Compassion and the General Election

camerons_1625564iOn the morning of Friday 8 May 2015, after his party’s triumph at the general election, David Cameron gave his victory speech on the steps of 10 Downing Street. His final words, replayed endlessly on TV and radio, referred to the United Kingdom as a country with “such great compassion” and with the potential to build a proud future. “Together, we can make Great Britain greater”, he concluded.

compassion-definitionThat the Prime Minister chose to use the word “compassion” at this point is not surprising, as he has used the word on numerous occasions over the past five years in referring to the policies that he is espousing. Yet the word should not be treated lightly. The root of the English word is from the Latin compassio, meaning “to suffer with”. In other words, when someone suffers, we suffer with them and somehow feel their pain. It is, in a nutshell, love-in-action. In the New Testament, Jesus is described as being “moved to his guts with compassion” (splanchnizomai) for those suffering. While in the Old Testament, the word for compassion, rachamim, is related to the Hebrew term for womb (rechem). The Arabic language has the same link between compassion (rahmah) and womb (rahem). In other words, compassion means we treat others as if we shared the same womb with them, as if they were our brothers and sisters.

Compassion is not just a buzzword to be used when it is convenient for politicians and political commentators to try to show how much they care. Instead, compassion is a challenge to each and every one of us to treat others, whoever they are, as if they are related to us – as if they are, quite literally, our brothers and sisters. For Christians, it is at the heart of how we should be treating each other and how we should be act towards the world around us. And yet, while entrepreneurial skills are taught in schools to children as young as six and seven, compassion is rarely seen as an important aspect of educational policy. And while successive governments talk about compassion in the NHS, nurses and doctors feel that they are forced to sideline a truly compassionate attitude in favour of finance and targets. And while our hearts go out to the migrants who lose their lives in the bid to reach our country, compassion is certainly lacking in some of the anti-immigration rhetoric we have heard recently.

The reality is that true compassion (compassio, rachamim, splanchnitzomai) is not championed in Westminster, just as it is not championed in Fleet Street, or the City, or the Old Bailey, or Eton or Oxford or Cambridge. Unfortunately, the establishment – the people that run our country, the institutions that hold sway in our land – are far more interested in finance, profit, and power than in reaching out to the marginalised and disadvantaged. As a society, we have been peddled a lie that our priorities should be individualistic, materialistic, and self-serving. Worse still, we have been made to believe that it is weak and naïve to champion love, kindness, and compassion over material prosperity, egotism, and competition.

hopeYet, as a Christian, I believe we need not be disheartened. Much has been made of the recent general election being an election of negativity and fear – we are told that many voted out of fear of what the future might hold. Christians, though, are not people of fear – we’re people of hope. And that hope doesn’t start in the Houses of Parliament, it doesn’t start in the media or the press, it doesn’t even start in church buildings. Hope starts in our hearts. It starts in our hearts because that’s where compassion begins to flower. And once the buds of compassion break through, then communities start to be reinvigorated, and those communities, in turn, can transform society.

“The kingdom of God is within you”, Jesus declared (Luke 17:21). Once we realise that God’s Kingdom starts inside and then grows outwards, then we’ll start to recognise signs of that kingdom. It’s like throwing a pebble into water. God’s kingdom is the kingdom of ever-increasing circles – compassion starts in our heart, and then grows outwards, impacting on more and more people, bringing hope and transforming futures.

RussellAfter all, Jesus didn’t start his revolution by toppling governments and worldly kingdoms. Many of his followers wanted exactly that. The zealots were opposed to Roman rule, and scholars believe many of them followed Jesus expecting him to instigate such a revolution. His revolution, though, was a very different uprising. The comedian Russell Brand wears a T-shirt with the word “revolution” on it, but with the second, third, fourth, and fifth letters in a different colour – “r-E-V-O-L-u-t-i-o-n”. If we read those four letters backwards, it spells the word “L-O-V-E”. And that’s how Jesus started his revolution – simply by telling his followers to love one another.

