Saint Barnum?

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2005 Daniel Harper.


The first reading this morning is from the autobiography of Phineas Taylor Barnum, better known as P. T. Barnum, the great showman and circus promoter. In this passage Barnum talks about how he became a showman; and as is typical of him, he is not bashful.

“By this time, it was clear to my mind that my proper position in this busy world was not yet reached. I had displayed the faculty of getting money, as well as getting rid of it; but the business for which I was destined, and, I believe, made, had not yet come to me; or rather, I had not found that I was to cater for that insatiate want of human nature — the love of amusement; that I was to make a sensation on two continents; and that fame and fortune awaited me so soon as I should appear before the public in the character of a showman. These thins I had not foreseen. I did not seek the position or the character. The business finally came in my way; I fell into the occupation, and far beyond any of my predecessors on this continent, I have succeeded.

“The show business has all phases and grades of dignity, from the exhibition of a monkey to the exposition of that highest art in music or the drama, which entrances empires and secures for the gifted artist a world-wide fame which princes well might envy. Such art is merchantable, and so with the whole range of amusements, from the highest to the lowest. The old word ‘trade’ as it applies to buying cheap and selling at a profit, is as manifest here as it is in the dealings at a street-corner stand or in Stewart’s store covering a whole square. This is a trading world, and men, women and children, who cannot live on gravity alone, need something to satisfy their gayer, lighter moods and hours, and he who ministers to this want is in a business established by the Author of our nature. If he worthily fulfills his mission, and amuses without corrupting, he need never feel that he has lived in vain.”

The second reading this morning is from a letter written by P. T. Barnum on November 18, 1882. This letter reveals a lesser-known side of the great showman and circus promoter. The letter was written to Dixon Spain, a leader in the English temperance movement.

“I have been both sides of the fence in this liquor-drinking custom, and I know whereof I speak. From 1840 to 1848 I was a pretty free drinker and prouder of my ‘wine cellar’ than any of my other possessions. Thirty-two years ago I became a total abstainer. Had I not done so, I should doubtless have been in my grave long since, for I had gone so far in the miserable and ruinous habit or ‘treating,’ being treated, and ‘liquoring up’ that this unnatural appetite would have soon become stronger than resolution, and I should have succumbed as thousands do every year…. Indeed, this pernicious habit is the cause of by far the greatest portion of poverty, crime, and suffering found in any country where it exists.”

SERMON “Saint Barnum?”

We Unitarian Universalists don’t have saints. Yet sometimes I think we should have some kind of Unitarian Universalist saints. We need role models who aren’t quite as great as the great sages and prophets like Jesus and Buddha and Lao Tzu. I know I should be as caring as Jesus was, and as calm as Buddha was, and as insightful as Lao Tzu was, but I’m not. I’d like to have some more realistic role models to follow, people who set a good example for me and whom I can realistically hope to emulate in this life.

I have a candidate for a Unitarian Unviersalist saint: P. T. Barnum. Phineas Taylor Barnum is probably the most famous person to have ever been a Universalist. Everyone knows the name P. T. Barnum — certainly as one of the orginators of a circus that still bears his name, and as the man who was alleged to have said, “There’s a sucker born every minute” (for although there’s no evidence that he ever said that, he certainly made his living at least in part from preying on the inherent credulity of human nature).

Already, you may be having some doubts about Barnum serving as a Unitarian Universalist saint. He doesn’t quite sound like the kind of person we should try to emulate. He was always trying to put one over on the public, as we heard in the children’s story this morning. He perpetrated many frauds, such as the famous Feejee Mermaid which was actually a strange example of the taxidermist’s art where a fish tail was sewn to the body of a woman. He was famous for recognizing that there is no such thing as bad publicity, and welcomed even the most scurrilous news reports about his various enterprises, and about himself. He boasted and bragged about himself, and in many ways represented all the worst of popular culture. If he lived today, he would probably be a rock star. Just imagine if a rock star like Madonna or Mick Jagger were a Unitarian Universalist — are those the kind of people we would want to make into a Unitarian Universalist saint? In short, it’s hard not to feel a little ambivalence about P. T. Barnum.

Yet when I read his famous autobiography, which he titled “Struggles and Triumphs,” I can’t help but fall under his spell. Yes, he was a boaster and a bit of a humbug, but he had his share of sadness and disaster too: the time his house burned just as he was getting married; the time he was swindled out of almost his entire fortune by some sharp operators; the death of his first wife. In his autobiography, he speaks openly and honestly about these things; and that makes him more human.

