And Let the River Answer: Meditations on Grace

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

In a moment of self-doubt; in a moment of feeling the weight of burdens too heavy to bear, of feeling overwhelmed by suffering all around her, of feeling ineffective and helpless, Elizabeth Tarbox tells us, “I went again to the mouth of the Bluefish River…. The water lay still as if to dignify my sorrow, patiently receiving my story, respectful and nonintrusive. Then inside me some old familiar words began to speak themselves: ‘Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’”[1]

The specific words don’t matter. These were the words she somehow needed to recall in this moment. The feelings of comfort and peace associated with these words—perhaps from some long ago childhood experience—were the feelings she needed to feel in this moment. And something moved in her; something jostled itself loose; something stuck became free; something lost was found; some long-closed inner door or window suddenly opened. She received and answered an invitation to enter a different state of being—a different heart-space, a different relationship to the Sacred. She writes: “The invitation was to trust that we are not alone, that we could share each other’s burdens. And in the silence the river showed me how I could help.”[2] Friends, this is grace. And although that word—grace—might sound to some like one of those haunting religious words; one of those words that has been used to separate people into false categories of righteous and wicked, believers and unbelievers; one of those words steeped in inscrutable church doctrine; one of those words left over from an age of superstitious and magical thinking, it is, I believe, a real human experience, available to each of us. We cannot cause it to happen. We cannot control it. We can only be open to it when it comes. We can only accept the invitation when it comes. And it does come.

Our theological theme for June is grace. All week long, in preparing this sermon, I have confronted a dilemma. Grace is one of those haunting religious words. Given its history, given its usage in more traditional religious settings, it makes some of us uncomfortable. When we come to such words, it has been my custom to spend time in my sermon rehearsing their traditional meanings in order to provide a starting place for our reflections. But it’s the end of the congregational year. I’m tired. In two days I’ll depart for the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly in Charlotte, NC. When I return I’ll be even more tired, but at that point I’ll start my summer vacation and study leave. More importantly, friends, we’ve come to the edge of summer, the season of exploration and play, the season of burdens lightened with the lightening of the sky,[3] as we said in our call to worship. In this moment I have no desire whatsoever to rehearse for you the traditional meanings of grace. I have no desire to critique and argue with those traditional meanings and to reason or fight my way through to a new meaning that makes sense for 21st century liberal religious people. I’m sorry: I know you all came here this morning really hoping to hear a dry, intellectual explanation of the theological distinctions between Roman Catholic and Protestant conceptions of grace. I know you all came here this morning, really wanting to hear my miffed but respectful reactions to the writings of the Apostle Paul who sketched out the early Christian doctrine of grace in his letter to the Romans.[4] I know you really needed that this morning, poised here, as we are, on the edge of summer. Please accept my deepest apologies. I don’t have it in me. Wink, wink.

Instead, with Rev. Tarbox, at this moment, I just want to go down to that still river—wherever it may be—to let it receive my story, to be open to its invitation, to find in me that which has been lost.

Or, with Anne Lamott, I want to remember that we don’t need complex, heavy, obscure, antiquated theology and doctrine to know that grace is simply the love “that greets us on the way.” As she writes, “It’s the help you receive when you have no bright ideas left, when you are empty and desperate and have discovered that your best thinking and most charming charm have failed you. Grace is the light or electricity or juice or breeze that takes you from that isolated place and puts you with others who are as startled and embarrassed and eventually grateful as you to be there.”[5]

