“A vicar walks into a bar”: Why would anyone become a member of the clergy?

Rev.jpgIn a recent comprehensive piece of research by the UK Office for National Statistics, 274 jobs were considered as to which gave the most satisfaction. At the top of the list, as the most fulfilling occupation, was being a member of the clergy. Being a priest, vicar, pastor, or minister may not be the best paid financially, but it certainly pays in other ways. On the other hand, the job giving the least satisfaction was the position of a landlord of a public house or a wine bar. So, serving God beats serving pints of beer!

Sad man drinking in barInterestingly, in the hit song ‘Hope on the Rocks’, the American country music star Toby Keith describes the bartender in very priestly terms. People, he claims, go to bars with all sorts of problems – breakups, depression, grief, poverty – and they are desperate to be listened to, to confess, and to be comforted. The bar allows them the freedom to “drown in their sorrow and cry in their beer”. The bartender is, therefore, presented as being there to bring hope to their trials and tribulations. While there may be some amount of truth in this, most bar staff and pub landlords aren’t trained to deal with people’s turbulent lives and they haven’t chosen their livelihood because of a calling to care for people pastorally.

All Christians, of course, have a calling on their lives. God wants to use his people in their workplace and elsewhere, and no occupation is more important than another. Much of the satisfaction that comes through ordination, though, is because clergy are able to live out directly and boldly what they believe God is calling them to be. Before I became a member of the clergy, I lectured at a number of Universities. There was an enormous pressure there to attract new students to the colleges, so as to bring more money and financial stability to the institutions. Church leaders still have to deal with financial pressures, but most of their time is spent bringing God’s love to people who desperately need hope, peace, and comfort, and in showing Christ’s unconditional compassion to those who are struggling in an all too often uncompassionate, materialistic society.

revFor those who watch the ups and downs of parish life that Rev Adam Smallbone goes through in the BBC’s sitcom Rev, the level of satisfaction amongst members of the clergy might be a surprise. There is no doubt that, like the ministry of this fictitious inner-city vicar, most of us clergy go through periods of doubt, frustration, and disillusionment. There are even times when we might want to take off our dog collar and cut it into pieces. “I struck the board, and cried, ‘No more; I will abroad!’”, wrote sixteenth-century cleric George Herbert as he looked at his collar lying on the table.

Wedding vicarBut also like Rev Adam in Rev, those times of frustration fade into near obscurity in comparison with the times of fulfilment and satisfaction that our vocation brings – the times that George Herbert describes as moments when we hear God’s voice affirming our vocation. “As I raved and grew more fierce and wild at every word,” concludes Herbert’s poem The Collar, “me thought I heard one calling, ‘Child!’ And I replied ‘My Lord’”. It is, after all, a wonderful privilege to help people connect with the transcendence of life – to give opportunities for them to recognise that life is more than the hustle and bustle of their busy, competitive, and sometimes tiresome daily existence. It is also a magnificent privilege to be there at both the uplifting and unhappy times of people’s lives; at the ups and downs; at the hospitals and funerals and at the weddings and christenings. We stand alongside others in their tears and tragedy, as well as their joy and jubilation. We shake their hands after they commit their lives in love to another, and we hold their hands at hospital bedsides as they move from this life to the next. As such, our ministry is living out God’s compassion – suffering when others suffer and rejoicing when they are joyful.

THE DOUBLE movieThe recent film The Double, directed by Richard Ayoade and based on Dostoyevsky novella of the same name, may be situated in a dystopic, parallel world but the characters voice feelings that are widespread in today’s world. Jesse Eisenberg describes himself as a lonely and disconnected “Pinocchio”, a “wooden boy, not a real boy” who needs to be brought to life. That disconnect with the world around us, that loneliness and longing for community and connection, remains deep in the heart of humanity. By becoming a vicar, priest, or minister, we have the privilege of offering light and new life to those who come to us, as we support and love them through their journey. The wonderful irony is that, by offering people God’s grace, we are, in turn, offered so much fulfilment and satisfaction ourselves.

If you yourself feel God might be calling you to be a vicar, priest, pastor, or minister, please do talk to your own church leader.

