A Christian response to the cost of living crisis (Ministry Blog Series – 6)

I have been sharing a number of theological papers on ministry that I have written. This is a copy of my notes for a discussion that I took part in recently with Bishop Barry Morgan (former Archbishop of Wales) and Matt Batten (comms officer for Archbishop Andy John’s Food and Fuel campaign) on the theological challenge that the cost of living crisis poses.

What is the role churches should play in addressing questions about poverty and justice?

The churches need to be playing an absolutely central role in addressing the challenge of poverty and justice. To abandon those experiencing financial hardship is to abandon the gospel. Poverty robs people of dignity and value and so the challenge of those who are “struggling to make ends meet” is central to our faith.

Concern for the well-being of others arises naturally out of biblical theology and our understanding of the Gospel, as does a desire to see the vulnerable and needy provided for and protected. At the heart of God’s character and his relationship with his world is care and concern for the poor – we see this in the teachings of the Torah, the prophetic tradition of Amos, Isaiah, and Micah, the ministry and teaching of Jesus, and the life of the early Church.

It is therefore outrageous that so many children in the UK, the sixth largest economy in the world, are living in poverty and that families are dependent on foodbanks, even those people who are in employment. While the cost of living crisis will impact each and every one of us differently, Christians cannot be silent while so many experience the crisis in an acute way, facing poverty or destitution.

So the challenge to the churches in facing this unacceptable situation, with child poverty on the increase and families having to make choices of eating or heating, is absolutely clear. But, of course, it’s not just about being hungry or being cold. Often the suffering of poverty is hidden from us. In the past few months, the numbers of those suffering mental ill health has soared, even amongst people who were previously stable, as individuals face anxiety, worry, and often a sense of shame at their struggles. Economic poverty has a devastating impact in a plethora of different ways on the lives of both individuals and communities.

How do you react to the statement that God helps those who help themselves?

The statement “God helps those who help themselves” is completely alien to a theologically-literate faith. In the context of poverty and justice, there is certainly nothing biblical about that statement. In the book of Genesis, God looks at his creation and sees it as tov me’od (“very good”). Thus, God’s intention for this creation is that there should be no shortages. We are, after all, gifted with more than sufficient provisions to meet our physical needs. So, Levitical and Deuteronomical laws ensure care for the vulnerable and marginalised in society, while Sabbath and Jubilee pronouncements lead to debts being regularly cancelled. Later in the Old Testament, the prophets rage against the injustices of the day and the structures of their society. So the expectation is certainly not that we leave people to fight their own individual struggles, but rather that we ourselves should rage against today’s injustices and ensure that we provide for those on the losing side of the inequality divide. Certainly that’s what the early church did – the book of Acts details the church of the disciples dedicating time and resources to meet the immediate needs of those struggling in their communities.

It is clear in scripture that poverty contradicts the will of God, and so Christians need to ensure that we nurture communities where no person is left behind, where no child goes to school on an empty stomach, where no parent has to make a choice between feeding their children and feeding themselves, where no young person has to eat raw food because using their hob is too expensive, and where no pensioner has to choose to sit in a cold and damp room just so they can afford their daily meals.

How can we engage with others to work towards a fairer society?

Generosity is at the heart of working towards a fairer society. St Paul urges generosity in his epistles and we Christians should be encouraging and showcasing generosity in our churches. Archbishop Andy John recently invited churches to be “practitioners of generosity”, urging every congregation to donate 10 boxes of basics items for the foodbank distribution network during Advent. The fact foodbanks and other ventures like pantries need to exist in twenty-first century Wales is appalling, but they do exist and the need is increasing in light of the cost of living crisis. So we need to be generous in our giving – donating food to foodbanks, but also donating money to charities. After all, the whole charity sector is feeling the effects of economic instability, with donations to charities going down considerably because people need their money for food and fuel.

We also might consider generosity in terms of opening churches and church halls as warm spaces for those struggling to heat their homes. This, of course, relies on the church being able to pay its own gas and electric bills – and that’s no longer a given. But we can still as churches and Christians join forces with other public bodies or charities to work together to continue reaching out and assisting.

Is it possible to be ambivalent or non-committal about politics and faith?

