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There wasn’t much to say. It had been six months since his daughter had died. He stared up at the night sky, “Do you think there is a God out there?” he asked me. I started to formulate my answer, thinking instead of the Hebrew God within but somehow that seemed entirely too trite to say to a man who had just lost his teenage daughter. I said nothing. “I don’t think there is, John. I used to think so but not now. I think God is a drug.” There was anger welling up in his voice and tears streaming down his face. I put my hand on his shoulder. It was a cool spring night not too unlike what we are starting to feel now as the earth turns once more towards the distant sun. .
That was a very long time ago. For me, as for him, my faith in a greater power was shattered. I would realize later that my faith was actually expanded. But I have lost my faith in a God that can right what is wrong in the world. Rather I now believe that we are part of the process of creating God, WE are the makers of the Holy. But not makers in some mechanical sense, no, what I realize now is that we are given or provided opportunities to realize that holiness and make the world better all the time. I call these opportunities Grace, not in the traditional sense of an unearned gift from a God but in the far more mysterious sense as moments of holiness.
I believe that all of us has a spiritual center waiting to be discovered. Don’t get hung up on the word spiritual. It doesn’t necessarily mean God or dogma or anything you don’t want to believe in. So put down your defenses. Nobody is trying to put one over on you. This is a Unitarian Church not Scientology. And I am a multi-generational skeptic just like most of you. For me being spiritual means to be filled with meaning. To understand the larger world, this crazy mixed up world and find good in it and us living through it. I believe that this church is a spiritual center for your spiritual center, for our spiritual centers, waiting to break forth like a chrysalis of blessing. And I believe, and this is important so pay attention because I might just become your next senior minister, I believe that we are afforded this spiritual awakening all the time if only we learn to look for it. I believe that serendipity can just as easily be synchronicity of a force far greater than ourselves urging us on to become the angels of our better nature. I call this spiritual awaking “facing grace”, even if you we are so sure we want to face it. In fact, even when we actively stand against it. Facing grace happens to us all the time, crossing a street, giving help, in music, at the checkout line, in the death of a loved one, in the care of those who love us.
In fact, I believe that it is no accident that I am standing before you today, preaching to you for what I hope will be the very first time for a long time to come. I will be honest, coming to Connecticut was not in my play book. Francis and I loved California. We loved our church. We loved the life we had made. So when I heard about your church from my good friend Lee Barker, who by the way had tried to get me to move to Chicago two years ago, I said “Lee, do you know where I live?”. Coming back East to well, seasons, was not my first impulse. But something started tugging at me. I looked at your congregational record sheet, I showed it to Francis, we would bring up while walking the dogs along the beach. “What about Westport?” Then grace tugged a little harder. Click here, I am interested. And like cosmic tumblers I can’t pretend to see, one thing led to another and thousands of hours and miles later, here I am. Facing your grace for the very first time. Open to you, as I only know how to be, to see if grace was right about this crazy idea. I think the search committee would say the same thing, something kept pulling us towards one another.
Now, I don’t pretend to know what or how this grace business works only that we would do well, indeed, my ministry will be about helping us see, consider and perhaps answer the call of grace that is moving us towards our spiritual center.
So I am leaving California and all that we loved and Francis and I are hitting the restart button in our late fifties all because of this call of grace. Most of my friends and all of my current congregation didn’t see that coming. I am not sure we saw it coming. Yet here I am at your love and mercy.
So just how do we see this grace and how do we respond to it? Well for one thing it comes in many forms. Phillip Yancey, a skeptical Christian writer puts it; we are grateful for someone’s kindness, congratulated when successful, gracious when hosting friends, gratified by good news, we leave a gratuity for service given. And yet despite all that Grace is hard to define, like a frog dissected, Grace becomes only dead parts, the real secret to Grace is in its action. (From What So Amazing About Grace?)
A man dies and goes to heaven. Of course, Peter meets him at the pearly gates. Peter says, “Here’s how it works. You need 100 points to make it into heaven. You tell me all the good things you’ve done, and I give you a certain number of points for each one, depending on how good it was. When you reach 100 points, you get in.”
“Okay,” the man says, “I was married to the same woman for 50 years and never cheated on her, even in my heart.”
