Sunday, January 10, 2016

Chaos and Grace

Rev. Kit Ketcham, PUUF, Jan. 10, 2016

            Seth Tichenor’s message last Sunday really rocked me.  Seth’s a good speaker no matter what he’s talking about, but last Sunday I found myself thinking “Gee, this guy ought to be a preacher!”  You may know that he is actually qualified to be a preacher.  But he is, I think, one of the outstanding people in this community.  And I’m proud to say he is a fellow Linfield College alumnus.
            The part of his remarks that had me reaching for a scrap of paper and my pen came toward the end, when he expressed his four- point formula for turning the world around, for changing the atmosphere of greed and self-interest that has become the hallmark of our current capitalistic society.
            I told him afterwards that I was grateful to him for setting the stage for what I want to say today.  The topic “Chaos and Grace” had come to me before Seth opened his mouth, but after listening to him, I felt challenged to continue his message in my own way.
            There was a second piece of my rocked-out-ness --- the Christmas gift my son and his wife sent me this holiday season.  Mike and Jayde know I always have a book open in front of me when I’m at my dining room table, I always lie down with a book after lunch, and often fall asleep with a book by my side at night.  Reading is my favorite leisure pastime and has been since I was a little kid, poring over the stacks of parent-approved library books always lying around our house. 
            Mike and Jayde had selected three current best-sellers with authors and topics they figured my elderly but passionate liberal progressivism would eat right up.  Truth to tell, each of their choices scared me a little bit!  Not because these are not interesting topics and authors but because, since retirement, I’ve mostly read murder mysteries and funny novels, having read an awful lot of heavy-duty serious non-fiction during my years as a teacher, a counselor, and a minister.  And I wasn’t sure I was ready to go back to that kind of reading, because it can have the effect of ripping my heart out.
            The three books were Ta-Nahisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me”, Gloria Steinem’s “My Life on the Road” and  “The Notorious RBG: the life and times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” by Irin  Carmon and Shana Knizhnik.
            The scariest one of all was TaNahisi Coates’ letter to his 15 year old son, Samori.  Mr. Coates is a journalist with Atlantic Magazine and this was his memory of his growing up black in Baltimore.  He was giving his son advice gleaned from the mean streets.
            Just knowing that the book was about a black man growing up in Baltimore, site of some of the most recent and most hotly-divisive police behavior toward black people, made my heart pound a little harder.  I knew it would be tough reading.
            I’d been in Denver, student-teaching in a mostly-black junior high when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.  Denver just about shut down during that time.  Riot behavior was pretty well contained and to the best of my knowledge, no one died. 
But it was a scary time for white people and black people, who didn’t know whether our black friends were okay or if the tide had turned so decisively that our friendships were  now suspect and fearful.
            I have only been able to see race relations and racism from a white person’s point of view during most of my life.  I’m still ignorant, but I have begun to recognize my privilege as an older white woman and I wondered whether I had the courage to open myself up to Coates’ description of life as a black man in America. 
            What hit me hardest, right off the bat, was this passage from his book:  Page 9, an excerpt.
            “Son…I write you in your fifteenth year.  I am writing you because that was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot for browsing in a department store.  And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old child whom they were oath-bound to protect.  And you have seen men in the same uniforms pummel Marlene Pinnock, someone’s grandmother, on the side of the road.  And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body.  It does not matter (why…).  The destroyers will rarely be held accountable.  Mostly they will receive pensions…All this is common to black people.  And all of this is old for black people.  No one is held responsible.” 
            I thought of the black children and teenagers and parents I knew when I was a Baptist Home Missionary at the Denver Christian Center in 1965 and 66 and 67.  And I wondered if the same chaos that pervades Baltimore and other urban areas now was already present then.  Were these children whom I loved as afraid in Denver in the 60’s as black people are now in Baltimore and Chicago in 2016?  Has nothing changed?  Can it have only gotten worse?  And why did I not know?
            Seth spoke to us last week about “Ecology and Spirituality”, the relationship between nature and humanity, and in his closing words, he laid out four characteristics, four behaviors that he deems necessary to reverse our current ecological nightmare and turn the world around:  imagination (the ability to see what is happening to the planet and to see a better way); reverence (the recognition that the earth is alive and sacred); compassion (an understanding of the pain suffered by the planet and its organisms); and perseverance (a willingness to stay the course, not to give up).
            Chaos is a condition that appears everywhere in our world---the chaos brought by random violence, of war, of unexpected natural disaster, of weather, of loss, of the threat of annihilation that can come from any direction.  Lives are thrown into pandemonium by unexpected changes around us and even far away, as we think about the unpredictable consequences of those changes. 
The byproduct of chaos, of the disorder and confusion that comes in the wake of drastic change and also may precede it, is fear. And, as Franklin D. Roosevelt famously stated in his first inaugural address in 1932 during the Great Depression, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
         As we consider this topic, I’d like to ask you a question:  What do you see causing or promoting fear in today’s world?  What are the local or personal issues that worry you?  That keep you awake at night or disturb your waking hours?  (cong. resp)
            This is the chaos that infuses our human life with fear; we’ve talked about the changes that bring chaos into our lives and the fear that comes with it.  But as we may also have realized,  in the midst of chaos, we may also find grace.
            We often think of “grace” as a religious word that belongs to Christianity and means the saving power of Jesus’ death on the cross 2000 years ago.  But that’s not the only meaning of grace.  Grace actually comes to all of us, without our doing anything to deserve it.  We may not recognize it as such, but it is there.
            There are many definitions for the word, but the shortest, most concise yet powerful definition came to me from the words of my mentor the Rev. Robert Latham, way back when I was at Jefferson Unitarian Church in Colorado.
            Robert was deconstructing, pulling apart and redefining several religious words that often give us liberal religious people trouble because we think of them in terms of Christian concepts that we no longer find valuable, words like worship, God, prayer, that sort of thing.  And his definition for grace was short and sweet.
            Grace, he said, is simply undeserved good fortune.  It’s the silver lining, the cup of water during the race, the $5 bill found on the street, the cop who gives you a warning, not a ticket, the ray of sunshine through the clouds, the paramedic who shows up at your door when you call 911, and we not only are the recipients of this life-enhancing grace, we can offer it as well.
            I recently ran across a philosophy lesson offered by Charles Schulz, the creator of the Peanuts comic strip.  I’m going to throw a few questions at you and give you a chance to think about them, in closing.
1.     Who are the 5 wealthiest people in the world?
2.     How about the last five Heisman trophy winners?
3.     The last five winners of the Miss America pageant?
4.     Ten people who have won the Nobel or Pulitzer Prize?
5.     The last six Academy Award winners for best actor and actress.
How did you do?  The point is, few of us remember the headliners of
the past.  These are no second-rate achievers.  They are the cream of the crop.  But the applause dies, awards tarnish, achievements are forgotten.  The honors are buried with their owners. 
            But here’s another quiz.  See how you do on this one:
1.     List a few teachers who aided your journey through school
2.     Name three friends who have helped you through a tough time.
3.     Name five people who have taught you something valuable.
4.     Think of a few folks who have made you feel appreciated.
5.     Think of five people you enjoy spending time with.

