Grace and the Art of Giving and Receiving

by Rev. Terry Davis

Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation on November 5, 2017

I accompanied my spouse Gail on a business trip to Vancouver, British Columbia a few weeks ago. While she was in conference meetings during the day, I took myself on little walking excursions to pass the time and to take in some of city’s stunning beauty and international culture.

Almost half of North America’s coastal rainforest and close to 25 percent of the world’s temperate rainforests can be found in British Columbia.

And October, as it turns out, is rainy season. So, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that, after walking around for two days in the nice, cold, steady drizzle, I might develop a nice little sinus infection.

So on Day 3, with Kleenex in hand, I decided to limit my daily excursion to the shops in the hotel lobby downstairs.

The most interesting one was a tiny art gallery, filled to the brim with bright and whimsical paintings, large and small, of hearts, doves, moons, stars, and smiling people. They were hanging from the walls, of course, as well as displayed on shelves and leaning in bins. And, as it turned out, they were all painted by one artist.

The paintings exuded happiness and peace. I became so immersed in looking at them, that I almost didn’t notice the quiet, gray-haired man sitting in the back of the gallery behind a small mahogany Queen Anne desk. He looked up and smiled when he saw me. He wore glasses and was reading a Japanese newspaper.

“Hello,” he said. “May I help you?”

“Are these your paintings?” I asked. “They’re so lively and beautiful.”

“Yes,” he replied. “All mine. I have been painting nearly all my life.” He paused and then said, “My art has a message of peace to tell.”

I invited him to say more about that. He, in turn, pulled up a second chair to his desk and invited me to sit down.

And, so began my hour-long conversation with YaSuo Araki – painter, graphic designer and owner of Araki Gallery International, a cluttered and colorful little shop tucked away off the busy lobby of the Vancouver Pan Pacific Hotel.

In broken English and with cheer in his voice, Mr. Araki told me his fascinating story.

He talked about growing up in Japan in a densely forested rural area north of Mt. Fuji and south of Tokyo. He described the harrowing journey he and his family made when he was just six years old to flee the hell that rained down on his village from the B-29 bombers during World War II.

He told me that his father – who was an artist – had lost hope after all that, but that he, YaSuo, was determined to grow up and bring a message of peace to the world instead.

He shared with me his journey of going to art school in Tokyo, of immigrating to Canada in 1968, where he knew no one and spoke no English. He spoke of finding his first job in commercial advertising . . . and how he began painting and showing his work in Vancouver, Seattle and Japan after that and never stopped.

He then pointed to the wall, which had hanging on it a copy of his personal artist’s statement. It read:

“My wartime experiences led me to peacemaking efforts at a grassroots level. For me, this means communicating with people through my art. I use motifs such as stars, sun and the moon often because every living thing is a part of the universe. Also, I use music as a symbol of the good in human nature.”1)YaSou Araki Artist’s Statement, Araki Gallery International, Inc., Vancouver, BC, Canada, October 24, 2017.

It continued:

“If artists lead the way, then through their works, perhaps the goal can be reached. I dream of the day when we can usher in a new Renaissance, one that is filled with human vitality and is capable of enriching people’s lives.”2)Ibid.

Wow. All I was hoping to do was to kill some time in the hotel lobby and then go back up to my room for a nap. What I got instead inside that crammed little gallery was a wide-open glimpse of Mr. Araki’s soul.

If that wasn’t enough, Mr. Araki got so excited when we started talking about peace, that he exclaimed “One moment!”

He jumped up, ran to the back of his gallery, and came back with a bottle of black ink and a calligraphy brush. He opened his desk drawer, pulled out a sheet of paper, and said, “I’m inspired by our conversation. I’m going to create a Japanese poem for you. A waka.”

“A haiku?” I asked, not understanding what he was saying.

“No,” he said. “A waka. It’s different from a haiku.” He paused for a moment, and then explained. “A haiku is only this big,” he said, holding his hands in the air and apart a short distance. “A waka is this big,” holding his hands a little further apart.

And, then, dipping his brush into the ink, he stroked out what I later learned was a poem in the classic five-line waka style. He then signed it with our names, dated it, and stamped it in red ink with his personal engraving.

“Here,” he said, handing the beautiful poem to me. “A gift for you. Please do not pay me for this.”

[Holding up the art] Here is his poem. Translated, it reads:

Our beautiful,
golden dialogue
contains peace.
Your heart will shine
for humanity.3)YaSuo Araki.

****

I share my story of YaSuo Araki with you this morning because, for me, it is my most recent and stunning example of grace.

