Losing Christian Privilege

I blame Jesus. If he hadn’t said that stuff about being blessed when you’re persecuted, then I don’t think we’d be where we are today. St Paul’s not much better, who made a great show of listing all the persecutions and opposition he faced as somehow ‘proving’ something about his ministry. Yep. It’s God’s fault.

When I was training to be a priest (20 years ago), it was often observed at the conservative college at which I trained that Christians in Britain were too lukewarm; they took their faith for granted, were wooly on some important doctrines, too much drawn to liberalism, weak on evangelism and generally a bit of a let down. What was needed, it was sometimes touted, was a good dose of persecution. Some people even prayed it would be so. People actually prayed that the country would change so much that Christianity would be illegal and that people would die for their faith. It seems an odd thing to pray, to say the least, when this is the daily reality of actual people in some parts of the world, but there you have it.

20 years later, it seems a given in some conservative quarters to state that these prayers have been answered. According to some, the recent court decision in London to put an exclusion zone around an abortion clinic to prevent prayer and protests outside is seen as a threat to religious freedom. The BBC, some insist, is blatantly anti-Christian and – worse, in the eyes of those who protest thus – promoting a gay agenda. Here in South Africa, some Christian groups are loudly defending their God-given ‘right’ to physically discipline children; to disallow that, is to threaten the freedom of the church, it is said. In America the religious right have hitched their wagon to the lucrative gun lobby, and assured anyone who’ll listen that the Constitution’s second amendment enshrines a ‘God-given’ right to own assault rifles.

Pointing out facts is, it seems, unpopular. No one’s threatened with serious trouble over graciously and peacefully (and there’s the key words) presenting a ‘pro-life’ perspective; you don’t have to search the BBC website for long to find stories and programmes which show the Christian faith in a positive and realistic light. I could go on, but the point is probably obvious by now – this isn’t an argument about facts. It’s about perception. Christians feel like they’re losing ground; the Bible shows us we’re blessed if we’re persecuted; look – we’re being persecuted!

The reality is that in all 3 of these countries – and many others – that we Christians are losing ground. And that’s OK. For many years, way before the current generation was born, we were living in a ‘Christendom’ reality. This is the idea that Christianity is assumed as deserving of a preferential hearing. Christianity was the privileged religion, and it was treated as such. These were Christian countries, it was assumed. As the world changes, society is globalised and the influences are more diverse. Suddenly, Christianity is no longer assumed to be primary; it is questioned, in many cases found wanting, and certainly no longer deserving of privilege.

Which is as it should be. Be it in post-apartheid South Africa, levelling the playing field between men and women, or giving other religions than Christianity a share of the platform, the loss of unearned privilege can feel like persecution. But it isn’t. It’s just the lop-sided playing field levelling itself. If the Gospel is as winsome and powerful as we think it is, then this should not worry us and we should not protest it. Jesus and the early Christians were not known for protesting their own rights or demanding a privileged hearing; they were rather more focussed on the rights of others – and in Jesus’ case, emptying himself of all he was really, truly entitled to.

In fact, there’s more to say still. The Gospel tells us that we have no rights of our own before God, but he graciously gives us all things in Jesus. He was all about laying down his rights. If the playing field really is levelling to all religions and world-views, then we should welcome it as a chance to be like Jesus and empty ourselves of all unearned and undeserved power and privilege and see a real demonstration of the power of the Gospel to which we claim to adhere. Further, if we really think we have a God-given right to protest outside abortion clinics or to own a gun or to hit our children (3 very different things, of course), then we need to be asking ourselves some serious questions as to how far we’ve drifted from the Bible we claim to hold in such high esteem.

Maybe, in some mysterious way, God has answered those prayers. He hasn’t given us persecution – though, of course, he remains perfectly entitled to do so. He has simply taken away a privilege that was never ours to begin with; it only ever belonged to him. Let’s let him worry about getting the hearing he deserves; our role is to, like Jesus, empty ourselves of power and simply serve him – where we find him. Which will so often be in the form of the people we were previously loudly protesting against.

