This service was preached to the Unitarian Church of Quincy and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of La Crosse in January 2019.
Muddy Children Hosea Ballou by Janeen K Grohsmeyer
From A Lamp in Every Corner: Our Unitarian Universalist Storybook.
Over two hundred years ago, in a small house in a small town, on the edge of a forest of very big trees in the state of New Hampshire, there lived a small boy. His name was Hosea Ballou.
Hosea, just like other children, liked to learn and do new things. He was always asking questions, about what and why and how. And, just like other children, Hosea liked to play. He liked to play hide-and-seek with his nine older brothers and sisters. He liked to play word games inside when it was rainy, and he liked to play tag outside when it was sunny. In the winter, he liked to jump into snowdrifts. In the summer, he liked to jump into the creek. In the fall, he liked to jump into leaf piles. And in the spring — why, spring was Hosea’s favorite season of all — because in the spring, it would rain and rain and rain, and then Hosea could jump into mud.
Hosea, just like other children, loved mud. He liked it when it was soft and squishy, and he liked it when it was thick and sticky. If it didn’t rain quite enough, that wasn’t a problem. Hosea would carry water to the dirt and create glorious mud puddles all of his own. He liked to poke sticks into puddles and see how deep the mud was. He liked to make mud pies and to build mud dams. He liked to jump in puddles hard with both feet and make the muddy water splash really high, so that the mud splattered all over his brothers’ and sisters’ clothes, and he loved to step in puddles v-e-r-y slowly, so that the mud oozed up just a little bit at a time between his toes.
Yes, Hosea loved mud.
Now, you can imagine that not everybody in his family liked mud quite as much as Hosea did. His mother had died when he was not quite two, so his older sisters took care of him. His sister, who did laundry and scrubbed the family’s dirty clothes in big washtubs, didn’t like having to scrub all that mud off Hosea’s clothes — or off everybody else’s clothes, either, after Hosea had stomped in a mud puddle extra hard.
His other older sister, who kept the little children clean, didn’t like having to scrub all that mud off Hosea. And Hosea (just like other children) didn’t like having baths, either, especially when it meant he had to stand in a washtub in front of the fire and have water dumped over his head. But his sisters loved him, so they took him home and washed him and dried him and made him clean.
Then Hosea’s sisters went to their father and said, “Father, please tell Hosea to stop playing in the mud.”
“Hosea,” said his father, very sternly, “you should not play in the mud.”
“Why?” asked Hosea, because (just like other children) asking questions was another thing he loved to do.
“Because,” said his father, who was one of the preachers in the Baptist church the family went to, “just as we try to live a good life, to be kind to other people and to follow God’s plan, we try to stay clean.”
“Yes, Father,” Hosea said, and after that day, he did indeed try to stay clean.
But it wasn’t easy. He stopped stomping in the mud puddles on purpose and splashing the muddy water everywhere, and he stopped making enormous mud pies, but sometimes the mud was just there. Then he had to walk through the mud to get across the yard to gather the eggs from the chickens. He had to walk in the mud to feed the pigs. And sometimes, when he was already muddy from doing his chores, he played in the mud, just a little bit, and got even muddier. His sisters, who loved him, took him home and washed him and dried him and made him all clean.
But Hosea’s sisters went to their father again and said, “Father, please tell Hosea to stop playing in the mud.”
“Hosea,” said his father even more sternly, “you must not play in the mud.”
“Yes, Father,” Hosea said. He was sad, because he had truly tried not to get muddy, most of the time anyway. “Are you very angry with me, Father?”
“I am disappointed in you, Hosea, and I am a little angry with you.”
Hosea hung his head and kicked at the dirt with his toes, then he dared to look up, just a little, to ask, “Do you still love me?”
“Hosea,” said his father, and his father didn’t sound stern anymore, “I will always love you, Hosea, no matter what you do.”
“Even if I get muddy again?”
“Even if I get really, really muddy?”
“Even if I get mud all the way up to my eyebrows and between my fingers and my toes and in my hair?”
“Even then,” his father said with a smile. Then he added, very stern again, “But remember, Hosea. You must try to stay clean.”
“I’ll remember, and I’ll try,” Hosea promised, and he did. He stayed clean, most of the time anyway.
Transforming Grace by Paul Tillich:
Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when year, after year, the longed for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness. If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience, we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed.
Source: Shaking of the Foundations by Paul Tillich
Eyes as Clear as Centuries by Ann McCallister (167 words)
It is said that grace can be “an unexpected, undeserved good.” I feel resistance to the idea that grace is ever undeserved, probably because in the work I do as an attorney, I represent convicted murderers, abusers, burglars, car thieves, drug dealers, etc., all of whom, whether guilty or innocent, need as much grace as possible to give them another jumpstart to hopefully connect with their higher selves and heal.
