A People of Grace
This service was a multigenerational story-based service on the theme of Grace from Buddhist and Christian perspectives. In lieue of a sermon, the message was was divided throughout the service. The text below is loosely what was told during this service. 1/13/19
We’re slowly realizing that my dog, Lola, is a truly effective life-coach for the Brewer-Geiger household. She’s our resident Zen Master Teacher, always in the moment. If she’s sick, or has to go in for a check-up, she stays happy as she enters the vet, excited for a treat. She’s probably terrified as the vet does the things vets always do, but she has this sort of “if I just stay still this will all be over soon, and then I’ll get a treat. Right, I will get a treat?” And then she’s all licky-face with the vet when it’s all done; excitedly saying good-bye to everyone on our way out.
Some years ago, on the first warm Spring day of the year, I was taking her for a 3 mile walk. This usually is a hobby of mine that gives me life; but on this random day the frets of the world were really taking hold. We’re all busy people, and I was at my busiest on this lovely day. But the ‘life-coach’ needed her walk. We’re out, and I’m running through all the things I did, all the things I needed to do, and all the pathways to getting them done as I was stressing at what couldn’t get accomplished. My heart wasn’t in the walk, and my head was surely a million miles away. A short while into it, Lola stops. She turns back and looks at me with her classic wide-faced dog-grin (I know they say dogs don’t actually smile, but mine sure knows how to scrunch her cheeks up to show a killer-grin.) She stops, and turns back, smiles and jumps up and down with a full-body “COME ON ALREADY! It’s gorgeous outside and we’re doing this thing!” It’s the spiritual mantra for joyful living – ‘come on already.’
We all need a dog life-coach some days to get our heads and our hearts back in the same place sometimes.
One time when my husband and I were still newly dating, we were strolling through the West Village on Saturday enjoying the perfect weather. When we got to Washington Square Park, we heard piano music playing. Apparently, a fellow had rolled in a full-size piano into the central walkway of the park, close to the east side of the square. He had the obligatory two giant tip buckets spaced far enough apart that you couldn’t miss them while you passed by. Not that you could miss the piano from 100 feet away for that matter. It was an iconic NYC moment. Brian and I sat down to listen to the music for a while. He was an excellent pianist. I found myself wondering how he got the piano into the park (curbs are rough on giant unwieldy square instruments after all); where did it come from – did he push it himself, or did he have helpers to get around the tight corners and mostly 7 inch curbs.
It was a surreal moment for sure. A little bit of whimsy, culture and quirkiness rolled into one. Like you’d expect from the typical hipster classical musician you’d find playing the piano in the park, he would offer odd little ironic quips after each piece. (In tired droll voice) “And that piece was Ave Maria, composed by Franz Schubert. In my humble opinion it was the only piece he composed that was of any good.” He would also end every performed piece with the driest, “I do hope you enjoyed it.” The affect was so opposite his performances, which were lively, skilled and largely moving. I wanted to go up to him, jump up and down, and yell “Buddy, you’ve gone through the trouble of creating a little bit of faerie-land here in NYC by dragging your piano God knows how far through the Village. Cheer up!” The spiritual message of “come on already” rings softly, or I guess maybe not so softly if it’s a UU minister jumping up and down in the park yelling it at you. Thankfully, I didn’t do that… this time.
Sometimes in life, we go through all the trouble of making something happen that we really want, and then we don’t allow ourselves to live into it. Sometimes grace is simply letting ourselves live into our lives….
Story 3: The Buddha as Parrot : One version can be found here:
Inner Peace Poem
If you can start the day without caffeine,
If you can always be cheerful, ignoring aches and pains,
If you can resist complaining and boring people with your troubles,
If you can eat the same food every day and be grateful for it,
If you can understand when your loved ones are too busy to give you any time,
If you can take criticism and blame without resentment,
If you can conquer tension without medical help,
If you can relax without alcohol,
If you can sleep without the aid of drugs,
…Then You Are Probably ………..
The Family Dog!
Homily: A People of Grace
I remember an old folk tale about a traveler who comes to a new town and sees several people hard at work. They’re all alternating between mining stone, or moving the mined stone, or chiseling the stone. Curious, the traveler comes up to the first worker and asks, “What are you doing?” The first worker, exhausted says, “I’m stuck mining stone all day to make ends meet. I hate it, but I need to put food on the table.” Thrown off, the traveler goes up to the second worker asking the same question “What are you doing?” That second worker responded, “Oh, sometimes I’m moving stones from one spot to another, other times I help mine. It’s ok work, and my family is grateful for the house we have because of it.” Feeling a little better with this response, the traveler goes up to a third person asking them, “What are you doing?” This third worker, with a smile on their face, and a little bit of awe in their eyes, answers, “I’m building a cathedral!”