“Camels leaping through needles”: Jesus, Exaggeration, and Hyperbole

hyperbole 1When I was growing up my dad had numerous phrases that used to annoy me – “this house is lit up like a Christmas tree”, “you know money doesn’t grow on trees”, and “if your friend put their hand in the fire would you put yours in?” The one that used to infuriate me more than any other, though, was: “how many thousands of times have I told you not to exaggerate?!” Now I’m older, and my life involves preaching and writing, I realise the dramatic importance of exaggeration and hyperbole. Exaggeration is, of course, not always a good thing, but, as long as we recognise that this technique is being used, it can certainly be helpful. Even as a child, I knew that money didn’t literally grow on trees, but the phrase taught me something about the value of not squandering what we have. And I never literally saw a friend put his hand into a fire, but the phrase help teach me to resist peer pressure. And leaving my bedroom light on doesn’t literally look like dozens of sparkling lights on a Christmas tree, but the phrase helped me to recognise the impact that wasting electricity has on the environment.

Camel 2In the Bible, Jesus uses exaggeration and hyperbole on numerous occasions, as he connected with his listeners by expressing deep truths in a nonliteral manner. He came from a Jewish tradition that was steeped in this technique of writing and speaking. “You are all together beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you”, asserts the Song of Songs in the Old Testament (Song 4:7). I’m sure Solomon’s beloved was stunningly beautiful, but even the very best of us have a couple of flaws! By Jesus’ time, hyperbole was a technique used by some rabbis, the teachers of the day. Jesus, though, particularly employed this technique, often as a way of grabbing his audience’s attention or to shock them into recognising the deep truth he was asserting. As G.K. Chesterton put it, “Christ had even a literary style of his own; the diction used by Christ is quite curiously gigantesque – it is full of camels leaping through needles and mountains hurled into the sea”.

eyesThe Sermon on the Mount has many such examples. When Jesus refers to lust, for example, he says “if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away… and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell”. This passage clearly shouldn’t be taken literally, not least because its literal fulfilment won’t achieve the desired goal anyway. One of my closest and oldest friends has been blind since childhood, and I remember once discussing this passage with him. “Believe me, Trystan”, he said over his pint of beer, “tearing someone’s eyes out won’t stop them lusting!”

no-means-noWhile such a statement should not be taken literally, it should still be taken seriously. This passage teaches us something far deeper, far more radical about God’s kingdom. Everything we do, Jesus is telling us, has profound effects on both others and ourselves. Objectifying those of the opposite sex is not something that has no consequences. It can hurt and damage people directly, and can also damage society. We are left with daily news reports about sexual abuse, human trafficking, and rape and assault, while young people of both sexes are pressurised into a stereotype of how they should be acting in relationships and are given impossible ideals of how they should be looking.

man-praying1Jesus’ exaggerated statements in the Sermon on the Mount, then, are not to be taken literally. But neither are those statements trying to make us feel guilt or hatred towards ourselves. Instead, they are trying to encourage us to recognise the radical nature of God’s kingdom and the impact that should have on how we think and act. In my last blog post, I emphasised the importance of us looking outside of ourselves to stand alongside those oppressed by gender, race, and ethnicity. But we need also to look inside of ourselves at our own personal issues, be they lust, anger, envy, hatred, selfishness, or material greed. How we think and how we act in our daily lives has an impact, not only on our own wellbeing and on other individuals, but also on our society and on our environment. If we really want to challenge the world, we must start with challenging ourselves. And if we really want to change the world, we must start with changing ourselves.

Does being a Christian make us any more loving and compassionate?

lampshade - the one we got! It’s over three months now since we moved house and, considering we had Christmas and a new baby in that time, we’ve done pretty well in sorting the Vicarage out. Last week, we even got lampshades sorted in the rooms. They were delivered to the house and my wife and I put them up in the morning. Later in the day, I was sitting in the living room with a fellow vicar, under the glow of a wonderful new lampshade (the very one in the photo!). As we were chatting, my 7-year-old daughter came back from school and burst into the room. She looked straight up at the lampshade and stood staring up at it in appreciation. I reminded her that she should have first greeted us when she walked into the room. “Don’t just look up, look across as well”, I said. Quick as a flash, my colleague said “well there’s the sermon for next week!” We both laughed and got on with our meeting, but those words I said stayed with me – “don’t just look up, look across as well”.

