Our Challenge this Christmas – Prophet not Profit

This is my first guest blogger on the “Finding Hope, Meaning, Faith, and Compassion” blog. The writer, Gareth Erlandson, is a young Masters student who is training for Anglican ordained ministry. I heard him give the talk below last week and I was personally moved and inspired by it (and not, rest assured, because it namechecks me!). I, therefore, asked him to adapt it into a blog post for publication on this blog. I hope it also inspires you in these weeks running up to Christmas:

When I started teaching about twelve years ago, I shared a house with an old school mate who would drink coffee from a mug emblazoned with the words “Jesus is Coming – Look Busy!” I often think of that mug during Advent – the four weeks running-up to Christmas. We tend to be so busy this time of year, as we supposedly wait in hopeful anticipation for Jesus’ coming – racing around buying presents, eating ourselves to bursting at Christmas meals, rushing from concert to concert. Last week I lost three hours driving around Cardiff on the hunt for the perfect Christmas tree, only for it not to fit in our lounge after all that!

The prophets of the Bible knew what it meant to look forward with hopeful anticipation. In light of their message, we can view the busy run-up to Christmas in a very different way. Rather than preparing materially for Christmas, we can try to take time to prepare ourselves. By doing so, Jesus can challenge us – challenge us to make the old new, to fix the broken, to dispel darkness with light.

But what does it mean to be prophetic? Well, it is certainly nothing to do with crystal balls, wizards, or seeing into the future. Rather, the words and actions of both the Old Testament prophets and John the Baptist in the New Testament encourage us to get right personally with God as we await for his arrival, and a large part of that includes our actions. In other words, there is a political and social edge to our call to be prophetic. After all, being a prophet is to call out against everything that is broken in the world. This can be brokenness within ourselves, in our relationships with others, in the community and wider society, and of the environment. The Bible encourages us to recognise this prophetic voice within us (Rom. 12:6) and tells us that, when we use our spiritual gifts to strengthen, encourage, and comfort others (1 Cor. 14:3), we are doing God’s work (1 Pet. 4:10).

I recently heard blogger and author, Trystan Owain Hughes, challenge a group with these “Questions of Love”:

“How do we share God’s love with people?”

“How are we compassionate and kind to the suffering?”

“Are we at peace with others?”

“How do we care for the environment?”

These, to me, could be summarized in one question: “Do we take our political and social responsibilities seriously?” Asking such a question is the start of prophecy, but we also need to listen for God’s answers and this demands time and space. John the Baptist himself is referred to as one “calling in the wilderness”. He takes time out of the hustle and bustle of everyday living to listen to God’s voice and, by doing so, it is God’s message that he proclaims.

Similarly, for us, we must listen out for God’s voice and then proclaim it. Some Christian traditions refer to five basic signs that God is speaking – through scripture, pictures, emotions, physical reactions, or everyday “words of wisdom”. Such signs can appear in our “mind’s eye” but can equally crop up in our everyday lives. But time and space is needed to recognise these signs. We need, in other words, to follow John the Baptist’s example by stepping back from the humdrum in order to hear God’s voice. In doing so, though, we also need to be careful. We only truly know if we’re hearing from God if what we perceive is compatible with God as revealed in Scripture. In other words, are the messages we are hearing leading us to loving actions? After all, “God is love” (1 John 4:16).

We can see numerous examples of prophetic responses to God’s call. One fictional example is in a book of which many of us will be watching filmic versions over the next few weeks. Scrooge’s ghostly visitors in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol act as prophets, leading the miserable miser to transform his own relationships and the lives of the poorest in his society. A more recent and real life example is that of my wife, who was disturbed on a shopping trip by the increasing number of homeless people sleeping on the streets of Cardiff (Wales, UK). Taking some time to reflect on this experience, three words of wisdom came to her – “Greggs the Bakers”. On her next trip into town, Greggs was her first port of call, where she bought a stack of gift cards which she now distributes to the rough sleepers in the city whenever she pops in for a bit of Christmas shopping.

Advent is certainly a time we should be getting excited for Christmas and so that naturally means we are busy – don’t feel guilty about that! But we could also commit to taking just a few extra moments each day to ask God to show us where and how the broken world needs healing. Then, we can take time and space to listen as he answers us. This is how we, like the prophets of the Bible, can help bring light into the world, just as Jesus did 2000 years ago at the first Christmas.

