Reflection by Rev. Diane Rollert, 9 October 2016
Grace is one of those beautiful words that’s also theologically loaded. I could gloss over the theology and simply skip to the beauty. But then I would be dodging my ministerial responsibilities on this Thanksgiving Sunday that comes just days before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the final day of the Jewish High Holy Days.
I always find this time of year to be challenging and inspiring in a way that I really do appreciate. I think it’s good for us to count our blessings and to also consider where we have missed the mark this year, and where we need to seek and offer forgiveness. In fact, both blessing and forgiveness are an integral part of the theology of grace.
Grace is not a word I grew up with. Generally, in Jewish tradition, where my life began, the concept of grace was not something we were taught at the synagogue. There was mercy, loving kindness, forgiveness, but not grace. I grew up thinking, pretty vaguely, that grace had something to do with Christianity. It wasn’t until many years later, after I had become a Unitarian Universalist (or as some of us like to joke, a Junitarian), that I heard someone speak about grace during a UU worship service.
Here’s the context of that story (and of course this is my memory of what I heard): The choir of the First Parish of Concord, MA, had just returned from a trip to Transylvania, a place where Unitarianism has been practiced for nearly 500 years. It was a singing pilgrimage to visit Unitarian churches, mostly in small villages. Yes, this was in Transylvania, now in Romania, the place that too often is thought of as the home of the mythical vampire, Count Dracula. The real Transylvania is, in fact, home to a tradition of Unitarianism that dates back to the 16th century during an unprecedented period of religious tolerance.
One of the First Parish singers, a returning pilgrim, painted a mesmerizing picture of their choir arriving in a small Transylvanian village. It was night and the sky was full of stars. Surrounded by fields, rolling hills and craggy mountains (it is beautiful countryside), the local villagers came out to greet them, singing. The First Parish choir sang back in response, and then the two groups spent hours singing together beneath the night sky. They offered songs to each other as gifts. Then they shared the songs that they knew in common. The words and the language were different, but the tunes they sang were the same.
Find a stillness, hold a stillness, let the stillness carry me.
Find the silence, hold the silence, let the silence carry me.
In the spirit, by the spirit, with the spirit giving power,
I will find true harmony.
(Words from Carl Seaburg based on a Transylvanian text and sung to a Transylvanian tune.)
“That was grace,” the returning member of the choir told us. “That was grace.” I wasn’t there beneath those stars, but the word grace and the beauty and significance of the moment have stayed with me.
Grace holds this important place in our theological history. Back in the time when the Transylvanians were first discovering what would become Unitarianism, during the time of the Protestant reformation in the 1500s in Europe, there was a lot of debate around the meaning of God’s grace. For much of orthodox Christianity of the time, humanity was born in sin. As the interpretation goes, Eve gave Adam the apple, and they ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge against God’s admonishment. This was called the fall of man.
From then on, we became bad and displeasing creatures. But God, in his grace (and back then God was definitely labeled as “He”. No one asked God if he/she/they had any pronoun preferences), God in his grace and forgiveness, sent his one, beloved son, Jesus, to save all of humanity.
As the story goes, the sacrifice of Jesus enabled God to forgive us all, but salvation and the beneficence of God’s grace was only possible through the acceptance of Christ as saviour. Yet even so, even with that acceptance, according to some Christian orthodoxy, it was still entirely up to God to decide whether or not we merit grace.
Well, the early Unitarians in Transylvania and elsewhere, and the tradition that followed and spread through Europe and North America, rejected that vision of humanity and grace. They saw each person as being born with goodness, and not in sin. They saw Jesus as an example of how to live — and not as a sacrifice that enabled God’s grace. They saw God’s grace as something that was freely given to all, an unconditional love that we needed to answer by living as honestly, and as lovingly as possible.
(If you want to get a greater sense of this, read the early sermons of William Ellery Channing from the early 1800s; we have a full collection in our Heritage library, and some of his texts are available online: http://www.americanunitarian.org/channing.htm.)
The Universalist side of our family came out of Christian movements in the 18th century, that held at its centre the debate over God’s grace. The Universalists saw God as a loving God who would not condemn anyone, who would save everyone, whether they accepted Christ as saviour or not. The term Universalism comes from the concept of universal salvation and universal grace. I think it was that idea of universal grace that ultimately became the common ground for Unitarians and Universalists as they grew closer and closer over the centuries — to be finally united in the 1960s.
Today, we rarely talk about the theology of grace. We speak of the inherent worth and dignity of each person, which harkens back to that early idea of universal grace. We speak of the web of existence of which we are each an integral part; that, also, connects to the grace of creation. Creation for the majority of us is something that comes from the forming of the universe, and not something that was formed in seven days by a physical God, though we may debate how the universe itself began, and we may find beauty and inspiration in the words of Genesis. We may even talk about the grace that was created out of the big bang.
“Out of the stars in their flight, out of the dust of eternity, here we have come.”
(From Robert Terry Weston.)
We don’t have a say in being born or in the hour of our death. We are creatures that have star stuff in our veins. We are beings that exist because of the reality of grace.
