Monday, March 12, 2012

Amazing! Grace

These are the explorations offered during worship at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia this past Sunday.

Amazing! Grace: Was Blind But Now I See  ~  Wendy Repass     I was listening to a friend describe grace. She’s an alcoholic but she’s been sober for several decades now. She said, “how is it that I have remained sober, whereas others have gone back to drinking? But for the grace of god go I.”
And this struck a chord with me deeply. I thought about Mary who over the years would get angry more and more often during times of trouble. When she had a baby, Mary’s fits of rage became frequent- blaming, yelling, screaming and hitting in anger at loved ones.
I could see her spiraling into this recurring behavior, completely blind to the effect she had on other people. Lashing out at loved ones at the moment when she needed support the most.
How is it that she cannot stop herself and snap out of it? Why does she seem blind to her own behavior?
Perhaps grace is like when you’re working on a math problem, and you work at it and try to do it, but you just can’t get it. Then you put it down. A day later, or a week and all of a sudden you’re like “Ah-Ha!”
Or maybe it’s like when you see someone else mired in the same kind of addiction you have and you wonder, wow, how did I ever break free of that? People tell you it’s because you worked hard, but you know deep down inside that there was a time you couldn’t even see, that you were absolutely blind. And you wonder in amazement at how you got here.
Or maybe it’s like what happened to John Newton. John was a slave ship captain who enjoyed “an easy and creditable way of life” (1) until he was forced to resign because of health problems. He got an administrative position, but he eventually got involved with a church and became a minister. Years later, Newton would write, "I think I should have quitted [the slave trade] sooner
had I considered it as I now do to be unlawful and wrong. But I never had a scruple upon this head at the time; nor was such a thought ever suggested to me by any friend." (1)
He wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace”. Eventually public opinion started to turn away from slavery. 30 years later he would write a popular pamphlet talking about his days as a slave trader, apologizing for it and campaigning against slavery.

30 years is a long time. But grace was seeping like water onto a desert in Newton’s world. The culminating effect of changing attitudes in society, the fact that he had to stop working at that job and his entry into the ministry all culminated in him gradually being able to see what he had done.
May we see even though today we are blind. May we recognize our own blindness so that we might have compassion for the blindness of others.
“Let the desert rejoice.... For waters shall break forth in the thirsty ground....The wasteland will be turned into an Eden.... You will become like a watered garden.”(2)

(1)   “Africans in America”, PBS.

(2)   Excerpts from Isaiah, Bible as arranged in “Addiction & Grace”, Gerald G. May, 1991.

Amazing!  Grace.  ~  Erik Walker Wikstrom     Amazing Grace.  Perhaps one of the most popular hymns of all time that nobody every really sings.  At least, not the way it was meant to be sung.  That first line?  “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me”?  It’s been recast as:
·         That saved a soul like me . . .

·         That saved and strengthened me . . .