He also speaks openly and honestly about fooling the public, and he speaks about it so openly you are charmed rather than outraged. Like the time when his first museum got too crowded because people would spend the entire day there, so as to get their money’s worth. Barnum was losing money because he couldn’t fit any more people into the building. So he put a huge sign reading, “This Way to the Egress.” After seeing the rest of the museum, people wondered what on earth an “egress” could be (could it be a giant bird? or some other amazing animal? or what?), and they followed the sign down the steps and through the door — only to find themselves out on the street again, with no way back in. You are charmed by such a story, even as you realize how Barnum took advantage of the ignorance of the crowds, assuming they would not quite know what an “egress” was. We are charmed because Barnum knows human nature so well, and while he takes advantage of human nature you can also tell that he has a deep affection for humanity. And Barnum recognizes that he, too, is only human, and he’s just as open and honest about telling stories about how others fooled him, or uncovered one of his little deceptions.

My fascination with Barnum has grown because of the peculiarities of his moral world. Barnum’s moral world is not shaded in black or white; everything is shades of gray. Most of his actions are not entirely honest; but he’s never entirely dishonest. He justifies his many small dishonesties by pointing out that people want and need to be amused, and his dishonesties are always in the service of amusement. Or, as he so quaintly says it: “Men, women and children, who cannot live on gravity alone, need something to satisfy their gayer, lighter moods and hours, and he who ministers to this want is in a business established by the Author of our nature.” By “Author of our nature” Barnum means “God.” Barnum believes he is engaged in a vocation God has called him to. Even a dishonesty like the Feejee Mermaid is acceptable to God, insofar as it provided some amusement, some light entertainment for those lighter moods and hours, for men, women, and children. Barnum entertained people by using light-hearted deceit, while giving his audience a metaphorical wink out of the corners of his eye as if to say, We both know this is a bit of a humbug, but it sure is fun, isn’t it?

Yet for all the shades of gray in Barnum’s moral world, I can find at least two subjects where he claimed moral certainty. He was an advocate of temperance and was convinced that the drinking of alcohol was unreservedly bad; and he was a Universalist, convinced that all human beings would one day wind up in heaven.

I find Barnum’s advocacy of temperance particularly interesting. It does not seem to fit in with the rest of his character. How could the man who had no scruples about exhibiting the Feejee mermaid worry about a little social drinking? One biographer of Barnum believes that his dislike of alcohol came out of his fear of losing his self-control. In his book Humbug: The Art of P. T. Barnum, Neil Harris writes that around 1847, Barnum [quote] “observed a great deal of intoxication ‘among men of wealth and intellect’ and began to brood about what might happen if he became a drunkard himself. Barnum had never been in any danger of that [continues Harris]; his drinking had been moderate… but fear of losing self-control had always plagued him.” [p. 192]

The temperance movement was a big part of 19th C. Unitarian and Universalist history, and those 19th C. temperance advocates could sound quite patronizing: drinking should be abolished because it inflames the passions of the working classes; — or the reasons sound Puritanical: drinking alcohol is an indecent pleasure and therefore oughtn’t be allowed.

But as a temperance advocate, Barnum was neither Puritanical nor patronizing. He was not patronizing because, as his biographer Neil Harris points out, “his concern lay with efficiency, and he happily displayed statistics proving the financial rewards of temperance to the family and to the taxpayers of the community.” Nor could Barnum be accused of Puritanism; there was nothing of the Puritan about him; even his talks on temperance were known to be entertaining and amusing.

We could learn a lot from Barnum today. Today, we not only face the ongoing problem of alcohol abuse, we also face an epidemic of illegal drug use. And so many of the arguments against the abuse of alcohol and drugs still sound patronizing and Puritanical. We can learn from Barnum to make arguments based on efficiency and functionality.

Let me give one specific example so you can see how it could possibly work. Barnum would make sure that any church he belonged to would allow no alcohol to be served at church functions. His arguments would be functional: The church is open to serious legal liability if alcohol is served at any church function, especially considering that church endowments are tempting targets for lawsuits. His arguments would emphasize efficiency: The church’s insurance carrier is liable to raise insurance rates if alcohol is served at any church function. His arguments would be practical: Since the congregation includes people under the legal drinking age, a church that serves alcohol is in danger of allowing illegal drinking. It’s a matter of not wanting to see the church’s endowment decimated by a lawsuit.