Revolution starts with love; it starts with love-in-action. It starts with compassio – suffering with other people. It starts with splanchnitzomai – being so moved to our guts with compassion that we simply have to act. It starts with rachemim – treating everyone as if they had shared the same womb as us… the immigrant, the carer, the school teacher, the nurse, the food bank user, the disabled person on benefits, the homeless person, the prisoner, the unemployed person, the substance abuser, the sick in hospital, the terrified pregnant teenager, the young man struggling on minimum wage, the elderly person in a care home with no visitors for many months. Compassion asks – do we really think of them, and treat them, as if they were our own brothers and sisters?

compassion-is-the-real-money-thumbCompassion should be the only currency that really matters, not the pound or the dollar. Some may think that’s naïve and unrealistic. Sometimes I think that even Christians think that Jesus himself was just a little bit naïve, impractical, or utopian. If Jesus were around now, we might quietly speculate that he’d conclude that things are actually far more complex that he first realised. Things are, in fact, far less complex than we ourselves realise. Jesus knew exactly what human nature was about. On the very night that he was tortured and murdered, he simply said: “my command is this: love each other as I have loved you”.

change-just-ahead-370x229As a Christian, as a person of hope, I am quiet certain that change will come, that transformation will take place. But this change will not start in Westminster, or in the City, or on Fleet Street. Change starts in our hearts, and then grow outwards. If we live out compassion in our daily lives, the kingdom of God cannot fail to break through into our communities and, as a consequence, that will transform our society – bringing light to places of darkness, bringing love to those who suffer prejudice or disadvantage, bringing hope to those who think they have no future. “My command is this: love each other as I have loved you”.

Stephen Fry, Russell Brand, and the Theory of Everything: Part 2

TheTheoryOfEverythingPoster-01I have just returned from watching The Theory of Everything in the cinema. It was a wonderful example of finding hope and love in our broken lives. At times during the film, though, the uplifting element feels merely a superficial bandaid to cover up our feeling of helplessness and anger at the unjust pain and suffering that we witness in the film. Not only do we see Motor Neurone Disease ravage Professor Stephen Hawking’s body, but we also see the mental anguish his friends, wife and children go through as they face the consequences of a terminal disease. Like Stephen Fry, I felt like screaming to the heavens in outrage and indignation. There is certainly no “theory of everything” for Christians to explain the presence of suffering in the world. Like most people, my family and I have had our share of suffering, and, as a member of the clergy, I also have pastoral care for many who go through all manner of heartbreaking situations. The irony is, though, the only way this pain and suffering makes sense for me personally is in light of a loving and compassionate God, who reassures us that he knows what it’s like to face such anguish, stands alongside us in our tears, and affirms hope and meaning in seemingly hopeless and meaningless situations.

Towards the end of The Theory of Everything, as the couple face separation and divorce, Stephen Hawking looks at his wife, tears running down both of their faces, and utters four words that are so difficult to hold onto when we face times of darkness – “everything will be ok”. The wonderful peace behind those words, affirmed by Jesus himself and then countless Christian thinkers down the ages from Julian of Norwich to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is at the heart of the Christian response to suffering. The following extract is taken from my book Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering and asks whether we can make any sense of our suffering:

Cinema-Paradiso“In the film Cinema Paradiso (1989) the character Alfredo voices a sentiment that many of us feel at times in our lives. ‘With all due respect to the Lord who made the world in two or three days,’ he says, ‘I’d have taken a bit longer, but certain things I could have done better’. If we were playing God, there are certainly things about our fallen world that we may well want to change. Even at happy and upbeat times in our own lives, twenty-four hour news channels serve as a constant reminder that the dark side of life is uncomfortably close. The world continues to be troubled in so many different ways – wars, natural disasters, murder, child abuse, prejudice, hatred, and racism. When we personalise suffering, the situation seems even worse, as each one of us has endured pain and suffering at many levels during our lives. We may have lost someone we love, have been affected by illness or disability, have experienced broken relationships, have lost a job, or have experienced other traumas in our lives. Such incidences often take us by surprise, as they strike without warning and with devastating consequences. The playwright Christopher Fry compares the impact of suffering on our lives with an innocent walk on a minefield. ‘One minute you’re taking a stroll in the sun,’ he writes, ‘the next your legs and arms are all over the hedge’. He simply concludes that ‘there’s no dignity in it’.

