a sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on November 11, 2012
Every Sunday, one of the little decisions I make is which stole to wear. I have a few of them and each has a story behind it. I always try to choose one that has some connection with the topic or type of Celebration of Life we are having.
Today, the choice was easy. This stole was made by my dearest friend for my ordination. It is an earthy brown color. One one side, she embroidered a great blue heron. The other side has tortoises – one on top of the other. It’s turtles, all the way down – a reference both to Stephen Hawking and to Hindu & Native American mythology.
My friend didn’t need to make me a stole – she did so out of love. And because she knows me so well, she used two animals to whom I feel a deep connection. Animals that, whenever I see them, cause me to stop whatever has my mind occupied, and to just be in the moment. I am so full of gratitude to my friend for making this for me, for now whenever I put it on, I remember some of those times.
Like what I now refer to as “Turtle Week.” That was a week when I was so overwhelmed, and yet everywhere I went, I kept seeing turtles. Turtles on the path I was walking on – okay, that was really not terribly unusual. But turtles the size of half a basketball crossing a highway, that was a lot more uncommon.
As the week went on, I became more and more anxious. I was trying to pack for a move that I was both excited and nervous about, I was shuttling the kids to activities, I was taking care of a dying pet – a cat that I had gotten when I was in college. I was constantly running from this, to that, never a moment of downtime, never a moment to stop and just be. These turtles kept appearing, and I would notice them, wonder about them for a minute, and then move on.
Until a very large turtle – about a basketball and a half, suddenly appeared in the road I was driving on, in the center lane, on a road that I had never seen a turtle on before – in the middle of a subdivision! I could have swerved around it, but it suddenly occurred to me that in my life, turtles are reminders to stop, take a break in all the craziness. And so I stopped. Right there in the middle of the road. And I got out and stopped traffic for a few minutes as the turtle crossed safely to the other side and crawled into the grass. As I watched the turtle, I realized that turtles are also reminders that, wherever I go, I would be taking my home with me. That all would be well.
When I got back in the car, I felt better. Less stressed. Less overwhelmed. And much more connected to the spirit of life and love, the mystery and wonder of the universe. I had experienced what I now understand as a grace-full moment.
So today I am talking about grace, and about grace-full moments. And one can’t really talk about grace, I don’t think, without talking about this old, traditional hymn.
John Newton, the author, was an 18th century poet and clergyman. He wrote this hymn in 1772. Newton knew something about grace. The story goes that he had been a slave trader, on a ship, and gotten caught in a terrible, terrible storm. He called out to God to save him, and miraculously the ship survived the storm.
Now, the legend around this story says that Newton immediately gave up slave trading, was born again, and went into the ministry. The reality around this story is a bit different – Newton remained a slave trader for 7 more years after being saved during the storm.
I actually like the real story better. It feels more human to me (probably because it is!!). In part, I think this is because I never really understood the idea of God’s grace when I was a Protestant. It seemed so arbitrary and unfair. “There but for the grace of God go I” ??? Why did God offer grace to some people but not others? This finger pointing, you get it, you don’t, God was and remains quite distasteful to me.
Ironically, perhaps, I began to understand grace and experience more grace-full moments once I moved away from that vision of God, and towards a more cosmological view of the sacred, with the divine and sacred flowing through and around all of us, all the time. With this shift, came an awareness of grace more like what UU minister Peter Fleck describes in this book Come As You Are:
“Grace is a blessing, a blessing that is undeserved, unsolicited, and unexpected, a blessing that brings a sense of the divine order into our lives. The ways of grace are mysterious, we cannot figure them out. But we know grace by its fruits, by the blessings of its works.”
We don’t need a finger-pointing deity to experience grace. And though grace may be something that is hard to describe, mysterious, Fleck says we will know it when we experience it. It is something that happens to us internally.
In this way, grace is like an attitude. An attitude of gratitude, actually, for there is a direct connection between the word “grace” and “gratitude.” Think of how one expresses gratitude in Spanish or in Italian: Gracias, or Grazie.
