Hope – A Christmas Reflection

The recent movie A Boy Called Christmas tells the magical story of how the young St Nicholas met Blitzen and the elves and became the Santa Claus we all know and love. At the start of the film, the King of Finland, played by Jim Broadbent, speaks to his subjects about the dark times they are living in. He says these words: “We all know times are hard. I mean really, really, really hard. I can’t remember the last time I smiled. Can you? What is there to smile about? We’re all miserable. We’re all missing something. And I think we know what that is… Hope. We all need hope.”

After the past few years, many of us can relate to those words. We live in times of turmoil – fractious political uncertainty, heart-breaking environmental damage, toxic ideological divisions, desperate asylum seekers, and, of course, an unforgiving pandemic. In his latest book, the New York Times bestselling author Mark Manson suggests that we all need hope to survive “the way a fish needs water” and, without a hope of a brighter, better future, “we spiritually die”. And he suggests that one of the essential things to build and maintain hope is a sense of control. In other words, if we lose a sense of control over our lives, we lose hope.

How many of us have felt in control of our lives over the past 18 months? Very few, I imagine. But what the pandemic has actually done is taught us a timeless truth about control. It’s taught us that the narrative of self-control is a lie – none of us have any real control over virtually anything! Our health, our jobs, our partners, our children, our weather – none of us have control over them!

Christmas, though, is a time when we’re reminded that, for all our lack of control, hope still lives on. This season opens our eyes to the small glimmers of promise all around us, twinkling like the tree lights in our living rooms. In the Christmas story, the angels announce to the shepherds the coming of a great hope – a Saviour who’ll usher in a new world. No doubt the shepherds were expecting to be told that this hope was to be found in a capital city or in a great palace, in the guise of a charismatic politician or a famous world leader. Instead, the hope entered our world in a helpless baby in a dirty manger in a grubby stable, born to two nobodies surrounded by braying animals, in a small seemingly unimportant town.

Despite the lack of hope in that scene, though, we know that somebody was in control. And, of course, in our own hopelessness, however bad things get, however dark it seems, however stormy the seas, we know that somebody is in control. That is why the light shines in the darkness. And it all started with that first Christmas morning. As the opening words of one Christmas song puts it: “A ray of hope flickers in the sky, A tiny star lights up way up high”.

That star in the night sky pointed to a Christ child who came to us in poverty and weakness, in a seemingly dull, unimaginative scene. But this is the beginning of the glorious colourful nativity that fills our lives and delights our hearts each Christmas, this is the dawn of a new hope. This is the reassurance that, if we lay down our desperation for control, the one who is in control will open our eyes, our ears, our hearts to moments of hope in small things in seemingly unimportant places.

So, yes, when we are reaching out to others through foodbanks or medicines or vaccines or education or charities or environmental care, this is God’s hope in action. But hope is also birthed in our smaller, seemingly insignificant actions – when we’re taking the time to help a neighbour, when we’re reassuring a friend with kind and uplifting words, when we make a phone call to someone who is lonely or struggling, when we speak out for justice for those who are desperate or marginalised, and when we practice kindness and compassion and patience. This is when God’s light is breaking through all around us, reassuring us, in the words of Maggie Smith in that film A Boy Called Christmas: “the darkest night will end, the sun will rise, and Christmas mornings will come again, when anything and everything can happen”.

To watch a recording of this reflection: https://youtu.be/reEAQMEd9D0

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.

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

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

Only Fools and HorsesAfter eight months and three weeks of waiting, my wife and I have been blessed with the arrival of a beautiful baby boy. It was an 18-hour labour and, after all that I saw and experienced over that time, I can confirm that the birth of a baby is painful and tiring. To be fair, it was also quite difficult for my wife! After my friend’s child was born, he tells me he had an Only Fools and Horses moment. He almost fainted at the screams and the blood he witnessed, then the midwife looked over and asked “how are you bearing up?” My friend answered, “I’m fine, thank you”. To which the midwife replied, “I was actually talking to your wife”. My own faux pas at the delivery was not quite that bad, although I now know that the answer to “would the father like to cut the umbilical cord?” can certainly be “no thank you”, but it definitely should not be “no way”… I think my wife has just about forgiven me by now!

