Previous month:
April 2012
Next month:
June 2012

May 2012

Surmising Scandalous Grace Pt 4... Grace In The Mirror

Grace dice

Grace in the mirror! That is where I am going to concentrate for a moment to show that Grace has been confined to a doctrinal sentence rather than a living reality. When I worked as a Chaplain I became aware of the pressures on how students looked, particularly the girls but not exclusively so. It became very obvious very quickly that girls were taking a lot of time with hair straighteners and doing make up before they left their rooms. I don’t mean leaving the Hall, just their room. To go to the communal areas of the Residence where I lived with them meant as much work on how they looked as going to some formal event. When this effort was the same before we went on to a township building site on cold South African winter mornings while working with Habitat For Humanity. Why? My wife challenged my female students by asking that for the 24 hours before they came to a Girls Group they wouldn’t use straighteners or make up. No one made it! We haven’t even got on to fashion labels which adds more pressure and higher bills!

It is into this kind of world that I believe Grace should ease the pressure, liberate and turn the world upside down. When a young, or middle aged, or old, woman looks in the mirror in the morning does grace come out of its sentence and live in ways that change her life. Loved as you are!? Do we believe it. Magazine editors around the world and fashion houses and the cosmetic industries will bully us into what they want to define as “culturally” beautiful. Can grace interrupt such a pressure? Can we see ourselves as beautiful the way God made us and be content in the unconditional love that he lavishes on us. I know it is a huge ask but Jesus didn’t bring grace as just an idea or just a ticket to heaven. Jesus spoke and acted about this grace in such a way that the world and individual lives in it would be set free from the pressure of a first are first order of things! The psychologists tell us that our basic human needs are love and security. God’s grace brings us a love that is secure. It is not fickle like the world’s love. From its foundation a confidence will grow which will allow people to be part of the world transformation that God ultimately wants.

Grace is a scandal. It is also scandalous that Christians are walking around captive to a first are first world when liberation has been won and is at hand. Let’s set grace free to be part of every aspect of our living.

Lyric For The Day 30.5.12 from Spiritual America by Duke Special

Duke Spiritual

“All the good we could have done

Could have done for everyone

Is this the land of the setting sun

Have we forgotten who we were

And why we came here anyway

So pick up the reins and kick the spur


Shackled and shamed and stripped of its voice

Left in a corner to suffer the noise

Made by corporate thugs and their fat City boy

Being sick on their wealth like they hadn’t a choice”

-          From Spiritual America by Duke Special


I reckon that this is Duke Special’s most powerful moment, from perhaps his most satisfying work to date Under The Dark Cloth. Writing with one of  England’s finest living songwriters Boo Hewerdine has done his Dukeness no harm and this project of writing to photographs in a gallery with an orchestra as baking brings out the art if Duke perfectly. Spiritual America is a political spiritual piece of beautiful Semtex. The lyrics probe deep into the heart of the American soul and paint an accurate but bleak picture of the state of a nation founded on so much better ideals and dreams that most people’s reality of it today, inside or outside the country. For Duke it is a spiritual issue and he is right. The Pilgrim Fathers came with a spiritual dream and in the drama created by the strings on this recording we might be in the last days of the spiritual nightmare that was gotten to somehow! Greed, bankers, selfishness, gracelessness... Duke squeezes them all in. A sad and powerful piece!




(this is part 3 of a series called Surmising Scandalous Grace... reading part 1 and 2 might be helpful...) 

Surmising Scandalous Grace Pt 1

Surmising Scandalous Grace Pt 2

Last Sunday as I was preaching on this idea of scandalous grace I had two Scripture readings. The first was well known words from Ephesians 2: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. These verses are inspirational words; Paul’s most concise précis of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We can be reconnected with God not by our own religiosity, karma balance or good works. It is God’s unmerited favour, grace, that changes who we are.

My other reading was Jesus most imaginative parable that has become known as The Prodigal Son. In this story a son takes his chunk of his father’s inheritance and goes and blows it on “wild living.” Having wasted it all he found himself eating with the pigs he was looking after, the last place a Jewish boy would want to be, and thinks that his dad might give him a job as one of his servants. Heading home he must have wondered how his father would react; he deserved a darn good thrashing. When he saw his father running down the road towards him he must have expected the worst and yet his dad throws his arms around him and gives him a party. This is not as it should be. It is scandalous. That’s what his brother thinks who has been loyal and faithful to his father down the Prodigal’s wasted years.  

Ephesians is a concise theological explanation of grace. Jesus story of the Prodigal Son from Luke chapter 15 is a wonderful story of grace.  The entire Bible is obsessed grace from Genesis through Revelation. What I believe to be a scandal is that we have trapped grace in these readings. We have reduced it to a doctrine; perhaps the most important doctrine in the history of Protestant Christianity but doctrine all the same. We have reduced it to a story, even if the most magnificent story. As I pastor of a Church I am amazed that, although almost the entire congregation could define and even preach on grace, very few see it vibrantly alive in their everyday lives.

