A poem by James Wright entitled "A Blessing."
Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl's wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
This morning's second reading is by Jen Hatmaker, writer, pastor's wife and mother of five. It's from a book titled For the Love, a phrase she finds delightfully worth abusing, always saying things like "For the love of Moses," "for the love of Tina Turner," or "for the love of single moms everywhere."
I'm hoping to help lead a tribe that does more healing and less hurting.
I consider that my job.
I see a generation of people ON THE HOOK. Man, we are tough on one another, starting with ourselves. When Jesus said to "love your neighbor as yourself," I don't think he meant judgmentally; but that is exactly how we treat our own sould, so it bleeds out to others. Folks who thrive in God's grace give grace easily, but the self-critical person becomes others-critical. We "love" people the way we "love" ourselves., and if we are not good enough, then no one is.
We keep ourselves brutally on the hook, plus our husbands, our kids, our friends, our leaders, anyone "other." When we impose unrealistic expectations of ourselves, it's natural to force them on everyone else. If we're going to fail, at least we can expect others to fail; and misery loves company, right?
I believe we can do better than this.
Sermon "I would Break into Blossom," Rev Denis Paul
The first time I saw Jen Hatmaker was on a Home and Garden Television program called "My Big Family Renovation." On the surface, the show is about remodeling a big house in Austin, Texas. She and her husband, Brandon, had three kids and suddenly adopted two more kids, so they bought a house with only three bedrooms and one bathroom and a whole lot of potential.
By potential, I mean it was a giant mess. But. It had a huge, mostly unfinished attic where they could fit three more bedrooms and big bathroom, so they just moved in and got to work.
Because what else would a super busy couple with multiple income streams and five kids do? While dad is pastor of a big church. You can see why I would like them.
Mainly though, the show isn't about renovating the house, it's about renovating the family, rethinking how they live together and making room, literally and figuratively, for the things they really love, including each other. I only saw it once, but I had to Google them.
I discovered that Jen is a best selling author, and that, although she claims to not be a theologian like her husband, she writes about matters of the spirit. Her audience is women, specifically moms in their 20's through their 40's -- millenials and Gen Xers -- two generations of women who often feel like they have to be perfect, and Jen's mission seems to be to get them to relax and find joy in the simple pleasures of life.
It's a simple theology: God is present in the little things in life. If you take time to look, you can see the divine in anything.
Here's the part of her theology I like. She uses what she calls a Bibilical benchmark: "for every hard question, big idea, topic, assessment of ... obedience," every should, should not, will, or will not. The benchmark is this: "If it isn't also true for a poor, single ... mom in Haiti, it isn't true."
It acknowledges that people are privileged in different ways. "If a sermon promises health and wealth to the faithful, it isn't true, because" it isn't also true for the poor single mom in Haiti. Jen has been on mission to Haiti - the poorest country in the Northern Hemisphere. She's seen the poverty there, how inescapable it is, and how difficult it is for women who often find themselves parenting alone, as men follow the work, usually to other countries
Now, this is not, as far as I'm concerned, a perfect theology. It feels a little like Christian triumphalism to me. Because, the thing that Jen makes clear is that this fictional Haitian mom is Christian.
She writes, "If doctrine elevates a woman's married-with-children status as her highest calling, it isn't true, because that omits single believers, widows, the childless by choice or fate or loss, the divorced, and the celibate gay. If these folks are second class citizens in the kingdom because they aren't married with children, then God just excluded millions of people... . If it isn't also true for a poor single Christian mom in Haiti, it isn't true."
See what she did there? She talked about God not excluding anyone, then conditionally excluded a whole lot of people. Like LGBT folks who are not celibate. Or...really...anybody who is not Christian.
This is the thing that I think drives UUs crazy about the whole idea of Grace, the thing that makes it so annoying. John Bernardini and I will get to that idea, the idea of "annoying grace," in a couple weeks. But for right now, I want to focus on a simple idea: For Unitarian Universalists like us who believe in the worth and dignity, the worthiness of all beings, in a universe that does not include hell, Grace is available to everyone.
Let's take a moment to define grace. It's one of those hopelessly complex words, loaded with meaning and often commandeered by Christians who want to own it for themselves. But grace can mean elegance, pleasantness, goodwill, mercy, a prayer of thanksgiving, the granting of a favor or pardon or immunity, or an allowance of time after a debt or bill has become payable, granted to the debtor before suit can be brought or a penalty applied.
In the three dictionaries I looked at, grace as the unmerited favor of God is only one of seven or eight definitions of the word. And usually that definition is toward the bottom of the list.
We'll talk about talk about that definition, the unmerited favor of God, with John in a couple weeks, but for today, let's look at the other definitions. The one I'm most interested in as that last one I mentioned: an allowance of time after a debt or bill has become payable, granted to the debtor before suit can be brought or a penalty applied.
In other words, Grace is getting something you don't really deserve. Like if you rent a car for a day, and you're supposed to have it back by noon, but you arrive at 12:58. They could charge you extra for that hour, but they don't because of the grace period. You reneged on the terms of your contract. You don't deserve to be given that extra. At least you don't deserve it any more than anyone else does. But then again, they offer the grace, so you don't deserve it any less than anyone else does, either.
And I think that's the hardest part of grace.
We're often so hard on ourselves, and each other, that sometimes we don't think we deserve the little pleasantries of life, the elegance, goodwill or mercy that is offered to us in little ways. Or worse, we're so hung up on meeting the deadlines, we don't even notice the grace periods when they are offered. Maybe we don't even see the elegance and goodwill that are right there in front of us. We miss the opportunity to be thankful.
Grace comes in those moments when we can actually see what is in front of us, and express gratitude, maybe even to offer up a little prayer of thanksgiving.
