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…

View original 590 more words

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…

View original 442 more words

Why I agree every Christian should be a tree-hugging environmentalist

christianity-the-environmentLast week I shared an article on facebook urging Christians to care for God’s wonderful creation. This is something that is close to my own heart, but it is also something that I presumed, by now, was blindingly obvious to people of faith. I was, however, to be shocked and saddened at the response of some Christians. There were numerous comments that I thought were long-gone from the Christian tradition:

“I won’t be too concerned about the environment. It’s dying and cursed anyway”

“Surely winning souls is more important than protecting the forests. Get your priorities right.”

“Nothing in the Bible talks about tree hugging environmentalists.”

“I fear for your salvation if you think environmentalism is gospel issue.”

“Work on what is lasting – souls, souls, SOULS!”

christians-and-the-environmentJust as Christ wept over Jerusalem, I’m quite certain that he is weeping when he sees how some of his disciples are talking about, and treating, his wonderful creation. This indifference and distain towards God’s wonderful creation is long-standing. In the 1960s, a famous article appeared in Science magazine accusing Christianity of being at the root of our environmental predicament. Lynn White claimed that our faith is guilty of regarding itself as ‘superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for slightest whim’.

Certainly much has changed for the better in recent years, with many Churches and denominations issuing guidelines to help their care for God’s creation, detailing information about environmental issues such as recycling, using renewable energy solutions, and reducing pollution. However, my facebook thread shows that there are still Christians whose concern for individual salvation blind them from the importance of stewardship and care for the gift of God’s creation.

The irony is that their dearly-held attitude is not scriptural at all. Certain philosophical and cultural movements in the past have been so pervasive in their influence on our faith that they have defined its very character and led us to truly believe that we are true to the Bible when we ignore the plight of our natural world.

heart-body-soul1. Platonism: In its first few centuries, Christianity found itself heavily influenced by Greek Platonic dualism, which differentiated starkly between the soul and body. As a result, Christian tradition followed Gnosticism in becoming ambivalent towards physical matter. This is shown in our paradoxical attitude towards the body, which, on one hand, is seen as the Temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19-20), and, on the other hand, sees bodies as something to be embarrassed about. Thus, the only important thing to some Christians is “souls, souls, SOULS!” This ignores completely that all creation will be renewed and that resurrection is about spiritual bodies, rather than merely souls (see 1 Corinthians 15:35-49).

cogito2. Cartesianism: One of the results of Rene Descartes’ ‘I-think-therefore-I-am’ philosophy in the eighteenth century was that it affirmed the reality of our ‘thoughts’ and ‘emotions’, while doubting the experiences of our bodily senses. The physical world became separated and alienated from us, and we began to further identify with our minds, rather than with our bodies or the natural world. The Cartesian world became, therefore, a world of alienation between body and mind, between person and person, and between human and nature. Christians have been influenced by this in a far deeper way than many would like to admit.

cross green3. Poor theology: The influence of Platonism and Cartesianism on our faith led to many years of poor theology, where biblical texts were handpicked to champion individual human salvation and other sections of the Bible were conveniently ignored. We are left with a bleakly individualistic and person-centred theology that is alien to much of the Bible and to the spirituality that Jesus himself practices in the gospels. Salvation, after all, is not merely about us as individuals, as even our destiny is bound up with the entire created order (Romans 8:18-25). In the Old Testament, we are given a picture of wonderful harmony in nature at the end of time, as the lion lives with the lamb, the leopard lies with the goat, and the small child peacefully leads all the creatures (cf. Isaiah 11:6). In the New Testament, the images of the future Kingdom are, likewise, communal and harmonious – the banquet, the wedding feast, the choir of all nations, and the New Jerusalem. This all has significant implications for the way we relate now to each other and to the world around us. To remain faithful to the biblical evidence, we cannot separate the individual, the community, and the entire created order – in the past, the present, or the glorious future. ‘For by him all things were created;’ writes St Paul to the Colossians (1:16-7), ‘things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together’.

jesus 2Rather than being dualistic and individualistic, then, our faith should recognise that the world is not an enemy of the spirit. There is no getting away from the fact that matter truly matters to God. The Old Testament gives detailed rules on protecting trees and forests (see Deuteronomy 20:19 and Numbers 35:2ff), while God’s involvement with nature is later shown in Jesus’ special relationship with the created order, and his parables, miracles, and sayings are infused with the natural world. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the risen Jesus was initially mistaken for a gardener!

noahDarren Aronofsky’s recent blockbuster Noah received much criticism, but it did reflect that very truth about God’s care for all of creation, not only humankind. This is not new-age mysticism, as some would like us to believe, but it is at the heart of the covenant with Noah. After all, this promise was, we are told, an “everlasting covenant” made between God and “all living creatures of every kind on the earth”, a fact that is mentioned eight times in as many verses (Genesis 9:9-17)! When we see a wonderful rainbow decorating our sky we should, therefore, be reminded, not only of God’s compassion for us flawed and frail humans, but also of his unceasing love for all of his creation. And if God’s priority is to show love and compassion for “all life on the earth” (Genesis 9:17), then, as Christians, that should surely also be an imperative part of our own calling.

For more on this subject, see my book The Compassion Quest (Chapter 1 “Faith and the Universe”).

“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.