What do Margaret Thatcher, Nelson Mandela, Richard Dawkins, Boris Johnson, and Bill Clinton have in common?

Something a bit different for my latest blog post. SPCK have published two of my books (Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering and The Compassion Quest). Recently they sent through an advanced copy of one of their new books for me to review. So, here goes…

What do Margaret Thatcher, Nelson Mandela, Richard Dawkins, Boris Johnson, and Bill Clinton have in common? Each have appeared on numerous occasions in the diaries of Sir Anthony Kenny. The philosopher’s soon-to-be-published volume Brief Encounters: Notes from a Philosopher’s Diary gives us a fascinating glimpse into the lives of these and 55 other leading figures who have shaped our culture, faith, and politics over the past half a century.

Sir Anthony was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in the 1950s, but left the orders after his curacy and is by now, as he reminds us on numerous occasions in the book, an agnostic, but one who clearly still has a great deal of time, and indeed respect, for people of faith. After leaving the Catholic Church, he achieved prominence as an Oxford University philosopher and a prolific author. Through his various roles at the University and beyond (not least as Master at Balliol College and as the Chair of the British Library), he has met, wined, and dined many prominent individuals who have contributed to our political, spiritual, and cultural heritage. Luckily for us, he kept a diary and in this volume he uses his diary to muse over each character, giving us some wonderful insights into their lives and to the impact they had on him personally and on the world at large. Each chapter is tantalisingly divided into sets of threes – three Cardinals, three Anglicans, three businessmen, three prime ministers, three novelists, and so on.

In the introduction to the book, we immediately get a taste of the feast we are to be served as Sir Anthony describes how he narrowly avoided having both Tony Blair and Jacob Rees-Mogg as students, how he was almost killed by Virginia Bottomley in the British Library, and how he attended a party in the 80s where a certain Robert Mugabe, softy spoken and seemingly shy, tried to persuade him to invest in the new Zimbabwe. As we move on to the main body of the book, we discover very quickly that Sir Anthony can weave some wonderful stories – some tales are surprising, some fascinating, and some laugh-out-loud entertaining (including some rather risqué stories that I wouldn’t risk repeating on this blog!). His lively reflections are full of acerbic wit and humour. It sometimes feels like we’re sitting down with a kindly old uncle who is recounting anecdotes from his past, but with these tales there is little need for matchsticks to keep our eyes open.

This is certainly not, however, a mindless book of anecdotes. Woven into the vignettes are considerations of faith, philosophy, politics, literature, science, and history. There are sections when we are gifted with brief snippets of this world-renowned philosopher’s intellectual pondering – he considers the difference between ethics and morals, the importance of virtue, the just war theory, the relationship between philosophy and science, and so on. There are also chapters with some compelling thoughts on the attempts for peace and reconciliation in both Northern Ireland and South Africa in the 1980s, while the chapter on dissidents behind the Iron Curtain includes the exhilarating tale of when he and his wife were detained in Prague for teaching philosophy to a group of students and then dumped in West Germany by the Czech equivalent to the Stasi with the official charge against them being “hooliganism”.

Perhaps the most timely reflection in the book, though, is on Boris Johnson. The section includes Sir Anthony’s pre-referendum letter to Johnson which insists that Brexit “would be a disaster not only for us but for other European nations”. As for Boris Johnson himself, who was one of his students at Balliol, Sir Anthony describes how the politician was hissed and booed by undergraduates while visiting the college last year. He then concludes his thoughts on the former foreign secretary with the following biting reflection:

“[Oxford University has] been privileged to be given the task of bringing up members of the nation’s political elite. But what had we done for Boris? Had we taught him truthfulness? No. Had we taught him wisdom? No. What had we taught? Was it only how to make witty and brilliant speeches? I comforted myself with the thought that even Socrates was very doubtful whether virtue could be taught”

This is an enthralling and charming book, which still manages to help us explore, contemplate, and consider, even if only very briefly, some deep political and philosophical issues. For those of us interested in matters of faith, questions of spirituality, religion, and ethics are always bubbling under the surface of these insightful vignettes. All in all, Sir Anthony’s book kept me entranced, entertained, and educated, and I will never again look at these public figures in the same way!

