This article first appeared in Itchen Valley News September 2014 edition
One of the things that Lucy and I do over the summer is to spend a week attending a Christian holiday called HTB Focus. On Camber Sands, along with 6000 other people, we worship God to modern rock music led by Tim Hughes, Martin Smith, Ben Cantelon and others, listen to talks by some of the greatest preachers in the world and see a lot of friends that we have not seen for ages. It is enormous fun and we leave on a total high, encouraged and set up for the year ahead.
But one particular little incident occurred during the week made me think. Lucy and I had arrived early in one of the marquees to hear a talk by a very famous Christian writer called R.T.Kendall. The talks were so good that they were packed out and there were not many spare seats. A friend of ours was keeping some seats for her family, including her elderly mother, which were near where we were sitting. As her family arrived she picked up the books and items of clothing that were bagging her seats and turned to look after her mother leaving some seats unguarded for a split second. Just as she did so a complete stranger barged into and took two of her seats. Of course, our friend said to her ‘but those seats are taken’ ‘no I have to sit near the front’ said the interloper and sat down, starting a conversation with someone in the row in front.
Now, of course, I was incensed; disappointed that a Christian would behave in this boorish way and on the point of saying so to the interloper. But I was astonished to hear my friend say, ‘Oh ok I will just sit over there’ – pointing to a seat several rows back – and that’s where she went to sit. This approach is what Christians call ‘grace’: treating people in a way that they do not deserve, not insisting upon our own rights. Now I know that to some this will look like weakness, but in fact not to react in the predictable way, not to do what we have every right to do, is actually a mark of huge strength. Overcoming our natural wish to put our own interests first requires immense self-discipline. It is costly, but it is Christ-like. Jesus was the archetype of the person who did not insist upon what he deserved, but suffered the ultimate penalty, so that we don’t receive what we do deserve.
Just imagine how the Valley would be if everyone acted in this way – acted out of grace rather than insisted upon their rights. No disputes between neighbours. No reciprocal unpleasantness. No grumpiness over years and years. No complaints about our neighbours to the parish council or to the council or to our MP or even to the police.
Can you find an opportunity this week or month to act in an uncharacteristically gracious way to a neighbour who does not deserve it?
Now I am not saying that human rights are not important – they are hugely important. But perhaps the Christian way is to insist upon the human rights of others, rather than insisting upon our own rights. Imagine if whole nations acted in this way, I wonder if we would have the same situation in, for example, the Middle East as we do today.
John Newton, an 18th century slave ship owner who was converted to Christianity in a hurricane when he thought his ship was going to sink. He accepted the undeserved forgiveness that Jesus offers to all those who repent and turn to him. His hymn Amazing Grace is one of the most popular songs of all time:
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.
Revd Alex Pease
Itchen Valley Parish