Friday, 13 November 2009

Encountering grace

Back when I was still an evangelical, but tiring of the crassness of it all, I wrote about "grace encounters" as an alternative to evangelism of the "witnessing" variety. Grace encounters, quite simply, were opportunities in the course of everyday life to give something of the grace of God to others.

A few times since then I've been drawn back to that concept, usually when I'm feeling there's a certain "grace" lacking in my everyday life; when I feel I'm turning inward and I start itching to do something for someone, an act of service, a word or deed of compassion to share the grace that - despite all my heresy and unorthodoxy - I'm still all about.

Usually, when I ask for these opportunities, they come. So I've asked recently - and they've come.

(By the way, that phrase "grace encounter" sounds so evangelical to me now. "Encounter" sounds charismatic in the worst sense of the word. Ugh. But the moments I'm talking about are something "special," that I feel deserve some sort of name of their own. Any suggestions? Maybe I could even widen Paul's charismata and refer to these sacred moments as charisms?)

I'm reprinting below what I wrote on the subject in 2004:
I scan the coffee house to see where I can sit. An old lady is sat at the counter by the window. She is muttering to herself, and she seems lonesome. If I just sit down in her vicinity, I think, she can always turn to me and talk if she wants. I take a seat, and place my steaming fresh coffee on the countertop. She says nothing to me directly, but continues mumbling away, an incoherent string of half-finished sentences spilling ungracefully over her lips. She seems hardly to notice I am there. After about ten minutes, she takes a final gulp of coffee, and rises to leave. "Thanks for sitting with me," she says to my surprise. "Thanks for putting up with my talking. I can't keep everything together if I don't do that." I give her a smile and say, "No problem," and we exchange goodbyes.

Looking around me, our little group of ten or twelve are a motley crew: Some in suits, some in sweaters and jeans, some looking like bums off the street, and some looking like they are off for a business lunch; and none of us, to my knowledge, have met before. We sit in a circle as we wait for the priest to come and preside over our midday Eucharist under the gothic arches of this downtown cathedral, and I notice the guy sitting next to me. He is wearing a hooded sweater, he has a face that most people would find aggressive, I think, and he appears to have some sort of disability that I can't quite pinpoint. When the time comes in the service to exchange the peace, we shake hands. After the Eucharist, I can't bring myself to leave. I have a feeling there is more to do, so I begin to walk out of the sanctuary only very slowly, and turn around as the guy in the hooded sweater approaches me. He tells me he felt instantly at ease when he sat down next to me for the service, and he didn't know why. He gives me a short tour of the cathedral, pointing out which are his favourite windows, and why. He tells me a little about his upbringing, and makes an enigmatic reference to something like the "rainbow cross of St Francis" -- apparently something to do with gay rights -- and then he laments that people in churches can be cold, but this church has been warm, and he has found a home from home. He gives me a big hug, and as I wrap up in my scarf to go out into the chilly November afternoon, he encourages me: "Stay warm."

As I cross the road to get to my bus stop, I am accosted by yet another of the city's many homeless people. This one is very persistent. "I'm afraid I can't give you any money," I tell him, "but I'll happily buy you some food and a drink to warm you up." He is pleased at the prospect of a hot coffee, and we cross the road again to one of my regular haunts, and he begins talking as his coffee is poured. He tells me his entire life has been one long mistake. I tell him I think God put all those mistakes behind him two thousand years ago in Jesus. He tells me he is a "man of God," but the Bible never made any sense to him. "I've met the love of God in other people," he explains.

God's grace has a way of getting to everyone. Peter calls it the "manifold" or "many-coloured" grace of God, and charges us with distributing it through our gifts. I'm through with "witnessing" -- that was always forced, unreal, pious and crass. The incidents I described above all happened in a single city within a couple of days of each other, and they're what I call "grace encounters": Spontaneous opportunities to distribute the grace of God in its many forms. To some people, the Bible does not and perhaps never will make any sense, but God's grace and love will find other ways to break through into their lives. As John says, Jesus, the Word, gives light to every person.

Look out for those opportunities that come along for an encounter with grace, those moments when you can share something of the love, acceptance and grace shown you in Jesus. They're blessed moments.

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