Wednesday, December 2, 2015

What's So Amazing About Grace?

"Can I meet with you?" A friend emailed me on Monday. "I want to talk about what we can do next in the wake of this latest tragedy."
So we met this morning at Rico's. I'm not sure what I expected. My friend is a lifelong activist, committed to the cause of justice in all its kaleidoscope forms, and to creating a more diverse community. Perhaps we'd talk about concrete actions to take: writing letters to members of Congress urging them to both enact more secure gun safety laws, while at the same time increase funding for Planned Parenthood. Or maybe it would be more local: rallies on the steps of City Hall, speaking out at City Council meetings for the need to end the open carry gun laws that threaten the sense of safety and well-being of the citizens of Colorado Springs.
It was neither of those things. Instead, it was a meeting of two women who feel daunted and overwhelmed at the never-ending story of gun violence in our town, our nation, our world. It was a meeting of hearts that were broken over the continued devastation of our society. It was a sharing of stories of hope and hopelessness and finding hope again.

What can we do? We asked one another. We ended up deciding that maybe just gathering as moms and activists once a month to cry and laugh together might be the best thing we could do. As we were preparing to leave, I noticed a card on the rack. Maybe that's the secret, I said, pointing to it. Maybe we just need to remember that. Filled with hope that the card gave me, I bought it.

I returned to my office and turned on the computer to the news that another active shooting event was in progress. This one was in San Bernadino, CA, with estimates of  at least 20 people being shot.

Another friend and colleague texted me to say that she was convening a gathering on Skype so that we could cry together. I joined in; it was a small group-- maybe ten people or so-- crying over this latest violence unfolding in San Bernadino. There was a pervasive sense of deep grief and hopelessness over the state of our nation, the rampant gun violence that takes aim at all of us.

It was a brief conversation and when it was over I thought again of the card I brought home from Rico's. I thought about having to preach on Grace the day after the shootings here. I decided once again to turn to Grace, to Hope, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. What else can I do? What else can you do?

Here is the text of my sermon from this last Sunday, entitled What's So Amazing About Grace?
May we all keep remembering.
What’s So Amazing About Grace?

This service theme, as all service themes, was planned months in advance of today. When we chose this theme--myself and my intrepid music and worship team--I don’t know about them, but I was imagining a Lifetime Movie of the Week sort of service; maybe--at worst--a Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day service where we could each think about My Problem and How I Solved It--one of the favorite columns I used to read in some teen magazine back when problems centered around your boyfriend cheating on you, or an outbreak of acne just before the prom
(which is almost worse.)

But life doesn’t work that way, does it? Instead we got bombarded with Real Life Opportunities to wait on grace to find us, to unblind us, metaphorically speaking, to lead us home. But what do we do when we no longer know where home is? And how will we know when we’ve found it?

Don’t worry. That’s where grace comes in.

Grace is our tour guide through devastation. Through loss and overwhelming grief. Grace is the voice of Siri guiding us through the unforeseen detours, the road hazards, the sinkholes that threaten to swallow us whole.

Grace is Siri saying, in that slightly annoyed voice, recalculating, when we didn’t follow her instructions the first time and she has to find a new route for us to get home. And she always does. She always does.

So…how about that Grace? What is it that makes her so amazing?

First, maybe I should introduce you all proper like. The dictionary’s definitions are simple:
Moving with elegance and grace; a prayer of blessing said before or after a meal--and that’s the riff I was going to take for this sermon, in the wake of Thanksgiving when many of us gathered
in large or small groups and reflected on what we had for which we were grateful.

In a Christian sense, Oxford has this to say: Grace is the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. Guess that last one is great if you’re a Christian, but what about for us wild and crazy Unitarian Universalists? What’s so amazing about grace for us?

When we step out of the pages of the dictionary and into lived experience,
Grace has so much more meaning; it means blessing and gratitude, and forgiveness and redemption.  Grace means getting a do over. Grace means, as the chalice lighting suggests, a fresh start at life with each dawn; not on a perfectly cleaned chalk board-- the past lessons and grace given show in bas relief against the study green of the day—but clean enough. Fresh enough. Hopeful enough
to get us out of bed and into our world, even on the bleakest of mornings.
And if we look even at the Christian definition--through our Unitarian and Universalist lens there is something for us. Just this morning someone posted on our Facebook page, What do you believe about heaven? And Jo Winn, our resident scholar and lifelong Unitarian Universalist, said “I can’t speak for everybody but the universalist side says that God welcomes all into heaven.”

And this is indeed what we believe. So when we look at this Christian definition through our Unitarian Universalist lens we can find something for us.

We can say Grace is the free and unmerited favor of the holy, of that which we name as sacred in our lives-- whether that’s human nature, the universe, God, Nature--as manifested in the wholeness, which is one of the meanings for the word salvation in Christian scripture, and redemption
--the reclaiming –of blessings. So grace is the free and unmerited favor of the holy as manifested in the wholeness of humanity and the reclaiming of blessings.

Now Grace may be amazing, but let me tell you: She’s no cheap date. As Herman Hesse says in Siddarhtha, “I have had to experience so much stupidity, so many vices, so much error, so much nausea, disillusionment and sorrow, just in order to become a child again and begin anew. I had to experience despair, I had to sink to the greatest mental depths, to thoughts of suicide, in order to experience grace.” 

Hopefully his is a more extreme experience than ours but it is true that Grace shines her light in the deepest shadows of our lives. When we are lost in the corridors of pain, or grief, or loss Grace comes in, swinging the lantern of hope to guide us home.

