Living in Grace

Birmingham Unitarian Church

Amazing grace, state of grace, grace period, grace before a meal, graceful movement, to be utterly gracious; just call me Grace, granting grace, grace note; Yes, Your Grace; the Three Graces (goddesses of Joy, Charm, and Beauty), to grace us with your presence, to grace the walls with art, to receive the Grace of God….

Grace abounds! and in such a variety of ways! And we are all the better for it. All we have to do is pay attention, notice it. But perhaps it will help for a moment to notice the word’s diversity, its graciousness of meaning….

Charis is the Greek word in the Christian scriptures that often gets translated grace. In its secular use at that time, it could mean “pleasantness,” “attractiveness,” “a kindly attitude,” or “favor.” It also came to be used to mean “thanks,” to acknowledge the receipt of a kindness “with thankfulness.”

It was the good ole apostle Paul who gave it the very specific, Christian meaning many of us associate with the word today. In his writings, and in their subsequent interpretations, grace meant a means by which God rescued humanity from its own failures and sins, as well as our helplessness to overcome them on our own. Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me….

Because of this, many of us may carry an allergy to this word, making it difficult to see its expansiveness and diversity. To do so, as Thomas Moore points out, we have to see beyond mere pragmatism and functionality, beyond numbers and productivity – beyond the first of my colleague, Fred Muir’s “trinity of errors,” individualism – and come to understand ourselves as truly a part of an interdependent world, even an interdependent universe, which is acting upon us even as we act within it. Put in a poetic light, Jelaluddin Rumi says, The eye goes blind when it only wants to see why….

The great 20th century Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich, once preached a sermon about grace called “You Are Accepted.” Of his dense, three volume Systematic Theology and his many other publications, this simple, pastoral statement may be one of his best known. In it, he describes his understanding of grace as something that can break into our lives when we are in great pain or despair, when none of our efforts seem to make our lives better, when we feel we live in a great darkness without end. “Sometimes,” Tillich said,

at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know…. Do not try to do anything now…. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!”

“After such an experience,” Tillich went on to say, “we may not be better than before…. But everything is transformed.”

For all his erudition, Tillich was a down-to-earth theologian. He knew that grace was not magic; he knew that it does not suddenly make everything rosy and easy. It does not make everything go your way. It does not always break into our darkness. And sometimes, tragically, the darkness does overcome it. And in those few but still too many times, there is no fault; there is no blame – only the tragedy of what is, or is not.

But, in those times when the light does break through, grace is what lends strength and courage to our lives. It is the quality we experience in people we know who are able to live through difficult, if not even threatening, times in their lives with a certain centeredness and steadiness, strength and courage that shines beyond whatever tribulation has befallen them.

Even in this sense, however, grace is not guaranteed. Annie Dillard once observed that holiness is indeed a force, but one that sometimes is not strong enough, and one that sometimes can be resisted. A Buddhist writer has stated that “Unlike the magic of a Greek muse or the will of an omnipotent God, the Dhamma is ultimately resistible.” Echoing Tillich, he writes elsewhere, “Grace is not magic. It is a matter of consciousness.”

Grace does not change the world; it changes us. It changes our consciousness, our awareness of ourselves in relation to events and other people; it changes how we are, our being in the world.

Too often, we expect things to change in order to feel better about ourselves and our situations. But the difficult learning is that it is we who need to change, and when we know that, and can be open to it, then grace can enter our lives.

Grace is available, at least in theory, all the time, all around us. 24/7/365. But, much of the time, we simply forget – no fault, no blame, we just forget. I know I do, I frequently forget; as I have liked to say over the years, I’ve been forgetful for as long as I can remember. So it gives me great comfort to know that Rumi was forgetful, too. In fact, he said:

For sixty years I have been forgetful,

every minute, but not for a second

has this flowing toward me stopped or slowed.

Thus does Rumi speak of grace as a flowing; and Meister Eckhart similarly noted, “Grace is always becoming, never stationary.”

“I deserve nothing,” Rumi goes on to say. And such also is Grace – an undeserved, unearned blessing – a blessing that is always flowing toward us, always becoming, never standing still. It may be understood as Thomas Moore described either as a divine gift or as “the support and inspiration offered by life itself.” No matter – it is what it is, still flowing, still in motion, swirling around and through our lives every minute of every day.

Such grace manifests itself, incarnates itself, in varying ways: from the surprisingly pleasant, the exquisitely charming, the deeply compassionate, the unexpectedly kind, the simply beautiful, the profoundly enchanting, the captivating heart-stopping eye-opening moment of understanding, the aha moment of creativity – and to all the things and moments we might not readily associate with grace, yet there it is.

