The last word…

open door, rock chapel

Following on from my previous post, I have been thinking a lot about the grace of God recently. Hardly surprising, as I am frequently in need of huge doses of it, but also because I have been immersed in thoughts about our understandings of hell, redemption and atonement.

As part of this I re-read Brian McLaren’s book “The Last Word, and the Word After that” which adventures into this territory. I read the whole thing in one sleepless night, hungry as I was to try to come to some view of these things myself.

From this, I wrote this;

The last word

 

I was reading a story from the Gospel of Mark about

Jesus. It was one of the hard passages where he uses

words that bite – words that leave no space for

my failure.

Jesus told his disciples to stand up for him before men and

the angels will sing. However those who disown

him will be lost – sent out in

disgrace.

 

And then I remembered Peter.

Rock of the Church.

Three time sinner before the crow of the cock.

 

Then I remembered too the story of the Garden where

God tells Adam (and Eve) that if they eat the fruit of the tree they shall surely die.

Not in abstract; they had no concept of the legacy left by the origin of their sin.

Yet they do not die, and God

cares for them, clothes them, sends them out onto the human race

like an anxious parent.

 

There is God’s

last word –

and the

word

after

that

 

which is always

‘grace’.

 

(with apologies to Brian Mclaren for pinching his book title.)

There is a light…

I just watched this advert, and it caused my glasses to mist a little…

I know- it is carefully calculated clever manipulation to make me buy insurance. The ‘Hiscox values’ made clear to build a ‘customer base’.

But I misted because of the glimpses of humanity, or the glimpses of grace. The possibility that we were indeed made in his image.

So even if I am being sold a carefully researched and focus grouped ideal, good for you Hiscox.

Although to be honest, I am not about to buy any insurance. Michaela told me that we tried to insure our annex with Hiscox, and they would only do so if we took in no one on benefits.

Goodness is not without economic compromise in the world of risk and loss and big business it seems.

 

The road leads towards grace…

Or at least that is our hope.

I spent today in meetings intended to ease the passage of broken humanity towards their final journey.

A family torn apart. A strong man laid low at the end of his life by dementia. His wife in a nursing home. His daughter brain damaged and bed bound. His son sitting in the wreckage wondering how it all came to this.

In many ways these are such ordinary things. Life begins, it may stutter but  it also flourishes…

And finally- it all will come to an end.

The meaning we search for in all of this is often obfuscated and elusive. Seen only in the corner of our eyes. Glimpsed in small things and magnified by love.

Like this son, and his shaky hands. Committing himself to care.

Paul told this story the other day- about the Emmaus Road. How two men were on the road- getting the hell out of Dodge. Running away from disaster and defeat. Away from the end of all their plans and hopes. It was finished.

Little did they know- they were heading away from Grace.

But in the story, Grace was not directional- it was not geographical. Or available only to the accidental tourist.

It went after the men.

And walked with them.

Shared some stories and shortened the miles with laughter.

And this is our hope my friends- that all our roads lead towards grace.

Brigid and Babette’s feasts…

I picked up a book that a colleague was throwing out today- entitled ‘The Celtic Year- a celebration of Celtic Christian saints, sites and festivals‘ by Shirley Toulson.

I had a flick through- and came across this

Brigid’s Feast.

I would like a great lake of the finest ale

For the King of Kings.

I would like a table of the choicest food

For the family of heaven.

Let the ale be made from the fruits of faith

And the food be forgiving love

I should welcome the poor to my feast

For they are God’s children

I should welcome the sick to my feast

For they are God’s joy

Let the poor sit with Jesus at the highest place

And the sick dance with the angels.

God bless the poor

God bless the sick

God bless our human race

God bless our food

God bless our drink

All homes, O God, embrace.

And this in turn reminded me of the film Babette’s Feast.

For those of you who have not seen this film, it tells the story of an extreme religious community on the wild Denmark coast, living a life of simplicity and austerity, clinging on to the teachings of their now dead leader. Then along comes a refugee from the wars in a troubled 19th Century Europe, and they take her in. For years she works as an unpaid servant, preparing the dreadful food- fish soup and gruel- that the community eat.

Then one day, after years of hard work, news reaches her that she has won a lottery- a small fortune. The community prepare themselves to say goodbye to their loyal servant, and reluctantly agree to allow her to cook for them- a feast.

A feast the like of which this community- with all its austerity, its petty squabbles and its suspicion of all things ‘of the world’- could not begin to imagine. The finest wines, turtle soup, amazing complicated dishes.