XTC-Dear-God-69045The presence of such awful and indiscriminate suffering in the world is certainly one of the greatest challenges to belief in a loving God. As misery breaks through and our worlds are turned upside-down, words like ‘grace’ and ‘mercy’ often seem defunct. It is, therefore, unsurprising that the unfairness and injustice of life is one of the principal reasons given for rejection of God. In the song ‘Dear God’, the 1980s group XTC stood alongside many of their fellow agnostics and atheists in positing the depth of pain and misery in the world as a reason for their apostasy. God stands accused of failing His creation, as wars, natural disasters, and vicious diseases render him culpable. The song concludes that Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are nothing but ‘somebody’s unholy hoax’.

st teresaChristians themselves have long recognised that suffering has the potential to alienate people from the faith. ‘If this is the way you treat your friends, it is little wonder you have so few of them’, the sixteenth-century mystic St Teresa of Avila was overheard screaming up at God when her ox cart overturned. The consequence of suffering is, however, often more wide-reaching than a mere rejection of faith. Many fall into resentfulness, intolerance, callousness, or insensitivity as a result of their afflictions. It is certainly not our place to judge those who succumb to such bitterness or hard-heartedness, but each and every one of us does have the option of taking a different path through the dark night of our pain.

“Pain may remind us that we are alive, but love reminds us why we are alive” (Trystan Owain Hughes)In facing our suffering, then, our aim should not be to explain away or justify, in the words of Dostoevsky, ‘the human tears with which the earth is soaked from its crust to its centre’. Rather, our aim should be to start to make larger sense of, and ultimately learn through, the apparent senselessness of our circumstances. After all, if we are to find meaning and hope in our lives, then it must be equally valid, if not more valid, in times of suffering as it is in times of comfort. Furthermore, at the centre of that search for meaning and hope must be the experience of the world’s freely-given love. Our world may well be deeply flawed in its present form, but it still offers us a wonderful experience of the love that flows from joyous and life-affirming gifts such as laughter, nature, memories, art, and other people. Nietzche reminded us that ‘he who has a why to live can bear with almost any how’. It is in these gifts, which for Christians could be termed ‘glimpses of transcendence’ or ‘rumours of another world’, that we can discover the why in our torn and troubled lives.”

(extract taken from Trystan Owain Hughes, Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering SPCK, London 2013)

See also:

Stephen Fry, Russell Brand, and God in a suffering world: Part 1

Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering (blog post)

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

Stephen Fry, Russell Brand, and God in a suffering world: Part 1

brand

Click to view Russell Brand’s reply to Stephen Fry

So much has been written on Stephen Fry’s recent interview on Irish television, in which he was asked what he’d say if he was confronted by God at the pearly gates. His answer described the divine as a “capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain”. Fellow-comedian Russell Brand’s responded to Fry on his YouTube channel, and, whether Brand would describe himself as “Christian” or not, he sums up much of what I have written about in two of my books – Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering and The Compassion Quest. Instead of contributing yet another response to the plethora of discussions already on the web, I have decided to post a series of extracts from those books – extracts that relate directly to the questions Stephen Fry asks and to the responses Russell Brand gives. The first extract sets the scene:

Color Purple“In Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Colour Purple, the main protagonist Celie, a poor, uneducated, black girl living in the Deep South of the United States in the 1930s, describes to a friend the God to which she was introduced at a very young age. ‘He big and old and tall and greybearded and white;’ she explains, ‘you wear white robes and go barefooted’. This God was a distant, authoritarian figure, who had been used for centuries to justify the power that whites held over blacks and that men held over women. Celie admits that it was, therefore, easy for her to discard her out-dated, white, male deity. ‘When I found out, I thought God was white, and a man, I lost interest’, she confesses. This, however, was only the beginning of Celie’s faith journey, and the novel describes her eventually laying aside her negative concept of God and moving towards a radically different, incarnational portrayal of the divine.