IsaiahAs I was reading Isaiah 58 yesterday, I realised that there was not only a sermon but also a blog post in that little phrase! In that chapter God explains to his people why he is so displeased with them. They have certainly been carrying out their religious observances and duties – they have been fasting, praying, and keeping God’s commandments. The problem is, however, that they have also been exploiting their workers, oppressing the poor, being unwelcoming to the stranger, ignoring the hungry, and refusing to house the homeless. In other words, in Isaiah God is saying: “don’t just look up at me, look across at my children as well”.

Cardiff University ChaplaincyThis got me asking myself what difference our faith makes in our lives. I remember talking to one rather vocal atheist student when I was chaplain of Cardiff University and he said something that has stayed with me ever since. He charmed me by telling me what a good and compassionate person I was, but he didn’t finish there. “Yes, you’re a good, kind person, but that’s just who you are and it’s not necessarily anything to do with your faith – are you trying to tell me that, if you weren’t Christian, you’d suddenly become cruel and uncompassionate? So, basically, what’s the point of your faith?” I still find those words challenging. After all, if we are to call ourselves followers of Christ, then it must make a positive, loving, and life-affirming difference in our lives.

teabagAt the crux of this is the question whether being a Christian makes us any more loving and compassionate? Or does our faith make no difference to us outside of the hour each week that we give to going to church? Attending a church should make a huge difference to our lives, but it only does this if we allow it. It’s like having a teabag and a mug of hot water. The tea is a weekly church visit, and the water is the rest of the week. There’s no point keeping that teabag separate from the water. In fact, the tea bag is pretty useless without water. In other words, a church visit is useless if it doesn’t have an impact on each of our daily lives. So, we need to let the tea infuse the water; we need to let our faith enthuse every moment of our week – every conversation we have and every decision we make. If we don’t, we may as well stay in bed on Sunday morning. If our faith makes a difference in our daily lives, then it is priceless; if it doesn’t have any impact, then it is worthless.

The reality is, of course, that all of us are too often like the Israelites in Isaiah 58. We try desperately to allow our faith to make a difference, but end up getting our priorities completely wrong. The stand that we take as Christians on things that we think are important, blinds us from the things that really are important. Someone recently said to me how great it was that the Church can still get on front page of newspapers in its defence of “our beliefs and values”. Unfortunately, the Church’s priorities are often misplaced, and those so-called “beliefs and values” rarely reflect the heart of Jesus’s teaching. While we are busy discussing women bishops, gay marriage, and the loss of Christian influence in this country, the real message of the gospel, the message of liberation, grace, hope, peace, and joy, gets left behind. Sometimes I feel we are like the Russian Orthodox Church in 1917 – while the revolution was raging all around them, they were holding councils to discuss liturgical colours.

WWJDOur call, then, is to realign our priorities. One way of doing that is to ask ourselves those four little words that used to adorn many teenage bracelets in the US – ‘what would Jesus do?’ The phrase has almost become a parody, but that shouldn’t mask the importance of reflecting on the question. Where would Jesus’s priorities be channelled if he were living today? Would he, nicene creed or doctrinal confession in hand, be desperate to root out those whose theology was not the same as his? Would he be bemoaning the fact that this country is becoming more multi-cultural and mixed-faith? Would he rile against those same-sex couples who want to commit themselves to a lifetime of love and faithfulness? Would he be worrying about a person of a different gender to him being in a spiritual position of authority? OR would he be actually be more concerned with living out the love and compassion that is so missing in so many lives in today’s world? Would he be standing alongside those seeking asylum, the hungry, victims of domestic violence, victims of human trafficking, those in prison, those in hospitals and hospices, those campaigning for the environment, victims of sexual abuse, and those oppressed by gender, race, or ethnicity?

leastAlthough it is dangerous to put any words into Jesus’s mouth, there is no doubt that he would identify with these groups. This can be seen in Matthew 25, which scholars tell us Jesus said with Isaiah 58 in mind. “‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’” So, when we do live out our faith in our everyday lives and when we let our hour on Sunday infuse and enthuse the rest of our week, this is exactly what we will be doing – finding God in everyone we meet and treating them as if they were Jesus himself. That rather changes that phrase that we started with: “don’t just look up, look across as well”. The paradox is that when we look across at our neighbours, we actually are looking up, because we are looking at him! So, don’t just look up at him, but look across at him as well.

