God Above, Through, and In All

A Sermon by Don Erickson
Delivered at Metcalf Chapel, Warwick, MA

Our favorite place to play in the summer was the acres of land behind John L. Edwards Elementary school in Hudson, New York. We would walk down the grassy hill beside the school and then another hill. Both hills in the winter were perfect for sledding but in the summer were merely steep. We would pass an acre of woods, and in that acre of woods stood a tree with a sturdy, secure, hanging vine which we used to play Tarzan, swinging from the tree into the open sky and back again. The mini-forest also included a cherry tree that provided us free fruit in the summer. 

The two grassy hills led to a large field of flat grass big enough to fit its two baseball fields now no longer there. We boys in the neighborhood used regularly those fields in the summer and into fall. Our favorite of the two fields was the one whose right field ended in a running stream. The stream separated the field from more acres of woods. The rare homerun would see the ball landing in the woods. I am sure there are some still there.

When we weren’t playing ball we were trudging through the woods. There was a legend  of sorts that if we walked through those  woods on the other side of the baseball field and up one of its hills we’d come to a house of a recluse who protected his homestead by yelling and screaming obscenities at trespassers. One day, my friend Brian Myers and I feigned courage and began walking into those woods and up that hill, but we got afraid of images of a screaming recluse in our minds and decided we’d walk back the other way. 

Anyway, we’d spend whole summer days outside, alternating between playing baseball in that field, hiking through woods, just sitting in the grass and joking around And yes, we’d go home to eat lunch somewhere in there.

Thinking about these memories, I wonder how rare our experience is today. We were allowed to spend hours and hours outdoors away from the purview of our parents. It was the norm, in fact. Times have changed, as they say. Such seems to be a remnant of yesteryear now, a thing of generations past. 

Sad but true, parental concern about safety has combined with young people’s love of video games, resulting in a rather significant cultural problem. Children don’t enjoy the outdoors as they once did, instead many remain content to stay inside. In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv describes it in depth and terms it Nature-Deficit Disorder. Just the term to me is tragic.

Imagine John Muir, the father of the environmentalist movement, staying inside and not being able to write the following:

When I was a boy in Scotland I was fond of everything that was wild, and all my life, I've been growing fonder and fonder of wild places and wild creatures. 

Fortunately around my native town of Dunbar, by the stormy North Sea, there was no lack of wildness, though most of the land lay in smooth cultivation.

With red-blooded playmates, wild as myself, I loved to wander in the fields to hear the birds sing, and along the seashore to gaze and wonder at the shells and seaweeds, eels and crabs in the pools among the rocks when the tide was low; and best of all to watch the waves in awful storms thundering on the black headlands and craggy ruins of the old Dunbar Castle when the sea and the sky, the waves and the clouds, were mingled together as one… the natural inherited wildness in our blood ran true on its glorious course as invincible and unstoppable as stars.

This childhood experience was the foundation of all that John Muir would grow to be and do. These early experiences set him on a tra-jec-tory that would lead him to be the great environmentalist and human being he became. The same is true of people like Rachel Carson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Al Gore. Their early memories along a river or in front of a mountain or at an ocean shore were the first steps into a life of seeking to protect the land.

Without this kind of foundation, there will either be fewer environmentalists or environmentalists void of heart and soul and thus void of lasting effectiveness.

A similar result of our nature deficit applies to spirituality. Without experiencing nature, we miss out on comprehending the spirit of creativity that moves creation. We miss out on comprehending the God above, through, and in land, water, and sky. We miss out on slowing down our pace and our thoughts and simply being present and listening to the still, small voice of God. 

Mother Theresa once said, 

We need to find God, and God cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature - trees, flowers, grass- grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence... We need silence to be able to touch souls.  

Behind her powerful words is a traditional Christian teaching I’ve always found interesting. It is called the doctrine of general revelation. The idea goes that God is revealed in nature, and even if a person never hears the word or person or history of Jesus Christ, one can look at the colorful landscapes and skies and waters and see that there is something intangible behind it all, some gift of beauty pervading our senses, some mysterious movement wondrous, inspiriting, and inspiring. The internalization of this revelation can save us. The Psalmist puts it like this:

Where could I go to escape your spirit?
Where could I flee from your presence?
If I climb the heavens, you are there,
there too, if I lie in a the darkest valley,
If I flew to the point of sunrise, or westward across the sea
your hand would still be guiding me, your right hand holding me.

As for me, I first experienced the reality of God in nature, looking at the night sky and hearing stillness after a snowstorm, after the making of snow angels had ceased. 