Storms of Life: Finding Hope in our Suffering

Since I underwent spinal surgery 12 years ago, I have had to face daily pain, but, through exercise and pain management, I have been able to manage its intensity. Eight weeks ago, though, only a day after I finished a 135-mile pilgrimage, I felt a level of pain I had not experienced in a decade. In the following few weeks, the pain got increasingly worse and I have had to endure numerous medical appointments and scans. Alongside the physical pain, there has also been the accompanying mental angst. These worries about the future have torn me away from the present and are invariably worse in the dead of night, when I’ve had no distractions to keep negative thoughts polluting my mind.

bear huntWe live in a society that attempts, as best it can, to avoid pain and suffering. Sometimes, though, the storms of life are inescapable. Last week, someone visited me as I lay on my sofa. “You need to face your pain like the great Bear Hunt”, they said, rather cryptically. It was only when my four-year-old son chose “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” as his bedtime story a few nights later that I understood something of what she meant. In this classic children’s book, we join a family as they search for a bear by facing various challenging terrains – forest, mud, long grass, and snow. With each different environment, we are told that “We can’t go over it; We can’t go under it; Oh no, we have to go through it!”

Sometimes we have to face the reality that our times of pain, hurt, affliction, or grief are unavoidable. At those times, we have to “gird up our loins”, as the Bible puts it (Job 40:7; 1 Peter 1:13), and face the misery of suffering head on. At those times, we cannot be like rugby players, skilfully sidestepping opponents. Instead, we are forced to be like American football players, confronting opposite numbers head-on by crashing into them. Each of us will face, in the words of St Paul, a “thorn in our flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7), and sometimes there is no other path other than to “take up our cross”, as Jesus told his disciples (Luke 9:23).

IMG_2964On my long pilgrimage which followed the coastline of North Wales, I spent many hours gazing out at the Irish Sea as I rested with my lunch or my trusty flask of tea. During those three weeks of walking, I noticed how the sea was brimming with life and activity – seals, porpoise, puffins, gannets, boats, fishermen, surfers. But I also observed how quickly the sea could be transformed, sometimes slowly from day-to-day, but other times in a matter of hours. When my four-year-old son is drawing the sea, he will immediately reach for the blue crayon. By spending a length of time staring out to the changeable sea, though, a plethora of beautiful colours emerge. These are often related to the sea’s condition – sometimes threatening and disturbingly dark, but, on other occasions, calm and crystal clear. One day, as I sat on a rock on the edge of a clifftop, I wrote in my notepad that the waves were like rolling, unforgiving white juggernauts crashing against the headland. The very next day, by now on a sandy beach, I jotted down that the sea was a serene stillness gently caressing the golden shoreline.

IMG_2845Like the changeable sea, our life journey is ever-changing. Sometimes all seems tranquil – we are blessed with times of joy, times of pleasure, and times of celebration. But sometimes storms rage around us – we have to face times of pain, times of anxiety, and times of grief. “There is a time for everything,” ponders Ecclesiastes (3:1), “and a season for every activity under the heavens”.

At those seasons of suffering in my own life, it has helped to remind myself that, like the rolling waves of the tide, our lives have a natural ebb and flow. Life is not a straight line, from birth to death, emerging from darkness and returning to darkness, or, indeed, from light to light. Rather, life is cyclical. The winters of our suffering can certainly be dark, long, cold, and painful, but spring will always burst forth. We wait for the snowdrops, because we know the daffodils will soon follow. We trust the nature of the seasons that this will happen, just as those of us who are Christians learn to trust that God will lead us out of our wait, however long and painful. The sixth-century theologian Boethius describes life as a wheel: “we rise up on the spokes, but we’re soon cast back down into the depths. Good times pass away, but then so do the bad. Change is our tragedy, but it’s also our hope. The worst of times, like the best, are always passing away”.

daffodilsThis thought, and this way of viewing the world, is helping me face the difficult wait of my own recuperation. As such, it is gradually transforming my anxious thoughts by giving me the strength to notice and value those little signs of spring breaking through the harshness of winter – to notice and value those daily moments of joy and grace that break through my continuing pain and frustration. This is as powerful a healing as any physical healing could offer. As an old proverb puts it: “Sometimes God calms the storm, but sometimes God calms the sailor”.

