Three Congies Bear Witness

June 30, 1996

Summary

Three “Congies” Bear Witness

If you have looked at the sermon title and wondered who the “Congies” are, the answer is that the word
is a New England nickname for Congregationalists — those almost unbelievably courageous Pilgrims who
came to America in 1620 in search of religious freedom. In the nearly four centuries since then, a great many
Congregational men and women have distinguished themselves but I would like to pay tribute this morning to
three of them whose lives still have an impact on ours. We met a Biblical bully last week who wasn’t much of a
witness for anything fair and decent, so it seems only fair to talk about some highly intelligent people who
really were witnesses worth hearing about.

Without regard to chronology, let’s begin with a former minister of First Congregational Church in
Akron, Ohio whose novel, Magnificent Obsession, became a best-seller in the 1930s. Each of Lloyd C.
Douglas’ ten novels made it to the best seller list, and several were number one. Among them were two others
you may have read: The Robe and The Big Fisherman . Although six of them became movies and one was
the basis for a TV series in the 1950s, few people knew that Douglas was a minister and a Congregationalist.
Magnificent Obsession is based on the idea that there is a single verse in the Bible which can transform life if
people take it seriously. The plot, briefly stated, goes like this:

When Dr. Wayne Hudson, despondent over the death of his wife, goes to pick out a marker for her
grave, he meets a sculptor who asks him, “How would you like to be the best doctor in this town?” and tells him
he has discovered a simple formula for changing one’s life. He invites Dr. Hudson to his home, where when he
picks up a Bible the doctor immediately says, “Now if that’s it, I don’t care to hear about it.” The sculptor says
this particular Bible lacks the secret formula, which is found only on one page, because he has removed that
page and keeps it somewhere else. when Dr. Hudson insists on knowing what is on the missing page, the
sculptor pulls a folded and faded piece of paper from his wallet. He warns the doctor that the formula is
dangerous stuff and should be used only to help others, and only in absolute secrecy. The formula is based on a
principle expressed in the Sermon on the Mount: Beware of practicing your religion before others in order to
be seen by them ….. When you pray, do so privately — when you do good deeds, do it so quietly that your left
hand doesn’t know what your right hand is doing. The novel shows different people trying out this radical
notion of investing in other people in secret, and how the experience changes their lives. It’s so persuasive that
most people who read it are tempted — at least for a while — to put the formula into practice.

Douglas fascinates me also because, like myself, he found a home in the Congre-gational way after
realizing his faith had changed so much he could not be comfortable anywhere else. He was influenced by his
free-thinking father who meant to become a Lutheran minister until he failed his ordination exam by admitting
he did not believe unbaptized infants went to hell, and by saying further that hell itself did not fit his idea of a
God of infinite love. He also didn’t believe in the Devil; he thought God would not have created that kind of
competition. So he decided to become a lawyer, and practiced for several years before he found a Lutheran
synod that would ordain him without examination. His son Lloyd recalled that there was always a Lutheran
church boss who collided with his father’s liberal views and who thought it was wrong for “Papa” to make
people laugh or cry at his stories of living people instead of talking only about Abraham and Sarah. It meant
that the Douglas family did not stay long in one place.

Young Lloyd did not want to become a minister, but his mother insisted and after seminary he served a
couple of small Lutheran churches before accepting a call to Washington, D. C. In that larger world he
discovered new ways of looking at Biblical history, and within a couple of years he grew weary of people who
wanted to hear only what they had heard all their lives. He announced one day that he simply did not believe
some of the things his congregation expected him to say, and and that he was resigning. That would probably
have been the end of his ministerial career, except for a later friendship at the University of Illinois with a
Congregational minister who spoke of that church’s openness to new ideas and who convinced him there was a
place for him in ministry after all. After preaching for Congregational churches in Ann Arbor, Michigan and in
Akron, Ohio Douglas was called to First Congregational Church in Los Angeles where he served as senior
minister for three years. The church liked him, except for a few ultra conservative retirees from the Midwest
who knew how a preacher was supposed to sound, so once again he was under fire, and it was during this time
in LA, when he found it impossible to sleep, that he finished the novel Magnificent Obsession. Much to the
dismay of most of the congregation, he decided to retire — a decision that made better sense than ever when
Magnificent Obsession and a second novel both landed at the same time on the best-seller list.