I want to be as simple and clear as possible about what grace is for me. It is the experience of something beyond me somehow reaching in and causing a change within me—a change that enables me to live more easily with and respond more deeply to the pain and suffering life brings, whether my own or someone else’s. Grace is the experience of something beyond us, somehow reaching in and causing a change within us—a change that enables us to live more easily with and respond more deeply to the pain and suffering life brings. We often hear, “grace is God’s gift to us.” God is certainly one word we can use to name “something beyond us that somehow reaches in and causes a change within us.” I am personally very comfortable with the idea that grace is a gift from God. But please hear me when I say it doesn’t have to be God. It might just be the river giving its answer. And that would surely be enough. It might just be the kindness of strangers when you thought you were all alone and in trouble. And that would surely be enough. It might just be the sun breaking through the trees on the morning of the solstice; or a friend checking in to see how you’re doing after hearing of your diagnosis; or New England blueberries ripening on their bushes in the early summer sun; or a child smiling at you even though they have no idea you’re in pain; or a beautiful hymn on Sunday morning; or bats flying at dusk; or the wonderful, unexpected advice of an elder; or the beavers slapping their tails to warn their friends of danger; or a meeting where we handled a difficult conversation well and everyone was heard; or a clear night sky with a hundred billion stars; or the touch of another human being after being untouched for so long; or someone else’s hope for you when all you feel is despair. All this could be God’s gift. It doesn’t have to be. What matters is the experience of something beyond us somehow reaching in and causing a change within us—a change that enables us to live more easily with and respond more deeply, more gracefully, to the pain and suffering life brings. Anne Lamott says it so beautifully: “I do not understand [the] mystery of grace—only that it meets us where we are, but does not leave us where it found us.”[6]

In his 2002 book, Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life, the late spiritual writer, Philip Simmons, offers an essay called “Getting Up in the Morning.” For those unfamiliar with Philip Simmons, he wrote the essays in this book in response to his slow, relentless physical decline and pending death due to Lou Gehrig’s Disease. This book is not only a vivid description of a grace-filled life, it is also one of those books I find myself turning to when I need something beyond me meet me where I am but not leave me there, to bring me back to the things that ground me and center me, to restore hopefulness in me. In “Getting Up in the Morning,” after writing about his observations of turtles very slowly, patiently, relentlessly getting wherever it is they need to go, and describing one turtle in particular that kept climbing, falling, climbing, falling, and climbing up out of a sandy pit after laying its eggs and finally, after many tries, being successful, he offers this story about an interaction with his daughter Amelia.

My children know that my hands give me trouble now with little things—all the zippers and clasps and buckles and screws with which we like to think we hold our world together—and Amelia must have remarked on this, and then our conversation went this way:

“My hands don’t work very well, but I can still hug you.”

“And what if your arms don’t work?” she asked.

“Then you’ll have to hug me,” I said. “As long as you hug me, I’ll be okay.”

Now, my daughter has a lawyer’s precision and a nose for cheap sentiment.

“Well, Papa,” she said, “if I don’t hug you, you can still survive.”

There’s nothing to say to this, of course. She knows what the turtle knows, and she’s right. I can survive.[7]

I don’t know if Philip Simmons would have described this conversation with his daughter as a moment of grace, as a moment when something beyond him somehow reached in and changed him is some significant way. I’ve always been drawn to him because through all his reflections on his disease, through his beautiful and brutal honesty about his physical decline, through all his efforts to learn how to die, his book is really about how to live: how to live in the presence of grace; how to receive it; how to respond to it. As his disease ran its course he became more and more open to the world, open to the universe, open to God so that things beyond him were constantly reaching in, changing his perspective, calling him back to his true self in the midst of his pain and despair, helping him free that which had become stuck, helping him find that which had been lost. He describes gifts beyond measure. He describes a life in which grace abounds. He continues:

[Amelia] knows what the turtle knows, and she’s right. I can survive. And, being human, I know more: not only that I can survive but that I am blessed. Each day I can get out of bed in the morning, I am blessed. Each day that any of us can move our limbs to do the world’s work, we are blessed. And if limbs wither, and speech fails, we are still blessed. So long as this heart beats, I am blessed, for it is our human work, it is our human duty, finally, to rise each day in the face of loss, to rise in the face of grief, of debility, of pain, to move as the turtle moves . . . up out of the pit and toward the next season’s doing.[8]