Grace, as Joe illustrated in his wonderful reflection, is an unexpected free gift that arrives with remarkable timing into our lives. Joe said that acts of grace aren’t reserved for the divine. Anyone is capable of being a grace giver.

We’re all capable of acting with spontaneous generosity toward another person. And, to be on the receiving end of such a gift can possibly renew our faith in something larger than ourselves, whether that be the goodness of humanity or the power of love.

Grace is an act of complete benevolence on the part of the giver. And, it requires neither meritorious behavior nor a decision on the part of the receiver. The giver just gives and the receiver just receives.

True acts of grace carry with them no expectations whatsoever . . . and yet they are renowned for producing feelings of happiness in the giver and receiver. I can imagine that Joe’s Starbucks fairy felt good about secretly paying for his cup of coffee. And the smile on Mr. Araki’s face when he created my poem made it clear that his gift to me gave him great joy. 

I suppose Joe could have chased down the person in line in front of him at the Starbucks drive-thru to refund their money. And, I could have insisted on paying Mr. Araki for the beautiful poem and calligraphy he gave me. But, I also think that the anonymity of Joe’s gift, the spontaneity of mine, and the timing of them both are precisely the reasons why they seemed to add up to something more than random acts of kindness.

Perhaps acts of grace really do possess unique, selfless qualities and live in a sacred category all their own. Or, perhaps what makes something an act of grace has more to do with the attitude of the receiver . . . that genuine response of surprise and gratitude one feels when she or he receives a kindness that they didn’t see coming.

As Unitarian Universalists, whose theologies range from theism and paganism to atheism and agnosticism, I wonder how we might interpret the concept of grace for ourselves? How might our lives be enriched by participating in acts of grace, both as generous givers and open-minded receivers? 

****

The Christian notion of grace – that it is an unmerited favor from God – is an important strand of our Unitarian Universalist DNA. Universalism was founded in our country over 200 years ago on the belief that a loving God would not punish his children by sending them to Hell, while American Unitarianism was founded, in large part, on the rejection of the Calvinist doctrine of original sin.

In short, Universalism believed in the benevolence of God and Unitarians believed in the worthiness of humanity. Or, as the old joke goes, Universalists believed that God is too good to damn them, and Unitarians believed that they were too good to be damned.     

It might be said that belief in God’s grace for the Universalists reflected their firm belief that all human beings would eventually join the Creator in heaven and that all human acts – however egregious – were ultimately redeemable. Belief in God’s grace for the Unitarians, on the other hand, reflected their understanding that the Creator had already equipped all human beings with the intellectual ability they needed to interpret the Bible’s teachings and the inherent goodness necessary to follow God’s will.

No “salvation” from sins was needed, therefore, to enter the kingdom of Heaven.

As Unitarian Universalism moved away from its liberal, Christian roots to its present more pluralist form, I gather that many of us no longer think of grace as God’s unmerited gift. But I also wonder if we don’t think much in terms of grace at all. That, if it’s true, would be unfortunate.

In these times when violence, divisiveness and uncertainty seem to be on the rise, I believe it’s time we revisit our Unitarian and Universalist theologies of grace. I believe it’s time to welcome the power and spontaneity of grace in order to restore our sometimes-flagging faith in the good. 

So, I invite us to be a little more like those early Universalists. I invite us to act as if generosity has no limits and that giving out of a sense of abundant love is indeed a sacred act because it’s part of our sacred nature.

I also invite us to be a little more like those early Unitarians. I invite us to embrace grace as an indication that we all are worthy of receiving radical and spontaneous kindnesses, no matter what. Starbuck fairies and Mr. Arakies do exist . . . and, as we remain spiritually alert, we may find that we encounter them more than we realized.

Before we go today, I’d like to leave you with one more reminder of grace.

YaSuo Araki’s imaginative paintings were lovely and powerful examples of the power of grace working through one man. I hope to always remember that he was able to allow a horrific childhood experience to transform his life into one of opening his heart and giving to others a message of hope and peace.

I have placed ten cards featuring YaSuo Araki’s art in some of the seat pockets in the backs of our Sanctuary chairs. I invite you to check the pocket in front of you to see if one if his cards is there. If it is, will you hold it up for others to see?

They are a gift – from me to you.

Like Joe’s Starbucks fairy and Mr. Araki, may we be the grace-givers the world needs. And, when grace comes our way, may we open our hearts to the gift and risk being transformed by its kindness.

May it be so. Amen.

References   [ + ]

1. YaSou Araki Artist’s Statement, Araki Gallery International, Inc., Vancouver, BC, Canada, October 24, 2017.
2. Ibid.
3. YaSuo Araki.