What is the theology of safeguarding? Building welcoming communities of love and grace (Ministry Blog Series – 4)

In a change from my normal blog posts, I have been sharing a number of theological papers on ministry that I have written down the years, including for the Doctrinal Commission of the Church in Wales . This post was written as a blog post for the Diocese of Llandaff in the Church in Wales.

Safeguarding. It’s a word that, to some people, brings to mind another seminar we are made to attend and just another box to tick. When it comes down to it, we sometimes feel we have better things to do than sit through another safeguarding course or read yet another email or article on the subject.

The reality is, though, that safeguarding is absolutely integral to our faith. It’s part of our calling and should be central to our discipleship, ministry, and mission. As Christians, each of us has an important role to play in promoting welfare of children and vulnerable adults. Paying attention to interpersonal boundaries and power imbalances is far from being an inconvenience, but is intrinsic to a life-giving, compassion-filled faith.

Perhaps understanding the theological and biblical roots of safeguarding can inspire and challenge us to a fresh vision of the importance of fostering a culture of safety in our churches. After all, as theologian Krish Kandiah puts it, in the Bible there is “a clear mandate, motivation and mission to ensure that those who are or may be vulnerable are heard, defended, and treated appropriately, effectively, fairly and compassionately”.

The theological foundation for safeguarding stems from our creation in the image of God. Who we know God is, and how we know he acts, sets the precedent to how we should relate to each other. Jewish theologian Martin Buber wrote: “in the beginning was relationship”. In other words, God is relationship and the concept of the loving Trinity, God as ‘three in one’, brings that home to us. So, our call as Christians is to reflect the relationship that God is – loving, affirming, welcoming, caring, and protecting.

After all, in Psalm 121, God himself is described as our “keeper” and the Hebrew word used there (somereka) can be translated as “safeguard”. In fact, even the theological concept of “salvation” relates to this, as the root of the word “salvation” in Greek (soteria) implies safekeeping. So, care and compassion are at the core of God’s very being. As a result, we ourselves are challenged to live out God’s radical care and love, ensuring we advocate for the lowly, the lost, and the least in our communities. As the book of Proverbs puts it (31:8): we “speak up for people who cannot speak for themselves and protect the rights of all who are helpless and defenceless”.

And, of course, this relates to the cross, which stands at the very centre of our faith. By acknowledging the horror and pain of the cross and God’s presence in Jesus’s cries of agony, we are compelled to challenge all forms of manipulation, violence, and suffering. The cross is, as theologian Elaine Brown Crawford puts it, “an eternal statement that humans should not be abused”.

The agony of the cross then leads to the resurrection, which further affirms our commitment to fostering safety for those who are under threat, ushering in transformation, new life, and hope for individuals and communities. And, just as the resurrected Jesus had scars on his body, so we also stand alongside those who bear their own hidden scars, not least those who have been ignored and failed by the Church in the past.

So, churches are mandated to become places that embody a kingdom where the dignity and ultimate worth of all is championed. While the structures and processes of safeguarding may seem inconvenient on occasion, they are an essential part of this mandate. They can become instruments of God’s kingdom, whereupon children and vulnerable people can be helped to flourish and can be provided with the safe places they desire and deserve. As such, safeguarding is not only at the heart of God’s being and will, but is at the heart of our own identity as Christians, underpinning everything we do, everything we stand for, and everything we are. It is through championing the absolute centrality of care and safety in our churches that we can truly build welcoming, hopeful, compassionate communities of love and grace.

Thought for the Day: The Beatles, the Beatitudes, and the God of the Unexpected

In the style of my Lent Book Opening our Lives and Advent Book Real God in the Real World, I will be sharing occasional “thoughts for the day” on various subjects on this blog. Hope you enjoy.

Recently, Peter Jackson, most famous as director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, edited footage of the three weeks in 1969 when the Beatles recorded their final album. It’s a marathon of a documentary, almost 9 hours long, but it’s also fascinating. It reveals how the creativity of the Beatles was fuelled by marmalade on toast and it shows how, in their final months as a band, the sometimes-fractious relationships between the Fab Four inspired them to compose some of their most timeless tunes, including “Let it Be” and “Get Back”. Their plan was to end the three weeks by performing in an ancient auditorium in Tripoli. Eventually, though, they simply decide to climb up to the rooftop of their studio in London and play a concert to the astounded people walking past.

