The Third In an Occasional Sermon Series on
"Words That Make Unitarian Universalists Uncomfortable"
Preached at River Road Unitarian Church
Sunday, April 2, 2000
Rev. Scott W. Alexander
Even though it happened almost 30 years ago now, I shall never forget (nor do I ever want
to forget) the day for as long as I live. Everything about that autumn afternoon is as clear and vivid in my mind's eye (and my heart's memory) as the day I experienced it...it is truly an unforgettable (and transformative) moment.
A bit of background if I might. Most of you probably don't know that in 1972 and 73 -- the middle of my seminary training to become a Unitarian Universalist minister when I was just 23 years old -- I spent nearly a year of my life as a full-time Chaplain at City of Memphis Hospitals...at the time, one of the most troubled, under-funded, inner-city, medical centers in the United States. It was a terribly unsettling (yet formative) period in my life. The work at City of Memphis (most of it done at all hours of the day and night in the busy emergency room which responded to the worst of that city's violence, poverty and death) was often painful, frustrating, shocking and hard. As the year progressed, I was filled with worry, ennui and self doubt: Did I have what it took to be a minister? Was I really helping the suffering people I encountered with every day? Seeing so much human depravity, cruelty and violence, did I really share Unitarian Universalism's optimism about people and our American culture? I was living alone in a region of the country unknown to me, sleeping in a dingy dormitory bedroom adjacent to the emergency room, with a small TV, horrid cafeteria meals and few outside friends. As if all this weren't enough, that year I also began to actively struggle with my sexual orientation, still dating women but knowing (on some levels) that I was in fact a gay man, but still resisting facing the pain and rejection of that in a culture that was normatively heterosexual.
That November, thanks to the hospitality of the UU minister in Memphis, James Madison Barr, I was invited to join with a group of seasoned Unitarian Universalist ministers who went on retreat each year to a beautiful state park at the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. When I arrived on that bright and beautiful autumnal day with Jim, all the "good old boy ministers" (which was all there were in those days) gathered in one of the rooms to begin swapping stories, bragging and drinking scotch (that's the way UU ministers used to relax!) But I was filled with a lot of inner turmoil and angst from my Memphis life, and needed something else. So I put on a pair of hiking boots, donned a wool jacket, and headed up a winding path that led to the high bluffs which overlooked the rivers and the vast prairie landscape that stretched as far as the eye could see. At the top, I sat down in the bright, cool sunlight, and began to mull over (in a rather melancholy - maybe even self-pitying way) all the troubles, doubts and tensions I was feeling in my life - when it happened - with a stunning swiftness and a healing completeness I will never forget. I guess I was first lifted from my inner turmoil by the hauntingly beautiful, clarion call of a large "V" of migrating geese, who sailed gracefully over me by just feet because of the highness of the bluff upon which I sat. I could see the delicate pattern of feather and feet on their sun-lit underbellies, hear the squeak of their wing joints as they worked against the wind...and as I watched them gracefully and peacefully descend toward the rivers, I suddenly noticed the beauty, calm and rightness of everything else around me...the sunlight glistening brightly on the water below...the grasses about me dancing joyously with the wind that caressed them to and fro...the breeze fresh and bold on my face, kissing me in unrestrained purity and welcome...my own heart which suddenly filled with a joy, peace and strength that was almost unknown to me. In a literal moment, I was filled with a sense of profound contentment and absolute belonging I had rarely experienced in my life. Suddenly (flowing into me from all that was with a kind and powerful insistence) was the visceral certainty that I was a valuable and worthy creature of this creation...a valuable and worthy creature who was being accepted and welcomed by a mysterious-but-unmistakable love and a life force far greater than my own resources which seemed so regularly failing me down in the mess back in Memphis. Before I knew it, tears...good, healing, comforting tears, began to freely stream down my face. I suddenly felt renewed in my humanness...I suddenly knew (once again) that I could and would handle all the difficulties and uncertainties of my life...I would get through, and be something useful and worthy in my life. It was a life affirming and life sustaining moment I wanted never to end. I lingered there (long after my tears had stopped) for what seemed like hours (though I'm sure now it was probably only an hour or so)...just looking at the beauty of it all, and feeling my safe and sacred place within the grand scheme of it all. What had I experienced? I now think I know - though on that day I couldn't name it. A moment of GRACE...pure and simple and unmistakable...I had experienced a moment of GRACE.