Personally, I am not a teetotaller like Barnum. Yet I find myself nodding in agreement to his arguments for temperance. He doesn’t try to tell me I’m a bad person because I have a glass of beer once a week. Remarkably, he is not judgmental. I suppose it would be hard for someone who perpetrated a fraud like the Feejee mermaid to be judgmental. But I also believe that Barnum’s refusal to be judgmental stems from his deeply-felt Universalism. Because the fundamental fact in Barnum’s moral universe is that all persons are essentially good and worthy.

In his pamphlet, “Why I Am a Universalist,” Barnum says the ultimate result of existence will be that all persons get to enjoy eternal life. Yet as we heard in the opening words this morning, eternal life doesn’t carry the conventional meaning, eternal life doesn’t mean “a heaven filled with saints and sinners shut up all together within four jeweled walls and playing on harps.” (Can you imagine someone like P. T. Barnum wanting to go to a heaven where he had to play on a harp all day?) Instead, Barnum says that heaven means a “moral and spiritual status.” Salvation lies in finding eternal life here and now. And the example of Barnum’s life implies that we don’t have to be perfect to get to that point. We don’t have to be perfect, we just have to be worthy of love.

Barnum tells us that “this present life is the great pressing concern.” He tells us that some kind of salvation is available to us all; and that is the real moral certainty in his moral universe. Today, we might use different words to say the same thing; we might talk about inherent worth and dignity of all persons and justice, equity and compassion in human relations. We might talk about acceptance of each other just as we are. Yet we still agree with Barnum in the essentials: conduct is three-quarters of life; and this present life is the pressing concern.

So it is that I propose P. T. Barnum for Unitarian Universalist sainthood because of his acceptance of humanity as it really is. No one is perfect, and Barnum is a perfect example of one who’s not perfect. He knows that he has had his moral lapses, his failures and successes, his struggles and triumphs, just as we all have had. As a Universalist, Barnum also knows that no one is better than anybody else, that in spite of his successes he’s no better than you or me, that even in his worst failures he was still as good as you or me, that underneath our various successes and failures we’re all the same. We’re all simply human.

P. T. Barnum is not exactly a moral exemplar. But I still think he deserves to be one of our Unitarian Universalist saints. He deserves to be a saint because he sets a pretty good example for us; he sets an example we feel is possible to live up to. He deserves to be one of our saints because he tells us that we ordinary people are just as good as the best of humanity. He is deeply human and therefore deeply flawed — but he knows that every person is ultimately worthy of the eternal life that has no reference to time or place but only to the simple fact that each person is worthy of love.

For all his bluster and bragging, he’s really saying something quite simple: we’ll all worthy of love.

All Souls

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2005 Daniel Harper.


Readings for this sermon are not included here due to copyright restrictions.

Sermon — “All Souls”

Every year on the last weekend in June, I head off to General Assembly. General Assembly is the annual gathering and business meeting of our Unitarian Universalist Association. Unitarian Universalist congregations send their delegates and their ministers to participate in this annual business meeting. In addition to the business meeting, there are lots of lectures and workshops and presentations, many of which are fairly dull but some of which I have found to be very informative and even transformative. And of course, there is a big worship service on Sunday morning, where you usually get to hear one of Unitarian Universalism’s best preachers.

This year, the preacher at the Sunday worship service was a fellow named Robert Hardies. Rob is the senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Universalist church in Washington, D.C. All Souls is an urban congregation, racially diverse, with something like 600 members. My uncle grew up in All Souls, and he remembers when A. Powell Davies was the minister there — another great preacher, probably the last Unitarian minister who really had a national audience; congressmen and senators and judges were in the congregation then, and the Washington papers would hold their Monday editions until they got the text of Davies’s latest sermon. Rob Hardies is good enough that he may well follow A. Powell Davies as a great preacher who develops a national audience.

Something Rob Hardies said in that sermon got me thinking, and has kept me thinking. I looked back at my notes of the worship service, and find that I wrote this:

“Hardies pointed out that his church is named ‘All Souls.’ But, Hardies said, ‘can you imagine a church named ‘Some Souls’?” The congregation laughed, but then Hardies continued, ‘Isn’t that the de facto name of the dominant religions in America today? The good news that Unitarian Universalism must deliver to the world… the good news that has literally saved my life, is that a god who picks and chooses is not god at all, it is an idol,’ said Hardies. ‘We must preach the old Universalist gospel that all souls are invited to the welcome table.’ ” That’s what Rob Hardies said in his sermon.

If you have been coming to this church regularly this fall, you will probably have noticed by now that I do preach the old Universalist gospel that all souls are welcome here; that we know all souls are worthy of dignity and respect. I preach that, and I mean what I say, and so far none of you has criticized me for preaching that good old Universalist heresy.

