Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Give Them Not Hell — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached on December 30th, 2012

Reading        excerpt from “Bring them Hope, Not Hell” by Carl G. Seaburg

This reading is from the essay “Give them Hope, Not Hell” by Rev. Carl G. Seaburg, in the book, “Salted with Fire: Unitarian Universalist Strategies for Sharing Faith and Growing Congregations”. 

“Although Universalism was associated historically with New England, as people migrated westward, the preachers went with them.  “Circuit riders” they were called, not serving one settled parish, but traveling on horseback and preaching the gospel in all the new settlements.

Baptists and Methodists were most active in providing circuit riders to these emigrants.  The Unitarians made almost no effort for many years to reach out to these new communities.  The Universalists, however, were much more adventuresome. Sydney Ahlstrom has observed that the Universalists were “far more evangelical than is generally realized… On the frontier their views frequently found favor.”

While Methodists and Baptists held camp meetings, often spread over many days, the Universalists generally went in for public debates.  The circuit riders were ordinarily young, usually had little more than a grammar school education, more likely had come from a rural area than a city, and preferred to travel rather than settle down.  Give them a good horse, a sturdy pair of boots, and the hospitality of strangers, and they were off into the wilderness bringing the good news of Universal Salvation.

Usually they found themselves to be the first Universalist some of these people had ever heard or met.”



Sermon      “Give them Not Hell”                                                             Chaplain David Pyle


At twenty years old, I was a newly promoted Sergeant

in the United States Army. I was a paratrooper,

assigned as an Intelligence Analyst

to the 7th Special Forces Group at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina.

I had left behind my Southern Baptist faith

on the fields of the Airborne School at Ft. Benning, Georgia …

because I did not believe it was God

who would keep me safe when I jumped out of an airplane,

but rather my training, my fellow soldiers,

and the guy who packed my chute.


In other words, I came to believe that

our destiny is in our own hands, not in the hands of a Deity.

I had become a Deist.


One afternoon, as I stepped outside of the Post Exchange

and put my beret on my head, I saw a large man, an officer,

standing around the exit shaking hands with soldiers.

I knew what he was even before I even saw the cross

resting where his rank should be.


He was a Chaplain, doing what Chaplains are supposed to do…

talking to soldiers.


The last thing in the world I wanted to do

was talk to a Chaplain who was probably

some evangelical fundamentalist wanting to save my soul.

That was ok, I had developed a way to deal with such chaplains…


As I saluted him, he returned the salute

and then put his hand out to shake mine

and reading my rank and nametag said

“Hello SGT Pyle! How are you today?”


“Fine sir” I replied, as I stopped to talk with him.

It is just not proper protocol to blaze on by an officer

who wants to talk to you.

“I don’t talk to Chaplains much, because I am a Deist, sir.”


Usually, the word “Deist” would send

even the most evangelical missionary

running away at top speed… but not this time.


“A Deist! Wow! I don’t get to meet those very often!

Let me tell you about Unitarian Universalism.”

It was the first time I had ever heard those two words…

Unitarian Universalism. I had indeed found an Evangelical…

but one from our faith tradition.


I distinctly remember thinking that

this particular Chaplain was crazy,

as he described a faith based in covenant,

rather than in some creed,

where Deists would be accepted, along with atheists, agnostics, Christians, Humanists and many others.

A Church where it was ok to believe

that God made the Universe and then left… preposterous!


Years later, when I had returned from Bosnia,

a scared and scarred young man

who was looking for some organization,

some religion that would allow me to make meaning in my life

from the aftermath and atrocities

of a religious hatred inspired war that I had borne witness to,

I remembered that chance encounter with a crazy chaplain,

and I remembered those two words… Unitarian Universalism.


It took a couple of tries, and a couple of different

Unitarian Universalist churches before I found one

that became my spiritual home.

That home, a UU Fellowship on Galveston Island,

on the Gulf coast of TX nurtured me, held me,

and eventually allowed me to hear my own call to the ministry.

A call that led me to be one of two UU’s

attending the U.S. Army Chaplain School

at the same time Chaplain (Col) Vernon Chandler,

the man who first said the words Unitarian Universalism to me

was retiring from the Army after 33 years of service.


At his retirement Ceremony, Chaplain George Tyger and I

had the privilege to salute Chaplain Chandler,

and say “We relieve you, Sir”,

to the man who first introduced me to this faith,

to the faith that saved me, healed me

after serving as a soldier in Latin America,

and a Peacekeeper in Bosnia-y-Herzegovina.


It was ten years from when I first met Chaplain Chandler,

to when I joined a Unitarian Universalist Church.

For ten years, that seed had been planted

in the hard pack soil of my life, the life of a political conservative,

a religious rejectionist, and an angry ex-Christian.

It took ten years of the experiences of my life,

seeing atrocities and genocide, a divorce, two changes of career…

ten years of experiences to shake the soil of my life

loose enough for that seed to grow… but grow it did.

