The great essay and sermon of Paul Tillich, "You are Accepted," collected in a book of Tillich's powerful sermons, The Shaking of the Foundations, has been for me a seminal reading and text of my faith and of my way of living my life.
As part of my Lenten examining, I want to turn again to the power of acceptance that is a gift of grace, grace that we must wait for, that happens to us, grace that proclaims, "you are accepted."
Tillich fled Nazi Germany in 1936 and became a leading Protestant theologian and a prominent member of Union Theological Seminary in New York. Tillich referred to God as "ultimate concern" or "the Ground of our Being."
But the heart of his theology can be found in his powerful sermon, “You are Accepted," as the tension and dialectic between "sin" as "separation" and "brokenness," and grace as the overcoming of that separation with the unity and power of life itself---grace abounding all the more.
Grace is an experience. To hear and experience the words, "You are accepted" is to wait for and to expect to be struck by the reality that I belong to life, that I am a part of all that is, and that I am welcomed and embraced by all that is.
In 1988, Carole and I moved to New York to work for the leading health commissioner in the U.S. and for a powerful governor. My task above all was to work on a model universal health care plan, for the state and perhaps for the nation. I believed, and still do, that a powerful new national plan could provide the sense of community, connectedness, and fundamental justice that would help heal our nation’s deep divides.
Things didn’t go that way. Our commissioner suffered a terrible stroke and never recovered. The governor didn’t run for president. I had gambled everything in that move to New York and when it did not turn out as I had hoped, I wound up believing, and experiencing the words, "You are NOT accepted." I became separated, isolated, depressed, and lost.
During this time of suffering I had a dream that I came to see as a powerful message to "kill" my political obsession healing the divisions in our great country with a national health plan. Instead I would move to the great Southwest. By returning to the part of the nation I grew up in, by moving to a small town near Mexico, I was to be finally reunited with "life itself” in the high desert of the United States. Only then could I expect my dark and depressed sense of separation to move away.
That was a serious turning away from the grace that I had had been given, that I had experienced, in New York. In truth, I don't think I was ever closer to the grace of life itself than in those New York years, years that were an incredibly rich part of our life together, because Carole also found the same richness in our work there.
Yet we did move, and imperfectly and haltingly, and Carole and I found a new way of experiencing our belonging, our sense of connectedness, to each other and to a small town in the desert, and to all else, and to live within the overpowering grace of life itself.
I belong to a fellowship that makes “acceptance” a central part of its famous “Serenity Prayer,” a prayer adapted from one written by Reinhold Niebuhr, Tillich’s colleague at Union Theological Seminary in New York.
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
But Niehuhr's version of the prayer was different:
"God give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other. " (my italics)
If I understand Niebuhr, he was agreeing with Tillich, that as we pray the Serenity Prayer we must understand that we are also asking for, and waiting for, the grace and serenity to hear the words, again and again, “You are accepted.”