In fact, when I see how you folks in the pews live out your daily lives, I see pervasive and compelling evidence that you, too, believe that all souls deserve our respect, deserve our love. For example: I was in this building on Wednesday night when The Women’s Center of greater New Bedford and Fall River held their annual vigil in memory of those who have died of domestic violence; and among the hundred or so people I saw four members and friends of this congregation here as a public witness of their commitment to break the cycle of domestic violence. They were here because they know that all persons are worthy of dignity and respect and love, and no one deserves to be hurt or abused. Another example: our congregation sends four or five people each month to spend a morning preparing and serving food at a local soup kitchen — because they know that all persons are worthy of dignity and respect and a hot meal, even if they don’t have a home or money to buy food. Still more examples: I hear story after story about how individuals in this congregation do quiet good deeds, because they know that all persons are worthy of dignity and respect and love. People in this congregation work quietly and steadily to transform this world into a place where all persons may receive the love and compassion and dignity they deserve.

You could even make the case that our congregation should change its name from “First Unitarian” — a name which doesn’t really describe who we are or what we do — to “All Souls,” because we are working to transform the world. You could make that case; but I am not going to make that case. You see, I think we here at First Unitarian have a slightly different mission to carry out this year. If we call ourselves “All Souls,” it will be because we welcome all souls right here in our congregation. Over the next twelve months, I believe that we are called upon to work on this congregation, we are called to spend a year making sure all souls are truly welcome here, among us.

We are a small congregation at the moment. We are averaging less than fifty people each week in our Sunday morning worship services. The number of active workers and lay leaders we currently have is about half that number. In terms of our numbers, we are a small church. Now in today’s United States culture, we usually think it is bad to be small; we’re supposed to like super-sized meals, big SUVs, and large congregations. So when I say that we’re a small church, you might feel a little depressed, you might have a sense of inferiority; but I want you to know there’s no reason to feel bad about being a small church. Just because a congregation is small doesn’t mean it is necessarily bad; no more than just because a congregation is big should you assume that it is good. My little Toyota Corolla is just as good as those big Hummer SUVs you see driving around, and a small congregation is just as good as a big congregation — just as good, but quite different. Just as good, but it’s also pretty clear that a congregation our size can not lay claim to the name “All Souls.”

This congregation used to be a fair-sized congregation. Back in the 1950s, the average attendance at worship hit 170 for a while. It’s important to remember that our numbers have been dropping ever since — average attendance at worship dropped below a hundred in the 1960’s, and it dropped below fifty sometime in the 1980’s. And that’s where it has stayed ever since, hovering around fifty people. Of course, there are also the “C and E” people — that’s the “Christmas and Easter” people, who show up at Christmas and Easter, and while there’s quite a few of them, they don’t really count. They rarely give much time to the congregation, and they typically give very little money in support of the congregation. We’re glad to have them as a part of the congregation, but we can’t count on them.

The people who show up for Sunday morning worship service are the ones whom we can really count on; and they’re the ones with the real power, too. Woody Allen said, “90% of life is showing up,” and by virtue of showing up, you people here today have far more influence than you may dream of; if you mention something to me, believe me, I pay attention. If you are here each week, you are part of the ongoing conversation about what’s important in this congregation, and what’s not. If you show up for worship, you are far, far more likely to be tapped for a leadership position — and you are far more likely to succeed as a leader in this congregation, because you will have the connections, the mentors, and the friends that will allow you to lead effectively.

It is neither good nor bad that we are a small congregation; but it different from being a large congregation. In some ways, it’s good that are a small congregation. Small congregations tend to be good places for teenagers, because they have lots of contact with good adult role models, which means among other things that they learn a great deal about leadership. Small congregations tend to be friendly, cozy, and intimate, too. But although small congregations have many strengths, they are things they cannot do well.

One thing a small congregation cannot do well — it cannot take care of “all souls.” First of all, there are too few of us to do much more than take care of ourselves. Small congregations are great for feeding your own soul. But there’s so few of us to run the congregation that we don’t have the energy left over to take care of each other. I’m seeing that happen right now. I see members of this congregation who serve on the Board, and serve on a committee, and do innumerable little chores around the church, and take on a social action project or two; they put lots of time and energy into church business; so much time and energy that they just don’t have any energy left over to take care of someone else. As your minister, I’m a little too busy, too; I spend a lot of time in the office taking care of church administration because we aren’t big enough to have the volunteers available who would ordinarily take care of such matters; and as a result, I have very little time to call on shut-ins, or do pastoral counseling, or take care of you in other ways.