All from a 2 minute conversation

outside the Post Exchange with a Chaplain

enthusiastic for our liberal faith.


As that seed sprouted, it continued to loosen the soil of my life…

until I turned off Rush Limbaugh and Fox news,

and began listening to NPR and the BBC.

It shook loose the soil covering my heart

until I could begin to feel a connection with those around me,

and not just dwell in my own anger and pain.

That seed shook loose the anger and fear I felt after Bosnia,

and brought me to a vision of hope and possibility,

of interdependence and inherent worth.

All from a 2 minute conversation outside the Post Exchange

with a Chaplain, enthusiastic for our liberal faith.


As that seed sprouted, it loosened up the rejectionist theology

that was the power behind my Deism,

and allowed me to grow spiritually

beyond merely rejecting an interventionist concept of God.

That seed was soon joined by other seeds,

which allowed me to begin to explore

and find a connection with Zen Buddhism

and begin a meditation practice.

Another seed allowed me to really feel

the ideas of Universal Salvation,

of the ever-changing nature of revelation in my life,

and to feel released by an idea of forgiveness

that was centered in human relationship,

not in divine punishment.

That first seed, and the gentle tilling of our liberal faith,

even allowed the planting of a seed

that called me to re-approach the Christian scriptures,

not from the anger of my teens and twenties,

but with the spirit of a seeker,

and to find that the center of my theology

and the way I wanted to live my life

was in the teachings of that particular poor carpenter’s son

turned Rabbi from the village of Nazareth.


Through the theologies of Unitarian and Universalist Christians

of the 17 and 1800’s, I discovered I was still a Christian…


All from a 2 minute conversation outside the Post Exchange

with a Chaplain, enthusiastic for our liberal faith.


When I say I believe in the saving power

of our Unitarian Universalist Good News, our Gospel,

I speak from the personal experience of having been saved.

These are some hard to use words

in a Unitarian Universalist Congregation… but I really mean them.


Might I have become a Unitarian Universalist

without the chance meeting with a crazy military chaplain

outside the post exchange at Ft. Bragg? It is possible.

Probable even, for a Veteran’s counselor later

also recommended I check out a Unitarian Universalist Church.

While I was not a UU at heart when I left for Bosnia,

I certainly was one when I came home.


Instead, I tell the story of my journey into this faith tradition

as a way to address a few of the most common myths

we Unitarian Universalists have about military chaplaincy…

myths that I believe have caused great damage

to the Chaplain Corps, and to the lives of many soldiers.


Don’t worry, the Chief of Chaplain’s office

has heard me say all of this and much more before…

If there is one thing that my fellow chaplains understand

about Unitarian Universalists it is that we are not very good

at keeping our mouths shut.

Besides, I’m a reservist… so what are they going to do?

Make me take a weekend off a month?

Gives me a little more freedom to speak truth to power

than my active duty colleagues have.

I am a full-time UU Parish minister.

Military Chaplaincy is what I do for fun.


The first myth I want to address is that we Unitarian Universalists

and those people who join the military…

we are just different kinds of people.


I cannot count the number of times I have preached

or spoken to groups of Unitarian Universalists,

and see the looks of incredulity when I say

that I meet Unitarian Universalists all the time in the military…

people who believe about life and faith just as we do…

people called to live ethical and moral lives in community,

who find truth to be larger than one scripture or one religion,

and who are called to make a difference in the world.

I meet them all the time…

and either they have never heard of Unitarian Universalism…

or they attended one of our churches once,

and as soon as they said they were in the military

they were questioned, or ridiculed,

or in some way told that they were not welcome

in this faith tradition.


This myth has some truth…

but it is not that people in the military are not ready for us…

it is that we are not ready for them.


There are some churches that do it well,

mostly around major military installations…

and a UU Navy Chaplain named Seanan Holland

worked with the Church of the Larger Fellowship

a few years ago to create “The Military Bridgebuilder program”

a course similar to the Welcoming Congregation program

to help our churches to bridge this gap.


The second myth that I think has prevented us

from having a large and vibrant military ministry

has been the idea that we Unitarian Universalists

would not make good military chaplains.

I will answer this myth with a short story…

I remember one day when I was a student

at the U.S. Army Chaplain School at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina.

We were on a break between classes,

and a young conservative evangelical minister

came over and sat next to me.

He was genuinely curious about Unitarian Universalism

(not all of them are),

and asked some very specific questions about our faith.


Over that summer, I became really good

at explaining Unitarian Universalism

to Evangelical and Baptist ministers,

as I had this experience at least a few times a day.

After I spoke about our being a faith

where actions and behavior mattered more than belief,

about the importance of community,

about the importance of professional ministerial preparation,

and about learning from the truth that expands

across religious traditions… he sat back

and asked another question.

