God and Grenfell

1 Aberfan

Aberfan Memorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Animals and Faith

An interview with Dr Greg Dixon, a veterinary surgeon and researcher in animal welfare science, ethics and law

WimpyWhen I was growing up, I didn’t have a pet for any length of time. I had a rabbit named Twm Twitch for a few months, I had a guinea pig named Rupert for a few weeks, and I had a newt for a few days, before he escaped and I found him shrivelled up on the kitchen floor. I wasn’t really an animal-person, unless they were on my plate, next to my potatoes and carrots. I soon took a job in Wimpy burger bar and persuaded my then-girlfriend to give up her vegetarianism and start eating proper food – quarter-pound Wimpy burgers with that lovely pink relish. Animals, to me, were expendable and exploitable – “things” given to us by God to be eaten, worn, and used for our own purposes, however selfish and self-centred those purposes may be.

noah-ark05In my early twenties, I underwent a road-to-Damascus experience in my attitude to animals. It all came from reading the conclusion of the story of Noah’s flood, when God makes a covenant with his people, a covenant which expresses his love and care (Genesis 9:8-17). As I read that passage, it suddenly dawned on me that the covenant between God and his people in the Old Testament, which then became Jesus’s ultimate covenant in the New Testament, is not simply about humankind. The most striking aspect of the covenant with Noah is that it is between God and ‘all living creatures of every kind on the earth’, including ‘the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals’. As if to hammer this home, that fact is mentioned five times in that short Genesis passage alone!

SchweitzerWith this realization, I began to view Jesus’s teaching on love in a completely different way. It became evident to me that our call to compassion and care should not simply include those of the same species as us, but should embrace all living things. The medic and theologian Albert Schweitzer called this ‘reverence for life’. In so many matters, we Christians have our faith boxed up, over in one corner – we unpack it and it comes out on Sundays and it sometimes comes out for issues that relate directly to injustices towards people. But other matters, such as animal rights, are seen as issues that are quite distinct from our faith, and are boxed up in the opposite corner to our faith. In this way, there is often a fundamental disconnect between our faith and some critical ethical and societal issues. By now, I believe that animals are very much part and parcel of God’s kingdom and are due care and compassion from those of us entrusted to stewardship of his creation. So I’m delighted that a veterinary surgeon, Dr Greg Dixon, has agreed to speak to me about the issue of animal rights.

Before we go on to talk about your academic research in this area, Greg, can you tell us something about your job as a vet.

Greg-Dixon“Nowadays I work at a local practice in Cardiff, Wales, UK with a strong interest in canine and feline internal medicine, always happy with an ultrasound machine or an endoscope trying to figure out why the dog or cat is ill and what I am going to do about it. Many people view their pet almost as a family member, and I hope that by helping the pet I can help the people too. But before I came to Cardiff I was a ‘mixed’ vet working with farm companion animals. I have worked over the years closely with dairy cows, and on sheep and pig farms. I was never fully signed up to the farming practices to which I was exposed. I felt I was always a bit like Hawkeye in M*A*S*H – I didn’t agree with the war, but kept patching up the boys and sending them back to the front!”

And tell us something about your PhD research.

“By 2001 I had become very interested in Animal Welfare and Ethics, taking a further professional exam in the subject and helping to set up the Animal Welfare Science, Ethics and Law Veterinary Association. I was offered a PhD at Bristol Vet School, which is a centre for the study of Animal Welfare Science. I went to study the welfare of laying hens there for 3 years! My particular research was looking into the risk factors for the feather and vent pecking in laying chickens. This, in the worse cases, can lead to chickens consuming each other. Contrary to what many might think, this injurious behaviour happens mostly in free-range birds and not caged layer birds. There are few farming systems that are without their welfare problems, when practiced on a commercial scale. Sometimes a well-intentioned change leads us from the frying pan, into the fire.”

So, what led you to research animal rights in particular?

“In my veterinary work and in my research I was exposed to many farming practices, and particularly those of intensive pig farming, commercial abattoirs and broiler (chicken meat) farming led me to deeply question the way we treat our fellow creatures. This, together with much reading and discussion with my colleagues, farmers and philosophers led me to the conclusion that many of these practices, deeply engrained in our culture, are actually very hard to defend in a consistent manner.”

