I have used the phrase Grace and Grit often in my writings. I originally borrowed the term from a book title by the transpersonal philosopher Ken Wilber who married Treya Killiam in 1983. Ten days after they were married she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. The book tells the harrowing account of her losing battle against the disease. What is so powerful in their story was the way they approached the disease. They both knew the disease at that time was fatal. In the process of dying though they brought to bear their own perennial philosophy from the worlds traditions, which embraced rebirth and enlightenment especially in the face of death. After Treya died, Wilbur came to the conclusion that love is only deepened in the presence of struggle the grit of life. The grace of this and any of our own love stories is that Grace appears when we least expect even when the horizon of our world seems so dim and gray.
Grace and Grit. Grace, they unexpected gifts of love and life appear in the grittiness of jobs, and bills and estrangement and death and loss. The smile of a friend. Why is that? I am convinced that we receive these grace filled gifts, especially love because we are human first and foremost, because in the strain of living we are still open to trust and love, to live on in the persistent faith that we can change the small part of the world. It’s when we give up entirely, either through cynicism or laziness that we lose the ability to experience grace. But if we are open even when the sun seems most thin and the horizon most bleak, then, then we feel the power of love.
Part of experiencing grace and grit comes from being neither too pessimistic or too optimistic. Jim Collins in his book Good to Great, (2004) writes about what he calls the Stockdale Paradox. Admiral Jim Stockdale, a Navy pilot was shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese. He was tortured and imprisoned for years. When asked how it was that he survived he told reporters he kept the faith that someday he would be released. Who didn’t survive reporters asked him? The pessimists who gave up and the optimists who put too much faith in the short term, “we will be out by Christmas” and then Christmas came and went and they were still there, “we will be out by Easter” and Easter would come and go and they were still there. And over time, of course, these optimists were worn down and they lost the faith. And the grit became more than their grace could overcome. Stockdale said “You have to embrace the paradox of the facing the brutal facts that you are imprisoned and very well may die but if you manage to survive, someday (not a day) you will be released.”
This is a powerful lesson for us as spiritual beings. It is possible to lose hope. People do it all the time. I have lost hope. But if I have a faith that in the end, it will work out, then I leave room for the grace of living to find its way in. As the budding entrepreneur in the Movie “The Very Best Marigold Hotel” in India said to his struggling older clientele: “Do not worry. All will be well in the end. If it is not well, then it is not yet the end.”
Sheryl Sandberg the CEO of Facebook, lost her husband quite suddenly to a massive heart attack while on vacation in Mexico. Her world as she said “fell apart”. She was much more fortunate than most, she was wealthy and successful and quite able to take time off to heal. Six month after her husband died she was still crying, this time to a friend who told her, having your husband is option A and that isn’t happening so let’s kick the bleep out of option B. Option B, call it the grace and grit option, is the name of her book which she co-wrote with the psychologist Adam Grant to help people find resilience and grace when live is dark.
In 2016 while addressing the graduating class of the University of California at Berkeley, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iqm-XEqpayc) Sandberg told them that when the waves take you down you have to kick off the bottom and come up for air. Every lesson in love comes from the Grit in our lives. She learned the Ps of grittiness. Personalization, we always think what is happening is our fault, when in fact it’s just wrong. Pervasiveness, we believe when deep in our grit that everything is awful, what loss our sense of time and direction, learn that the world goes on. And permanence, sorrow and pain seems like it will last forever. We are sad because we are hurt and then we are sad because we are sad. But our souls she said have more resilience than we know. At the heart of grace is the gratitude that life is still worth living and the celebration which comes just for being alive. Grace for being alive. I often share this reading from Forest Church in his book aptly titled “Love and Death”:
“Without even trying, you’ve already won the only race that really matters. Unconsciously, yet omnipresent, you ran the gauntlet of stars and genomes to assume your full, nothing less than miraculous, place in creation. Being alive to love and hurt, to fail and recover, to prove your grit and show compassion, that is life’s true secret. Life’s abiding opportunity, bequeathed against all odds to each and every one of us, is much the same: it is to live and also to die, for the multitude or brothers and sisters who beat the odds with us, who labored with our ancestors hands and wept tears of grief and joy from our ancestors eyes, connecting us as kin to God and each other, blessed together, always together, with the privilege of running from gate to flag in life’s glorious race.”