My belief is that the universe is benevolent in an impersonal way — that grace is the high vibration of manifested love that weaves in and out of our lives, nourishing us especially when we are not consciously aware that we need it. The gift that simply happens just when we are mired in some feeling that life sucks, and then, we serendipitously come across the amazing face of a baby with “eyes as clear as centuries” as Paul Simon sang in “Born at the Right Time.” And afterwards, we realize we don’t feel the same way
This month, the theme of our services is grace, what grace is, how you give grace, how you receive grace, how grace is found and how it is held onto, if it even can be held onto, grace being those moments when a wave of light breaks into the darkness, which is not a bad theme to have in a month where there are more cloudy days than sunny ones and when the festivity of Christmas and New Years fades away as the decorations are taken down and the lights put away and you’re left with the rest of winter to get through.
So, a man dies and goes to heaven and St. Peter meets him at the pearly gates. Now I know I know, we Unitarian Universalists don’t do heaven and hell but it’s a joke, so bear with me!
St. Peter says, “Here’s how it works. You need 100 points to make it into heaven. You tell me all the good things you’ve done, and I give you a certain number of points for each item, depending on how good it was. When you reach 100 points, you get in.”
“Okay” the man says, “I attended church every Sunday”
“That’s good, says St. Peter, ” that’s worth two points”
“Two points?” he says. “Well, I gave 10% of all my earnings to the church”
“Well, let’s see,” answers Peter, “that’s worth another 2 points.”
“Only two points? Golly. How about this: I started a soup kitchen in my city and worked in a shelter for homeless veterans.”
“Fantastic, that’s certainly worth a point, ” he says.
“hmmm…,” the man says, “I was married to the same woman for 50 years and never cheated on her, even in my heart.”
“That’s wonderful,” says St. Peter, “that’s worth three points!”
“THREE POINTS!!” the man cries, “At this rate the only way I get into heaven is by the grace of God!”
“Exactly” shouts St. Peter. “Come on in!” https://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/watchwomanonthewall/2011/06/jokes-it-takes-a-100-points-to-get-to-heaven.html#R48wdTLMks5EQoQ4.99 )
Now even though as Unitarian Universalists we don’t focus on an afterlife, even if many of us believe in one or hope there is one, there is something for us in this cute little joke. Even we, who profess the conviction that there is inherent worth and dignity in every person, still fall into the cycle of believing that we have to be good enough to deserve acts of kindness. There’s still enough of those Puritan roots in us that pull us into that place where we keep score of ourselves and each other. Grace gives us permission to stop keeping score.
I would hope that most of us have been blessed, sometime in our lives, with an experience where we were so overcome with the wonder and mystery of life that we simply couldn’t fulfill the expectations that others had of us. We abandoned those expectations so that we could enter into that wonder and mystery. In other words, we stopped keeping an internal score card. As a child, Hosea Ballou just couldn’t help himself. The mud called to him and the repeated instructions from his sisters and his father to “Stay clean” weren’t strong enough to keep him from running through it one more time.
And yet over time, and as he grew a little bit older, their words of caution stayed with him a little bit longer, he tried a little bit harder to “stay clean”, but eventually he would give in, run through the mud, and then, in that moment of realization, know exactly what was coming. “Hosea Ballou,” his sisters would yell, “Why can’t you just stay clean?” And that question haunted him. He started to feel guilty. What was wrong with him that he couldn’t just stay clean? That internal score card started going again.
There are three things that are true in this story. The first, is that Hosea Ballou did get immense joy from playing in the mud, like most children do, and ultimately, that is a beautiful thing. All children should be blessed with moments of abandon. And really, all adults should be blessed with it too!
The second truth is that every time he got all muddy, it also increased the work for his sisters who took care of him. They were the ones who inevitably had to strip off those muddy clothes and wash them. Remember this was before electricity and indoor plumbing. They were the ones building the fire to heat the water which had to be carried in to clean their little brother and to wash his clothes one more time! So his acts of abandon had an impact on them. It made their lives harder.
The third truth is that Hosea’s sisters were taking care of him because their mother had died. So this is a household in mourning, where the older sisters are grieving their mother and then having to then set aside their grief and take care of the younger children, in effect, becoming mothers because their mother died. And in this grieving family where sisters take on the responsibility of mothering when they don’t have the maturity to be mothers, you have this little boy who simply can’t stay clean.
Those of us who have grieved deeply, we know that we aren’t at our best, especially when the grief is fresh and raw. It is easy to get turned around, you’re absent-minded, impatient, maybe quick to anger. Everything just feels hard. So these sisters are getting impatient. Nothing seems to work with Hosea. And perhaps this grief is affecting Hosea’s choices too. Perhaps in his grief he just can’t fully take in their instructions. Perhaps those moments in the mud lift his grief for a while and he can recover for a short time the innocence of childhood where there is no grief and no sadness and his mother is still alive and he’s not being bossed around by his sisters day after day!
Is this not a situation where somehow grace needs to break through?
Is there someplace in your life where grace is yearning to break through?
And that’s how it is that Hosea finds himself standing before his father, who takes a different approach than his daughters. Rather than blustering and yelling, rather than leveling ultimatums, he expresses his feelings. He’s disappointed. He’s angry. He’s sad. He’s tired. As Hosea listens he becomes anxious. His father is suffering because of his choices. Will Hosea lose his father’s love if he can’t keep clean? Is his father keeping score? Not an unreasonable fear when he has also lost his mother. And his father assures him that no, Hosea will never lose his love, ever.
