March 8: “With an Eye Open for Grace” with Rebecca Gant
Click here to start at the sermon.
I saw her walking up the sidewalk through the front window. I was at the table, and she was coming to the front door of my parents’ house with her arms piled high with boxes of tissues—so many that she was shifting the boxes around to get a hand free for the doorbell when I opened the door. As I let her in, I could see the shine of tears on her cheeks and hear the pain in her voice.
My family was gathered that morning as we mourned my mother’s death, and my friend had appeared as soon as she heard, bringing, she said “the only thing she could think of that we might need at the moment” – piles of tissues. She came in and expressed her sorrow, for she had loved my mother too, but didn’t stay long. Later, she would organize meals and other support for us, but at that moment, she brought herself, and the reminder that we were held in love by many people. Her thoughtfulness for what we might need most, her evident shared heartbreak, her willingness to be present with me while I was in pain was, to me, a vivid example of a moment of grace.
Grace has been a topic of interest for theologians and people of faith for centuries. Many books have been written approaching grace from different angles. For those of us who came into Unitarian Universalism from the Christian tradition, grace might be one of those words that we have left behind. Today, I want to explore how grace can be a useful concept for Unitarian Universalists. And how keeping an eye out for moments of grace is a practice that could save you from despair.
In Christianity, grace is often defined as an “un-earned gift” from God –usually the gift of eternal salvation, given to us despite our human depravity. However, many UUs reject the idea of a god who dispenses favors, along with the idea of hell, and that there is any kind of damnation to be saved from.
The Universalist line of our tradition gives us the belief that we humans are inherently worthy of salvation- whatever our understanding of that term- and that we need not earn gifts because we are worthy just as we are.
Despite disbelieving in a god that has any personal stake in our lives, I believe that grace exists. So if grace is not a gift of redemption that we receive from God, what is it?
Contemporary liberal Christian writer Anne Lamott describes grace in many ways– as a puzzling sort of energy that people live by- as a second wind– as water wings—as cosmic WD40-
I contend that grace is part of mystery, affirmed in the first source of Unitarian Universalism—the “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.” Grace, to me, is a reminder from Life, the universe, God, circumstance—whatever our understanding of what is ultimate—that there is good in this world and that life is worth living. Noticing grace is a tool we can use to renew our spirits. It’s a nudge to remain open to the forces that create and uphold life, even when things are hard—or maybe especially when things are hard.
My colleague and classmate Laura Solomon, recently wrote this:
In my personal reclamation of grace, I’ve come to understand grace as Life letting me know She still has my back. Even when I don’t feel it. Even when I’m not expecting it. Even when it feels like all is lost. Life slips me moments of grace like a parent might slip notes into a child’s lunchbox to help them through the day. Those notes won’t help her pass her math test. They won’t make his bullies go away. But they are a breath in the midst of it all that says, “You are loved. I can’t fight the demons for you, but oh, buddy, I have your back.”
These reminders—that someone or something has our back– are most welcome – and most dramatic—when we are at a low point in our lives. Like a glimpse of spring green in a lingering winter. Like a friend arriving with tissues when you are in deep grief. Like in the poem, a morning spent in a tire repair shop when a waiting room becomes a place of comfort and healing.
This winter, All Souls opened its doors to offer a warm place to people who needed to get out of the cold. This happened on the five nights in January and February when the temperature dipped below ten degrees. This project was certainly a gift to those who needed somewhere warm to be, those folks who thanked us for opening, who said “you treat us like humans here” who said “Your food is so much better than other places,” who, having been here before, brought their friends when they came back.
I know that the guests appreciated our hospitality, but I suspect the volunteers who worked there might have received an even greater gift of grace. I want to share with you the words of Peg Maher, who wrote the following after a shift at our warming center in February:
There is no warmer a place on a cold winter night than All Souls Warming Center.
It is a haven for not just the homeless
but for all souls doleful and glum about the current state of our union.
It is a place where a knock on the door presents an opportunity
to extend hospitality to ones who are in desperate need
or to welcome the gifts of time, energy and sustenance
from souls eager to share their relative good fortune –
and tip, if ever so minutely, the scales away from inequality and injustice.
It is a place to experience the abundance that community creates
and to share in the feelings of satisfaction that it engenders.
It is a place of generosity, where people drop by with steaming pots of soup, trays of gourmet treats, or ingredients for take away lunches;
where hearty breakfast casseroles are fashioned in the kitchen
before the chef is called away to a night job elsewhere.
It is a place of good humor and seriousness.
A place to meet and learn more about our fellow voyagers on our uncertain course through life.
It is home to those of us lucky enough to have found this place of comfort and camaraderie,
an oasis in the snow and bitter cold.
Peg highlights the unexpected gifts of grace that she and other volunteers have received as a result of spending time at the warming center. Being there presented, as she says, “an opportunity to extend hospitality,” to “welcome gifts from souls eager to share,” “to tip the scales away from inequality and injustice” and “a place to experience the abundance that community creates.”