James Wright's Poem, "A Blessing," is all about finding the joy in the simple pleasures of life.
It's simple image. On a road to Rochester, Minnesota, a couple of ponies. In a hurry, it would be easy to just go right past them. But something, something, made the narrator stop and pay attention. Maybe it was the twilight on the grass that allowed the narrator to see the kindness in the dark eyes of those Indian ponies, kindness that welcomed him into their presence, enough to step over the very unwelcoming barbed wire into the pasture.
Something, something, got him to forget his travels down that highway and pay attention to the uncontainable happiness that vibrated from the tense bodies of those ponies, to experience their joy as love for each other, to long to hold one of them in his arms, to caress her dark ears and compare it to the delicate skin on a young girl's wrist.
It's the same kind of longing that Bruce Cockburn expressed in the song I asked you to listen to as we lit candles earlier.
Battered buses jammed up to the roof
Dust and diesel the prevailing themes.
Farmer sleeping on the truck in front,
Feet trailing over like he's trolling for dreams.
Smiling girl directing traffic flow
. 45 strapped over cotton print dress.
Marimba-brown and graceful limbs
Give me a moment of loneliness
Dust and diesel
Rise like incense from the road --
Smoke of offering
For the revolution morning
The song was written on the Interamerican Highway in Nigaragua, the second poorest country in the Northern Hemisphere. It was 1983, when fighting in the Revoltion was at a peak, a time of political strife across Latin America. Bruce spent much of his time in Nicaragua, and even wrote a song titled "Nicaragua," a love letter to the people he met there.
He experienced what I experienced in my own travels in Latin America. In a lot of places, no matter how poor they are, no matter how much work there is to do, they make the time to push the furniture aside, turn up the music and dance most every afternoon. Not the Dougie (steering wheel move) or the Gagnam Style (Psi pony thing) that pass for dancing in the United States, but dancing. Real dancing where two people hold each other close and move with elegance, accepting one another's moves with an embodied gratitude even a casual observer can feel. It's utterly humbling to watch.
Dancing. The proud ease of youth. Smells. I've noticed these things when I'm traveling. When I'm away from home, it's easier to just pay attention to the way fabric falls on young woman doing her work, the quality moonlight on a pile of rifles and guitars, a tarantula standing guard over a fallen sack of corn, so that the smell of diesel is more incense than pollutant. I'm able to relax, to forget the pressure of the ever-expanding to-do list, the futility of trying to read every single email, and the ways I keep myself brutally on the hook.
It's as if the ordinary routines of life make me afraid that if I stop and notice elegance and goodwill, if I'm filled with the kind of pride and passion and love and gratitude and joy described James Wright and Bruce Cockburn, I would just break into blossom.
And Imagine how useless I would be if that happened.
"Where's Rev Denis? How come he isn't at this super-important meeting where we've just unanimously approved embarking on the capital campaign to raise funds for building maintenance?"
"Oh, he was so entranced by the pure grace of the sparkling grass outside, that he just burst into blossom! That big patch of flowers growing out of the carpet over there? That's actually Rev Denis."
"Darn. I guess we're going to have to replace that carpet now."
Of course, the truth is none of us is about to burst into blossom with gratitude. Not really. But our lives can be transformed by the simple act of paying attention to the beauty in the ordinary.
That's why when trying to disentangle the idea of grace from the influence of Christian polemicists, I look to the poet, the songwriter, and the renovator-blogger-mom. They've figured out how to find beauty and even self-acceptance in exactly the places where it's least expected. They remind me to be moved by the people right here in front of me - my family, my church, my community - and risk the unimaginable sin of modernity: being unproductive for a few minutes.
They remind me to see the grace in the work of everyone. Even people who can't see the grace in mine.
Jen Hatmaker's writing leads the reader to believe that she believes there is no grace manifest in my work, my mission. Because it isn't explicitly Christian. And I'm not her idea of a good gay. But. I bet if she were to meet me - either as a colleague of her husband's or in a different life as one of the guys working on her house with her, she could get past the rhetoric and see me for who I am, in my wholeness, the way I hope I'm seeing her in hers.
There was a time when I wouldn't have been able to imagine the best from somebody like Jen Hatmaker, a time when I would have been so angry at the presumptuousness of her beliefs that I couldn't even have looked at her, let alone read one of her books.
But now? Well, I've been to Nicaragua and Ecuador and Japan and England and Bermuda and I've relaxed enough to be graced by the lives of the people there. I've worked in the streets among poor people grateful for the smallest gifts. I've accompanied hundreds of people in a half dozen congregations and I've seen the elegance, pleasantness, goodwill and mercy they manifest in their lives every single day, in most every way they live their lives.
I've seen grace in all of you. I've seen a longing to discover more about the world and each other. You want to understand better how the universe ticks and what makes other people tick. You want to let each other off the hook, and figure out ways to do less hurting and more healing.
Most of the time. Because, let's face it, we all have moments when we feel like we don't fit in, when we feel like we're on the hook. But it's time to get off the hook. All the time.
So this morning I'm left with a few questions for you: What have you discovered that has surprised you? Where do you find grace in yourself, in this faith community, and in the world? When have you found it lacking in yourself? When have you felt like you didn't necessarily fit in? And what have you noticed that you want to learn more about?
That's why this afternoon, after worship, we're having our second of four mission workshops, each of which is looking at our four value words. So far, we've explored what it means to love in the context of this church. This morning, we'll work with the word Discover, by exploring the questions I just asked. In March, we'll look at Revere, and May, Connect.
Ultimately, what we'll be asking and answering is perhaps the biggest question of all: What would it take for us to be transformed by the world around us, as we in turn transform the world?
Please. Stay after worship, nosh a bit on cheese and crackers and guacamole before we have lunch together. And Discover.
For now though, please rise as you are willing and able...