The Grace of Missing the Bus

17 June 2007
Arlington Street Church
Mr. Barb Greve & Mr. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

So you missed the bus and here you are. Or perhaps you didn’t want to take the bus to the farm this morning and instead chose to be here in the sanctuary – our gigantic and eloquently adorned bus station! Or you might be visiting for the first time, wondering how religion and buses are even connected.

Congregational life is like riding on a public bus. Seriously! Have you ever ridden a transit bus consistently? Are you one of the regulars; have you ridden frequently enough to notice that there are “regulars” on the route? Bus riders seem to create their own micro-communities. Riders will notice one another. They recognize each other’s faces. If they’ve been riding together long enough they might even know one another’s names and stories. And you can be sure that at least one of the regulars will notice when one among them misses the bus.

If you think of our congregation as a gigantic bus, we’re really not all that different. Like buses, we have our transient and permanent riders – those who stop by to check us out, and those who return again and again. We have some who stay on the route for a few weeks and then move on, and some who only stay for one particular day. We have those who got on the wrong bus, or missed the bus they thought they were supposed to be on and hopped on ours because we were the next bus to come along. Some arrive when they are touring or visiting the area, and some who jump onboard because we are exactly what they were searching for. Hopefully most who take this ride will return to join us in community.

This year you have allowed Kelly and I to travel along your route with you. We have been blessed with your willingness to help us on the bus that is Arlington Street Church. Like any bus traveling in New England, our ride has traversed many types of terrain – from smooth comfortable roads to tumultuous ground, and everything imaginable in between.

In some sense we have become regulars on your bus. Our faces are familiar to one another; the stories of your lives, those that you have shared, are etched in our memories. We have traveled together through the loss of loved ones, the arrival of new children, holidays, worship services, trips to New Orleans, efforts to bring justice into our world, educational classes, spiritual passions, and the never-ending cycle of meetings.

Together we have built upon an incredible community. We have explored what it means to live in community, even in the times when we don’t agree. We have, at the core, lived into and deepened our understanding of this living tradition, this faith called Unitarian Universalism.

Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists have long been uncomfortable with, and even adversarial towards, the concept of grace. In the European Christianity from which both Unitarianism and Universalism emerged, grace is traditionally understood as an expression of love from an infinitely kind deity towards a fallen and undeserving humanity. Such grace is the source of salvation, whether in life or after it. This is the situation described by the famous hymn, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”

Calvinism, the ancient adversary of both Unitarians and Universalists, has held for centuries that the grace of Heaven is irresistible and completely predetermined. It’s mercy is reserved for the few while being kept from the many, and no human action can change this division between the winners and the losers. Some are meant for glory, while most are meant only to die.

The response of liberal religion, of Unitarians, Universalists and Unitarian Universalists, to this narrow and oppressive understanding of grace has been our clearest uniting point for four centuries: The work of human hands, and the thought of human minds, matters. Whatever salvation there is to be had in the universe is available to all, and it is found and distributed by our working together for the common good, in this life, on this Earth. This position, which is just as sorely needed today as it was 300 years ago, cherishes human agency, and so it has often left little room for grace.

But life is about more than just ourselves. It is about more, even, than each other. Beyond the reach of our own control, the world still spins. The parts of our experience that we do not choose for ourselves: the sunshine and the rain, the stranger encountered on the street, the old photograph found in a neglected drawer, the missed bus or train; our lives are shaped not only by our choices, but also by the countless elements of chance that we do not choose. These unchosen pieces of life are often dismissed as random and meaningless, in order to make room in the world for free will, and preserve the sense that our choices matter.

Abandoning the twists and quirks of our every day lives as without meaning or purpose may feel easy, but it is an awful lot to surrender. How much of your life, goes according to plan? We can choose to discard the moments when the world colors outside the lines of our plans for it, or we can, cultivate an openness to serendipity.