The night’s clouds were whitened by an almost full moon behind it. The white of the snowy earth and the white of the clouds made it seem almost like day. I stared at the sky, hearing the silence of the moon, the clouds, the wind and the insulating snow. It was a stillness that was clear and moving, as if God was speaking to me with visceral silence. I breathed in the childhood scent of the snowy night, noticing my breath and the air moving in unison. Like all else, I was quiet, intent to take in the miracle of quiet, to remain there content. The snow angels I had made seemed silent too. The entire universe rested in the calm of the snow and in the resolution new in my mind. All was okay.

That one pivotal experience transformed something inside me, informing the rest of my spiritual life and my understanding of my relationship to the natural world.

Not to preach against video games or the internet, but can we experience such things playing a video game? Can we experience such gifts of God while posting on Facebook our thoughts on last night’s party?

There is a book I often read to my five year-old Corey. And here it is. It is a lovely little book. As you can see, it is titled God is Everywhere. It was published in 1968 and was my wife Holly’s book, presented to her by the Bible Memory Association in the mid-1970s. 

The book nicely applies the last verse in our reading in Ephesians, which says that God is not only above all, but through all and in all.  

If you don’t mind, I’d like to read some of it:

As the darkness comes with night, as the sun comes bringing light, there is nowhere I can be that God is not right here with me… when I see the lightning come across the sky, and when I hear the thunder rumbling, tumbling by, God is there, God’s everywhere. .. God is here, God is there, Above, before, behind me. Be it high, or be it low, there’s no place that I could go that God could never find me.

The book simply describes the omnipresence of God. God is not just out there somewhere. God is here, now, through all and in all. In fact, God is and can only be truly experienced right here, right now. Not in the past or in the future, but here, now. What a transformative truth this is! And as the children’s book points out, and as ages of Christian witness points out, there is nothing as powerful in reminding us of the here and the now and of God’s residence therein as nature.

This is the faith that has moved ages and ages of mystics who see in Creation the Creator, who see “the world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower,” who “hold infinity in the palm of their hand, and eternity in an hour.” 

The Eastern Orthodox tradition, especially, has offered a theology of nature for centuries. It is interesting to me that of all the mainline denominations it is only the Eastern Orthodox tradition that is growing, not only because of the influx of immigrants but because of new converts. The holistic vision of the tradition might explain why. Such a vision is seen in this wonderful quote from one of its patriarchs, Bartholomew the First.

Everything that lives and breathes is sacred and beautiful in the eyes of God. The whole world is a sacrament. The entire created cosmos is a burning bush of God’s uncreated energies. And humankind stands as a priest before the altar of creation, as microcosm and mediator. Such is the true nature of things; or, as an Orthodox hymn describes it, “the truth of things,” if only we have the eyes of faith to see it.

Back to the children’s book I introduced. God is Everywhere goes on to poignantly offer a spiritual practice. It is easy to miss in the book as it is in life. But it offers a profound path. The book reads: “And if I’m very still, and sit, and watch and wait a bit, and listen to God’s raindrops drop, I will hear the thunder stop.” Good advice for all of us.

So may we stop and be still and sit and watch and wait and listen. May we realize that as Buddhist sage Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, “the miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth in the present moment, to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now.” And may we be thankful we live in such a beautiful, wild place in the world. 

This is the practice of active prayer. This practice of active prayer is powerful and can be a transformative tool in our disconnected age. And the rural church, residing in and relying on nature for its way of being, can help us as a society rediscover the wonder of nature and the wonder of God whose creativity marks all wonder. The rural church can help us experience the miracle of walking on the green earth. 

So let us preach the gospel of God breathing through and in nature. Let us preach the gospel of fresh air and clean waters which crucial to our survival. Let us embrace our identity and role of being a religious community amid the glory of God’s creativity and spread its virtues.

In offering these things to the community, we build religious community and an environmentalist spirit at the same time. 

Before we go, meet Wendell Berry. Maybe you know him. Wendell Berry to me is a great help in such a venture. He is a farmer, poet, essayist, novelist, cultural critic, environmentalist, as well as Kentuckian Baptist. And he is one of my heroes. He has written over 50 books across his various genres. His central claim is that the economy that rules the day is a behemoth too often built on the exploitation, the controlling and the confining of Creation. To counteract this, Berry calls for us to sit with and in nature, to work with and in nature, and to deeply notice its way of being, its divinely providence way of giving to us life and sustenance and to see the creativity of God in the trees, the fields, the rivers, the sea. The result of our examination of nature’s way of being will be a natural impetus to honor and protect what gives so freely but at such cost to herself, and we will proceed accordingly.

