It is a privilege and a blessing to be among you after a short time away. Since the last time I preached here, I’ve been to our annual Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly, taken a week or so of vacation, and had a few weeks out of the pulpit while I focused on some other aspects of ministry here. Life keeps happening to all of us. One of the big things in my family is that our twins turned nine years old this summer. I don’t even know how that happened.
When our kids were newborns, people used to tell us, “Sleep when the baby sleeps,” which would have been good advice if they slept at the same time. At around six months old, we decided that they and we were ready for sleep training. That means we practiced putting the babies down in their cribs, telling them good night, and leaving the room.
I’m sure you can imagine how popular this was with the babies at first. The first night, we went through cycles of crying, reassurance, and calming for an hour and a half. After that, both babies stayed asleep for about ten hours. The next night they settled down somewhat more quickly. The third night involved only half an hour of objections. It wasn’t long before we all got used to the routine and neither the babies nor the adults did much crying at bedtime.
Once they were asleep, we had blessed peace. We knew they were getting what their bodies needed. The adults could sleep. Or get some work done. Or try to get some work done and accidentally sleep. (I’d like to acknowledge here that we were lucky; some babies do not get the hang of sleeping, no matter how hard their parents try.) It felt like heavenly serenity, achieved with some struggle. In the morning, the twins didn’t appear to resent or even remember the betrayal of the night before. They were glad to see us.
Starting over, well resourced, residing in the present moment with joy rather than dwelling on negative things from the past; this is an experience of grace. Like the sleep of medium-sized babies, the experience of grace is itself one of ease, yet we may struggle a bit with the disciplines that help open up our perception of grace. To me, grace is a force of the universe that is always there, an assurance of the acceptance of the Source of Love, a resource for reconciliation, and a model of how we can live in connection with one another. Grace is the truth that sets us free and the re-alignment of right relationship. To open ourselves up to its power, we practice forgiveness, self-compassion, and covenant.
Forgiveness is one path to opening up our awareness of grace. Forgiveness is one of those themes that people of faith are never quite done wrestling with, so I’ll just touch on it briefly, and trust that we’ll come back to it. Forgiveness can involve retaining the memory without continuing to feed the feelings of anger and disappointment. It can lead to making amends, reconciliation, and a stronger relationship, especially when more than one person is engaged in the process. Occasionally, forgiveness means letting something be in the past and finding a way to love someone from afar, because the hurt is too deep and the harmful behavior is too persistent for closeness. For everyday injuries, may we practice forgiveness in ways that are healthy for ourselves and life-affirming for all.
Our story earlier, “Mussa and Nagib,” is an allegory that illustrates this. Our second and third graders might hear this story later this year as part of the “Moral Tales” religious education curriculum. In the story, hurt was written in sand, but selflessness was chiseled in rock. Writing in sand doesn’t take much time. It’s OK to remember mistakes and learn from them, but don’t dwell on judgments. On the other hand, engraving kindness in stone takes some focus. Writing thank-you notes or recording the act of kindness in a journal can help us hold on to those feelings of connection and gratitude.
Sometimes resentments are attempts to prevent being hurt in the same way twice. But grudges do not necessarily offer protection, and they have their own drawbacks. Addressing the incident directly—saying what happened, how you feel, and what requests (if any) you would like to make to the other person—is one way to reduce the risk of being hurt again.
In a sense, Mussa’s act of writing in the sand where his friend Nagib could see it was a form of direct address. He called attention to the hurt, the incident itself, without any theories about what it meant or labels for his friend’s character. It is so easy to jump from “ouch” to “you don’t care about me” or “you are a bad person” in a moment of anger. Reflect on facts first. Notice your feelings. Figure out what you really need. Then decide how to respond.
Direct address is not a guarantee, but I think the benefits outweigh the risks. Carving a negative experience in stone takes a lot of time and effort, and then you have this heavy rock you have to carry around. It may be that some distance is necessary for physical safety. Honor your own well-being and boundaries, yet also account for what is lost when a grudge takes the lead.
When an event is far in the past, you can hold on to the wisdom you gained from that experience and the memory of the strengths you showed in navigating through it without pacing continuous circles of resentment and judgment. Whether something is drawn in the sand or engraved in the stone depends on how much time and energy you devote to committing the facts, feelings, and inferences to memory. Choose consciously. Forgive when you can.
For some of us, forgiving others is easier than forgiving ourselves. Self compassion presents a number of challenges. Unlike conflicts with other people, we don’t have as many options for putting temporary distance between ourselves and ourselves while we reflect on what we need. Of the options we do have, few of them are healthy for very long. Self-compassion helps us to continue to do the work of reflection in moments when we doubt ourselves, or when other people doubt us. Self-compassion reminds us that we have value, no matter what setbacks occur.
