“Hope? Hell, Yes! Part II
A sermon preached March 3, 2013, at the First Parish in Bedford, MA (Unitarian Universalist) by the Rev. Dr. William F. Schulz, Affiliate Community Minister and President of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.
In John Gibbons’ introduction of Bill Schulz, he quoted him from this book: “Finding Time & Other Delicacies” by William F. Schulz.
I was fellowshipped as a parish minister in 1975 and ordained and installed in that year at the First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts. But mine was not destined to be the most distinguished parish ministry in our movement’s history. The good people in Bedford were certainly good to me, but when President Paul Carnes asked me early in 1978 to head a reconstituted Department of Social Responsibility at the UUA, I accepted.
The brevity of my parish career did not mean, however, that I disparaged the parish or held few opinions about the ministry. Indeed, as I have occasionally noted, two and a half years in the parish ministry were long enough to convince me of my professional expertise and short enough not to dissuade me from the conceit.
I’ve learned about the ministry not only from my own limited experience but from a lifetime’s observations of ministers at their craft. My view is on balance, I hope, an affectionate one—for individual ministers have mentored me, taught me, loved me, and shared my pilgrimage for more than twenty-five years.
This morning I am preaching the second sermon in the longest sermon series in the history of preaching, my three-year-long “Hope? Hell, Yes!” series. Last year I preached about reasons to have hope in the future of the human race. You probably don’t remember anything I said so you can re-read the sermon, if you like, on the First Parish website. Though, by the way, speaking of the website, I should like to point out that, though there is a very nice picture of me there, I am the only member of the ministerial staff about whom you cannot click to “Read More.” You can read more, if you like, about John; you can read more about Megan; you can read more about Joe; until a week or two ago you could even read more about Jack and Jack, God bless him, had been dead for several months. But there is no place to click to “read more” about me. I’m just saying…
But please don’t let it bother you because of course we’re not talking about me here this morning; we’re talking about hope. And one of the reasons I’m doing that is because I teach a course in preaching at our seminary in Chicago and I always begin the course by asking my students to tell me about their doctrines of hope. If a preacher can’t articulate a doctrine of hope, she or he is no better than the Catholic priest who began mass in the customary way, “Peace be with you” and the people responded, “And with you.” “The Lord be with you.” And the people responded, “And with you.” “Christ be with you…sorry but there’s something wrong with this microphone.” And the people responded, “And with you.” Well, there’s something wrong with a preacher who lacks a sense of hope.
So this year I am going to talk about hope in the face of personal hardship and next year about hope in light of our mortality. If you have any questions about mortality, please just keep them to yourselves for a year and I’ll answer them then. But right now I want to talk about how we sustain hope in the face of serious, if not fatal, problems—the loss of a job; the troubles of our kids; an unhappy relationship; all those things that can keep us awake at night. There is an old Lithuanian proverb that says “You didn’t have enough problems that you brought home a baby pig.” That’s the kind of problems I’m talking about—cyanide-squirting millipedes.
Now if I were a traditional Christian preacher, I would tell you that the answer to the sermon’s question of how to sustain hope in the face of personal hardship is “the grace of God,” the mercy, goodness, compassion and love that God showers on humanity. And you know what? The answer to the question is “grace” but not in the way those preachers mean.
For the first half of my ministry—that’s about twenty years—I had a lot of problems with the concept of grace. That was because I thought of grace as something given by God and not only did I not believe in that kind of God but I was also only too well aware that most of the people in the world have an all too meager experience of mercy, goodness, compassion and love. If grace is a gift that God provides to human beings, then why did God neglect to give it to the resident of Mumbai whose cardboard shack I once visited that was bisected by a stream of sewage or the torture victim I met in Liberia who had been held face down in a colony of red ants for over an hour or the children of Newtown? No, grace is not a gift of God or at least of no God worth worshipping.
But it is also true that not a single one of us would be here today without the presence of the sun; not a single one of us would have survived our childhoods without another person’s care; not a single one of us would be able to express love had at least one other person not loved us; and not a single one of us would fully revel in life’s unfolding without those surprising, unbidden blessings that at least occasionally take our breath away. Even the little I know about physics, about string cosmology and multi-verses, reminds me that our being here at all as sentient beings is beyond miracles. Think of any one of these truths and you will, in the words of Psalm 60, “taste of the wine of astonishment.” We can’t control any of these things—not the life of the sun; not the presence of caretakers; not the beat of the cosmos—we can’t make any of them happen. We can just be open to receiving them and grateful that we have. Grace is not something you are given; grace is something you find. It doesn’t matter its source; what matters is its presence. Grace is simply another word for unearned blessings.
Does grace always show its face when we need it to? No. Absolutely not. Grace is no “get Out of Jail Free” card. It would be nice if it was—it would be wonderful if it was—but for that to happen, we would have to be living in a magical universe of fairy tales and stardust. For better or worse, we’re stuck with this blessed old universe in which living things suffer and wilt and die but in which, in the course of that suffering, our lives are punctuated by testimonies of both sweetness and grandeur.
And, while we can’t guarantee that the gracious will appear at exactly the moment we most need it, we can increase the odds of its disclosure. Here are three ways:
We can be calm. This is ridiculous advice, I must say, coming from me, someone who curses gravity every time I drop a pen. I’m not as high-strung as Joan Rivers who said she knew she was an unwanted baby when she saw that her bath toys were a toaster and a radio but I’m not the Dalai Lama either. (Although, who knows? Maybe the Dalai Lama acts like a raving lunatic in the privacy of his “lama cave.” That is actually kind of a comforting thought.) But even if we can’t always be calm, we can remind ourselves to pause, to count to ten, to listen to our breathing. Because there’s one thing we know for sure: the gracious tends not to visit the frantic—the gracious tends not to visit the frantic. We can be calm.