I spent some time last week reading from his sermons and from an Atlantic Monthly article in which he
spoke his religious convictions. He won my heart all over again when he began a list of the weaknesses of
Protestant churches by saying “They are too noisy.” He felt, as I do, that intelligent adults deserve at least one
hour on Sunday morning when they can worship God and focus on challenging ideas without having to keep
children quiet or send them on trips to the bathroom. History, by the way, does some strange flipflops, and it
may interest you to know that First Church LA, where a group of hidebound conservatives once met to discuss
firing Dr. Douglas while he was away on vacation, will play host next November, nearly 70 years later, to a 3-
day seminar in honor of their one-time minister. Magnificent Obsession is not Nobel prize material, but the
basic idea it builds on would improve anyone’s life. I read it when I was very young, and I wish I had practiced
it more often through the years since.

My second Congregational great is one of the most illustrious poets in American literature, New
England’s unique Emily Dickinson. She grew up attending First Congregational Church in Amherst,
Massachusetts; went off for a year to a female seminary (Mt. Holyoke); and came back home to spend the rest
of her life in a small and rigid world where the church was the highest authority. Not surprisingly,
Dickinson’s poetry returns again and again to great religious themes: What is God like? Is there life after
death? How, in a world where innocent people suffer, can we say God is love?

On the subject of immortality she was, like many intelligent people, back and forth. When her father
died, she said: “I am glad there is Immortality — but would have tested it myself before entrusting him.” She
was not much comforted by well-meaning friends who were much more certain than she was. After her
mother’s death she said, “We don’t know where she is, though so many tell us.” She loved the wonders of this
earth so much that she wrote: “Going to heaven/ How dim it sounds!” and in the same mood: “I’m glad I don’t
believe it/ For it would stop my breath/ And I’d like to look a little more/ At such a curious earth.” People who
are as fiercely honest as this great poet understand the tension in her life between faith and doubt. I’m sure one
of her favorite people in the New Testament, as he is mine, was the man who came to Jesus one day to confess
that same tension: “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” In the finest tradition of Congregational freedom, she
thought for herself. When she heard of Theodore Parker, a preacher so unconventional that even the Boston
Unitarians said, “The young man must be silenced,” she decided to see for herself. “I never read before what
Mr. Parker wrote,” she said. “I heard he was ‘poison.’ Then I like poison very well.” She reminds me of how
— when I was in high school — our fundamentalist pracher ridiculed Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason
(“atheistic poison,” he called it). When I went off to college, 500 miles from home, it was the first book I
checked out of the college library — and like Miss Dickinson found good sense in what my preacher had called
poison.

As for God and heaven, she found both all around her. “Some keep the Sabbath going to church/ I keep
it, staying at home/ With a bobolink for a chorister/ And an orchard, for a dome.” (UCC members are advised
to try this only once or twice a year). In another stanza: “God preaches, a noted clergyman/ And the sermon is
never long,/ So instead of getting to heaven, at last/ I’m going, all along.” If you have ever been irritated by a
glib, smooth preacher who was positive about everything, you would like the poem in which she describes such
a man and then says, “What confusion would cover the innocent Jesus/ To meet so enabled a man!” “Enabled”
— who but a poet could say so much in one word? And which one of us, having lost a loved one, could fail to
relate to these lines: “The bustle in a house/ The morning after death,/ Is solemnest of industries/ Enacted upon
earth./ The sweeping up of the heart,/ And putting love away, / We shall not want to use again/ Until Eternity.”
And what better way to describe how even the deepest grief slowly fades into another season of life than to link
it with the gradual passing of summer into autumn? Listen to this lovely line: “As imperceptibly as grief the
summer lapsed away.” One day you suddenly know it: summer is gone. One day, after a season of grief, you
realize that while the memories remain the sharp and terrible pain has faded and another season of life begins.
“As imperceptibly as grief the summer lapsed away.”