You seem to be saying that animals are not treated well, in general, in this country? Why do you think animals are treated so poorly?

Broiler-chickens“It depends which animals we are thinking of. I know some chihuahuas who live like kings! However, those animals that we consider only in an instrumental fashion perhaps do not fare so well. I am very concerned about the 850 million broiler chickens who are slaughtered annually in the UK, of whom, in their short 6 week lives, 28% (that’s 126 million sentient individual birds) are so severely lame that if they were horses they would be shot! Now, some might argue that are farm animals are kept better in the UK than in some other countries. That may or may not be the case, but that is not tantamount to treating animals well. In some pig abattoirs the line rate can be 60 pigs per minute, with commercial pressure on not dropping the rate. I think it can easily be seen that this kind of time pressure can easily result in those pigs, killed at the rate of one-per-second, not being treated well. I think that if we did to labradors what we do to those pigs on a daily basis, there would be a revolution! The huge demand for cheap animal products exerts an intense commercial pressure that often comes down, in various ways, directly upon the animals.”

What can we do, then, to ensure animals are treated better than they are?

gull“Well, of course, we can treat the animals we come into direct contact with well – I think that is the easy part, mostly. Being nice to dogs and horses is normally a pleasure. But what if we come across an injured gull, considered to be a nuisance by many people here in Cardiff? Do we have any duties to them? If so, do we discharge them well? But we also have social relations, mediated through the commodities of animal products, with many more animals than we come into direct contact with, and this is the difficult part. Can we alter our consumption patterns? Could we consume to improve the way we affect these animals’ lives? There is an analogy with people: we all mostly try and most of the time succeed in treating the people we come into direct contact with well. But we have social relations with many more people, mediated via the commodities we consume. Sometimes we try and treat those people we never meet, that make our coffee or our clothes, better by supporting fair trade or boycotting certain goods.”

As Christians, we see compassion and love of people as part of our mission… why do you think that some Christians miss the importance of compassion and love towards animals? From what you know about the Christian message, do the attitudes of Christians surprise you at all?

earth steward“I think that some Christians, like most people, might miss the importance of compassion towards animals. It may be reflected in that contentious translation in Genesis: ‘be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it; rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground’ (Genesis 1:28). ‘Rule over’ is sometimes translated as ‘have dominion over’. But this, at face value, could imply that humans, being on top of a hierarchy, are able to put nature and its creatures to whatever use they see fit. There are, of course, alternative readings and those that talk of ‘stewardship’ rather than ‘dominion’ may cast a different light on our responsibilities. I’d like to take a second to do a bit of social history. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association was founded by Quakers and enjoyed support from the great and the good of the day, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. They erected, by public subscription and generous donation, water fountains for the public and cattle drinking troughs throughout towns and cities. In those days, there was no public water supply and cholera was rife. There were animals throughout towns and cities, unlike today. The benefactors were concerned for the welfare of both people and animals – concern for one did not exclude concern for others. We are not always in a ‘lifeboat’ situation in which someone must be thrown overboard to save the others. The philosopher Mary Midgley once wrote that “compassion is like a magic liquid, the more you pour it, the more there is!” One of the motivations of the Association was, of course, for temperance – before the new drinking troughs, drovers could often only source water for their cattle at pubs that they were obliged to frequent! Nowadays the troughs are often used as ornamental flower boxes. I remember one well in Lewes, East Sussex, UK where I used to live. Alongside it had the imperative from Proverbs to ‘open thy mouth for the dumb’. And that is what I have tried to do in this interview!”

animal babyThank you so much for speaking with us, Greg. I think we would agree that, with regards animal rights, intensive farming, laboratory experiments, live exports, and so on, the old adage “this is the way it’s always been” is no excuse. As Christians, we are challenged to question what we’ve been taught, to read the Bible and to view everything in the light of Jesus’s love and compassion. But our faith is not just about viewing the world in a certain way – it’s also about changing the world. We need to live out the gospel, not simply talk about it. And, with this particular issue, we can do some practical things to take steps towards change: we can pray for all living things, educate ourselves on the issues surrounding animal welfare, read the Bible with the importance of all creation in mind, get involved in campaign (sign petitions and so on), support charities, be selective in shopping (fast food stores, for example, have an appalling record in not taking seriously animal welfare of farmed animals), and spread the word by encouraging friends, family, and colleagues also to educate themselves. Getting our priorities right is certainly the first step, but the next step is for us to ask God to inspire us into action.