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In praise of snowflakes

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the next generation will be criticised by the generation that immediately precedes them. You heard it from your grandparents most probably – the repeated complained comparison about what it was like ‘when we were young’. How exams were harder, jobs were more scarce, world wars more likely.

The current generation to be on the receiving end of this is the millenial generation. Roughly speaking, these are the people born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. The perceived truth is that this a generation that has never had it so easy – technology, healthcare, no conscription, travel, and so much besides, are all more free for them than for their forbears. Thus criticisms come – of a snowflake generation in desperate need of safe spaces, scared of giving offence and easy to offend. You can’t move on Facebook for memes about how easy they have it, and how despairing my generation (Generation X) or the one above (Baby boomers) are. It’s no wonder that they are leaving Facebook in droves or just not signing up for it; it’s not a safe space.

Whether it’s true to say, or whether it’s a perception bought about by social media, it seems that the millenials may be the most criticised generation in history. It would be nice to be able to say that Christians were showing a different way – more encouraging, more kind, more willing to see the good. And I’m sure that some are; but by and large what I see and hear from Christians my age and older is much the same as what I see and hear from those outside the church – complaint and criticism. If it’s little wonder, then, that millenials are leaving Facebook, then it shouldn’t surprise us that they’re also largely absent from our churches. Now this is a complex issue – I’m not suggesting that inter-generational criticism is the only reason that millenials are not in church with us; but it seems to me that it is one of the reasons. Would you want to go to a church if it was full of people who regularly and loudly criticised you or people like you? Of course not; history shows us that where this happens, people leave church and don’t come back – or start their own expression of it.

We all need to be called out on stuff every now and then; we all need wiser heads to come alongside us and help us take a good, long look at ourselves. But we all know that people win the right to do that if they have first spent a good time being with us, knowing us, loving us. You don’t just walk up to someone you’ve never met and tell them they’re weak (at least I hope you don’t … ); no. You build a relationship, you point out what’s good about them – and you do that a lot; then eventually you find you have won the right to say “Have you ever thought about … ?”

I see much that’s good in this generation. This is the generation, after all, that’s willing to walk out of school to protest the right to attend school without the fear of getting shot; this is the generation willing to run with #metoo; this is the generation of Malala Yousafzai, for goodness sake. Of course, there are things to criticise, as there are in every generation. It would be better, though, if people my age and older were more willing to listen, more able to confess their own failings and help those that follow us learn from our own mistakes; it would be wonderful if our churches saw the stirrings of faith and courage coming from the younger end of the spectrum and gave space to them to flower and flame into life; that we were humble enough to learn, slow to speak, quick to listen.

After all, it’s written somewhere that a little child shall lead them.

Church: there and back again

Recommending a book is a tricky business. No more so than when it comes to Christian books – especially the ones aimed at a more popular market. Recommend something and there can often be the assumption that the recommendation also means endorsement and agreement. That always seems to me to be a lazy approach to anything, let alone something so personal as a book; but there we have it. Algorithms increasingly tell us what we should read, watch, listen to next based on what we’ve liked before, and we expect people to do the same – so we get funnelled deeper into an echo chamber we may not have been aware we were making.

I value Rachel Held Evans. I don’t always agree with her; sometimes her writing on blogs or in books annoys or angers me. Which is all the more reason I need to listen to voices like hers. She is one of those who voices what many who love Jesus increasingly feel and experience. As such, whether I agree with her or not is in many senses irrelevant. I need to hear her, and through her hear those who feel she speaks for them. Her last book, A Year Of Biblical Womanhood, has been for me a key plank in establishing my own feminism. Her new book, Searching For Sunday, has challenged and enriched me deeply. Through a series of reflections around each of the Orthodox church’s sacraments, she tells her story of struggling with doubt; of leaving, trying to remake, and eventually reconnecting with church. Sometimes people who write or speak on these subjects put people like me (church leaders) on the back foot; we’re made to feel guilty, failures. It’s our fault, you see. Sometimes it is, of course, but such blame shifting doesn’t open dialogue or encourage learning. Searching For Sunday I found to be rather different. It was truthful, open, compassionate, humble. It spoke as much for the experience and concerns of someone in my role as it does for the skeptical and occasional pew-sitter.