Grace is much more than a ticket into a relationship with God, important and all as that is. Grace is the key into the kingdom but also the energy of the Kingdom. It is grace that fires a different way to live; it is not a statement but a force. Grace is also the new life lived. We treat everyone in our lives the way God has treated us by his grace. Grace is not a fictitious story but the story we write in lives lived in this radical way. Every relationship and every decision is under the authority of God’s grace.

(part 4 will look at Grace as a living breathing life force...)



We live in a Graceless world. It is a world where the first are first and the last are last. And so it should be. It seems so sensible and rational and logical. If we score 95 in an examination and are given a fail we will take it to a tribunal and fight for justice. The first should be first! The cool are affirmed and accepted. The beautiful are sought after. The talented go far. If you are none of these things then, what are you expecting? A nerd fronting the world’s best rock band! Two left feet replacing Sergio Aguero in the Manchester City attack! A failure at GCSE getting accepted for a post grad in nuclear physics at Oxford! Come on! No, it is a world where the first are first and the last are last. So it should be. We love our graceless world.

Unfortunately such a world leads to inferiority complexes, insecurities, stress and anorexia, depression, self abuse, addictions and suicide! These mental illnesses are all a result of our failure to win in a world where the world are first. Even when the rare few reach first place many of them end up messed up because of the struggle to remain there. The rest of us, without a hope of first, end up in failed attempts to impress and a fakeness and shallowness that is hoping beyond hope that people never get to know what we are really like. We will struggle in the darkness of a world where everyone lives a constant struggle to be the first and avoid being the last; first are first screws us all up!

What if? What if there was another way; a very different way. What if there was a world where the last were first! What if there was a world where you were loved as you are; completely. What a revolutionary idea. What a radical concept. It is almost scandalous, there very thought of it; the scoundrel would get the prize. This other way is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God loved us as we were and loved us so much that he demonstrated his love for us in this that while we were sinners Christ died for us. It will be very difficult place to get to with the default button that we humans begin with. It doesn’t seem how it should be. Yet, it is our only hope. It is our salvation. It is called Grace, it means unmerited favour and Jesus was born, lived, died and was raised to life in order that such an idea could become a reality. Loved as you are and loved in such a way that you can be made into who you could become. Wow!


It was on a recent night out in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter that my heart sank in realisation at the tragic job that the Church has done with the Gospel Of Jesus Christ. I had been at a lovely meal with parents of the children in my daughter’s class at Primary School. I knew my half of the table very well but as I was leaving stopped at the other end to say hi. As it was a Saturday night and we were first to leave I explained what I did for a living and had to work the next morning. What do you do was a natural question and I answered, “I am a Presbyterian minister and I hope you are behaving yourself!” There was a ripple of laughter and then someone asked How I’d happened to get myself such a lovely assistant – I am used to these “how did someone like you get such a babe for a wife – and I answered, “Grace!” Within seconds I realised that that word would not demand immediate laughter. Attempting to leave this group with a chuckle and a one word précis of my entire Creed would largely fall on deaf ears as people asked what I meant by grace. I left not only deflated that my quick answer hadn’t got the laughing response but also gutted at the task before those of us given the responsibility of looking after this great truth.

I have the privilege of speaking at the weddings of many friends who are not “churched.” Having a Presbyterian minister as a friend means you can have someone who knows you in this most special of moments in your life. I always find it a challenge on such occasions to be true to my calling, which isn’t a City Hall Registry Officer, and to find ways to share my faith with friends of my friends without them wishing that they indeed were in the Registry Office. I always start such occasions with an apology for the plethora of reasons, acknowledging that many of them are legitimate, that have caused the guests to dismiss the Church as most of them have. I then ask them to patiently allow me to share a truth at the heart of Christianity that is worth hearing about. Applying it particularly to the couple getting married I give a few moments to the idea of Grace. People love it. They want it. They know they need it. The receptions afterwards are usually filled with people who want to chat about their experience of Church and the wonder of what I was talking about. More often than not at some stage of the conversation they say, “I would love to go to a Church like that.” Is there another kind? Sadly, yes!

It is hard to believe that we could have taken such a magnificent thought, that you are loved unconditionally just as you are, and have encrusted it with so much gracelessness that the world has turned its back on the very place where lies the secret to what the entire world is striving for. It is a truth that is pretty difficult to mess up but boy have we done a cracking job on doing just that.  


Come, come away

Onto sacred ground

Where in the silence

Without a sound

We taste this life

In the next life’s fashion

Increasing our vision

And holy passion

Souls in awe and wonder

The eternal now

We behold the power and glory

The Mighty Spectacular Wow!


