Amazing Grace

I watched the dancer leaping and turning, seemingly weightless, his movements apparently effortless. He made it look so easy that I knew anyone could do it. I could do it! The term that came to mind as I watched was, of course, “graceful,” the art of being at ease, and all parts of the whole in perfect accord and balance. The apparent ease is deceptive. Perhaps one has achieved grace when the struggle beneath it is not apparent. On reflection, the complexity, the discipline by which ease is achieved, becomes obvious. Every muscle has been trained, every movement practiced to the point of exhaustion. The artist has devoted life itself to coming to terms with the lack of ease, with the common state of dis-ease, with imbalance. The artist is in command of time, of event, of self, trusts both the event and the self to be as one. And that is grace.

Grace, when we see it, appears so simple, so natural, so “as it ought to be.” It seems that grace should be our common state. Yet we know that grace is rare, a triumph over awkwardness, a victory over dis-ease. Human existence, in its civilized state, is not normally graceful, harmonious, or in balance but is at odds with itself and the universe. Humanness is divided against itself. Mind against body. Passion against restraint. Thought hunting down feeling to deny it. Spirit against material. Civil demands against private virtue. Future hope against past experience. We live awkwardly, gawkily, in tension, pulled by opposites, struggling to be free; sometimes surrendering to one tug or another just to ease the tension. It was James Thurber who said that just as we find our hearts in a close embrace we discover that our foot is caught in the piano stool.

These thoughts grew from watching a ballet dancer, thoughts of disharmony from an experience of rare grace.

When the term “grace” came to my mind, thoughts flew down the memory channels to relive the days of the theology student, of grizzled, homeless-looking professors mumbling into their yellowing notes about the “mystery of grace.” I thought of my young self, a then-unbearded Methodist student minister preaching against “cheap grace” in the wood-cutting country of northern Maine, a well-intended preacher of the gospel finally giving up on the doctrine of grace, deserting Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, clerical collar, bishop, and holy communion, fleeing to the then-presumed simplicity of Unitarianism and the freedom of sweet reason untinged with mystery.

Grace had been one of the tools of my trade long-since laid down in favor of modernist machinery, in favor of streamlined, short-cut religion with no room for troublesome parts like “grace” and “salvation” which take too much time to think about, too much thought, perhaps too much trust and faith to handle. It was certainly too much for the children who thought “Amazing Grace” was a circus lady who worked with “Gladly” the cross-eyed bear.

So I fell to preaching about “how to be happy,” from the latest pop psych book, and, here and there, I made some harmless call to save some part of the world or other, which made us all feel good and changed nothing. But it couldn’t last. Religion, as Channing said, is all or nothing. True religion is about ultimate things. It is necessary for us to decide what things are of passing interest, what things are of the moment, and what things are, in our personal and communal existence, ultimate and inescapable. Grace, then, returned to the vocabulary of my existence through the gracefulness of a dancer, but it came with theological language-baggage that needed to be sorted out.

Grace, in the Christian tradition, has seemed to be such a rare thing that its occasional evidence in a human being came to be supernaturally explained. What the Christian doctrine-makers saw in humanity in general was not the ease and harmony of grace but quite the opposite. What they saw in humankind was chaos, what they called “sin.” It was assumed that humanity had the possibility of graceful existence, life without chaos, without sin, but that it had lost that possibility through Adam’s fall. “In Adam’s fall,” they stitched on the needlework, “In Adam?s fall we sinned all.” Humanity, through the disobedience of those fabled first parents, then must live gracelessly, awkwardly, in conflict and alienation from self, god, and nature, which is to say, because of the hasty, furtive scarfing down of a forbidden fruit, we have forever after lived gracelessly.

The Christian church recognized no way that human beings could save themselves from this state, this graceless, separated, sinful condition. In what was called “the first dispensation” ? that is, the age of human history known through the Hebrew scriptures ? God had given the Hebrews the law through which at least they would not offend him. But this, surely, was not grace, but a mere going through the motions. Correct behavior is not the same as graceful being.

Jesus Christ, according to the arrogance of Christianity, was “the new dispensation,” or “the new Adam.” Through him, grace, salvation, came to human beings as an unearned gift from God. Human beings, according to sacred doctrine, can do nothing to earn or deserve God’s gift of grace. It was a gift of love. “For God so loved the world,” they said, “That He gave His only begotten son.”

And how did the world recognize and know the saved, those in a state of grace? What does grace look like? The saved, those in a state of grace, live, first of all, in faith ? not with mere belief, not by merely agreeing to some doctrine or dogma. Belief is merely religion and religion is not faith. Faith is basic trust in the dependability of the universe. Faith is trust that the ground in which we have our being is firm and reliable: is as it should be.

Faith, then, is living as if life is worth living. In faith we declare that a life of sufficient meaning can be carved out of mere existence. Our faith is the structure, the framework, within which our personal existence makes sense, if only to us.

For Christians, that sense, that meaning and purpose, is grounded in the knowledge of God as revealed to them through his son, Jesus Christ. For the Apostle James, writing in the Christian scriptures, the saved person, the person living in a state of grace, can be known by behavior, by what he or she does, by how he or she lives. James was the pragmatic one. “By their fruits,” he said, “You shall know them.” James was not one for a lot of esoteric theologizing. “Faith by itself,” James said, “If it has not works, is dead.” He was quite specific. The person in faith, living in a state of grace, can be seen caring for widows and orphans, visiting the sick, being merciful, living justice, peacefully, with humility. James said, “Whoever knows what is right to do and fails to do it, for that person it is sin.” That’s clear enough. And the meaning of grace for James is clear enough. The person who lives in grace knows what is good and does it.

It was another James, William James, who, centuries later, said that the difference between good religion and bad religion could be determined by observing the kind of life the believer lives.

