Can You Say GRACE?
November 5, 2005
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro
The Reverend Jane Page
A little 6 year old girl was asked to “say grace” before a Thanksgiving meal that her mom had prepared for the extended family. She responded – but I don’t know what to say. Her mom prompted her – just say the prayer mommy says. The little girl smiled with the memory of her mother’s last prayer and said, “Oh Lord – why did I ever invite all these people to dinner.”
As a candidate for ministry and now as a minister, I’ve been asked more often to offer a blessing – or “say grace” before meals with others. I’ve realized that this presents a marvelous opportunity for me to demonstrate a way of giving thanks, which is more inclusive of all faiths. My favorite thing to do now is to sing, “Oh we give thanks” – the little song that is included in our new hymnal supplement.
But of course “grace” has a more complex meaning than a prayer of thanksgiving said before a meal. Books have been written and courses taught on grace. And our dictionaries have long lists of definitions. But alas, I try to limit the time for my sermons. Fifteen or 20 minutes is a gracious plenty. Hopefully it will be enough time, though, for you to gain a renewed appreciation for this special little word.
The word “grace” is can be traced by to the Latin word gratia meaning favor, charm, thanks, derived from the Latin word gratus meaning pleasing, grateful; and akin to SanskritgrnAti – meaning – he praises.
The definition of grace that I was given in the Baptist Sunday School was that it was God’s unmerited gift of salvation to us – the undeserving recipients. But it doesn’t seem to be used in the Bible that way. The word “grace” is used a whole lot in the various English translations of the Bible. In fact – depending on the translation you are using, it’s used anywhere from 120 to 130 times. My exploration in my last sermon of the word “Amen” was not a translation but the original Hebrew word. So that was easier to trace. But the word “grace” is a translation of other words. The two words that are most often translated as “grace” are the Hebrew word chên (pronounced khane) and the Greek word charis(rhymes with harris).
Both Hebrew and Greek words give the same sense of the word grace. It has to do with favor, beauty, graciousness and thankfulness.
Now – with the resources we have available on the Internet, it’s fairly easy to do a search of the entire Bible and find the uses of a particular word. I did this with the New International Version and found 127 citings. Here are five examples of grace from the old and New Testament:
You are the most excellent of men and your lips have been anointed with grace, since God has blessed you forever.
And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication.
And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
When the congregation was dismissed, many of the Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who talked with them and urged them to continue in thegrace of God.
Now – because I had been brought up with a particular doctrine of grace – which meant God’s unmerited gift of salvation for us – I could possibly read that doctrinal meaning into these various uses of grace. But when I that doctrinal lens off, the words seemed to more about love and kindness.
That doesn’t mean that the Bible DOES NOT provide a sense of God providing favor or salvation to undeserving beings. However, when this concept of “unmerited favor” is addressed in the Bible, the words most often used are the Hebrew word Chesed and the Greek word Elios. Chesed is used 245 times in the Hebrew Scriptures and Elios is used 59 times in the New Testament. But those words are never translated as grace. They are usually translated as mercy.
Now you may know that Augustine was born in Northern Africa. His father was pagan and his mother was a devout Christian. Augustine himself was raised as a Catholic but gave up his religion after going off to school at the University of Carthage. He studied various philosophies and tried out different theologies and what some now call heresies. And like many of us “misguided thinkers” – he became a university professor. He took a mistress when he was just 17 and lived with her for 15 years and had a son. Yet he struggled with a complex guilt that was connected closely with the Mother (Monica) he seemed to love so much. She was not happy with his lifestyle. In his confessions, he reports praying to God,”God, give me chastity and continence – but not just now.” Nevertheless, through a long and agonizing transformation, he eventually had an experience in a garden after beating himself into a frenzy. He hears a child’s voice playing nearby saying, “pick up and read it.” He flipped the bible open and read the following from St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans (13:13) “Live honorably as in daylight, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual excess and lust, not in quarreling and jealousy. Rather, put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provisions for the flesh.” He considered that to be a miracle and decided to convert completely back to Catholicism and begin a religious community. His later writings (based on an analysis of Paul’s teachings and influenced by his own study of Neo-Platonism) became the basis for much of Christian doctrine.
He taught that human nature was created faultless and without sin by God – BUT that nature of man in which every one is born from Adam – now is flawed by Adam’s original sin. And therefore, we are rightly condemned. HOWEVER, he says that that we are saved through the grace of Christ. “This grace, however, of Christ, without which neither infants nor adults can be saved, is not rendered for any merits, but is given gratis, on account of which it is also called grace.” He further states that others – whether from not hearing or not believing and accepting Jesus – are condemned. “For all have sinned–whether in Adam or in themselves–and come short of the glory of God.”
Later the Catholic Church moved away from these teachings and started to emphasize works more. The debate between whether it was Works or it was Grace that got you into heaven was what the Protestant Reformation was all about. The Catholics of that time arguing that what people did, their Works, would or would not earn their way into heaven. This led notably to the abuses of people buying their way into heaven, by paying the church for indulgences as a way of penitence. Thereby the church freed you of your sin to enter heaven.
Luther and the other Protestants were appalled by the abuses. They came to believe that one could only get to heaven by Grace. But like Augustine’s doctrine of grace, they emphasized that most of us would be left behind.