Years later, I discovered Mary Oliver's wonderful poem "Wild Geese" as though it was written about my healing afternoon on that hillside:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
Are moving across the landscapes,
Over the prairies and the deep trees,
The mountains and the rivers,
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
Are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
The world offers itself to your imagination,
Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
Over and over announcing your place
In the family of things.
Though I might myself use somewhat less theological language to describe the experience, I like what Christian theologian Paul Tillich said about such moments in our vulnerable human living:
Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valleys of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation from life is deeper than usual. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being has become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed for perfection of life doesn't appear, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes, at that moment, a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice is saying, "You are accepted. You are accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know." Do not ask for that name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything...do not perform anything...do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted. If that happens to us, we experience grace.
I believe that Grace is an almost universal human experience. Sooner or later all of us - no matter how troubled our lives may be, no matter how resistant or unfamiliar we are with the experience of being cosmically embraced - sooner or later all of us experience the saving exhilaration of having Grace break over us with its healing clarity and power. Remember that vulgar bumper sticker that was so popular a few years back..."S...H...I...[blank] HAPPENS"
? Well, in response to that negative life message (which is certainly true...for as you all know really messy and lousy things do happen in this mortal life of ours) somebody countered with the bumper sticker "GRACE HAPPENS"
. That is my spiritual message to you today...grace DOES indeed happen...sooner or later (often when we are least expecting it, or most sure that we will never feel right again with the world) we do mysteriously receive saving, healing doses of undeserved blessing...we are suddenly embraced by life with affirmation and hope that give us the strength to move on and successfully face all that challenges and vexes us.
Sometimes -- as in the personal example I have given you this morning about my transformative moment on that Illinois hillside - grace comes to us as a gift flowing out of nature (and all its tender, healing mercies). Sometimes grace comes to us as a gift flowing out of our relationships with other persons (say as in the case when - after some spectacular personal failing - we receive the unconditional love of a spouse, sibling, child, co-worker or friend - or like the grace that happened in this morning's "Time For All Ages" story about "giving the ball to Peetie"). Sometimes grace comes to us simply as a gift from the voice of the inner self (when, again, in some moment of real personal distress or difficulty, we suddenly and mercifully find within ourselves a surprising well of calm, confidence, affirmation and strength which allows us to proceed with dignity and courage in our flawed-but-precious lives). Grace has many faces and manifestations...but here is my overall definition of grace: grace is the experience of receiving undeserved blessing, which (often just when we need it most) breaks over us with the unmistakable message that we are a valuable and useful creature of this creation. When grace happens to us, we are suddenly filled with the inner knowledge that we have our own worthy place in the grand scheme of things - the knowledge that we are beautiful, and that we belong, and that there is a way for us (howsoever difficult it might be at times) through this maze and mystery that is life.
It seems important (as I begin to explore the reality and meaning of grace) to distinguish between the powerful, potentially life-transforming spiritual experience of 1) RECEIVING GRACE (the powerful, persistent and healing message that we are blessed no matter what), and 2) life's many little GRACEFUL MOMENTS (a beautiful sunset that fills us with awe...a baby's smile that unconditionally embraces us...the feeling of healing calm that fills us when we listen to a Mahler symphony) which are pleasant to be sure, but are not transformative in the deepest sense. The kind of grace I would have you spiritually consider this morning as something of value to you as a Unitarian Universalist is a deep, sustaining transformative experience (that is never earned, achieved, or engineered) but comes to us as a sweet and saving gift of affirmation - again, usually precisely when we need it the most.
