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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘You don’t have to be an angel to be a saint!’ Today is All Saints Day. Last year I posted a reflection on the day. I have been pleasantly surprised at the popularity of that blog-post, and so I thought I would post it again. Thank you for your support of my blog over the past year, and I hope you enjoy reading this again.

Trystan Owain Hughes

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…

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

christianity-the-environmentLast week I shared an article on facebook urging Christians to care for God’s wonderful creation. This is something that is close to my own heart, but it is also something that I presumed, by now, was blindingly obvious to people of faith. I was, however, to be shocked and saddened at the response of some Christians. There were numerous comments that I thought were long-gone from the Christian tradition:

“I won’t be too concerned about the environment. It’s dying and cursed anyway”

“Surely winning souls is more important than protecting the forests. Get your priorities right.”

“Nothing in the Bible talks about tree hugging environmentalists.”

“I fear for your salvation if you think environmentalism is gospel issue.”

“Work on what is lasting – souls, souls, SOULS!”

christians-and-the-environmentJust as Christ wept over Jerusalem, I’m quite certain that he is weeping when he sees how some of his disciples are talking about, and treating, his wonderful creation. This indifference and distain towards God’s wonderful creation is long-standing. In the 1960s, a famous article appeared in Science magazine accusing Christianity of being at the root of our environmental predicament. Lynn White claimed that our faith is guilty of regarding itself as ‘superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for slightest whim’.

Certainly much has changed for the better in recent years, with many Churches and denominations issuing guidelines to help their care for God’s creation, detailing information about environmental issues such as recycling, using renewable energy solutions, and reducing pollution. However, my facebook thread shows that there are still Christians whose concern for individual salvation blind them from the importance of stewardship and care for the gift of God’s creation.

The irony is that their dearly-held attitude is not scriptural at all. Certain philosophical and cultural movements in the past have been so pervasive in their influence on our faith that they have defined its very character and led us to truly believe that we are true to the Bible when we ignore the plight of our natural world.

heart-body-soul1. Platonism: In its first few centuries, Christianity found itself heavily influenced by Greek Platonic dualism, which differentiated starkly between the soul and body. As a result, Christian tradition followed Gnosticism in becoming ambivalent towards physical matter. This is shown in our paradoxical attitude towards the body, which, on one hand, is seen as the Temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19-20), and, on the other hand, sees bodies as something to be embarrassed about. Thus, the only important thing to some Christians is “souls, souls, SOULS!” This ignores completely that all creation will be renewed and that resurrection is about spiritual bodies, rather than merely souls (see 1 Corinthians 15:35-49).

cogito2. Cartesianism: One of the results of Rene Descartes’ ‘I-think-therefore-I-am’ philosophy in the eighteenth century was that it affirmed the reality of our ‘thoughts’ and ‘emotions’, while doubting the experiences of our bodily senses. The physical world became separated and alienated from us, and we began to further identify with our minds, rather than with our bodies or the natural world. The Cartesian world became, therefore, a world of alienation between body and mind, between person and person, and between human and nature. Christians have been influenced by this in a far deeper way than many would like to admit.

cross green3. Poor theology: The influence of Platonism and Cartesianism on our faith led to many years of poor theology, where biblical texts were handpicked to champion individual human salvation and other sections of the Bible were conveniently ignored. We are left with a bleakly individualistic and person-centred theology that is alien to much of the Bible and to the spirituality that Jesus himself practices in the gospels. Salvation, after all, is not merely about us as individuals, as even our destiny is bound up with the entire created order (Romans 8:18-25). In the Old Testament, we are given a picture of wonderful harmony in nature at the end of time, as the lion lives with the lamb, the leopard lies with the goat, and the small child peacefully leads all the creatures (cf. Isaiah 11:6). In the New Testament, the images of the future Kingdom are, likewise, communal and harmonious – the banquet, the wedding feast, the choir of all nations, and the New Jerusalem. This all has significant implications for the way we relate now to each other and to the world around us. To remain faithful to the biblical evidence, we cannot separate the individual, the community, and the entire created order – in the past, the present, or the glorious future. ‘For by him all things were created;’ writes St Paul to the Colossians (1:16-7), ‘things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together’.

jesus 2Rather than being dualistic and individualistic, then, our faith should recognise that the world is not an enemy of the spirit. There is no getting away from the fact that matter truly matters to God. The Old Testament gives detailed rules on protecting trees and forests (see Deuteronomy 20:19 and Numbers 35:2ff), while God’s involvement with nature is later shown in Jesus’ special relationship with the created order, and his parables, miracles, and sayings are infused with the natural world. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the risen Jesus was initially mistaken for a gardener!

noahDarren Aronofsky’s recent blockbuster Noah received much criticism, but it did reflect that very truth about God’s care for all of creation, not only humankind. This is not new-age mysticism, as some would like us to believe, but it is at the heart of the covenant with Noah. After all, this promise was, we are told, an “everlasting covenant” made between God and “all living creatures of every kind on the earth”, a fact that is mentioned eight times in as many verses (Genesis 9:9-17)! When we see a wonderful rainbow decorating our sky we should, therefore, be reminded, not only of God’s compassion for us flawed and frail humans, but also of his unceasing love for all of his creation. And if God’s priority is to show love and compassion for “all life on the earth” (Genesis 9:17), then, as Christians, that should surely also be an imperative part of our own calling.

