In my second year as a seminary student, I worked as a chaplain intern at St. Luke’s Hospital in San Francisco over the summer. It was my job to provide emotional and spiritual support to patients, families and staff in a variety of situations. One day early on in this experience, a nurse suggested I visit a young, Spanish speaking woman, whose husband was very ill, in the intensive care unit. I’ll call her Sandra here. I arrived in the room to see that the husband was unconscious in the hospital bed, and the room was filled with family members. I introduced myself to Sandra, and then, the telephone rang, and Sandra took a call from a social worker. I didn’t know how long the phone call would last, so I stood there, not knowing quite what to do or how to be helpful. I tried to check in with a few of the family members but we just didn’t connect. My presence didn’t seem to be contributing much to anyone’s spiritual needs, so I decided to leave and check in with patients on other floors.
At that point, I had visited the patient and his family, and had made my notes in the chart. But as the day went on, I wondered if maybe I should go back and try again to check in with Sandra and see how her husband was doing. To be quite honest, I didn’t want to. My last visit to that room had felt uncomfortable, and had left me doubting my own abilities as a chaplain. I worried that if I went back, I would once again fail to connect with Sandra and her family.
And yet, something called me back to that room. When I returned, Sandra was done with her phone conversation, and her face lit up when she saw me. She asked if we could speak somewhere privately, so we found an empty visiting room on the ICU floor, where we could talk. She told me, I’m so glad you came back. All of the people in the other room are my husband’s family members and I just really don’t feel comfortable around them. Hearing her words, I breathed a sigh of relief. The choice to return had been a good decision.
At that point, Sandra broke down in tears. She told me about how worried and scared she was for her husband who was so critically ill. In addition, they had two young children and were having financial difficulties before her husband had had to come to the hospital. Now she was feeling overwhelmed by her sadness and also the pressure of taking care of her family. She was lonely and did not have anyone to talk to about these concerns. I listened as she told her story. We held hands, and prayed together. I did not have any easy answers to give, but I was willing to walk with her in her grief.
In that moment with Sandra, I felt an inner shift, from discomfort and fear, to openness, love and connection. I believe it was grace that tapped me on the shoulder and led me back to that hospital room, in spite of my fears. I believe that we were surrounded by grace in that small room, and that grace enabled Sandra to open up and share her heart with me. Grace helped me to be open and present with her, and to let go of my own insignificant worries in the moment.
So what is this thing called grace? In the Universalist theological heritage, grace is the unconditional love of God bestowed on all human beings, regardless of who you are and what you do. It is unearned and unconditional love, love that surrounds us and holds us. In the eighteenth century, when some radical theologians started preaching about a God who loves unconditionally, the mainstream Christian view of God and grace was very different. The predominant theology of the time was Calvinism, in which only the elect are eligible to receive the gift of grace. Those who are not part of the elect are beyond saving, and destined for eternal punishment in the afterlife. As you might imagine, this belief system caused considerable anxiety for many people at the time. There was the possibility of going heaven, but there was also the awful possibility of spending an eternity in hell, and being separated from one’s family members if they were part of the elect. It was in this climate of fear and anxiety that the Universalists started preaching their message of God’s universal love.
In the nineteenth century, the Universalist minister Hosea Ballou preached that since God was infinite, God’s love was also infinite, and therefore God would never require that humans suffer eternal punishment in the afterlife. He argued that we experience the consequences of sin here in this life, as a result of our actions, not in the afterlife. This was the basis of his argument of Universal salvation for all people.
Universalism teaches that we are always surrounded and embraced by love, whether we realize it or not. In contemporary Unitarian Universalism, we look to the idea of transcending mystery and wonder, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life. In my experience, it is the moments when we connect with the spirit of love, and when we feel this sense of transcendent wonder, that we experience grace.
What comes to you when you think about the idea of grace? Have you had an experience where grace transformed you in some way? In Unitarian Universalism we are open to encountering the sacred in diverse places in our lives. Grace could be a phone call from a friend that comes at just the right time. It could be a moment looking out at the waves of the Pacific ocean, and experiencing an all-encompassing sense of peace and awe. In times when we feel overwhelmed and numb in response to tragedies in the world, grace can be the moment when we release our tears, and we begin to move towards healing.
I have come to understand encounters with grace as the moments when something inside of us shifts, and we are able to open our hearts to the love, the beauty and the wonder that surround us always. Grace connects us with a larger and deeper truth about our lives, that we are loved and held in love. In times of fear, isolation, and grief, it is easy to forget this truth, and to lose that sense of love and wonder. Grace is movement from tightness to expansion, from fear to love, from isolation to connection. It is beyond explanation, and beyond our rational understanding. Theologian Paul Tillich writes of grace as a wave of light that comes to us in our times of despair and grief. And when we experience it, everything is transformed. In my experience as a hospital chaplain, grace was the force that pulled me back to that room in spite of my doubts. And it was the presence of grace that allowed me to let go of my worries and be present for Sandra. Grace allowed Sandra to release her tears and open up to the depth of the emotions she was experiencing. Grace brought healing for both of us.
