Thursday, May 31, 2012

Grace. Period.

Amazing Grace is my favorite hymn.  I really can’t tell you why.  It was my mother’s favorite as well.  The tune, the words, have such a stark truth they haunt me.  “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me” (although we of course give you a theological choice to change wretch to soul, but that is another sermon for another day). John Newton, the son of a Methodist ship captain who had squandered his fortune as a young man found himself conscripted aboard a slave ship.  Through hard work and because he was white, he won his freedom and made captain, now himself plying the evil trade for many years.  On a return trip to Africa, facing a tremendous storm he prayed for deliverance , with the promise he would give up the trade if saved.  The storm abated and Newton kept his word for the first time in his life.  He married his long lost love and became one of England’s most ardent anti-slavery proponents of his age.  It would take such later activists as William Wilberforce  in parliament to eventually undo the slave trade in England and it took a civil war for it to end here.

The words we sing are altered for UU Sensibilities and are frankly somewhat tame.  Grace will lead us home, sure enough, but the fourth stanza of the original is much stronger “The Lord promised good to me, His words my hope secures, He will my shield and portion be, as long as life endures.”

That line gets to the heart of what makes grace so powerful for Christians.  God has promised us a gift, no matter what we are or have done.  We Unitarian Universalists assume that we are not the wretch the song proclaims nor do we need to be saved, we even  have our doubts about God.  But despite this, I still believe Grace is a powerful idea especially now.  The real power of the song and the idea is that we are always given another chance.  And sometimes, when we least expect it or even earn it we are given some gift, if only the breaking of hope when days are dark.

We belittle grace by assuming that only we have control over events.  After all we are a religion of deeds not creeds.  We end our service with the words “now the service truly begins”.  But doing good in the world does not negate grace.  Grace happens.  You need a solution, the phone rings and someone has an idea.  You don’t know how you are going to pay the bills and you receive a bonus, or even a job offer.  You have learned you are dying of cancer but your family heals and comes together because of it.  Grace happens all the time.  Some will call it chance, or serendipity, but I like Grace better.

Sometime grace even comes through suffering.  Many years ago I was invited to lead a service for “Families of Murdered Children”.  The service was outdoors in a park. During the service we would plant a tree.  During the service I noticed a lone man standing at the edge of the park.  The service, very moving, ended and everyone left except for this young family.  I knew their story, they had lost their three year old son to a drunk driver.  This was their first service of this kind and it was very hard for them.  As they stood and turned the mother gasped, staring at the man across the park, her husband’s fists clenched, this was the man who had killed their son.  Slowly the lone man walked towards them, I was trying to play through what I would do if this turned violent.  He stopped about ten feet away. Tears were streaming down his face.  He whispered with as much voice as he could manage.  “I’m sorry”. The silence which followed could have birthed triplets.  The husband put his arm around his wife and nodded and the man turned and left.  The mother broke down.  The whole exchange lasted less than two minutes but changed me forever.  Here I understood what Newton meant when he said, “I once was lost but now am found”.  Not that the killer or the family or anyone was saved, just found.  Found their humanity again.  Found life.  Grace given and received just like that.  Grace. Period.

As the Dutch theologian Henri Nowen observed “Who amongst us doesn’t want to come home?  Who amongst us does want to be forgiven?” Forgiveness is what helps grace along most of all.  John Newton’s father never forgave his son for squandering his future.  God and perhaps even Newton forgave himself for the evil he had done.  More importantly, grace was made real as Newton worked to undo what he had done.  In the period between failing and rising again, grace happens. Sometimes grace lies just inside a new day.  One of my favorite poets W.H. Auden wrote of grace “In the deserts of the heart, let the healing fountain start, in the prison of his day, teach the free man how to praise.”  Amazing and mysterious and as old as time, grace comes unbidden to each and every one of us.  “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, Bright shining as the sun.  We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, Then when we’d first begun.”

With Grace and Grit,  John

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Faith in the Post Modern Age

I believe that post modernism is destroying us. It has robbed us of the generalist view that allows for cross disciplinary solutions both in fields such as medicine but also in education and even ministry. I am buoyed by recent attempts in universities such as MIT and industries to look at the world in something larger than our little box of concern. In fact, our own Mercury project, a collaboration of three or four committees towards the end of growing our church is most decidedly not post modernism. Protecting our turf is. Post modernism makes us cynical and culturally sterile. After all, what can I do about global warming? Isn't that a national policy problem? What can I say to someone who is suffering from depression? Shouldn't they see a therapist? Yes, they should. BUT WE can still provide hope, faith that they don't travel alone by simply listening. We used to call that cheering up, some call it friendship. WE CAN still plant this garden and march in the streets. WE CAN still write elected leaders. WE CAN in fact, do a lot more. With faith.

And faith is my answer to post modernism. The simply profound and utter belief that WE can make a difference by simply acting, witnessing and doing. I titled this a faith in the post idea age; because I do believe post modetnism has one thing right: most, if not all the great ideas, have already been thought. What we are doing is post idea work, re-working, re-invigorating ideas to make them new and that is tremendously powerful and useful. You do this all the time at work. You hopefully do this with your families; when relationships breakdown, we try to re­invent them building or- the same love which was always there. That is the faith: to believe that old ideas, if they approach wisdom, can be re­done in new ways. Unlike post modernism, OUR faith must embrace not the particularity of relative belief but the meta-narrative of such luminaries as Albert Schweitzer, Lydia Maria Child, and Ralph Waldo Emerson all Unitarians, who believed that humanity was as a whole basically good and worth saving.

Sure we live in a world of Facebook, internet and twitter. But could we imagjne these as sort of a new front porch? What if there was a way to say, "howdy neighbor, would you like to come in for Some pie and coffee"?   The point is this: we are still people, who can work together, who can think about old ideas in new ways, and who can, with a little faith, solve the most complex problems around us.

With Grace and Grit, John