Do you all know the kinds of saving moments I'm talking about? I suspect that (if we had time) I could stop my sermon here and invite some of you to share your own stories of when grace broke into your lives and filled you with renewing hope, strength and purpose. Maybe some of you will privately share with me later your experience with grace, and how such moments renewed and refreshed you on your human journey. I'd love to hear your stories...I know they're out there -- because like the bumper sticker says -- GRACE DOES HAPPEN! That is one of the great spiritual gifts of this creation.
So now that we've settled the question about the reality of grace (it does happen...sometime or another to most of us), the next big question (especially for religious liberals) IS WHERE DOES IT COME FROM...what is the SOURCE of grace?
For many years, I was a part of The Greenfield Group, an historic Unitarian Universalist ministers study group that meets twice a year in New England. I will never forget one convocation we held -- years ago now -- when we found ourselves struggling with this spiritual question of grace. We had no trouble - all of us - sharing moving stories about moments in our lives when grace mercifully broke in and gave us the unexpected gift of renewed life, energy and hope...but because the group was about equally divided between humanists and theists a great and passionate debate arose amongst us (which vociferously lasted for a whole day!) about THE SOURCE of grace...where does it come from? The theists in the group (this won't surprise you to hear) insisted that grace (by definition) comes from God...from a great force and loving spirit that animates and blesses our world, and makes such moments of renewed affirmation possible. "Of course there is a powerful and loving spirit afoot in this creation which makes grace possible," the theists cried, "Who could be alive in this world and doubt the existence of such a kind and graceful agent?" The humanists (on the other hand) hooted their rational skepticism, "Nonsense," they bellowed, "these moments of transforming grace we have all experienced are merely the pleasant result of the confluence of serendipitous, natural events that come together in patterns of life that feel like an undeserved blessing to us." The humanists argued, for example, that the healing moment of grace I had experienced on that Illinois hillside high above the Mississippi was (to be sure) marvelous and saving to my wounded soul, but was the result not of some beneficent God doling out an affirmative kiss just for little old Scottie, but rather an utterly natural (and quite accidental) confluence of the just right combination of sensations and realities to affect me in the spiritual way I needed most at that precise existential moment. The theists, however, argued that such grace flows out of "the heart of God," which can be seen so beautifully and faithfully astir in our world wherever you look.
Back and forth the heated theological argument went: GRACE!...SERENDIPITY!, GRACE!...SERENDIPITY!, GRACE!...SERENDIPITY! As challenging (and interesting) as this debate was at times, I must tell you that (in the end) I found it largely pointless and unproductive.
Our impassioned debate that day was what in theological circles is called AN ONTOLOGICAL DEBATE. Ontology -- the study of the nature and structure of the universe. Ontology asks: What is the real structure and reality of the universe? In this case, the question being asked is: is there such a thing as a loving, beneficent God who parcels out undeserved blessings and life saving affirmations to humanity...or is our universe (amazing and beautiful...stunning and marvelous in its realities and rhythms as it is) essentially indifferent to our needs (but quite capable of blessing us - quite by pleasant accident - nonetheless)? Let me pose this question a bit differently: Is it some mysterious/powerful/kind God who "gives" us grace (parceling it out on some mysteriously divine basis), or is it ourselves who call natural, everyday moments (like those I experienced so vividly on that healing Illinois hillside) graceful and saving, and therefore PARTICIPATE in creating the moment of grace? This is (I suppose) a vast and intriguing question to some theologians...but one which (in the end, frankly) is largely spiritually irrelevant to me.
It's spiritually irrelevant to me because (as intriguing as the debate about God vs. Natural Serendipity is) I frankly DON'T CARE where precisely the experience of feeling grace comes from. In PRACTICAL SPIRITUAL TERMS, it doesn't much matter to me where you place the ontological source of the transforming experience. It doesn't matter to me if you are a theist (who believes grace comes from God), or a humanist (who believes grace just naturally arises out of the interplay between us and all that is). What I do care about - passionately -- is the spiritual truth (I think undeniable) that (over a human lifetime) GRACE IS SO MYSTERIOUSLY AND BLESSEDLY AVAILABLE TO US...ALL OF US! Whether it comes from a transcendent God (as theists assert) or from the serendipitous confluence of natural, healing phenomenon (as humanists proclaim)...THE PRACTICAL OUTCOME IS THE SAME: often just when we need it most, something graceful happens, we are unexpectedly blessed and affirmed deep to our existential bones, and as a result (and this is the really important part) are able to spiritually return to our daily routines refreshed, recharged, rejuvenated, and healed.