See also:

Blog posts

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

Horses with no Names: What’s Faith got to do with Horsemeat?

Websites

SARX: Christian Animal Welfare

Creature Kind

Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals

 

Why the Lord’s Prayer really is dangerous and offensive

The agency that handles British film advertising for the major cinema chains, Odeon, Cineworld and Vue, has banned a Church of England’s advert featuring the Lord’s Prayer because it believes it would upset or offend audiences. I am currently in the process of writing my next book on this short 70-word prayer. For me, the question of “why has this advert been banned?” should be recast as “how can Jesus’s radical call-to-action be seen as anything other than dangerous, offensive and inflammatory?”

Our Father who art in heaven

tutu 1By referring to God as our Father, we are making a statement about God’s loving relationship with us, but we are also saying something profound about our relationships with each other. If God is our father, then we are compelled to treat each other as if we are brothers and sisters. This is a revolutionary call to show love and compassion to those who we don’t get on with and those don’t agree with. It is a call to care for the ill, the poor, the hungry, the disenfranchised, the refugee, the alienated, and the oppressed. As Desmond Tutu puts it: “In God’s family, there are no outsiders. All are insiders. Black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight, Jew and Arab, Palestinian and Israeli, Roman Catholic and Protestant, Serb and Albanian, Hutu and Tutsi, Muslim and Christian, Buddhist and Hindu, Pakistani and Indian – all belong… We are members of one family. We belong… God says, ‘All, all are my children’. It is shocking. It is radical”.

Hallowed by thy name

poor_children04To Jesus’s disciples being “holy” (“hallowed”) would have meant something very different from how we might view the word. In the Old Testament, God’s holiness is frequently related to his role as deliverer and redeemer of the oppressed. The theologian Karl Barth asserts that by praying that God’s name be hallowed, we are asking that we become worthy bearers of God’s name in our loving and compassionate actions. ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy’”, God tells Moses in Leviticus. We have, then, a revolutionary imperative – to stand alongside the poor, to defend the defenceless, to liberate the persecuted, to offer justice to the oppressed, to speak for those with no voice. Holiness is a radical call to action, and not a retreat into inaction.

Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven

This is not an appeal for us to wait for God to reveal himself. It is God who is waiting – he is waiting for us to open our eyes and recognise his kingdom breaking through all around us. God’s kingdom comes to us through those driven by “the imperative for practical service and love” (Rowan Williams). When pain and suffering are countered, the kingdom breaks through. When violence, wealth, power, and prestige are opposed, the kingdom flourishes. When people reach out to those in need, those who are oppressed, and those who feel they have no hope, then God’s will is being done. The revolutionary call of the kingdom is to bring God’s light to the most hopeless and desolate situations.

Give us this day our daily bread

money-bread-16570679_sIn this line we are, first of all, asking God to help us combat poverty. It is commendable that we support food banks and other ventures to help those struggling on the bread line, but it is scandalous that such charities need to exist in the first place. “We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside,” asserted Martin Luther King, “but one day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed”. Secondly, though, by asking for “daily bread”, we are also asking God to keep us away from wealth. The predominant ‘story’ that our society teaches us is that money matters, that it is worth something, that it is something we should be desiring. Christians are called to question this myth of money incarnate, and offer a liberating alternative. After all, the gospel of grace and selflessness surely stands in direct opposition to the financial law of supply and demand.

Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us

forgive“Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive”, asserted CS Lewis. Forgiveness is difficult, but it is what God expects from us. It is part and parcel of what it means to be Christian. It’s not an optional extra for us. It is, though, radical and revolutionary. After all, forgiveness is far harder and braver than retaliation and hatred. But we do get a pay-off through forgiveness. By forgiving, we are released from our personal prisons, to move forward and onward in our lives. The Huffington Post recently reported that many in the Middle East are turning towards forgiveness, rather than retribution, for the terrible crimes of Islamic State. “I won’t do anything to them,” one young Christian refugee said after seeing her community and family decimated by the group, “I will only ask God to forgive them”.

Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil

moneyTemptations promise us joy and fulfilment. Our faith, though, teaches us the radical truth that we are being sold a lie. The comedian Russell Brand was drawn at an early age into a world of wealth, fame, and excess. “I was treating a spiritual malady… I was actually seeking salvation”, he writes. It is not easy for us to grasp that lasting joy and fulfilment will not be found in those places where we have been told excitement, fun, and fulfilment comes from. Brand writes that he sometimes sees old photographs of himself emerging from London nightclubs with blonde women on his arms. “I can still be deceived into thinking, ‘Wow, I’d like to be him’, then I remember that I was him”, he concludes. Temptation merely promises us fleeting joy; faith reminds us that a deeply satisfying life can only be found in spiritual peace. This is a message that our world does not want to hear; it is a truth that our world does not want to face.

For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory

In 1975, a team of students from Manchester University subverted BBC’s quiz University Challenge by answering every question they were asked with the name of a Communist leader: “Karl Marx”, “Trotsky”, “Lenin”, “Che Guevara”, and so on. As Christians, though, the answer to all our questions really is “Jesus”. He offers life, he offers a new way of thinking, he offers a profound transformation in our understanding of the concept of power. His is not extrinsic power, foisted on us all from outside, compelling us to be obedient. His is, rather, an intrinsic authority, persuading us and inspiring us to join him on a revolution of compassion. As we face terror on the streets of Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere, the Lord’s Prayer is a dangerous, radical alternative to today’s powers of military muscle, violent extremism, fleeting fame, and rapacious wealth. But Jesus offers a different kingdom, a different power, a different glory. Jesus offers radical and revolutionary love.

To view the Church of England’s advert: www.youtube.com/watch?v=vlUXh4mx4gI&

 

Compassion and Refugees

As I sat in my local doctor’s surgery last week, a young boy started staring at me. He was of middle-eastern origin and was not much older than the age of the Syrian child in the photographs that have recently shocked the world. I smiled at him and said “hello”, but he simply kept on staring with inquisitive eyes. Noticing this one-sided conversation, his father nodded his head towards me, smiled, and said in a strong accent to his reticent child: “come on now – say hello to your uncle”. A smile broke across the hitherto unresponsive little face and a big cheerful “hello” followed.

HopeTo be called an “uncle” by a complete stranger got me thinking of our response to those coming to Europe and those attempting to cross the channel to make a home in our “green and pleasant land”. A number of commentators have challenged us to see beyond labels that are placed on such people. They are certainly not “scroungers”, “criminals”, and “benefit cheats”, but we are also urged to see beyond their labels as “refugees”, “immigrants”, or “migrants”. We are challenged to see them instead as “people”, just like you and me. As Christians, though, our call is to go even further than this. After all, Christ did not simply see “people”, and to see the kingdom of God as a kingdom of “people” is to miss how radical a call we have on our lives.

compassion-definitionPoliticians of all sides of the political spectrum have used the word “compassion” on many of occasions in recent weeks. There seems to be a consensus that compassion is essential when treating those fleeing from war, conflict, and turmoil. Yet “compassion” is not simply a buzzword to be used when convenient and it is essential that we do not miss the profound depth of the challenge of “compassion”. The English word derives from the Latin words cum and pati, meaning ‘to suffer with’. In other words, when we feel compassion towards others, we suffer with them. We don’t make judgements on their backgrounds or motives, but we put ourselves in their shoes and truly feel their suffering.

rechemThe Hebrew word for compassion is even more revealing. In the Old Testament, the most frequent word that can be translated “compassion” is the word rachamim. ‘The Lord Almighty said: “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion [rachamim] to one another”’ (Zechariah 7.9). The word is related to the Hebrew term for womb, rechem, indicating that our compassion for those around us should reflect family bonds. The same link with the word womb (rahem) can be made with Arabic word for compassion/mercy (rahmah), which is found frequently in the Qur’an. In other words, compassion is about treating others as if they were in the same family as us, as if they were our own flesh and blood, as if they had shared the same womb as we did.