This is why what some folks say before meals is called “Grace” – it is a moment for experiencing and expressing gratitude. Saying grace, or experiencing grace-full moments, remind us to be thankful for all that we have.
I remember the very first time I felt one of those grace-full, gratitude moments. Like my experience with turtles that would come a few years later, this first time I found myself overwhelmed by life. Everything was so stressful, I had too many pressures tugging on me. I didn’t have time to think, much less to “be.” A friend had suggested I try a silent retreat in a hermitage cabin in Northern Minnesota. I had never done anything like that before, and was a bit anxious about the process, but I was also very desperate.
I drove up through Northern Minnesota and pulled into the retreat center. One of the care-takers took me to my cabin, gave me a key, and left. As I opened the door and walked in, I dropped what was in my hands and I fell to the floor in gratitude. The relief I felt, the gratitude I felt, was powerful and transformative. It was a grace-full moment.
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wreck like me.
I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
When I arrived at the hermitage in MN, I was a wreck. And that moment of grace saved me. It saved me spiritually, because I had been so disconnected from the ground of our being that I was withering. It saved me psychologically because I was careening into a break-down that would have been even more difficult for my family and me. It saved me emotionally and rationally because it helped me reorient myself, reboot, and get myself on a healthier, more whole path.
I had been blind to where the road I was on was leading, but in a moment of grace it became clear and I realized that was not the path I wanted to be on.
This is why I always sing “wreck” instead of “wretch” when I sing Amazing Grace. Because I am not a wretch – I am not doomed by original sin, despicable, contemptible. None of us are. But I was most definitely a a wreck.
I don’t like the way our hymnal suggests changing “wretch” to “soul” in an effort to make the hymn more palatable to Unitarian Universalists who like to read ahead and won’t sing words to which they don’t agree. “Soul” doesn’t imply the suffering, the turmoil that we might need saving from – not eternal salvation saving (which our Universalist tradition taught all would have anyway) but more of a lifeline-when-you-are-drowning saving.
No, I like “wreck” and the understanding that grace is something that happens in this life, that effects us in the here in and now. When you get what you most need when you least expect it. It is not always a turtle in the road, or collapsing in gratitude. It might be just the right interview on NPR or song on the radio that helps you make a decision, or a phone-call from a friend you haven’t heard from in a while just when you are feeling most down and disconnected. Or so much more.
“Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved;
how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.”
Let me tell you: when I collapsed on the floor of the hermitage cabin, I was afraid. It was a very, very scary, and liberating, and overwhelming experience. I had never experienced anything like it. Sometimes, grace-full moments are like that: the can come on intensely and cause us to shake in fear.
But as Charlene Spretnak points out in State of Grace, we more frequently experience
“slight versions of it, as in the act of group singing when the alignment of vibrations evokes in us awareness of the vibratory ocean of flux and form in and around us. Touching the ultimate truth in that way, and many others, brings us joy, release, connection and peace.”
These grace-full moments can bring us a sense of awe in the mystery and wonder of the universe, a sense of humility at our place in the cosmos. They can cause us to be afraid, and they can relieve our fears as well, like the turtles that I kept encountering, reminding me that I would be bringing my home with me wherever I went.
We don’t have believe anything special in order to experience grace-full moments, but we do need to be open to the experience. If we are not open to them, they are less likely to happen. Unitarian Universalist Minister Fred Muir, in Heretics’ Faith: A Vocabulary for Religious Liberals explains:
“Hence the mystery that makes grace amazing: while on the one hand you can’t do anything to force grace because grace happens, at the same time if you don’t create the opportunity, if you’re not open to it, if you’re not willing to receive it, then there won’t be grace.”
“Through many dangers toils and snares, I have already come.
Tis grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
If we are open to the experience, these grace-full moments or experiences will happen to us. Much like the way gratitude changes us: the more we practice looking for things to be grateful for in our lives, the more we find.