DawkinsBy today, while very few Christians would hold to a God who could be described as ‘white’ and a ‘man’, a theologically traditional view of God is still in ascendance. Yet, in recent years, the traditional image of God has found itself under vitriolic attack. Writers such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens certainly influence the thoughts and beliefs of their readers, but, more than this, they reflect and affirm the already deeply-held hostility of an increasingly atheistic society towards faith. Speaking about ‘God’ is regarded as being as nonsensical as speaking about Father Christmas or the tooth fairy. ‘Fairies don’t exist, because we don’t see them. If we don’t see things, they don’t exist’, explained my 5-year-old daughter. Dawkins’s analogy of faith being akin to believing in a Flying Spaghetti Monster runs along a similar line of argument – believing in a God we can’t ‘see’, ‘touch’, or ‘hear’ is as ridiculous as believing in a fantastical creature. Dawkins’s image has particularly been taken into the hearts of atheist and agnostic internet bloggers, one of whom famously adapted an image of Michaelangelo’s ceiling at the Sistine Chapel by replacing the Almighty with the Spaghetti Monster. One of his tentacles reaches out to touch Adam’s finger, with the tagline ‘Touched by his noodly appendage’.

misunderstandingSuch criticism of the traditional image of God is now widespread in our society. Young people especially regard such a critique as supporting their worldview and culture, and many of their idols, from comedians like Ricky Gervais and Eddie Izzard to TV celebrities like Derren Brown and Stephen Fry, affirm their views. For us to counter such misunderstanding and prejudice about the Christian God, we ourselves must embark on a liberative faith journey like the one taken by Celie in The Colour Purple. By undertaking such a quest, we must aim to develop our image of God to reach a way of viewing the divine, and a way of speaking about the divine, which can make sense to the post-modern, scientific mind-set, but still holds on to a theologically sound and time-honoured foundation. After all, such joviality about the Flying Spaghetti Monster hides a serious issue that Christians have to face. Traditionally, the Christian concept of God has been unashamedly other-worldly and, to the unbelieving mind-set, such a supernatural God is increasingly seen as ‘unbelievable’. At the foundation of this traditional, ethereal view of God, however, is not Christianity itself, but rather the secular lens through which our faith has universally been read.”

(extract taken from Trystan Owain Hughes, The Compassion Quest SPCK, London 2013)

See also the following blog posts:

Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering (blog post)

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

 

 

Setting the world on fire at Christmas!

candlesChristmas is nearly here, and I am busy preparing for our midnight Christmas service. My most memorable midnight service, though, was ten years ago now in the small church of Gileston in the Vale of Glamorgan in South Wales. The service had all gone smoothly until I stood up to preach. As I got more and more enthusiastic about the peace and joy that should inspire us at Christmas, I noticed that the people in the front row were beginning to wave their hands around. For a moment, I thought that they had suddenly being filled with the spirit and were manifesting a charismatic side to their worship. I started to get excited, as they started to mouth words at me. I couldn’t quite understand what they were saying, but I just imagined that they were mouthing “amen, preacher” or “hallelujah, reverend” or “preach it, vicar”. It was filling me with more and more confidence, so I got louder and louder and more enthusiastic in my delivery.

burning-flowersThen, I noticed that the whole congregation began to wave their arms and point and mouth words. I also suddenly smelt something… smoke! I turned around and to my horror I saw that a candle had fallen onto the wonderful display of flowers behind the altar and the whole display had gone up in flames! I ran up to the altar, and looked around for a fire extinguisher. Unfortunately, not one was to be found. By this point the flames were pretty fierce and smoke had filled the whole church. There was only one thing for it – I grabbed the large jug of water that we use at communion and threw it on the flames. Unfortunately, I had actually picked up the decanter of communion wine and so had thrown all our communion wine onto the burning flowers! In the end, I ran out of firefighting ideas, so I just took off my robes and smothered the fire with them! Even now, when I go back to my old parish, I am not remembered for my kind heart, my pastoral visiting, or my lively preaching. No, I am rather remembered as the vicar who threw communion wine on a fire and then stripped off and threw his clothes on it!