And Babette’s former life as a famous chef in Paris is revealed- as the members of the community are transformed by this encounter with the feast- as tongues are loosened, and rigidity eroded. Until they stand together and sing hymns under the stars.

And discover that Babette had spent every single penny of her new found wealth on this one meal…

It is a story of grace and redemption and religion gone wrong, only to find itself again.

Here are a couple of clips- you can watch the whole thing on You tube should you fancy it.

Justice tinged with mercy, and erring on the side of grace…

I listened to this yesterday, and it made me proud.

‘Compassion and mercy are about upholding the beliefs that we wish to live by- no matter how severe the atrocity perpetrated.Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill.

The discussions linger on- was this man really responsible for the deaths of the hundreds who died when the Pan Am plane crashed in Lockerbie? If so, should he die in prison, or be allowed to return home to say goodbye to his family? These are not easy decisions, particularly when we listen to the voices of people who lost loved ones in the tragedy.

But we are a country who have partnered the USA to wage war in the name of peace in Afghanistan and Iraq. How refreshing to see compassion overcoming the desire for retribution and revenge.

If there is to be a mistake, let us err on the side of Grace…

Grace, ungrace and brokenness…

homeless3

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.

Ungrace.

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.

Grace happens.

As for me- I listen for those grace notes.

And hope that I might learn to echo them…

Conflict and the nursing of wounds in small communities…

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I live in a small town. One of the first things that you learn when you move into town is that everyone has history, and the history is known to others. In fact it might even be what passes for entertainment in such places- the stratification of fellow residents according to all sorts of criteria-

  • family background
  • Place of origin
  • Interesting snippets of gossip
  • Achievements and failures.
  • Association with other people who are known
  • Jobs- particularly high profile ones, and so an opinion is necessary as to how the well the role is performed
  • Membership of local groups and churches

These things are true in any community- but they are accentuated in small towns. The thing is, that this concentration of examination can mean that conflict in particular is corrosive and damaging, and potentially long lasting. There is little to divert or dilute, and it is likely that contact will still continue at some level within the communal spaces of the town.

Some conflicts are legendary- played out in the local courts, and the local paper. Once the solicitors get involved things rarely go well.

There seems to be a particular personality type that is associated with such things- someone who sees complex issues as black and white, and is motivated to seek first vindication and then perhaps, revenge.

There is always more to an issue than meets the eye;

iceberg-of-conflict2

By way of a case study- about three or four years ago, I was involved in a disciplinary hearing of a member of staff who worked for a local voluntary organisation. To cut a long story short, he was later dismissed in relation to another matter (in which I had some involvement in as well.) This process was long and protracted, and the man concerned showed no willingness or ability to understand or engage with any perspective but his own. It was clear that he saw himself as a victim of a malicious campaign led by myself.

At one point of this process, a window was smashed on a car on our drive, and then on two occasions, wheels mysteriously worked loose on the car- at considerable risk to myself and my family. There is of course, no evidence whatsoever to suggest who was responsible.

The man later appealed to an industrial tribunal, and defended himself successfully, in the sense that the organisation was found to have failed in it’s handling of the matter- mainly because a former chairperson admitted to the tribunal that he lied- having claimed not to have been in possession of information which it later transpired that he had, but had not acted upon.

It was a messy, difficult business, with the future of a vital local resource, employing a number of staff at stake. Hopefully over and done with…

Except it is not.

The man concerned has now engaged a solicitor to pursue his vindication. They have made formal complaints to the director of social work about me, and suggested that my lack of integrity means that I should be disciplined. This has been rejected, so I await his next moves…

What should be my response? He is unlikely after all this time to change his perspective. Too much depends on this view of himself persisting.

I could get lawyered up myself and prepare to do battle- it might yet come to this.

I could simply punch him on the nose. But although I am twice his size, I simply would not know how to start.

He has thrown my faith at me on several occasions- you know the way of it- ‘Bible basher!’, ‘Call yourself a Christian?…’

Well yes- I do. I follow Jesus, who had much worse accusations leveled at him. So I am going to do nothing at present. I hope that the man will find his way out of the destructive cycle that he is caught within. I will try my hardest to relax in grace, knowing that difficult people are usually people in difficulties.

And when we meet in supermarkets, I will look him in the eyes and offer what reconcilliation I can, lest we become another story of embattled and embittered small town life.