Friday, November 13, 2015

Putting on a Robe of Grace

I have found the time leading up to Thanksgiving to be one of the most reflective times of the year. It’s the time of year to don the robes of grace that have made us, good, bad or indifferent as human beings this past year and look ahead bravely to the future.
Our life is marked by sorrows and joys, but it is largely behind us, and I find it helpful to look back on where the journey has taken us, me and you. 
Those sorrows and joys, those unbidden events are all invitations to accept the grace of God and enter into the next year of your life.  The point is to live into the future, lean into the possibilities that are beyond what has past, and in so doing remember that you are alive.  While my daughter Fiona and her family still lived in Hood River, OR we hiked up a trail head to a waterfall far into the Columbia Gorge. We literally had to scramble up a dam of giant pines, 20 feet tall, and wade through a freezing stream up to our waist to reach this waterfall.  I love water, and so I tore off my jacket and my clothes and down to my shorts stood underneath that mountain water. I was reminded of what Annie Dillard once wrote:
“What does it feel like to be alive?
“Living, you stand under a waterfall. You leave the sleeping shore deliberately; you shed your dusty clothes, pick your barefoot way over the high, slippery rocks, hold your breath, choose your footing, and step into the waterfall. The hard water pelts your skull, bangs in bits on your shoulders and arms. The strong water dashes down beside you and you feel it along your calves and thighs rising roughly backup, up to the roiling surface, full of bubbles that slide up your skin or break on you at full speed. Can you breathe here? Here where the force is the greatest and only the strength of your neck holds the river out of your face. Yes, you can breathe even here. You could learn to live like this. And you can, if you concentrate, even look out at the peaceful far bank where you try to raise your arms. What a racket in your ears, what a scattershot pummeling! It is time pounding at you, time. Knowing you are alive is watching on every side your generation's short time falling away as fast as rivers drop through time and the beauty and grace of God, reminds you that you are still alive.”  (From Tinker at Pilgrims Creek)
I stepped out of that waterfall and Francis handed me my jacket which I donned as a robe of grace, still warm from her body, for I could only stand under that waterfall for a few minutes.
Living in the presence of life is like this.  Most often we live our lives at the edge of the waterfall. Occasionally, we feel compelled to step in either because someone has a great need, or a death is impending, or life has dealt us an unexpected loss.  Then is when we are most alive.  And when the uprush is done, and we step away from that waterfall again, we feel the glow of grace that is our life.
I am told that child birth is much like this.  A woman is being pounded by pain so intense she can barely hold on and then comes a child, a baby Jesus of her own, and there is a glow unlike any other. We don’t need child birth to be reminded that there is grace waiting to be worn. We need simply look around this time between the years to see what was, acknowledge it and look ahead.
Perhaps the greatest exercise of grace in our lives is when we find the room to accept those who are different than us, whether they are gay, straight, poor, homeless or politically different.  Facing grace is learning to make room for those who not only believe differently than we do but who are radically different than we are.
A surprising statistic has emerged in recent weeks; there is one demographic group which is seeing a rapid increase in mortality. White middle aged men who are not college educated. They are dying at an alarming rate. What are they dying from? Drug and alcohol overdoses, diabetes and heart attacks. But as Steven Williams Mayor of Huntington, WV told NPR, these men are really dying of hopelessness. With so few jobs, men who used to support their families are taken to alcohol and heroin as a way out – and they are dying of overdose and related deaths. In a passionate interview Mayor Williams said, what we need to do is hold on to them, through drug rehabilitation, social services and human contact, we need to hold on and not let go. (adapted Morning Edition, NPR 11/6/15) We need to drape a jacket of love over their shoulders.
 This Thanksgiving, who will you wrap up in a robe of grace? Who will you step up to and offer a drape of love and forgivness?
With Grace and Grit, John

Friday, November 6, 2015

Thanksgiving Grace

“Martin Luther King Jr. had been dead 11 days. His assassination fresh on her mind, Harriet Glickman, a teacher raising three kids in suburban Los Angeles, sat down at her typewriter.

"Dear Mr. Schulz," she wrote, "since the death of Martin Luther King, I've been asking myself what I can do to help change those conditions in our society which led to the assassination and which contribute to the vast sea of misunderstanding, hate, fear and violence."

Mr. Schulz was Charles Schulz. Glickman thought the creator of the popular Peanuts comic strip could play a small part in promoting tolerance and interracial friendship by including a black character in his strip.

She sent off the letter, not expecting a reply.