“Love reminds us why”: God and the mystery of suffering

“Pain may well remind us that we are alive, but love reminds us why we are alive” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“Pain may remind us that we are alive, but love reminds us why we are alive” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

Since Wm Paul Young chose to include this quotation from my book Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering in his book Cross Roads, the follow-up to his multi-million best-seller The Shack, I have had enquiries from as far as Sweden, Brazil and Australia asking me about where the quotation appears in my book. As I recently stumbled across that same quotation on a wonderful picture by the Disney fine artist Noah, I thought that this might be the time to post on this blog the section of my book (pp. 16-17) that includes the quotation.

“Pain may remind us that we are alive, but love reminds us why we are alive” (Trystan Owain Hughes)Finding Hope and Meaning was written when I was diagnosed, at the age of 34, with a degenerative spinal condition. Health is the one quality that is widely regarded as determining a person’s happiness and fulfilment. Despite pain and frustration, though, my illness inspired me to reflect on where meaning and hope can be sought in our suffering and then to apply the fruits of this reflection in my day-to-day life. The book, therefore, does not try to offer a comprehensive theology of suffering, but it simply muses on one personal way of approaching suffering, a way that affirms the paradox that learning how to suffer and how to wait patiently is the secret of finding joy and hope in our lives. When reading the following, then, please keep in mind that it is taken out of context, so may not, without the rest of the book, do justice to the complexity and horror of our pain and suffering.

“Pain may remind us that we are alive, but love reminds us why we are alive” (Trystan Owain Hughes)“The concept of growth through the long wait of our suffering is not specifically Christian.  Other world religions, contemporary psychology, and secular culture in general recognises that meaning, formation, and development can be forged through trials and troubles.  ‘It’s only when you’ve been in the deepest valley,’ mused Anthony Hopkins in his role as Richard Nixon in the film Nixon, ‘will you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain’.

“Pain may remind us that we are alive, but love reminds us why we are alive” (Trystan Owain Hughes)The uniqueness of the Christian response to suffering is, however, found in the centrality of God’s grace. As such, we are faced with yet another paradox. The tears and tragedy of the cross is a sign of God’s love for us precisely because it guarantees His loving presence in our own tears and tragedies. God is love, and just a glimpse of that love can powerfully illuminate the darkness that we are going through.  ‘And here in dust and dirt, O here,’ wrote the Welsh seventeenth-century poet Henry Vaughan, ‘The lilies of His love appear’.

“Pain may remind us that we are alive, but love reminds us why we are alive” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

We can, then, aim to draw closer to God’s love in the midst of our suffering. Pain may well remind us that we are alive, but love reminds us why we are alive. Thus, we need to re-train our minds to recognise those times in our daily lives when God’s light breaks through our darkness – times we hitherto have taken for granted or ignored. These moments have a cumulative ability to transform, illuminate, and bring us hope. Held as a hostage for many years in a dark room in Beirut, Brian Keenan recalls how he made a candle from small pieces of wax and string from his clothing fibres. ‘Quietly, calmly a sense of victory welled up in me’, he later wrote, ‘and I thought to myself without saying it, “They haven’t beat us yet. We can blot out even their darkness”’. Light, of course, does not avoid darkness. Rather, it confronts it head-on.  ‘The light shines in the darkness’, asserts the Gospel of John 1:5, ‘but the darkness has not understood it’. Likewise, love’s concern is not the avoidance of suffering, but rather its transformation, as our painful experiences become productive and strengthen us.

Jesus certainly knew that the existence of evil and suffering was a mystery to humankind. He would have been well-acquainted with the book of Job and with the psalms of sorrow, and he stood before his people as the suffering servant of Isaiah.  Yet, he himself was more concerned to proclaim the mystery of love than give hollow platitudes about the mystery of suffering.  Love, like suffering, cannot truly be explained. It can, however, be experienced.”

“Pain may remind us that we are alive, but love reminds us why we are alive” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

Together we stand: The importance of Christian unity

Family‘Though the body is made up of many parts, it is still one body’ (1 Cor 12:12). Last night I preached at a big service in Cardiff for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I started by taking about my family in North Wales. I am from a large family – I have three brothers and one sister. I tease my parents by telling them that they kept trying until they got one they liked! All five of us siblings look quite similar, but we’re actually very different people. We have different personalities (some of us are very firey and others pretty chilled), we have very different jobs (one brother is a headmaster, another trained as a gamekeeper and a plumber, and so on), we have different interests (one brother is a twitcher who travels the country birdwatching, another has STFC tatooed on his arm and travels the country following his favourite football team Shrewsbury Town, another was a finalist in the Welsh version of the X Factor (‘Can i Gymru’), and so on). So we all have same mother and father, we’re all brothers and sisters, but we have our own unique and precious characteristics that I know our parents love and cherish.