·         That saved and set me free . . .
The great Protestant writer Kathleen Norris has lamented that these alterations are “laughably bland.”  The whole point is that the narrator of the song has known a wretched life . . . absolutely wretched, horrible . . . and not just the outer circumstances of his life, but his inner life as well . . . he’s been a wretch.
And John Newton certainly knew both things.  He was, as is now well known, involved in the English slave trade – first as a sailor on slave ships and then, eventually, as a captain.  He was involved with the buying and selling of people.  Or, to look at it another way, he was involved with the debasing and dehumanizing of people to such an extent that they could be seen as commodities.  From the abolitionist perspective he developed later in his life, and from our perspective today, that earlier time was certainly most wretched.
And personally he knew a wretched existence as well.  In his days as a sailor he was continually getting in trouble on ship.  He wrote obscene songs about his captain, songs that were so popular with the crew that they even started singing along.  (Not so popular with his captain, I’d imagine.)  His language was so profane, in fact, that in a profession rather well known for its salty talk, he was (and I love this line) “admonished several times for not only using the worst words the captain had ever heard, but creating new ones to exceed the limits of verbal debauchery.”   On one occasion he got himself into so much trouble – and I truly wish I knew what he’d done – that he was chained up below decks like the slaves they were carrying and was then himself sold off the ship into slavery in Sierra Leon.  (I’m thinking he knew a thing or two about wretchedness.)
He was saved from his enslavement by another ship’s crew, the crew of the Greyhound, in whose company he then set sail.  It was while aboard the Greyhound that he experienced another kind of wretchedness – a severe storm that challenged the ship to its core.  Newton watched as a crewmate was washed overboard from a spot where he’d been standing only a moment earlier.   When he and another shipmate were set to operating the pumps, they had to lash themselves to them so as not to be washed away.  And Newton himself spent eleven hours on deck steering the boat – and this, after hours and hours of battling the storm in other positions.
At one point, after speaking with the captain about a possible plan of action, Newton said, “If this will not do, then Lord have mercy on us.”  They made it through, and surviving this storm provided an opportunity for Newton to reconsider his life.  He saw their survival as nothing but God’s mercy, yet he knew that he had not only neglected his own faith but had actively opposed it . . . in himself and others.  He was want to ridicule people who spoke of religious things and even reveled in declaring that their God was nothing but a myth.  And now he felt as though he’d just been saved by this God he ridiculed.  He felt as though he, a wretch of a man who’d known a wretched life, had just been saved and suddenly it seemed as if he’d been blind his whole life before and now could see.
Powerful stuff, right?
Of course, we’re not wretches, right?  I mean, none of us could say that we’ve lived the kind of wretched life John Newton had, right?  That’s why we sing all sorts of things other than “saved a wretch like me.”  Right?
When the Worship Weavers were discussing this service in our meeting last month one of the members said that they resonated with the song as someone who was thirty-five years sober.  Looking back at their life of active alcoholism was without question or doubt looking back at a wretched life, a life of blindness.  Looking at their life’s trajectory, the gift of sobriety, the grace of sobriety, was a “sweet sound” indeed.
