It was another funeral.
(A lot of my posts are about funerals; it is often there when the reality of life and death hits us with a stark reality that the most profound comments occur).
The buffet was laid out and the person who had laid it on said to one of the deceased’s relations ‘Sorry; I forgot that you were vegan’. The person smiled and said ‘Today it is about her, so it is ok- today I’m not a vegan’. A few minutes later, the host rustled up some vegan food, but to me that wasn’t the point; the grace and dignity of the person who was prepared to set aside a belief in that instant to honour someone else was.
A few years back I heard a story- which may have become apocryphal in the telling- of 3 Methodist ministers, all teetotal, walking down a street when a someone rushed out of a house and noticing the minister of his church amongst the 3 said ‘My wife has just had our first child; come and see him and have a drink to celebrate’. The ministers entered the house to see the child and share the joy.
As the householder disappeared to get drinks, two of the ministers turned on the third and said ‘I thought you were teetotal’.
‘I am’- he said ‘ ‘But one of us has to be Christian’.
When you become aware of the Grace and compassion given to you; ‘standing on ceremony’ seems to be an act of weakness than strength. I think I’d like the courage to be different.
I get sent enough free magazines and letters to fill a small skip. Mostly it is because I am a minister: people want to tell ministers what their charity is doing and want to know how the church can help.
I have a confession: I get so many that they end up in a pile in my study, unread, and get recycled. Sorry.
One that I did read, however, had a lovely story in (Here is a tip: if you want someone to buy into what you are doing, give them a story). It was a magazine about the work of a Housing Association: Methodist Homes for the Aged (MHA).
In this there was a story about a residents and relatives meeting at one group of sheltered/supported housing. One relative who went to the meeting discovered just how expensive it was to hire minibuses to transport the residents on days out.
The person- who preferred to remain anonymous- had received a large amount of money earlier in the year. They said:-
‘I had savings enough to look after myself, so I thought that if I used the money to buy a minibus for the home, that would be very helpful for the residents and staff. It really was no great sacrifice; I was just very lucky to receive the money.’
I thought that was fantastic:-
-someone knew they had enough and gave it.
-modesty and anonymity.
– concern that the spotlight go back on the residents, staff and home.
-Practical Faith (the person is a Christian and saw this as what Christians do).
And I felt lit up inside just reading that.
I was randomly reading Psalm 37 (as you do).
The word ‘righteous’ comes up. Be honest: what is your first impression of that word or how you have heard it used? I often think of the type of website that talks in the ‘language of Zion’, that sets perfect ‘us’ apart from ‘them’.
When it is used in this Psalm (v25-26) it talks of those who are ‘forever giving liberally and lending’ and whose ‘children become a blessing’. In other words, those in a community who do not wall themselves up, talk of ‘charity begins at home’, ‘you’ve got to look after your own first’ or say ‘someone should do something about it’. The righteous are those that bless a community and live lives of outrageous grace and generosity. There is other stuff in that passage about ‘righteous’, but that refers to stuff God does- all that the righteous are supposed to do is be light, welcome and hope. Much of the negative stuff about ‘righteous’ is around Christians wanting to take over God’s actions.
So, if you want to see (or be) a righteous person in your community, look for someone whose life is marked by Grace, space and welcome and who lights up their network/community.
Just a thought
I think that is a Calvinist phrase: the idea that people are so sinful that there is nothing to recommend them to God. Those who believe this had plenty of evidence from the gig I was at on Sunday: within the 5 yard space of where I stood there was hard drug taking, fighting, people weeing into empty pint pots and throwing them into the crowd (and one bright spark who did the same with vomit) and incredible drink and drug casualties. I used to take my children to that park to play: I’d be cautious now until it had several months of rain and a thorough ‘deep clean’.
It is all to easy and a cop out to say that was a product of the environment (ok, the organisers, keen to make a quick buck could have provided more toilets) or a by product of a good time- and who am I to judge, taking a socially acceptable drug (alcohol)? But I don’t think it will do: I have little time for a theology; faith based or non faith based that says that we are all basically good and it is the environment that determines our behaviour. The environment heavily influences our behaviour (the environment itself is largely human made though…), but how anyone who has lived through the 20th century could say we are basically good amazes me: we are not.
But ‘total depravity’? If you are getting on that bus, I’ll wave you off at the stop. Conversely, there were plenty of other examples of that other biblical emphasis- we are made in the image of God: fantastic music, people helping each other, staff with smiles, courtesy and fantasic humour and banter. There is so much in human society that suggests that we can be altruistic, compassionate etc etc
Truly the border between good and evil runs right through the middle of us and we are all capable of both. The Christian story is the only one I have found that helps me cope with both extremes and look for redemption and Grace while trying to live openly and generously.
I’ve blogged before on a family friend who had a tragic accident over 6 months ago. For several weeks her life hung in the balance. Then there was hope.
Her prognosis remains uncertain but each day brings progress. She is able to come home at weekends. There is some speech but greater comprehension. There is the ability to sit up unaided. There is the ability to eat and lots more things that were taken for granted a year ago but seemed doubtful only weeks ago.
We saw her a few days back. There is something more: love incredible love. Her parents are realistic about where she is at but at the same time see only Grace.
Seeing her made us incredibly happy and gave us hope. It is good to have a friend back.
I used to be attracted by the big things, the dramatic occasions and how I longed to be part of them (we have a subset of that in evangelical christianity: ‘a dynamic growing church’, ‘there were 350 there today’, ‘we have a key role in the life of our nation’etc….. I challenge you to look at some church websites after this…. you will find those phrases I guarantee. Mostly they make me think ‘well can a little, flawed, ageing person like me fit in your dynamic growing space?’).