And that’s one way that grace happens. Grace is this thing, this mysterious thing, that happens when love prevails even when there are a million reasons why it might not. I kind of liken grace to the way rays of sunlight stream through the breaks in a dark and cloudy sky. Those times in life when most everything around you is colorless and then there is a sudden breach, and a ray of love, hope, kindness, or graciousness returns some of the color that you are yearning for. And you can’t do anything to make that happen. It’s not about getting enough points. Because the truth is that the sun is always above those clouds and you can’t make those clouds separate. All you can do is be ready, be able to lift up your eyes from the greyness down here, so that you will see those rays streaming down from heaven to this complicated beautiful heartbreaking earth.
I imagine that when Hosea ran through the mud, a ray of sunlight broke through the clouds. That ray became even brighter when his father offered his unconditional love. That is grace. Grace is being blessed with unconditional love even though it’s probably impossible for you to stay clean. What a metaphor for how life is.
When I started to think about this sermon, I became mindful that many of us have experienced different understandings of what grace meant and who we were in relationship to it. Some of us grew up in a form of Christianity where a key theological element was the doctrine of Original Sin, which says that we are born sinful and that nothing can erase that sin. Grace was seen as God’s response to our inherent depravity. There may have been a strong focus on us not deserving that grace, and perhaps even feeling shame for receiving something that was undeserved. Many of us left this kind of Christianity because it just kept hurting us and a deep part of us felt that this understanding of humanity was wrong.
Both Unitarianism and Universalism rejected the doctrine of original sin early on, seeing it as an abusive theology. This means that in our faith, the meaning of grace gradually changed. It was no longer an undeserved gift from a transcendent God to an undeserving humanity. It became instead about an interdependent relationship between the creator of life and those who had been given life, with each giving and receiving acts of grace. As our faith became more diverse, and especially with the introduction of religious humanism, which is now a predominant spiritual disposition in our congregations, grace became an act of love that breaks through isolation, self-absorption, broken relationships, suffering, and the inevitable harshness of life. Grace restores us to ourselves and to each other.
But one of the things we have held on to from our Christian origins of grace, is that we receive it regardless of whether it is deserved or not. You don’t have to be clean to receive grace. You can see this in our first principle, that we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. This principle is infused with an understanding of grace whereby every single person, no matter who you are and how you have lived your life, you can never been separated from your inherent worth and dignity.
It’s why, for instance, many Unitarian Universalists oppose the death penalty. There is nothing you can do that merits the loss of your life. Nothing.
It’s why we are so public in our support of undocumented immigrants. Your worth as a human being should never be determined by whether you have the right papers.
It’s why we have grown in our support for criminal justice reform. The way we scorekeep puts many people behind bars who should never be there.
It’s why we support the legalization of many drugs. We shouldn’t be criminalizing addiction. That kind of scorekeeping leads to so much harm, so many families ripped apart, so many people punished for their addiction rather than loved through it.
It is also a cornerstone of our commitment to fighting poverty. Too many people fall through the cracks, with poverty judged as a moral failing. The scorecard creates many punitive obstacles in their search for basic dignity.
All this scorekeeping. All these ways we resist grace. In 12 step programs we call this taking someone else’s inventory . You’re moving into a place of judgment, thinking you know better than them what they need. You don’t. Stop keeping score. It’s a hard thing to do, especially because we live in a highly competitive society where we rank ourselves and each other all the time and where we often assess our value by how much we make, our level of education, the kind of work we do, the kind of children we raise and the kind of spouse we marry, you name it. This keeps us from being able to receive and give the liberation of grace.
The spiritual task for those of us who want this liberated understanding of grace is to figure out how we possibly step back from keeping score, because you can’t be present to yourself, you can’t be present to others, you can’t give or receive grace when you’re keeping score. You’re not living in the moment and seeing what is right in front of you. How do we make ourselves ready to receive grace, and how do we become the kind of people who offer grace? You center in the incredible gift we all have of this inherent worth and dignity, that nothing can take away from us, not even our own doubts and fears.
I hope that not only have you had the experience of being so overcome with the wonder and mystery of life that you simply couldn’t fulfill the expectations that others had of you, but also that you were still loved afterwards, that as you abandoned yourself to that wonder and mystery, there was someone in your life who resisted the urge to keep score and just kept loving you, no matter how much you messed up. And if you haven’t had that experience, my prayer is that you can stop scorekeeping yourself, and offer yourself the grace that others couldn’t offer you.
What I also hope, that is all of us have had the experience of being the one who resisted the urge to keep score, that we could stay in that place of grace, secure in ourselves, not threatened by someone moving in a direction different than the one we want for them or believe is best for them.
Grace is how we claim the rays of light that are always there, no matter how hard life becomes and how much we suffer. To use the words of Paul Tillich, “If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience, we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed.”