“That’s wonderful,” says Peter, “that’s worth three points!”
“Three points?” he says. “Well, I attended church all my life and supported its ministry with my tithe and service.”
“Terrific!” says Peter, “that’s certainly worth a point.”
“One point? Golly. How about this: I started a soup kitchen in my city and worked in a shelter for homeless veterans.”
“Fantastic, that’s good for six more points,” he says.
“Six POINTS!!” the man cries, “At this rate the only way I get into heaven is by the grace of God!”
“Come on in!”
Grace finds us. Like the divers to the whale, like the whale to the divers. And, I have found, it shows up at the most unexpected times. There is a story told of an Italian resistance fighter, grizzled, hard bitten, who had killed hundreds of Fascists through a campaign of bombing and assassinations. The secret police where on to him and he fled to a monastery in Northern Italy. There the monks took him in, shaved his head and put on a Cossack. Soon the peasants, many of them starving, all of them suffering from the Fascist regime, started coming. Not because this man was a resistance fighter but because they believed he was a priest who could hear their sins and troubles. He tried to push them away but they would have none of it. They kept coming, long lines of the wounded who he had in another way been fighting for. He had no choice but to listen to their troubles in the confession booth, and he was changed forever. (Ibid Yancey)
The first form of Grace is in change unbidden. Look back over your life and imagine it as a story. When were those moments that seemed to be taking us one way and we found another? And what are you going to do with them when grace extends her call? As the search committee knows, I preach from my life and later this year I will share with you in more detail one of my first encounters of grace unbidden . Alone and angry about my divorce from my first wife and my failing business I was walking along Fifth Avenue, I saw from across the street, a wealthy man drape his expensive overcoat over a homeless man lying on a grate and press a wad of cash into his hands. That was a moment of Grace but not in the way I thought it meant. I was of course, shaken out of my own privileged misery, at having lost a marriage and a business but being reminded that generosity still stirred my soul to greater rectitude. The real moment of Grace came some years later, when Frances asked me in a moment of marital discernment, what I wanted to do with my life. I thought I wanted to make a lot of money, but, remembering that epiphany of Fifth Avenue, my words came out, “I want to be a minister”. Unbidden grace, that expression of holiness came to me, and well… tah dah, here I am. But what you don’t know is that I tried to resist this call with all my might. I came up with all kinds of excuses; none of which could stop the calling. Naturally, I look back on my life, as we all do, and see a certain story line that had to be. But did have to be? I could have married my third cousin and gone to work on Wall Street. What made this any different? Grace. Unbidden. I can’t and won’t say it came from a God. But I will say there is a force operating in and upon us that calls us forward. As the German poet Goethe put it: “At the moment of commitment the entire universe conspires to assist you.”
Grace can also come to us through pain and struggle. Some years ago I was called to conduct a funeral for a teenager who had killed himself. I don’t need to tell some of you here that this is an unimaginable pain. Where could we go after the death of a child? Where do any of us go, where do you go my dear people, when someone you love is gone? When life deals you a blow beyond words? More than two hundred people filled the church. Friends of the family but more importantly friends of the boy; boys and girls themselves who were suffering the pangs of adolescence. I had told the family that the only way I knew to deal with this was to be open about what had happened, to be honest about the agony of his life and then allow for healing to occur. His mother agreed but his father was not willing. He was angry, hurt and afraid. He threatened not to come.
As the mourners filed in I watched for the father. I knew that he and his son had deep struggles. I knew that the father blamed himself in part for his son’s suicide. We waited. The congregation was restless. Finally, the mother said we would have to start without him. The service lasted over two hours, it’s not so important what I said, although I did speak the truth of his death and the struggle he and his family had gone through. I did remind everyone that this is an invitation for healing and dialogue. As the mourners came up one after another, I noticed that the father had slipped into the back of the church. Other parents, relatives and his friends began talking about what this boy had meant to them, how he was gentle, and kind and helpful and sensitive. They talked about his smile and his laugh and about all those attributes that made his life such a gift. Some told funny stories, we all managed to laugh in the midst of this tragedy. And then his best friend got up. He stood there for a few minutes, tears streaming down his face. He spoke of his friend’s love for him and for his family. He spoke of his struggle with his father, but also about how much he loved and admired his father.
