For a day job, I manage social work services for people with severe and enduring mental health problems. For the last twenty years I have been a mental health worker and therapist, working in hospitals, GP surgeries, prisons, day centres and clinics.
Even as I have become very frustrated with the nature of organised social work- the inevitable beauocracy, the compartmentalisation of humanity, the feeling that we police people, but do not really help- I have continued to be driven by the hope that broken people can mend.
And the conviction that comes from my faith that people forced to the edges of society by their experience of life can teach us much about our own experience, and in meeting this, we meet Jesus.
I found Philip Yancey’s wonderful book ‘What’s so amazing about grace‘ really helpful at a time in my life when I was struggling. One of the concepts he introduced was the concept of ‘Ungrace’.
Grace is not easy to define but we usually recognize it when we see it. Yancey describes it as `the last best word’ of the English language because in every usage it retains some of the glory of the original. His story-telling style takes `grace’ from a religious context and puts it in the market place, moving it from theological discussion to practical application.
What is obvious to me, is that as we develop as humans, the soil we grow in can be full of the nutrients of grace, or poisoned by a kind of toxicity that can put a stain down generations… you could say that people are grace-impoverished, living in the shadow of ungrace.
That is not to say that this is the only formative or defining force that is acting on us. Illness sometimes just IS- with no clear causal factors, and equally, some grow strong out of dreadfully difficult situations. Grace is built into all of us somewhere deep down.
Today was a fairly typical day, this morning in an Adult Protection meeting, discussing a man who has mental health problems, but is killing himself with drugs and living in squalor. And when you look at his earlier experience, it was easy to see why. In the afternoon, I chaired another conference on a woman who had been admitted to hospital after a fall, but seems to have rapidly deteriorating dementia. A life unraveling after broken relationships, isolation and depression.
Yancey describes our world as being `choked with the fumes of ungrace’. But, he adds, `occasionally a grace note sounds, high, lilting, ethereal, to interrupt the monotonous background growl of ungrace’.
Grace comes from the outside as a gift.
Grace billows up.
As for me- I listen for those grace notes.
And hope that I might learn to echo them…