It eschews easy judgements and blanket assertions; the book – and the author – is both vulnerable, but confident in her own incompleteness. It’s also her best piece of writing – some of the metaphors and imagery are startling or refreshing; I especially appreciated how the conscious use of voices, stories and metaphors associated with women opened up different perspectives.

It seems so reductive to ask myself if I agreed with everything she said. I don’t know how to answer that, or quantify it. I needed the book, and continue to need it. It speaks to me, and for me. It challenges me and refreshes me and encourages me and heals me. It sheds fresh light and depth on aspects of both my life as a disciple of Jesus and as one tasked with public ordained ministry, performing some of the sacraments on which she touches in the book.

It’s neither the first, nor the last, word on any of the issues it raises. It’s not trying to be either of those things. It’s more than that – it’s a beautiful, touching, and eloquent chapter in the story.

 I rated this book 5/5 on goodreads

Worship in the minor key

What does ‘no more’ mean, really?

I ask because of some lines from a song. It’s a contemporary worship song written by British songwriter and worship leader Matt Redman. You can find the song, ‘Endless Halleujah’, squirrelled away at the end of his album ‘10,000 Reasons’.

I like the album. From someone who’s not always the greatest fan of worship music, that’s high praise. The emphasis of the collection of songs is upbeat, looking forward. It does so with confidence and faith but also a little realism. That’s especially located in the song ‘Never Once’, a song which musically and lyrically must (at least sub-consciously) take some inspiration from English football culture. The singer finds him/herself looking back how far they’ve come, looking at the scars and struggles, conscious of God’s presence along the way.

So it’s in that context I’m intrigued, bought up a little short and slightly confused by that last song on the album. It looks forward to eternity, to a time where there’s no more sin or sorrow and ‘forgotten is the minor key‘.

I understand, and of course concur, with what I think he’s getting at. The new creation, eternity in God’s presence, is hard to describe – but we can say with certainty that it will be an experience of the old order of things passing away.

So on one level I’m signed up to the direction of the song. On another I’m troubled. It’s the presence of that line. I’m no musician, but I love music. I’m not going to get technical (because I can’t); but I do know that major keys only work because minor keys also exist. Can you imagine a whole symphony, album, show in only the major key, with not a single reference or allusion to the minor key, or without its existence for contrast? No. It would be, surely, absurd or exhausting. To look at it another way, fireworks need a clear, dark night sky to shine. One only works because of the existence of the other.

I know this song is dealing in metaphor, but do we really want an eternity where the minor key is forgotten? I’m not sure. When I say ‘not sure’, I mean it in the sense of ‘not sure’; not disagree. Just not sure. I understand that eternity is an experience without sin or negativity or sickness. But are those things forgotten, or are they rather put in their right place? Won’t the songs we sing then be all the more meaningful because of what we’ve gone through? Doesn’t a risen, crowned Jesus still bear nail marks? That implies suffering isn’t forgotten; it’s better than that. It’s transcended and transfigured; we might say (as I have elsewhere) that God seems to be in the business of harmonising on evil as opposed to eradicating it.

I appreciate, though, that God has an inconsistent memory. He never forgets His people; but then He only has to glance from us to the One whose shadow we stand in, and all of a sudden our failure is forgotten, we stand clean in the light and we bear glory not disgrace. Try fitting omniscience alongside that and take a step back as your brain implodes. Never trust anyone who says they’re an expert in theology. How can a finite one possibly be an expert in a discipline that deals with the infinite?