As the friend sat down, I noticed the father coming forward to speak. He moved slowly and painfully. He climbed the steps into the chancel and stood behind the pulpit. I stood up to be beside him. The silence was profound. He spoke almost in a whisper about how sorry he was for pushing his son so far from him. He apologized to his family and his wife for his part in this tragic struggle. He said he hadn’t realized the man his son was becoming, and now he could see. He was blind and now he could see. And then he started to sob. I held him there in front of two hundred people as the grief opened its mighty iron gates. All his own pain from his father’s struggle, and his father before him. Generations of pain, flooded out of this one man. After he sat down, I spoke about grace. I said that this boy had not died in vain, we were all being invited to change our world, our relationships, our very way of being here today, right now. I have used that language of invitation in every memorial service I have ever done since then. In memory of that boy and his father.
Grace happens through pain. Not always, and not so publically but it does happen. The key as I put in my blog and forthcoming book is to face it when it does come. We are called to face our grace and in that to grow. This is grief’s strange and magic work. After more deaths than I can remember, more grief than I could imagine, after more joy and more laughter, more weddings and more babies I have come to the conclusion that Grace does exist but not in the way I was taught so many years ago. I have come to believe that Grace is not an either/or proposition but rather that simply is. El shadia esom el. “I am who I am” pronounced Yeweah to Moses. El being that incredible Hebrew word that defies the English translation as a mere “is”.
When people ask me do Unitarian Universalists believe in God, my rejoinder is almost always “which one?” For, you see, we have been creating God in our own image for thousands of years. Ultimately, the Being of God doesn’t change but our perception, even our need for that Being, changes all the time. We seem to be constantly bringing different names to God. Grace is the name I give to God, to the call and the promise of being alive. I have travelled from a Bad God, to a Good God, to no God at all and back to a grand Presence of Grace that gives us life and moves us toward something much larger than we can see. The best I can say about my spiritual center is that I am an enchanted agonistic with mystical leanings, but I believe holiness lives in the love and relationships we keep.
Sometimes we mistake grace for a coincidence but it turns out all right in the end. St. Peter was standing at the Pearly Gates and Jesus happened to walk by. “Hey Jesus” called out Peter, “can you help me?” Jesus being in the helping business said “sure, what do you need?’ “Well I really need a break so will you stand here and ask people what they have done to make the world a better place? And if it seems ok to you let them in”. “Ok” says Jesus. After letting everyone in so far (this is after all a Universalist story), this older man comes to the gate. Jesus looks at him and says “tell me, what have you done to make the world a better place?” The old man looks at Jesus and says “Well” The old man replied, “I was a carpenter.”
Jesus remembered his own earthly existence and leaned forward. “Did you have any family?” he asked.
“Yes, I had a son, but I lost him.”
Jesus leaned forward some more. “You lost your son? Can you tell me about him?”
“Well, he had holes in his hands and feet.”
Jesus leaned forward even more and whispered, “Father?”
The old man leaned forward and whispered, “Pinocchio
Grace is a gift. Often one least expected, even unwanted but a gift nonetheless. And sometimes, Grace is just a gift. The point is to face the gifts of life and search for its deeper meaning even in adversity. As we come to know each other better this week, I am sure we will see the gift we are to each other. And just what our ministry, our search for that spiritual center together might look like. I am very excited to learn about you, us and a bit more about me.
Before my friend’s daughter died of cancer, we were at her bedside. She was drifting in and out of consciousness. At one point, she came back opened her eyes wide and said “Daddy, it’s so beautiful, don’t cry”. As ever I was convinced she had glimpsed the other side, no more pain, no more fear. Years later my friend sent me a Christmas card reminding me of what his daughter said. “Grace IS a drug, John” he wrote, “it has helped me heal. I still miss her terribly but now I know she was part of that same Grace we call life. I go on remembering what truly is beautiful and it is still good to be alive.” May Grace, of a billion names, bless us all on this journey we are upon and may we find hope in ways we can only imagine. We belong to life, to each other and, ultimately, to the very stuff of stars.
*The stories in this and all my sermons have been fictionalized to protect the identity of those whose lives and lessons I am sharing.