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!