Being ambivalent or non-committal about politics and faith is not an option for Christians. The arc of the biblical narrative is for justice, fairness and equality – and these are political matters. From the outset of the creation narratives, we hear that God creates humanity in his own image. That may only be one little verse in the Bible, but its implications are profound. If all people reflect God’s image, then we are duty bound to care for one another. Poverty robs people of what God intended for them; it inverts God’s desires for his creation.

No wonder Jesus tells us that we see God himself in the face of the poor. ‘Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me’, he says in Matthew 25. But the real challenge is what he says a few verses later, when he states: ‘Truly, I tell you, whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for me’. In other words, it’s not just about what we do for others, it’s also about what we’re not doing for others. That’s a huge challenge for our commitment to politics, social action, and justice. God is present in people who are struggling, financially or otherwise, and, if we Christians are not there standing alongside them offering hope, warmth, and light, then we are not living as Jesus wanted us to and, of course, we we are not living as Jesus did. Not only was Jesus’s teaching unequivocal about what we ought to do with our wealth and resources, but he himself modelled a life of selfless solidarity with the marginalized of his day.

And so, in light of the biblical call for justice and in light of Jesus’s life and teaching, Christians can’t be ambivalent when surveys are showing one in seven adults in the UK had skipped meals or routinely gone without food, when the number of workers on zero–hours contracts in the UK have increased fivefold in 10 years, and when we hear dreadful stories about people having to eat pet food or trying to heat food on radiators.

Where do things like prayer and fasting sit within a prophetic and radical engagement with the world?

We sometimes feel helpless when we face the problems we see in our society. But our faith is all about hope. And that’s where, for me, prayer and spiritual exercises collide beautifully with prophetic and radical engagement with our world. As Christians we believe that God is at work in the world and so our prayers matter. They matter objectively, but they also matter subjectively. Desmond Tutu described prayer like sitting in front of a warm fire. Just as we become warmed ourselves as sit in the light and heat of the fire, time spent resting in God’s love makes us more loving ourselves.

So prayer strengthens us and inspires us to be God’s hands and feet and voice in the world. There’s a wonderful African proverb: “when you pray, move your feet”. And there’s something profound about that – prayer is essential, but remaining on our knees is not an option. Pope Francis talked about prayer by stating: “you pray that the hungry will be fed, then you get off your knees and you feed the hungry – that’s how prayer works”.

Again, we can look at the model of Jesus. It’s no coincidence that Jesus began his ministry by quoting the Jubilee passage in the book of Isaiah “the spirit of the Lord, is upon me, because he has sent me to proclaim good news for the poor”. But Jesus’s life was not one that was only marked by social action, just as his life wasn’t only marked by prayer. Jesus’s life was a balance between prayer and action – we could call it contemplative action. We need to embrace that beautiful balance in our lives.

With news that the 2021 census results show that less than half of the UK population identify as Christian, do people care or even believe that the church is the voice of the marginalised?

I think perhaps that question starts in the wrong place. Rowan Williams writes that “God did not make us human to become Christian, but he made us Christian to become more human”. In other words, what matters is not whether people care or believe that we Christians are the voice of the marginalised, but rather that the Spirit does inspire us to become the voice of the marginalised. Reaching out in compassion and love to our brothers and sisters who are vulnerable and struggling financially is what becoming more human is all about. It is also what God is all about – he is, after all, the God of justice.

The reality is that Christians do so much in local communities to assist those who are struggling, whether financially or otherwise. According to a recent survey, Christians who attend church regularly are more likely to be taught and experience generosity in their own lives than non-Christians. The poll found that 79 percent of Christians who practice their faith said they had been taught the importance of generosity, while only 58 percent of non-Christians said the same. And so it’s little wonder that church communities across Wales, as elsewhere, are becoming hubs for generous activity in the cost of living crisis, whether as foodbanks or warm spaces.

So it doesn’t matter if people outside the church see us as the voice of the marginalised – it matters that we are. It is, after all, our duty and calling to reach out to the marginalised and vulnerable, to empower and enable people, and to ensure power balances are redressed.

The Topsy-Turvy Revolution of Christmas

I preached for the final time at Christ Church, Roath Park, Cardiff on Christmas Day 2022. My sermon attempted to connect with those of different ages, including children, and those on different stages of their Christian journey. Our Reader, Eleanor Williams, acted as Angel Gabriel during the sermon (wearing angel wings and halo!) and she did so with her usual humour and charm. After the service, a number of people asked for a copy of the sermon, so I include it here on my blog.