Come, come away

To the upper room

With mouths wide open

And hearts consumed

Where we celebrate

With hands upraised

Heirs of the Father

Of the one we praise

Souls in awe and wonder

The eternal now

We behold the power and glory

Of The Mighty Spectacular Wow

Lyric For The Day is Child Of The Wind by Bruce Cockburn

Cockburn praying

“Little round planet
In a big universe
Sometimes it looks blessed
Sometimes it looks cursed
Depends on what you look at obviously
But even more it depends on the way that you see

Hear the wind moan
In the bright diamond sky
These mountains are waiting
Brown-green and dry
I'm too old for the term
But I'll use it anyway
I'll be a child of the wind
Till the end of my days”

-      From Child Of The Wind by Bruce Cockburn 

Eric Angus Whyte played a cover of this song my his fellow Canadian last night in our Manse at a small intimate house gig. It came alive for me again, not only because Sunday is Pentecost Sunday when the Church remembers the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and I as a result am preaching about that on Sunday, but because of this verse about how to see the world. As a child of the wind Cockburn is referring to his Christian faith. The Bible refers to God’s Holy Spirit as ruah or wind at various junctures. As a child of the Spirit, which God tells us is a Counsellor, among other things, Cockburn will look at the blessings and curses of our little planet through different eyes.


George Harrison LITMW movie

As a Beatle fanatic one of my favourite periods in their fifty plus years of history is that three year period immediately after they broke up. Here we see four young men dealing with a new world. Behind them the most prolific musical years and a the same time the most claustrophobic pop celebrity craziness. As 1970 dawned the bonds were broken and off went four men into a very unknown future. Ringo the drummer must have worried his career was gone but headed off to record songs his mother had taught him before finding some country tunes in Nashville. John was unravelling as The Beatles did and went off with Yoko into Primal Scream and the raw cathartic album that resulted. Paul felt he’d lost his vocation and purpose so he took off to Scotland’s countryside and made organic quirky records of domestic bliss. Of all of the fab four it was George Harrison who sniffed the freshest air. He had been living in the shadow and by Abbey Road was proving to be in the richest vein of writing form.

Harrison also had his faith and it proved a better inspiration than Ringo’s comic acting, John’s therapy and Paul’s farm. Faith gave Harrison a consolation, a reflective space to take in the events going on around him and subjects for lots of songs; and he wrote lots of songs! This record with unfortunately the same name as Harrison’s 1973 record gives a real insight into that post Beatles feeling. Here we have the songs that would make up the ambitious Spector produced All Things Must Pass in their early forms. Along with that Let It Be Me, Dylan’s Mama You’ve Been On My Mind and Women Don’t Cry For Me that wouldn’t appear until 1976. It is chilled out, unplugged, sparse but confident and free. The spirituality is in there in spades; My Sweet Lord, Awaiting On Us All and The Light That Has Lighted  The World. His spiritual farewell to the Beatles All Things Must Pass is in there too. These are guitar George’s first steps into independence and they would lead to him conquering the pop world for the next three years, way above the success of his three old mates! This record is beautiful and understated and a lovely little piece of post Beatles Beatle history.





It was one of those sentences that you know as it finishes you will never forget. It was a sentence that prophetically cut through the way things were with the key to unlocking how things could instead be. As it ended I felt that I was standing on sacred ground. We were in JL Zwane Church in Guguletu, Cape Town, and Rev. Dr. Spiwo Xapile the minister was talking to my students about the anti-apartheid movement and the process of reconciliation. Spiwo said, “Every day I wake up and I thank God that I am a Christian, South African and black... because that means that every day I get a chance to forgive my enemies.” Wow! To a group of Northern Ireland students this was almost mind blowing. In Northern Ireland we wake up every morning and thank God that we are British, white, middle class and Protestant... so that every day we can ask our Catholic neighbour to repent!

Spiwo’s morning prayer is one that gives hope of peace and reconciliation. Ours is one that perpetuates the sectarian division and hate. There is a humility about Spiwo’s and a self righteous arrogance about ours. There is a powerful verse of Scripture in the Old Testament book of Second Chronicles. The people of God are told that if they “humble themselves and pray, seek my face and turn from their wicked ways I will hear from heaven and will heal their land.” This verse was used many, many times during the Northern Ireland Troubles as a call to prayer. The humility and turning from our wicked ways were conveniently lost in the equation as we blamed the Catholics for all the problems and demanded that they repented. That is no formula for shalom or God’s Kingdom in Northern Ireland as it is in heaven. We need to humbly confess our part. We need to be robust in our repentance and then as Dr. Xapile, and so many black South Africans like him, have modelled for us to be quick in the tender forgiving of those that society has deemed our enemies.

Lyric For The Day 23.5.12 from O Spirit Animate Us by Damon Albarn

Dr Dee

“Oh Father, oh Father
Let us not be tied
Keep my spirit strong,
My heart devotion to you
Oh my day is in you, oh my day
Leave me gently
Give us something of a righteous revival
It's all ..kingdom, revival”

-       From O Spirit Animate Us by Damon Albarn

My first Damon Albarn Lyric For The Day but his new record Dr Dee, where all the songs are from the writings of an Elizabethan mathematician John Dee who studied alchemy, divination and Hermetic philosophy, has many Lyric For The Day possibilities. This is not the only prayer on Dr Dee and it seems to me to be a good spiritual prayer to begin the day... Committing our day to righteousness and the Kingdom; bring it on! Amen Damon! Amen!