Schulz did write back, to say he had considered her suggestion. But he worried that if he created such a character, black parents might think he was condescending to their families.

With Schulz's permission, Glickman asked two of her black friends to send him some ideas on how to make a black character relatable. A few weeks later, the cartoonist responded.

"You will be pleased to know that I have taken the first step in doing something about presenting a Negro child in the comic strip during the week of July 29," Schulz said. "I have drawn an episode which I think will please you." (Adapted from Morning Edition 11/6/15)

Just like that, Franklin was born. And on Friday the Peanuts movie opened.  This is a sermon about wearing grace like a garment of light. Harriet Glickman offered her ideas to Charles Schultz as a coat of grace. In this one small corner of the world, she said, won’t you offer some change to relieve the mighty struggle of racism. At first Schulz declined, but then when further encouraged, he accept that grace, that gift of respect and raised a small ladder against the tall white walls of segregation which were all very high.

As you know I write and preach often about grace, the unexpected gifts of life that seem to beckon us on to daring rectitude.  I named my blog facing grace, as well as my upcoming title; because I believe we need to stop excusing this good fortune as good luck, accept it as an unbidden call for a new and better world.  People who use their wealth or good fortune to make the lives of others better are called by a more cynical world foolish.  Generosity is so often mistaken for careless wealth.  And while it is true that some will take advantage of that generosity, far more benefit from it than we realize.

It’s about making room for Grace.  Just grace.   Allowing for grace between the moments of our lives in which we are the takers out of necessity, and when we are the givers because of gifts we did not expect. Grace opens us up to the possibility of change. We practice Grace in so many ways, from comforting a friend, to serving this church, to serving our larger community. We continue our commitment in this coming year to partner with the Beardsley School, Mercy Learning Center and our work with a village in Kenya. But grace is far more than just receiving and giving of our abundance, it is allowing for a large enough heart to recognize those who need love and acceptance. What I have found in this darkest time of the year is that as the contemplative Richard Rohr says “All grace comes precisely from nowhere—from silence and emptiness, if you prefer—which is what makes it grace. It is both you and yet so much greater than you at the same time, which is probably why believers chose both uprushing fountains (John 7:38) and downrushing doves (Matthew3:16) as metaphors for this universal and grounding experience of spiritual encounter. Sometimes it is an uprush and sometimes it is a downrush, but it is always from a silence that is larger than you, surrounds you, and finally names the deeper truth of the full moment that is you.”

I have found the time leading up to Thanksgiving to be one of the most reflective times of the year. It’s the time of year to don the robes of grace that have made us, good, bad or indifferent as human beings this past year and look ahead bravely to the future.

Our life is marked by sorrows and joys, but it is largely behind us, and I find it helpful to look back on where the journey has taken us, me and you. 
With Grace and Grit,  John 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Truth Can Set You Free

Several years ago I met a woman who had been imprisoned within a cult.  She recalls how she and her husband believed that they had been saved by this pastor who persuaded them to give everything they had to the church.  They slept in a communal house.  They would work at jobs but turn most of their income over to the pastor.  They would spend their free time preaching on the beaches.  She started to get sick and she couldn’t understand why.  She started to have nightmares.  Finally, a friend from work convinced her to see a doctor.  It was the doctor who started to figure out that she was imprisoned by this predatory truth.  She told her to leave the church.  But to leave the church would mean she would have to leave her husband.  Finally, she found the strength to do that.  And yet, she was afraid and lonely and hungry for community.  She wandered into my previous church.  She sat in the back.  She left right after the service. I would come up to her and ask how she was but she didn’t want to tell me.  She told me later she was afraid of me.  Not me but pastors who controlled people.  Finally, she told me this story.  We met several times as she worked through the false truth and the only real truth which is that what she believes shouldn’t be coerced, shouldn’t be punishing.  True faith is freeing I told her, we are free to ask questions, to explore, to doubt and to find a community like this one that accepts her as she was. 

Our truth in the open nature of the Spirit, in love and compassion freed her from the truth of sin and damnation and self-loathing.  As my friend Alan Taylor puts it “it’s not so much what your believe but how you live your life that matters.” She was with that UU church for about six months, and then she told me she was moving to be closer to her sister.  She said she would attend a UU church there as well.  We helped to save her life.

What communities such as this one do believe in is the pursuit of truth, with a small “t”.  That is the faith we share and that our new members have joined with us in. Not a belief in the Big T truth, but in the pursuit of that truth that helps you live a better, more generous, and more integrated life.
With Grace and Grit, John