Serendipity means finding something good or important when you weren’t looking for it. The word comes from an Iranian fairy tale called “The Three Princes of Serendip”. Through their travels, the main characters in that story find numerous clues and facts important to a puzzle they were not trying to solve. The opportunity to learn is most potent when it catches us by surprise. Scientist, science-fictionist and prolific author Isaac Asimov said that the most exciting phrase in science, the one most likely to accompany a major breakthrough or discovery is not “Eureka, I’ve found it!” Rather, it is far better to hear “That’s funny…” Yet, modern living is predicated on predictability. Jobs, families, the demands of living in the here-and-now frequently require us to hold to schedules and strategies that leave little space for the unexpected.

But to live religiously requires openness to change, and the cracks in the shell of the sky are the points where the light comes in. Staving off our own moral agoraphobia, the habit of hiding in the familiar, fearing the challenges of the unknown, requires the injection of new ideas and new experiences into our lives. Luckily, whether we seek it out or do our best to avoid it, the world outside our skin slips every day into our living; it can be a wise and playful instructor, if we let it.

In Taoism, an old and influential religious and philosophical tradition from China, there is a crucial term: wu-wei, a practice of following the rhythm set by the world rather than struggling to enforce your rhythm upon it. Among many other things, wu-wei means a willingness to be spontaneous, and to embrace the randomness provided by the world as a constant potential for serendipity. A teacher of mine, a Catholic expert on Hindu theology and a leading voice in the field of interreligious dialogue, taught me once that there are two types of grace: cat grace and monkey grace. Cat grace is when something outside ourselves picks us up, whether we like it or not, and puts us back down where we need to be, like a parenting cat lifting a kitten by the scruff of the neck. Monkey grace, on the other hand, follows a different pattern: the parenting monkey will carry the child long distances, but the child has a part to play as well – it has to hold on. To hold on to the possibility to learn and change, provided in every moment, we sometimes need to let go of our plans and expectations.

The bus has stopped for a moment, and we have arrived at a destination. It is time for some good folks to disembark and continue down a different path. Kelly and I must depart for the time being, going off into the world more fully formed than when we arrived. As we turn and say our good-byes, we leave you with some parting thoughts…

Always remember and warmly greet the visiting passengers and newer riders. Like you way back when, they probably jumped on our bus for a variety of reasons. But, also like you, they are more likely to stay if they feel connected. The riders of this bus are an amazing group of people and you have incredible stories to share with one another. I charge you to spend time each coffee hour sharing and learning the stories of people here you don’t yet know well.

Become good stewards and congregational citizens. By this I mean, attend to the details of your own involvement and lead by example. Doing the work of being a congregational citizen is hard work! It means helping newer and/or overwhelmed members of the community find their places in the congregation and celebrating the involvement of those who are often taken for granted – those who plug along week after week. Being a good steward and congregational citizen means doing what needs to be done, even in the moments when you might not want to be the one doing it (and of course doing what needs to be done when you do want to be doing it also!). It means giving generously of your time, talent, energy, spirit, and money – putting all that you can into the congregation, knowing that if all were to do this, the congregation could truly be more than ever imagined.

Find the places where your soul’s passion and the world’s longing meet and plunge fully into that work. Be unapologetically religious! Know our living tradition and allow your lives to live out of your faith values. Take good care of one another and this magnificent place. The history steeped into the walls and pipes of this building have told the stories of generations of amazing people; people who will never be famous beyond these walls but who are nonetheless famous for their beliefs and deeds. There are more generations waiting to come – leave them a building worthy of their lives. This building is the physical manifestation of a living legacy; a legacy that believes in human worth and dignity, salvation for all beings, and embracing questions more than answers.

As Kelly and I disembark from this bus that is Arlington Street Church and board our next buses, we say thank-you. Thank you for being who you are and for sharing of yourselves with us. Thank you for making room for us to be here and for growing alongside us. The bus’s roar will echo in our souls for many years to come…

{ringing of bowl}

Published in: on 17 June 2007 at 11.20  Leave a Comment  

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