The lesson seems clear.  When the chaos comes and disrupts our lives, the people who stepped in to help are the ones we remember.  They are the source of the good fortune that comes to us because human beings have an innate ability to care about others .
We receive grace when we least expect it or feel we deserve it.  It is not something we can earn, but it is something we can give away.  It is the antidote to chaos.
      In “Between the World and Me” Ta-Nahisi Coates tells his son where he found the grace that helped him move beyond the fear engendered by the chaos of black life in America.  He talks about his parents, the Mecca he found at Howard University, the friends whose strength and courage uplifted him, and the vision he has for black life in a racist America, not a bleak vision but a vision of learning for all Americans, black and white.  His book may have ripped my heart open, but it gave me hope and courage too.
      The other day, I went with a few friends to see the new Star Wars movie.  How many of you have seen it?  No worries, no spoilers here, I hope. 
      The theme of the movie is stated pretty clearly in its subtitle:   The Force Awakens.  And I see that as an analogy for what many of us progressives, whether religious or secular, are trying to achieve as we protest the human rights  violations we see, the environmental degradation of our planet, the greedy commercialism of our society, and the lawlessness of those who would maintain the inequalities of justice and economic status so much a part of our infrastructure.
      The force not only awakens in a science fiction movie; I believe it is awakening here on our planet.  Human beings are beginning to understand that we are interdependent, that humanity can only survive if we unite with others in support of a healthy, thriving ecosystem---of which we are only one part.
      Seth’s “four values” are a framework for achieving the change we seek.  Imagination---the ability to see what is happening to our planet and its inhabitants, and to see a better way.  Reverence---the understanding that the earth is alive and that it is sacred, our only home and our only hope.  Compassion---empathizing with the pain of a suffering earth and its inhabitants and reaching out to alleviate that pain.  And perseverance----the willingness to stick with the work that must be done, not giving up because of our fear or because we think our feeble efforts are useless.
      Can we do this?  I think we can.  Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
CLOSING HYMN #131, Love Will Guide Us

BENEDICTION:  Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place.  Let us go in peace, remembering that we are the only hope for humanity and our home the earth.  May we strive in our daily lives to recognize and appreciate the grace that comes for us and each other when we reach out to relieve suffering and injustice as we encounter it.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.