A Humanist's Hunt for Grace

Sermon given by Sandra DeVellis, May 19, 2019

Thank you for coming along with me on my Humanist’s Hunt for Grace.  Why you might ask would anyone need to hunt for Grace when the word itself is so easy to find?   Grace under pressure -  Grace notes in music - disgrace.  I’ve known several Graces in my life, a childhood playmate, the mom of a valued colleague, Graciella, Grace in Italian and Grace, our friend here at church. I heard Grace as a theme in one of President Bush’s eulogies. We’ve had a month at church with Grace as a theme.  Maybe you even hear it daily at your Grace before meals.  I could go.  But in spite of Grace’s ubiquitous nature, finding its meaning has been my own spiritual “earworm”, for the past several years. I felt a need to understand it and the ways it has shown up in my life. I’m honored to share my search with you.

I’ll begin with this caveat from a UU World article “ A dictionary is to spirituality what kryptonite is to Superman”.  Never-the-less I began with the Catholic catechism definition, common in Christian theology. “Grace is God’s unmerited favor, love or help.” Having left Catholicism and traditional, organized religion, (Does Unitarian-Universalism think of itself as either traditional or organized?  I’m not so sure), anyway, this explanation no longer satisfied me and my hunt began.

I wondered if Non-Christian traditions thought about grace. Doing cursory research didn’t bring clarification. I found concepts such as mercy, help, kindness, compassion expressed as sort of “synonyms” for grace but these substitutions didn’t add much to my personal understanding. 

Looking to what was more familiar to me, the hymn “Amazing Grace” came to mind. We sang it this morning. For years, it has intrigued me in terms of what it says about Grace.  Most of us have heard the story that John Newton, composer of this beloved hymn wrote it after being given a ‘gift’ of grace. The word Grace itself is thought to originate in a Greek word ‘charis’ meaning gift. 

 The words from that hymn “saved a wretch like me” illustrates the common view that Grace is unmerited.  Have you heard this quote. “Karma is getting what you deserve…mercy is not getting punished for what you deserve and grace is being blessed even when you don’t deserve it. “   But, I believe we all deserve good. Doesn’t one of our principles state that there is inherent worth in everyone? Deciding who deserves good things implies judgement that I’m not prepared to make.  Frankly, I was relieved to hear that Rev Shelton, a UU minister, who spoke to us last Sunday had come to the same conclusion and I wasn’t being heretical. I believe Grace is available to everyone.

I wonder if you thought, as I did, that Grace was something, that magically changed John Newton?  Not quite, this intervention did not bring about an immediate transformation in his life. He continued to be involved in the slave trade for another 6 or 7 years, even after this experience of “Grace” and didn’t write the hymn until 24 years later. Why am I telling you this?  It helped me expand my views on Grace, as perhaps cumulative and not a ‘miraculous transformation’. Maybe small bits of Grace add up until we finally pay attention and notice it.

The fact that Rev. Newton did not write ‘Amazing Grace’ by himself added another element to my understanding.  It was a collaboration with a poet, William Cowper. They did it together.   In the book, Accidental Saints – Finding God in All the Wrong People,  the author, Nadia Bolz-Weber a Lutheran pastor, postulated that Judas couldn’t experience God’s grace because he was removed from community. In speaking of Grace, she stated “I believe that Grace can also come through simple, imperfect, everyday human love. We must tell it to each other.” She feels that Grace may emerge out of our connections with and love for one another. I agree. 

The notion of God as the source of grace - or the decider of who gets grace is central in Christianity, from its beginnings as well as in religious and secular more contemporary readings.  In the book, Channeling Grace, by Caroline Myss,  Grace is spoken of as “a spiritual immune system, the breath of God, an invisible essence.” Every time we sing the lines from America the Beautiful – “God shed His grace on thee.” The idea is reinforced.  Grace and God together.

This centrality of God is not helpful to me as a Humanist with strong Buddhist leanings. I take issue with the fact that God alone is the dispenser or the sole source of Grace. Recalling something Frank, our pastor said in a sermon about the “priesthood of believers” led me to this… If we can bless each other, a priestly function, could we not also share or bestow Grace on one another?

My professional life supports this idea. As an early childhood educator and teacher trainer, my area of expertise was the development of interpersonal skills - what we call ‘the social graces”, listening, compassion, accepting kindness, giving others the chance to be kind. That is what social graces do…. make things easier for others.  Social graces - manners are just conventions that help make others comfortable and ourselves comfortable as well. They help counter fear and anxiety in social situations.  Ann Lamont in Traveling Mercies  writes “Grace is the light or electricity or juice or breeze that takes you from that isolated place and puts you with others . We are social animals and can find answers to anything with the help and presence of others. I believe that relationships can help us be our best selves… Can help us find Grace.

Daniel Goleman, the author of the books Emotional Intelligence  and Social Intelligence states the brain is social and we can actually catch each other’s emotions like we catch a cold.  He speaks of relationships as pharmaceutical …”a spiritual immune system.” We have a special kind of neuron called a Mirror Neuron. These help us reflect back the emotions we receive from others. We are wired for kindness and compassion…. Maybe, just maybe, we are wired for grace as well.   What do you think….can we actually catch “GRACE” from someone?

