I'd like to tell you the story of the Rev. Carlton Pearson, a Pentecostalist bishop from Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Pearson was becoming a huge success ministering and preaching the standard conservative evangelical message that hell is a painful place and you'll go there if you don't accept Jesus as your lord and savior. Oral Roberts considered him his "black son." He served a congregation of five-thousand souls and was a popular speaker all over the country, well-admired, bright, funny, very charismatic (personality-wise, not just theologically).
One night Carlton Pearson was watching television and saw Rwandan mothers and their children following the genocide of ethnic Tutsis by the Hutus. Children diseased and starving, mothers with shriveled breasts and vacant stares. Pearson was sick about it especially as he compared those children to his own healthy, bouncing baby girl. And as sometimes happens with people of faith, Pearson got into an argument with his God. He said, "I don't know how you can call yourself a loving and sovereign God and let these people suffer and then suck them into Hell."
And an answer came back to him. Here is what he heard. He heard a voice say, "Is that what you think we're doing?" And he said to the voice, "That's what I've been taught." Because he had indeed heard all his life that the way to save souls is to teach them the gospel and witness to them and get them to be born-again. It was the cornerstone of his faith. All his life he believed that people who are not born-again into Christ Jesus go to Hell. So he says this to God in his mind, and God replies, "Okay, then. If you think that's the only way we get them saved, then put your baby down and get on a plane and let's go save them. You go ahead. Let's go."
Carlton Pearson burst into tears, "Don't put that guilt on me. I can't save the whole world. And God said to Carlton Pearson, "That's right, you can't. You can't save this world. That's what we do. You think we're sucking them into Hell? Can't you see they're already there? You are the ones who are creating Hell all the time for each other? We're taking them into our presence."
And in that moment, the preacher had an epiphany. He felt that he had been shown that Hell is not a location that God casts us into for all eternity but a condition that we cause for each other and for ourselves through our ignorance and our sin. And for the first time in his life, Pearson says, he did not see God as the inventor of Hell. Pearson was a man of study as well as prayer, and he began to see that he had been as wrong about the nature of God as he could be.
He continued to seek out the truth as best he could, through a combination of study and honoring his own spiritual experience. These are all ways that our own tradition teaches and has always taught one finds truth and it's not always an easy path. In fact, if we take the search for truth and meaning seriously, it's highly unusual that we will have an easy time of it. This was no easy time for Carlton Pearson.
It's amazing to think of how far from his foundation he was moving during this time. He came to the disturbing conclusion that the God he had been preaching is a monster: worse than Osama, worse than Saddam, even worse than Hitler. And the more Carlton started to think about it, the further away from his own church's teaching it led him. He rejected some of the major doctrines of his religious tradition. Now this is radical: he concluded that it didn't matter if you were a Christian, it didn't even matter if you went to church, you were going to be taken into the presence of a loving God at the end of your life, because the grace of God is for everyone, just everyone. He had become a Universalist.
You can imagine that this was problematic for his congregation of 5,000 and the eight pastors on staff. They still can't talk about it to this day, this was so devastating. Pearson told his staff that he wanted to rewrite the theology of the charismatic world. Oh, sure! No problem!
Attendance fell from 5,000 to 200. Carlton Pearson was denounced and actually named as a heretic by the council of African-American Pentecostalists. He lost his fame, he lost his fortune, he was mourned as one dead by dear friends and former allies; even by people whose careers he had launched. The congregants who stayed with him and traveled the path from born-again to Universalist Christian preaching the gospel of inclusion were stopped in the streets of Tulsa and fussed over by those who denounced Pearson. "Your minister doesn't believe in Hell? You don't want to go messing with Hell," they'd say.
I'd like to tell you that there's an entirely happy ending to this story, but it's mixed. Carlton Pearson's new congregation is called New Dimensions. His old building went into foreclosure and the congregation worships at Trinity Episcopal downtown, with 400 seats, but they're packing them in every Sunday. New Dimensions welcomes everyone: Christians, Muslims, saved, not saved, gay, straight, liberal, conservative, rich, poor, black, white. It has a beautiful website and a thriving congregation, offering coursework and worship, a prayer and praise site. I expect good things for them.
But this is important: Carlton Pearson says that if he knew how much it would cost him to stray so far from his theological tradition, he never would have opened his mouth. He said God doesn't show you everything at once for a reason. I'd say that that's an honest reflection coming from an incredibly courageous man.
