AMAZING GRACE: NOVEMBER 23, 1999 JOHN YOUNG
I am in a continual state of wonder about life. Life is an amazing, awesome and wondrous gift. I have no memory of earning it, but day after day I am given a life to live. Waking in sunlight or in quiet rain. some sturdy song-bird greets me as I greet the day. I stretch my muscles and my mind, mix water and skin in ritual communion. Re-baptized, meeting my love and making our breakfasts, I plan forays out into the wide world. Headlong, I leap among people and events, clashing and hugging, in dialogue and banter, usual1y receiving more than I give, often more than I merit. I am sometimes given praise and those greater gifts: of being considered useful, influential, wise. It is a rare night when I do not feel full to overflowing with life and ready for the warm security of sleep. I am in wonder about life.
Is it not amazing that in a corner of this incredibly vast universe, there is a planet, Earth, fit for our habitation? And stranger still that the human species was born here, and through such a prolonged and complex evolutionary process? Even more amazing that we are living in this particular period of extraordinary comfort, health, and opportunity? We are surrounded by beauty; yet, so often, we recognize only a little of the beauty; usually, that little has been enough to overwhelm me.
A close and loving family blessed me with the beginnings which allowed me to feel, to love, and they did it very often, simply as a matter of course. Yet for millions of the world, this close and loving family is an impossible myth or an unfulfilled promise. We grew up in a political and social system of truly unbelievable freedom and supportiveness by the standards of human history. Yet in childhood, I took all these as my due: the public schools, library, parks, Boy Scout troop, summer bands and part-time jobs of my small town. In my adolescence, I not only took them for granted but despised them a little as unrighteous in their comfortable narrowness. As a college student, I accepted a new town and its university as a natural, if not inevitable, place for a person of my age, often more conscious, I'm afraid, of the limitations and residual frustrations of this utopian sphere than of its idyllic core. And I could also travel to far-off places and nearby cloisters and commune with a incredible variety of people. Strangers presented me with paying jobs. Even my mistakes, in courtship, in scholarship, and in other labors, seemed, after a brief passage of time, to turn from dross into gold. Again and again, I only asked, often impatiently, and what I wanted was given. Today, I have a wife, and two grown children that have far surpassed my expectations, a home and a community of considerable comfort, and a vocation full of satisfactions. No wonder that I am in awe and wonder about Life.
I am not sure that a single purpose or intention guides the world, or even governs a particular sect or individual. Yet despite my reasoned agnosticism, my measured disbelief, I cannot divest myself of a visceral feeling that I am a child of the universe.
For, I am so very lucky. Almost daily, I feel extraordinarily blessed, as if I had good karma or a favorable predestination. Not believing in such dogmatism, but not positive either in my disbelief, I vacillate between pure celebration of my happy state and vague anxieties about over-taxing my good luck. And although I may be even more blessed by good fortune than some of you, surely most of us are among the luckiest and most grace-filled people who have ever lived. Choose your standards: material conditions, intellectual choices, spiritual freedom, access to beauty, personal security; the list is endless, and, I suggest, only a tiny minority of humanity, now or in other times, had more real potential on any given dimension of life. We are blessed or, if you wish, we are very. very lucky.
The word grace derives from Latin terms meaning "favor, charm, thanks" and , "pleasing and grateful" respectively. It also arises from a Sanskrit verb which means "he praises" and an old high German verb which means "to sigh.." Thus, even in ancestry, grace combines the fact of good fortune, the public recognition of unearned gifts and talents, and people's reactions to good fortune --like gratitude and praise, and more quaintly, the Germans’ sighing.
There is a tendency to consider grace as an unexpected excess of good fortune or unmerited good luck, as if there were a quota on the positive in life. Certainly it is true that each of us sometimes seems to have more good fortune than at other times, and also true that some individuals and certain groups of people appear to be consistently more fortunate than others, but it is also true that all this is very much a matter of perspective. Thus, we religious liberals take much for granted that would be considered extraordinary privileges and unusual divine assistance by many Americans, and certainly by most of the rest of the world.
Webster’s Seventh Collegiate Dictionary defines grace as "unmerited divine assistance given man for his regeneration or sanctification." It is, in short, a virtue coming from God. Evidently, it may manifest itself as a series of virtuous acts on the part of other people, particularly people of power who act mercifully. Webster’s made a comparison or four related words which I found useful. 1st: MERCY which implies compassion that forbears punishing even when justice demands it. 2nd, CHARITY stresses benevolence and good will shown in broad understanding and tolerance of others and generous forgiving or overlooking of their faults and failures. 3rd, CLEMENCY implies a mild or merciful disposition in one having the power or duty of punishing. 4th,GRACE, the lexicographer suggests, could combine the implications of both charity and clemency. Thus, a person with grace would be a person with power who was compassionate, generously forgiving, and able to overlook the faults and failures of other people.