As a Humanist, I must also listen to reason and not ignore science. I found a scientific hypothesis that Grace is what happens when there is a shift from the detail – linear oriented left brain to the right brain’s creative, fluid connection to the universe.  Interesting…who knows.

Grace has been connected to my life in another way as well. As a child, I wanted to be a ballerina and studied dance many years, even teaching it for a while.  The physical sensation of movement – the beauty, the seeming effortlessness, the transcendence.  GRACE??? I wondered if there is there something I could learn from exploring physicality? I remember Cary Grant’s graceful elegance of motion, watching Donald O’Connor and Gene Kelly in the movies. The ‘Singing in the Rain’ sidewalk scene brings a smile to my lips and uplifts my heart….why?   Such Grace – such Ease .  Was that effortless? No! It took 6 days to film the dancing in the rain sequence… Even though I am not an athlete, Greg Louganis’s dives, the way LeBron James handles the basketball tell the same story. Again I take issue, this time, with the notion that Grace is unearned and our effort is not involved. Is the grace of athletes and dancers unearned? I don’t think so.. Many hours, days, even years to perfect the amazing grace that they share with us.

I have come to the conclusion that we may not have to put forth effort to be worthy of receiving grace but it does take effort to pass on grace to others…. I don’t have to do anything to be worthy of kindness from others but I may need to learn to be kind…to listen without judgement….to be present to the pain of others….to be still.

Physical grace implies Balance – in one of Frank’s sermons, a couple of years ago, we were encouraged to think of a word, a concept, and consider it. I had already been considering the word balance.  Balance is finding the center.  Isn’t that what spirituality is in a way….finding our center?  Connecting to what is true and what helps us live a good life.  Buddhism speaks of equanimity, being in balance – not being buffeted about.  Being in touch with our own centers (both physical and spiritual) – seems to be both a part of grace and a path to grace.

For 25 years, I was a professor of Psychology at NECC, where I taught the term resiliency. Resilience defined by American Psychological Association as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.” Maybe this is GRACE.  I saw the Grace with which many have come through painful, difficult situations. Living presents all of us with many challenges, fears and worries, yet some people seem to be able to deal with the ups and downs of life with grace.  This shift from worry to contentment – from survival to growth may be the result of Grace.  Grace helps us to regenerate, it sanctifies us, inspires us to virtuous impulses and gives us the strength to endure trials. 

Studies show that resilient people have had someone in their lives who loved them unconditionally.  Those of you who were Catholic remember the prayer “Hail Mary Full of Grace” I found a suggestion in several of my readings, that Grace may be the amazing unconditional love that parents feel and may bestow on their child. The love that Mary had for Jesus. We are all capable of loving unconditionally… bestowing grace on others. I hope you’ve had personal experience of being unconditionally loved when you needed it. 

I had struggled to come with some stories of when I experienced Grace, examples that would be concrete and useful in sharing my understanding of Grace. I couldn’t find a way to express them which didn’t make them seem insignificant. I was grateful for the “Good News” stories from Rev. Shelton. The waitress who was kind to the fireman - their response to her kindness sparking a viral sensation that brought in funds for her father’s wheelchair and all the other powerful examples he gave were better exemplars than I had. The Grace I have received in my life has not been as dramatic. But through my hunt, I figured out what all my Grace experiences had in common….What for me is the Why of Grace. They were all gifts that illustrated the basic goodness of people.  Not lightning bolts from above but simple, powerful examples of who we are at our core. At least in terms of my humanist understanding. The goodness, kindness and loving nature of human beings.  

Each time, Grace has come into my life, it has reoriented me.  Hear Anne Lamont’s words “ I don’t understand the mystery of grace. It meets us where we are and doesn’t leave us where it found us”.  Grace reorients us, helps us change our direction…moves us- moves us toward goodness.  At those times when I was feeling - anger – jealousy – fear – despair, something happened, a word, a touch, a kindly look, a loving act, grace helped me gain perspective before these negative but all too human emotions metastasized and hardened. I am not oblivious to the dishonesty, greed, pain and hate which exists in our world, which we see every day but each Grace filled moment has allowed me to find the truth, generosity, healing and love which exists and is stronger and more central to my life. 

This has been my hunt ….   my experience of Grace is an interactive one…an interaction with others the source of this reorientation.  We are all different.  You may receive this gift of Grace from an awe inspiring sunset …..or  a soaring musical piece….. or a stirring passage in a book or in one of Delight’s poems or in some wonderful way unique to you – Notice it…be blessed by it.

Whether you believe that neurological, brain oriented explanation of Grace or see Grace as the warm feeling that came over you when, as a child, you looked into Mr. Roger’s kind eyes as he said  ”I like you as you are”…  

Whether you experienced a sudden, miraculous transformation or slowly felt a gentle easing of pain…..

Whether you believe Grace comes from God or from your connection to others…

Grace happens…. Often ….  Doesn’t it?  I know it has happened to me.

I believe it has happened to you and will again.            

Blessed Be.