As the police desperately try to gain access to the rooftop to put a stop to the concert, the filmmakers interview people on the streets below. Some are unhappy at the music blasting out, while others are excited by the final time the Beatles would ever perform in public. The interviewers then come to an ageing vicar. We might expect him to side with the greying businessmen condemning the loud music. Refreshingly, though, he doesn’t play into the stereotype of the grumpy Christian bemoaning noisy youths. Instead, he looks up to the roof, smiles warmly, and says that rarely do people get anything for free and how wonderful it was that the young people were enjoying it so much!

As I watched that joyful, unpredictable vicar, I was reminded somewhat of the God that he was following. The Bible reveals to us that our God is the God of the unexpected. Jesus’s teaching reveals a God who topples our predictions and confounds our expectations. In particular, he doesn’t side with the people who we think might deserve it. Instead, he embraces the people that our society believes should be side-lined or ignored. This God of ours brings the people on the edges of life to the centre stage – all the lonely people, as the Beatles put it, but also the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the grieving, the depressed, the anxious, the struggling, the lowly, the gentle, the marginalised, the powerless, the hated, the outsider, and the unwanted.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus astonishingly refers to these people as “blessed” (Luke 6:20-26) – or even “happy” as the Greek word used (makarios) can be translated. In God’s eyes, it is the struggling people on the edges of our society who are blessed and happy. This sharply contradicts how our world seems to work – where the rich, the capable, the successful, the powerful, and the famous are glorified, while others are viewed as expendable consumers, to sell things to or to be discarded as unprofitable or useless.

The Beatles famously sang that “all you need is love”. Whatever they meant by that, our faith reminds us that Christian love is something radically different from saccharin-sweet Valentine’s Day love. God’s love destroys the dominant worldview and ushers in a strange kingdom that has dramatic implications on our lives. It demands that we ask ourselves some searching questions. Who do we glorify in our world? Who do we demonise? How do we view certain people and groups? Are we truly living out our upside-down, downside-up, topsy-turvy, flipped-around faith? Or are we simply standing around, like the predictable people in the Beatles documentary, complaining about the noise and looking down with disdain on those who are not like us? And are we too quickly slipping into our comfort zones and descending into the stereotype of how we think a “normal” Christian should behave and react?

One thing is clear – there’s nothing normal about our faith, and neither is there anything comfortable, snug, or predictable. Instead, Jesus introduces us to the God of the unexpected and, by doing so, he rips up and tears apart all the world teaches about human nature. In our faith is a radical, revolutionary call to sacrifice, love, and compassion. Through our faith, and with our help, God can and will transform our broken world.

Lent Book with Resources – Opening our Lives: Devotional Readings for Lent

Thinking of a Lent book for your daily reading this year? Or are you leading a weekly Lent group in your church? Allow Opening our Lives: Devotional Readings for Lent to challenge and inspire you this Lent. As well as daily reflections and weekly questions in the book itself, the following videos might also aid your reading and/or discussion:

Week 1: Week 1 Lent – Open our Eyes to your Presence – YouTube

Week 2: Week 2 Lent – Open our Ears to your Call – YouTube

Week 3: Week 3 Lent – Open our Hearts to your Love – YouTube

Week 4: Week 4 Lent – Open our Ways to your Will – YouTube

Week 5: Week 5 Lent – Open our Actions to your Compassion – YouTube

Week 6 (Holy Week): Week 6 Lent – Holy Week – Open our Pain to your Peace – YouTube

Easter Sunday: Easter Sunday – Open our World to your Hope – YouTube

Extra: Interview with Trystan Owain Hughes about ‘Opening our Lives’ – the official BRF Lent Book for 2021 – YouTube

Extra: Easter Tiny Perfect Moments – A Reflection Recorded for High School Pupils – YouTube

Official BRF Lent Book 2021

Official Archbishop of Wales Lent Book 2021

Endorsed by Bishop Ruth Bushyager, Amy Boucher-Pye, Bishop June Osborne, and Bishop Graham Tomlin.

