“Pencils in the Hand of God”: Some thoughts on All Saints Day

trystanowainhughes:

‘You don’t have to be an angel to be a saint!’ Today is All Saints Day. Last year I posted a reflection on the day. I have been pleasantly surprised at the popularity of that blog-post, and so I thought I would post it again. Thank you for your support of my blog over the past year, and I hope you enjoy reading this again.

Originally posted on Trystan Owain Hughes:

Real God in the Real WorldBelow is a reflection taken from ‘Real God in the Real World‘, my latest book that can be used in groups or by individuals over the Advent and Christmas period. Each day begins with a bible reading and then uses lively personal stories and engaging illustrations from popular culture and the arts to reflect on the reading. The reflection below takes Revelation 7:9-17 as its starting point:

saint babyI was due to be born on November 1st, which is ‘All Saints Day’ in the Western liturgical calendar. My mum was excited about delivering her own personal saint. In the week running up to the day, she, therefore, did everything she could to induce labour – from rough country drives to long mountain walks. On the night before All Saints Day, she even fell for the old wives tale of consuming a large dose of castor oil. Unfortunately, I didn’t appear, and all…

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What does God want from me? Love, Ebola, and the terrifying answer

God-Faith-and-Love-god-28925578-1024-768I few years back I was taking a service at a home for the elderly. I read the words from the New Testament: ‘the greatest commandment is love God, and the second is this: Love your neighbour’. Without warning, an elderly woman at the back of the room shouted ‘I don’t love my neighbour’. I didn’t know what to say – I looked at the nurses and they looked at me, but the moment of silence gave the woman the opportunity to add: ‘and, listen ’ere vicar, if you knew her, you wouldn’t love her either’!

Mary_Ann_Stephenson_final_10_no_1I remember walking away from that home for the elderly and thinking that woman had taught me something – that it’s easier to preach about love and compassion, than to put it into action in our lives. I can imagine the reaction of those who were listening to Jesus when he told them to love God and love others. They would be struggling to keep the 613  commandments in the Jewish Scriptures. So imagine their delight when Jesus comes along and says, actually, all they really need to worry about are two commandments – love God and love each other. It sounds so easy!

British Army Medics Depart To Provide Ebola Support In  Sierra-LeoneA few days ago I was reading about the 225 military medics – doctors, nurses, and consultants – who are going out to join other humanitarian and health workers in fighting Ebola in West Africa. These are amazingly brave people, putting themselves under so much risk to stand alongside suffering people. Of course, they will be given so many rules to keep – washing their hands, using disinfectant on surfaces and handles, wearing protective suits, using sanitizing gel, and so on. But, in reality, those rules are the easy part when compared to the fact that they are going out there in the first place. That was the “love” bit of the equation – that they are willingly offering their lives to go out to places of war, disease, or suffering, to stand alongside injured or sick people. The “love” bit, not all the rules they keep, is the really difficult bit of the equation.

Igods-loven reality, all of us, if we put our minds to it, could keep a set of rules. But our call as Christians is not simply to keep rules or law, or even to be good or act kindly towards people, our call is love other people. My love for my wife is not about me keeping her rules (although she does appreciate when I hang my bath towel up and put the toilet lid down!). My love for my wife is not even about me being nice to her (although she does appreciate the occasional flowers and compliments about her clothes!). Love demands something far deeper and more sacrificial from us. It asks us to stand alongside the other person in all their joys and all their suffering. And Jesus asks that we treat all people, even strangers or people we don’t like, in this way – to treat all people as they were in our own family, as if they were our own brothers and sisters. That’s the real challenge to all of us who are baptised. We’re not promised an easy life in baptism, as even Jesus himself, who lived a perfect life of love, ended up being crucified. But showing love and compassion to all around us, however we might be feeling, however they might be acting, that is what our faith is all about.

CominternIVThe atheist philosopher Slavoj Zizek suggests that all of us need to know what is expected of us, how we should act. Those without a belief in God, often end up trusting another “Big Other” to give guidance. So, Soviet Communism talked about the greater good of the “people” (the proletariat). So everything and anything could be justified in Soviet Russia, even torture and murder, as long as it could be argued that it was for the good of the “people”. Zizek argues that those who believe in God are left with the same need to know what is expected of us, how we should act. The psychoanalyst Jaques Lacan described this with an Italian phrase che voglio? – “what do you want?” It’s a terrifying question – “what does God want from me?!”

