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The Grace of Beauty and Tragedy

Updated: Feb 11, 2023

Sermon delivered to the Community Unitarian Universalist Congregation

at White Plains, NY

December 29, 2019

When I attended Vanderbilt Divinity School in preparation for my work in ministry, I

encountered a number of thorny theological concepts, including grace. It challenged people hundreds of years ago, leading to one major split off in Christianity that John Calvin led in the 1500's. He tried to define it in terms of God’s election of the elite who would go to heaven; some are graced by God, others not. Upon reading Calvin, I am not sure that people then understood it better than we do today, though we still wrestle with the same questions:

  1. Is grace (good fortune, enlightenment, liberation, perfection, acceptance) something we have work for?

  2. Does anything we do impact how our lives are graced?

  3. Is grace just luck?

  4. Is it just a kind of privilege that results from being born in a certain place and at a certain time and in a certain demographic?

  5. If grace is luck or privilege, then what do you call it when bad things happen to people through no fault of their own? What or who saves them?

We do. But we have to work and practice at it, as in these words by Jean Latimer:

There is a moment in time when the soul chooses love over fear.

It may take eons to reach that point, but when it comes, it sweeps away all

distrust, all suffering and judgment.

We can prepare for it by practicing some simple techniques:

We practice feeling everything, so that when love comes, we feel it fully.

We practice mindfulness, so that when love comes, it is sustained by the discipline

of choice not to indulge the small mind’s need to negate and judge

We practice embracing that which we hate - our diseases, addiction, and troubles,

so that love is felt wholly.

Then the moment of love comes and sweeps us away.

The Unitarian Universalist Congregation in El Paso where apparently I preached a lot about beauty and tragedy

I am particularly taken with her practice of embracing that which we hate, or fear, or makes us uncomfortable. Coming to terms with embracing all this is life is, it’s beauty and tragedy, has been on my mind a lot lately. Well maybe it always has been. When I was a minister serving the El Paso Texas Unitarian Universalist Congregation a member did a parody of my preaching style. He stood up behind the lectern and repeated, “Beauty and Tragedy, Tragedy and Beauty.” And now 15 years later, my message hasn't changed much. It’s because I keep getting messages of beauty and tragedy. As a conservationist, it seems that not a day doesn't go by when I don't experience directly or get a message on my phone long distance of some terrible thing that has happened to some person or parrot.

For instance, the indigenous leader with whom we work in Honduras had an assassination attempt against him in November because he protects the forest into which our rangers go deeper and deeper every year to protect. He survived, but we don't know what it means for our people there, who are so beautiful as they risk their lives to establish the largest community protected parrot region in the world. Another example of beauty occurred just last month I was in Guyana counting parrots at a roost site that had never been studied, and was amazed to observe 2,611 parrots who slept, played, and fussed with each other there (video below). Wow! But as we finished the count, we saw flashlights light up one part of the roost site and upon investigation, found a boatload of boys with slingshots who were hunting parrots.

The heartache of conservation mixes with the awe of life and slowly over the years I have learned that there is no beauty without tragedy, and that beauty never dies. And that beauty is everywhere. Knowing this is both a burden and a blessing. For our hearts are ever open to the suffering and loss around us of vital wondrous life, and yet no matter the despair of our days, beauty and joy accompany us. We strive to keep our hearts open to our pain and of others, for it compels us to do the inner work so that we have the awareness, resilience, and power to do our outer work on behalf of all the people who are caught in an unjust societal system. We accept the tragedy so, paradoxically, we change it through transformative parrot conservation, or transformative social action of any kind. It’s transformative because the outer societal transformation only comes about accompanied by an inner transformation based on beauty, tragedy, and its result, love. We are not talking about some minor change, but a complete revamping of how we think and live. Through work and experiential immersion in beauty and love, we come out as completely different people on the other side, for we have shed the stories that don’t result in our freedom and the liberation of others.

For this transformation to take place, we must work at it, for its not easy to be inspired by beauty while immersed in an awareness of tragedy. So, we must look for beauty wherever we can. For instance, in the bathroom. Did you know that the bathroom is one of the greatest places for “ah ah” moments we have? Have you experienced this, when you come out the bathroom a different person, somehow lighter? It’s a dangerous place, not just spiritually, but physically, for the bathroom is one of the most likely places we will suffer accidents in the home.