3-romantic-snow-flakes-christmas-baubles_1920x1200_70396I remember at the time, though, that the whole incident got me thinking about how Christmas should inspire us. We celebrate Christmas during our winter, the coldest time of the year. We’re excited if there’s any mention that it might be a white Christmas, and many of our Christmas cards have beautiful snow scenes on them. After my experience of firefighting in Gileston, though, I started viewing Christmas, not with winter and snow in mind, but with fire, light, and warmth.

christingleOf course, this is not a new image for our Christmas celebrations. Many churches have candles on their christingle oranges and light the candles of the advent wreath. With these candles we remember that Christ is the light of the world, who illuminates a way of living, a way of compassion, a way of peace that goes beyond whatever other worldview that might be in ascendance. For us at Christmas time, that means that the baby of the manger, the child of the stable can help us see beyond the consumerist haze of this season – we can see beyond our society’s desperate desire to buy, or to have, or to abuse, or to dominate. Wealth, power, authority, money – none of them are important when seen in the light of a crying child in a dirty manger, born to offer us another way of living. As Mary exclaimed when she was expecting child: “he has scattered the proud in their conceit; he has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty”.

This has huge implications on how we live our lives – on our priorities, on our politics, on the way we treat others, on our values, on how we use or money, on what we consider to be important. It challenges us to look beyond our own cold wants, needs, and desires, and to show the warmth of love and compassion to others, whoever they are and however different they may be to us.

cross-and-fire_491_1024x768I’ve been to so many carol concerts, services, and nativities over the past few weeks, but one thing links all of them – and that’s the faces of those attending. There have been so many smiles, so much laughter, and a good deal of genuine warmth. The Christmas story is certainly one that brings us hope and it makes us stop and assess what is important in our lives. After all, this is the season when we recognize the importance of love, peace, acceptance, and forgiveness. But, we must also look beyond Christmas Day. We must also commit, not just to allow God to warm our hearts, but to allow God to set our hearts on fire. By doing so, we can take the message of the season into the new year, we can live out lives inspired by the life of baby born 2000 years ago, we can help subvert the worldly values of wealth and power, and we can commit ourselves to lives of peace, hope, joy, love and compassion. That’s what the fire of Christmas is really all about.

See also:

Advent and the Weight for Christmas

Unto us a Child is Born: A new baby at Christmas

Things-with-wings: A Christmas Reflection

Are you sitting comfortably? Christmas and the wonder of story

Advent and the Weight for Christmas

img_3263At the moment, I’m fascinated in books about words, and letters and languages. I’m finding out all sorts of intriguing facts – did you know, for example, that sixteenth-century printers used to keep their capital letters in one case and the other letters in another case, which is why letters became known as Upper Case and Lower Case?! I’ve also discovered all about homophones – words that sound the same but have no relation whatsoever to one another. Take, for example, the word “weight”, meaning a heaviness or a heavy load or object, and the word “wait”, meaning an inactivity until a future expectation happens. Clearly they are very different words.

Advent is a time of “waiting” for that future expectation – waiting for the birth of Christ, waiting for the celebration of Christmas Day. Most of us don’t enjoy having to wait for things, and, in our instantaneous and speedy world, we have all sorts of ways of hurrying things up. As the comedian Steve Wright quipped, ‘I put my instant coffee in my microwave oven and almost went back in time’!

k6rmf-glass-in-handWith this is mind, perhaps the word “wait” is not so different to its homophone-partner “weight”. Someone sent me an email this week that described how a teacher picked up a glass of water and asked a group of students how heavy it was. All sorts of answers were called out, ranging from 5 ounces to 30 ounces. The teacher then informed them that the absolute weight has no bearing on our own experience of the weight: “The weight depends on how long I hold it. If I hold it for a minute, it’s no problem at all. If I hold it for an hour, I’ll have a slight ache in my arm. If I hold it for a day, then my whole arm will start to feel numb and paralyzed. In each case, the weight of the glass doesn’t change, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes”.

i-am-waitingSometimes, when we are waiting for something or someone, it can be rather frustrating and wearisome, like an ache in the arm. It can be a somewhat unpleasant experience when we are waiting in a queue in a supermarket or we’re waiting for a friend who’s late once again. But waiting can also be far more serious and severe. Ultimately, waiting can weigh us down. It can be like carrying a heavy load for a long period. It can numb us and paralyze us when we are waiting for recovery from illness, waiting for depression to lift, waiting for light to break through grief, waiting for test results, or waiting for the hurt of broken relationships to heal.