WelcomeThe French Cistercian monk Charles de Foucauld referred to this concept as the “universal brotherhood” – that we treat everyone as our brothers and sisters. If we are to interpret compassion in this way, as the great monotheistic religions do, this is a huge challenge to our lives and our politics. How many politicians treat so-called “immigrants” as if they were related to them? The most wonderful thing about the widely-reported response to the present crisis in Germany is that many are actually welcoming refugees into their own homes. Through an “Air B’n’B” website, many hundreds of Germans, including students, single-mothers, and retired couples, offered their homes to refugees from countries such as Syria, Somalia, and Burkina Faso. That is compassion. That is truly treating others as family.

After all, when we see others as our kin, all their labels will peel away. The Jesuit contemplative Anthony de Mello used an analogy of a menu in a restaurant. However much we might salivate while considering the list of food, not one of us will decide to eat the actual menu. It is the food that we want to eat, not the words about the food! As far as possible we must attempt to experience people themselves, rather than experience the labels that we or other people put on them. As soon as we slap a label like “immigrant” and “refugee” on a person, our understanding of that individual becomes distorted. We start to see the label rather than the person, and every label, of course, has undertones of approval or disapproval. My wife is German. When I look at her lovingly over a romantic meal, I do not stare into her eyes and say, “darling, you are such a beautiful immigrant”. Likewise, in our church community we have individuals from across the globe who are active in the congregation. None of us see them as “immigrants”. Once we know a person, they cease to be a label and they simply become family.

family 2As I sat in that doctor’s surgery, it made perfect sense to be called “uncle” by that little boy. If God is our father, as we pray in the prayer Jesus himself taught, then we are compelled to treat each other as if we are brothers and sisters. As Christians, there is no opt-out clause in Christ’s invitation to view others as “family”. Instead, it’s at the very heart of our faith and is fundamental to our radical call to live out the compassionate kingdom. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it: “I hope we can accept a wonderful truth – we are family! We are family! If we could get to believe this we would realise that care about ‘the other’ is not really altruistic, but it is the best form of self-interest”.

For more on this theme, see chapter 5 “Radical Compassion” in The Compassion Quest.

 

 

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

 

 

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

MentalHealthBrainToday is World Mental Health Day. As I was leaving St Mary’s, Ealing, London last weekend, having given a talk on finding hope and meaning in suffering, another group were coming in to use the church. This was a group for contemplation and prayer, and many of them had come early to hear my talk before their service. On chatting to them, they asked what I believe prayer and contemplation could offer to those of us who suffer depression, anxiety, and stress. I was able to answer them in detail, as my Masters dissertation at Oxford University was on that topic. The following article, which is adapted from an article I wrote a number of years back for the wonderful website Mind and Soul: Exploring Christianity and Mental Health, summarises my work at Oxford.

mental-healthIn 2006 a report on happiness in our society, written by Nick Spencer at the Theos think tank, noted that, while the British are richer than ever before, own more than ever before, and live longer and healthier lives than in the past, all the evidence suggests that people are no happier than they were thirty years ago. In fact, some studies indicate that most people are considerably less happy. Certainly, personal psychological ill-health has risen notably over the past few decades. Depression, anxiety, and stress are widespread in the UK, with the NHS spending many millions of pounds on treatments and therapy.

Mental-health-problems-007In recent years, a number of psychologists and psychiatrists have posited mindfulness as a tool for managing mood problems. Originating in Buddhism, mindfulness can be summarised as having a compassionate, non-judgemental awareness of the present moment. In being aware of the reality around us, we become fully alert to the sensations in our bodies, the flow of our thoughts, and the sights and sounds around us. When combined with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), research has shown that mindfulness can significantly transform a person suffering from a mood disorder. This research, led by scientist-practitioners such as Jon Kabat-Zinn, Marsha Lineham, Steven C. Hayes, and Williams/Teasdale/Segal, has become known as the third-wave of CBT.

Praying1It is, however, rarely appreciated that our own Christian tradition has much to offer in this sphere. The ancient practice of contemplative prayer is sometimes called ‘Christian meditation’, but is not to be confused with the more widespread Christian practice of discursive meditation. Contemplative prayer has had a long history in Christian tradition, and in the late twentieth-century it underwent a revival, largely led by the Roman Catholic religious orders but also promoted by a number of prominent Anglicans, Quakers, and Protestant evangelicals. Contemplation holds many similarities with mindfulness, and so a Christianised form of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy could potentially be created and developed.