Where are we, then? I can’t escape the idea that the scars will still be there, somehow. We’ll be physically alive, but perfectly so. We’ll be renamed, but very much ourselves. What will that sound like? It will be glorious, yes. It will be celebratory, of course. I can’t help but think, though, that there will be journeys from minor to major and back again. There will be flirtations with dissonance, resolved into previously unheard harmonies.

Try putting that to music.

Shadow Sides 2: Paul and the problem that won’t go away

A series of posts looking at famous Bible people and how they’re a bit more like us than we may imagine. 

Think of the man who wrote a good part of the New Testament (Paul) and the first words that come to mind probably aren’t “man whose prayer didn’t get answered”. There are good many other phrases that might come to your mind: genius, great writer, leader, certain, inspired, ethical, apostle, convert, road to Damascus, church-planter, missionary. Or maybe there are other, less-complementary words that come to your mind (of which the equally Biblical ‘hard to understand’ may be the mildest). Love him or hate him, he’s one of the single most influential people in the history of the Christian faith. It’s apparent that God used him to communicate some eternal truths and to help us understand what the story of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection as told in the 4 gospels means for us.

So what sort of person was he? What, when pressed, defined him in his own eyes and, most importantly, in God’s eyes? We get a fascinating insight into that in the letter we now call 2 Corinthians. It’s markedly different to the CV’s of the influencers in the early 21st-century:

I’ve worked much harder, been jailed more often, beaten up more times than I can count, and at death’s door time after time. I’ve been flogged five times with the Jews’ thirty-nine lashes, beaten by Roman rods three times, pummeled with rocks once. I’ve been shipwrecked three times, and immersed in the open sea for a night and a day. In hard traveling year in and year out, I’ve had to ford rivers, fend off robbers, struggle with friends, struggle with foes. I’ve been at risk in the city, at risk in the country, endangered by desert sun and sea storm, and betrayed by those I thought were my brothers. I’ve known drudgery and hard labor, many a long and lonely night without sleep, many a missed meal, blasted by the cold, naked to the weather.

And that’s not the half of it, when you throw in the daily pressures and anxieties of all the churches. When someone gets to the end of his rope, I feel the desperation in my bones. When someone is duped into sin, an angry fire burns in my gut.

If I have to “brag” about myself, I’ll brag about the humiliations that make me like Jesus

(2 Corinthians 11:23-33, The Message)

We want our leaders to be in control; Paul admits to anxiety.

We expect leaders to have good relationships; Paul’s had arguments with friends.

We expect moral cleanliness from those in charge; Paul openly admits to plenty of time in prison and to being on the receiving end of brutal punishments.

We want to follow people characterised by strong competence; Paul invites us to follow him because he’s weak and he’s suffered.

He boasts about the things that have humiliated him and led to suffering because it’s in them that he finds himself to be similar to Jesus. Jesus, so anxious that He sweat drops of blood; feared God had abandoned Him; was betrayed and let down by close friends; was punished by the powers-that-be.

That’s not all. For Paul, there was more.

I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me,

My grace is enough; it’s all you need.
My strength comes into its own in your weakness.

(2 Corinthians 12:7-9, The Message)

Paul, so close to God that Jesus speaks directly to him; Paul, so inspired by God that 2,000 years we still read what he wrote to keep us going; Paul, writer of some of the most influential words in human history; this Paul has a problem he can’t shake, that God won’t take away no matter how much he pleads. It’s probably a physical problem – one serious enough to make him ‘beg’ for relief.

I know how that feels. I’ve been in pain every day for more than 16 years. On bad days, I’m told by people who know about these things, my levels of pain are worse than those of childbirth. I’ve begged for it be removed, and so have others on my behalf, many more than 3 times. Newsflash: I’m not as close to God as St. Paul.