Of the two Unitarian Universalist congregations in the area, we are known as the “social action church.” And with that reputation, we do have influence in this community disproportionate to our small size. We do lots of good in the world, and we should be more open about that fact, and we should proud of that fact. At the same time, we should also be honest with ourselves: while we are out there saving the world, we are not doing such a good job of saving each other, and we don’t do such a good job of taking care of newcomers to this congregation who come to us looking for a transforming and saving community. We can’t; we don’t have the time, or the money, or the energy. So while we might call ourselves “First Unitarian of Social Action,” we really can’t call ourselves “All Souls” because we’re stretched just taking care of the souls that are already here, let alone adding a whole bunch more souls.

Let me make a pretty far-fetched analogy. Our congregation is a lot like my 1993 Toyota Corolla. I really, really like my 1993 Toyota Corolla. My 1993 Toyota Corolla is a social action car. I get 35 miles per gallon on the highway, and 30 miles per gallon around town. When they check my exhaust during inspection, they find that my car puts out almost none of the pollutants they test for. Oh, and of course there’s the bumper stickers which tell you to “Go Organic” and to “Ask Me About Composting” and to “Question Authority.” Yes, my 1993 is a social action car; and it’s also a cozy, familiar car that I love and that I don’t want to lose. I like it enough that I can usually ignore the rust spots and the unpleasant noises.

It’s a low-maintenance car, but it’s also showing wear and tear: the door handle doesn’t work on the passenger’s side, the steering’s getting a little too loose, and I’ve gotten to the point where I really don’t dare take it on long trips any more. I can give it a couple more years, but then, as much as I love it, I’ll have to think seriously about trading it in for something else. Well, I don’t want to push this analogy too far. Suffice it to say that my Toyota Corolla is a lot like our congregation: cozy, familiar, reeking with social action, but at best we’ve only got another couple of years on our current congregation, and then I think we’ll have to find a new model.

What would that new model look like? I’d like to hold up a vision for you of what I think we could become within five years. This fall, we have been averaging at least two newcomers each week. As it stands, we have not been following up on these newcomers: we don’t ask them for their address so we can put them on the mialing list, we don’t send a follow-up card; nor do any of the things common courtesy demands of us, we don’t invite them to join any spiritually fulfilling activities. Our lack of follow-up, our lack of common courtesy, means that most of these newcomers don’t return; they come for three or four weeks, and then when it seems as if no one cares for them, they just stop coming. Well, we do care about them, we’re just bad at showing that we care for them. If we just started following up, I bet half those newcomers would begin attending worship regularly. If we just had some regular activities that were spiritually fulfilling, like small group ministries or adult religious education, they would stick around for a long time. To be blunt: if we kept half the newcomers who walk through our doors over the next year, we could double the number of people in our weekly worship service.

I’ll go further than that. The total population of New Bedford is 93,768 people as of the 2000 federal census; and of Dartmouth, 30,666. The total population within a few miles of this church is over 125,000. 250 people would comprise a mere two tenths of one percent of that total population. Even given that we’re an English-only congregation, even given that we tend to appeal to people who are more intellectually curious than most, even though we tend to appeal to the so-called cultural creatives — I believe there’s a huge reservoir of people to draw upon, people who are looking for a religious home, looking for a religious home that believes as we do that love (not hatred) is the most powerful force in the universe, people who are looking for us. If we decide to, in four years we could easily have 250 men, women, and children sitting here in the worship service each and every week.

If we decide to, we could be more than just the social action church. We could be the congregation that does social action because we know that all souls are worthy of love. We could spread our saving message widely in the community: that love is more powerful than hatred. We could be big enough to care for each other, care for our children and youth and our elders, as a living testimony that we believe all souls are meant to be loved; and by caring for each other we’d actually have more energy left to do social action. And we could do more than engage in social action projects: with 250 people here each week, 250 people who were committed to living their lives as if love is the most powerful force in the universe, I know each of those 250 souls will live their daily lives so that they touch the souls of many more people. We could have 250 people living lives that prove love is more powerful than hate; we could have 250 people spreading our saving message that there is a religion that preaches, and practices, love for all souls.

Now, I love small congregations. I love the sense of intimacy, the coziness. (I love my old Toyota, too, even if it is falling apart.) And if you all want this congregation to remain small, I will respect your decision; because I will understand why you made that decision.