Christian UnityIt dawned on me this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity how our own families reflect the Church. From the time of the disciples, groups of Christians have thought and acted very differently. The early Christians in the book of Acts, for example, disagreed whether Christians should practice Jewish customs or not. By today, all us churches are very different in the way we worship, in our priorities, and in our theology. But let’s not forget that we are similar in one important way: we all pray ‘Our Father’, rather than ‘My Father’. So we’re all brothers and sisters in Christ, with Paul’s letters even referring to the churches as brothers and sisters. So we’re brothers and sisters who have our own unique and precious characteristics – ones that our Father in heaven loves and cherishes, and ones that we should appreciate in each other.

Jerry lee lewisWhen the five of us North Wales siblings were younger, we were brought up in beautiful Snowdonia. My Grandparents, who lived in the big smoke of our capital city Cardiff, used to call us the feral mountain children, and I quite often tease my own children by insisting that I was raised by wolves on the slopes of Snowdon. In reality, of course, we had no links with wolves, but I do remember that we all fought like cats and dogs when we were kids! I remember one punch up with my older brother that began with an argument as to who was more famous – Jerry Lee Lewis or Suzanne Vega. Twenty years later, I’m still certain I was correct – I mean, who is Suzanne Vega anyway?! By now, despite all our past fights and despite our differences personalities, we brothers and sister all get on very well, and we so enjoy meeting up with each other.

Winds of ChangeAgain, just as brothers and sisters go through changes in the way they treat each other as they grow-up and mature, so the relationships of churches and denominations have developed. Five hundred years ago we were literally killing each other, and even only 50 years ago, there was so much hatred, bitterness and prejudice on all sides. My first book, Winds of Change, researched church relationships in Wales during the twentieth century, and, as I trawled through old newspapers in dusty archives, I remember being shocked at what I was reading -  local chapel members attacking Catholic priests with stones, Anglican bishops announcing that all other churches in Wales were intruders, and Catholics claiming those outside Rome were not going to heaven. Well, things have certainly changed. We are so used to saying that things have changed for the worse. So we should rejoice and thank God for a change for the better – our churches have grown-up and matured, and we now lovingly recognise each other as brothers and sisters.

unityWe must remember, though, that relationships do not survive without effort. I am close to my brothers and sister because I phone them, we visit each other, we write e-mails to each other, I try to remember their birthdays (although there’s a lot of them!), and so on. Likewise, my relationship with God is alive because I talk to him in prayer, I listen for his voice in life, I recognise him in the people I meet, I study and read his book, and so on. So, in this Week of Christian Unity we might want to make a promise to ourselves that we will nurture our relationship with our brother and sister Christians – not just this week, but throughout the year. We could visit each other’s churches, we could pray for each other, we could support each other in any events organised – coffee mornings, special services, kids events, social nights, and so on. We can let those outside our churches know that, to us, religion is not something that divides, but is something that brings us together. After all, we are all parts of the body of Christ, and, to quote 1 Corinthians, ‘there should be no division in the body, but its parts should have equal concern for each other’. As Psalm 133 announces, ‘how good and how pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell in unity!’

Reasons to be Thankful: A Year in Review

This year has been a bit of a whirlwind. We welcomed a new little baby into our family, we moved house, I left Cardiff University chaplaincy to become director of ordinands for the diocese of Llandaff and vicar of Christ Church, Roath Park, Cardiff (Wales, UK), and all that on top of writing this blog and having two books published. So, this is a short review of the blog and publications, as I say goodbye to 2013 and welcome in the New Year.

Thank YouFirst, can I say a huge “thank you” to all who have supported my writing over the past year. I especially appreciate those of you who have read the blog, have shared posts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+, have bought or read my books, and have recommended others to read my blog or books. Thank you SO much – I really do appreciate all your support.