Now I prefer the little, the small, the fragmentary. It is often in the little that I think you see traces of ‘the other’: God, Spirit, Jesus, divine, holy, precious….however you care to name it. I guess we have all had moments like that when the borders between heaven and earth felt very thin….. it could be a conversation, a moment, a piece of music, just the sense that…well everything somehow ‘fits’.
A few months ago, our friend Grace was in a car accident; initially the prognosis was very poor. I got a text a few days ago to say that when she was injected, she whispered the word ‘Ow’. Wow….a little word that would have meant nothing, would have been missed and passed over 4 months ago suddenly became huge and shot through with hope.
The journey is still uncertain and whatever happens the road is long, but something little has become something momentous and more….. Amen.
My favouritest idea in the whole wide world is Grace. So favourite is it, that the last house I lived in before this one was named ‘Charis’ (I would tell agencies etc the name, pronounced ‘caris’ , spell it out and they would invariably say ‘O you mean ‘charis”. ‘No’ I would reply with a distinct lack of grace…).
How about, when churches collide and clash, that they try and look at each other through the eyes of Grace’? I don’t mean ‘tolerance’: as I don’t believe that ‘tolerance’ is a Christian virtue- Jesus seems to be both much more tolerant than we are and much less tolerance than we are. ‘Tolerance’ seems weak to me whilst Grace seems strong.
I think I mean…… focus on the idea that God loves you despite your flaws- he may well want you to change (in fact He often does)…… but that change starts from acceptance. Your flaws are forgiven, although redeeming what has been forgiven often takes a lifetime. You ain’t perfect- if you were you wouldn’t need Grace.
So how about looking at the other through those same eyes- imagining that however they act is explainable by the best of motives. Kind of ‘unconditionable positive regard’ ‘plus’. Just a suggestion that’s all….. I don’t think God is the one who likes it when we fight and pull bits out of each other- I think Someone Else may do so though…
nb: for those of you who are thinking ‘yes, but?’- I plan to do something on that next week…..
That’s an awful lot.
Believe me; I have got more- but then again, you have too.
I think the biggest thing for me is Grace. Sing ‘Amazing Grace’ or listen to ‘Grace’ by U2. Even read ‘What’s so amazing about Grace’ by Philip Yancey’; one of the few books to bowl me over.
I remember a quote from that book, which may not be as it is exactly put:-
‘There is nothing we can do to make God love us more- there is nothing we can do to make God love us less’
..and I love that bit from the good book about we are saved by Grace, and not by works, lest anyone should boast. That keeps me humble (although I often aspire/desire not to be).
…and I remember and shudder about how that quote was used as a bludgeon to bash anyone who was suspected of being ‘unorthodox’ in my early Christian days (and how I did as well): it’s amazing how humans can do that with Grace- it is so amazing that we have to restrict it, armour it and refine it.
…and I know what Bonhoeffer said about making it ‘cheap Grace’….. but it is amazing isn’t it? Least I believe so.
I ‘do’ funerals. Not lots of them, but a gradually increasing number. It either means more people are dying round here or the undertaker has confidence in me; a few years ago most people died anglican.
I have an unbearably tragic one today: 1 week short of 35 and I’d known the guy for nearly 6 years.
I led one last week: a long life and with a reputation of, how shall we put it of being ‘firm’ and ‘up front’, but nonetheless missed. Many difficulties and limitations born for the sake of others that had hardened them. As the person’s life was unpacked it seemed there was one point in life when they were happy, truly happy: as a child roaming through fields far and wide round a village where many of the houses were filled with the person’s relatives: a place of exploration, but also safety and security.
They had requested a few things, but one of them was a tiny bunch of wild flowers on the coffin: a reminder at the end of early freedoms. They made another request: to leave the chapel alone, with no mourners following them to the crematorium.
It was as they were leaving to ‘The Lark Ascending’ (another request) that I got a powerful sense of a child dancing in sunlight meadows with Another, free, restored, as they were intended to be.
Some days it is impossible to put a price on what I am allowed to take part in…
I read this on a comment from ‘naked pastor’ by a guy named Marty a few days back and this really excited me- made me punch the air and say ‘yes’ in a refined British way.
This quote excites me, fires me and helps me explain why I do what I do…. alternativelyÂ it may just be the fact that it includes *unchurchy* language that makes my ‘inner naughty schoolboy’ laugh…
â€œI am so addicted to the verdicts of men. I mean I really am. I think the great temptation for ministers is to talk about our sin in neatly packaged sermon illustrations so I can clean it up and sterilize it to the place where itâ€™s actually a subtle illustration of my victorious application of Jesus rather than a true illustration of the fact that Iâ€™m an asshole. I mean, I come into work and Iâ€™ve got all this stuff going on and I snap at somebody and Iâ€™m just real, live asshole. And grace in that moment, you canâ€™t neatly packaged. Itâ€™s somebody throwing their arms around you and saying, â€˜I love you, but you really are an asshole.â€™â€
Yes, but youâ€™re my asshole, I envision God saying.
Grace doesnâ€™t deny my assholeness. Grace canâ€™t be amazing until your sin is amazing. Youâ€™ve got to get in that place where you can be startled by it, because if you do everything right, you donâ€™t deserve it.â€
Â (From ‘Sin Boldly’ by Cathleen Falsani)