But my friends, I have to speak the truth to you: in a world filled with hatred, it is no longer be enough to remain a small congregation. In a country where the national dialogue is in large measure controlled by the religious right, in a country where the dominant religious right preaches a doctrine of “some souls,” we need to become a loud powerful voice that proclaims, “Not some souls, but all souls.” I do believe that as much as our Unitarian Universalist congregations would like to remain cozy and intimate, it is morally unacceptable for us to do so. I will go further: if we really want to be the “social action church,” and we want that to be true, we cannot remain small; for to remain small means making the moral choice that we want our influence to remain small.

So if you decide to stay small, I will respect that decision. But remember: –It is a moral choice. –And it is your choice, not mine. You know where I stand: I am here to preach the saving word that love is more powerful than hatred. But you get to choose how many people hear that saving word, because you get to choose how big we are. I hope you will choose to grow this congregation, so that we can make a difference, so that people can hear our saving message. If you’re a newcomer, I hope you will stay with us, and keep coming back even if we forget to extend the common courtesy of recognizing and celebrating your presence among us — and maybe after you’ve been coming here for a couple of months, maybe you will remind us that we need to extend some common courtesy to newcomers so that they are welcomed in the way you would have liked to have been welcomed.

If you’re a long-time member, I hope you will commit yourself to show up as often as you can. That’s the most important thing you can do: show up as often as you can, and welcome the newcomers, and keep reaching out to them until they, too, are as much a part of this congregation as you are. If you’re a long-time member, I hope you will recognize that it’s going to be so hard to lose your cozy intimate little church, but I hope you’ll keep your eyes on the prize: should you decide to get bigger, it will get easier to take care of the business of church, and you will have more time. More time to care for our children and our elders and others, and to be cared for yourself, and to do social action, and to spread the word that all souls are worthy of our love.

My friends, you get to choose what will be our purpose here. We can have the small purpose of being cozy. Or we can embrace a larger purpose: to care for and love each other; to set an example for the world of how a religion based on love would operate; to stand up against the religious right and say with our loud, strong, combined voices that we believe in life and love for all souls, not just some souls; to spread the saving word that love is more powerful than hatred; that all souls are worthy of being saved.

All Souls Day is this Wednesday, November 2. And so it is that I ask you to reflect this week on what you will do: –Will you decide to remain small and cozy? –Or will you decide that this congregation can transform ourselves and the rest of the world with our message of love?


This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2005 Daniel Harper.


The reading this morning is from a sermon by Theodore Parker, a sermon which almost split the Unitarians in the middle 19th C., by minimizing or denying the importance of the miracles of Jesus which are reported in the Christian scriptures. The sermon was called “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” and Parker wrote:

“Let us look at this matter a little more closely. In actual Christianity — that is, in that portion of Christianity which is preached and believed — there seem to have been, ever since the time of its earthly founder, two elements, the one transient, the other permanent. The one is the thought, the folly, the uncertain wisdom, the theological notions, the impiety of man; the other, the eternal truth of God. These two bear perhaps the same relation to each other that the phenomena of outward nature, such as sunshine and cloud, growth, decay, and reproduction, bear to the great law of nature, which underlies and supports them all. As in that case, more attention is commonly paid to the particular phenomena than to the general law; so in this case, more is generally given to the Transient in Christianity than to the Permanent therein.”

SERMON — “Healing”

If you had read our church’s newsletter, or our church’s Web site, you would have seen that I gave my sermon topic for today as “Forgiveness.” No doubt some of you actually came here this morning to hear me preach on forgiveness; and no doubt some people stayed at home so they wouldn’t have to hear me preach on forgiveness. Well, I started to prepare a sermon on forgiveness, but I didn’t get very far before it turned into a different sermon. Yet even though this isn’t quite the sermon that was advertised, I hope it will do nonetheless. And some Sunday, I promise you that I will return to the topic of forgiveness.

As I was preparing the sermon this week, I found myself thinking about something that happened late last winter, when I wound up at the beside of a man who was unconscious and who… but let me back up a little, and tell you a little bit about where I was late last winter.

Last year, I was serving as the interim associate minister with the Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva, Illinois. They were a congregation of down-to-earth, no-nonsense Midwesterners without an ounce of pretension. And they have long been a congregation of radicals and skeptics. The Geneva Unitarians took the word “God” out of their congregational covenant in the 1880’s, with the result that the congregational church in Geneva broke off having shared worship services with them in the 1880’s because, said the Congregationalists, the Unitarians couldn’t be trusted to actually believe in God. Even more radical, the Geneva Unitarians had three women ministers before 1910. In other words, they were and are typical Midwestern Unitarian radicals who have had no truck with the supernatural for over a century.

