Audio podcast available here.
Sermon: Making Space for Grace
How am I going to live through this?
This is the question people ask when they are in the middle of a crisis, a trauma, or in grief that won’t seem to find its bottom.
It’s a question I’ve heard more than a few times in recent days.
It’s not always about the actions of the US President, but almost always, those things are in there somewhere.
There is a collective anxiety and dread washing over our country – and even, over much of the world – as the campaign promises to turn our backs on desperate people seeking refuge, or to end an imperfect but better-than-nothing health care law, or to erect a $15 billion wall across mountains and rivers to keep people out…or maybe, in – as all of these and more start to move from theory to reality….fear is growing, as is a sense of helplessness.
Meanwhile, it’s not like all the regular parts of life got themselves figured out– life continues to be filled in big and small ways with struggle – broken relationships, illness, money troubles, job stress and strain. The work of simply trying to make a life, to become the person you are meant to be. Put all of this together and you come to that question: How are we are going to live through this?
Collectively and historically, as a faith tradition, we have answered this question in one primary way – which is, to get busy. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, busiER.
In our Unitarian Universalist faith, as theologian Rebecca Parker says it, “WE are the agents of history, we are the creators.” We will build a land where we bind up the broken. We will.
And this feels good, necessary, and justified….until….we find ourselves in moments like the one we’re are currently in. Moments where we’ve been working hard and efforting, and marching and doing ALL THE THINGS, yet still the outlook for justice feels bleak, and even science is considered just somebody’s “opinion,” and we’re tired.
As Parker says, “We come up against our helplessness, the inability to stop loved ones from dying, or turn our children from paths of self-destruction, or from those we love from breaking our hearts. And we find ourselves asking, ‘Is there any source of help beyond my own strength? Is there anything I can trust beyond our power to make it right?’”
Today marks the fourth and last official service in our sermon series that we’ve been calling “We all go together,” which is exploring Universalism for the 21st century, although as we turn next to Courageous Love, we’ll keep coming back to this theology that can be summed up so well in the song that we’ve sung each of these Sundays:
While the Unitarian strand of our faith would tell us that we better get busy, it’s all on us, the good news of our Universalist theology is that there is something bigger than us that we can trust, something that is holding us and healing us, that has nothing to do with our effort. As Parker puts it, “There is a gift, already given, to all people, a gift that does not have to be earned, that will never be lost, that cannot be taken away.”
This is grace. And in these times, it feels like exactly the good news we need.
Which is why we decided to step back from our usual monthly themes, and instead dig into Universalism, because we knew we would need to remember – there IS a love holding us – there is a GIFT already given – we are already blessed – already healed – and it is by resting in this love that we have any hope of remaining awake to all that’s broken in our world – and NOT becoming ourselves broken.
Yet even as I was working on this sermon, and then hearing the latest crazy news, I started to think – this isn’t the message we need! We need to take action. We need to do more, call more, read more articles, create more outrage, wake ourselves and our world UP to this tragedy, …this…pain….it’s up to US.
The early Christian monk, Augustine of Hippo – a great proponent of the idea of grace – once said, that God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.
This is one of those sayings I should write on post its and place everywhere as a reminder…..because grace is the gift that life keeps trying to give to us, but if we’re so busy doing ALL THE THINGS, and our hands, which is to say our HEARTS and our LIVES are FILLED UP. We cannot find our way to grace. There’s just NO ROOM.
In place of grace, we just see US, and WORK, and ALL THERE IS TO DO, and ALL THE NEWS ARTICLES and the LATEST thing to be OUTRAGED ABOUT.
But when we pause. When we slow down. When we imagine ourselves not in charge of everything, responsible for everything – but rather, as partners with something greater than us all.
Then, things like – the National Park Service going rogue – appear.
Or, spontaneous mass-gatherings happening at airports across the country with chants saying over and over, let them in, let them in, let them in. And there too, lawyers working pro-bono on behalf of those detained. And taxi drivers rising up. And then suddenly, a judge in New York City agrees, and there’s hope, again. All while most of us were resting.
This is grace.
Grace breaks through, and we breathe, and we notice how the sun came up once again – none of us did that – yet here it is.
“No leaf or grain is filled By work of ours; the field is tilled And left to grace. That we may reap, Great work is done while we’re asleep.”
To our great surprise and delight, we arrive in a room filled with these others who have come to sing, even to surround us in song – these souls who come still to hope, to figure it out, still not pulling the covers over our heads afterall, but feeling called by this possibility of peace, this righteous sense that Love still connects us, heals us, holds us. That we could rest in this love.
If the first week of this Presidency is any indication, it’s a long road ahead, my friends.