Well, I’m sure you all have heard those teachings before, and if you are like me, instead of comforting you, they disgust you. It’s not a loving doctrine. Nevertheless, it continues to be taught and believed by many.
Now – though I’ve rejected that particular Doctrine of Grace – I haven’t rejected “Grace.” It’s like most theological terms that I grew up with. I find that they can still provide me with comfort and joy if I remove them from the restrictive doctrinal teachings and set them free.
Like other theological or religious terms I’ve discussed with you in these “Can You Say” sermons, I tend to “spin” these words in the direction of love. I find that I think of and use the word GRACE at special times in my life – when I come to the realization that “This is good.” And I usually think of it as “grace” when it seems that IT is something that I’ve received freely – without much effort – by just being aware. That moment of grace may be some insight I have – or it may be my appreciation of a cool fall afternoon. I have lots of good things that just seem to happen to me. Now bad things happen too – and we are sure to notice them. But sometimes we don’t notice the good things – because we don’t have our minds, our hearts in a state of grace – ready to receive and appreciate.
(Sing) We are bless’d with love and amazing grace,– When our heart is in a holy place.
In a sermon I did earlier this year, I indicated that Unitarian Universalism and YOU were the “amazing grace” that saved me. There are other aspects of amazing grace in my life as well – if I’m open to receiving.
Amazing Grace – what a wonderful a touching phrase. That music – those words – are ones that many of us love, regardless of our beliefs.
A friend of mine told me that Amazing Grace had always been one of his favorite songs. He learned it while growing up in his grandparents’ Primitive Baptist church. And his family always sang the songs at weddings and funerals. But as a gay man, that church had rejected him – as had many other churches he attended. And – perhaps stimulated by that rejection, he himself had questioned many of the churches doctrines and teachings. He said that he didn’t know if he could still sing the song with any integrity now. I told him – sure you can. Just think of how happy you are now that you are finally out as a gay man and free to be the person you really are. That is amazing grace – and you are set free. You once were lost, but now you’re found – were blind, but now you see! And he said, Yeah – that’s right.
The song, Amazing Grace, was written by John Newton. Newton was born in London July 24, 1725, the son of a ship’s commander. He later became a slave trader. Although he had had some early religious instruction from his mother, who had died when he was a child, he had long since given up any religious convictions. However, on a homeward voyage, while he was attempting to steer the ship through a violent storm, he experienced what he was to refer to later as his “great deliverance.” He recorded in his journal that when all seemed lost and the ship would surely sink, he exclaimed, “Lord, have mercy upon us.” Later in his cabin he reflected on what he had said and began to believe that God had addressed him through the storm and that grace had begun to work for him.
Now – he did continue in the slave trade for a time after his conversion; however, he later became convinced that this was not what he was to do with his life. He became a minister and wrote many hymns for this weekly prayer services. One of the hymns he wrote was Amazing Grace. The original song had six verses – the first three of those are in our hymnal. The fourth verse in our hymnal was added by someone later but is very popular and appears in almost all renditions.
Because I’ve had the grace to be able to sing the old Christian songs I learned long ago and enjoy the love they represent without getting too bogged down in the theology of the original writers, I’ve continued to be able to enjoy Amazing Grace. And I’m so glad that my heart was open to that – for it was that song that carried my daddy through to the end with so much comfort. As you may know, my dad had Alzheimer’s. And though he had forgotten much in his later days, he could remember the old hymns. So I would go over to my parents’ home and play those old songs and he and I would sing. And he knew the words – especially to the first verses of the old songs. But with Amazing Grace, he knew almost all the words. In his final days in the hospice, he wasn’t able to talk much at all – but I could hold his hand and sing – and I had some really good grace in those days. Those were the days leading up to my ordination and, of course, I had concerns about whether all would go okay – or whether the timing of my dad’s death would occur so as to necessitate making decisions regarding the scheduling of visitation and funeral activities around the ordination service. But all of those concerns would melt away and I could be centered in true love as I held my dad’s hand in the hospice and he looked so intently into my eyes and I would sing Amazing Grace – and his lips would move. The Sunday afternoon of my ordination – which was also the day before my dad died – I was visiting in the hospice. My brother was there and daddy told him – “I’ve got to go.” Johnny said, “That’s okay Daddy. You can go.” And he began to reassure him that we were all okay and that he would take care of Mama and me and cut the grass and feed the dog. Then he said – “Jane come over here and sing to daddy one more time.” And I did. And as I sang – “When we’ve been there ten thousand years – bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we first begun,” – that light that had dimmed in daddy’s eyes grew a little stronger. Now I don’t know what my dad was thinking about. Perhaps he was just taking pleasure in that moment with my brother and me. But he did believe in a literal heaven and getting his “reward.” And maybe he was thinking about going there and joining his good friend Billy Tillman and others.
I do not share those same beliefs. But I do know that I carry my dad’s love and teachings with me. And I can sing God’s praise – for me that is the praise of the Power of Love –and try to pass it on. And that love and energy will be passed on and on maybe 10,000 years or more – till the sun dies or the last meteor collides. And I have the Amazing Grace to be a part of that – and to be aware of it.
May it be so with us all!
Amen and Blessed Be.
Copyright – Jane A. Page, 2006.