It limits me. I’m also clinically depressed and anxious; I recently ended a church business meeting by breaking down in tears. I’m limited by mind and my body.

That, says Paul, is the point.

God’s fond of those who struggle, close to those in pain. Because when you’re weak, His strength is seen through you; His power is made apparent because mine is stripped away.

Got it all together? Sorted? Ducks in a row? That could be your biggest problem.

Painfully aware of limitations and dis-ability? Wrestling with weakness? Desperate for relief? God’s especially close to you.

 Also in this series:

Moses – frustrated and angry at God’s people

These posts are based on a series of sermons.

Why I’m the sort of Christian I am

Recently I posted one of those semi-serious Facebook things about how the Easter season starts on Easter Day; that the day before Easter Day isn’t Easter Saturday, it’s Holy Saturday. Easter Saturday is the Saturday that follows subsequently to Easter Day. A good friend, part of my church but with his roots in a very different Christian tradition, said he’d value more on why these things matter to me and how they help me follow Jesus. It’s actually something I’d been meaning to try and articulate more fully for myself for some time, and my friend’s comment prodded me to do something about it. Like much of what I write on here, it’s really for my own benefit – if it helps you also, that’s great.

I have lived most of my Christian life in the Anglican (referred to in some contexts as Episcopalian) church context. In 2001 I was ordained as a minister in that tradition. I’m not one of those who thinks it’s the only true church; I am often frustrated and even angered by aspects of how this mode of church works. But it does work for me as an imperfect structure within which I can minister and function as a disciple. For the record, I’m also greatly resourced by many other Christian traditions – but the Anglican one is where my feet stand, with the waters of other traditions intermingling around me, refreshing and renewing me at different times. So here’s a few of the things I value around this expression of Christianity – I do so acknowledging that strengths are often also weaknesses, and this is true here as much as anywhere else. They’re listed in no special order.

1) The Anglican church is often referred to as a ‘broad church’. I take that to mean that what you experience in public worship at one Anglican church may look or feel very different to what you experience at the Anglican church a mile away  – or a few thousand miles away. But they’re united by a few core points of theology (theoretically – and that’s where this can go awry) and practice. Weirdly, one of the places this has been bought home to me is on social media. Through social media I have made contact with numerous Anglicans who express their faith very differently to me – there’s much we disagree on. But we found ourselves drawn together, and connecting together and supporting each other. Similarly, the priest of the next door parish to mine was (he’s just moved on) very different to me, and our parishes’ worship are almost unrecognisably different. But Jesus untied us through something far deeper and firmer, and we’re good friends. I’m going to miss him.

2) Many Christian traditions give a rhythm to the church year, and this is a big feature of Anglicanism. That’s illustrated in what I mentioned above about the difference between Holy Saturday and Easter Saturday. Sometimes the application of this can all seem a little Pharisaical, but increasingly I’m finding it deeply beneficial. Let’s take the Holy/Easter Saturday thing. The week that leads up to Easter Day uses readings from the Bible and liturgy (prepared prayers) to tell the story of Jesus’ journey to the cross. Now most of us know how the story ends – with victory and resurrection. But that’s not the whole story. There’s a lot of talk in the world of movie criticism about how much you give away about the plot of a film – spoilers. People don’t want the story spoiled before they see the film; otherwise the story loses power and purpose. To a large extent the point of a story isn’t the destination, it’s how we get there. We know the ultimate spoiler – Jesus rises from the dead, and it’s wonderful! But -and this is important – we only really grasp how wonderful it is if we’ve lived the whole story. The pain, the fear, the despair. The death. Make that journey, and you’re really going to want to party come Easter Day. In addition, we all know that life isn’t all about victory – it will be, in the new creation. And Easter Day gives us a glimpse of that. But in the meantime people still get sick, are still disabled, are still depressed, bereaved, alone, dead, crying, fearful, angry, numb … All those things and more are still part of our story, and the build up to Easter Day helps us to incorporate all those things in our worship and give them their place. It helps me to spend time with Jesus in Gethsemane, sweating drops of blood, pleading with God for another way and being let down by His friends. It helps me because that happens to me to; and if I spend time looking at Jesus experiencing it too then I feel less alone in my experiences, less guilty, better equipped for the trials I face.