So many things rely upon our understanding and interpretation of them, upon our perception and reception of them. Someone could wag their finger in our face and, with irritation in their voice, tell us to be more careful, to ask more questions, to be certain we know exactly what is being said and meant. But grace cannot enter such strident attempts at perfection and control. Mysteries are not to be solved, says Rumi. Grace enters our lives through simple trusting and through a willingness to get it wrong. It may even enter most knowingly when we do get it wrong.

Elie Wiesel relates the story of a young Hasid who was the disciple of the great Maggid of Mezeritch. He wanted to marry the daughter of a particularly fierce man, who made him choose between his daughter and the Maggid. The young man chose the daughter and promised not to return to Mezeritch. Eventually, however, he could not resist, and when he returned home afterwards, his angry father-in-law marched him over to see the local rabbi for judgment. The rabbi agreed that the young man had broken his promise and should give his wife a divorce at once. Overnight the young man was on the street where, inconsolable, he refused all nourishment and soon fell sick and died.

When the Maggid heard of this, he said: “Well, when the Messiah comes, the young Hasid will file a complaint against his father-in-law and the local rabbi. The first will say, ‘I obeyed the rabbi.’ The rabbi will say, ‘I obeyed the law.’ And the Messiah will say, ‘The father-in-law is right, the rabbi is right, and the law is right.’ But then he will kiss the young Hasid and say, ‘But I, what do I have to do with them? I have come for those who are not right.’”

Grace enters our lives, generally, where and when we least expect it. Like failure, or humor, or misunderstanding, or even aging rock stars.

We all heard (of all people) Mick Jagger’s words this morning from his song, “Joy”:

My soul is like a ruby

And I threw it in the earth

But now my hands are bleeding

From scrabbling in the dirt

And I look up to the heavens

And a light is on my face

I never never never

Thought I’d find a state of grace.

And I never, never, never thought I would hear someone like Jagger sing that. It is in itself a moment of grace.

I more expect something like that from someone like Jesus, who taught:

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. (Mt. 13:44)

Or, of course, from Rumi:

The ruby and the sunrise are one….

Completely become hearing and ear,

and wear this sun-ruby as an earring.

If we hear these words looking for pragmatism and functionality in them, if we want them to shore up our ideal of the self-made person, the ideal that “I am the captain of my fate, I am the master of my soul,” then, as Thomas Moore suggests, we will be “locked in time and space” and “have little appreciation for eternity.” Our eyes will go blind to the Mystery. But let ourselves be ever-so slightly enchanted, drifting off on the similarities, the echoes from one wisdom saying to another, then grace can not only enter, but can guide.

And it is the guidance of grace that we so sorely need these days. We are in danger of losing it, which would be truly disastrous.

In these times of great polarization, times when we live with an administration that values the free market availability of AR-15s over the safety of our children and one another, times when bigotry and selfishness are encouraged, I am reminded of a quotation by one of my favorite novelists, Tom Robbins. I find myself nodding in agreement at the first part, and furrowing my brow at the second. But be that as it may, this is the quotation:

To the extent that this world surrenders its richness and diversity, it surrenders its poetry. To the extent that it relinquishes its capacity to surprise, it relinquishes its [enchantment]. To the extent that it loses its ability to tolerate ridiculous and even dangerous exceptions, it loses its grace.

As its options (no matter how absurd or unlikely) diminish, so do its chances for the future.

Well, if the latter is true, then our chances for the future are very good, for we have certainly been tolerating (in my opinion) a particularly ridiculous and even dangerous exception, enduring a swing in our society that threatens our richness and growing diversity. We all need, for many and various reasons, a lot of grace to get through the days ahead.

So in the midst of such political turmoil, in the midst of tragedies that have struck too many and too often, grace calls out our best Universalist selves. It calls out an unconditional Love that embraces our community and our world. It calls out our visions of Hope in which individual worth and dignity within the interdependent web of all existence may be nurtured and honored. It calls out a Faith that our Love and our Hope will encourage and strengthen us for whatever opportunities and challenges we will face in the days and the years ahead.

So may we open ourselves to such a grace that we all may be more grace-filled and graceful in our own being and with one another, thus adding to the grace that may be known in our world. Let us each do what we can to increase the options and chances for a gracious and abundant future for us all.

Let us be blessed by being a blessing to others, so that in all we do, grace may abound!

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