Grace- the noticing of it as well as the experiencing of it– transforms us. For the guests who accepted the gift we offered, our warming center changed – and possibly saved their lives. They had been turned away from other shelters on a night when the freezing temperatures outdoors had the potential to be lethal. Instead, they came here, where they were welcomed with a smile and warm food and a place to rest. For those who volunteered, being with our guests was a reminder of the common human condition. It was a reminder that there is goodness and beauty in this difficult life. Volunteers connected with folks- both guests and other volunteers- that they might not have ever met otherwise, and found common cause. Guests remembered some volunteers from when the center had been open a month or so before, and continued conversations they had started. The grace of moments like these changes us.
Lately, I’ve been finding acts of grace in an unexpected place—on Facebook. If you are on Facebook you know that posts there are often the opposite of grace-filled, so it has been a surprise to find these on the public page of a restaurant in Lawrence called the Ladybird Diner. The owner there makes a practice of feeding people, regardless of their ability to pay. She is also a keen observer and appreciator of her customers and her employees. On the diner’s Facebook page, she posts beautiful essays about her experiences working at a downtown restaurant.
In a recent post, she wrote this about a customer at her counter:
I’m running late this morning and he is already at the counter drinking coffee when I get to work. I wonder if he was waiting outside for us to open. Waiting to come in and get warm. He says that he hasn’t slept for 30 hours. He tells me how much he admires the way we treat people who don’t have money. He is smart and well spoken, and young, not much older than my own son. He tells me a little about his brother and it takes everything I have not to ask about his parents. It’s really none of my business. My business is to fill his coffee and get him a hot meal. I am not a doctor, not a therapist. I could do more harm than good if I pretended to know anything at all. I don’t. But I can listen, I can offer food and a warm place to sit. And I can imagine that somewhere this morning someone is aching for him and hoping that he has, at the very least, those things.
And this, about one of her employees:
She doesn’t so much walk as she flows. With her, everything is fluid. She moves through all of it like water, through grates of trauma and transgression. She has rehearsed and rehearsed the choreography for occasions when she is misgendered, dead-named, confronted with invasive questions and violent insinuations, She slides through, regenerates with a 30 second dance party, then grabs a coffee pot and tops off the whole room. She carries armfuls of breakfast, still singing, always a kind word for the dishwashers and cooks, always. She could run the whole place without us but she calls us friend when she squeezes past. This is the friend we all want to be, this always creating, always hustling, always picking up the slack, always moving through all of it, swirling and beautiful, commanding her truth.
Ladybird Diner’s owner is a master at noticing moments of grace in the world around her. And then, she gives her Facebook followers the exquisite gift of describing what she sees so that we start to notice, too. She is a wonderful teacher to me, while I can’t avoid being aware of all the pain in the world, I want to remember that there is also good in this life.
Grace moves me. When I allow a moment of beauty or kindness to wash over me, to absorb it, I feel a prickle behind my eyes as the tears come. As a friend of mine once said “grace makes my eyes leak.”
That noticing of grace and letting it wash over me often inspires me to act- if nothing else, I want to share it with someone else. To call my husband over to see the sunset—to tell my sister the sweet thing her granddaughter said to me—to share on Facebook the post from Ladybird Diner. We can be collaborators with grace in this way. Inspired and buoyed up by grace, we can find ways to spread grace—that reminder of the goodness of life—to others.
For me, the announcement that Elizabeth Warren was suspending her campaign this week was a blow. I believe that sexism and misogyny played a big role in her difficulty connecting with American voters and I’m angry about that. I can imagine she is, too. But I was heartened to read the text of the phone call she made to her staff, announcing her decision to suspend her campaign. In that phone call, she described how they worked together for justice for people who are marginalized for their race, religion, gender identity, or physical ability. She raised up the values of empathy, kindness, and generosity as well as passion and grit. She praised her campaign staff for having fun, remaining true to themselves, and for treating everyone with respect and dignity. In these days when my cynicism threatens to take over, a message of hope and kindness like this gets me right in the feels. That’s grace, too.
So, when one is the recipient of an unexpected gift of grace, what is the proper response? When you have received a true gift—something you did not ask for or earn—something like, say, life and thousands of meals, strong legs, bones and teeth—I would recommend looking beyond a plastic lanyard. When you have experienced a moment of grace, whether you believe these gifts come from a person, from God, or from the universe, I believe the proper response is gratitude. Gratitude can be expressed in many ways, from silent prayer to making donations to a worthy cause, to words of thanks. The cool thing is that your expression of gratitude will likely become grace extended to someone else. It’s a beautiful virtuous cycle.
And, like the way physical grace can help you keep your body balanced as you move through your day, participating in this virtuous cycle of grace and gratitude can help you keep your emotional balance in a troubled world. If you are angry about the seeming intractability of sexism and racism in our world, or worried about the coronavirus, or despairing for our democracy or our planet, you will need something to help you keep your balance. But just as graceful movement requires practice and exercise, so does grace-filled living. Depending on your disposition, noticing and responding to grace may not come naturally to you, but even the most curmudgeonly curmudgeon can do it.
Friedrich Buechner, an American writer, theologian, and Presbyterian minister writes: The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you. There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.”
We must be on the lookout for grace, and accept it as we are able. Flowers grow along a path watered by a cracked pot. Comfort and community arise in a tire repair waiting room. Tissues appear, carried in the arms of dear friends. Children receive life and love from their parents, and their parents accept the paltry thank-yous—and sometimes lanyards– with grace and gratitude.
Let us find comfort knowing that even in this troubled world, grace will show itself to us and our gratitude will make it more available to others.