LoveIn that passage that I read in the home for the elderly, we get our answer, and God answers very simply. He says, “I want you to love”. He says “forget your detailed rules and commandments, I simply want you to love”. That’s a terrifying answer to the terrifying question. It’s terrifying because it’s difficult – it’s hard to show love to people who have hurt you, it’s hard to show love to people who have acted terribly, it’s hard to stand alongside others in their most heart-breaking and difficult moments, it’s hard to prioritise our relationship with God with so many other demands on our time, and it’s hard to put love for the environment and other living creatures ahead of our own selfish wants. But although it’s a terrifying answer, it’s also an amazing answer. It’s an answer that can inspire us to live such great lives, and can bring individuals, communities, and societies so much hope and new life. “What does God want from me?” we ask. And God simply answers, “I want you to love”.

‘The path of peace’ (Luke 1:79): Can our faith help us when we face depression, anxiety, and stress?

MentalHealthBrainToday is World Mental Health Day. As I was leaving St Mary’s, Ealing, London last weekend, having given a talk on finding hope and meaning in suffering, another group were coming in to use the church. This was a group for contemplation and prayer, and many of them had come early to hear my talk before their service. On chatting to them, they asked what I believe prayer and contemplation could offer to those of us who suffer depression, anxiety, and stress. I was able to answer them in detail, as my Masters dissertation at Oxford University was on that topic. The following article, which is adapted from an article I wrote a number of years back for the wonderful website Mind and Soul: Exploring Christianity and Mental Health, summarises my work at Oxford.

mental-healthIn 2006 a report on happiness in our society, written by Nick Spencer at the Theos think tank, noted that, while the British are richer than ever before, own more than ever before, and live longer and healthier lives than in the past, all the evidence suggests that people are no happier than they were thirty years ago. In fact, some studies indicate that most people are considerably less happy. Certainly, personal psychological ill-health has risen notably over the past few decades. Depression, anxiety, and stress are widespread in the UK, with the NHS spending many millions of pounds on treatments and therapy.

Mental-health-problems-007In recent years, a number of psychologists and psychiatrists have posited mindfulness as a tool for managing mood problems. Originating in Buddhism, mindfulness can be summarised as having a compassionate, non-judgemental awareness of the present moment. In being aware of the reality around us, we become fully alert to the sensations in our bodies, the flow of our thoughts, and the sights and sounds around us. When combined with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), research has shown that mindfulness can significantly transform a person suffering from a mood disorder. This research, led by scientist-practitioners such as Jon Kabat-Zinn, Marsha Lineham, Steven C. Hayes, and Williams/Teasdale/Segal, has become known as the third-wave of CBT.

Praying1It is, however, rarely appreciated that our own Christian tradition has much to offer in this sphere. The ancient practice of contemplative prayer is sometimes called ‘Christian meditation’, but is not to be confused with the more widespread Christian practice of discursive meditation. Contemplative prayer has had a long history in Christian tradition, and in the late twentieth-century it underwent a revival, largely led by the Roman Catholic religious orders but also promoted by a number of prominent Anglicans, Quakers, and Protestant evangelicals. Contemplation holds many similarities with mindfulness, and so a Christianised form of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy could potentially be created and developed.

Those cognitive therapies that utilise mindfulness as part of treatment for mood disorders are built around three aspects of mindfulness – meditation, non-judgemental awareness, and acceptance. It is striking that Christianity has long-advocated similar principles to these three mindfulness principles, not least within the contemplative tradition of the church.

prayingHands_small_280x240Christian meditation has been varied and diverse down the centuries. It is those techniques that bear resemblance to mindfulness meditation that could be adapted and utilised most successfully for combating mental ill-health. Many of these forms of prayer are centuries old, but have recently been developed by such contemplatives as Anthony De Mello (body-awareness prayer), Thomas Keating (centring prayer), James Finley (Christian meditation), or Thomas Ryan (prayer of heart and body). Protestant contemplatives, such as Richard Foster, Joyce Huggett, Liz Babbs, and James W. Goll, have championed similar forms of prayer. ‘Shut your mouth; open your eyes and ears;’ wrote C.S. Lewis, ‘take in what there is and give no thought to what might have been there or what is somewhere else’. Just as meditation can lead to mindfulness, contemplative prayer can lead us to live contemplatively. In other words, it can help us to recognise, in the words of Jean Pierre de Caussade in the eighteenth-century, the ‘sanctity of the present moment’, and can, therefore, help us to observe our thoughts and feelings in that moment.