I don’t know about you, but in these past few days I have felt the temptation to become lost, myself, in the darkness of despair and helplessness, in the jaded fear that we--as a nation, as a people--have peered too far over the abyss of violence and can only tumble over into it, falling forever into its vast chasm of pain. And it was grace that pulled me back; Grace in the sharing of that pain with others.
First—because this is 2015—individually, or in groups on fb. People texted or emailed or called me
asking me:  Are you safe? Are you ok? And I felt that grace in this gathering clan of concern, of love, of presence. Then corporately, as I worked with a fine group of people dedicated to peace, to healing, to wholeness, to plan a vigil that would both honor our grief and call us to action.

In so many of the pictures from the vigil yesterday that showed our speakers, the light from our windows cast an aura of gold around them, and so many people exclaimed about that. I like to think that was grace enfolding us, holding us, reminding us we’re not alone.

Grace is not only being pulled back from the precipice, Grace is also the act of letting go of what was, of what could have been, of what was hoped for, and surrendering to the reality of what is.
Grace comes, in the wake of Friday’s tragedy, when we can stop asking why? and start asking what now?

What now?

Grace comes when we stop shaking our head in denial and saying I can’t believe this happened—again--just weeks after the last vigil of three people killed in our city as a result of gun violence. It comes when we stop shaking our heads in denial and instead bow our heads in sorrow, and give in to the grief, and shock, and the anger.
“Un-winged and naked,
sorrow surrenders its crown
to a throne called grace.”
Aberjhani,  says in The River of Winged Dreams
That’s Grace.

Do those of you who are parents remember when your child was very little, and throwing a tantrum, and struggling against your arms as you attempt to soothe them, saying, “Get away from me! I hate you!” and then suddenly they would just burst into tears, snd throw their arms around your neck as they sobbed? That’s Grace. Grace happens when we stop struggling against our pain and acknowledge it.

Grace is amplified when we can acknowledge, and seek solace with others, rather than isolating ourselves. Yesterday a couple hundred of us came together in this room to acknowledge our anger, and grief, and bewilderment. And we felt such grace.

As Rumi said:
“You are so weak.
Give up to grace. The ocean takes care of each wave till it gets to shore.

You need more help than you know.” 

Grace takes care of us and makes sure we get to shore. When we feel like we’re floundering, Grace comes along in the form of a friend, or stranger, or sunrise, or our dog, and holds us until we get the next wave closer to shore.

The good thing about Grace is she’s patient. She knows how unruly we humans are, how insistent that we can find our own way. We shout out, I can do it myself!  And Grace doesn’t even roll her eyes; she just waits. She smiles and waits. She waits for us to have our spiritual eyes opened to see her. There is no expiration date on Grace, no set point at which she will say
Time’s up!I gave you a chance and you blew it! She’s always there.

And Grace reminds us we’re not alone. Ironically, of all the media outlets I made yesterday, the one that drew the most attention and praise was from The Blaze. Scores of my friends posted that
and said Way to go! Calling it like it is! I have to say it was my favorite headline, too.

The irony is that The Blaze is a website run by ultra conservative Glenn Beck. The comments are horrifying! I hope my mom doesn’t read them! But I love how something sent out as a slam was so well-received by my activist friends Don’t you just love the irony of that?

And then when I started getting hate tweets from followers of The Blaze, my friends started sending love tweets to me. Which means I suddenly have a lot more followers on twitter and better do something more than post quotes from the latest Dean Koontz novel I’m reading.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Grace is that when we silence the critic in our brains; when we take the gavel away from the cruel judge in our hearts; when we turn from that hatred of those who are threatened by us, and look instead to those cheering us on, we discover that Grace has led us home.To the very center of our own being. To the core of who we are. And there we do find wholeness. We reclaim blessings we thought we lost. We stop fighting within ourselves and extend our love to our very souls, freely, and without fear.

Anne Lamott once said: “I believe that against all odds, grace bats last, and that little by little,
in ways that may not be visible for awhile, this polarization will heal. For my part, I pray not to be so self-righteous, and to keep remembering that we are all one family.”

I like that image, that reminder that we’re all one family—the shooter and the shot, Planned Parenthood and Bill Carmody—we’re all one family. Grace reminds us of that.

And Grace reminds us no matter how many times we strike out, or get fouled out, or have a pop ball caught right when we’re rounding first, we can look back at the batter’s box, and there is Grace, grinning and rubbing dirt on her hands before clenching the bat, and winking as if to say
No worries! I got this
.  And she does. She always does. She’s the cleanup batter; she brings us all home. And, where once we were parched, our thirst is now slaked. And where once we couldn’t see where we were going, we clearly see the path we’re on.
And then, in some mystical, alchemical transformation, we hear another voice calling out in the wilderness, lost and bewildered and alone, and we surprise ourselves when we reach out to take their hand, and become even more surprised--though in some ways, not surprised at all--when that person clutches our proffered hand, and calls us Grace.
And we respond, Come, follow me; I can help you find your way home.
That is perhaps the most amazing thing about Grace: how we are that to one another, how we can’t exist if we don’t offer that to one another, how, to paraphrase the words of William Blake from our opening hymn, Pity, Mercy and Love are in human dress. Home is in the reaching out to be a light for others as some were for us.
That’s what is so amazing about Grace, that’s what is so amazing about this congregation--the many ways we are grace-- to ourselves and one another. That’s something I could easily do, hand in hand with you, for at least 10.000 years.
That is so much more than a prayer before dinner. This is so much more than a lifetime movie of the week.This is, indeed, life. And I think that’s pretty amazing. Amen.

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