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