Welcome to Life in 361˚. This blog is an 'open journal' - a space where I keep notes on bits & pieces I come across day-to-day - including books and articles I've read that I feel are worth sharing, interesting pictures and photos (I'm a visual learner, you see), random musings - and anything else that happens to catch my eye or ear. It also acts as a kind of 'open experiment' in terms of developing my views and writing skills - and networking with other people of a like-mind.

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Recognising Grace

Below is a sermon I gave at Oldham Unitarian Chapel on 28th June 2015. It looks at the idea - or more accurately, the experience - of God's grace. 

The readings I used were both from the Bible, referring to Luke 15:11 - 32 - 'The Story of the Prodigal Son' - and 1 Timothy 1:12 - 17  - 'The Lord's Grace to Paul'. I also used the 'Hearing Hands' TV advert from Samsung and Matt Redman's 'Your Grace Finds Me'.

Do I always feel grace as an immanent force in my life? Am I always thankful for God's gifts? The plain and brutally honest answer is no. At times I feel quite depressed at the state of the world around me, and at my own place within the world - be that a feeling of not giving enough back to the world, or a discontented feeling of not getting enough from it. This 'turbulence', I believe, is part and parcel of the human condition and why we need 'wisdom communities' - such as the church, mosque, temple - to re-anchor ourselves.

During moments of clarity, I can recognise grace is ever-present in our lives and sometimes I really am struck by the beauty, the gift, of being alive - of being self-consciously alive. This often occurs during a quiet moment in the garden, at times when I'm with family and friends and suddenly step out of the situation to realise my blessings and it has occurred recently during meditation at Quaker meetings.


Good morning friends, I wonder, does anyone recognise this picture? It was all over the news recently…

The photo was taken in Auckland, New Zealand. It is the aftermath of a road accident – in which a young boy was hit by a car on his way to school. The good news is he survived and has made a recovery. He could be described as one of the fortunate ones – for in the UK alone, we have around 1800 deaths on our roads per year.

In this photo we are confronted with an age-old question shared by theologians, philosophers and ordinary people alike – why do bad things happen to good people?

But we can also flip this question around – why do good things happen to bad people?

In the second reading today, we heard what happened to Saul of Tarsus, a powerful Jewish leader who persecuted the early Christian movement. Saul of Tarsus is likely to have killed Christians himself - or at the very least, ordered the killing of Christians. Saul of Tarsus epitomises the worst of people – the kind of demon-like person we see running amok in Syria and Iraq today.

Then something life changing happens on the road to Damascus. Something physical and catastrophic, throwing him to the floor and taking away his sight. And according to scripture, something mystical and constructive also - an encounter with the Christ figure. From there, Saul takes on a new life, becomes the Apostle Paul, and embarks on a mission to build the Christian faith.

Over the years I have heard some Unitarians express misgivings about the Apostle Paul - mainly because he is viewed as seeding the doctrine of the Trinity. However, for me, I recognise he is one of the central figures of the Christian faith because he represents, in the most startling manner, the unique experience of Christianity – the experience of good things, the good things of God, happening often in the darkest of places, amongst the most undeserving.

The story of Paul is almost like a sequel to the first reading we heard - the Parable of the Prodigal Son - a story looked upon by many Christians as a defining story of Jesus’s ministry.

In this story we see the son demand his inheritance from the father so that he might go out into the world and make his own way. This, in ancient Jewish culture, was a grave insult – akin to wishing his father dead. The Jewish listeners would have expected the father to refuse. But quite significantly he grants his wish. In turn, the son wastes his inheritance and finds himself ruined. He returns home, confessing his sin and asking for forgiveness.

When the son returns home, the father runs to him from a great distance. There is no demanding of apology, no negotiation around debt, no seeking a ‘last word’ – instead the father embraces him.

Although we title this the Story of the Prodigal Son, maybe it could more accurately be titled ‘The Story of the Giving Father’.

The reaction of the father is also in contrast to the reaction of the brother. The brother reasons he has rightfully earned his father’s adoration whereas the lost son has not. Here we are given further insight into the human condition. When our position is one of comfort and strength, we can become blind to that which we have been gifted.

I wonder, friends, whether we can identify with these ancient figures and stories in our everyday lives?