Sometimes finding grace in our lives, is sometimes a bit about perspective. How we engage with what’s before us certainly impacts our attitude, and our sense of satisfaction. But it also can set the scope for what we imagine is possible. Cathedrals are not dreamt up, or dreamt of, through drudgery, though they do take a lot of work to build. Vision casting – imagining what we might achieve together; it’s making room for newness, giving it shape, and using that as the road map for a better future. Will it always work out the way we hope – highly unlikely. Do we want to keep an eye out for the worst – yes; but we don’t want to be ruled by the worst that might be.
As New Yorkers, we’re good at that last part, right? We can be our own worst critics. Finding what’s not ideal, and poking at it until it becomes all we can see. I’m sure most of us have that challenge in the office, or our teachers dealing with a rather difficult culture in our educational system these days, or the last time we had a family dinner… We do it here too. Especially in times of challenge, this gets rougher, and stress rises. Money might be tight, the broader norms in our country seem upended these days, we’ve lost friends or family to illness. None of that is easy to emotionally handle, and we can turn toward focusing on all that’s hard and forget the good before us, forget we’re building cathedrals with our lives. The bad, or the not perfect, becomes our focus, and we exhaust ourselves to the point we stop seeing the good.
I believe life has meaning. I believe our purpose is to see the world as it is; to notice the spark of life, of divinity, in each breathing being around us. Recognizing the worth around us, coming from a place of love. When we notice that, our purpose is met, and the rest can grow from there. Ethics and values are rooted in the mindful recognition of life around us. It begins with seeing – or recognizing. It begins with coming to a place of reverence for that which surrounds us. And to be moved to act with reverence for the people and life around us. That action, is the human response to grace in our lives.
And what we bring to our everyday connections, is sometimes what we get in return. (Tell story of the dog that got lost in the funhouse mirror room.) And like the dogs in the funhouse, it’s much easier – or maybe I should say it’s much more pleasant – seeing the world with our tails wagging than our mouths growling.
There’s a way that dog in the funhouse mirror room teaches us about grace. Sometimes in life we get bogged down in thinking the world is out to get us, and we sort of drop all responsibility for our actions. We can feel trapped, and we powerless to change things. There’s a buddhist teaching about the only person in life you can change, is yourself. But the other side of that teaching, is that often, when you are able to change your own actions, the world around you changes too. We can’t, and really wouldn’t want to, control the people around us – our neighbors aren’t just reflections in the funhouse mirror – BUT – often our neighbors our just responding to our own actions or behavior. And changing that can make the world of difference. (like the story of the Buddha as parrot from earlier, sometimes when we act, others are inspired by our actions to change too.) Grace reminds us that all the things we may want to change in our lives, aren’t always hard – and sometimes they just take our intention to make better.
I want to flip this story around now. Sometimes we all move around life as that dog in the funhouse mirror room. We act like everything around us is really about us. We’re the center of attention. We can treat the people around us as things. We forget the world around us is actually about relationships. We are our most human, when we recognize another living being as a being, and not as the sum of its parts. It’s going into the mirror room at the funhouse and recognizing that how we related to the world around us, will be the scope of what we encounter in return.
We each live in both. The world of things, allows us to work, and eat, and learn and teach. It makes sure the pets are fed, the bills are paid, and our roofs stay above our heads, and our basements stay dry. There is nothing bad about the world of things, except for when we live only in and by its rules. A life whose purpose is simply the details, is a life without meaning, a life of nothingness. Or it might be more accurate to say a life whose awareness is only on the details, is a life without meaning. Awareness of only the details, and not the relationships, is the opposite of religious life.
Fortunately, there’s nothing needed to do, nothing to accomplish, to live from time to time in the other world – the world of being. It’s not a check-box on our to-do lists. It’s simply being aware of our interdependence (7thprinciple). We can’t easily do this in every moment, though any moment would do.
Take the night sky. Sometimes it’s hard to see many stars since we’re so close to NYC, but other nights it’s not so hard. But assuming a clear night, the sky and stars are there every night, but not every night do we see it in all its glory. Often we just pass it by, with casual indifference, as if it were not some tremendous, amazing wonder, we are lucky enough to live beneath.
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