The blog: Finding Hope, Meaning, Faith, and Compassion

RunnerUpUACA

When I started the blog in February, I would never have guessed how successful it would have become, culminating, in November, with the runner-up award for the “Up-and-Coming Blog of the Year” at the Christian New Media Awards in London.

Over the past year, many thousands of people have read the pages of this blog, with May and December being the most popular months. It is especially widely read in the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Canada, and Germany, but there are also a sizeable number of readers in Brazil, Sweden, and France.

The five most popular blog posts have been, in descending order:

5) “A Satsuma is not a Failed Orange”: Listening to God’s call

4) Crime and Compassion: Does Mick Philpott deserve any compassion?

3) Unto Us a Child is Born: A new baby at Christmas

2) Women Bishops – This is Wales, calling the Church of England

1) “Jesus, do you hate me?” Gay Marriage, the Church and Compassion

The Compassion Quest

The Compassion QuestMy book The Compassion Quest was published in February by SPCK. It was endorsed by Tony Campolo and Graham Tomin, it ended the year with an average of 4.9 stars on Amazon (after 18 reviews), and it was reviewed very favourably in blogs, journals and magazines. For a newly updated blog post detailing the wonderful response that The Compassion Quest received see:

Who else has ever invited Charles de Foucauld, Margaret Thatcher, Philip Pullman and Nick Cave to the same party?

Real God in the Real World

Real God in the Real WorldReal God in the Real World was the official BRF Advent Book for 2013. Again, the response to it were great – an average of 4.8 stars on Amazon (after 9 reviews), excellent reviews in blogs and magazines, and two wonderful endorsements by Alister McGrath and Gerald Kelly. This all meant that 2013 ended on a high, as the book sold out of its first print run after only 2 months and had to be reprinted. It was also great to have a ringing endorsement from a recent review in The Good Bookstall: “Hughes writes with a warmth, authentic insight and real delight. The writing style is fresh and engaging… I am such a fan of Trystan’s other more complex, challenging, and nuanced books… This book is a perfect antidote to the chaos of the Christmas season – a worthy companion in the advent season. Here’s to this and more Rev T O Hughes writing in the not too distant future!”

And to finish…

At the beginning of the year, it was nice surprise to find out that my book Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering had been quoted by Wm Paul Young (author of The Shack) in his latest book Cross Roads, alongside CS Lewis, Bobby Kennedy, and Paul Simon! Since then, Cross Roads has been translated into many different languages, and so my quotation has been appearing on Twitter and Facebook in many different guises. To finish this short review of 2013, here is that quotation in every form I have, thus far, discovered it on social media sites:

Please feel free to use or share this image

Please feel free to use or share this image

“Pain may remind us that we are alive, but love reminds us why we are alive” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“El dolor bien puede recordarnos que estamos vivos, pero el amor nos recuerda por qué lo estamos” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“Verdriet mag ons er dan wel aan herinneren dat we leven, liefde herinnert ons eraan waarom we leven” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“Schmerz erinnert uns daran, dass wir leben, aber die Liebe erinnert uns daran, warum wir leben” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“Mae poen yn ein hatgoffa ein bod ni’n fyw, ond cariad sy’n ein hatgoffa pam yr ydym ni’n fyw” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“A dor pode nos fazer lembrar que estamos vivos, mas o amor nos faz lembrar por quê” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“Bolest nám možná připomíná, že jsme naživu, ale láska nám připomíná, proč žijeme” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“Si la souffrance nous rappelle que nous sommes vivants, c’est l’amour qui nous rappelle pourquoi nous vivons” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“Lehet, hogy a fájdalom emlékeztet arra, hogy élünk, a szeretet viszont arra emlékeztet, hogy miért élünk” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“Bolest nám možná připomíná, že jsme naživu, ale láska nám připomíná, proč žijeme” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

Are you sitting comfortably? Christmas and the wonder of story

hailA few days ago, I attended my 12-year-old son’s school Christmas concert. While his is not a church school, the event took place at a local church. My son was taking the role of a shepherd from Bethlehem, trying to explain to his boss why he had lost all his sheep after he and his mates had run into town to find a child in a stable. He insisted that he had nothing to do with the cut-price lamb being sold in town the following morning, and he swore that he’d not been drinking when he had heard great noises and seen lights in the sky. While he was performing, Cardiff was hit with the most ferocious hailstorm that I have seen in years. So, as he said the words “there were great noises in the sky”, the heavens opened and the church’s stained-glass windows sounded like they were about to shatter. I overheard one parent say to another on the way out, “I loved the wonderful sound effects when the shepherd was speaking!”