Ben and Linda had been together many years. I was Ben’s best friend, he was best man in my first marriage. Over time Linda and Ben had grown apart, an affair, tears, anger, Linda left. They had tried over and over again to get back together, thwarted it seems by anger from the years past. One day I got a late night phone call from Linda. She was in an all-night coffee shop and very upset. She had made the decision to return to Ben. She had gone to his apartment and rang the buzzer in the dark hours of the morning (wasn’t it as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: “In the dark night of the soul it’s always four AM”). She pressed the button over and over again, hoping for that resounding click and sleepy hello. None came. While she had been away, their love it seems had gone away as well. We talked. I offered to come over. No, She said she would be all right. It was an hour later that Ben called. He too had decided to try again with Linda. It seems he had been across town pressing her buzzer at the same time. Each searching for grace. In time they found it. Two years later, I would stand on a rocky beach in Marin County and pronounce them husband and wife.
After each storm some survive, others not. Some choose to stay. But in each case, my friends, there are others who can help you find that shelter, those who can help you through the dark days. The tragedy of most separations is that they are done alone. If there is even a glimmer of hope, it pays to reach out. Like a beacon in the night. It is our given condition to stumble, but our collective task to pick each other up and stay on through the night. This church is one such shelter from the storms. We light our chalice, a symbol of the light in every window of our souls, calling us through the darkness to the other side. Our shelter isn’t as much a place as each other. We make the world better because we can. And just like surviving the storm of our personal lives takes courage, so too must we show courage in a time of need, in the season of giving, even as our church journeys through the changes we are facing.
And finally then is the peace born by our companions on the journey of life. It may simply be that we stay with those we love. No gift, no occasion, no reason. Perhaps even with the one we are struggling with. We dream of how the other could change, or perhaps how we might change, but at the end of our lives, at the end of this year, it won’t matter how many titles we held, how much money we had, what accomplishments we saw. What will matter is that we stayed when there was “a bit more certainty” a glimmer of light that told us to hang on. Maybe it’s not today. Maybe you have to leave. Fine. If it is certain then so be it. But maybe, with just a little more imagination we might see the earth turn her shoulder towards the sun. Maybe despite all the girt we become the very best version of ourselves we can be. As Brene Brown put in an interview with Krista Tippet, “Hard Back, Soft Front” https://onbeing.org/programs/brene-brown-strong-back-soft-front-wild-heart-feb2018/
I have probably performed over a thousand weddings in my ministry. But I will always remember my second; I received a very halting phone call from a woman who was a friend of a friend. She asked if she could meet me about a wedding. When we met she came alone. “John” she said “you need to understand I am gay. The ceremony is between me and my partner Denise. “Oh” I managed to say. You have to realize that this was 1988 and the gay and lesbian marriage issue was just coming out, so to speak in our churches. It was difficult for me; a younger man not at all certain of my feelings. I paused. We talked. I agreed to perform a “union” ceremony as we euphemistically called them back then. It looked and felt every bit like a wedding ceremony; a beautiful ceremony on a beautiful June day with two June’s brides. Grace had found its space for love. After they exchanged vows and hugs, I noticed Denise’s grandmother crying, sobbing actually. I went over and sat beside her. “Reverend” she said “can we talk in private?” We found a quiet corner. “I have never told anyone about this. Of course, I am crying for Denise, she is so happy. But it is more than that. You see I am a lesbian and even though I was married to Denise’s grandfather – a wonderful and warm man – I have had a lover for longer than that. No one ever knew, not even Frank. It was unheard of. It was so painful.” As her tears broke through to the grace of her wide smile I thought of this poem by Maya Angelou:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Maya Angelou, “Still I Rise” from And Still I Rise: A Book of Poems. Copyright © 1978