(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved

Click here to listen to the message. See below to read it.

The word “martyr” comes from an ancient greek work meaning “to witness.”  In that sense, the word defines anyone who is voluntarily willing to testify to their strong belief in a cause.  When John Foxe published in 1550 a book describing the sacrificial executions of early Christians, and later Protestants burned at the stake by the English Catholic Queen Mary, the word “martyr” became associated with willingly dying for one’s religious beliefs.  Foxe’s book was entitled The Book of Martyrs and it soon attained a status equivalent to scripture.  In some Christian evangelical circles today, the book is read and used as an example of persecution for being a witness to Christ.

Since Foxe’s time, martyrdom has had a mostly theological connotation – even when it’s been applied to persons like Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  Those three were killed not just for their civil rights advocacy, but as many people say, for their spiritual promotion of human rights.

Martyrdom has also been applied to the Pilgrims and Puritans for the hardship they endured in early America.  Catholic missionaries were considered martyrs by some when they were killed by indigenous people they tried to convert.  And those same indigenous people are often said to be martyrs for the suffering they endured at the hands of past white missionaries and immigrants.  

Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, is honored as a martyr by that faith.  Some have applied the word to the six million Jews killed during the Holocaust.  More concerning, extremist Muslims liberally use the term to exalt those who willingly die when committing terrorism.

Unfortunately, the word “martyr” has been hijacked for religious and political purposes when, in fact, its real meaning, as I said, is a witness – or someone who testifies – to a belief.

The point of my message this morning is not to restore the true meaning of the word martyr, but rather to promote testifying – or bearing witness – to one’s spiritual beliefs.  

Last Sunday, Ann McCracken offered a beautiful and almost lyrical testimony of her spiritual journey from growing up as a young Catholic girl, to her budding religious doubts, to explorations of native-American spirituality, to her present fulfillment with Unitarian Universalist openness. 

What Ann offered, and you can listen to her message on our website, is both a deeply personal story of her spiritual search, but also a description of the value inherent in multiple forms of spirituality.  She found solace in Catholic rituals, connection with nature in native-American beliefs, peacefulness from reverential moments with Tom gazing out on the ocean, and gratitude for reason – and an absence of doctrines – in UUism.  Ann summarized her present spirituality as Humanist.  Most importantly, Ann’s story did not try to tell us why her beliefs are better than ours – and we should adopt them.   Instead, she simply offered her perspective on a life quest for meaning and transcendence.

For my sake as a Minister, I highly endorse her testimony not just for its content, but also for the beauty, thought and courage it took to share it.  Everybody has their own spiritual story to tell – and every story is therefore unique and important.   The 8 billion spiritual stories comprising the world’s population are testimony to our human-ness.  Every person seeks, in some fashion, connection with the ineffable and indescribable capital ’T’ Truth that defines everything.  We all seek what might loosely be called the divine – be that God, Allah, Yahweh, Nirvana, nature, the power of love, or the principles of science and reason.  Ultimately, I believe we all seek the same thing.

Ann described that universal search as entering multiple doors each opening to the same altar.  That is a beautiful analogy.  I have offered a similar one.  We are all on a different path to the same mountain peak of Truth.  There are many paths to the summit and all are good, but the great wonder about humanity is that we are all mountain climbers, or door openers, searching and yearning for the same goal.

My plea this morning is that we spend the time to understand and articulate just what it is we each spiritually believe, and then understand how and why that is both meaningful to us and to the larger world.  Our journeys are of course personally important to us, but they are more important for what they mean to the world.  How does our spirituality help build a form of heaven on earth where everybody lives in peace and with mutual love?

One of the false but primary accusations against Unitarian Universalism is that without any doctrines, it essentially believes in nothing.  One well-worn joke speaks to that idea.  In an episode of the “The Simpsons,” young Lisa Simpson visits a fundraising ice cream stand run by local minister Reverend Lovejoy.  She scans the list of flavors offered – ones like Protestant peach, Catholic rocky road, or Heavenly hash.  She spies the Unitarian Universalist flavor and exclaims, “Ohhhhh!  I want that one!”  Reverend Lovejoy hands her a cone, Lisa skeptically examines it, and then cries out, “But it’s empty!”  “Exxaccctly!” says the Reverend.

That joke playfully mocks UUism, but it also holds a larger truth about many UU members as well as other people.   In a Pew Research poll, 16% of the world’s people say they believe in nothing.  23% of Americans make that claim.  The single most common reason these people offer is that they are opposed to the teachings of any and all religions.

What is startling is that the relative percentage of people around the world who say they are non-religious and believe in “nothing” is predicted to decrease!  That is due to several factors, but a major one is that belief in “nothing” is mostly a negative statement and one that implies a generally pessimistic or cynical outlook.  Those who believe in some form of spirituality generally hold a more optimistic and hopeful attitude which gives rise to much higher birthrates for them – in contrast to very low birthrates for those who say they are irreligious.

The irony is that people who say they believe in nothing actually believe in something – even if it means they do not believe in a theological goddess, or the stories in various scriptures.  Indeed, Atheists, Agnostics, Humanists, the skeptical, indifferent or just spiritually lazy DO believe in something that is likely very, very positive.  