For more on this subject, see my book The Compassion Quest (Chapter 1 “Faith and the Universe”).

“A vicar walks into a bar”: Why would anyone become a member of the clergy?

Rev.jpgIn a recent comprehensive piece of research by the UK Office for National Statistics, 274 jobs were considered as to which gave the most satisfaction. At the top of the list, as the most fulfilling occupation, was being a member of the clergy. Being a priest, vicar, pastor, or minister may not be the best paid financially, but it certainly pays in other ways. On the other hand, the job giving the least satisfaction was the position of a landlord of a public house or a wine bar. So, serving God beats serving pints of beer!

Sad man drinking in barInterestingly, in the hit song ‘Hope on the Rocks’, the American country music star Toby Keith describes the bartender in very priestly terms. People, he claims, go to bars with all sorts of problems – breakups, depression, grief, poverty – and they are desperate to be listened to, to confess, and to be comforted. The bar allows them the freedom to “drown in their sorrow and cry in their beer”. The bartender is, therefore, presented as being there to bring hope to their trials and tribulations. While there may be some amount of truth in this, most bar staff and pub landlords aren’t trained to deal with people’s turbulent lives and they haven’t chosen their livelihood because of a calling to care for people pastorally.

All Christians, of course, have a calling on their lives. God wants to use his people in their workplace and elsewhere, and no occupation is more important than another. Much of the satisfaction that comes through ordination, though, is because clergy are able to live out directly and boldly what they believe God is calling them to be. Before I became a member of the clergy, I lectured at a number of Universities. There was an enormous pressure there to attract new students to the colleges, so as to bring more money and financial stability to the institutions. Church leaders still have to deal with financial pressures, but most of their time is spent bringing God’s love to people who desperately need hope, peace, and comfort, and in showing Christ’s unconditional compassion to those who are struggling in an all too often uncompassionate, materialistic society.

revFor those who watch the ups and downs of parish life that Rev Adam Smallbone goes through in the BBC’s sitcom Rev, the level of satisfaction amongst members of the clergy might be a surprise. There is no doubt that, like the ministry of this fictitious inner-city vicar, most of us clergy go through periods of doubt, frustration, and disillusionment. There are even times when we might want to take off our dog collar and cut it into pieces. “I struck the board, and cried, ‘No more; I will abroad!’”, wrote sixteenth-century cleric George Herbert as he looked at his collar lying on the table.

Wedding vicarBut also like Rev Adam in Rev, those times of frustration fade into near obscurity in comparison with the times of fulfilment and satisfaction that our vocation brings – the times that George Herbert describes as moments when we hear God’s voice affirming our vocation. “As I raved and grew more fierce and wild at every word,” concludes Herbert’s poem The Collar, “me thought I heard one calling, ‘Child!’ And I replied ‘My Lord’”. It is, after all, a wonderful privilege to help people connect with the transcendence of life – to give opportunities for them to recognise that life is more than the hustle and bustle of their busy, competitive, and sometimes tiresome daily existence. It is also a magnificent privilege to be there at both the uplifting and unhappy times of people’s lives; at the ups and downs; at the hospitals and funerals and at the weddings and christenings. We stand alongside others in their tears and tragedy, as well as their joy and jubilation. We shake their hands after they commit their lives in love to another, and we hold their hands at hospital bedsides as they move from this life to the next. As such, our ministry is living out God’s compassion – suffering when others suffer and rejoicing when they are joyful.

THE DOUBLE movieThe recent film The Double, directed by Richard Ayoade and based on Dostoyevsky novella of the same name, may be situated in a dystopic, parallel world but the characters voice feelings that are widespread in today’s world. Jesse Eisenberg describes himself as a lonely and disconnected “Pinocchio”, a “wooden boy, not a real boy” who needs to be brought to life. That disconnect with the world around us, that loneliness and longing for community and connection, remains deep in the heart of humanity. By becoming a vicar, priest, or minister, we have the privilege of offering light and new life to those who come to us, as we support and love them through their journey. The wonderful irony is that, by offering people God’s grace, we are, in turn, offered so much fulfilment and satisfaction ourselves.

If you yourself feel God might be calling you to be a vicar, priest, pastor, or minister, please do talk to your own church leader.

