According to my friends at SpiritualityandPractice.com, “Grace is a gift of God.” Now I’m not going to argue about whether or not that’s true, but if you read my previous small group ministry post on Faith, you’ll know that I’m not a big fan of always using the word “God” (or requiring a belief in God) when talking about spiritual things. That’s because many Unitarian Universalists identify as atheists, and if using the word “God” in a definition is going to keep them from engaging in a conversation about, say, grace, I would prefer to find a way to talk about the subject that honors the intention of the definition as well as the wide range of theological orientations among UUs. So if you trace the word “grace” back to its Latin root, gratia, you’ll find that it means “pleasing quality, good will, gratitude.” To me, then, grace refers to those unbidden things for which we are (or should be) grateful: no belief in God is necessary. Here’s one of my favorite takes on the subject, by Thich Nhat Hanh in Living Buddha, Living Christ:

During a conference on religion and peace, a Protestant minister came up to me toward the end of one of our meals together and said, “Are you a grateful person?” I was surprised. I was eating slowly, and I thought to myself, Yes, I am a grateful person. The minister continued, “If you are really grateful, how can you not believe in God? God has created everything we enjoy, including the food we eat. Since you do not believe in God, you are not grateful for anything.” I thought to myself, I feel extremely grateful for everything. Every time I touch food, whenever I see a flower, when I breathe fresh air, I always feel grateful. Why would he say that I am not? I had this incident in mind many years later when I proposed to friends at Plum Village that we celebrate a Buddhist Thanksgiving Day every year. On that day, we practice real gratitude—thanking our mothers, fathers, ancestors, friends, and all beings for everything. If you meet that Protestant minister, I hope you will tell him that we are not ungrateful. We feel deeply grateful for everyone and everything.

The very things that Nhat Hanh describes (food, flower, fresh air) are examples of those things of “pleasing quality” that come to us unbidden. Grace can fill our lives, if we let it. With that in mind, here’s a small group ministry session on Grace.

Waiting Attentively with a Willing Heart

Opening words:

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 are to be there.
— Anne Lamott in Traveling Mercies

Check-in/Sharing

Topic:

An Excerpt from Becoming Human: Core Teachings of Jesus by Brian C. Taylor

Brian C. Taylor, Rector of St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico, explores the core teachings of Jesus. Here is an excerpt on grace.

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and used to surf as a teenager. Sitting on a surfboard in the water, you must wait. You must be attentive, watchful, ready. When a swell comes along, you must apply your energy, paddling quickly with the wave. If you don’t put in any effort, the wave passes you by and you go nowhere. But if you do point yourself in the right direction and paddle, and if it is the right moment, then the power of the wave — much stronger than your own weak paddling — matches your effort, picks you up, and carries you forward.

This is how our willingness can be utilized by the Spirit to affect real change. We cannot make ourselves holy, any more than surfers on a calm ocean can paddle themselves frenetically forward into a glorious ride. But we must be willing and attentive, or nothing will ever happen. With awareness, we wear down our resistance, our obstacles, our compromises. We attend to our desire for change, waiting watchfully, hopefully. Then when the healing waters are stirred by the Spirit, we must do whatever it takes to get ourselves into the water. When the wave begins to move us upward and forward, we must aim in the right direction and paddle.

The moment for decisiveness and conviction does come. Having waited attentively with a willing heart, at some point we reach a moment of clarity. In this moment, we know, without a doubt, that there is only one way forward that leads to life. If we step back from this moment, we become like the rich young man, skulking away sorrowfully, for we have knowingly denied an important chance offered by God (at least until it is offered again). But if we put our hand to the plow and don’t look back, risking it all for the opportunity to be spiritually transformed, our decisive action is joined with God’s intention for us.

There is a place for decisiveness. At times, we must catch the wave, without hesitation. This moment of action does not come every day, and we can’t force it willfully. But we can prepare for it, so that finally, when the heavy obstacles of our resistance have been worn thin, we become light enough for our determination to be raised up and carried forward by the divine movement of grace.

Questions: A real obstacle to grace is our refusal to accept the help of others. Recall a situation when you did not want to rely upon the good will of someone else. What was the source of your refusal?

Check-out/Likes and Wishes

Closing Words:

Grace can never be possessed but can only be received afresh again and again.
— Rudolf Bultmann

To Practice This Thought: Open yourself to the unexpected by reciting these three affirmations based on Frederick Buechner’s definition of grace.

There’s nothing you have to do.
There’s nothing you have to do.
There’s nothing you have to do.

Group Session Plan based on resources on Grace from www.spiritualityandpractice.com.

For a PDF version of this small group ministry session, click here: Grace.

For more information on small group ministry, visit the UU Small Group Ministry Network.

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