Walking the Pilgrim’s Way

I am now over halfway through my pilgrimage from the eastern corner of North Wales to the far western tip of its peninsula. This is the medieval Pilgrim’s Way, from Basingwerk Abbey to Bardsey Island. I have experienced so much in the 80 miles I have walked – two cathedrals (St Asaph and Bangor), Neolithic stone circles and menhirs, Bronze Age mounds, beautiful scenery, fascinating nature, and lots of uplifting conversations (from an enthusiastic metal detectorist to a daring escapologist). In these experiences, I have, in the beautiful words of the late Bishop Saunders Davies, experienced creation at its most translucent, glimpsing the grandeur and glory of its creator.

Alongside these uplifting and inspiring moments, though, I have also been struggling with excruciating pain in my right knee. Hoping for relief, I have washed it in the ancient wells of St Winefride’s (Holywell) and St Celynnin (above Conwy) and prayed at the famous healing cross of Tremeirchion. Eventually I was inspired to speak to a physiotherapist for advice! It seems my patella tendon is inflamed, a condition that will require physiotherapy when I get back. He strongly advised a rest day or two, so I am lying in bed at the moment, frustrated and sore, with a pack of frozen peas on my knee. Tomorrow I will rejoin the Pilgrim’s Way at Clynnog Fawr, where St Beuno founded his monastery in the early 7th century. From there, I will walk over 30 miles in three days and, all being well with crossing, sail for Bardsey Island on Saturday.

Andrew Jones, in his book Pilgrimage [BRF 2011], suggests pilgrimages often echo Jacob wrestling with God in Genesis 32. Jacob wrestles all night and he emerges from the battle with his hip dislocated. Jones maintains that, from then on, “Jacob’s strength was actually in some way in that limp”. His extraordinary encounter had left him scarred but stronger. As I know from situations in my pastoral work, suffering is often senseless and tragic, but, when we emerge from difficult times, our scars can help strengthen us and our wounds can help us reach out to others in compassion. Christians believe that God does not cause or delight in our suffering, but, when we do suffer, he can redeem our times of trial and bring us to new life. It makes little sense that Jacob Epstein’s huge statue of the resurrected Christ above the nave at Llandaff Cathedral in Cardiff, Wales has no wounds on his hands and feet. Jesus’s body was scarred by sin and violence, but rose again and lived. Likewise, the difficulties we go through cannot be erased entirely. The fact they leave us hurt and scarred, though, does not rule out resurrection.

Pilgrimage very much echoes this process of renewal. After all, through pilgrimages we are led, in both our joy and pain, to new purposes and different perspectives – our eyes are opened to a connection with the eternal (through places, people, and objects) and we are helped to move forward with hope, joy, and compassion in our hearts. Yet we cannot avoid the fact that the glory of the resurrection involved the darkness of the cross and the tomb. As such, despite frustration and pain, I know that my inflamed knee, as well as my aching back and my sore blisters, will teach me, feed me, and inspire me as much as the numerous uplifting moments of grace when God’s hope and joy have broken through on each stage of my journey.

On Saturday, I will, God willing, step onto Bardsey Island, my destination. This beautiful, remote, and tranquil island was known in the Middle Ages as the “Rome of Britain” and was such an important place for medieval Christians that three visits there was considered the equivalent of a pilgrimage to the Holy See. It is said that the island became the graveyard of 20,000 Celtic saints. It might, therefore, seem paradoxical that it was, and continues to be, a place that holds the promise of new life and new beginnings. Perhaps there is significance in the fact that the head of the island points eastward, as if to Jerusalem and to the risen Christ. As such, I journey on, embracing both the pleasures and pains of this pilgrimage, with the hope, and indeed expectation, that I will be blessed with restoration, renewal, and resurrection.