Now imagine that the bathroom as an outdoor one, perched on a hill overlooking a river that divides Guyana and Brazil. I was there last month and took a bathroom break while the rest of the conservationists, called the parakeet rangers, went on down to the boat on the river. The outhouse had no doors, and only one rusty piece of metal shielding on one side. It was open to all that around me: the towering tropical mountains that had been jeweled with the bright yellow sun parakeets all morning, the sparkling river, and an expansive blue, blue sky that seemed to on forever. As I got up to leave, the rotten floor boards crumbled on one side, and I fell partially through. The only thing that saved me was my right leg that was precariously perched on some trembling, rotten boards. I was wedged in the outhouse. But what a view!

The view from our camp spot on the river (photo by Danika Oriol-Morway)

All kinds of things ran through my head: How am I going to get out without the entire floor collapsing? Should I yell for help? I am so embarrassed. Ouch, my right knee hurts. Am I going to be too lame to work today, or finish this trip in Guyana? Ah, hah. What a great place to get stuck, it’s so beautiful here. I’ve been so blessed to be able to do this work here, now, even if it won’t last forever. I did get myself out, and did finish the day working, but spent most of the next two days confined to my hammock at our camping spot on the river. An unlucky accident? Sure. There are no guarantees in my work, or any of our lives. Over very homes, kitchens, stairs, and bathrooms are out to get us! But beauty never leaves us, even when it apparently does.

In possibly one of the most depressing books ever written, “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy he writes of beauty lost in a post-apocalyptic world that is dark, destroyed, and dangerous:

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains.

You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges

of their fins wimpled softly in the flow.

They smelled of moss in your hand.

Polished and muscular and torsional.

On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in

its becoming.

Maps and mazes.

A thing which could not be put back.

Not be made right again.

In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and

The fish were gone, but the origins of their lives were ever present, connected to the humans who remembered, who would work for beauty to come again to the land.

The parakeets in the USA are also gone. We had them here, and I mean right here where we sit. The Carolina Parakeet has been extinct for 101 years. This species is the closest relative to the sun parakeet, who might share the same destiny. The last Carolina Parakeet, Incas, died in the same cage as did the last Passenger Pigeon, Martha a few years earlier. That hurts to ponder. But consider this. The loss of these two species compelled some of our earliest conservation sensibility and laws, such as the Lacey Act that made it illegal to traffic in any wildlife. The loss of one beauty and the awareness the harm to another compels us end the tragedy. So, we work in Guyana with the endangered sun parakeet, not wanting one more parrot or indigenous people to disappear from this earth. There has already been too much beauty lost.

Audubon's painting of the Carolina Parakeet

We are the inheritors of this beauty lost. Within us it always lives, and we are also inheritors of tragedy. We have to know of the wounds that we all carry, of how seeing others as different, as less than, has forced others into extinction, into genocide, into slavery, into poverty, into prison, into somewhere caged because they are different. This dominion over others traps us all, for we have been groomed to cut ourselves off from life so that we can live in a world where it is okay for the unlucky or the graceless to live as they do. Maybe we don’t think it’s “okay” but we turn off to it and functionally we operate as if we accept it. We experience less beauty, less wonder, and less mystery of life because we have to turn it off at some point for there is too much loss, and the suffering is just too big! Not just in others, but in ourselves.

But we can respond differently other than to disconnect, perchance to sing for freedom, as in Angelou Maya’s poem, “Caged Bird.”

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill of things unknown but longed for still and his tune is heard on the distant hill for the caged bird sings of freedom.

Guanaja conservationist rescuing a yellow-naped amazn parrot (photo by Green Island Challenge)

We sing not just for ourselves, but for everyone. In our parrot conservation work we have a motto, “None are free until all are free.” We very much mean freedom not just the parrots, but the indigenous people who have lost their land, the oppressed people throughout the Americas, and the more privileged white conservationists such as myself.

There is much more tragedy that what society has taught us, and life is so much more beautiful that the stories we’ve been telling ourselves. Our work is to keep our hearts open so that we can be graced with awareness of the beauty and the tragedy on this earth. Such awareness means we know what freedom looks like. Such awareness means that we continue to work so that we are liberated from anything that is not love, and we continue to work for the liberation of all. Any moments of awareness that come to us, when we are able to hold it all and feel connected to all is grace. We cannot plan for these moments, but we can lay the foundation for them.

In the song “Parrot Girl,” (music video of song below) Gene Keller sings questions which fuel our inner work:

How much love do you need?

How much love can you see?

How much love will set you free?

How much love can you be?

Let us ask these questions with all our hearts, for grace has a way of shaping what our hearts bequeath it.

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