Sunday November 22, 2015: The ‘Miracle’ of Good Luck, New Jersey

Welcome: Welcome to this Place, by Cathy Rion Starr

Welcome to this place of peace;
May we find some moments of quiet contemplation.
Welcome to this place of celebration;
May our hearts soar with gratitude for the gift of life.

Welcome to this place of sacred love;
May we gently hold all that is broken here.

Welcome to this place of inquiry;
Here, may we be challenged to open our minds and hearts ever wider.

Come into this place of community;
May we, together, draw the circle of love and justice ever wider.

Welcome to this sacred place;
Come, let us worship, celebrate, grieve, and love together

Chalice Lighting: Legacy Chalice Lighting, by Paul Sprecher

We light this chalice to honor the memory of those who have come before us,
kindling flames of wisdom in dark times,
willing to challenge orthodoxy even at great personal risk,
giving us a legacy of freedom and a love of truth,
A legacy that warms our hearts and lights our paths.

Principles of Unitarian Universalism:
Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote seven Principles, which we hold as strong values and moral guides. We live out these Principles within a “living tradition” of wisdom and spirituality, drawn from sources as diverse as science, poetry, scripture, and personal experience.

The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Story for All Ages: Lisa deGruyter

Offering and Response (Unison)
For the gifts which we have received—and the gifts which we, ourselves, are—may we be truly grateful. Yet more than that, may we be committed to using these gifts to make a difference in the world: to increase love and justice; to decrease hatred and oppression; to expand beloved community; to share, and to keep sharing, as long as ever we can. Amen.

Reading: Interview with a Calvinist, from John Murray’s autobiography

Lesson: The ‘Miracle’ of Good Luck, New Jersey – Robert Helfer

All religions, all groups of people, need their saints, their martyrs, their myths, their miracles; that is to say, they need the stories that remind them of who they are, what they value. Today I’d like to share the story of one of our own UU “miracles”, for want of a better word. And, of course, it involves one of our UU (more correctly, one of our Universalist) “saints”, if not saint then at least “founder”.

John Murray — this is the “saint”, although he would not have described himself so — was born in Hampshire, England, in 1741. He was reared in a strict Calvinist home filled with Hellfire and damnation for all who didn’t believe, salvation for those who did believe, and, naturally, a touch of predestination, the assurance that God in his wisdom had divided humanity between the Elect, who would find salvation, and all the rest, who were damned from birth with no chance of salvation. In the 1750s (while in his teens) Murray converted to Methodism and by the 1760s he had become a gifted lay preacher, a respected member of George Whitefield’s Methodist congregation in London. We can assume that what he preached in this period was fire and brimstone. But somewhere along the way, something happened to his strict Calvinist beliefs.

Around 1756 a Methodist minister named James Relly began to preach Universal Salvation, the idea that Christ’s sacrifice had rescued all humanity, not just believers, and not just the Elect, from damnation. Everybody, Relly said, would go to Heaven; everybody was in effect the Elect, thus cleverly smuggling predestination into the doctrine of divine love. This idea has a long history going back to the early days of Christianity, but in 18th Century England it was a radical and very dangerous heresy, the type that would result in excommunication and could possibly result in imprisonment, and a generation or so earlier, could get one burned. Relly had, like Murray, been a follower of George Whitefield; but the new doctrine he was preaching put him at odds with his previous teacher. And what was even worse, Relly was converting members of Whitefield’s own congregation to this heretical doctrine, thus, in Whitefield’s opinion, condemning them to eternal damnation.

As Murray later said in his autobiography:

“When a worshipping brother, or sister, belonging to the communion … was, by this deceiver, drawn from the paths of rectitude, the anguish of my spirit was indescribable; and I was ready to say, the secular arm ought to interpose to prevent the perdition of souls.”

By “secular arm”, of course, Murray meant the police and the court. That’s right, he would have had the police come and force these heretics to believe what they should believe or put them in prison. But remember, this was Christian charity. He didn’t want these poor souls to be consigned to Hell.

Whitefield’s congregation tried sending delegations of members to the homes of these poor, deluded souls, in an attempt to restore them to true beliefs.

One of these lost souls was a young woman who had previously been greatly respected in Whitefield’s church. I regret that her name and full story are not known, since she seems to have been a remarkable woman, a particularly clear-headed thinker. In any case, Murray, as a respected lay preacher, was sent with some others to bring her back to Truth.

Murray’s autobiography includes a detailed rendition of the dialog between him and this young woman; it did not go well for Murray. The young woman destroyed each of his arguments with simple questions in a gentle voice, leaving Murray embarrassed and distraught, fearing that his reputation had been damaged with the other members of his delegation.

“From this period, I myself carefully avoided every Universalist, and most cordially did I hate them.”

But more crises of faith followed, pushing Murray more and more toward accepting Universalism. Before 1770 Murray himself had become a convert to Relly’s ideas, resulting in his expulsion from the Methodist Church. A series of personal tragedies further ruined Murray, bringing him close to debtors’ prison, and he decided to flee to some other place, someplace his religious and personal problems wouldn’t find him. In 1770 he booked passage for America on the brig Hand in Hand, bound for New York.

At this point we cross the ocean to New Jersey.

Some time in 1760 a farmer named Thomas Potter built a chapel on his land in a place then known as Good Luck, near the coast of New Jersey. Potter, born in 1689, seems to have been a particularly intelligent product of the religious ferment of the early American colonies. The sources all point out that he was illiterate, making him sound like a back-woods hick, but he was clearly not uneducated in religion. He seems to have had some contact with Quakers, Baptists, and the Ephrata Cloister of Pennsylvania as well as various Pietist sects and itinerant preachers of miscellaneous persuasions. He was associated in particular with the Rogerines, or Quaker Baptists, followers of John Rogers of Rhode Island. This sect held to a view of Universal Salvation according to which in the end of time, all creation would be restored or “saved.” He took a lively interest in religious ideas. All were welcome in his chapel, anyone was welcome to preach there, and Potter sought discussion with all. But he had a particular religious plan. He was a firm believer in Universal Salvation. He built his chapel from the conviction that God would send him a minister who would preach Universal Salvation for all humankind. And he waited.