One of the hard truths about running from self-compassion is that it can be a way for our minds and souls try to get off the hook from responsibility for our moral choices. “Oh! I am such a wretch! I cannot possibly be held to a standard of human behavior! All is lost! I will give up now and go live in the wilderness among the locusts!”
The impulse to retreat into self-castigating isolation is familiar to me. Perfectionism is a tempting poison. And perfectionism is a liar. The Spirit of Life extends a hand to us, whether or not we get everything right. This is good because we most certainly will not get everything right.
Grace tells us that we always have the option to turn aside from destructive choices, we are capable of doing better (though not perfectly!), and that Love will not let us go, no matter what mistakes we have made. Grace gives us the freedom and the responsibility to get back up again after we’ve come to terms with our shortcomings and limitations.
In the reading we heard earlier, my colleague, the Rev. Theresa I. Soto, said:
The thing you must be is yourself.
Unadulterated, shedding the willingness to journey alone, as though you are made of something hard and unforgivable. You are human. You belong, right here, right now. And together, we will chase away the sickness, the secrets, and leave only the open Possibility that the future is a space for growth.
The future is a space for growth.
Understanding this open space, and that we need not be perfect to move forward, is essential for our ability to make moral choices in matters of social justice as well as everyday relationships and spiritual growth, as if any of those things could be separated. Far too often, fearing that we will get it wrong, or that it won’t be enough, or that we can’t be guaranteed success, makes a barrier to our participation in movements for justice and compassion. We might get so overwhelmed by the enormity of the many interlocking human rights crises going on that we don’t know where to begin. We can begin somewhere imperfect, because all of the places to begin are imperfect.
Letting go of the lie of perfection means that we can stop both running away in shame and defending our veneer of goodness from the truth that threatens to expose us. Instead, we can learn from our mistakes and limitations, and allow what we learn to lead us into transformation, to bring us to a closer relationship with the Spirit of Love and closer to right relationship with each other.
The thing you must be is yourself. Have compassion for the previous version of you, who had to make decisions without all of the information or resources or support you might have needed. Have compassion for the current version of you, whose imperfection opens up the future as a space for growth. Let us face the wide open space of that future as imperfect people practicing compassion for ourselves and each other.
Covenant: Anticipating Grace; or: The Freedom to Fail
Practicing being open to grace as we forgive ourselves and each other is a little easier in a covenanted community. Unitarian Universalist congregations like this one are covenanted communities. What holds us together is not creed or personality or even an appreciation for vocal music, but the sacred promises that give us our foundation. Covenant is another one of those evergreen topics, and we will definitely be coming back to this in a sermon next month.
Here at UUCSS, some of those promises are spoken and some are unspoken. We can disagree about ideas without rejecting people. We bring our whole selves into this room, fully present, accepting all the aspects of identity that make our companions who they are. Whoever you are and whomever you love, you are welcome here.
This being a human community, we need to cultivate ways to lovingly call each other back into relationship, because there will be mistakes. Coming back to the table when a promise has been broken is also part of covenant. Covenants can be sacred because they are capable of embracing human imperfection. The sacred has avenues for healing.
Committing to a covenant is an obligation. It’s work. Being connected means we voluntarily give up some of our freedom. On the other hand, being in a covenanted community also gives us freedom. It gives us the freedom to fail and to come back from failure. Covenant offers the freedom to be broken, to have our brokenness recognized, and to be appreciated for the entire picture: broken and whole, flawed and fabulous. That’s grace.
Knowing that there is room in this circle for the entirety of life, may each person know the freedom to lay out all the challenges, anxieties, works-in-progress, gifts, and talents they bring with them into this community. Volunteer for Sunday Support, or for the Property Committee’s cleanup brigade, or to teach children’s religious education using one of the awesome UU identity curricula we have lined up. Sign up for the new Soul Matters group and say what’s really on your heart. Make something daring for the all-church potluck on September 8. Have confidence that you are welcome in this covenanted community. There is grace here.
Living among human beings means being open to the possibility of both hurt and healing. May each one of us know the gift of grace, from human sources and from sources beyond our knowing. May each one of us know the gift of cooperating with grace, of acknowledging brokenness and being open to reconciliation and repair.
I hope that transforming our perception of the world so that we can understand the grace among us is as easy as a medium-sized baby waking up in the morning after ten hours of sleep. Let us awaken to the possibility of starting over. Retain the lessons of the past without putting energy into bitterness. Forgive when you can. Let us awaken to the assurance that our imperfections are welcome, and that our quest is bigger than whatever causes us to doubt. Be compassionate with yourself. Let us awaken to the power of covenant as we form a community of sacred resilience. The bonds of congregational life bring the freedom of authenticity.
May you be held in the love that runs through our interdependent web, may you be lifted up with grace, and may you begin again in courage. Rooted in love, may we renew our commitments together.
So be it. Blessed be. Amen.