Someone asked me recently about the favourite book I’d ever been given as a Christmas present. It’s a classic novel, highly cultured and deeply theological, about a man who lives an upside-down, back-to-front life. He even takes this as far as walking backwards, wearing his hat the wrong way, and carrying his walking stick from the bottom up. Written by the celebrated author Roger Hargreaves, who was far too often overlooked for the Nobel Prize for literature, the book is called Mr Topsy Turvy!

I was given this book when I was six years old, and, in my mind, there are similarities between this classic from the children’s Mr Men series and the book that really has changed my life. The Bible, after all, is a story of a topsy-turvy, upside-down, downside-up, inside-out, outside-in God. Nowhere is this more strikingly clear than at the outset of the New Testament, when the gospels start with the birth of Jesus that we celebrate today. This topsy-turvy narrative lays the foundation for the wonderful, life-giving faith that we now live out over 2000 years later. We get so used to hearing the message of Christmas year-after-year that we can sometimes forget how subversive and revolutionary our faith really is. Just imagine the conversation between God and the Angel Gabriel around nine months before Jesus’s birth.

God must have said to Angel Gabriel that things weren’t going too great on earth. There were so few people who were listening to his topsy-turvy, subversive message of love, kindness, and hope. And so he informs the Angel Gabriel that he’s considering sending his son down to teach, and show through his own life, this revolutionary way of living.

Angel Gabriel: “Great idea, Mr God – so, my suggestion would be to wait about 2000 years when television will be invented and TikTok, Facebook, and Twitter will really be able to help your PR campaign go down swimmingly”.

But God is determined that the birth of his son happens immediately, in the first century, because people needed a new saviour and fresh hope as soon as possible. This was the first topsy-turvy decision.

Angel Gabriel: “Ok, sounds a bit strange, but I’ll go with it… So, I see the Romans are pretty powerful at the moment. So let’s get your son born in that wonderful city Rome – the sparking capital of the world”.

But God wasn’t interested in the kind of power that Rome represented. Instead, Jesus was to be born in a small, middle-eastern country that was mired in turmoil and problems.

Angel Gabriel: “Ok, Israel, hmmm… strange choice, but it sort of makes sense as your son will be coming to your chosen people, God, to save them and to give them great hope”.

But God has other plans. He wants to break through the tribalism of the world then and of the world now. He wants to give the peculiar message that we are all loved by him, we are all important to him. Jesus may have been born as a first-century Jewish man, but his message of love and peace and hope and joy is for all people and all times.

Angel Gabriel: “Yes, you’re inspiring me now, God – I can get down with that message… so let’s get your son born in one of the wonderful palaces of Jerusalem – maybe to a King or a great warrior or a talented politician”.

But God wants Jesus, right from the very beginning, to topple our ideas of wealth and power – he was going to be born in a manger, amongst the dirty animals to a young unknown girl.

Angel Gabriel: “Right, I’m starting to see where this is going… but we definitely need to ensure your son’s teaching inspires followers who are important people, wealthy people, influential people… we’ve got to ensure his message continues for ever”.

But God’s vision of the future was different – his son was coming to proclaim good news for the marginalised, the criticised, the belittled, the scorned, the poor, the vulnerable, the grieving, the imprisoned, the depressed, the hurting, the anxious, the disabled, the sick, the lonely. Jesus’s topsy turvy message would be: “the first will be last and the last will be first”.

Angel Gabriel: “Sounds all a bit crazy to me, God… but, at the very least, you should have your son to either die a hero’s death or not to die at all and just live forever in his kingdom, ruling in glorious majesty”.

But God has one last twist in his plan. Jesus will die the horrible and painful death of a criminal, hung up a cross. And then he will come back three days later to rule in a different kind of kingdom – the kingdom of love and peace in the hearts of each and every one of us, if only we choose to embrace and live out his topsy-turvy message. 

Angel Gabriel: “Right, I give up – why don’t you just do what you want God – but don’t come running to me when your upside-down, topsy-turvy, downside-up, subverted, revolutionary, inside-out, outside-in world comes crashing down on you!”