So there's a living example of what we are talking about this morning, which is to affirm and promote the free and responsible search for truth and meaning; the fourth Unitarian Universalist principle.
Free and responsible.
I would venture to say that freedom is the most cherished religious value for all of us here. One of the reasons many of us are here in this church is because we have got to be free. We cannot abide by the suffocation we feel in our souls when someone else dictates to us how to believe, what to think about the important questions, or even where to look to find the answers.
What interests me, though, is how Unitarian Universalists sometimes mistake freedom of religion for freedom from religion. They come in the door all sweaty and frantic having fled an oppressive religious past and they collapse into our pews and say "Phew, that's over. I reject this and this and this and that and that other thing, and the whole scene I just came from. It all makes my skin crawl and thank Buddha or Krishna I'm here with the Unitarians where I don't have to believe anything!"
But that's not true. It's not accurate and it's no way to build a religious community or individual. Rejecting religious doctrines that offend our spirit is just the beginning, just part one of the faith journey. Part two is seeking understanding of those doctrines and our relationship to them so that we can heal, and let it go, and move on with a peaceful heart. We explore religious language and ideas that previously upset or wounded us, we have the freedom to learn about and interpret them, and we either reclaim them or again, let them go. We grow. We mature. We find what we can affirm, what we do believe that's part three.
We're engaging in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, which means we're taking responsibility for our relationship with religious ideas, not expecting to be spared any mention of them. Sometimes folks need to be reminded that Unitarian Universalism, for all its freedom, is a religious tradition. It amazes me how many otherwise rational people expect UU congregations to be religion-free zones. (This doesn't happen so much in New England, but it certainly does happen elsewhere). They are having none of that. They want intellectual stimulation and a good "talk" some congregations won't even call it a sermon, it's a "talk" -- but they break out in hives over anything that reminds them of that "traditional churchy stuff."
But I understand. I was once very angry at religion. I grew up the daughter of a very angry Jewish father who bore the profound wound of anti-Semitism. We never spoke of all the Weinstein aunts and uncles and cousins who had been murdered by Hitler. But I knew they had been, and I was victimized myself by anti-Semites in my own peer group. I was called a Christ-killer and other names too hateful to repeat here on the school bus, and beaten up on the playground in elementary school. I had a swastika drawn on my locker twice in high school. Even some teachers sneered at my name and asked me "What are you doing here today?" on Rosh Hashanah. My father's family disapproved of my mother because she was a shiksa (a non-Jewish woman), and my mother's family returned the favor by disapproving of my father because he was a Jew. That's why they were married in the Unitarian church. We went to Unitarian Universalist church on Sundays sporadically throughout my childhood and I was dedicated at the UU congregation in Westport at pre-school age. But, I kid you not, I had no idea that Unitarian Universalism was a religion.
Why would we belong to a religion? In my household, religion was either divisive or derisive. Neither of my parents believed in God and my grandparent's faith in Jesus Christ was regarded by all of us as a sentimental, superstitious hangover from the old country, not something intellectual people would go for.
Therefore, my free and responsible search for truth and meaning didn't concern itself with religion at all at first, but with philosophy, literature and the arts. I am convinced that could have gone on that way for the rest of my life with no deficit to my moral or ethical development, but I had this wound, you see. I hated religion and religious people I thought it all incredibly stupid and harmful and for the longest time I tightened up whenever anyone said God. If they said Jesus or Christ, my visceral reaction was even worse. Anyone who said or sang about Jesus made me feel physically threatened. And I didn't want to live the rest of my life like that. I wanted to be healed of this burning hostility I had about religion. My father had died when I was in high school and I had too much pain. I think I was just desperate to unload some of it.
When I look back on the serious religious search that I began in college, it seems to me now that I started out the way someone newly diagnosed with cancer sets out researching everything they can about that cancer so they can live with it, and survive it. I started with the word "God" itself, determined to understand this damned thing, and felt just so angry, so much anger. I was enraged for a good three or four years about the damaging God of Western culture, the God Carlton Pearson calls "the monster God." I cannot tell you how angry I was, and how I took out that anger on my boyfriend at the time, who represented the patriarchy to me. We were together six years; that's a strong man.
But I kept fighting, and seeking to understand, to claim something of the God-idea for my own self, for my own heart, for my own life. I was wrestling a blessing out of this thing. There was no curriculum for this; I made it up as I went along. I took religion classes in school hated them. I hated world religions and I hated Old Testament. Got an F in it, that's how much I hated it. From what I could see, organized religion was just this long, violent nightmare pitting nations against nations, culture against culture, brothers against sisters. All of them.