We hear so much these days about rechristening Christmas as the “winter festival”, but this event, based in a church and introduced by the local vicar, was very much rooted in faith. Or perhaps it’s more correct to say it was based around a story – a story of a newborn that gives flesh, heart, and spirit to all our hopes and desires, all our needs and wants.

The Hobbit JackanoryI have always loved stories. I remember running home from school as a child, out of breath and with legs aching, because I didn’t want to miss the TV programme Jackanory, where a famous person sat in a big armchair and read from a children’s novels. When I go out to visit schools now, despite all the technology available, I’ve noticed that school children still love to sit and listen to teacher simply reading a good storybook, just as they love to hear a nighttime story from mum or dad.

The reality is, of course, that people of all ages get stories and people have always loved telling and hearing stories – from amphitheatres of the Greeks and Romans to the Elizabethan plays of Shakespearean England. The popularity of TV programmes, soap operas, films, and books bear witness to the fact that stories are still a language people can understand. If we, as a church, want to connect with generations that are seemingly lost from our congregations, we need to be looking to story.

With all this in mind, I’ve often been tempted simply to tell a ten-minute story instead of a sermon on a Sunday morning. I wonder if I’d get complaints? “There’s not enough exegesis”; “there’s not enough teaching”. The lack of explanation in Jesus’ parables, of course, would have confused some people, but he urges us in the Parable of the Sower to make our own interpretations. “Blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear”.

parablesIn fact, the writer Rob Lacey made a detailed assessment of Jesus’s words and teaching. In his book Are we Getting Through?, he concluded that Jesus spoke to the general public in two different ways: he either told stories or he asked questions. These stories were memorable, intriguing, and vivid, using images and objects that the people of his day could identify with (sheep, coins, trees, vineyards). Yet, in the two thousand years since Jesus, the church seems to have decided it knows better. Our church services rarely include stories, not even in many of our sermons! Furthermore, we Christians are far more inclined to give answers than ask questions.

the bibleAnd it’s not only Jesus either. Our faith is founded on story. The recent Channel 5 series The Bible has shown just some of the wonderful tales of faith and courage from Genesis through to Revelation. Story is integral to our faith, from Adam and Eve, Abraham, Joseph and his colourful coat, Moses, David and Goliath, and Samson and Delilah, to the stories of Christmas and Easter, the parables, and the adventures of St Paul. And the great thing about these magnificent stories of our faith is that every story has two levels – two “storeys”, if you like. In other words, they have the story itself, wonderful and fantastical. But, beyond that, is another level, another “storey” – and that is how does the story speak to us? What profound and eternal truths can we take from the story?

tell-me-a-storySo, this Christmas, why not do two things. First, why not start to really listen to stories. After all, God speaks to us through stories. Ask yourself, what is he saying to you? Allow his story to inform the stories you engage with – the story of a small child born in a dirty stable, a story of hope, a story of peace, a story of love. How does that story relate to the stories you listen to? How can the stories you hear inform your faith, teach your faith, challenge your faith.

But, secondly, I challenge you to tell stories this Christmas. You’ll be with your friends and families, so have the confidence to share stories with them – tales that you find fascinating yourself or tales of your own life. My own daughter is obsessed with stories of my childhood. Almost every dinnertime, she will suddenly say: “Tell me a story of when you were young, daddy”. I must admit, I’m running out of little-mischievous-Trys stories by now, and am tempted to start making some up! But it’s not only children – in the same way that my daughter loves hearing my stories, when I go to visit parishioners I love hearing their stories about their lives and families.

we-all-have-stories-to-tellBut, in telling stories this Christmas, why not also allow those stories to interact with the spirit of the festive season. Share stories, ones you have read or seen on television, and explain how they have inspired you towards Christ’s hope, compassion, and forgiveness. But, perhaps most importantly, tell your own personal stories by letting people know how your lives have been transformed by his story – the eternal story of peace and love that began when “the hopes and fears of all the years” were met in the cry of a newborn.

Related articles

Unto us a child is born: A new baby at Christmas

Christmas is Coming: But do we really need the nativity story?

Things-with-Wings: A Christmas Reflection

Pencils in the Hand of God