I want to offer to you an interesting Jewish perspective that offers a nuanced view of grace for us to consider. This is one Jewish perspective on grace — one among many — that comes from the Reconstructionist rabbi, Rami Shapiro. Rabbi Shapiro calls himself a humanist, because he says all religions have their origins in human belief and have their own very human biases. He’s also been trained as Zen Buddhist, and as Hindu of the Ramakrishna Vedanta order. I imagine that he’d probably fit in well around here.
In his book, Amazing Chesed: Living a Grace-Filled Judaism, Rami Shapiro explains that the Hebrew word “chesed” is better understood as grace, rather than loving kindness or mercy.
Take these oft-quoted words from the prophet Micah: Do justly, love mercy (that’s love chesed) and walk humbly with your God. Shapiro asks us to consider a different translation: love grace and walk humbly… Chesed, or grace, he says is “God’s unlimited, unconditional, unconditioned, and all-inclusive love for all creation.”
Here’s what I find really interesting. He does not define God as a Supreme Being. Instead he says, God is be-ing itself (as in “be — ing”), it is life, creation, existing. God is a verb, not a noun. What that verb, that creative existing, that be-ing does is grace. Shapiro’s God does not choose to grace some and withhold grace from others. Grace just is, because life is, and grace includes everything — “blessing, and curse, life and death, the good and the bad.”
Think of sunlight, he says. There are times when the sunlight heals and times when it kills. There are times when it illuminates what we see and times when it blinds us. The sun doesn’t decide where or when it will shine or on whom or what it will shine. It just is and we experience it in its fullness. It’s then up to us to choose whether we step into the light or remain in the dark.
Another thing he says: this be-ing, this existing, this creative force, doesn’t need us. It doesn’t love us. It just fills us with life and light, and we are called to let the light within us shine in its likeness.
Grace, he says, is “unbound and free-flowing, given to the just and the unjust, the deserving and the undeserving.” There is no need to earn grace because it is already freely given to us.
Creativity and creation, he says, are rooted “in the wild and chaotic nature of things…” and chesed, grace, is that wildness. “There are earthquakes, accidents, murders and diseases, but none of these diminishes the grace at creation’s heart.” It is grace that enables us to “cultivate a radical acceptance of reality as it is, this very moment.”
To live with grace means accepting its chaotic reality, that there is bound to be both good and bad in our lives. If we tell ourselves that disappointment and suffering are signs of God’s displeasure with us, we will live our lives in fear. But if we live with radical acceptance of grace in all its joy and sorrow, we will find ourselves living more compassionately, and with justice.
He writes that radical acceptance of grace does not mean passivity, but rather that “God places before us life and death, blessing and curse,” and also “challenges us to choose life.” We can choose to live “with all our heart, with every breath, with all we have and are.” This is what it means to live with grace.
Creation is messy, which means that it’s in our nature to make mistakes, to miss the mark or, some would say, to sin. There are times that we do this intentionally. We humans are capable of being deliberately evil. “Evil” is not a favourite word among Unitarian Universalists, but I think we see things that humans do to the earth and to each other that we would find hard to label as anything but evil. We are also capable of doing wrong inadvertently, of being thoughtless, and we can do wrong accidentally. Sometimes we think we’re doing something good that turns out to have negative consequences. If we’re honest with ourselves, we know we’ve missed the mark many times. We’ve all done plenty of things that require our apologies and need forgiveness.
So here’s what Rami Shapiro says about grace and forgiveness: We have to stop denying the darker side of our nature, otherwise “we are left groaning in the dark shadows of deception.” God’s forgiveness, he says, is always there, waiting for us. That’s the reality of grace. But “until you realize that you need forgiveness, you will not notice you already have it.”
Shapiro says that what we need to do is to return again to our original nature. We have to return to being carriers of light and the vehicles of grace. Remember that star stuff I spoke of earlier? We often forget the beauty and the responsibility of our origins. We too quickly rationalize the wrong we do, pretending that it is for good. Rami Shapiro urges us to face the truth and take ownership of our darker side. When we do, then, in that moment, we are forgiven. By returning to our true nature, we realize that life and death are a matter of grace over which we have no control. “All we can do is accept what is, engage what is graciously, and move on to encounter what is next.”
It isn’t easy for us as Unitarian Universalists to accept the light and shadow within ourselves. Ours is a light-filled tradition that often chooses to ignore the shadows. We often deny our own needs for forgiveness or for grace. Some of that goes back to our history that inspired us to reject a negative view of humanity. We have long affirmed the human capacity to act justly. The question is: How do we get there?
Last week, I was talking with a group about grace. I told them that it wasn’t always an easy word for me. But as they shared their own stories of grace, I found myself returning again to the home of my own soul. This is the part where the gratitude comes in.
There are so many things that exist in our lives that we neither asked for nor deserve, yet they fill us with the reality of living. In between living and dying, we experience so much. We live with contrasts that bring us to tears and make us laugh, that fill us with love and overwhelm us with regret. We can strive to change the world, and that is good. But we also need to graciously engage all that comes our way, the blessings and the curses, the good and the bad, as we encounter what comes next.
Otherwise, the voices singing in the night beneath a starry sky go unheard.
Amen. Blessed be. Namasté.