And then maybe five or six years into my search for truth and meaning, a horrible thing happened. Something really humiliating and confusing that felt like a betrayal of myself and my people: Jesus got hold of me. Like when someone's enraged and ranting and you just come up behind them and wrap your arms around them and just hold them that's how Jesus got hold of me.
I was like Carlton Pearson only in the opposite direction. After years of struggling with the Bible and making no sense of it, it just opened up for me and everything went Technicolor like when Dorothy gets over the rainbow, and I had found my religion. I found my healing, I found my faith. It came in a trickle and then a rush. And after I became a Christian, all the other religions looked so much more beautiful to me, too. I had worked for understanding and I received healing.
I kept my religious beliefs a secret for a long time because in my experience, Unitarian Universalists had such bitter disdain for Christians I didn't want to be considered a heretic by the heretics! How marginalized can you get? My experience with Unitarian Universalists was that everyone was happy to have you search, but you weren't actually supposed to get anywhere specific.
I'm not going to talk about the specifics of my Christian faith today because I don't think it matters. It matters that you see the results of my spiritual practice in our lives together just as I see yours -- not that you have a laundry list of my theological beliefs. It is my experience that some people are still very frightened by religious belief; if you share yours, they think you're trying to convert or persuade them to think the same way. I don't want to cause anyone that kind of upset.
Not a year goes by that I am not asked by half a dozen UUs why I am still here as a Christian, and not nicely, either. For one thing, I say, both Unitarianism and Universalism have explicitly and exclusively Christian roots, so I'm not doing anything that radical. I also say that I remain a Unitarian Universalist because I was dedicated as a child, it is my religious home, I love it, and because I believe that when we claim tolerance as one of our chief virtues, we don't just mean tolerance toward every religion but Christianity. I say, "This is where my free and responsible search for truth and meaning has led me. If it upsets you, imagine how I felt!"
I well remember how disgusted I once was by the Christian faith. It is because I remember this so well that I am very careful not to speak of it too often, not to bring Christian references into our worship more than now and then, and not to bring an overtly Christian perspective or language to my ministry with you. This is, as you can imagine, intensely challenging at times. Sometimes it has been painful, holding back a tremendous amount of passion.
But I do it because I respect the fact that many of us here are still hurting from the abuses of a conservative Christian past or offended by the vile behaviors of so-called Christians in public life in America. I share that offense, believe me. That said, I do wish that UUs were less Christian-phobic as a denomination, more willing to see and accept that there are millions of liberal, progressive Christians in the world whose values we share and with whom we could build productive, working relationships. I wish we would more often remember that God is not a Christian concept but a universal one used by almost all religious traditions (with a wide variety of definitions!), and that the Bible is a Jewish document as well as a Christian one.
And for those who come to our church on Christmas and Easter and say, "It's so Christian," well, yes… it is on Christmas and Easter! Please come! And come for the Rosh Hashanah-themed service, too, and Earth Day and the sermon on Ramadan and to hear the readings by Buddha and Rumi and Mary Oliver and Abraham Joshua Heschel and Mahatma Gandhi and Jane Goodall. We have many guides and inspirations in our search for truth and meaning.
For me, a free and responsible search for truth and meaning has to have a touch of almost desperate longing to it, or else we risk being dabblers, dilettantes, tourists, stopping by one philosophy after another and taking what we like, what's pretty and appealing, and avoiding the inevitably troubling or demanding aspects of them. Emerson said that what we are worshiping we are becoming. I take that as a warning. There's a lot of garbage out there that the world wants us to worship. We're free to discover our own sources of reverence, but we're called to be responsible about it.
So where are we digging our wells of truth and meaning? Is it on good ground? Can we reach something sustaining and inspiring and challenging by digging more deeply there? That's what we want in the work of spiritual growth whether our inspiration comes from the brilliance of the sciences or the beauty of the arts or the mysteries and rituals of religion or the intensity of human relationships and the struggle for justiceall of those sources have their glory and all of them have their danger and their fundamentalisms. What we want wherever we dig for meaning is something worthy to follow, something that is both fire and water to our souls.
Frederich Nietzsche said this, and I believe him:
"The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth' is… that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living."
Amen to that. And thank you for listening.