Grace is the experience of something beyond us somehow reaching in and causing a change within us—a change that enables us to live more easily with and respond more deeply to the pain and suffering life brings. I said grace is available to everyone. I said we cannot cause it to happen; we cannot control it; we can only be open to it when it comes; we can only accept the invitation when it comes; and it does come. Well, I recognize also that I can’t prove grace is available to everyone. I can’t prove that it does come. But I believe these things. I believe, like Philip Simmons, that no matter how difficult our lives become, there are gifts all around us. They pour in from nature, from the earth, from the universe, reminding us of the energy of life, the beauty of life, the harmony of life, the elegance of life, the preciousness of life. They remind us of the unlikeliness and the improbability of life, and thus the miraculousness of life. And no matter how many terrible things happen in the world, no matter how many atrocities we bear witness to every day, gifts pour in through the kindnesses—small and large—of other people. They pour in through the generosity, the commitment, the support, the sacrifice, the courage and the loyalty of other people.

In an essay called “Someone To Be Kind To,” Carol Shapiro wrote of this dynamic. Those of you who knew Carol know she understood how hard and painful life could be. Still, she said “there are all these subtle, kind acts being done in a world which has more meaning and purpose than I supposed—like a weaver weaving cloth, like ideas coming together on a page, like somebody holding your hand. Yesterday, I mailed a care package of apple muffins, maple sugar, a candle, and a card to a friend who is ill. Today, I opened my mail to find a treasure within for me—a book of poetry that a friend had loved. It made me smile to think what mysteries the universe holds.”[9]

None of these gifts of which I speak will necessarily solve the problems one faces. None of them will necessarily reduce pain and suffering, let alone bring it to an end. But I notice—and I believe—the experience of grace, the experience of something beyond us somehow reaching in and touching our lives in some way—makes pain and suffering a little more bearable. Grace—whether it comes in a child’s smile or morning birdsong or a care package of apple muffins and maple sugar—can give us the courage, in the midst of pain and suffering, to keep going, to keep moving, to keep looking for solutions, to keep struggling despite exhaustion, to keep getting out of bed. Grace makes it possible, in the midst of pain and suffering, to imagine not only surviving, but thriving. Grace is the reminder, in the midst of pain and suffering, that we matter, that our story is worth hearing, that our life is sacred because all life is sacred. Grace, in the midst of pain and suffering, calls us back to out deepest selves, our truest selves, our wisest selves, our most insightful selves, our most passionate selves. Grace moves us away from our preoccupations, from self-focus, from undue worry and anxiety and points us out beyond ourselves, beyond our singular lives, into the larger life of our family and friends and community where our help is desperately needed, where our presence is desperately needed, where our voice is needed, where our compassion is needed, where our love is needed. I can’t prove it is available to everyone or that it will come. But I believe it.

Great rivers, both real and metaphorical, run through our lives. These great rivers may be God. Or they may just be rivers. Either way, they grow still from time to time. And in the stillness they speak, offering an invitation, as Rev. Tarbox suggests, to trust that we are not alone, that we can share each other’s burdens. This is grace. May we learn to let the river answer. May we learn to recognize the many gifts we receive. May love greet each of us on our way. May we come to know an abundance of grace.

Amen and Blessed be.


[1] Tarbox, Elizabeth, “And Let the River Answer,” Life Tides (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1993) p. 42.

[2] Ibid., p. 42.

[3] Cohen, Helen, “Summer Warmth,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the Unitarian Universalist Association, 1993) #548.

[4] See Romans 3: 21-26.

[5] Lamott, Anne, “Grace” Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Anchor Books, 2000) P. 139.

[6] Lamott, Anne, “Grace” Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Anchor Books, 2000) P. 143.

[7] Simmons, Philip, “Getting Up in the Morning,” Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life (New York: Bantam Books, 2002) p. 23.

[8] Simmons, Philip, “Getting Up in the Morning,” Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life (New York: Bantam Books, 2002) p. 23.

[9] Shapiro, Carol, “Someone to Be Kind To” in Gresk, Sharon, ed., Recording My Soul: Poems and Essays (Manchester, CT: Silver Leaf, 2008) pp 87-88.