This got me to thinking about one of my teachers, Gerald May.  Gerry was a psychiatrist who was interested in spiritual direction – he was also the younger brother of the more famous Rollo May.  In his fantastic book Addiction and Grace, Gerry makes the point that there are all kinds of addictions – the obvious ones like alcohol, drugs, food, and gambling are just the tip of the iceberg.  He suggests that anything we can’t give up, anything that we find ourselves locked into and unable to let go of, can be understood as an addiction.  So, some people are addicted to the accumulation of wealth, others to “being nice,” and others to “being right.”  Does any of this ring a bell?
And one of the things about addiction is that not only are we caught up in it, virtually powerless to let go of it, but that this is true to our own detriment.  It’s not just that you think that making money is a really good thing, it’s that you think so to such an extent that you spend all of your time involved in its acquisition even to the point of being unable to actually enjoy any of it.  Or you think that “being nice” and keeping everybody happy is so important that you aren’t nice to yourself and you, in your own life, are anything but happy.  Addictions warp our minds and our hearts, twist our souls so that the good we seek becomes a harm – and we end up becoming trapped, enslaved.
Some say that that’s what happened with Thomas Jefferson and slavery – he was intellectually opposed to the inhuman practice, but he was so caught up in the lifestyle and the ways of life of his day that he could not let go of it.  Enslaved persons were necessary in his kind of life, and despite the dissonance between the institution of slavery and his values about freedom he couldn’t let it go.
That was certainly true of John Newton.  Even after his conversion experience he continued to run slave ships for several years, although each trip became increasingly more difficult for him until he finally collapsed from the strain, never to sail again.
The truth is, my friends, that each of us . . . (I was tempted to write “some of us” in order to give you an out and increase the chance that you’d feel positively toward me, something I’ve been known to struggle with) . . . but the truth is that each of us knows our own kind of wretchedness.  Each of us has our own blindness.  Each of us knows that place – oh, probably not to John Newton’s extent but don’t let’s let that stand in the way of our acknowledging that we do, in fact, know it – and if we don’t also know the sweet sound of grace then we know what it feels like to yearn for it.
And when we feel it – like the calming of the seas that have been throwing us about; like the breaking of the storm clouds, the cessation of the rain, and the coming out of the sun – we may well be surprised.  Amazing!  Grace!  And that’s part of the truth about grace, too.
Last week I said that there is no limit to grace, that it abounds, that it exists all around us and that we just have to be open to it.  But it’s not as easy as that, is it?  It’s not as simple.  There’s something fundamentally mysterious about grace; it’s beyond our control.  I don’t even know for sure whether we should say that grace is that moment, that event, in which our lives are opened up or if it’s that ineffable “energy” (for want of a better word) that’s moving in, and around, and through our lives making those moments, those events, possible.  And that’s probably okay.  It’s okay for us to front some mysteries and allow them to remain mysterious.
What I do know is that there are “many dangers, toils, and snares” in this life.  I know that all of us have our moments of wretchedness.  And I know that I wish grace on us all.