NB to read some reasons why I am undertaking this pilgrimage, please take a look at my last post: Follow your Blisters: Embarking on Pilgrimage

Follow your Blisters: Embarking on Pilgrimage

Today I begin to walk the 135-mile pilgrimage across the top of North Wales known as “The Pilgrim’s Way“. This ancient route is the trail that mediaeval pilgrims took from Basingwerk Abbey on the Dee Estuary, near to the Wales-England border, to Bardsey Island at the very westernmost tip of North Wales. Why I am I putting myself through this long walk? Why embrace the blisters and sore joints? I think there are three reasons:

1) Challenge: Twelve years ago, I underwent major back surgery and, later, wrote a book (‘Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering’ [SPCK 2010]) reflecting on the challenge of pain and suffering for people of faith. I continue to be surprised by the impact that book has had, and continues to have, on people facing various trials and tribulations. Only earlier this week, I replied to a wonderfully uplifting email from a person who had been given my book while serving a sentence in prison. I was moved to discover that he regarded my book as one of the cogs in the wheel that had helped him turn his life around. The positive impact that my book has had on people helps lift me when I feel frustration in reflecting on the fact that chronic pain is still very much part of my daily life. However, I have now built up my strength so as to be able to walk for long distances, and this walk is one way for me to once again face down, and hopefully overcome, these struggles.

2) Charity: I am now vicar of a church in Cardiff, Wales, UK. I have seen some amazing transformation in the church, and in our local community, over the past few years. Not only has the church grown considerably over the past five years and is now a thriving mix of people of all ages and backgrounds, but our church hall, which we see as a gift to our local community, is being used by many different community groups. It is bringing hope, learning, company, compassion, and joy to people of all ages – from babies and toddlers to the infirm and elderly. Unfortunately, that hall is now not fit for purpose, and is having to be demolished. We are, therefore, building a new hall. Everything raised from the sponsorship of this walk will be going towards this new community church hall which will hugely benefit our local community. If you are able to give something, however small, I’d be hugely grateful Thank you! Diolch!

www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/trystan-hughes-walk

3) Change: “To live is to change,” wrote Cardinal Newman, “and to be perfect is to have changed often”. The journey of a pilgrimage moulds and changes us, as the places we visit break through and transform us from the inside. As preparation for this pilgrimage, I have read some wonderful books about the nature of spiritual journeying (by Andrew Jones, Sally Welch, Peter Owen Jones, Charles Foster, and more) and about the history and makeup of the Welsh countryside. I am, therefore, ready to embrace the change that will come through my experience of the beautiful churches and medieval shrines I will visit, the inspiring ancient forests I will walk through, the Roman road I will tread, and the breathtaking prehistoric monuments I will pass (menhirs, stone circles, round barrows, cairns, and so on). However, I start this walk with my knees already sore and my back aching as usual, and so I am reminded that our transformation in pilgrimage is, more than often, through the adversities we face and the pain we feel, rather than simply in the fun and fulfilment. After all, we grow and learn as much by our following our blisters as we do by following our bliss.

God and Grenfell

1 Aberfan

Aberfan Memorial

Recently, our family travelled up to the “book capital of Britain”, Hay-on-Wye, for the day. We hadn’t banked on our three year old demanding a book in every single bookshop we stepped foot in, but, apart from a continually screaming child, we had a lovely time. On the way back, we saw signs to Aberfan, and, as my daughter was studying the tragedy that had taken place there at her school, she asked whether we could take a detour to the memorial. The memorial is on the site of Pantglas school where, fifty years ago, over 100 young children, a whole generation, were lost with the collapse of the colliery tip. There are two sections to the memorial – first, a beautiful and peaceful garden and, second, a lovely playground for children. As I watched my daughter playing on the swings and the slide, knowing she was the same age as the primary-school children who had lost their lives, my mind slipped into a prayer of protest – where were you, Lord, on that horrific day? Were you sitting on your hands on your golden throne?

2 God has FailedOn Wednesday morning, as I watched the news on TV, I found myself asking the same questions. I watched the harrowing images of the fire in the Grenfell Tower, the tears and grief of the friends and relatives, and the photos of the smiling children and adults missing. How could a loving, caring Father God allow this to happen? I started feeling disappointment with God, disheartened in my faith, a little angry even. A church in Tamworth was vandalised earlier this week, with “God has Failed” sprayed on its walls. However inane that act of vandalism was in itself, part of me could understand how people could come to that view in light of tragedies, wars, terrorist attacks, and natural disasters. If we are truthful with ourselves, many of us feel like the 50% of participants in a recent US opinion poll who, when asked for their “approval rating” for God, thought that the Almighty should be able to handle things in our world a little better.