In September 1770, the Hand in Hand ran aground in Barnegat Bay on the coast of New Jersey. The captain managed to get the ship free by unloading part of the cargo onto a small local boat, but when the Hand in Hand sailed onward toward New York, the wind shifted again and the small boat was not able to follow. Murray and a number of sailors were left behind with the smaller boat and the cargo. Murray sought help at a local farmhouse, Potter’s house, and Potter greeted him: “I have longed to see you. I have been expecting you a long time!” I think this must have startled Murray quite a bit, probably even frightened him.

Learning that Murray had preached in England, and that he was a Universalist, Potter insisted that he should preach in Potter’s chapel. But Murray wanted never again to preach. He refused, saying that he had to leave as soon as the wind was favorable. Potter replied: “The wind will never change, sir, until you have delivered to us, in that meeting-house, a message from God.”

The wind didn’t change, and the following Sunday, 30 September 1770, Potter insisted that Murray should preach. I think Murray must have felt a bit like Jonah, sent against his will to Nineveh. He had no text, no sermon, no clear idea of what he would say; relying on the Bible for guidance: “Take no thought, what you shall say; it shall be given you, in that same hour, what you shall say”, he would preach extemporaneously.

And so, Murray preached on Universalism in Potter’s chapel.

In his autobiography, Murray recounts Potter’s excitement. Potter and his chapel had waited 10 years for this event, and for years his neighbors and associates had taunted him about his dream — “where is this minister? when is he coming?” — but now the dream had been fulfilled. Now, when all left the chapel and returned to Potter’s house he exclaimed:

“Now, now, I am willing to depart; Oh, my God! I will praise thee; thou hast granted me my desire. After this truth I have been seeking, but I have never found it, until now; I knew, that God, who put it into my heart to build a house for his worship, would send a servant of his own to proclaim his own gospel. I knew, he would; I knew the time was come, when I saw the vessel grounded; I knew, you were the man, when I saw you approach my door, and my heart leaped for joy. … There, neighbours, there is the minister God promised to send me; how do you like God’s minister?”

Murray, however, didn’t see it quite the same way. He retreated to solitude, to escape the crowd, to think and to pray — but maybe those are two ways to say the same thing. On returning to Potter’s house Murray discovered that the wind had changed, that he was now free to follow the Hand in Hand to New York. Murray did return to Potter’s farm after delivering the cargo in New York, and over the next few years preached Universalism in the area, then went on to Philadelphia to preach. And then a war intervened; Murray served as a chaplain in the Continental Army. In 1777, Thomas Potter’s will left the chapel to John Murray, stipulating that it should be open to all denominations for the worship of God. John Murray continued to preach Universalism in Pennsylvania and New England, and is commonly known as the father of Universalism in America.

Murray never returned to Potter’s chapel. In 1809 Potter’s chapel was sold to a local Methodist congregation, and later became a center for Methodist circuit riders in the 19th Century. Eventually a group of Universalists acquired part of the land, and it is now the Murray Grove Retreat and Renewal Center.

Murray reflected in his autobiography on his arrival at Potter’s chapel:

“.. it could not be denied, that an over ruling Power seemed to operate, in an unusual, and remarkable manner. I could not forbear looking back upon the mistakes, made during our passage, even to the coming in to this particular inlet, where no vessel, of the size of the brig ‘Hand-in-Hand’, had ever before entered; every circumstance contributed to bring me to this house.”

And if he had not encountered Thomas Potter, if he had not been encouraged to preach under these circumstances, would he have continued as a Universalist preacher the rest of his life?

So, was this a miracle? A coincidence? A “synchronicity”, as C.G. Jung would have said? Does it matter? As Albert Einstein is supposed to have said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” We can choose either way.

Responsive Reading: In Troubled Times, by Stephen M Shick

From the loneliness of troubled times, we come
To discover that we are not alone.
Into the dwelling place of togetherness, we come
To collect remnants of hope.
From fear that all is lost, we come
To discover what will save us.
Into the comfort of each other’s arms, we come
To feel the strength that has not yet vanished.
From darkness, we come
To wait until our eyes begin to see.
Into the refuge of fading dreams, we come
To remove illusions and focus new visions.
From despair that walks alone, we come
To travel together.
Into the dwelling place of generations, we come
To pledge allegiance to being peace and doing justice.

Joys and Sorrows
If you woke this morning with a sorrow so heavy that you need the help of this community to carry it;
or if you woke with a joy so great that it simply must be shared, now is the time for you to speak.
For the joys and sorrows that haven’t been spoken, but which remain in the silent sanctuaries of our hearts.
These joys and griefs, spoken and unspoken, weave us together in the fabric of community.

Silent Meditation

Benediction: As we part now one from another, by Eileen B Karpeles

As we part now one from another, let these be our thoughts:

If that which is most holy lies within the human person, and if the greatest power in the world shines flickering and uncertain from each individual heart, then it is easy to see the value of human associations dedicated to nurturing that light: the couple, the family, the religious community.

For the power of good in any one of us must at times waver. But when a group together is dedicated to nurturing the power of good, it is rare for the light to grow dim in all individuals at the same moment.

So we borrow courage and wisdom from one another, to warm us and keep us until we’re together again.

Song: Go Now In Peace