What Does It Mean to Be Who We Are? (3)

In my last post I promised to offer another lens through which to look at the programs and projects of Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist to help us see how well who we say we are and who we act like we are are in agreement with each other.  This is an important exercise for a congregation -- as for an individual -- to engage in on a regular basis:  am I living by the values I espouse?  Could someone tell what matters to me by looking at the way I live my life?
There is another reason (at least one other!) to engage in this quest to "know thyself" and live an "examined" life.  We are bombarded on a daily basis with invitations to do this thing and to do that thing -- far more things than anyone could ever do.  As Edward Everett Hale famously said, "I am only one . . . I cannot do everything."  His point, of course, is that while we may not be able to do everything there is always at least something that we can do.  An exercise such as this can help us decide among the myriad things that are calling for our attention which thing(s) we can do.  Which things we ought to do.  Which things we are being called to do.
So in my last post I suggested that we here at TJMC look to our congregation's Mission Statement and see how what we're actually doing aligns with the values we espouse in this core document.  That's something I think we should always do when considering beginning a new project or when assessing something we've been doing for a while -- ask ourselves, in what way(s) does this enhance our ability to act on our mission in the world?  In what way(s) does this further that mission?
In this post I want to suggest that another tool we might use is the well-known Principles and Purposes section of the Unitarian Universalist Association's bylaws, especially the so-called "Seven Principles."

There are the seven principles which Unitarian Universalist congregations covenant to affirm and promote:

  1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  2. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  3. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  4. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  5. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  6. The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  7. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

A.      1st & 2nd Principle Work
a.       Racial reconciliation work
                                                               i.      Partnership with Monticello
                                                             ii.      Partnership with UCARE/UVA
                                                            iii.      Partnership with Dialog on Race
                                                           iv.      Partnership with Coming To The Table
                                                             v.      Partnerships with area African American churches
b.      Immigration
                                                               i.      Immigration law reform
                                                             ii.      Immigration justice
                                                            iii.      Partnership with Creciendo Juntos
c.       Refugee Community
d.      GLBTI
                                                               i.      Marriage equality
                                                             ii.      Pride
e.      PACEM
f.        Emotional Wellness Ministry
g.       Food Pantry
h.      Soup Kitchen
B.      3rd & 4th Principle Work
a.       Worship experimentation/deepening
                                                               i.      Sunday worship
                                                             ii.      UU Christian Fellowship Worship
                                                            iii.      Clear Spring Buddhist Sangha
                                                           iv.      Labyrinth Ministry
                                                             v.      Nature Spirit
b.      Lifespan Faith Development
                                                               i.      RE for children and youth
                                                             ii.      RE for adults (AFD)
c.       Covenant groups
d.      UUse Guys and UUpity Women
e.      Pastoral visitors
f.        Membership
g.       Leadership Development
h.      UVA Campus Ministry
C.      5th and 6th Principle Work
a.       IMPACT
b.      PA-UN
D.      7th Principle Work
a.       Green Sanctuary
b.      Mountaintop Removal
c.       Adopt-a-Highway

