My colleague, the Reverend Matt Alspaugh, recently wrote that “Grace is one of those words whose meaning has been diffused by so many strands of religious tradition that it is hard to use without confusion.” Matt cites theologian Paul Tillich’s declaration that grace is active and something that addresses us directly. “Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life.”
Matt goes on to assert that grace can offer us, as Unitarian Universalists, the possibility of sudden transformation –– an awakening not unlike what Zen Buddhists might seek through a practice of considering the riddles of koans that can lead to enlightenment.
I would agree and want to suggest that central to achieving a sense of balance to one’s life –– central to our Unitarian Universalist faith –– that in the midst of mystery, in the midst of the unknown, in the midst of the glory and tragedy, that, at the end, we can experience grace.
The impetus for such a statement of belief on my part comes from having a reasoned faith, from an awareness of grace, and from the possibility of love. I believe firmly that each one of us can apply our reason and our passion and that, in doing so, we can transform ourselves and our world. I believe not in a “saving” grace, but in a transforming and nurturing grace.
The primary religious task of our times is to be able to establish or, perhaps, re-establish, that sense of connection and relationship to the mysterious and the majestic, to Life’s transcendent creative power. Unitarian Universalism has long affirmed its faith in the worth and dignity of humanity. I want to suggest that our chosen faith must also connect us to the larger context and grace of Life itself.
In Roanoke, Virginia, there is a large mountain on the edge of town called Tinker Mountain and along its base runs Tinker Creek. In 1974 Annie Dillard wrote an award-winning book about the creative and destructive powers within nature that she titled Pilgrim At Tinker’s Creek. Her book is about the mystery of our world; it is a pilgrim’s report of her wrestling with God and with the unknown as Dillard puzzled over her rustic neighborhood. It is a reminder for each one of us to look at the world closely –– it is about seeing clearly as it beautifully reaffirms this concept of a gracious life.
In her A Pilgrim At Tinker’s Creek Dillard writes the following: “There seems to be such a thing as beauty, a grace wholly gratuitous. About five years ago I saw a mockingbird make a straight vertical descent from the roof gutter of a four-story building. It was an act as careless and spontaneous as the curl of a stem or the kindling of a star.
The mockingbird took a single step into the air and dropped. His wings were still folded against his sides as though he were swinging from a limb and not falling, accelerating thirty-two feet per second, through empty air. Just a breath before he would have dashed to the ground, he unfurled his wings with exact, deliberate care, spread his elegant white-banded tail, and so floated onto the grass. I had just rounded the corner when his insouciant step caught my eye, there was no one else in sight. The fact of his free-fall was like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree that falls in the forest.”
Annie Dillard concludes this passage with her profound observation that: “The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”
Listen again to how Annie Dillard begins her account: “There seems to be such a thing as beauty, a grace wholly gratuitous.” We are here. We exist by grace. That we live and love and cry and celebrate is a part of that mysterious grace.
Writer Anne Lamont has expressed it this way: “I do not understand the mystery of grace –– only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”
I believe that being open to moments of grace offers us the gift of transformation –– and it can come in small ways as Anne Dillard described, or in large ways when grace meets us where we are and takes us to a better place –– a better place where we begin to grow both emotionally and spiritually and can better live out of our values and our faith’s convictions.
The task for all of us, as Unitarian Universalists, is to ever be open to such moments of grace –– both the small moments and the large moments –– and to receive them as the gracious gifts of Life that they are.
Being open to and receptive of such moments can be wonderful, awe-filled, and amazing . . . hence, the expression, Amazing Grace!
As we begin to explore our November theme of Grace, I have to laugh about the fact that I displayed a distinct lack of physical grace while hiking on October 24th. As most of you probably know by now, I broke both bones in my left ankle and sprained the right one. This is the most incapacitated I have ever been. Although I certainly wouldn't have chosen for this to happen, there are gifts that have come from the experience. Much of what has happened since my injury feels like grace to me. Grace can be defined in many ways; one is "unmerited divine assistance." For me, this kind of grace isn't about direct assistance from God, but about how things sometimes align in ways that feel like blessings. Perhaps some would use the word "luck" for those instances, but for me, it feels like grace, like an unexpected gift that is more than coincidence.
There were at least two things that felt like blessings or gifts of grace even before I made it off the mountain. First, we had strong enough cell signal on the portion of the trail where I was injured to call 911. Second, the responders to that call were not just the fire department but the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group, one of the best rescue units in the nation.
Another definition of grace is acts of kindness, courtesy, consideration, and thoughtfulness. I have received many gifts of that kind of grace, beginning with the way the rescue group got me off the mountain--not just their technical skills, but their kindness and consideration for how I was feeling, both physically and emotionally.
There have been countless other acts of kindness: my mother immediately bought a plane ticket and arrived about 12 hours after I called her from the ER; my home congregation loaned me some equipment to use while my mobility is restricted; friends offered help of all kinds, including picking Mom up at the airport. I've received many kind emails and phone calls. It feels like grace to be on the receiving end of so much love and care.
The pastoral nature of this congregation--your loving spirit and your desire to be of help whenever someone needs support--has really shown up this week. In Sunday worship, we often use the phrase "caring community" when we are talking about how we share joys and concerns with each other. This week, I've seen firsthand the depth of your commitment to being that kind of community. You are truly grace-full. In fact, prior to last weekend's "adventure" the example of grace I would have been most likely to talk about in this column is the grace that brought us together, me to serve you, and you to welcome me to my first professional ministry.
I am deeply grateful for all the colleagues and congregants who are stepping in to take care of things for me while I recover. I will be off work for at least the first week of November, and will probably be working from home for a while after that.
Thanks again for your caring, and I look forward to being back with you as soon as I can.