3) When it works well – and I know that it by no means always works well – the way the broader Anglican church functions does a good job of holding people and churches accountable. Churches and their leaders get things wrong, step out of line, need comfort, support or challenge. People like Bishops are there – in part – to do that, or to make sure that it happens. When they get it right, it’s wonderful. A small illustration from my own experience. I was here in South Africa when my mother died a few years ago (in the UK). When that happened I was on the receiving end of many helpful comments and prayers. One of those that meant the most to me was my Bishop calling me personally, asking me how I was doing, assuring me of his prayers and support in whatever I needed, acknowledging that this was a hard time to be doing this sort of job – especially so far from my birth family. Years later, I still remember that. Don’t underestimate the power of these things – especially for clergy, who need to be pastored as much they need to pastor others.

4) There are many, many expressions of Christianity and I’m grateful for the variety. God is a big God, so it’s OK that there’s a multiplicity of ways to respond to Him. But for some people who aren’t Christians, there are some expressions that can feel odd (I’m not saying they are odd – it’s just how they can come across to some others), or even a bit cult-like. Anglicanism’s rich history and accountability structure means that this is a rare perception  – and that when things do go wrong, there’s a chance of them getting noticed and addressed. It often surprises people to discover ‘free’ Anglican churches – that are charismatic in theology and practice. The fact that these churches are present within Anglican structures can reassure some that this is, in fact, an orthodox expression of Christianity and not simply a breakaway cult.

5) Quite against some perceptions, the deep roots and wide resources of the Anglican tradition can (when used well) be the bedrock and resource for immense creativity. The rich theology of Anglicanism and the accountability structures can give a space for a lot of new things to happen. I’m thinking of, for example, the Fresh Expressions movement – which seeks to find ways of expressing church for those who don’t come to church and won’t engage with church as it currently is. This movement is by no means limited just to the Anglican Church; but the Anglican Church has been and continues to be a major player in the movement’s development. Hence we find Anglican churches that are based around a multiplicity of networks – meeting in pubs, skate parks, shops, nurseries and the like – which look very different to ‘normal’ church, but have the bedrock theology and accountability of Anglicanism.

6) Sometimes I don’t feel like praying or worshipping. That’s when the liturgy – prepared prayers for use in public worship – kicks in. Saying these prayers with others can carry me – their faith can carry me when I have none. Knowing these have been prayed by others in other places for many years reminds me that my problems may be significant but they’re not the whole picture – and life, faith, the church, God will all go on even if I’m struggling. I remember one day going for a walk on a windswept beach, so depressed and stressed I could barely think … and I found tumbling out of me the words of liturgical prayers I’d been praying my whole life, that I didn’t know I’d memorised. They just embedded themselves in me, and came to the surface when I needed them most, unbidden.

I could go on, and may do so on another occasion, but that’s enough for now. To repeat – I know many people find some or all of the above in traditions other than Anglicanism. And all these strengths can also be weaknesses. But this is me.

 

 

 

Grace’s inconvenient slap in the face

I am finding Jesus increasingly inconvenient. I’ve been trying to hang around with Him for quite a few years now, and I consistently find that He and His ways play merry havoc with my views on all sorts of things. Grace is the lens through which this is usually refracted; it messes up my views on all sorts of things like politics, myself, sexuality, church, other people, social media, money, parenting, marriage, sport, and plenty of other things in between.