He believes that there is grace to be found away from the madness and sadness of our society seemingly moving at warp speed. And as we consider Earth Day and as we gather on the Sunday after Arbor Day, may we be mindful of this. I close with Wendell Berry’s rather renowned poem, "The Peace of Wild Things," offering it as a prayer.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.



Baptist-UCC-UU Convergences

The Baptist story commenced as a dissent to the existing hierarchies and hierarchical beliefs, either the Catholic papacy or the Lutheran elite, either the Anglican church, the Royal crown, or Puritan theocracy. In America, it begins with Roger Williams, the original American Baptist, who resisted the theocracy established by the Puritans and called for religious freedom and for a democracy that separated matters of church and state.

According to Baptist scholar Walter Shurden, the Baptist tradition throughout its diverse and vast history has focused on "four fragile freedoms": 1.) Bible Freedom - the freedom to read and interpret the Bible based on one's conscience and one's spiritual understanding; 2.) Soul Freedom - the soul's freedom from imposition of clergy, creed, or civil government; 3.) Church Freedom - the local church is free to govern the way they see fit without hierarchical restraint; and 4.) Religious Freedom - individuals and the church are both ordained with freedom of religion, freedom for religion, and freedom from religion.

With that said, Baptist history shows convergences, confluences, connections, and shared histories with two other free church, congregational polity-based traditions, the UCC and UUA.

Together in Dissent

The Baptist tradition, the UCC, and the UUA all have their historic roots in the English Separatist movement. The Puritans, though beginning as a tradition desiring the purification of the Anglican Church, eventually realized that purification was beyond reach. So in England and especially in the American colonies an ardent separatist spirit took hold. Both the Congregational church (which gave way to both the UCC and UUA) and the Baptist church arose out of this dissent known as the Separatist Movement.

The Congregational and Baptist churches also shared a focus on some sort of testimony to Christian faith being a prerequisite for church membership, with the Baptist church adding adult baptism as a mandated outward sign of internal faith.

But what truly differentiated the Baptist tradition from its Congregationalist cousin is the Baptist tradition's radical call for religious freedom, namely for a "wall between church and state." In fact, Roger Williams was first excommunicated from the Massachusetts church and then exiled to Rhode Island because of, among other things, his persistent demand that church and state be separate.

That both the UU and UCC have become and remain strong proponents of the separation of church and state points to a Baptist-UU-UCC confluence some 200 years after the exile of Roger Williams. I am sure Roger Williams is proud!

Rejection of Calvinism

After the separation of church and state became a constitutional mandate, the Congregational and Baptist churches became in many ways more similar than different in the first half of the 19th century. Both the Congregational and Baptist church were under the throes of the Calvinist claims of total depravity of human nature and the doctrine of unconditional election, which claimed that only an elect few drew God's favor and being part of the elect was evidenced by one's life of good works, deep devotion, strong work ethic, and resulting economic reward. The pervading Calvinism of the day served the role of papal rule. It was inevitable that new movements of dissent would arise against this new religious ruler, often called the paper papacy.

Let me mention four new movements that rejected Calvinism.

1.) General and Free Will Baptists: General and Free Will Baptists were Arminian proponents (Arminian being synonymous with the notion of free will and general atonement) and rejected the Calvinist claim that God's will predestines some to heaven and others to hell making free will on the human's part is not operative in the case of salvation. General and Free Will Baptists and their ilk also rejected the Calvinist belief that atonement was limited to the elect, holding to the notion that Christ's atonement is offered to all, making it general and unlimited in its offering.

2.) Christians: Known as simply the Christian Church (or the Christian Connexion), it developed out of the rejection of Calvinist Baptists and Methodists on the frontier. Seeing the rigid Calvinism of the day in both the Baptist and Methodist churches and seeing that Calvinism proffer an overly hierarchical and institutional church, the Christian Church called for a decentralized, back to basics, simple Bible church. Like the Free Will Baptists, the Christian Church held to an Arminian view of atonement and free will. The Christian Church grew in New England and in Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina.

The Christian Church interestingly had a Unitarian slant with many ministers and thinkers by the 1920s writing pamphlets arguing for a rejection of the Trinity in favor or a Unitarian view of God.

In 1931, the Christian Church merged with the Congregational Church to form the Congregational Christian Church (CCC). The CCC would be merged with the Evangelical and Reformed Church to create the United Church of Christ.