6a01127946f41528a40120a6aceca0970b-800wiNothing can completely take away the darkness of some of our waiting. But in all our waiting, Christ can make a difference. To use another homophone, he can make the darkness lighter and he can make the heavy load lighter. In this sense, waiting doesn’t have to always be so frustrating or painful. After all, there are two times of waiting in church calendar – advent and lent – and both have something in common. Both end in new life and joy. It is, therefore, no surprise that almost all the verses in the Bible that mention “waiting” do not relate it to heaviness, pain, and oppression. Instead, they imply that we have a choice to view our waiting in a different way – as a gift where we are invited to treasure each moment. As Isaiah 40:31 puts it: “but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint”.

IMG_5184Whatever kind of waiting we are experiencing, then, we can choose to actively appreciate and cherish. Sometimes our waiting is looking forward in anticipation to a good event. This should be fun and fulfilling, but it can also lead us to live our lives in the future, rather than enjoy the gift of waiting. Over the past year, I have found myself sitting with my one-year-old son and thinking how much I’m looking forward to the next stage of his development – at first it was when he crawls, then when he walks, then when he talks. I was looking at photos of him recently and I realised how much I had missed of the stages he was at by looking to the future. I now challenge myself to appreciate where he is now – you could call it “the waiting for the next stage” – rather than wishing the next stage would come quickly.

beauty_ordinary_thingsThere are other times, though, when our waiting is not to do with anticipation, but rather we are forced to wait, due to illness or to a traumatic event. Again, while it may well be difficult, we can wait actively in these moments. During the intense period of my own back injury, before my operation, I had almost 12 months where I was laid up in bed for most of the day. I would venture out for very short daily strolls. But I taught myself to truly appreciate those walks – the beauty of nature, the conversation of friends who visited to walk with me, the silence when I walked alone, the uplifting music when I took my ipod. This was all God at work, and, in spite of my continuing pain, I could not help but celebrate His wonderful, mysterious, and holy gift of life.

large‘Active waiting’ is about finding God’s light in your journeys, however long and difficult your wait, however heavy and burdensome your weight. The poet Ralph Waldo Emerson asked the question: “how much of human life is lost in waiting?” And he’s right – how much of life is wasted, waiting for the future to happen? Our time is precious, and active waiting helps us to connect with God and appreciate our time fully. In the words of the author Sharlande Sledge, it helps us to “transform our in-the-meantime into God’s time”.

Sharlande Sledge: Prayer on Waiting

Look upon us gently, Lord, for waiting is not our forte. So many things are… things like moving ahead, fixing what is wrong, planning what is next, diagnosing the problem, cramming more into one day than one person can possibly do before the sun goes down.

But waiting… when we are waiting for the light to shine, when we are waiting for the Word, when we are waiting for a wound to heal, nothing in all the world is harder than waiting.

So in your mercy, Lord, wait with us.

Be very present in waiting.  Heal our frenzy. Calm our fears. Comfort those who at this very minute are with every anxious breath and thought waiting for they know-not-what.

Transform our in-the-meantime into your time, while we wait with each other, sit with each other, pray each other into hope, surrounded by your presence, even in the darkness. Especially in the darkness. Amen

 See also:

Unto us a Child is Born: A new baby at Christmas

Things-with-wings: A Christmas Reflection

Are you sitting comfortably? Christmas and the wonder of story

Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering

Recently I was privileged to have been asked to contribute a guest post on my story for the “God and Suffering: Our Story” series on the wonderful Thorns and Gold blog. The Thorns and Gold blog explores themes of suffering, faith, and hope, and is certainly worth following. Here, though, is my own guest contribution to that blog:

shutterstock_113875279Ten years ago my life changed completely when I was diagnosed with a degenerative spinal condition and required major back surgery. This story would be a far more interesting if I could write about an injury playing rugby for my beloved Wales or while skiing at the Winter Olympics. Alas, no. It was an injury sustained playing badminton in the local sports hall that led to the investigations that discovered prolapsed and degenerative disks. Within three months of the initial injury, the pain in my lower back and my legs was excruciating and unceasing. I was unable to sit or stand for longer than a few minutes. I was stuck, quite literally, lying on a sofa all day, unable to go to work or to socialise outside of the house.

my-god-my-god-why-have-you-forsaken-meSix months later I was lying in a hospital bed in the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in London and I opened my Bible on Psalm 22. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest”. My eyes filled with tears as the words echoed the emptiness and frustration I was feeling. Physical pain, combined with the mental anxiety of facing a long-term, chronic condition, led me to ask questions most of us face at some point in our lives: What’s the point of this suffering? Why doesn’t God stop suffering? Is life really worth this pain?

tears2During a lengthy recovery, which included hospitalisation for two months, my view of these big questions of theodicy began to change. I saw that the mystery of suffering was far less important than the mystery of love. On returning to ministerial work in churches in Cardiff, Wales, I came to realise that the most joyous smiles often mask terrible pain and tragedy – bereavement, divorce, illness, disability, addiction, or chronic pain. At some point in our lives, each of us has to face suffering. Whilst none of us are given the option of rejecting suffering, we are blessed with the choice of the path that we take through the dark night of our pain.

Through my own experience of suffering I realised that, while I couldn’t change the pain I was feeling, I could change my attitude towards the situation. Slowly, but surely, I began to re-wire my ways of viewing the world, as I embarked on a journey of forging meaning from the apparent meaninglessness of suffering. This was certainly not an easy process, and involved soul-searching, tears, and prayer. I was convinced, though, that the one thing that we have left through any amount of suffering, great or small, is a choice of how we react to what we are enduring. As an Arabian saying reminds us: ‘The nature of rain is the same, but it makes thorns grow in the marshes and flowers in the garden’.

hope_in_focusFor all of us, opening our eyes to moments of God’s light and grace, even in our times of suffering, 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 but the darkness has not understood it’ (John 1:5).

Cappella_Sistina_Sistine_Chapel_2476394326Ten years on and I am still unable to sit or stand for long periods. Much of my life is, therefore, spent pacing around rooms (even during meetings) or lying down (while I prepare lectures or sermons). I also use icepacks, heat patches, and a tens machine on a daily basis. Through the whole experience, though, my view on suffering has changed radically. No longer do I regard suffering as something that stops life from being lived. Instead, I aim to find hope and meaning in those small, seemingly insignificant areas of life that I took for granted before my injury – in nature, in friendship, in family, in laughter, in the arts, in memories, and so on. Most of us, after all, are like flies crawling on the ceiling of Sistine Chapel – we are unaware of the depth of beauty and joy all around us.

reflections on Christ - crucifixionI can truly say, then, that God has been vividly present in my pain. Not that he wants us to suffer, either directly or indirectly. Rather, he is present in our suffering, helping to redeem and transform it. As the Old Testament shows us, God suffers alongside the persecuted, imprisoned, and victimised. ‘In all their distress, He too was distressed’ (Isaiah 63:9). Likewise, Jesus’s sorrows on the cross show us that God truly understands our dark times. As such, he can meet us in our afflictions, bringing meaning and hope at the most unlikely times. 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 Welsh poet Henry Vaughan, ‘The lilies of His love appear’.

cropped-there-is-always-hope-2516881-1Those times when the still small voice of calm seems mute may well be frequent for us, but my own experience is that, even in that silence, we can actively listen for his voice. By doing so, we affirm the importance of love, joy, hope, and meaning in our dark times, rather than dwelling on the horrible reality of suffering. Even though it may not feel like it at the time, our trials and tribulations are, therefore, turned into triumphs of our will and spirit. After all, like diamonds, which sparkle all the more brightly the more facets are cut, our lives reflect God’s light all the more brilliantly when we have many cuts.