And thus we arrive at the very nub of what I want to say to you this morning. I am sure I cannot scientifically or rationally prove any of this to you - it is simply a heart-felt spiritual conviction I have long had. I do not believe that any of us are SAVED in our living because there is something out there (be it a transcendent God or natural forces) which bestow grace upon us...I believe we are SAVED rather BIT BY BIT in our living by our ability (and willingness) TO RECEIVE THE GRACE THAT SO MIRACULOUSLY AND INSISTENTLY HEADS OUR WAY...from whatever sources. When we hit a rough or a dry spot in life (and just don't feel right with the world and ourselves like I did that afternoon on that Illinois hillside), the key that leads you back to that place where you once again find purpose, peace, meaning and satisfaction in living does not lie out there someplace with some external power that's going to somehow fix things with magic...it lies "in here" with our heart's ability to receive the graceful mercies that are almost constantly offered up in this daily dance called life. We find our way in life (through the thorny times and hard places) by spiritually tuning our whole beings (our eyes, our ears, our flesh and our hearts) to the abundant offerings of grace that are always around us: nature - whose profligate embraces are so copiously offered; other persons - who offer so many gifts of unconditional support and kindness; and the inner self -- whose intricate, simple riches and pleasures are always there for us to pick up and know.
Listen to the words of my colleague Don McKinney,
It is the knowledge of grace, the awareness of blessedness, that - I am increasingly convinced - is the key to human survival...Grace is the inner, very personal awareness that each of us is blessed by life with certain unearned, unsought gifts. Among them, and perhaps the most important of these gifts of grace, is something that is akin to a continuing life-long innocence, a child-like simplicity...the innocence that enables us to take delight, to know joy...Controversy, crisis, disappointment, defeat, disapproval, considerable heartache - all are conditions that will probably accompany any life...They can be hard to deal with, but they cannot touch the inner joy that comes not as a condition of success or failure, but simply is ours, -- somehow - in the process of living, trying, responding and relating.
It has been my experience that when a moment or a relationship of grace tries to break into your life, it is powerful and persistent (like the way that whole autumnal Illinois hillside SHOUTED to me of my worth and belonging...or the way those kids "giving the ball to Peetie" SANG LOUD AND CLEAR of an inextinguishable dignity and kindness within human persons). But grace (powerful and persistent as it is) cannot penetrate a heart that is habitually unwilling or totally unable to SENSE and RECEIVE the unexpected blessings that lie all about us ready (at a moment's notice) to burst forth in sweet and saving power - grace cannot transform the heart that is unwilling to take delight or know joy.
All I am saying is, whether grace comes (from God...or naturally flows out of random, serendipitous life) GRACE NEEDS YOUR RECEPTIVE HEART - OPEN, SUPPLE, SIMPLE, READY TO BE HEALED BY UNEXPECTED BLESSING -- if it is to truly work its magic and restore us to full and joyful living.
This rational, skeptical, no-nonsense Unitarian Universalist believes in grace. I have seen and felt far too much of it (just at the right moment) in my own life (and watched it work its miracle in the hearts of others who have similarly been touched at just the right moment in just the right way by undeserved blessing) to ever doubt either it or its saving power. Grace happens...it suddenly swirls out of all that is and offers us unexpected restoration. But please, dear friends, never forget, THAT GRACE REQUIRES YOUR HEART'S PARTICIPATION if it is to truly bless and heal and save you. So even when your lives are feeling gray (and much of the joy and bounce of your step has been lost amidst worry and circumstance) keep the eye of your heart open...for you never, never know when grace will steal up on gentle feet, and kiss you in affirmation, renewal, healing and hope.