We don’t hear much shouting about it from pulpits, but Jesus made graceful modesty a high priority in
his kingdom of right relationships….and for graceful modesty, how about the way Emily Dickinson addresses a
literary critic to whom she sent a few of her poems: “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?”
All we remember of this particular man is that he suggested she might “improve” her poetry before trying to
publish, polish it and make it a little more conventional. She wisely decided to trust her own genius and gave
up on the idea of publication. It’s just as well. She was too far ahead of her time to find an audience. I am
happy to remind you this morning to count, among the treasures of your Congregational past, this incomparable
poet.

My final “witness” grew up in Massachusetts and was saturated from childhood with the ideas and the
spirit of Congregationalism. Katharine Lee Bates taught at Wellesley all her life as a professor of English
literature, and like Emily Dickinson was filled with a passionate love of freedom, and with a mystic rapture at
the beauty of the world around her. She wrote books, articles and poetry — and two of her poems set to music
became beloved and beautiful Christian hymns. In one of them, which is not in our hymn book, she asks not for
more beauty since we are flooded with beauty everywhere, but for keener vision to see it in all the changing
garments of earth and sky. One verse says, “Stars and rainbows are God’s clothing….sunlight and shadow
moving on the hills” — the meadow holy where the feet of God walk, the clear running brook filled with God’s
laughter.

She needed only the right inspiration to write the hymn that for millions of us has become the most
beloved of all our national anthems, and she got it when she decided to take a trip West a hundred years ago.
When she stopped in Chicago for the Columbian Exposition she was thrilled by a showcase snow-white “city”
built on a Chicago lagoon. That image would come to mind a few days later when she expressed the hope that
one day the “alabaster cities” of America would gleam “undimmed by human tears.” She knew that day that
much of the Chicago around her was dirty and dimmed by the anguish of thousands of people unable to live
decent lives. Four miles northwest of where she stood that day lay the Stock Yards, in whose stench and blood
thousands of blacks and immigrant workers toiled long hours for miserable pay, and went home to sleep in
wretched slums. In just a few short years, Upton Sinclair would expose that horror in a powerful novel of social
injustice called The Jungle. Six miles north of the Exposition’s fairytale White City lay the black ghetto, one
day to be held up in horror in Richard Wright’s first novel, Native Son (1940). And four miles to the south she
could see the smoke of the steel industry, expanding with utter disregard of humane working conditions in
plants where people spent 12-hour working days with no one monitoring the risks to life and limb that were all
around them. So when Katharine Bates wrote her great hymn that year, she was no sentimental patriot blind to
the unfulfilled promise of America. Her great song is in considerable part a passionate prayer in behalf of her
beloved country: “God mend thine every flaw,” she pleads, “and crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to
shining sea.”

From Chicago, her trip to the American West continued. Of her brief stop at the fair, she writes: “With
that quickened and deepened sense of America…..we went on, my New England eyes delighting in the windwaved
gold of the vast wheatfields.” That image from the Great Plains gave her, a few days later, the opening
line of her hymn: “O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain.” Her jubilation at the beauty and
vastness of America climaxed when she climbed Pike’s Peak and gazed in wonder at “purple mountain
majesties” stretching endlessly from north to south. There on the mountain she began to write her famous
lyrics, and came down to finish the hymn within hours in Colorado Springs. The “Pilgrim feet” of her song
are not only those Congregational ones that landed at Plymouth Rock, but are the feet as well of thousands of
pioneers — pilgrims — who trekked across the Alleghanies, the Great Plains, and the Rockies all the way to the
Golden Gate. This English professor had seen in the snow-white buildings of a Chicago fair an image of what
America might become, and in the the endless wheat fields of Kansas and Nebraska, and in the soaring majesty
of the Rockies, she marveled at how God had already blessed the country she so passionately loved. It would
have pleased her to know that her verses will be sung all over America when we celebrate our freedom on this
coming Thursday. As we close this hour of worship by standing to sing all four verses of Hymn number 440, I
hope we will feel the words as never before.

For our freedom, gracious God, that gift denied to countless millions who would risk
their lives to have it, we speak our gratitude this day, and promise to do what we can
to extend it to more and more of thy children. Amen.

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