JesusWhen we Christians start feeling that way, though, we actually stand in a long line of faithful who have challenged God when facing pain, grief, and suffering – Job, the Psalmist, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, C.S. Lewis, to name but a few. Even Jesus himself cried out on the cross, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Such a response is natural in light of our personal relationship with our Father. As in any intimate relationship, nothing is too trivial or too important, and nothing too painful or too secular, to be excluded. A father-child relationship allows us to lay bare all our humanly experiences and emotions before our creator God – not only our joys, but also our pain, our despair, our questioning, our cries for help. God is not threatened or intimidated by our prayers of protest and our honest cries of confusion. In fact, as John Bunyan wrote, “the best prayers have often more groans than words”.

None of us, whether we are people of faith or not, have any answers to explain, in the words of Dostoevsky, “the human tears with which the earth is soaked from its crust to its centre”. In facing suffering, we cannot explain away or justify its apparent senselessness. But, in asking where God is in such tragedy, we are led to relate suffering to love and hope, as St Paul does in Romans 5 (see verses 1-11). In light of my own experience of ministry to those facing so much tragedy and grief, I have come to recognise that God’s kingdom does not simply break through in our stirring moments – in beautiful walks in the countryside, uplifting pieces of music, and heartening moments with our friends and family. Instead, God’s kingdom also breaks through the dust, dirt, and despair of our suffering, and our call as Christians at times of tragedy is to focus our gaze through our tears to recognise glimpses of his love.

3 Rowan WilliamsIn an article in the Sunday Telegraph in 2004, Rowan Williams, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, reflected on the horror of the Boxing Day tsunami, which had just devastated South Asia. In facing such horrors, he wrote that our faith has no “answers”. Yet we still witness the kingdom in the sacrificial compulsion of people to care for each other and the impulse they have to make a difference. It is in those driven by, in Rowan Williams’s words, “the imperative for practical service and love” that we see God’s light shining. After all, when pain and suffering are countered, the kingdom breaks through. When people reach out to those in need, those who are oppressed, those who face heartbreak, and those who feel they have no hope, then God’s will is being done.

4 donationsWe’ve seen this in just the most amazing way these past few days. Alongside the tireless work of the emergency services and the hospitals, we have seen, on the ground, “an army of caring”, as the press have dubbed it – huge distribution centres, with donated toys, water, food, and clothes; churches, mosques, synagogues, temples all open and welcoming those of any or no faith; sports centres and community halls open; individuals travelling many hundreds of miles to help; celebrities, politicians, and bishops pulling their sleeves up and standing alongside those in their loss; locals opening their gardens and houses for anyone to pop in; people cooking meals and giving them out freely; and three million pounds donated within 48 hours.

6 rainbowA friend of mine who lives directly opposite Grenfell Tower posted the following on her facebook page yesterday: “There is a place for God in this. He is in the hearts of those who feel empty and want to do something, he is with those who give money or time to help, he is with us as we weep and mourn. But can we see it? Do we recognise him where he is to be found?” There are certainly times when we, his followers, can’t offer any words to explain tragedy, less still can we take any pain away. But we are comforted that, through the cross, God knows about grief, loss, pain, abandonment, and fear, and, because of this, he stands alongside those who cry out in distress and agony. In very real and practical terms, he does this through the love and compassion of those who are made in his image. As Teresa of Avila put it: “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.” On Mount Sinai, God revealed himself as “the God of compassion and mercy” (Exodus 34:6), and so when his people, of whatever background or tradition, are inspired to reach out in compassion, God himself is present. That is the hope that springs from suffering, that is the glimpse of God’s kingdom, that is the rainbow in the storm.