79bd66b9-783a-43e8-8b27-bd6a663b5c51Christian traditions are also well-versed in the concept of non-judgemental awareness. It is by resting in the ‘sacrament of the present moment’ that we begin to see our prejudices and distorted thinking from an objective viewpoint – in a sense, from God’s perspective. Our false emotional programs for happiness can be dismantled, and, while we might still be encountering the same depressive thoughts and unhelpful feelings, we are able to recognise those thoughts and feelings as distorted and dangerous. Thomas Keating refers to such thoughts, memories, and feelings as the ‘false self’, while other writers have referred to them as our ‘self-will’ (Catherine of Genoa and Teresa of Avila), ‘desires’ (John of the Cross), ‘egomania’ (Richard Foster), ‘empire of self’ (James W. Goll), or ‘ego consciousness’ (James Finley). These are our attachments to security, control, affection, and esteem. In the context of a Christianised mindfulness cognitive therapy, these are our core-beliefs that have developed through reaction and habit. As a result of noticing and analysing our thoughts and feelings, these core beliefs can be purged, rejected, or adapted.

let-go-let-godWithin many Christian traditions, not least the contemplative movement, the acceptance of God’s providence is prevalent. The ‘sacrament of the present moment’ awakens us to recognise God in each and every moment of our lives, which includes times of pain and suffering, as well as more joyful and happy times. This leads to what Jean-Pierre de Caussade describes as ‘self-abandonment to divine providence’. Through recognising God’s loving purpose, even in the midst of trials and tribulation, we can joyfully surrender ourselves to God’s will in our lives. This is all part of the ‘letting go’, which many mystics have placed at the heart of happiness, contentment, and peace. If we have the courage to trust God and to submit ourselves to Him, we will not only learn to accept unfolding events, but also ‘to embrace and bless them’. This will then help us change our relationship with the negative aspects of our being and situation, and the unhelpful and distorted feelings within us will cease to control us. This ‘courage to be’ (Paul Tillich), to affirm being, in the face of our anxieties about life and about the future, is at the heart of Christian acceptance.

Psalm46.10A number of factors would need to be in place if a contemplative programme of treatment for depression, stress, and anxiety was to be developed and sustained. Firstly, the education of laity and clergy needs to be a priority. This will counter prejudice against and misunderstanding of contemplative prayer, but also bring relationship of Christianity with mental health issues to the fore. Secondly, the training of clergy and other spiritual advisors needs to be a priority – both in traditions of contemplative prayer and in the relationship of contemplation to emotional well-being. Thirdly, the relationship between Church and mental health professionals needs to be further fostered. Both need to know about, understand, and be able to support a contemplative/meditative approach to healing. Finally, contemplative prayer groups need to be established, and ecumenical groups should be encouraged, making the groups more viable and diverse. If groups are already running, they need to be advertised more clearly and widely. Indeed, if these factors were developed and put in place, then contemplative theology could certainly hold the key to developing a Christian mindfulness, and this could significantly help those Christians suffering mental ill-health.

Worry may not kill you, but it can stop you living

St Paul's TalkIt’s been a busy summer of giving talks, sermons, and radio thoughts-for-the-day. This hectic time is not over, as I am due to visit London in a few weeks time to speak at St Paul’s Cathedral (1pm Sunday 5 October), St Mary’s Ealing (6pm 5 October), and on Premier Christian Radio (11.10am Monday 6 October). Time has not allowed me to write many blog posts recently, so I thought I’d share some of the talks I’ve given, in churches, conferences, and on radio. The first talk is on fear and worry:

 

child-with-toy-airplaneTwo weeks ago, my eight-month old son did something that I hadn’t done until I was 25 years old – he flew in an aeroplane for the very first time, as we visited his grandma in Germany. Perhaps it’s because I had not flown as a child, but I’m not a good passenger on an aeroplane. I can just about cope once we’re in the air, but during take-off I am a nightmare. I remember once travelling to Malta with my sister and the take-off was so bumpy that my nail marks remained in her hand for days afterwards. A few years later, I was travelling to Lourdes in France with a friend of mine. He still recounts the story, describing me praying the Lord’s Prayer as we took off. The problem was that I was praying it out loud. And, to top it off, I was wearing my dog collar at the time, so all the other passengers started panicking, seeing a vicar sweating buckets and loudly praying as we took off! But two weeks ago, as the fear started building up in me during take-off, I looked across at my baby son who was on his mum’s lap. He didn’t know what was happening, and so had no fear in him whatsoever – he was smiling away, chewing the seat belt and flirting with the woman who was sitting next to him. At that moment it suddenly dawned on me that my fear was stopping me being fully alive, it was stopping me really enjoying the moment.

