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All of us should never be strangers to sounding a note of grace

By Allen Sleith

The theologian Joseph Sittler was giving a lecture just before his retirement. In the open forum that followed he was asked to state in one sentence the first step he'd recommend for the reform of the church.

His answer was as succinct as it was apt - "Watch your language!" One might have a case for arguing that other more practical steps are more important than Sittler's suggestion but let's ponder its value nonetheless and furthermore, widen its remit beyond the church.

Recent months have been an object lesson in the abject failure of many people to watch their language. The case for Brexit was presented in grossly oversimplified terms and traded on people's frustration, anger and fears with a callous and calculated distortion of some key facts, namely the £350m per week we were promised would be redirected from Brussels to the NHS.

But that was small beer compared to the US Presidential election where vacuous hyperbole and vicious character assassination managed to trump any opposing arguments so that a sufficient number of people voted 'you know who' into office. The scary thing is that it seems almost anything can be said to secure a vote no matter how untrue, offensive or undeliverable.

Sittler was fond of sprinkling his sermons, lectures and writings with the phrase "grace note".

The term refers to one of the notes in a musical composition which subtly signals the direction in which it is headed.

If political leaders or other people of influence in the public arena are strangers to grace, well that's a pity. But if those who speak in and through the church fail to sound a grace note, we're squarely in the realms of tragedy.

And yet often the tone that conveys our witness to God's truth majors on such discordant notes as legalism, moralism and other forms of spiritual terrorism, targeting people for who they are.

I'm no more advocating some kind of bland plea to be 'nice' rather than 'nasty' than Jesus did. What I am advocating is something akin to Jesus' own rhetoric where the inherent challenge and comfort of the gospel is ultimately 'good news' - grace setting the terms and the tone for all that's heard and shared.

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