I have noticed more and more facebook posts from people who are practicing 30 days of gratitude. This time of year encourages us to give thanks. It may not be grace that has brought me safe thus far in my life, but I sure am grateful to have made it thus far.
In the hymn, Newton wrote “Grace will lead me home” – and I think by home he must have meant heaven. For him, it was God’s grace that enabled his salvation. But like much of the rest of the song, I don’t think that is the only way to interpret it.
The band Mumford and Sons has a song called Roll Away Your Stone that is about becoming vulnerable with someone, showing our true selves. Part of the lyrics are:
It seems that all my bridges have been burned,
But, you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works
It’s not the long walk home
that will change this heart,
But the welcome I receive with the restart
Grace can lead us home. To the place where our hearts reside. It can allow us to restart our lives, to try again to become our best selves, who we imagine and hope we are. Grace can be that strength found when we have tried over and over again kick a habit and we get back up to try one more time.
It is not the walk, necessarily, but the welcome we receive when we return home – with all our joys and sorrows, challenges and celebrations – our messy, human selves. It may be the welcome we receive that becomes a grace-full moment – just what we most need. In this way, we might enable others to have a grace-full moment, by providing just the welcome they need when they most need it.
Othertimes, we experience grace as the affirmation that we are exactly where we feel like we are supposed to be, doing exactly what it feels like we are supposed to be doing. Not that we are destined by fate necessarily, but that we have found our groove, we have found what works for us – a right path.
The road to ministry for me has been like that. It took me 7 years to graduate from seminary, taking a few classes at a time. And I am not a patient person. After graduation, I experienced more setbacks than I had expected. I almost gave up a few times, but through grace or hard-hardheadedness, continued.
When I came to Louisville, all the bumps in the road became worth it. The anger I had felt began to heal as I came to what felt like home, the place where it felt like I was supposed to be, where I could be of most use. And now my mother and my sister have relocated here. I am grateful to be home, to be just where I am, doing exactly what I am supposed to be doing. And that feels, to me, like grace.
“When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun,
we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’d first begun.”
So if there is no finger-pointing deity, imparting grace or suffering on people according to some inexplicable plan, then were is God in relation to grace?
Like so many theological terms and interpretations, so much depends on how one defines “God.” I now experience God as that sacred reality, mystery of the universe, awe and wonder. God is the divine, found in connective tissues that bind me to every other entity in the interdependent web of existence.
I experience the divine in those grace-full moments. Not that they are a gift of God, but that they are part and parcel with all that is sacred and good and whole in life. For that, I sing my gratitude, and my praises.
Without someone to experience it, grace would not exist. It is not separate from us, but woven into our capabilities as living creatures. It is something that we can cultivate. It can rescue us, be fearsome and relieve our fears. It can bring us home.
All these aspects of grace were brought home to me recently on the Living Legacy Pilgrimage I was on in the beginning of October. It was the third or fourth day of the Pilgrimage. We were in Selma, AL and had spent all day driving around and listening to stories of the Civil Rights movement, stories of Bloody Sunday and Turn-Around Tuesday before the march to Birmingham finally happened. I was exhausted. When we got to our hotel, we were supposed to gather in the courtyard for a brief ceremony to honor “Indigenous Peoples Day” but I did not have the emotional reserves to spare.
I went to my room on the 3rd floor and walked out onto a balcony that overlooked the Alabama River. I could see the Edmund Petus Bridge. The sun was setting as I got out my journal to write some of my emotions out on paper.
I looked up and noticed a bird flying toward me, right at my eye level: Was that a Heron flying towards me? The first time it passed, I thought it could not have been. As if to say “Look, silly, of course I am” it flew by a second time, even closer. It landed, and another joined it. An egret flew across the river.
And I cried.
It was exactly what I needed, when I most needed it. Some people might call it a sign, others might call it luck or coincidence. I experienced it as a grace-full moment that allowed me to rejoin my fellow pilgrims the next day, rejuvenated in body and in spirit.
It was, without a doubt, amazing.