“Easy, attractive, and thought-provoking reading” (Church Times)

“Hughes‘s comments, based upon sound scholarship, are written out of his experiences and inspire the reader to look more closely at the things of faith“ (Methodist Recorder)

“Blending story, insight and commentary… weaving wisdom from the Bible with stories from his life, examples from books and movies, and insights from great Christian thinkers… a rich resource that will give you plenty to not only ponder but to put into practice” (Women Alive magazine)

Available from all good bookstores, including Eden, Amazon, BRF, Waterstones, and CHB.

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

Thought for the Day: Our Wonky Hearts

In the style of my Lent Book Opening our Lives and Advent Book Real God in the Real World, I will be sharing occasional “thoughts for the day” on various subjects on this blog. Hope you enjoy.

Recently, I’ve been watching the TV series Britannia, about the Roman invasion of Britain. It was filmed on the beautiful stretch of coastline at Llantwit Major in South Wales, so I was inspired to go for a walk there with my family last week. We’d heard there were fossils in the rocks there, so we started searching. My wife suddenly shouted, so we ran over excited to see some ammonite or other. We were disappointed to discover that there was no fossil, but rather she wanted to show us markings on the rock that were shaped like a love heart. Our crestfallen 7-year-old bluntly blurted out: “mum, it doesn’t even look like a heart”. “Just look carefully”, my wife answered, “it’s a wonky heart!”

As I stood on that beach, it dawned on me that all of us have wonky hearts. This is, of course, quite literally true. Our hearts don’t really look like the love hearts that appear on Valentine’s Day cards. Instead, they can appear as a variety of shapes, shapes described by the medical school in the University of Minnesota as elliptical, conical, and trapezoidal. In other words, hearts are wonky.

While this is true physiologically, it is also true emotionally and spiritually. The love that we share with others will always be flawed and imperfect. Our care and compassion for those in need, for those undergoing oppression, for those who are struggling in life, for the environment around us, will always be lacking in some way. Bruce Springsteen once sang “everybody’s got a hungry heart”. But perhaps “everybody’s got a wonky heart” holds far more truth.

Rather than leading us to feel helpless and to feel as if we can never do enough or do things correctly, though, our faith teaches us to accept the limitations of our wonky love and to still strive, the best we can, to live out God’s commands to love those around us. In other words, even our little steps of wonky love matter.

It’s so easy to get sucked into thinking there really is no point doing anything if our hearts are flawed anyway. Recently someone told me that there was not much point cutting down use of their car or making a real effort to recycle. After all, they continued, our own feeble acts are like a drop in the ocean of what is needed. “If only China or the US governments would change their policies;” they concluded, “now that would make a difference”.

For us Christians, though, however seemingly small our good deeds, living out God’s love for the world around us is central to our calling. We certainly can’t do everything, but we can be the change we want to see. After all, this is what Jesus meant when he urged us to “seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness”. We bring in a little of God’s kingdom each time we speak a kind word to a neighbour, each time we make a phone call to a friend who is struggling or lonely, each time we speak out against inequality and injustice, each time we decide to walk rather than use the car, each time we donate to a charity. Our actions matter. They really matter.

So, yes, our hearts are wonky, but they still hold the wonderful potential to make just a little difference in a world that desperately needs love and hope. And the more of us that recognise that fact, the bigger the difference will be. As activist Howard Zinn put it: “small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world”.

Thought for the Day: Friendship

In the style of my Lent Book Opening our Lives and Advent Book Real God in the Real World, I will be sharing occasional “thoughts for the day” on various subjects on this blog. Hope you enjoy.

I was flicking through TV channels the other evening and stumbled across a rerun of the TV series Friends. The trials of Joey, Monica, Rachel, Chandler and Ross kept many of us enthralled in the 90s. But I was suddenly struck by the famous theme tune, which sympathises if it has not “been your day, your week, your month, or even your year”.

Over a year now into this pandemic, it’s easy for us to feel that it’s not been our year, that our lives have been put on hold for far too long. The reality is, though, that nothing has really been put in hold and that we have grown, developed and learnt so much about ourselves, our faith, and our world through the pandemic. This is certainly true with how much many of us have learnt about the value and benefit of friendship – perhaps because we have missed our normal times with our friends (sitting, chatting in cafés, for example) or perhaps because we have had friends who have stood by us, bringing hope and joy into our times of worry and darkness.

