First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

seek ... nurture ... serve

Everyday Grace

November 8, 2015
Rev. Sandra Fees

How I begin my day really matters. I like to get up without being hurried, without dashing around frantically. The most frantic thing in my house first thing in the morning is the three cats circling for their breakfast. But that’s part of my household routine.

I typically begin by spending 10 to 15 minutes in meditation and prayer, followed by a healthy breakfast. I try to avoid social media, phone, and TV first thing in the morning. I will admit that sometimes I get caught up in email. And sometimes, if I have an early meeting, I skip the meditation. But the truth is, those are not usually my best days.

I don’t want my consciousness to be infiltrated first thing by busyness, problems, arguments, anxieties, or traffic jams. I don’t want to be bombarded before I’ve even connected at a deeper level with my own self and with the divine.

In her book Everyday Grace Marianne Williamson writes about “the power of the morning.” She advises:

If you want to have a nonmiraculous day, I suggest that newspaper and caffeine form the crux of your morning regimen. Listen to the morning news while you’re in the shower, read the headlines as you are walking out the door, make sure you’re keeping tabs on everything: the wars, the economy, the gossip, the natural disasters .  . . But if you want the day ahead to be full of miracles, then spend some time each morning with God. (“Starting the Day.” Everyday Grace. Marianne Williamson.

Her words struck a chord with me. She is describing how to begin each day well by spending time with God. Spending time with God will mean different things to each of us. It might mean walking the dog, having breakfast with your children, reading a few pages of a book, or doing yoga. What spending time with God offers is the possibility of a harmonious moment. I haven’t given up coffee as part of that harmony, and I don’t plan to. I consider coffee part of the miracle, part of the everyday grace! And of course Williamson isn’t suggesting that we shouldn’t read the paper or listen to the news. She is inviting us to rethink how we allow grace into our lives and suggesting we make space for the miraculous every day.

The poet and author Wendell Berry describes his search for those moments of grace. In his poem “The Peace of Wild Things,” he writes:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water,
and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light.
For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.  

Who among us has not been kept up at night? Who hasn’t worried about people dear to us or just the general fate of our planet? There have certainly been times in my life when, like Berry, I have despaired at events in the world or events in my own life. There are things which seem too much to bear, things beyond my control, which weigh heavily on my heart.

At those times I need grace more than I know. The Sufi poet Rumi wrote:

You are so weak. Give up to grace.
The ocean takes care of each wave till it gets to shore.
You need more help than you know.  (from The Essential Rumi)

“You need more help than you know.” Even Unitarian Universalists need more help than we know. Our faith is grounded in a strong ethic of action and self-reliance. Our principles encourage us to get out there and do something to improve our lives and the world. Our tendency is to leap up out of bed and get to work making a difference. We Unitarian Universalists tend to work and work and work. We are strong and resilient. We are proud. We push and push to make things happen. We see ourselves as being in control of our own destinies.

And yet sometimes what’s most needed is a little grace. Sometimes what we need is to step back from all our striving and busyness and discover a soft place to land, a shoulder for solace or a kind word or a place of beauty.  

As E.B. White once said, we need to savor the world as well as save it. He writes:

Every morning I awake torn between a desire to save the world and an inclination to savor it. This makes it hard to plan the day. But if we forget to savor the world, what possible reason do we have for saving it? In a way, the savoring must come first.

I don’t know if the savoring needs to come first or not, but the savoring must come. To me this savoring is about grace. It’s about the gifts we receive – rather than something we do. We need it because we get tired too. We are human after all. Sometimes we feel weak and powerless struggling against forces beyond our comprehension. We find ourselves hurting and angry. Sometimes we need help. Grace shows up to give us a hand. It breaks through the messiness and the mundaneness of life to offer rest and freedom and joy. It’s a gift that comes from God, the universe, friends and family, or from religious community.

From a Christian perspective, grace is the unearned generosity of God that frees a person from sin. Rooted in Pauline scripture and more fully expanded in the theologies of Augustine and later Martin Luther, grace has to with being saved through faith. In a letter to non-Christians, Paul wrote:

For by grace you have been saved through faith.
And this is not your own doing;
it is the gift of God. (Ephesians 2:8)

For many Unitarian Universalists, the idea of being saved through faith is problematic. Some of us completely reject this kind of language and others are finding new understandings. Concepts of sin, salvation, and faith have been reinterpreted over time in ways that make sense to us. Grace has been too.

Our opening hymn is a great example. The hymn Amazing Grace, beloved by some members, continues to generate mixed feelings in our communities. Just think about it. The version in our hymnal gives us the option to swap out the word wretch for soul. Because of our optimism about human nature, some of us are reluctant to refer to ourselves as wretches. Most of us prefer to describe ourselves as souls not wretches. I know I do.

But let me tell you a little about the history of Amazing Grace to put it in context. Amazing Grace was written by John Newton in 1772. Newton was a slave trader. He gradually came to realize that as a slave trader he was perpetrating evil. But it was a gradual process for him. Even after he stopped engaging in the slave trade as a profession, he continued to invest in slave trading. Then later in his life, he became a Christian minister and completely turned away from his terrible past.

In 1788 – more than a decade after writing Amazing Grace - he finally publicly renounced slave trading. He published the pamphlet, “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade.” In it, he described conditions on slave ships and acknowledged: “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.” Newton surely needed a change of heart to renounce the slave trade. And even after that, his heart still shuddered at what he had done. He was humiliated to think of the wrongs he committed against other human beings.

Each of us can probably think with regret of mistakes we have made, wrongs we have done to another person, some failure to act in love or to prevent acts of hate. Maybe we did something we regret, even something terrible like Newton did. Maybe we haven’t done anything that rises quite to that level. But if we search our own hearts and reflect deeply on our own lives, we will see that we too need moments of transforming love and possibility. Who hasn’t lied or betrayed a friend or gossiped or been uncharitable to someone else?

It may also be that we are overwhelmed by problems encountered in the world – by wars, killings, the assaults on the planet. At times we may be overwhelmed not by what we did but by our personal losses, illnesses, or day to day struggles. Who hasn’t been stung by the sharp words of another person, or had a bad day at work, or confronted an illness?

Sometimes we need to rest from these troubles. Those are the times to allow ourselves to sink deeply into the embrace of love and to be receptive to the wisdom and peace of wild things. I think it has something to do with our human need for that soft place to land. We need love, acceptance, possibility, and ordinary miracles more than we may know. That’s when the divine, the miraculous, the beautiful, the good can break into our hearts and into our consciousness, surprising us, challenging us, uplifting us.

As E.B. White says, “if we forget to savor the world, what possible reason do we have for saving it?”

Grace can appear in all kind of ways, some of them pretty grand, but it’s mostly the little day to day appearances that sustain us and get us to shore. These are the small things, the tiny things, the little bird. As EE Cummings wrote: “May my heart always be open to little birds who are the secrets of living.” The everyday moments of grace give us hope to carry on and restore in us a sense of gratitude. They cause us to savor. They make us happy. They are “the secrets of living.”

As we heard in our story this morning, “There are no greater treasures than the little things. One is enough to enrich the moment. Just one is enough to change the world.” May we each allow the “little bird,” the moment of grace, to break in and bless our lives. May we seek and allow grace to break through and dazzle us.  

I’d like to end with a simple prayer that expresses well my own sense of grace:

It is a blessing to be.
It is a blessing to be here.
It is a blessing to be here now.
It is a blessing to be here now, together. (from Rejoice Together)

Amen. Blessed be.