He asked “Well then, why aren’t there hundreds

of Unitarian Universalist Military Chaplains?

You all are perfect for this ministry! The Army must love you!!!”


You see, all the parts of military ministry

that my colleague struggled with,

such as the need to present worship in a broad, inclusive way,

or the ability to help someone explore their own faith

rather than impose your own.


Or the requirement to minister to and with people

who believe things that you might find wrong or offensive…

all of these parts of military chaplaincy

that he was struggling with,

he saw that Unitarian Universalist Ministers

do all of these things as part of our basic practice of ministry…

as part of who we are.


I won’t say that we are ideally suited for military ministry,

because not all UU Ministers can function

in a military authority structure… but some can.


The third myth that I think gets in the way

of Unitarian Universalist Military Ministry,

be it that of military Chaplains or that of congregations,

like the Great Lakes Naval Station Ministry in Illinois,

where the Chicago Area congregations come together

to provide Sunday morning Unitarian Universalist Worship

for the Navy Basic Training Recruits,

the third myth is that such a ministry

violates our ethical, moral, or social justice principles.


As a Military Chaplain, I am precluded by International Law

from carrying weapon, and by military tradition

I am not even allowed to touch one.

I personally could not serve otherwise,

my personal faith would not allow it.

In the last year we Unitarian Universalists

have had three of our military chaplains serving in Afghanistan,

and all three of them ministered

amid some of the horrors of this war.

Chaplain Chris Antal is there right now,

and Chaplains George Tyger and Seanan Holland

are just recently home.


If you do not think that bringing a gospel of hope,

interdependence, and inherent worth

to those soldiers and marines in the midst of war is Social Justice,

then I think you have seriously misunderstood

the meaning of social justice.

I can’t think of any more important social justice work

for our nation right now than helping these soldiers and marines

realize their own humanity,

and the humanity of those we call enemy.


Efforts to dehumanize the enemy

might show some short term effect in combat,

but we now know that it is one of the primary factors

that leads towards contracting a Combat Stress Disorder.


Add to that that military ministry is one of the UUA’s few

truly multi-ethnic, multi-cultural ministries…

and one of our few Young Adult ministries,

and perhaps the military has some social justice lessons

to teach us as well.


And quite frankly… if we are going to have a military…

and if we as a nation are going to send that military

off to fight a war… then I want as many

Unitarian Universalists wearing the military uniform as possible.

I want soldiers who ask moral questions.

I want soldiers who see that we are all interconnected.

I want soldiers who realize we are accountable

for what we do in life.


And… the military knows that when they need to know

what the Liberals think about something,

they should go ask a Unitarian Universalist Military Chaplain.

More than once, I have had the honor and the privilege

to be involved in conversations that are

“Way above my paygrade”, because as a Unitarian Universalist

I am “out” as a liberal in the military.

Just one example was that I served on

one of the working groups that developed the implementation plan

for the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell…

and was authorized to speak to the press about the repeal.

I have been involved in conversations

about the use of drones in warfare,

the unconscionably high rate of military suicide,

Substance abuse and divorce,

conversations about Combat Stress Injuries, and so much more…  I have been invited to the table

because I am a Unitarian Universalist Minister,

and the military knows it needs our perspective, our voice.

Most of my fellow UU military chaplains say

that they have had similar experiences

of speaking our truth in a community

where we UU’s have for years gone unheard.


So, why am I preaching all of this to you?

Though I’ve learned not to be surprised,

I’m not hoping that there is someone out there

who is now inspired to go to seminary

and become a military chaplain.

Truthfully, how much longer these knees and hips of mine

can keep up with my soldiers is a question

I am asking with some regularity.


I have brought this message to you this morning

so that maybe, just maybe,

we can change a little bit of our perspective

on what it means to be in the military,

and what it might mean if a military family,

say from McGee Tyson Airbase

or one of the thousands of Reserve and National Guard families

that are in Oak Ridge Tennessee…

what would it mean if they started attending?

How would we be welcoming of them?

How would we have to change to be welcoming of them?

How would we, as a church and a faith tradition

have to grow to welcome these families

and their stories among us?


Our religious tradition has modern day Circuit Riders,

who go into the hinterlands and the borderlands

bringing the message of interdependence, Universal Salvation,

and the Faith, Hope, and Love that Paul called us to.

We call them military chaplains…

and I bring them before you this morning to ask you,

what would it mean for you to follow their example,

and become “circuit riders” in your own life…

and take our faith out into the hinterlands and borderlands?


Our Universalist forebears were given this charge

when they went out into the world…


Go Out in to the highways and byways.

Give the people something of your new vision.


You may possess a small light,

but uncover it, let it shine,

Use it in order to bring more light and understanding

to the hearts and minds of men and women.


Give them not hell, but hope and courage;

Preach the kindness

and everlasting love of God.


So may it be, blessed be, and amen.


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