Grace, in traditional Christian terms, then, is the unearned, undeserved gift of God by which people are lifted out of a life of sin, ushered into a life of faith in which they live and act consistently with that faith. They are known by their faith and works to be living in grace.

But what can grace mean to those who doubt this fabled God who reaches from far out there and imposes his gift of salvation from sin on an undeserving humanity? Is there grace for the humanist, the agnostic, and the atheist?the theologically befuddled Unitarian? In traditional terms, grace is the antidote to the state of sin. “Amazing Grace” that saved a wretch like me. Do we need this salvation from sin?

I’m not talking about “sins,” doing bad things, lying, cheating, stealing ? calling lying, cheating, and stealing something else. By “sin” I mean a state of being, a state in which we are less than what we could be, fallen short of our possibility, a state in which we are in disharmony, in which we are, to put it simply, dis-grace-ful. Living in sin is living a gawky, awkward, ungrace-ful kind of existence caused by being too cheap, too greedy, or too cowardly to know what good is and to do it.

This state of “sin,” this state of being in the space between where we are and where we could be, drives us to seek ease in strange quarters, to be “free” at the cost of true freedom, to have answers, however easy, which will resolve the conflicts of our being. Emerson taught us to beware laying down our reason (which, he said, is our oneness with God) and denying our intellect, the means to knowing that oneness. We lay down our reason and intellect for cheap grace, false gods, and mad prophets. The state of dis-ease, of un-ease, disharmony, propels many to cults, to gurus and the mind-games of the moment, to pseudo-philosophies and psychologies, to all manner of single-minded dogma and fanaticism.

The awareness of our state of being is also part of what brings us to gather here. Who will deliver us? We have wanted to believe what we were taught before. Most of us here were raised in beliefs of various sorts. We have felt the need to believe, but could not believe. We have been left with unanswered questions, left with questions in a lonely place, without clear simple meaning or purpose absolute and conclusive.

Christian doctrine was formulated in an age much like ours, an age which had little or no faith in independent human possibility. Human beings were seen as the puppets of God: all meaning and all events to be interpreted in the light of the will of God or the gods. When the early doctrine-makers perceived that some people lived grace-fully (in a state of grace) in spiritual ease, they assumed that such a state was a divine, unearned, undeserved gift from beyond the world of human possibility.

We, too, perceive that some live in that state of grace-fullness. But we can come to understand that what some have created out of the givens of human existence, exists as possibility for us all with or without a boost from the gods. For us, such remarkable human beings as Jesus of Nazareth were not models of supernatural perfection but are models of human possibility. The 19th century Unitarians in America argued that Jesus did not “save” us by dying as a god, but saves us, transforms us, by being a powerful example of human possibility. Jesus did not come to be worshipped, Emerson and Parker and Channing said, but to be emulated. We are not “saved” by his death, the New England preachers said, but by the example of his life.

In my experience, those people who live the graceful life, living in and with the givens of their existence, rather than living as victims of existence, have not been the undeserving recipients of the gifts of gods or fateful coincidence. They have shaped and formed their place in life by deliberate effort, using the realities in which they live to achieve a balance, an integration, and a wholeness – which is grace.

The Unitarian theologian, James Luther Adams, said that human existence “is always comprised of both the given fact and the responsible act.” That is, we are responsible for what we do with what we have.

We have the givens of our birth in time, in place, society, and culture. We have the givens of our genetic limitations and possibilities. And we have what Christian doctrine called “God’s will” and which I simply call “Mystery.” Which is to say that when we add up everything that goes to make us who we are, we find that we are more than the sum of the parts.

The dancer is more than a practiced technician. The dance is clearly more than learning how to move one’s body, as music is more than knowing where the notes are, and poetry more than making rhymes. What we see in art and beauty requires a special word. That word is grace. The word “grace,” relieved of its old traditional baggage, is still needed to describe that state of being which is “more than” mere skillful techniques for living.

Baryshnikov moves, acts, dances in confidence of his skill, because he has practiced it, and he has practiced it in the trust and acceptance that, whatever else the realities of life may be, what he does is beautiful, and good, and true. To trust the context – the place we are – the place in which we must live out our lives, to trust in spite of the chaos and the tragedy, rather than living in terror of what we have not made and cannot control. This is to live gracefully.

To accept the givens of our personal existence and to act responsibly, to act purposefully, in trust, this is to achieve and to experience a state of grace, a graceful being. The old Christian doctrine of grace insists that this way of graceful, trusting, accepting, being cannot be achieved, learned, or taught. It can only come as an undeserved gift of God.

Yet I have not know anyone who has lived grace-fully who has not struggled to live in that way, struggled to learn from pain that has no meaning, and borne the cost of letting go and letting be. When I think of grace, I imagine myself at my sacred place, high above the desert floor. The blackbirds intermittently screech at the circling hawks. Otherwise there is only the sound of the mountain breeze hissing through the ancient up-heaved stones. I seek grace: harmony, unity. I focus on a place far below on the desert floor and breathe deeply, slowly, consciously. Here I am no priest. Here I am a brother, a penitent, and a supplicant seeking the graceful presence of God. Time passes and with time passing comes a dimming of the memory of all I must do, of all it is demanded I be. The outer world begins to enter and unite with the inner.

Then I think – how shall I describe, set this down later? One thought leads to another: how can I accomplish that project, how can I pay that debt, how can I defend against that shortcoming. The fall from grace is rapid.

But, I assure you, there is grace. I have felt it at times, almost engulf me, restore me, and bless me with a passing vision of harmony and balance. I do not believe that grace is a gift imposed on us from above. I believe that grace is a standing invitation, the universe outstretched as a hand we beat against until we are finally able to rest into it. ‘Tis grace has brought us safe this far, ‘Tis grace will bring us home.”