For all my squeamishness at the blood and pain of the birth, though, it was a truly magical event that will stay with me for the rest of my life. But, of course, the magic continues now as we welcome our newborn into the family. The constant care that a small baby needs has really struck me – to be fed, to be winded, to be changed, to be kept warm (but not too warm), to be rocked when crying, to be clothed, to be washed, to be kept safe. In fact, the reality is, of course, that a newborn can do nothing at all themselves. They are utterly and completely reliant on others. If we were to leave our baby in a room by himself, he would not last more than a day or two. His beautiful and valuable little life is wholly in our hands.

baby horseAs I was rocking our new bundle of joy to sleep a few days go, with the lullaby tones of my “Babies go U2” CD playing in the background, I was thinking about the complete reliance of children on their parents. This utter dependence is even more marked in comparison to other species. My own dad was brought up on a farm and I remember him telling me that most animals (horses, cows, sheep) are able to walk a matter of hours after birth. Yet, by the time our new little boy takes his first steps it will almost be Christmas again. Likewise, most birds start flying and hunting for their own food after two months. I’m not expecting our son to be preparing breakfast in bed for mum and dad for a good few years yet! In so many ways, our new child’s reliance on us will certainly continue for years to come – I know my own mum would say that it finished with me when I was around 35!

Over the next few weeks, of course, another baby will take the limelight in most of our lives. Welcoming a newborn into his new home has got me thinking about our Christmas celebrations in a new light. In his letter to the Philippians, St Paul writes about God humbling himself through the suffering and crucifixion. At Christmas time, though, we remember a different kind of humbling. This isn’t the humiliation of death, but the humiliation of birth. The almighty, omnipotent, all-powerful God, who created everything and sustains all that exists, became a helpless, weak, and vulnerable baby.

baby JesusAnd let’s not kid ourselves, this was no “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”. The wonderful and awesome God became someone who couldn’t turn himself over, who couldn’t control his bowels or bladder, who coughed and spluttered as he fed on his mother’s milk, who screamed and shrieked to get his parents’ attention, and who had to be taught to walk, to talk, and to say his “please’s” and “thank you’s”. Our strong, immortal God became completely reliant on us weak, mortal humans. He put His life into our hands.

That very fact is at the heart of the incarnation – of why God became human. By humbling himself, first as a baby in a dirty wooden manger and then as an adult on a dirty wooden cross, this awesome and infallible God shows us that he knows what it’s like to be small and very fallible. He knows what it’s like to be cold and hungry, he knows what it’s like to be hated and bullied, he knows what it’s like to be depressed and anxious, and he knows what it’s like to cry and grieve. But he also knows what it’s like to feel love and longing, he knows what it’s like to laugh until tears appear, he knows what it’s like to enjoy the company of friends, and he knows what it’s like to appreciate the beauty of nature. In a nutshell, he knows what it’s like to be us.

A nativity scene in a children's nativity playI went to the nativity of our church’s nursery on Friday. It was a wonderful event, full of cute shepherds and angels, visiting a saintly little baby Jesus, who was placed lovingly and carefully in a manger full of clean straw. At one point, the children filed past baby Jesus and each gave the beautiful baby doll a sweet kiss on the forehead. Christians should certainly not completely abandon the sanitized, sentimental, and fluffy picture of the birth of Jesus. It has its place in the tinsel-tinged celebrations of this wonderful season.
But neither should we forget the raw reality of what being born into this often-cruel world meant for Jesus. Without the dirt, the tears, the pain, the laughter, the joy, the hunger, the illness, the grief, the thirst, the friendship, and the death, we are left with a distant and remote God, and Christmas teaches us that our God is neither distant nor remote.

Our baby sleepingAnd so, last night, as I was watching our baby’s beautiful little body gently rising and falling as he slept, I prayed that he grows to know that, whatever happens to me or my wife, he has another Father who understands him completely, who loves him infinitely, and who accepts him unconditionally; a Father who cries when he cries and laughs when he laughs; a Father who understands exactly what it’s like to be him.

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

Things-with-Wings: A Christmas Reflection

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Things-with-Wings: A Christmas reflection

This video is a short reflection from Real God in the Real World, on the beauty and power of nature. Real God in the Real World is the official advent book for BRF. It is a lively, engaging, and accessible look at Christmas, using personal stories, illustrations from popular culture and the arts, as well as daily Bible readings. The book can be bought from all good bookshops and online retailers, including from BRFonline  and Amazon UK / Amazon US

“A thoughtful and helpful guide to the Advent season, rich in wisdom and insight” (Alister McGrath, King’s College London)

“This is a devotional that fizzes with the pleasure of an advent calendar: each day, as you open a new chapter, you will find yourself looking forward to the gems the author has for you” (Gerard Kelly, The Bless Network)

Hope you enjoy the video! Please do feel free to share, or to use in churches or small groups to aid discussion.

Thanks to my friend (and ordinand at St Michael’s Theological College, Llandaff, Wales) Christopher Frost for producing, editing, & directing the video and to my brother Gwynan Hughes for composing & performing the music.