In their own way, people who say they believe in “nothing” are actually on their own path to the mountain top of Truth.  Instead of stating a supposed belief in “nothing,” I believe they instead consider testifying to just what it is they DO believe in – whatever that may be.

Such testimonies would likely change the more pessimistic attitudes of non-religious people.  Indeed, it is troubling that birthrates among religious people are higher than for the non-religious. There are likely many reasons for that but one is that spiritual people, in general, possess greater hope and optimism for the future.  

        As someone who is non-religious and who calls himself a Humanist, I have an optimistic outlook for humanity based on past human history.  Time and again, when faced with serious challenges like feudalism, slavery, plagues, inequality, or genocide, humanity has met them head on – and found ways to reasonably address them. 

As a Humanist, I thus have hope in people, in the collective goodness of humanity, and not in stories about a supernatural god or goddess.  As I’ve done before, but won’t repeat today, I’ve shared my spiritual journey with you and, even though it describes my move away from beliefs I found wanting, my story is nevertheless one that describes positive reasons why I now believe as I do.

For me, the continual process of examining and re-examining my beliefs, and then figuring out what they mean, is a tremendous confidence building – and peace inducing – exercise.  I’m able to clarify just what it is that I’m doing in life – besides just muddling through with no larger understanding or sense of purpose.

The Christian New Testament includes a verse supposedly written by Peter that states, “Always be prepared to give an answerto everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that is in you.”  That verse is used as a teaching point by almost all Christians.  Every Christian, they say, should be able to testify to their beliefs and how and why they came to them.  Indeed, it’s an expected practice among evangelical Christians to publicly share one’s testimony – not only to be able to understand their beliefs for themselves, but as a way to promote Christianity in general.

I don’t share the idea that we should promote and proselytize personal spiritual beliefs.  That is an arrogant and presumptive attitude.  But as the verse I just quoted says, it is good and helpful for others when we share what helps us be more hopeful, loving, charitable, humble and peaceful.

As I said earlier, that’s exactly what Ann McCracken did in her message last Sunday.  It was a wonderfully descriptive sharing of her journey to find more peace and joy in her heart and mind – a story that is different from mine and yours but nevertheless inspiring.  I learned from it, as I hope you did too – or will if you listen to it online.

In that regard, every story is valid and every one is to be celebrated.  Understanding that, we as Unitarian Universalists can testify to the goodness we find in multiple spiritual beliefs.  We will also testify to the foundational idea that nobody, no religion, and no form of spirituality expresses absolute truth – one that everyone should accept or else be rejected.  As Ann said, you’re looking for your door to the universal altar.  So is the person next you.  I want to rejoice in that and never claim my  chosen doorway is superior to another.

For me, that’s a positive practice I must repeatedly learn.  I may disagree with what others religiously believe, but I must remember both their right to believe as they wish and the intrinsic goodness of their belief – as long as it is founded on love.  For beliefs that include hate of others, I must gently speak against such doctrines, or interpretations of them, that purvey rejection and violence.  

If I want to most effectively promote what it is I believe, then let me practice a Humanist version of what Francis of Assisi suggested, “Preach Jesus, and only when necessary use words.”  May my deeds of kindness, empathy and charity be the most powerful testimony of what I believe.

What I hope we will each do is plumb the depths of our hearts and find the part of us that hungers for peace and a connection to something beyond ourselves.  When we meditate on being at one with whatever we consider a higher power – nature, god, or the power of love – I believe we lose our self-focused thinking to instead be filled with awe and deep gratitude.  This is how we then see ourselves as spiritual beings and how we begin to understand our spiritual journey.  For many, this is both an ecstatic and humbling experience – to deeply know one is part of something immense and overwhelmingly good.  

Pondering our spirituality and our journey is not an intellectual exercise.  Instead, it’s a soul deep process – remembering and honoring moments and feelings that have deeply moved us – the smell of incense from a past church service, a musical piece that brings us to tears, a quiet walk in the woods, or the full acceptance given us by a family member or friend.   These are some of the evocative moments of life that remind us we are more than flesh and blood – we are a species that seeks a glimpse of ultimate Truth.  

As a part of this process, I would love for any of you to share your spiritual journey – either in a full message like Ann’s last Sunday, or in a shortened 5 minute version to be incorporated in a future service.  Please reflect on this request and feel free to speak to me if you are so inclined.  

If public speaking is not your thing, then I hope you will develop and share your spiritual journey and beliefs with a partner or a few trusted friends – people who will just listen and lovingly affirm you. 

I shared as recently as Easter Sunday my belief that it is all of us – humanity in general – who are the gods and goddesses that make the world a better place.  I humbly suggest you discover your inner goddess and then tell others how she came to be, who she is now, and what she plans to do.  By letting others see and hear your inner goddess, you will create a divine moment for yourself and for those who hear you – just as Ann McCracken did last Sunday.  Let us bless one another with our stories and thereby help inspire the world with our peace and joy – of which I now wish for all of you.