worry-notThe experience also led me to reflect on how I have in the past allowed fear to rule my life. When I wrote my book Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering, most people presumed that it was about coping with pain, because of the degenerate back condition that I have. It was, however, actually about the suffering that we all go through in our minds when things go wrong – when we are ill, when we are grieving, when we are lonely, and we are depressed, when we are anxious. Fear is like a worm that gets in your mind and stays there wriggling around. Of course fear doesn’t kill you, but it certainly can stop you living. And the real irony is that our worries most often never come to fruition. ‘Who says worry doesn’t help?’ I once overheard someone quip, ‘It certainly does help – every time I worry about something it doesn’t happen!’ A recent film called About Time put it another way: “the real troubles in your life will always be the things that never crossed your worried mind”. And isn’t that just true – we’ve got enough to worry about in real life without worrying about things that haven’t happened yet. The problem is, of course, that letting our fears and worries go is not an easy thing.

MtSinaiBut, as a Christian, I know there’s good news in all this. That good news is that my faith, and my God, is not in the business of stopping people living, but is rather in the business of bringing life, of bringing joy, of bringing love into our lives. I picked up my Bible yesterday and read the story of Elijah searching for God when his life was threatened and he faced fear and hopelessness. When he finds God (1 Kings 19:11-13), it is not in a powerful earthquake or the swirling wind, as we might expect to find an almighty, transcendent being, but rather in stillness and in the “sound of sheer silence”. In other words, when we’re facing fear and worry, God can seem distant, but we’re challenged to listen for him in the very ordinariness of our everyday lives.

let-go-let-godPerhaps like Elijah, we need stillness and calm to help us connect with God and combat our worries and fears. But God can come and touch our hearts in all sorts of ways in our day-to-day lives – meeting up with a friend, listening to music, spending time in prayer, reading a good novel, a walk in the beautiful countryside, doing a good deed for somebody, and so on. When we connect with God in any of these ways, our hearts can be lifted, if only for a brief moment, and then slowly but surely he helps us let go of our worries and he carries us through our anxieties.

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

trystanowainhughes:

The Church of England General Synod have just approved the motion allowing women to be ordained as bishops. It brings back memories of the Church in Wales Governing Body’s vote last September. On this historic day for my Church of England friends and colleagues, I thought the following blog post was worth sharing again…

Originally posted on Trystan Owain Hughes:

Women Bishops  6To have contributed one vote towards yesterday’s historic “yes” vote for women bishops in the Church in Wales feels special. I was there five years ago when the Church in Wales rejected women bishops, and I saw the pain that so many were feeling at that time – many tears of sorrow and incredulity were cried. Yesterday, though, it was tears of joy that were flowing at the Church in Wales’s Governing Body. For someone like me, it was a happy and jubilant day, which had affirmed an important biblical principle – “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). For many of my colleagues, though, it was the pinnacle of many tireless decades of praying and campaigning.

The debate yesterday was remarkably gracious – with both sides contributing with warmth and humility. Anglicanism, after…

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How Great Thou Art: Elvis Presley and his Faith

ElvisA few months back I wrote a post about pop music and faith, and I have been astounded by its popularity – the post still has regular traffic from across the world. This has led me to post the following article that I wrote ten years ago, when I was based one summer in Washington DC, for a website that has long since disappeared. The article has a special significance this week, as it was exactly sixty years ago that an unknown 19-year-old recorded his first record. That single was “That’s All Right (Mama)” and it wasn’t long before Elvis Aaron Presley was being dubbed “The King of Rock’n’Roll”.