Over the past few decades, though, most of us have been living increasingly isolated lives. In the US, research shows that one in four people have no close friends, while here in the UK our government is so concerned with social isolation that they have appointed a minister for loneliness. Over in Japan “Rent-a-Friend” companies are proving hugely popular and the trend is catching on elsewhere. Last week, I found myself sitting alone on my sofa, scrolling through social media posts. It dawned on me that I was connected to so many people, but I was not connecting with anyone.

St Augustine pointed out that sin makes us curve inward on ourselves. In other words, it makes us think that we can do it alone, to believe that we don’t need others. Our individualistic cultures make this all the worse – independence is championed, self-made people are praised, the glory of individual achievements is emphasised. And so we misalign our priorities.

Drew Hunter, in a book on the spiritual importance of friendship, powerfully suggests that, at the end of our lives, when we take a thoughtful glance backwards into our past, none of us will say “oh, I wish I’d spent more hours at work” or “oh, I wish I’d spent more time staring at a screen”. But we may well say “I wish I’d spent more time with my friends”. He concludes with a lovely line: “if you ask me what’s best in life, I’m going to give you names”.

Jesus himself came as a person of friendship. In John’s gospel he asserts that he is much more than the Master of his disciples – he is their friend (John 15:14-15). As we are now also his disciples, so his friendship is offered to us. And so it’s no surprise that friendship is so important in our lives, for our God is a God of friendship.

Our own friendships point back to Genesis, when God asserts that it was not good for us to be alone, and they point forward to Revelation, when we will be brought together in a new creation with Jesus. Friendship is, then, a gift from above. It is the ultimate expression of love. As nineteenth-century bishop JC Ryle emphasised: “the brightest sunbeam in the world is a friend – friendship halves our troubles and doubles our joys”.

So, this week, I want to encourage you to contact your friends. Have a chat on the phone, meet in a garden, or go for a walk. Commit yourself to be there for your friends and reassure yourselves they will be there for you. As the Friends theme tune continues: “When it hasn’t been your day, your week, your month, or even your year, then I’ll be there for you (When the rain starts to pour) I’ll be there for you (Like I’ve been there before) I’ll be there for you (’Cause you’re there for me too)”.

Remember that friendships are holy. And that brings me to the second thing I want to encourage you to remember this week. Many of the words for our relationship with Jesus and God that can seem quite hierarchical. So, God is our father and we are his children, Jesus is a Shepherd and we are his lambs. But let’s not forget that God is also a God of friendship and Jesus offers us his hand of friendship. Reach out and accept that hand, because he is saying to you: “whatever kind of day, week, month, or year you’ve had, I’ll there for you!”.

Lent – Holy Week: Open our Pain to your Peace

Recently, I was sitting on a bench facing our local city lake, Roath Park Lake. I noticed how calm and serene that lake was – the trees around it gently swaying, the ducks and swans gliding in the rippling water, even a heron fishing for his lunch. Peace. And then I glanced at the road around the lake – the hustle and bustle of buses taking people to and from city centre, children screaming and running as they came home from school, police cars with sirens speeding past, frustrated people in cars beeping their horns at each other.

We are now entering Holy Week. A week when Jesus faced betrayal, rejection, torture, pain, and death. And then we will come to the resurrection on Easter Sunday. The risen Jesus repeats two related phrases that can speak into our Holy Week this year. He says “peace be with you” and “do not be afraid” or “fear not”. After all, this journey from the cross to the tomb, and then from the tomb to new life, reassures us of two things. Firstly, it reassures us that Jesus knows what it’s like when we are going through difficult times –and he stands alongside us, with tears in his eyes, when we suffer. But, secondly, Jesus speaks into our pain and suffering – he says “peace be with you, do not be afraid“.

Now in Welsh we have two words for peace – heddwch and tangnefedd. Heddwch is a peace on the outside of us – a peace between people or between nations. Tangnefedd, on the other hand, is internal and eternal, a peace which reaches the depths of our souls. Tangnefedd is what Jesus offers us, “a peace that is beyond understanding”, as St Paul puts it, even when there is no peace outside of us.

And so this week, I want to challenge you, through remembering the suffering and abandonment that Jesus himself felt, to allow his peace to soothe your own worries, your own pain. Even though the stress, busyness, and anxiety of the world continues all around, your hearts and minds can have something of the calm and peaceful Roath Park Lake. It’s not that God’s peace will take away our problems. But it centres us, calms us, and helps us to view those concerns differently.