I know that I've left out some of the things that we do here, and that I've included some things that have not yet quite matured into their fullness (how's that for euphamism?), but this seems to be enough to give an idea of how the exercise is done.  Some may also disagree with some of the placements I propose here, thinking perhaps that something I've said supports the 1st and 2nd principle more properly could be said to support the 5th and 6th.  Perfect agreement is not the goal.  The exercise itself of checking our behavior against our principles is in and of itself worthwhile.
I'd love to hear what you think.
In Gassho,

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

What Does It Mean To Be Who We Are? (2)

In a recent post I wrote about the importance of "knowing thyself," of not only living our lives but also of looking at our lives to understand who we really are.  Dom Helder Camara once said, "Watch how you live.  Your lives may be the only gospel your sisters and brothers will ever read."  When asked about the message he wanted people to hear, Mohandas Gandhi said, "my life is my message."  And, of course, Socrates famously said, "The unexamined life is not worth living."  This is not a new idea.

And it's not only a good idea for individuals -- you and me -- but for institutions, as well.  In particular, I was suggesting that it'd be a good idea for a religious community to look at its "life" and see what it has to say about who and what it is.  And in that post -- which was also my "Words of Wikstrom" column for the March bulletin of the congregation I serve -- I promised that I would spend time here at A Minister's Musings examining the life of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist.
For this first installment I want to lift up the Mission Statement of TJMC.  It says:
Mission Statement for TJMC-UU
  • Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church is a church of the liberal tradition rooted in the heritage of Unitarian Universalism and dedicated to the belief that in every individual there are extraordinary possibilities.
  • We are committed to the individual and collective pursuit of spiritual growth, social justice, and life-long religious education and understanding.
  • We foster an open and free community in which we share our gifts, care for one another, and honor our differences.
  • We seek to have a lasting influence on local, national, and global programs that promote equity and end oppression.
What happens if we look at the things we are doing as a faith community through the lens of the Mission Statement we've created together?  How well do our verbalized values line up with our actual activities?

Unquestionably the two most central activities of our community are the religious education program for our children and youth, and the weekly communal worship service.  I would wager that more people have more contact through these two things than through everything else we do combined.  And so it is worth noting that both of these activities tie directly into -- or, to put it another way, flow directly out of -- all four of the points of our Mission.
Not only what we're doing in Religious Education and Worship but how we're doing them, as well, is both in keeping with and an expression of the values in our Mission.  While there is professional leadership in both of these areas, neither would be possible without tremendous lay involvement.  And in both cases this is not just token involvement but true collaborative co-creation.

And this, I would suggest, is true of all of the things that are done within the context of "The Worship Council" -- the UU Christian Fellowship, NatureSpirit, the Labyrinth Ministry, the Clear Spring Sangha . . . all of these are "rooted in the heritage of Unitarian Universalism," "dedicated to the belief that in every individual there are extraordinary possibilities," they are demonstrations of our commitment to "the individual and collective pursuit of spiritual growth . . . and life-long religious education and understanding," and are manifestations of our "open and free community in which we share our gifts, care for one another, and honor our differences."
I would say too, of course, that the same is true of our "Lifespan Faith Development Council" -- our religious education for children and youth, our adult faith development programs.  In fact, some might say that these values are even more clearly present in our congregation's religious education across the lifespan.  And certainly the invitation to become more deeply and fully informed about the issues of the day creates a necessary foundation for the last point to become actualized.
In a recent sermon I gave a list of some of the many activities we engage in under the umbrella of the Social Action Council:
Adopt-a-highway, Chalice Lighters, Children’s Worship Collections, Emotional Wellness Ministry, Environmental Action – Green Sanctuary, Food Pantry, Gay/Straight Alliance, Giving Tree, Guest at Your Table, Hospital Food Packets, IMPACT, Marriage Equality, PACEM, Partner Church(es), Peace Action - UNO, Refugee Partnerships, Social Action Collections, Soup Kitchen, Undoing Racism, Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, our Youth’s work in relationship building with the residents of the Cedars.  (And largely thanks to our children and youth and our Gay-Straight Alliance we are connecting with the Standing on the Side of Love campaign.)
It seems self-evident that these things are in alignment with our Mission Statement as well.  Very much so.  I would note that in our Statement we do not simply endorse activities to increase "justice" in the world -- in a vague kind of catch-all way -- but are rather specific, declaring that we aim to have an impact on, or to be involved with, programs that "promote equity and end oppression."  Lots of things can be contained within that rubric, yet there are projects and programs that'd be a stretch to include.  This kind of clarity can be very helpful in deciding what to do and what not to do as well as in helping us see why we're doing the things we are and how they fit together.  (I'm hoping that further conversations about our social justice initiatives might concentrate on that particular phrase and just what we think it means.)