The current senior minister in Geneva is a woman named Lindsay Bates, a hard-headed New England Yankee who grew up in the Bridgewater Unitarian church. Like many of us New Englanders, Lindsay is plain-spoken to the point of being sharp-toungued. She does not tolerate sloppy thinking, and she’ll let you know when she thinks you’re not quite up to snuff. Which meant I liked her pretty well.

I was surprised, therefore, to learn that Lindsay was a certified Reiki master. I admit that I know next to nothing about Reiki, except that it is a kind of system of healing based on the old Chinese concept of “ch’i,” or the energy flow within a person. (I’m sure some of you know quite a bit about Reiki, and will be able to tell us more during social hour.) I don’t know much about Reiki, but it didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of Lindsay’ Bates’s personality. There were some members of the congregation who were also Reiki practitioners; and, since it is a Unitarian Universalist congregation, there were also those who thought the whole Reiki thing was a crock of beans.

Yet no matter what people thought of Reiki, there was this strong sense throughout the congregation that part of the business of the congregation was healing. Not just spiritual healing, or emotional healing, but physical healing as well. Lindsay was widely credited with one or two definite physical heaings (not that she’d make that claim herself). Now I realize that historically religions have been in the business of healing. But my sense has been that for the large part North American Unitarian Universalists feel that healing is a very small part of what we do in our congregations. Many of us don’t even pray, and we certainly don’t do anointing or laying-on-of-hands, or anything like that.

The Geneva church, however, placed some stock in the healing powers available at that church; even the ones who didn’t believe in Reiki. And as I thought about it, even a skeptic like me could think of some good and reasonable explanations for the repots of healing: coincidence; the mind-body connection we’re learning about; the reported power of prayer; and so on. And I found myself becoming more attuned to the possibility that even Unitarian Universalist congregations might have something to do with healing. Maybe I had missed something in the past. I was willing to keep an open mind.

One Sunday afternoon in late winter, we got two pastoral calls – crises, really – that needed the immediate attention of the ministers. A long-time member of the congregation died suddenly (but not unexpectedly), and it made the most sense that Lindsay, as the minister who had been there 28 years, should visit that family. And a man in the congregation had been in a terrible car accident, was in the Intensive Care Unit or ICU at a nearby hospital, having just come out of surgery. I’d spent some time doing volunteer chaplaincy in a hospital, so I went of the visit him.

I arrived at the hospital to find the family in shock. Only his wife had been allowed in to see him yet. She came out to get her children, and invited me to go with them into the ICU. He was still unconscious, completely unresponsive, and he looked pretty bad. His doctor came to talk with his wife; the doctor was pretty non-committal: He’d probably recover (probably!), he’d likely have some cognitive impairment, there was a good chance he’d wind up in a wheelchair or he’d probably need crutches or a cane for the rest of his life. All the nurse would say was that they had the best ICU around. It’s always very worrying to me when the doctors and nurses remain so noncommittal.

After the doctor left, I talked with the family. They wanted to pray (one never knows with Unitarian Universalists, because some of us don’t do that kind of prayer, or don’t pray at all). We gathered around the bed, they held his hands, and we did some praying together.

Then I thought it might be a good idea to do a little praying for healing – not something I ordinarily would do, but it was a part of that congregation’s culture. So I had his wife take his hand, and I took his hand, and we prayed in silence for a while — I emptied my mind of all thoughts, and just focused on healing.

And that was that. From then on, what I did was pretty conventional pastoral care and counseling. Much of pastoral counseling involves what are known in the trade as “active listening” and “presence.” Back in the 1950’s, psychologist Carl Rogers did research at the University of Chicago demonstrating that listening and just being present contribute to mental and emotional health, and the pastoral care and counseling I do is a kind of healing that draws from the research of Rogers and others. So that’s what I did, and after two hours at the hospital with this family, I went home.

When I got home, though, I wondered: when it comes to healing, what did my religion actually provide? I borrowed a few healing techniques from psychologists, true. And I thought then, as I have often thought: our liberal faith can claim to provide some relief from spiritual distress in times of accident, crisis, or illness; and that little bit is enough. There exist religious traditions which offer the certainty of healing –- physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual healing. We Unitarian Universalists do not deal in such certainties. We offer a “faith without certainty,” in the words of theologian Paul Rasor. We do not claim to have religious certainty of any kind; we know that we are limited beings and that we cannot ever know for sure about the mysteries of life and death, or of sickness and health. While you may feel that our religious uncertainty is not as comforting as you would like, I try to remember this: knowing that we are uncertain about many things is better by far than a certainty that doesn’t work in the end; consider what it would be like to pray to your God in the certainty that you will be healed, only to find your prayers don’t work; you pray for a loved one to recover and he or she doesn’t.