With everything we have been through over the past year, peace of heart may sometimes seem a distant dream. But Jesus speaks to us through our stress and struggles – he says: “peace be with you… do not be afraid”. Even if the world around us is turbulent and chaotic, our hearts can still be opened to the living water of peace, of tangnefedd. As theologian Andrew Todd put it when reflecting on the pandemic: “this is the peace which touches and holds us when we cannot touch and hold each other”.

This is the transcript of a video recorded for the Diocese of Llandaff. Click here to view video.

Opening our Lives can be purchased at any major online bookstore, including BRF, Amazon, Eden, Independent Booksellers, Church House, and Aslan.

Prayers for the Week

As we wonder about the ups and downs of your final week as a human

Lord, we ask you to

Open our pain to your peace

As we contemplate the highs and lows in our own lives

Lord, we ask you to

Open our pain to your peace

As we ask ourselves how we can best use of our days

Lord, we ask you to

Open our pain to your peace

As we are conscious of our own limitations

Lord, we ask you to

Open our pain to your peace

As we look upon our own wilderness

Lord, we ask you to

Open our pain to your peace

As we reflect upon the causes of the world’s suffering

Lord, we ask you to

Open our pain to your peace

As we call to mind people who are wrongly convicted

Lord, we ask you to

Open our pain to your peace

As we try to identify with those who are betrayed

Lord, we ask you to

Open our pain to your peace

As we ponder that isolation can occur anywhere

Lord, we ask you to

Open our pain to your peace

As we think about being transformed by you

Lord, we ask you to

Open our pain to your peace

As we remember that you are the God who brings peace out of pain, strength out of weakness, triumph out of tragedy

Lord, we ask you to

Open our pain to your peace

Amen

With thanks to Eleanor Williams, Christ Church, Roath Park, Cardiff for the prayers each week

Lent Week 5: Open our Actions to your Compassion

In the most recent version of the film Ben Hur, Pontius Pilate is discussing the threats to the Roman Empire in first-century Palestine. At that time, it was the zealots, the revolutionary Jewish group attempting to overthrow Roman rule, who were the greatest worry to the authorities. But Pilate’s concern was rather an obscure Jewish prophet called Jesus of Nazareth, who was teaching people that love is the true nature of every person. Pilate concludes with these words: “this man calms people with his compassion – he is more dangerous than all of the zealots combined”.

Like the word love, “compassion” is another word that’s rather lost its power in recent years. We so often hear politicians, journalists, and world leaders use the word. Sometimes it can seem a rather insipid and bland way of saying that we should be nice and kind to people. The reality is, though, that the call of compassion is a revolutionary call. Compassion demands that we treat others, whoever they are, whatever they’ve done, as if they were in our families, that we share both their joys and their sorrows. This is a radical way of viewing the world around us. Indeed, it even goes beyond human relationships and challenges our attitudes to the environment and non-human life.

Not that this radical compassion is an easy choice for us to make in our day-to-day lives. So much so, that we often end up sidelining compassion and taking the less-potent steps of charity, sympathy, or pity. I once watched a documentary where Tom Shadyac, the director of the film Bruce Almighty, was interviewing his father, who had founded a hospital for children with cancer. His dad described witnessing so much love and compassion in his church each week. But at the end of the service, so many of the congregation would go out to their cars, go home and just get on with their lives; their compassion will be switched off for the rest of the week. He finishes by describing himself sitting and crying at the end of a service when reflecting on how infrequently we live out God’s compassion. Perhaps we can adapt a quotation by G.K. Chesterton – “it is not that compassion has been tried and found wanting; rather, it has been found difficult and so left untried”.

So I want to challenge you this week to recognise, embrace, and then live out what is radical about compassion. To break through the “us” and “them” attitudes so prevalent in our society. To embrace those who are stigmatised and demonised in our world. To recognise the beauty and worth of God’s creation and of each and every person, whoever they are, whatever their background; to recognise them as our brothers and sisters, to look at them and see Jesus himself looking back at us.

This is the transcript of a video recorded for the Diocese of Llandaff. Click here to view video.

Opening our Lives can be purchased at any major online bookstore, including BRF, Amazon, Eden, Independent Booksellers, Church House, and Aslan.