There are moments of grace that arrive at the most challenging of times, and there are also opportunities for grace in the ordinary routines of our lives. As a seminary student, I experienced many of these smaller, more ordinary moments of grace in the midst of my studies. I had a tendency to take on a lot during some semesters. I would take a full load of classes, serve as the student representative on the Board of Trustees for the school, volunteer as a religious education teacher in my home congregation, get involved in various social justice activities, and so on. At times, these commitments left me feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. When I looked at every individual activity I had taken on, it was a good and valuable thing to do. But with all of them combined, it was easy to lose track of the value, and simply get lost in the details and the endless tasks. Luckily, I had a spiritual practice that was built into my life at that time. Every afternoon, my dog Lhotse needed to go for a walk, no matter how stressed out or overwhelmed I might have been feeling. This required me to step away from my computer, away from my books, and walk over to Golden Gate Park, just a few blocks from our house.
There, among the towering cypress and eucalyptus trees, surrounded by plants, earth and animals, I could let go of the stress of the day, and open my eyes to the beauty around me, feeling once again connection with love and with that transcendent mystery that surrounds us. In the words of Wendell Barry, I rested in the grace of the world. In the busyness of my life, I would lose sight of a greater truth, that I am loved, and am held by the spirit of life. Simply taking the time to receive the gifts of this earth helped me to shift once again into that place of universal love and acceptance.
Taking this space to allow grace into my heart allowed me to return to the tasks of my life with a renewed spirit. It helped me to remember the reasons why I had taken on all these tasks in the first place. I reconnected with my love of ministry, and my passion for justice work. Grace allowed me to transform the ordinary tasks of emailing, phone calls and reading into sacred acts of connection and devotion.
There are times when grace not only brings healing in the moment, but also calls us to make changes in our lives as well. In those semesters when I so busy and overwhelmed, grace sometimes led me to realize that I had simply taken on too many tasks, and needed to find ways to cut back. I was reminded to set aside more time for rest and renewal. Grace calls us to live our lives in greater alignment with the spirit of love that surrounds us. We might be called to find more time for our families, for justice work, or for spiritual practice. Grace can help us follow the path of our hearts in this world.
We don’t know when grace might arrive or how it will touch our hearts. But when it does, we can open ourselves up to this unexpected, unearned gift. We can allow it to touch our hearts, and renew our spirits. And there are even ways that we can invite more grace into our lives. What is the thing that helps you deepen your connection with the spirit of life? Perhaps it is walking in nature, listening to music, or creating art. When we are tired, grieving, or overwhelmed, taking time for these simple practices can help us be in touch with the love and grace that surround us always.
The grace of our Universalist heritage has the power to transform our loneliness into connection, our worry into peace, and our fear into love. When grace comes, let us welcome it into our hearts and receive it with gratitude. May this grace renew us and restore us, and may we be blessed with love in all the days of our lives.
May it be so, Amen.
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Worship at UUCB
Sundays in December
December Worship Services
December’s Theological Theme: Divine Spark
Sunday Services at 9:00 and 11:00 a.m.
December 1 - A Larger Covenant
Rev. Sarah Moldenhauer-Salazar, Linda Laskowski, and Rev. Sue Magidson
December 8 - Participation: Spark of Life
Revs. Bill and Barbara Hamilton-Holway, Merrin Clough, Director of Family Ministry, Youth and Children’s Choir and Luminescence Choir
Capital Campaign Celebration, Mitten Tree Sunday, Holiday Fair, and New Member Welcome!
December 15 - The Divine Spark in All Creation
Revs. Bill and Barbara Hamilton-Holway, Merrin Clough, Director of Family Ministry,
December 22 - Holiday Pageant for All-Ages: Stepping into the Christmas Story
Director of Family Ministry Merrin Clough, Revs. Barbara and Bill Hamilton-Holway
5:00 p.m. Christmas Eve Candlelight Service
Student Minister Zak Wear, Merrin Clough, Director of Family Ministry; Bryan Baker, Director of Music; Youth and Children’s Choir led by Michele Voillèqué, Youth and Children’s Choir Director
10:00 p.m. Christmas Eve Candlelight Service
Revs. Bill and Barbara Hamilton-Holway and family, Luminescence Choir, soloists, and Bryan Baker, Director of Music
December 29 - 10:00 a.m. The New Year of Every Morning
Student Minister Zak Wear and Kay Fairwell