I could continue, but I think the point of the exercise is clear.  Take any particular activity of the congregation -- from the existence of a particular group or committee to the various specific tasks that they do -- and ask whether or not there is (or could be) a clear connection between that activity and our Mission Statement.  If so, let's get better at articulating that connection, that "we do this because our Mission is this."

And where there is a disconnect -- if there are places of disconnect -- we can ask ourselves three questions:
  1. Is there something we can change about the way we're doing this that would help it to align with our Mission?
  2. Is there something we should change about our Mission Statement because we're doing this thing?
  3. Is this something we should stop doing so that we could more energetically focus on those things our Missions calls us to be doing?
 In my next post on this subject the exercise will be essentially the same, but I'll propose a different lens to use while looking at our congregation.  I am hoping that this series will spark a lively conversation . . .

In Gassho,


Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Will & Grace

These are the sermonic explorations shared on March 5, 2012 at
Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Thomas Collier:  Grace – the new topic for the month of March.  (Eric?  What are you doing?  Atonement, was hard enough, then Incarnation in December I had to stretch head and heart on that topic and now???? – Grace!!)
Well, as usual I don’t have a clue what Grace is.  I mean, I understand that the definition of Grace is, a free or unmerited gift, but that begs the question of who is the giver (religiously speaking), and why me?   There are more worthy and more needy people than me.  And if grace is accidental, a positive synchronicity then there is no giver, and without a giver, how can it be considered a gift. So grace, beyond reading the definition of what it is supposed to mean, I can’t say that grace makes a whole lot of sense to me.  The dictionary was not much help, this time. 
Grace – Graceful. Now that makes sense, that I can understand; fluid, smooth, flawless, beautiful.
That is grace I can hold onto – That is grace I can see – That is grace I can hope for.  I hope for you, for me, for us all – Life lived gracefully.  A Smooth, flawless, beautifully lived life.
That would be wonderful if it weren’t so incredibly unrealistic.  Sometimes life is graceful and sometimes life is a bellyflop. 
I struggled to find an image for this grace-less-ness and the best I could come up with is an old Calvin and Hobbs cartoon where Calvin is at the top of Mayhem Mountain and Hobbs is questioning the rationale behind pushing off.  They, of course, GO and Mayhem ensues.  They fly (uncontrolled) through the air, crash into just about everything they could crash into and then end up at the bottom, bumped, bruised, scratched … and triumphant! 
Sure, there are times when life is grace, beautiful moments; then there are times when Grace, the dancer, falls flat on her tukus and everyone stifles a laugh because they know its not socially appropriate to laugh especially when the person sitting next to you is genuinely concerned for Grace.  Yes, I too am concerned for Grace … but Grace just fell on her butt and that was funny. 
A life well lived comes with a fair share of grace-less crash-bang, fall-down, bruises and scars kind of moments.  The kind of moments that really make stories, that make stories great. The kind of moments that make us laugh.  We will wait through the entire series of credits to get to the outtakes – the crashes, the bangs, the epic failures of the movie.  And sometimes the outtakes are more entertaining than the movie.  I am not speaking metaphorically, so don’t go home and ponder that as a life lesson. 
 Look, its OK to laugh when another person has an epic crash because they are part of life, the person and the crashes.  I have done a lot of whitewater kayaking and we, the whitewater community, have gotten over the idea that laughing at someone adds insult to injury.  We laugh because the crash was funny, not because we are laughing at you (plus we have seen a lot of crashes an we know you are going to be OK). 
There have been times when I was laughing hysterically and offering a hand for support.  There have been many times when I was on the receiving end of someone laughing hysterically and offering a hand for support.  Actually the only time that laughter adds insult to injury is when someone is taking themselves a bit to seriously and in all honesty, we ALL crash so don’t take yourself too seriously.  Plus you are killing the potential mirth of the situation. 
In our daily lives, we are all usually in a crash or a state of Grace.  Usually.  There are those extreme times – Joyful times, which are more than just graceful, and Tragic times, where laughter can not penetrate. But the most of our time is spent in a crash or a beautiful flowing state of Grace. 
When life in is in the midst of a crash – when grace is gone – don’t forget to laugh.  The crash you are in may be physical, emotional or spiritual – don’t forget to laugh.  You may be on your knees alone or with a trusted companion - weeping OR pacing back and forth screaming (once again alone or with a trusted companion because its not Ok to do that in public).  Don’t forget to laugh.  It could be huge, “I have to write this down, this is a GREAT story” kind of hysterical laughter or it could be a small “I can NOT BELIEVE how messed up this is”  kind of laughter.  Don’t forget to laugh.    
There is as much if not more God in laughter as there is in quiet solemnity.
There is as much if not more Spirit in laughter as there is in quiet contemplation.
I really wish a beautiful, fluid Graceful life, for you, for us all. 
but when Not-So-Graceful happens
I wish for us all Laughter. 