Religious certainty can back-fire, and I would rather accept the uncertainties that must come with my limited understanding as a limited being. I don’t want to pray that Lazarus is going to rise from the dead because odds are pretty good that when Lazarus is dead he’s going to stay dead.

At the same time, there is more than one kind of religious healing. We don’t have to ask for people to rise from the dead. We don’t have to ask for the cure of uncurable illness. There is the healing that comes after grief. If someone close to you dies, it is possible to become so burdened by the weight of grief that you are smothered by it and literally die of grief. I’ve seen it happen: one member of a couples dies, and the other, though in perfect health at first, dies within a year or two. Or if someone close to you dies, it is also possible to deny your grief, to the point where something inside you becomes frozen and you can never fully love again. Hatred and anger can consume us, when we find it impossible to forgive, leading to physical disease.

For all these: — grief, hatred, anger, and so on –- religion can provide healing. But this seems different than physical healing. Yes, I know body an mind are connected, are truly one, but I also know that a supernatural miraculous healing of physical illness requires a suspension of the generally accepted natural laws. I don’t need to believe in supernatural miracles of healing. But I do know that within ourselves we human beings to have the ability to heal ourselves; and perhaps to heal others. We get sick and somehow our immune system fights off the disease and we are well again; that is a true miracle. We get sick, and a doctor or nurse helps us to heal, sometimes with medical procedures and sometimes with just a good bedside manner; that’s a true miracle. We suffer from a broken heart, grieving over lost love, but with time we can heal and love again: another miracle.

That we heal at all is a kind of miracle; that we can promote healing in ourselves and in others is a miracle; these small miracles are enough, and help me be more understanding when the day inevitably comes when healing does not take place.

Last February, I stood by the man in the ICU, and I was convinced it was going to be one of those situations where complete healing does not take place; I was ready for him to make only a partial recovery. I left the hospital feeling down, worried about him and his family.

But he did recover. He recovered consciousness with all his cognitive faculties intact; after a couple of months he was able to walk without assistance, and has had essentially a complete physical recovery. His recovery is a kind of miracle.

Did our little beside prayer help effect that recovery? Perhaps it helped, but of course it’s more complex than that. He was in excellent physical condition before the accident, and that always betters the odds for recovery and healing. He was immediately surrounded by love and support, and that must have helped. His entire extended family came as soon as they heard he had been hurt; the church provided the family with casseroles and child care and rides; and as a result of all that support his immediate family were able to devote their time and attention to helping his healing. I think that the presence of all that love from friends and family and church must have had positive effect. We do not heal completely on our own. Doctors and nurses and primary caregivers promote healing, sometimes by what they do and sometimes by their mere presence. That’s why we visit people in hospitals: just the presence of a friend or a family member can promote healing; you don’t even have to say or do anything besides sit there.

I have come to believe that healing is one things that our Unitarian Universalist congregations can actually do pretty well. Now you and I know that churches don’t do everything well, and sometimes they can be frustrating places. You can wind up arguing and fighting with people at church, sometimes about minor matters. And you and I know that churches can be boring places at times. We come for that blast of inspiration but wind up with a dull sermon or music you don’t. Yet the core of what our congregation does well is it allows us to be with other people, to be present with other people. As when you visit someone in the hospital, healing can take place in churches just be present for one another; as we sit side by side with other people who care about truth and goodness. I’ve never been healed by sitting on a crowded subway car, so I know there’s something qualitatively different about sitting in a church: being in the presence of other people who are willing to be present for you, willing to sit near you while recognizing your human value and worth; recognizing that we heal each other, that we can be healed by each other.

We can come to church to be healed and to heal others by our presence: when we are in grief or in joy; when we are dying or sheltering new life; when we are embarking on a new relationship or ending one that has gone wrong. We come to church for healing. And while being a Reiki master might help some people, you don’t need to be a Reiki master; nor do we need miracles or supernatural explanations. All we have to do is show up, and be present. We need the caring presence of others to begin to promote our own healing; we can join in the collective caring presence of the congregation to help others heal.

That’s one of the main reasons to come to church, my friends: to heal ourselves; to help each other heal; that we may in turn begin to heal the world.