ElvisprayerOnly a few hours before Elvis’s death, his close friend Rick Stanley heard him reciting a Christian prayer of repentance. ‘Dear Lord,’ he prayed, ‘please show me a way. I’m tired and confused and I need your help.’ Elvis may well be remembered for shooting televisions, pain-killer addiction, and womanising, but the King of Rock’n’Roll should also be remembered for another side to him. Elvis was, of course, also a deeply religious individual, and his faith was central to his life. Like all of us, he had a flawed personality, but his intentions were clear to all his friends. ‘He was a deeply spiritual man;’ noted Ray Walker of The Jordanaires, the legendary quartet that sang with Elvis for many years, ‘he was more spiritual than anyone around him’.

elvis2The Pentecostal faith of Elvis’s childhood certainly shaped his music. Not only did his secular rock’n’roll records borrow from the musical experiences of his Southern church upbringing, but he also recorded gospel songs throughout his life. In fact, Jerry Schilling, one of the Memphis Mafia, Elvis’s closest confidents, claims that Elvis would enjoy nothing more than escaping the mansion and going to the piano at his little gym. There he would sing gospel songs and old spirituals for hours on end. His recorded gospel songs proved remarkably popular, from “Peace in the Valley” and “Run On” in the 50s and 60s to “I Got Confidence” and “Amazing Grace” in the 70s. The record “How Great Thou Art” earned Elvis his first Grammy Award, and he would win two more Grammy Awards for his gospel recordings. ‘I know practically every religious song that’s ever been written’, he once boasted.

Praying ElvisIt seems, however, that faith was not merely a musical journey for Elvis. His friends have claimed that he knew the Bible better than most ministers do, and in his periods of self-loathing he was said to rely for comfort and grace on the Scriptures. When away from his Bible, his friends recall that he would leave it open on Corinthians 13, St Paul’s great ode to love. Likewise, prayer was central to his life. Before every concert he would insist that his band prayed with him, and, during his 70s concerts especially, he would interject thoughts of inspiration and passage readings from the Bible. His faith also inspired him in practical and humanitarian ways, as he spent time with friends who needed comfort and gave generously to charities. ‘He wasn’t faking it, and people can tell that,’ notes Jason Freeman of the Legendary Sun Studio in Memphis. ‘He was very spiritual, and that attracted a lot of people to him.’

By the mid-sixties, Elvis concluded that he was aimed to fulfil two desires in his lifetime. Firstly, he wished to create a music that brought happiness to people; and, secondly, he aimed to perform a higher purpose or service for God.  This higher purpose, he later claimed, would be to show to his fans the truth of Christianity, and the love and peace it brought to him. Certainly his own faith empowered him in so many ways. ‘His religious faith told him “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so”, to quote a popular Southern religious song,’ claims Charles R. Wilson of the University of Mississippi, ‘…so his faith gave him much inspiration’.

Elvis-Hard-Rock-stained-glassIt is certainly ironic that an Elvis-religion (sometimes called Elvism, the Presleyterian church, or Presleyanity) is being alluded to by fans and social-critics alike. ‘Fan clubs are churches,’ notes Vernon Chadwick, ‘impersonators are priests, song lyrics are scripture, souvenirs are relics, sightings are Second Comings, and of course Graceland and Memphis are the holy land’. This is surely a far cry from what Elvis himself would have wanted. After all, Elvis’s friend and gospel superstar J.D. Sumner recalls an incident during a concert in Las Vegas. A woman approached the stage carrying a crown on a purple, velvet pillow. ‘It’s for you,’ she said to Elvis, ‘you’re the king’. Without hesitation, Elvis took her by the hand and answered in his kind, drawling voice: ‘No, honey, I’m not the king. Christ is the king. I’m just a singer’.

 

See also: Rock of Ages: Pop music, faith, and the challenge to the Church today

Divide and fall: Reflecting on UKIP, Politics, and Faith

trystanowainhughes:

A year on and it seems, unfortunately, that this blog post is worth sharing again…

Originally posted on Trystan Owain Hughes:

ukipThe success of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in the recent local elections may well be a protest vote of frustration against the three principal political parties, but it is a protest vote which should be a challenge to each one of us. After all, many politicians have already attempted to win back disenchanted voters by reassuring them that they themselves are now taking seriously the issues which have led to the increase of support for this right-wing populist party. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, immediately vowed to win back Conservative voters by concentrating on those matters on which UKIP had centred their campaign, in particular immigration and the welfare system.

While I have no doubt that politicians need to take seriously such a protest vote against them, Christians need to recognise that this reflects the increasingly divisive nature of politics, which stands in direct conflict with the teaching…

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