We don’t know which way the universe is going to toss us, what ups or downs – and sometimes this is daily, hourly.
If we are going to make it through – we need to make space for grace – that is – we need to make space between ourselves, and everything, and everyone else, so that love can break through. We know to know what part of the work is ours, and which is not. We need to know where we stand, what we’re willing to do. And we need to do this all from a deep connection to our center, to that peace within, that grounding. To live from this place, even as we are engaged with openness towards all that comes our way.
In our courageous love workshop yesterday, we called this the practice of compassion, with boundaries, although you might just as easily name it using the concept from family systems theory called “self-differentiation.”
Our colleague the Rev. Jake Morrill, he’s a UU minister in Tennessee, and a guru when it comes to systems thinking describes self-differentiation as a matter of three puzzle pieces. They go like this:
1. Take a stand.
2. Keep in touch.
3. Keep cool.
Taking a stand is the part of knowing where you are, what’s ok with you, what isn’t, and sticking with it. It’s the piece of the world, and the work that is yours. And it is discerning and maintaining a great clarity of self, no matter what.
Keeping in touch on the other hand is about connecting openly with others- individuals, and also, the news, and all that’s happening. It is observing, and staying awake, with a great curiosity and care, including a willingness to consider how or if this information could or should alter your “stand.”
The trick is not to let this second piece destabilize the first. Which is where we come to the third practice – keeping cool. Maintaining both 1 and 2 is anxiety-producing, for everyone. There’s no getting around it – if you’re human, trying to figure out how to be a differentiated in relationship with others– you’re going to be anxious. So keeping cool isn’t about no anxiety. Just about regulating that anxiety.
I encourage the use of the word “fascinating” to help with this. As in, that is so fascinating that humans behave like that. It reminds you that YOU are NOT them, and yet keeps you connected without being toppled over.
Especially in a highly anxious time such as today, this can be a great challenge. We may find ourselves being touchy about stuff that isn’t that big of a deal – being stubborn or over-reactive about something we can usually let go of, or trying to solve the whole world by way of adding to our personal to-do lists….these are great indicators that anxiety is trying to derail us – even for ourselves we can say “isn’t that fascinating that I’m reacting like that.”
There are many things to help when anxiety gets the best of us. Breathing deeply. Singing. Taking a walk.
Still, none of these in-the-moment things will help as much those practices we take up outside-of-the-moment, those regular habits that help us know where we stand, who we are, whose we are, and by what, and to what we are called.
There are many sorts of practices that help with this, but I want to end my sermon today by focusing in on one in particular that I believe would be transformative and sustaining for all of us individuals, and as a congregation, and would be a radical act of faith – Universalist faith – for we who still often seek salvation by way of the to-do list.
It is the ancient spiritual practice of “Sabbath.” Anyone who knows me even a bit will realize that here we reach the part of the sermon that is aimed almost entirely at myself. It’s ok, it happens sometimes.
Over the past few weeks, my family has been trying out a mini-version of Sabbath. We call it “Family Fun Night.” It starts whenever I get home on Sunday, and it is completely tech free – that means no TV, no phones, no screens at all, and all four of us are together, and we do something that we think is fun. One time we played charades, and laughed hysterically. Another we made paper airplanes and had flight competitions all around the house. Most recently we played basketball and went swimming.
I confess that we all are terrible whiners as we attempt to begin – we’re too tired – or too worried about the text we might miss – or too lazy to come up with something that doesn’t involve a screen. But without fail, every time, once we’ve given in, it’s the best. It reminds us who we are, and what really matters. And guess what, the world keeps on going on without us….
Next up in my Sabbath practice, I want to let these Family Fun Nights move right into Monday rest day. It’s something I’ve tried with partial success over the years, emphasis on partial. But like with everything else these days, it’s time to get serious. It’s time to lean in to this major premise of our faith – the promise of grace.
So I wonder if you would you like to try this out with me – one day a week – no tech, or at the least, no social media….one day a week for rest, for remembering, for reclaiming who you are, whose you are, and what really matters. Don’t get too stuck on the particular day – I’ve heard that Sunday is a popular choice….but like I said, I’m on Mondays. All that matters is that you choose one day – every week where
As Wayne Muller says – “there is no rush to get to the end, because we are never finished.” Sabbath, he says, “reminds us to be still. Stop. Take time to rest, and eat, and drink. Listen to the sound the heart makes as it speaks the quiet truth of what is needed.”
Every other day, we can be the ones doing, marching, writing, reading, calling….just one day, we make space for grace to show up and do its healing work on our hearts, and in the world.
In this turbulent world, and in these trying times, let us rest in this faith – our faith, and in this love.
May it be so.