View sample pages from Real God in the Real World here

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

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

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

saint babyI was due to be born on November 1st, which is ‘All Saints Day’ in the Western liturgical calendar. My mum was excited about delivering her own personal saint. In the week running up to the day, she, therefore, did everything she could to induce labour – from rough country drives to long mountain walks. On the night before All Saints Day, she even fell for the old wives tale of consuming a large dose of castor oil. Unfortunately, I didn’t appear, and all that happened was that she spent the next few days on the toilet! In fact, it took another whole week for me to appear. When I arrived in the world, my father informed my mum that she really did have her own little saint, as November 8th is, in fact, ‘All Saints of Wales Day’! However, my behaviour over the next 18 years quickly dispelled the saintly hopes she had. “Perhaps it would be more appropriate if you’d have been born on Halloween”, I recall her once telling me!

Last year on my birthday, I was invited to a local church to be quizzed by a large group of teenagers about my work as a University chaplain. Three other people have also been invited – a local teacher, someone who works with the homeless in the city, and someone who works for the Samaritans. All evening we were grilled by these inquisitive youngsters, as I answered questions as diverse as “why do you do what you do?”, “What is the meaning of life?”, and, more popular than you might think, “how much do you get paid?!” When I was first asked to attend this evening I naturally enquired why I was being asked to give up my birthday. The vicar who is organising the event informed me that it was to commemorate All Saints of Wales Day, and they were asking a number of modern-day saints of Wales. I nearly fell off my chair laughing when I realised I was to represent a ‘modern-day saint’. Yes, I do my best to help other people, but I’m certainly no St Francis or Mother Teresa!

saintsAfter thinking about it for a while, though, I soon realised that my reaction revealed my own prejudices about what a saint actually was. I’ve always pictured saints as very holy people, with smiling faces, often immortalised in stained glass windows, with little birds landing on their shoulders and halos over their heads. In some ways, today’s reading from the book of Revelation (7:9-17) might allow such a misunderstanding, as this godly group wear white robes and hold palm branches in their hands. However, seen in the context of the rest of the Old and New Testaments, our view of sainthood is challenged. Both St Luke and St Paul paint a much more human and down-to-earth portrait of sainthood, as they refer to those early Christians in Jerusalem and elsewhere as “saints” (e.g. Acts 9:13, 32; Philippians 4:21, and so on), and today’s reading reveals that saints are “a great multitude from every nation, tribe, people and language”.

In reality, of course, there is nothing super-human about sainthood, and thus we are all called to be saints. As Mother Teresa herself once said, all of us have the ability to become ‘pencils in the hand of God’. Sometimes our actions are clearly worthwhile – just think of the selfless work of hospital staff, of carers, of the emergency services, and so on. Sometimes, though, our actions might seem insignificant to us – when we visit a lonely relative, or take time to listen to a friend in need, or when we simply smile and say a nice ‘hello’ to our neighbours. Often we’re so hung-up about our failings that we can forget that all our seemingly minor saintly actions bring so much light and love to the world around us. As Albert Schweitzer, a former Nobel Peace Prize winner, once said, ‘we certainly don’t have to be angels to be saints’!

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

AdventMost of us look forward to Christmas each year. A recent poll revealed why people continue to love the festive season. The reasons were varied – time with family, giving gifts, the food and drink, catching up with old friends, watching children opening their presents, good television, and so on. The “real meaning” of Christmas, however, was positioned lower down in the list. For many, Christ is slowly being relegated from the Christ-mas season.

ricky gervais christmasIn a promotional video for their internet podcast, which has been downloaded over 300 million times, the comedian Ricky Gervais quizzes his radio producer and friend Karl Pilkington on the significance of the nativity story. Pilkington’s answer is revealing and reflects an increasing trend in society’s attitude towards the festive season: ‘[The nativity] is not important. It’s so not important this story. I don’t need an old story… I could do without it. If someone said we’re getting rid of it, I’d go “all right”’.

Those of us who are Christian, though, know very well that the nativity is not simply an ancient story from a dusty old book. The incarnation is about experiencing Christ now. A wonderful consequence of the ‘Word made flesh’ is that Jesus is still involved in a dynamic relationship with the world. After all, God did not only reside in human form for a fleeting thirty-three years, but is still engaged in every part of our everyday lives.

Real God in the Real WorldThe BRF Advent book for 2013, Real God in the Real World, encourages us to use our festive season to recognise Christ in the world around us – not only in our prayer and worship, but also in the beauty of nature, in the friends and family with whom we celebrate the season, and in our everyday activities over the Christmas period and beyond.

Each day we are given a thoughtful consideration of a Bible passage. This will explore the passage through poetry, literature, film, or a lively anecdote, as the scripture is brought to new life. Each day also includes a practical application of the passage’s reflection, to aid us in discovering Jesus’s presence over the festive season. Thus, as we journey through Christmas together, we will start to open our eyes, ears, and hearts to Christ all around us, and, as we do, we will find that the Word is still becoming flesh today!

Real God in the Real World can be purchased directly from BRF, from Amazon, or from your local bookstore. It can be used as for personal reflection or, by using the group discussion questions at the back of the book, it could be used in an Advent group.

Advent 2