Does being a Christian make us any more loving and compassionate?

lampshade - the one we got! It’s over three months now since we moved house and, considering we had Christmas and a new baby in that time, we’ve done pretty well in sorting the Vicarage out. Last week, we even got lampshades sorted in the rooms. They were delivered to the house and my wife and I put them up in the morning. Later in the day, I was sitting in the living room with a fellow vicar, under the glow of a wonderful new lampshade (the very one in the photo!). As we were chatting, my 7-year-old daughter came back from school and burst into the room. She looked straight up at the lampshade and stood staring up at it in appreciation. I reminded her that she should have first greeted us when she walked into the room. “Don’t just look up, look across as well”, I said. Quick as a flash, my colleague said “well there’s the sermon for next week!” We both laughed and got on with our meeting, but those words I said stayed with me – “don’t just look up, look across as well”.

IsaiahAs I was reading Isaiah 58 yesterday, I realised that there was not only a sermon but also a blog post in that little phrase! In that chapter God explains to his people why he is so displeased with them. They have certainly been carrying out their religious observances and duties – they have been fasting, praying, and keeping God’s commandments. The problem is, however, that they have also been exploiting their workers, oppressing the poor, being unwelcoming to the stranger, ignoring the hungry, and refusing to house the homeless. In other words, in Isaiah God is saying: “don’t just look up at me, look across at my children as well”.

Cardiff University ChaplaincyThis got me asking myself what difference our faith makes in our lives. I remember talking to one rather vocal atheist student when I was chaplain of Cardiff University and he said something that has stayed with me ever since. He charmed me by telling me what a good and compassionate person I was, but he didn’t finish there. “Yes, you’re a good, kind person, but that’s just who you are and it’s not necessarily anything to do with your faith – are you trying to tell me that, if you weren’t Christian, you’d suddenly become cruel and uncompassionate? So, basically, what’s the point of your faith?” I still find those words challenging. After all, if we are to call ourselves followers of Christ, then it must make a positive, loving, and life-affirming difference in our lives.

teabagAt the crux of this is the question whether being a Christian makes us any more loving and compassionate? Or does our faith make no difference to us outside of the hour each week that we give to going to church? Attending a church should make a huge difference to our lives, but it only does this if we allow it. It’s like having a teabag and a mug of hot water. The tea is a weekly church visit, and the water is the rest of the week. There’s no point keeping that teabag separate from the water. In fact, the tea bag is pretty useless without water. In other words, a church visit is useless if it doesn’t have an impact on each of our daily lives. So, we need to let the tea infuse the water; we need to let our faith enthuse every moment of our week – every conversation we have and every decision we make. If we don’t, we may as well stay in bed on Sunday morning. If our faith makes a difference in our daily lives, then it is priceless; if it doesn’t have any impact, then it is worthless.

The reality is, of course, that all of us are too often like the Israelites in Isaiah 58. We try desperately to allow our faith to make a difference, but end up getting our priorities completely wrong. The stand that we take as Christians on things that we think are important, blinds us from the things that really are important. Someone recently said to me how great it was that the Church can still get on front page of newspapers in its defence of “our beliefs and values”. Unfortunately, the Church’s priorities are often misplaced, and those so-called “beliefs and values” rarely reflect the heart of Jesus’s teaching. While we are busy discussing women bishops, gay marriage, and the loss of Christian influence in this country, the real message of the gospel, the message of liberation, grace, hope, peace, and joy, gets left behind. Sometimes I feel we are like the Russian Orthodox Church in 1917 – while the revolution was raging all around them, they were holding councils to discuss liturgical colours.

WWJDOur call, then, is to realign our priorities. One way of doing that is to ask ourselves those four little words that used to adorn many teenage bracelets in the US – ‘what would Jesus do?’ The phrase has almost become a parody, but that shouldn’t mask the importance of reflecting on the question. Where would Jesus’s priorities be channelled if he were living today? Would he, nicene creed or doctrinal confession in hand, be desperate to root out those whose theology was not the same as his? Would he be bemoaning the fact that this country is becoming more multi-cultural and mixed-faith? Would he rile against those same-sex couples who want to commit themselves to a lifetime of love and faithfulness? Would he be worrying about a person of a different gender to him being in a spiritual position of authority? OR would he be actually be more concerned with living out the love and compassion that is so missing in so many lives in today’s world? Would he be standing alongside those seeking asylum, the hungry, victims of domestic violence, victims of human trafficking, those in prison, those in hospitals and hospices, those campaigning for the environment, victims of sexual abuse, and those oppressed by gender, race, or ethnicity?

leastAlthough it is dangerous to put any words into Jesus’s mouth, there is no doubt that he would identify with these groups. This can be seen in Matthew 25, which scholars tell us Jesus said with Isaiah 58 in mind. “‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’” So, when we do live out our faith in our everyday lives and when we let our hour on Sunday infuse and enthuse the rest of our week, this is exactly what we will be doing – finding God in everyone we meet and treating them as if they were Jesus himself. That rather changes that phrase that we started with: “don’t just look up, look across as well”. The paradox is that when we look across at our neighbours, we actually are looking up, because we are looking at him! So, don’t just look up at him, but look across at him as well.