Those cognitive therapies that utilise mindfulness as part of treatment for mood disorders are built around three aspects of mindfulness – meditation, non-judgemental awareness, and acceptance. It is striking that Christianity has long-advocated similar principles to these three mindfulness principles, not least within the contemplative tradition of the church.

prayingHands_small_280x240Christian meditation has been varied and diverse down the centuries. It is those techniques that bear resemblance to mindfulness meditation that could be adapted and utilised most successfully for combating mental ill-health. Many of these forms of prayer are centuries old, but have recently been developed by such contemplatives as Anthony De Mello (body-awareness prayer), Thomas Keating (centring prayer), James Finley (Christian meditation), or Thomas Ryan (prayer of heart and body). Protestant contemplatives, such as Richard Foster, Joyce Huggett, Liz Babbs, and James W. Goll, have championed similar forms of prayer. ‘Shut your mouth; open your eyes and ears;’ wrote C.S. Lewis, ‘take in what there is and give no thought to what might have been there or what is somewhere else’. Just as meditation can lead to mindfulness, contemplative prayer can lead us to live contemplatively. In other words, it can help us to recognise, in the words of Jean Pierre de Caussade in the eighteenth-century, the ‘sanctity of the present moment’, and can, therefore, help us to observe our thoughts and feelings in that moment.

79bd66b9-783a-43e8-8b27-bd6a663b5c51Christian traditions are also well-versed in the concept of non-judgemental awareness. It is by resting in the ‘sacrament of the present moment’ that we begin to see our prejudices and distorted thinking from an objective viewpoint – in a sense, from God’s perspective. Our false emotional programs for happiness can be dismantled, and, while we might still be encountering the same depressive thoughts and unhelpful feelings, we are able to recognise those thoughts and feelings as distorted and dangerous. Thomas Keating refers to such thoughts, memories, and feelings as the ‘false self’, while other writers have referred to them as our ‘self-will’ (Catherine of Genoa and Teresa of Avila), ‘desires’ (John of the Cross), ‘egomania’ (Richard Foster), ‘empire of self’ (James W. Goll), or ‘ego consciousness’ (James Finley). These are our attachments to security, control, affection, and esteem. In the context of a Christianised mindfulness cognitive therapy, these are our core-beliefs that have developed through reaction and habit. As a result of noticing and analysing our thoughts and feelings, these core beliefs can be purged, rejected, or adapted.

let-go-let-godWithin many Christian traditions, not least the contemplative movement, the acceptance of God’s providence is prevalent. The ‘sacrament of the present moment’ awakens us to recognise God in each and every moment of our lives, which includes times of pain and suffering, as well as more joyful and happy times. This leads to what Jean-Pierre de Caussade describes as ‘self-abandonment to divine providence’. Through recognising God’s loving purpose, even in the midst of trials and tribulation, we can joyfully surrender ourselves to God’s will in our lives. This is all part of the ‘letting go’, which many mystics have placed at the heart of happiness, contentment, and peace. If we have the courage to trust God and to submit ourselves to Him, we will not only learn to accept unfolding events, but also ‘to embrace and bless them’. This will then help us change our relationship with the negative aspects of our being and situation, and the unhelpful and distorted feelings within us will cease to control us. This ‘courage to be’ (Paul Tillich), to affirm being, in the face of our anxieties about life and about the future, is at the heart of Christian acceptance.

Psalm46.10A number of factors would need to be in place if a contemplative programme of treatment for depression, stress, and anxiety was to be developed and sustained. Firstly, the education of laity and clergy needs to be a priority. This will counter prejudice against and misunderstanding of contemplative prayer, but also bring relationship of Christianity with mental health issues to the fore. Secondly, the training of clergy and other spiritual advisors needs to be a priority – both in traditions of contemplative prayer and in the relationship of contemplation to emotional well-being. Thirdly, the relationship between Church and mental health professionals needs to be further fostered. Both need to know about, understand, and be able to support a contemplative/meditative approach to healing. Finally, contemplative prayer groups need to be established, and ecumenical groups should be encouraged, making the groups more viable and diverse. If groups are already running, they need to be advertised more clearly and widely. Indeed, if these factors were developed and put in place, then contemplative theology could certainly hold the key to developing a Christian mindfulness, and this could significantly help those Christians suffering mental ill-health.