Erik Wikstrom:  Our Universalist ancestors told the world, and tell us still, that there are no limits to the love of God.  Now we Unitarian Universalists, today, may want to have some freedom to express that phrase “the love of God” in different ways.  For some of us those words themselves are too limiting, they are too inextricably linked to images of a paternalistic Santa in the Sky who doles out goodies to the good and cosmic coal to everyone else.  (As if even God could make such a clear distinction between those two!)
Some people don’t like “theistic language,” or what our recent UUA President Bill Sinkford liked to call “the language of reverence.”  That’s okay, really.  We don’t need it.  In the Christian scriptures Jesus is remembered as saying that “God causes it to rain on the just and the unjust alike,” a passage often quoted by those long-ago Universalists.  We could just as easily, and just as accurately, say simply that it rains on the just and the unjust.  The sun shines on good people and bad people equally.  Green plants soak up carbon dioxide and exude fresh oxygen whether we deserve it or not.
And now we’ve come to a part of the concept of “Grace” that often causes fits for folks like us.  If grace is, as many would define it, an “unmerited” or “undeserved” gift or blessing, then many of us would draw the line right there.  What do I mean by saying “undeserved”?  It’s not like we’re still stuck in that “sinner” stuff, those old teachings that seemed to emphasize how “unworthy” we are.
Well no . . . we’re not.  And that’s part of the point.  But let me offer an illustration.
When I was candidating for this position the Search Committee looked at a lot of other highly qualified folks.  I had to demonstrate – prove to them and then to you – that I was up to the . . . opportunity . . . of pastoring this people.  And I think it’s fair to say that I earned my place in this pulpit; that I deserve to be here, ministering with all of you, co-creating this beloved community we call TJMC.
But do I – could I – deserve what it feels like when Scott plays?  Is there some way that I could earn the energy in this room when we’re weaving worship together?  The thrill that runs up my spine when I see what’s going on in our RE program, what could possibly make me worthy of that feeling?
Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  These things are completely unmerited, undeserved . . . they’re grace.
As is the sunset that reminds you that life is worth living at the end of  that day when you’ve not been so sure.  As is the look in your child’s eye when they look at you like you know everything and can do everything and . . . are . . . everything to them.  Grace.  Nothing but grace.
So our Unitarian Universalist ancestors told the world, and tell us still, that there are no limits to grace; that it falls on the just and the unjust; that it shines on good people and bad people equally; that no matter what we may know ourselves to be, it’s there – all around us (and within us too!) – just ready for the taking.  They preached that the question of whether or not you “deserved” it, or were “worthy” of it, isn’t really the right question.  Of course you don’t; there’s no way that you could.  So stop worrying about that.
The real question doesn’t have to do with “worthiness” or “unworthiness” but, instead, willingness.  Because grace is all around us, like the air we breathe, but we have a choice about whether or not we acknowledge it; whether or not we accept it.
So there’s the question – the real question imbedded in the concept of grace – are you willing to accept it?  Are you willing to open yourself to it?  Trust it?  Live your life as though it were true?
Albert Einstein is reported to have said, “"The most important question you'll ever ask is whether the Universe is a friendly place."  It’s possible that he didn’t say this, but it’s an awfully good question nonetheless.  And the answer, I’m afraid is not quantifiable.  There is no definitive conclusion to be drawn by looking at the available data, because the available data unfortunately supports both hypotheses.  So we have to make a choice – you and I have to make a choice – with each and every day we’re above ground, with each and every breath we draw in each and every moment-by-moment encounter, we have to decide if we’re going to live in a friendly Universe or an unfriendly one. 
We have to choose whether we’re going to see the glass as half full or half empty because the objective reality is that it is both at the same time, yet it matters mightily which perspective we emphasize.  “It matters what we believe,” Sophia Lyon Fahs said.  A fuller rendering of her poem can be found in the back of our hymnal, but she said:

Some beliefs are like walled gardens. . .

Other beliefs are expansive and lead the way into wider and deeper sympathies.

Some beliefs are like shadows.. . .

Other beliefs are like sunshine. . . .

Some beliefs are divisive. . . .

Other beliefs are bonds in a world community. . . .

Some beliefs are like blinders. . . .

Other beliefs are like gateways opening wide vistas for exploration.

Some beliefs weaken a person's selfhood. . .

Other beliefs nurture self-confidence and ignite the feeling of personal worth.

Some beliefs are rigid, like the body of death, impotent in a changing world.

Other beliefs are pliable, like the young sapling, ever growing with the upward thrust of life.

It matters what we believe.  It matters how we see that glass.  It matters what we think of the Universe.  And it is up to us to choose.
Buddhists teach us that even though we are breathing all the time we are hardly ever aware of – really, fully, deeply aware of and awake to –something as simple as our breathing.  Yet if we wake up – when we become aware – even something as simple as our breathing is recognized as being miraculous.  Awake or asleep – it’s fundamentally a choice.  A choice each of us has the power to make.  Right now.
And right now again.
Each of us can choose to breathe the air, and feel the sun on our backs, and let the rain drench us to the skin – there are no limits to the love of God.  There are no limits to grace.
Unless we put them there.
That’s really the message I have to share this morning.  The sun is always shining, exuding its energy indiscriminately, lavishing its life-giving power without condition.  Unless we create smog and pollution to block it out.  (And, of course, even so its energy gets through . . . we just make it harder for us to see it.)  The rain falls, and even our going inside does not stop its fall – we just prevent it from getting to us.  But it’s there.  And when it transforms into water vapor and enters the air it lands on even those of us who’ve tried to be safe from its touch . . . we just don’t know it
In the coming weeks we’ll explore this idea of “grace” from several angles.   This morning I leave these fourteen words for each of us to ponder:
There is no limit to grace.  Do you have the will to accept it?