him. He was visited by his Judge, whom he described as “one of most majestic appearance, whose beauty, brightness and grandeur can never be described.”

He continued, “He cast such a look of grace and mercy upon me, and such a look of love as to penetrate through me, the fire of which so embraced my soul that I loved him again with the same love.”

DeBenneville was sure that the apparition before him, was Jesus, who described his own human torment before assuring deBenneville that he had already asked God, “my heavenly father, pardon this poor sinner, and cause thy mercy to come to him.” Then Jesus said, “Take courage, my son, thy sins are forgiven thee.”

And like that. The burden that deBenneville had been carrying, the torture of regret and self-hatred were gone, replaced by a living faith in himself and the world.

It wasn’t the only time this kind of thing happened to deBenneville. He lived through was he called a series of serious illnesses that left him with a firm conviction that he had left his body a number of times, giving him “a view of the stages of the afterlife as struggling souls gradually were purified by suffering and then ushered into the presence of God.” (3)

DeBenneville’s conversion story is a reminder that salvation begins with connection to one another — seeing our common wounds, healing each other as the merchants did on the ship. THAT was when deBenneville’s conversion started. When he connected to the suffering of other, and joined his brothers in compassion.

His story of salvation was looked upon skeptically by many Universalists on both sides of the Atlantic. It felt extreme.

Many Universalist’s belief in a loving God was based in the rational humanist conviction that no god would create beings only to torture and condemn them. Other more traditionally spiritual Universalists believed that anyone could get into heaven, with enough cultivation of compassion, not that everyone would get into heaven.

That’s a big difference.

But still, there was room for DeBenneville, here in the United States in the Universalist tent, in Pennsylvania where he lived out most of his life.

Today, we still don’t all agree about the nature of the afterlife. Some of us believe everyone gets into heaven. Some of us believe everyone could get into heaven. And some of us don’t believe in heaven at all.

But we do agree about a few things:
We have room for a multitude of beliefs. 
None of us knows the answer.
And every human being is worthy of being, no matter what they’ve done. Everyone is salvageable.

We come here to find how to heal ourselves and each other and a world that is hurting, where mistrust of the “Other” can lead to blaming the poor, Muslims, immigrants and people of color for everything. Because it’s easier to blame others than to get to the root of a problem. We come here because we know that even if we don’t have the solution, we know that vilifying others isn’t the solution.

We know that we have to find answers on our own, the way deBenneville did.
We feel it in our gut
We know our own truth
We are uncomfortable with those who claim to have THE truth
And we know that the world needs more kindness and compassion, more commitment to fixing and healing and striving for justice.

But as Diana said, the world is a big place.
We have to break it down, heal ourselves, loved ones, and our little corner of the world
Then expand our thinking, reach out beyond ourselves.

To me this is like breath:
Breathe in peace of an intimate community of family and friends.
Breathe out the love that grows within as a result of that care.
Breathe in the peace of feeling cared for.
Breathe out love that goes our farther and father into the world.
Breathe in Peace.
Breathe out love.

That is how we save each other: by simply giving each other the space, the encouragements, the nurturing to breathe in and out in peace and love.

For us salvation is not about rescuing anyone from hell, but rather being agents of healing.

For us Unitarian Universalists, the descendants of George deBenneville, salvation is about being a salve, healing a hurting world. Our salve is accompaniment in a time of need. Our balm is compassion, when a sibling has been wounded in fall. Our ointment is shedding tears with them, and looking with them towards the rising sun for compassion and a prayer for healing from a merciful force of creation and love.

We don’t save the world by offering THE answers based on our judgments. We save the world simply by offering a steady hand, a sympathetic ear, a healing balm, as we walk together as one.

On days like today, when we make an effort to share the intimacy of this community with our friends, it’s good to remember that.

(1) Ernest Cassara. Universalism in America: A Documentary History. Boston MA, Beacon Press. 1971. P. 7.
(2) Cassara, p. 7
(3) Cassara, p. 7.