But there are no guarantees that if we follow Jesus our lives won’t come crashing down – there are no guarantees that our lives will be trouble free. But today, Christmas Day, is a reminder that, while our topsy-turvy God may not be promising us an easy life, he is promising us, his disciples, the strength to live out his revolution. When we walk out of this building today and when we welcome in the new year, the baby in a manger should inspire us to turn our broken world upside-down – to ensure that the lonely have company, that the sick are visited, that those imprisoned by addiction are set free, that those experiencing prejudice and hatred are shown love and compassion, that those facing discrimination because of their race, gender, or sexuality are liberated from oppression, that those who are depressed or anxious see silver linings in their clouds, that those who can’t afford food on their tables or heating in their houses do not go to bed hungry or cold, that those who feel the heart wrenching despair of grief do not feel alone and abandoned, and that those who can’t even force a smile on Christmas Day know they are loved and infinitely valued. This is the faith of the crying, helpless baby in a manger. This is the topsy-turvy revolution we follow.

Easter Sunday – Open our World to your Hope

At the beginning of Barney Norris’s novel Five Rivers on a Wooded Plain, the author reflects on Salisbury Cathedral. He says he’s stared at the cathedral spire every night for a year as he wrote his book. Although he professes no faith himself, he is entranced by the spire, describing it as “cutting the air” like a “diagram of prayer”. He says that the Cathedral has become a symbol of hope in his life, which encourages him to stop, to look up and look beyond the everyday, and to “imagine something greater than we are”. By doing so, he says, “it demands we look outside ourselves”.

There is something in our church buildings that speak of hope, of God’s assurance that he is with us and that his kingdom of love, compassion, and peace is already here among us. No wonder it’s been so difficult for so many when we haven’t been able to enter our buildings freely. But, of course, St Paul also reminded us that we are ourselves are living temples. In other words, each one of us has the potential to be figures of hope to others in our lives. We can, like the spire in Norris’s book, take people beyond their own personal concerns and point to something greater than themselves.

Now, over the past six weeks of Lent, we have been on a journey. This has been an inward journey, as we’ve explored what God’s presence, call, love, will, compassion, and peace means to us personally. But it is also a journey which has radical outward implications. Being transformed into Jesus’s image means we are compelled to view others as he did and treat others as he did. And so now we come to Easter Sunday. The day of resurrection and hope. This hope is for ourselves, yes, but it is also hope that we are invited to share with others, not least at such a difficult time where hope is painfully lacking in so many lives.

So today, in the light of the new life of the resurrection, I want to encourage you to be that hope to others in your life. In the latest Justice League film, Superman says these words: “Hope is like your car key, easy to lose, but, if you dig around, you’ll find it close by”. So many people are digging around, looking for hope at the moment. Be that hope for them. Help people see the light in their lives. Help them see that light both in things familiar and in things long overlooked – in their home, in their families, in their daily walks, in church buildings, in music, in the countryside around them. And open their eyes to new possibilities, new challenges, new life. That is the power of the renewal that Jesus offers. That can change lives, communities, society, and the created world. This is the power of Hope.

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

When we’re confronted with emptiness

Lord, we ask you to

Open our world to your hope

When it all goes quiet

Lord, we ask you to

Open our world to your hope

When we want to put away going over the past

Lord, we ask you to

Open our world to your hope

When we want to stop worrying about the future

Lord, we ask you to

Open our world to your hope

When we can’t keep holding our burden

Lord, we ask you to

Open our world to your hope

When we’re convinced nothing will change

Lord, we ask you to

Open our world to your hope

When we’re terrified of losing control

Lord, we ask you to

Open our world to your hope

When we start to be overconcerned about what others say about us

Lord, we ask you to

Open our world to your hope

When we fail to respond to global crises

Lord, we ask you to

Open our world to your hope

When we’re not quick enough to turn to you

Lord, we ask you to

Open our world to your hope

Amen

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

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”

Storms of Life: Finding Hope in our Suffering

Since I underwent spinal surgery 12 years ago, I have had to face daily pain, but, through exercise and pain management, I have been able to manage its intensity. Eight weeks ago, though, only a day after I finished a 135-mile pilgrimage, I felt a level of pain I had not experienced in a decade. In the following few weeks, the pain got increasingly worse and I have had to endure numerous medical appointments and scans. Alongside the physical pain, there has also been the accompanying mental angst. These worries about the future have torn me away from the present and are invariably worse in the dead of night, when I’ve had no distractions to keep negative thoughts polluting my mind.

bear huntWe live in a society that attempts, as best it can, to avoid pain and suffering. Sometimes, though, the storms of life are inescapable. Last week, someone visited me as I lay on my sofa. “You need to face your pain like the great Bear Hunt”, they said, rather cryptically. It was only when my four-year-old son chose “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” as his bedtime story a few nights later that I understood something of what she meant. In this classic children’s book, we join a family as they search for a bear by facing various challenging terrains – forest, mud, long grass, and snow. With each different environment, we are told that “We can’t go over it; We can’t go under it; Oh no, we have to go through it!”