3.) Unitarians: One of the most profound dissents to Calvinism was the Unitarian movement which rejected not only the Trinity (and hence its namesake) but also the central Calvinist teaching on the total depravity of human beings. While both the Free Will Baptists and the Christian Church asserted that depravity was real just not total, the Unitarians asserted that human beings were created with innate goodness.

4.) Universalists: Another profound dissent to Calvinism was the Universalist movment and their rejection of the central Calvinist claim of limited atonement. Not only did Universalists argue that atonement was unlimited but that actual redemption was unlimited. In other words, not only did Jesus die for all, but Jesus' death (and resurrection) in reality saves all.

Baptist-UU-UCC All-Stars

The shared anti-Calvinist sentiment resulted in a confluence of Free Will Baptists, Christians, Unitarian, and Universalists, both here and in England. The names below of Baptists cum Unitarians and/or Universalists and/or proto-UCCers makes this confluence pretty clear:

Abner Jones and Elias Smith: two Baptist preachers, both with connections to Vermont and New Hampshire, who rejected the Calvinism of their Baptist (non-free will) tradition. They were central in creating the Christian Church, planting the first two Christian Church congregations in New England. The Christian Church would be part of the UCC merger in 1957. Elias Smith would become a Universalist.

Elhanan Winchester, father of American Universalism and founder of the Society of Universal Baptists in 1790 which later became the still extant UU Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia.

William Vidler: a Winchester disciple and Baptist Universalist who became a Unitarian preacher and publisher essential in establishing Unitarianism in England. He was also involved in the creation of a religious journal called the Baptist Unitarian Advocate in 1837.

Robert Aspland: a Baptist preacher and father of organized Unitarianism in Great Britain. He was central in 50 General Baptist churches becoming Baptist Unitarian in 1836.

Caleb Rich and Hosea Ballou: two American preachers who were very influential Baptist Universalists in the mid-1800s. The Ballou family all have Baptist roots.

Curtis Reese and Charles Potter, two Baptists preachers integral to Unitarianism’s movement from a solely theist tradition to a more religious humanist one in the 1920s.

Henry Emerson Fosdick: a renowned Baptist minister who helped found Riverside Church, the landmark church in New York City which is an interdenominational UCC/American Baptist Church USA.

James Forbes: renowned 20th-21st century preacher and minister of Riverside, possessing dual standing with the UCC and the American Baptist Churches USA.

Alive & Kicking?

Yet what about present day, living Baptist-UU-UCC traditions? Well, there are a few UU/UCC/Baptist federated churches -- in Sturbridge and Bolton, Massachusetts, for example.

The most impressive discovery in my Baptist-UU-UCC research is the Primitive Baptist Universalists. Howard Dorgan's book In the Hands of a Happy God actually introduced me to UU’s long lost cousin this way:

“That denomination is a uniquely Appalachian institution, the Primitive Baptist Universalists (or PBUs) of Central Appalachia, believers aptly described as ‘pilgrims in the hands of a happy god’…God [is] happy because he found a way – they believe – to redeem his children from the curse of Adamic sin…[PBU’s] expound an inclusive theology of universal atonement, claiming that, at the close of the temporal world, all humankind will be redeemed…restored to that purified state that existed prior to Adam’s fall, and thus prepared for an eternal and joyous communion with God. PBU’s are known in Central Appalachia as the ‘No-Hellers’ – a title which is a misnomer, simply because they view hell as a reality of earthly life.”

Now, the Primitive Baptist Universalists are a present day, living reality. Groups of Baptist Universalists are meeting every Sunday in Central Appalachia. This to me is pretty cool!

Other Honorary UCC-UU Baptists
(The main criteria are Baptists found in either UU's Singing the Living Traditional hymnal or UCC's New Century Hymnal. The above names mentioned are also in this list.)

Walter Rauschenbusch

Henry Emerson Fosdick

Robert Lowry

John Fawcett

Howard Thurman

Martin Luther King Jr.

Wendell Berry

UCC-UU Baptist Prototypes

Before the Baptists, the Christian Connexion, Unitarians or Universalists in America there were a few examples of prototypes, if you will. What amounts to a Baptist-UCC-UU prototype is a figure who holds to adult-believer baptism by immersion (baptist) and either is a unitarian (denies the trinity) or a universalist (holds to universal salvation). Here is a list of such figures:

Michael Servetus

Faustus Socinus

Ferenc David (Francis David)

Hans Denck

Jacob Kautz

Hans Hut

Alexander Mack