Christians are meant to be good at grace (if that’s not a contradiction in terms), but the reality is we’re rubbish at it. We’re constantly giving ourselves, each other and other people either too much or too little (usually the former). I’ve been off sick this week, and I’ve been terrible at grace – even though my doctor and my wife told me I had to rest and I  do as little as possible. I’ve been sending myself on guilt trips, telling myself I should at least stay on top of my e-mail, wondering if people will think I’ve been faking it or am being too soft.

As you do when you’re sick and unable to do much, I let my mind wonder down a number of different paths to distract myself from the intense pain I was experiencing. Many of these were half-formed paths of previous sleepless nights, but with hours to fill and having reached the head-spinning season finale of  The Walking Dead, I had to find something on which to focus my customarily over-active internal monologue. I thought about how graceless I am – as husband, father, disciple, leader, citizen and social media user. I thought of my capacity to correct error, to point out hypocrisy, to accentuate the negative. I felt pretty rubbish about myself after that.

I thought of the curious lack of grace on display in the way some of us (myself included) use social media. We who trumpet grace (can you trumpet grace or is that a contradiction in terms?) are quick to expose flaws in others; we seem to expect of others and ourselves that our use of social media shouldn’t reflect the fact that we are sinners. I’ve judged people, badly, on social media; people have done the same to me. Offline, people judge how I act online; I do the same of others. It seems that we Christians have such a low understanding of grace that we expect ourselves to come across as perfect to the world. I fear we’ve missed the point.

Then I think about our political discourse. I think of the cries agains corruption in South Africa and tax avoidance in the UK, people – many of them Christians – demanding adherence to the law and transparency … all the while sending text messages whilst driving, parking illegally ‘just for a few minutes, so it’s ok’, downloading TV shows illegally and opting out of accountable relationships themselves. Surely grace should insist we apply at least the same  – if not gentler – standards to others as we apply to ourselves?

What is it we don’t get about grace? Why so slippery? We know it when we see it. It seems to perform a strange kind of trick on me, simultaneously boosting my self-esteem and giving me a slap in the face for being such a legalistic, hard-hearted bastard. Try to explain grace and you usually fall into theological error – for which, of course, there’s little grace in the church. As Philip Yancey expressed at the outset of the wonderful What’s so amazing about grace?, it’s something that’s better portrayed than explained. Explaining takes the wonder away; it’s not that there isn’t a place for explaining – it just needs to stay in that place. Jesus doesn’t try to parse grace into manageable points of a doctrinal statement; instead he tells some stories, gives some guidance on how to live then plunges me headlong into grace by willingly dying. It’s best to be immersed in grace rather than draw a diagram analysing it.

I think that I’ve very rarely experienced true grace. I think the closest I’ve got to it was when someone asked to listen to my story of being a victim of bullying (as an adult); having listened, he got angry at what I experienced; took on representative responsibility for what had happened to me because the bully was never going to take it himself; and point by point apologised to me, representatively. That’s a kind of grace, I think – not the whole picture, but quite a large chunk of it.

I think – no, I know – that I’ve very rarely expressed true grace. I may have flirted it with it (probably by accident)  a few times, but those are pitiful examples, a child’s hacked out Chopsticks on an out of tune piano next to a master’s concert hall rendition of the Goldberg Variations.

The truth is none of us can find grace’s script; we are the monkeys trapped in a room with a thousand keyboards, told to reproduce Shakespeare’s works and occasionally accidentally managing “2 b or not 2 b”. Shakespeare, but only if you look at it in a certain light.

So grace slakes my thirst, and leaves me thirsty for more – in myself, for me, from me, in the world around me. You see it and you long for more; it meets all hopes and dreams and simultaneously tells me I won’t see anything like it again until the end of history, when there’ll be so much I won’t know what to do with it except bathe in its depths and exalt in its previously unheard melodies. It pushes me closer to the only Source of grace, and makes me wish I was closer still, pulling with gravitational irresistibility. It makes a mockery of my self-defence and carefully constructed self-righteousness; it heals me wounds and slaps my face so hard I see things in new dimensions.

Back to the sick-bed, then.