Sometimes we have to face the reality that our times of pain, hurt, affliction, or grief are unavoidable. At those times, we have to “gird up our loins”, as the Bible puts it (Job 40:7; 1 Peter 1:13), and face the misery of suffering head on. At those times, we cannot be like rugby players, skilfully sidestepping opponents. Instead, we are forced to be like American football players, confronting opposite numbers head-on by crashing into them. Each of us will face, in the words of St Paul, a “thorn in our flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7), and sometimes there is no other path other than to “take up our cross”, as Jesus told his disciples (Luke 9:23).

IMG_2964On my long pilgrimage which followed the coastline of North Wales, I spent many hours gazing out at the Irish Sea as I rested with my lunch or my trusty flask of tea. During those three weeks of walking, I noticed how the sea was brimming with life and activity – seals, porpoise, puffins, gannets, boats, fishermen, surfers. But I also observed how quickly the sea could be transformed, sometimes slowly from day-to-day, but other times in a matter of hours. When my four-year-old son is drawing the sea, he will immediately reach for the blue crayon. By spending a length of time staring out to the changeable sea, though, a plethora of beautiful colours emerge. These are often related to the sea’s condition – sometimes threatening and disturbingly dark, but, on other occasions, calm and crystal clear. One day, as I sat on a rock on the edge of a clifftop, I wrote in my notepad that the waves were like rolling, unforgiving white juggernauts crashing against the headland. The very next day, by now on a sandy beach, I jotted down that the sea was a serene stillness gently caressing the golden shoreline.

IMG_2845Like the changeable sea, our life journey is ever-changing. Sometimes all seems tranquil – we are blessed with times of joy, times of pleasure, and times of celebration. But sometimes storms rage around us – we have to face times of pain, times of anxiety, and times of grief. “There is a time for everything,” ponders Ecclesiastes (3:1), “and a season for every activity under the heavens”.

At those seasons of suffering in my own life, it has helped to remind myself that, like the rolling waves of the tide, our lives have a natural ebb and flow. Life is not a straight line, from birth to death, emerging from darkness and returning to darkness, or, indeed, from light to light. Rather, life is cyclical. The winters of our suffering can certainly be dark, long, cold, and painful, but spring will always burst forth. We wait for the snowdrops, because we know the daffodils will soon follow. We trust the nature of the seasons that this will happen, just as those of us who are Christians learn to trust that God will lead us out of our wait, however long and painful. The sixth-century theologian Boethius describes life as a wheel: “we rise up on the spokes, but we’re soon cast back down into the depths. Good times pass away, but then so do the bad. Change is our tragedy, but it’s also our hope. The worst of times, like the best, are always passing away”.

daffodilsThis thought, and this way of viewing the world, is helping me face the difficult wait of my own recuperation. As such, it is gradually transforming my anxious thoughts by giving me the strength to notice and value those little signs of spring breaking through the harshness of winter – to notice and value those daily moments of joy and grace that break through my continuing pain and frustration. This is as powerful a healing as any physical healing could offer. As an old proverb puts it: “Sometimes God calms the storm, but sometimes God calms the sailor”.

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.

 

Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering

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

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

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

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

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

hope_in_focusFor all of us, opening our eyes to moments of God’s light and grace, even in our times of suffering, have a cumulative ability to transform, illuminate, and bring us hope. Held as a hostage for many years in a dark room in Beirut, Brian Keenan recalls how he made a candle from small pieces of wax and string from his clothing fibres. ‘Quietly, calmly a sense of victory welled up in me’, he later wrote, ‘and I thought to myself without saying it, “They haven’t beat us yet. We can blot out even their darkness”’. Light, of course, does not avoid darkness. Rather, it confronts it head-on. ‘The light shines in the darkness but the darkness has not understood it’ (John 1:5).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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