I do not believe that there is a parent God looking over my actions and declaring judgment or mercy, but I do share the believer's feeling that we often receive more rewards than we have ever begun to earn. In this sense, I share Reinhold Niebuhr's belief in saving grace without sharing his theology. Niebuhr was a Christian theist who believed in a personal God who worked his will in history. I have faith in none of these things, yet I have a strong, if not a stronger sense of grace in life than Niebuhr had. There is so much about life which is miraculous. Certainly many of the miracles can be explained, but the explanations themselves only widen and deepen my sense of mystery and wonder, as, in fact, scientists’ more precise experiences have done for so many of them. Teilhard de Chardin's statement is indicative "something is afoot in the universe --some issue is at stake." It cannot he proved, but I must admit I participate in this belief, although still with some trepidation. I proceed through life believing that life means something, that it fits together some way. I am not sure how, but I am fairly sure that this sense of being a child of the universe, this unbeliever's believing in the existence of saving grace is somehow vital to my happiness.
What I am arguing for is the belief in some such axiom as life has positive worth and meaning or that we are all children of the universe. This, like any other axiom, cannot be proved and on a philosophical level, I often disbelieve it myself, but I think a part of the reason my life does not collapse is because I do not ever doubt it viscerally. I always live as if it were true.
I find Reinhold Niebuhr's discussion of common and saving grace from the concluding essay of his book, Man's Nature and His Communities [N.Y.: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1965] very provocative because I feel strongly that there is a need for both sorts of grace. Yet, philosophically, I usually want to try to eliminate the saving grace in favor of the common grace, I suppose because of my personal needs to stay centered on humanity and to cut my faith down to human size.
Niebuhr's common grace, the grace given to one person by other people in social and political life, is, as he admits, essential and central to life. It can, he says, in fact be sufficient by itself for any person's happiness, and it certainly is necessary if a person is to recognize and participate in saving grace. For instance, a person usually needs to have sufficient affection, love, and attention as a small child, or she/he simply will not be less capable of visualizing a benevolent universe as an adult. It appears evident that common grace is primary in terms of human development and in terms of daily living.
It is becoming more and more obvious to me, however, that saving grace is also necessary. Little children appear to assume its existence. Usually, they simply project and extend their family relationships upon the world. Nature is considered friendly in general, although particular natural phenomena may be considered dangerous. As we grow into adulthood, we seem increasingly to need the solace of the natural world and the larger cosmos to console us in our often disturbing confrontations with imperfect humanity, including our imperfect selves. We need the sense that some order remains, that our best personal and social standards relate to, and, perhaps, stem from some more general enduring standards.
I think Unitarian Universalists, generally, live with a sense of grace like mine. This does not mean we have returned to religious orthodoxy. It does not necessarily imply that we are really theists, Christians, or proponents of any other traditional. theological doctrine. It does suggest, to me, that we are deeply religious. We may find it difficult, or even impossible, to put that religion into words. Some of us even appear to believe that this effort to put it into words is in some way an unhealthy and destructive impulse, and it could possibly be. Perhaps trying to capture the infinite does make it turn to ash in our hands. I do nor think so, but it is possible. However, we are less timid about putting our religious faiths into action. We live religious lives. They are not all the same life. In fact, their variety is part of the excitement we share with one another, but our lives share hopefulness as a root. It is hard-headed hopefulness which recognizes that progress is never inevitable and that evil and error always remains possible. Yet, our sense of grace affirms humanity, culture, nature, and existence. Open eyed, it celebrates life.
I believe we, as people, as religious women and men, are aware of the grace in our lives and, potentially in the lives of all people, and in every facet of the existing universe. Our unique perceptiveness and unusually intense celebration of grace may be found most often in the common grace of social interaction, in the possibilities of one person's humanity to another, but we are also acutely aware of the grace inherent in nature,
as it affects our individual lives, the possibilities of worship and of service from nature to humans and humans to nature.
I urge you to be ever aware of this existing state of grace in which we live and have our being. If people can always remember their most intense moments of awareness, happiness, and celebration of this intrinsic well-being in the world, society and themselves, even their darkest moments can be filled with sunlight. There will still be dark and awful moments and even very bad years in life. They too are real, but even in the deepest pits of our failure and our sadness, we are not without grace, and that is a strong foundation for life.
As I age, I have found that a growing portion of my daily spiritual practice is gratitude, and I have found in my work with other people that they, like me, are often healed by feeling and expressing gratitude. We have the great American holiday of Thanksgiving, but I want to urge you to practice the Thanksgiving spirit every day of your lives. It is seductive to believe the egotism that we have earned everything we’ve got, and that, in fact, life owes us much that has not been paid. This attitude has driven many people mad, broken countless hearts, incited suicides and depression, and given rise to endless anxieties. The truth is surely closer to the fact that the world owes us nothing, and that every bit of our lives is a gift. It is my life experience, both in being and in listening to and watching others, that life is full of grace, and that gratitude is the most appropriate and healing mood to be in for most of our lives, and, at least, a healthy portion of each of our days. Have a happy Thanksgiving! Not just a holiday, but a life full of thanksgiving, of recognizing grace and sharing gratitude. For, grace and gratitude can heal us and make us whole.