Prayers for the Week

Because you want us to keep thinking big

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

Because you want us to imagine what other people are going through

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

Because you want us to develop a thin skin

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

Because you want us to contemplate what will happen if we don’t get involved

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

Because you want us to be confident that we can make a difference

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

Because you want us to bring remote issues close

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

Because you want us to reflect on what we can do

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

Because you want us to be stewards of our world

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

Because you want us to look out for those who are on the margins, in the shadows, in too deep, on the brink

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

Because you want us to do all this to help bring in your kingdom

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

Amen

With thanks to Eleanor Williams, Christ Church, Roath Park, Cardiff for the prayers each week

What has the Trinity got to do with everyday life?

Today is Trinity Sunday, when the Church remembers that God is “one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”. Three in one, one in three. If that has always confused and perplexed you, then welcome to the club! It’s no coincidence that many priests make sure their curate is on the rota to preach on this particular Sunday! But just because it is a complex doctrine, it is far from an outdated or pointless belief. In fact, as much as any other Christian belief, the Trinity gets to the heart of what God is all about and what he expects of us. There are, after all, two important things we can say about the Trinity.

Firstly, the Trinity is a mystery. However much thought goes into it, however much we study, we’ll never fully understand the Trinity. I used to ask my students to think of analogies of what “three in one” could mean – some would follow St Patrick in suggesting shamrocks (three leaves in one sprig), others would suggest water, one element that can be three forms: liquid, steam or ice. And I even remember one group being particularly inventive by suggesting the theology of a creme egg – one sweet in three parts: the chocolate, the sickly sweet white part, and the smooth yellow centre. All this, of course, is not particularly helpful to understanding what is essentially a great mystery about God. And perhaps understanding this mystery is less important than asking why our faith teaches this mystery – what does it mean to us that God is three in one?

Well, that is where we come to second point and this turns everything else about the doctrine upside down. The philosopher Martin Buber wrote: “In the beginning was relationship”. And that little word is at the heart of what the Trinity means – “relationship”. The early church theologians described the Trinity as a dynamic dance of love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. After all, love can’t exist in isolation, it can’t exist by itself. So, yes, the Trinity is a mystery. It is, though, a mystery that discloses something very simple about God. It reveals that God, in the very depths of his being, is relationship; God is love.

This has huge implications in our world of suffering, illness, grief, oppression, prejudice, violence, and inequality. It is when we step out of our isolated, selfish selves, it is when we enter into caring, peaceful, and compassionate relationships with each other, with nature, with our environment, that God is revealed to the world. The Christian philosopher Gabriel Marcel talks about “absolute availability”. Because God is relationship, love is not an optional extra for Christians and that has, in our local and global world, far-reaching expectations of each of us. The doctrine of the Trinity demands that availability, responsibility, relationship, care, compassion, and love permeates all that we are and all that we do, whether in person or online, in our thoughts, in our words, or in our actions, in how we spend our money or how we spend our time.

In other words, the Trinity demands that we are “absolutely available” to others, to be a loving and life-enhancing gift to them – to stand alongside them in their pain, to weep with them in their grief, to rejoice with them in their good news, to stand up against oppressive systems that dehumanise them, to shine the light of justice on those who misuse power, to call to account those who blindly ignore our groaning earth, to expose those who pedal lies and falsehoods, to speak up for those whose voices are silenced. After all, it is because God is the Trinity, because God is relationship, that Martin Luther King stated that life’s most persistent question, life’s most urgent and important question, is: “What are you doing for others?” So, I challenge you to reflect on your life and ask yourself that little question – “What are you doing for others?”

A prayer
Father God,
Through the Power of your Spirit,
And the Grace of your Son,
Help us to each to play our part in turning the world upside down
Through your compassion, care, peace, hope, and love.
Amen.

Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word – An Appeal to White Majority Churches

This is a tale of two photos. Two photos that show the difference between what following Jesus has too often become and what following Jesus should be. One a photo of the so-called “leader of the Free World”, after having ordered tear gas on peaceful protesters, holding the bible aloft in front of a church. The other a photo of tearful white Christians kneeling in front of grieving black Christians in the hometown of the murdered George Floyd, asking for forgiveness for many decades of bigotry and racism. One a photo that encapsulates dominance, force, abuse of power, arrogance, and injustice. The other a photo of humility, contrition, equality, compassion, and love.