Recently, I went to get my hair cut. The barber on duty was an Iranian man, in his late thirties. We made small talk, him in broken English – I learned he had sought refuge in Britain not too long ago, gained permission to work, and was now looking for a bedsit. He asked me whether I had a home and what it was like, I explained it was a three bedroom house just down the road, to which he replied matter-of-factly, “Ah you are rich…”

This short conversation has stayed with me for some time now – if you have read the recent issue of The Fellowship magazine, you will see I mentioned it in there too.

As much as we might feel overburdened at times with our day to day concerns, as much as we might not feel we have as much as that person over there, as much as at times we do encounter poor health, disappointment and loss - particularly when a loved one passes away – we have been gifted. We are nonetheless rich through the very gift of life - and for so many of us here in Britain today, richer than most through the apparent accident of our birth.

In the Bible, one of the words used for this kind of richness is ‘grace’. Grace is the opposite of what we call ‘karma’ or ‘just desserts’, which is all about getting the rewards you deserve through your actions. Grace is getting what you don’t deserve. It seems to me we live in a culture which is more in tune with karma than grace. There are sayings that affirm this,

“Life is what you make it.” “Work hard, play hard.” “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” “What goes around, comes around.”

I don’t dispute there is some truth in these - yet they also mislead us from the deeper truth of grace, that we have each been given an inheritance not of our making.

I have, as you know, spent much time with the Quakers. One of their defining beliefs is the concept of the ‘Inner Light’ which goes all the way back to their founder, George Fox. George Fox lived during 1600s England, a land blighted by civil war, persecution and poverty. His spiritual awakening started as a young man experiencing severe bouts of depression, a young man who felt estranged from his family, his community, his whole world - because of the very real darkness he saw within it. Yet at some point he reached a Damascus moment, which he came to term as ‘the light within’.

Quakers today interpret this as a moment of enlightenment. And I have to say, in the quite intellectual community that Quakers have become, this is often taken to be a sense of profound knowledge. Yet it occurs to me that what Fox was experiencing was the simple experience of grace, the simple experience of God’s love in the world.

We read in Fox’s journal:

“I saw that there was an ocean of darkness and death; but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. In that also I saw the infinite love of God, and I had great openings….”

We should also keep in mind that this was not a one-off moment for Fox – he had many periods of doubt and despair in his life, only to then rediscover this radiance was still shining through.

Other churches, particularly so the Calvinist churches, have long sought to wrestle theologically with the question of grace. This has lead to complicated theories around who is and who isn’t in receipt of grace, the different levels of grace, and so on. Fox warned against this theological approach – dismissing it as ‘empty high notions’, instead emphasising faith as an experience, as a way of living.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodists, also rallied against such notions arguing, grace is simply “free for all, as well as in all." The challenge for the Christian, as he saw it, is that we first must awaken to the fundamental state in which we live, under the grace of God. And from there, we must seek ‘Christian perfection’ by pouring outwards that grace for others. As with the Apostle Paul and George Fox, the discovery of grace does not lead to a state of contented sitting under the Bodhi tree but a restlessness to share in it with others.

But again, we must ask - what does that look like in our own seemingly ordinary lives?

Let us return to the photo we started with…

As some of you will know - the reason this photo was shared the world over, was not the tragedy of the situation - of which there are sadly many each and every day. Nor was it the recovery of the boy – which thankfully is also an everyday event. It was the actions of the man in the hooded top, Harman Singh, who has given over his turban.

The turban for the Sikh man covers his hair, which he does not cut because hair is viewed as a symbol of the gifts of God. The turban is therefore a treasured possession. Yet he removed it to cushion the boy’s injured head. This simple act of wholehearted, unconditional giving - of grace in action - struck a chord with the general public and was shared the world over. It strikes the same chord as the Samsung advert does - something deep within us.

Friends, we have no conclusive answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people – but we must hold on to the simple assurance we live in a world in which grace, the loving gift of God is at work. It is mysterious yes, but it is also something tangible, something we can come to taste, something we are called to lay out on the table for others.

We are receivers of grace - unearned, unmerited grace – and we are agents of grace. This is, I put it to you, is the essence of life for the disciple of Jesus.


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