We can be attentive. The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper listed what he called “the delights of idleness:” “walking in the country, scratching the noses of horses or the backs of pigs; planting…and cutting trees; slow, monosyllabic conversation over beer and cheese.” Contrast this with the poet William Carlos Williams’ report of his grandmother’s dying words: “ ‘What are all those fuzzy looking things out there?’ she asked. ‘Trees? Well, I’m tired of them’ and rolled her head away.” I think it is fair to say that, when you are tired of trees, you are ready to die and are beyond the intimations of grace. We can be attentive.
And we can be kind. I do not believe in karma. I do not believe that our kind acts will invariably be rewarded, whether in this life or a next. But I do believe that kindness opens the way to grace. The San Francisco Chronicle reported a few years ago that a female humpback whale had become entangled in a spider web of crab traps and fishing lines in San Francisco harbor. When a rescue team from an environmental group arrived to help, they realized that their only option was to dive in and cut the ropes as quickly as they could. When the whale was finally freed, she didn’t head out for sea but swam in circles for a time and then one by one approached each diver and nudged them, pushing them around gently as if to say thank you. “It was,” said one of the divers, “the single most stunning experience of my life.” Less than 24 hours after the massacre at Newtown, Robbie Parker, the father of one of the murdered children, said to the family of the shooter, Adam Lanza, “I can’t imagine how hard this experience must be for you and I want you to know that our family and our love and our support goes out to you as well.” Kindness opens the way to grace. And we can be kind.
I cannot possibly know what struggles each of you live with every day—depression, fear, rage, or maybe you are one of the lucky ones who lives mostly with joy and peace. No matter. We are all in need of grace and all in hock to gratitude. Thirty-five years ago when I was minister here, I was called with some regularity, often in the middle of the night, to meet with a woman who struggled with suicide. She and I would sit in the minister’s study behind us here and we would talk; mostly, I would listen; sometimes we would just sit in silence. She was receiving the best medical care available at the time and I knew that, as long as she kept calling me, she was choosing to stay alive. I also knew that I could not stop her from ending her life and a few years later, after I had left the ministry here, she did. There are very real limits to the extent to which we can heal another’s anguish and limits to the extent to which we can be saved by grace. For one thing, oppression makes grace so much harder to see. If I have sewage flowing through my living quarters, I am far less likely to rejoice in the glory of Creation. Without justice grace is far less likely to show its face.
But that we can be healed at all, that we can be surprised and delighted and blessed in the first place—these are cause enough for wonder and gratitude. Consider this astonishing statistic: many people who have opposed the erection of a suicide barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge have argued that those who are intent on killing themselves will succeed sooner or later, no matter what. But a study of the hundreds of people who tried to jump off the Bridge but were thwarted before they got over the railing found that ten years later only 6% had gone on to commit the deed. The other 94% had found some reason to keep on living. What did Christine Bonhoeffer say? “Trust—the most beautiful thing there is.”
Barry Lopez was sexually abused for years as a child by a man posing as a doctor and close friend of his family’s. After more than two decades of trying to ignore the trauma, Lopez finally sought treatment. “Therapy’s success for me,” he says now, “was not so much coming to understand [my own pain]. It was discovering a greater capacity within myself to empathize with another person’s nightmare.” And then he concluded:
“It took a long while for me to understand that a crucial component of recovery from trauma is learning to…accept the embrace of someone who has no specific knowledge of what happened to you…We need others to bring us back into the comity of human life. This appears to have been the final lesson for me—to appreciate someone’s embrace not as forgiveness…but as an acknowledgment that, from time to time, private life becomes brutally hard for every one of us, and that without one another…, the nightmare is prone to lurk, waiting for an opening.”
Grace is another word for whatever brings balm to your nightmares. When I asked that young man in the Liberian prison how he had survived more than six months of torture, he said, “I kept the image of my comrades and my children in the front of my mind every moment” and, then, pointing to the wall of his cell, he said, “and occasionally through that crack I could see light.”
Most of you know me well enough to know that I try not to preach pap from the pulpit. Life is very, very hard and it is much harder for the vast majority of people in the world than it is for us. Grace is no substitute for justice and no panacea for pain. But without it, justice will forever go unrealized and pain forever go unstaunched.
In her magnificent book, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, Kathleen Norris tells of a young minister, trained in the East, who was now living in a small rural town in North Dakota. It was the beginning of winter; the young minister had just completed her first memorial service and, along with a small group of mourners, was now standing at the graveside, ready to conduct the interment. “As people gathered by the graveside,” she says, “the men, some kneeling and fingering the hard ground, began studying the open grave.” What were they doing? Praying? Finally someone explained: “They were checking the frost and moisture levels in the ground. They were farmers and ranchers worried about a drought. They were mourners giving a good friend back to the earth. They were people of the earth looking for a sign of hope.” And aren’t we all? People of the earth looking for a sign of hope. I hope you’ve found it and, if you haven’t yet, please be assured that the odds are very great that it is coming.
The novelist Willa Cather said, “What is any art but a sheath in which to try to capture that shining, elusive quality that is life itself, hurrying past, too swift to stop, too sweet to lose.” Everyone and everything that we hold dear will someday slip away. There is no way to prevent that; it is too swift to stop. But if we are calm enough, attentive enough, kind enough and bold enough to seek out its sweetness, at the end of the day all the world may say, “We drank of the wine; we sipped of the cup; we were touched by the gracious; and we found it all so sweet, just sweet, too sweet, too sweet to lose.”