The world has recognised the photo of the US President for what it is – a shameless and shameful hijacking of the spiritual. The other photograph is taken from a video of a prayer service that was shared widely on social media. It has been described by Piers Morgan as the one powerful moment during the past few days that gives us hope that the present situation differs from many past protests. Not that all commentators have viewed the incident so positively. A British journalist in Russia Today, who also writes for The Sun newspaper, describes the moment as a “cringeworthy and ostentatious display of self-flagellation”. The article even quotes from the Bible (Deuteronomy 24:16) in criticising this group for apologising for the sins of the past. “They will not help heal racial divisions,” the author concludes, “they only serve to heighten them”.

As a church leader in a white majority church in the UK, though, I believe apology and contrition is the only place we must start in response to the brutal murder of George Floyd and to the racism and bigotry that still blights our world. Make no mistake about it, the burden of guilt is on all our shoulders. Speaking out against arrogant politicians or corrupt law keepers is imperative, but this must not hide our own culpability or blind us from our own propensity to bigotry, prejudice, and hatred. Not that our contrition should incarcerate us in self-reproach and shame. It must be, instead, a step towards recognising our common humanity with all and towards the promise of new beginnings and new life.

Rather than contradicting Scripture, as the Russia Today journalist maintains, this is what our faith demands of us. It is not by accident that Jesus taught us to pray ‘forgive us our sins’. Sin is not merely a personal and private problem. There is corporality and communality in our transgressions. In Romans 3:23, St Paul maintains that “all have sinned and fall short”, using a Greek aorist tense which implies everybody’s cumulative past and employing a Greek phrase (‘fall short’) which suggests a continuing present. In other words, our personal wrongdoings are linked to the entirety of humankind’s sinful history, and so we are called to confession and repentance for the deafening silence of both our country and our church on so many atrocities and hurts, as well as for the hate-filled and dehumanizing rhetoric that groups of innocent people have faced, whether those of a different race, faith, sexuality, gender, physical ability, or nationality.

However, when it comes to acknowledging our complicity in acts of exploitation, injustice, hatred, and cruelty, sorry seems to be the hardest word. It is costly and painful for us to look at the perpetrators of historical crimes and see our own faces reflecting back. Our history, though, is littered with the evils of our ancestors. Our compatriots have been involved in dreadful atrocities, and our faith has so much for which to be remorseful. Humility, empathy, and compassion lead us to confess our own part in driving the nail into Christ’s hand, thrusting the sword into the so-called ‘infidel’ in the crusades, screaming for death to young girls accused of witchcraft, fervently applauding the charismatic Führer of the Third Reich, burning crosses on lawns in 1960s Alabama, preaching hate against our gay neighbours, and signing contracts to destroy swathes of rain forest.

But contrition alone is not enough. Asking for forgiveness for the past holds pressing implications on both the present and the future. Repentance is not simply a case of saying sorry – we need to act out our sorry. In the Old Testament, Nehemiah did not simply confess the sins of his ancestors, he committed himself to rectifying those transgressions. By saying sorry for the sins of the past, we commit ourselves to standing alongside the oppressed, to repairing relationships, to giving voice to the hurting voiceless, to championing love, service, and justice in our own lives, and to imploring God to keep us from descending again into prejudice, hatred, or abuse.

So, we ask for forgiveness for years of mistreatment of his wonderful creation and we shed tears for the treatment of numerous groups of people in the past and present – black people, women, the disabled, gay people, transgender people, Jews, Muslims, immigrants, aboriginal people, native Americans, and many other groups. By repenting of the transgressions of all people at all times, we enter a place of healing, hope, and new life. In this place, we commit to identifying where prejudice, inequality, violence, exploitation, greed and abuse still occur in our communities, society, and world, and we commit to playing our part in birthing a future of equality, compassion, and love. And it all starts with standing with those in George Floyd’s hometown and, with our tears mingling with those running down the cheeks of both black and white, repeating the prayer that they prayed:

“Father God, we humble ourselves before you and we ask for forgiveness from our black brothers and sisters for years and years of systematic racism, of bigotry, of hate. We pray for our white, black and brown brothers and sisters who have had the courage to expose the blatant racism in our own hearts. We pray that black men and women be free from fear and hopelessness. We take a knee as a sign that we honour them, we love them; as a sign that You love them. In Jesus’s name, Amen”