See also my book Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering and the following blog posts:

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

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

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

Some thoughts on Remembrance Sunday: War, pacifism, and chaplains

British Army Medics Depart To Provide Ebola Support In  Sierra-LeoneWhen I was a child, most of our holidays were based close to army barracks. My dad was a chaplain for the army cadets and the territorial army, so we would travel with him to our destination, where he would work for a week in the barracks and we would holiday in a town close by. He would then join us for the second week of our holiday. I never knew really what he did in those barracks, but I remember the worry that, if a big war broke out, my dad could be called up to be shipped out with the soldiers. That time never came, thank God, and, by now, I know a little more of the amazing pastoral work carried out by the chaplains of the armed forces. Just last week, I was talking to someone whose friend is the chaplain of the military medics who have recently travelled down to the West Coast of Africa to assist with the humanitarian and health workers who are fighting Ebola.

British+Army+HQ+Coordinates+Afghan+Operations+PuXZR6qSQnklMy understanding of, and respect for, the chaplains of the armed forces increased further recently when I read the memoirs of Sergeant Sidney Stewart. Stewart was a survivor of the famous Bataan Death March during the Second World War – the forcible transfer of around 80,000 prisoners, who were made to walk many miles to a prisoner of war camp in the Philippines. After 12 days of walking, with over 14,000 men dying on the march, Stewart describes how even the survivors themselves were “dying men at the end, haunted by fear, eaten by pain and fever”. Yet one man brought hope, comfort, and calm to the tormented and beleaguered prisoners. This was a chaplain, called Father Cummings, who was inspired into selfless compassion at the silent, hopeless faces all around him. “’I must work harder;’ he said to Stewart with a sigh, ‘these men need me’”.

Father CummingsOnce they were at the camp, the hardships continued and within two years another 8,000 prisoners had died. Yet Father Cummings urged the survivors to let go of their hatred of the captors. Teaching forgiveness and love, Stewart notes that he himself, and others around him, began to change their view of those persecuting them. He notes that one prisoner, inspired by the chaplain, put it this way: “we’ve learnt to understand… their beliefs, their religion, their way of life. Many of them are like men all over the world, no better, no worse. They too like to take out their photographs and show pictures of their wives and children. They too long the war to end so they can go home again”.

DSC_6665smallTowards the end of the war, Father Cummings’s final gift to the prisoners, as they were herded back to Manila, and then on to Japan, in the foul hold of ships, was to teach them the power of the Lord’s Prayer. “Suddenly from the depths of the hold I heard a voice like the voice of God. Father Cummings began to speak. The sound was clear and resonant and made me feel he was talking to me alone. The men became quiet. ‘Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…’” Every few hours, the lone chaplain would pray that prayer out loud, and, when he did, a calm descended and all the crying and shouting ceased. The Prayer “floated like a benediction through the hold, caressing everyone of us… I felt that God listened, that God watched us, and that God cared… I lived only for that prayer of faith and hope. It was the only strength I had. His voice was like the voice of God to me”. Stewart claimed that his own survival was, in no small part, due to the faith and hope that Father Cummings inspired. As for the lowly chaplain himself, he died in the arms of the Sergeant, towards the end of the sea journey. Appropriately, he passed away while reciting the Lord’s Prayer one final time – his last words being “give us this day our daily bread”.

Nicholas+Cook+British+Army+HQ+Coordinates+zePhvjDxou6lAs someone who abhors war and especially the thought of any civilian casualties and deaths, I am glad I do not have to make decisions regarding the safety of our country and other countries worldwide. My heart leans heavily towards pacifism, but it does battle with my head when I consider so-called “just” causes. Ultimately, I simply can’t ignore Jesus’s radical call in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”. This battle between my heart and head will, no doubt, continue. What I do know, though, is that the chaplains to the armed forces have down the years, and continue this day to, give their lives to stand alongside young, frightened men and women who are sent to places of conflict and war. In the midst of fear, hatred, and death, they champion to them lives of love, compassion, and forgiveness. That is the “daily bread” they offer them. For this, we should be grateful to them.