It`s sometimes said that people find it quite difficult to cross the threshold of a church perhaps for the first time. However, we`re not unique I having our own way of doing things which may seem alienating to others.
I remember some years ago the first time I went to an airport. I found that an incredibly alienating experience. Because it seems to me that the sign posts in an airport- indeed the whole system relies on you knowing how it works. And for this reason my experience of airports has been coloured somewhat and I`ve decided that I don`t really like them anymore.
I suppose it`s because on my first visit to an airport to collect someone I went down the wrong channel and got yelled at by a security guard. Frankly however, it wasn`t fair. I had an honest request but the man simply lost his temper. But I reflected on that experience and I`m not really allowing that one event to colour my view of airports. It`s more than that. I think it`s something to do with them being what I might call graceless environments.
So for instance one sits waiting for a flight and inevitably one gets the opportunity to do a bit of people watching. And I have found myself having a heart-felt sympathy for many of the staff who work in these places, especially the ones who handle the baggage at the check-in desk. I just think of the rather ripe language to which some are subjected by impatient passengers. My experience was also somewhat intimidating in that besides getting yelled at by security guards I found it difficult entering a space where the automatic assumption is that I was a potential threat and that I was about to do something wrong. And then as ones baggage is checked by rather bored staff (armed guards at one airport I went through) they decide to go through your belongings with a fine tooth comb- clearly enjoying the experience. And it`s no use complaining.
Now, I`m trying to be being fairly light-hearted about this- but this is typical for me of the kind of environments which many of us inhabit. And to put it succinctly, these are `graceless` places. The kind of workplace where, for instance, you`re constantly looking over your shoulder because your boss is pushing you to meet targets.
And this kind of thing has a corrosive effect doesn`t it? We all experience it- perhaps at home, at work- sadly even at church. Somebody says something innocuous and someone suddenly snaps back with “Well it wasn`t me! I didn`t do it”. And you wonder where all that comes from. It`s not the individual so much as the culture that has been allowed to grow- where everything is about blame and insecurity and people are living on the edge of their nerves. In other words, many people seem to grow up believing that the world is a very unfriendly place; a place where rarely do you get the benefit of the doubt.
As I say, how tragic it is that that kind of atmosphere and attitude can be as prevalent in churches as anywhere else. It`s one reason why we laugh over someone`s possessiveness over a particular pew or seat. Or the squabbles about who has rights over a particular window for the Harvest Flower arranging.
Such squabbles and brittleness are also symptoms of a graceless environment. And they stand is such stark contrast with those memorable words from St. Paul in last Sunday`s Epistle where he talks of the work of Christ and says, “Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand” (Romans 5.1).
For me Paul helps us see that whatever we experience of graceless environments, fundamentally, something much deeper is going on. And much of it has to do with our understanding of God- this grace-full God. You see, he`s not out to get us. He`s not looking over our shoulder waiting for us to slip up. Through Christ Paul tells us, we have come to experience the grace of God. And once this is true for us we cannot but become grace-full ourselves.
What Paul teaches me is that this is the underlying reality- the background noise of the universe, if you will. That you and I are under grace. So I would like to invite you to ponder what that might mean to you: that our God looks upon you kindly. And how does that change you sense of who you are- and how you will go about living a graceful life towards others.
That`s the point isn`t it? Perhaps you might ponder the words of Christ used in another context; “Freely you have received, freely give” (Matthew 10.8) Since you stand under the grace of God, allow that grace to change and transform who you are; that others would know that we don`t live in a graceless world- we live under the grace of God.