 

Why Christians should be the first to stand alongside Muslim brothers and sisters

 

abdullah-al-mulla-at-inter-faith-weekGrowing up in North Wales did not introduce me to a plethora of different faiths and nationalities. Three times a year, though, my family travelled down to the big smoke – Cardiff – to visit my grandparents. While we were there, we’d travel into the city centre, and there we would see people of different races and nationalities, women wearing hijab, and men in long flowing gowns. It all fascinated small-town Trystan and I remember asking my mum whether these people who looked so different from me were Christian. She told me that some of them were, but some were of other faiths, and she added, “but whether they’re Christian or not, God loves them and he wants us to love everyone, whatever their background, whatever their race, whatever their faith”. “But mum,” I retorted, “didn’t Jesus say that no one comes to God, except through him?” To my surprise, my mum answered, “no, Trystan, he didn’t say that”. Before I could rush to my bookcase to show her John 14:6 in my children’s Bible, she explained – “Jesus did not say that no one comes to God except through him, Jesus said no one comes to the Father except through him”.

By seeing God as our “father”, we Christians hold that we are brought into a particular type of relationship with God – a relationship of trust, of forgiveness, of unconditional love. This is a relationship that reflects a human relationship between father and a daughter or son. This personal relationship is one of the amazing things that I, as a Christian, believe makes my faith unique. Jesus came to show us how to attain that relationship, because that relationship reflects who and what God really is – a God of love, a God of forgiveness, a God of compassion.

img_2255We Christians believe that Jesus offers us that unique relationship, but the consequence of that belief is not that other faiths should be disparaged or dismissed – quite the opposite. Our belief doesn’t mean that we Christians own God and that we should box him up as our special property. It doesn’t mean that those of other faiths, and even those of no faith, don’t connect and engage with God. It doesn’t even mean that people of other faiths don’t have their own relationship with God. And it certainly doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t love, laugh with, learn from, and stand up for people of other faiths. This is perhaps something of what Desmond Tutu meant when he said: “God is not a Christian”.

Part of my ministry involves journeying with people who are themselves called to Christian ministry. In my first meeting with a candidate, I ask them who has helped them on their Christian journey – who, down the years, have helped them to connect with God, to see God in different places. Sometimes they mention friends, sometimes family members, sometimes someone in church. When I ask myself that same question there are so many people that come to mind – my mum and dad, my old school chaplain, a lecturer at university, a close friend of mine in my first job, a number of Christian writers whose books I have read but I have never met, and my wife Sandra.

img_0658But I would also add another name to that list. And that is the name of a man called Sameh Otri.  Sameh is now a lecturer in the Middle East, but he was, a few years ack, my fellow chaplain in Cardiff University. Sameh is a humble person, a deeply spiritual person, a compassionate person, an inspirational person. But what makes him different from many of the people on my list is that Sameh is a Syrian Muslim – he was the Muslim chaplain to the University. Yet I learnt so much about God, about faith, about prayer, about love, through Sameh.

img_1927I remember meeting up with Sameh for coffee one spring morning, for example. As we sat down in a Cardiff café that serves just the best cakes, Sameh said to me “oh no! I just remembered, it’s Lent for you, so you must be fasting and can’t eat anything!” I explained to him that actually, for Christians, fasting during Lent was very different to fasting during Ramadan, and that Christians usually give up something specific, like chocolate or cakes. “Ah I understand now”, he said as he chose a big slice of cake, “so what did you give up?” “Oh no”, I quickly replied, “what I meant was that other Christians give up something during Lent, but I haven’t given up anything and so can eat as much cake as I want!” This led to a lengthy conversation on why fasting is important, why self-discipline and self-control are helpful, and how fasting can bring us closer to God. I must admit, and not for the first time with Sameh, I went away with my faith challenged and, in some little way, changed.

img_1899Sameh taught me so much during my time as chaplain and it would be nice to think that he is now chatting to friends in his local mosque in Buraydah, telling them that he also learnt something about God through me. Our call is to both teach others and learn from others, whoever they are. It would be good if all of us could open our eyes, our ears, and our minds to allow people of other faiths to teach us something about God and about our faith. In the gospels, there are gentiles who are learning about God through Christ and his disciples, but it is clear that Jesus wanted his followers to also learn something about God and faith through them – “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith”, he said to his disciples about a centurion (Luke 7:9). We live in a world that’s increasingly obsessed with differences, and with trying to encourage us to fear and distrust those who are different from us and those who have different views from us. But that’s not how Jesus worked. He didn’t want to make people the same as him so he could engage with them. He simply reached out to all people, and encouraged his followers both to love others and to learn from others, whoever they are, however different they may be to them.