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.

What is Ecumenism? Seven reasons churches must work together (Ministry Blog Series – 5)

In a change from my normal blog posts, I have been sharing a number of theological papers on ministry that I have written down the years, including for the Doctrinal Commission of the Church in Wales . My good friend and colleague Revd Siôn Brynach has recently been appointed Chief Executive of CYTUN (Churches Together in Wales) and so I thought this was a good time to share a paper I wrote recently about the future of ecumenism in Wales.

Ecumenism has changed. In my doctoral thesis, I explored ecumenism in the 1960s and many then were predicting the future to be a steady march to Christian unity. By the time I set up the Welsh National Centre for Ecumenical Studies with Dr Noel Davies in the 1990s, it was dawning on us that this was not inevitable – but there was still a feeling that it was good for both the Church and society that denominations work together. By today, we live in a changed world, with very different priorities, challenges, and hopes from even a generation ago. And so, in light of these, we need to reflect upon seven points in considering the future of ecumenism in Wales:

1. Ecumenism is absolutely necessary to the future of our faith.

We live in a society that is obsessed with choice. But in this I believe we don’t have a choice. Christians working together is not a preference for us to consider. For the Church to survive and thrive, for the Church to be a gift to Welsh society, this is our only option. As the Welsh football logo puts it – Together Stronger. After all, we pray to “our father”, not “my father” – we are all one family in Christ. It is facing the future together that we can become a true blessing, inspiration, and resource to the people of Wales.

2. Ecumenism in the future faces a different reality.

In the past we have, quite rightly, argued that ecumenism is absolutely necessary because it is a biblical and theological imperative. But, in today’s world, it is also absolutely necessary because of how the younger generations view us. Almost all non-Christians (young and old), and even a good majority of the younger Christians, express confusion and disbelief that we don’t work together. Many young people today don’t know what the word “ecumenism” is, but my experience of schools and universities show me that, when they talk of Christianity, they’re talking of ecumenism. Valuing and cherishing our unique traditions is an important part of being in this ecumenical family, but the fact that the world doesn’t see us as different is both a huge challenge and a liberating blessing.

3. The future of ecumenism is rooted in the community.

Good ecumenism grows from grassroots outwards – it evolves from practical action in our communities. Becoming a holy ‘talking shop’ alienates and divides. Ecumenism must make a very real and practical difference. In my experience as a parish priest and as someone who has trained ordained and lay ministers of various denominations, ecumenism comes alive when it is real people coming together to live out God’s love in their local community – to help refugees, to assist those struggling financially, to maintain foodbanks, to ensure environmental initiatives flourish, or to protest against discrimination and inequality.

4. The future of ecumenism is at the centre of public life.

It is only together that we can truly be at the heart of the public square and the public life of Wales. Recently I taught a Masters course for chaplains of various denominations, and the chaplains (health, military, school & University) were consistent in telling me that, aside from a small dissenting minority, those in our secular institutions and organisations still look to us for spiritual, pastoral, and moral leadership. In Wales, we are a country of two principal languages and a flourishing Welsh government. The ecumenical presence needs, therefore, to prioritise relationship-building and continue to be embedded in Welsh life (in both the Welsh and English medium) as a resource and an inspiration – in the Senedd, in schools, in the health service, in the media, in city centres, in rural workplaces, and so on.

5. The future of ecumenism cannot ignore the digital.

Both the local community and the wider society are central to ecumenism, but digital communities and communication are also of paramount importance. Churches and denominations cannot consign themselves to ecclesial ghettos, but need to work together to reach out to our digital world. I was delighted to speak to the Churches Together in Britain and Ireland trustees recently about the hugely successful podchurch venture that my church pioneered during the pandemic. Podchurch, which released worship that was centred on climate change, racial justice, disability, refugees, and many more issues, was listened to across the denominational spectrum and was able to inspire so many beyond my own tradition.

6. The future of ecumenism needs to be open to inter-faith friendship

Ecumenism emphasises our unity in Christ, but it also recognises our common humanity with our brothers and sisters in other faiths. This leads to fruitful dialogue and effective action. Not that ecumenism and interfaith work should be confused – in the early 2000s I resisted pressure to make the Welsh National Centre for Ecumenical Studies the “Welsh National Centre for Inter Faith Studies”. It is only because churches come together in ecumenism to celebrate both their similarities and differences that we can have something unique and inspiring to contribute to inter-faith dialogue and action.

7. The future of ecumenism is grounded in hope.

So many people in Wales have lost their attachment to institutional religion. But this need not lead us to lose heart. Those of us championing ecumenism can build on two things:

a) The latest studies reveal that spirituality is still important in people’s lives. The work of theologians such as Gordon Lynch and Charles Taylor have shown that people’s spirituality is simply taking a new form – in film and music, or in exercise and yoga, or in football and other sports, or even during public grief, as was shown after the death Queen Elizabeth II, when places of worship were visited for prayer and for the signing of books of condolences. Together churches can consider the implication of this popular spirituality and then work to provide moments of uplifting transcendence for a society hungry for connection.

b) As well as the presence of an innate spirituality, the respect for the tireless work of the churches for social justice is also increasing. The impact that ecumenical initiatives have had in Wales in recent years has shown this, both at a local level, with life-transforming ecumenical projects like Llanfair on the Penrhys estate in the Rhondda Valley, and nationally, with inspiring CYTUN work on such important issues as campaigning against poverty, welcoming refugees, and combating climate change.

So, yes, ecumenism has evolved so much in the past decades. But its absolute necessity remains. In a world where there are now so many divisions in areas of politics and identity, we Christians can embody a wonderful unity in diversity to bring hope to our fractured world, as we speak for those with no voice, stand alongside the sidelined, and reveal to the people of Wales that our faith is good news for all.

Hope – A Christmas Reflection

The recent movie A Boy Called Christmas tells the magical story of how the young St Nicholas met Blitzen and the elves and became the Santa Claus we all know and love. At the start of the film, the King of Finland, played by Jim Broadbent, speaks to his subjects about the dark times they are living in. He says these words: “We all know times are hard. I mean really, really, really hard. I can’t remember the last time I smiled. Can you? What is there to smile about? We’re all miserable. We’re all missing something. And I think we know what that is… Hope. We all need hope.”

After the past few years, many of us can relate to those words. We live in times of turmoil – fractious political uncertainty, heart-breaking environmental damage, toxic ideological divisions, desperate asylum seekers, and, of course, an unforgiving pandemic. In his latest book, the New York Times bestselling author Mark Manson suggests that we all need hope to survive “the way a fish needs water” and, without a hope of a brighter, better future, “we spiritually die”. And he suggests that one of the essential things to build and maintain hope is a sense of control. In other words, if we lose a sense of control over our lives, we lose hope.

How many of us have felt in control of our lives over the past 18 months? Very few, I imagine. But what the pandemic has actually done is taught us a timeless truth about control. It’s taught us that the narrative of self-control is a lie – none of us have any real control over virtually anything! Our health, our jobs, our partners, our children, our weather – none of us have control over them!

Christmas, though, is a time when we’re reminded that, for all our lack of control, hope still lives on. This season opens our eyes to the small glimmers of promise all around us, twinkling like the tree lights in our living rooms. In the Christmas story, the angels announce to the shepherds the coming of a great hope – a Saviour who’ll usher in a new world. No doubt the shepherds were expecting to be told that this hope was to be found in a capital city or in a great palace, in the guise of a charismatic politician or a famous world leader. Instead, the hope entered our world in a helpless baby in a dirty manger in a grubby stable, born to two nobodies surrounded by braying animals, in a small seemingly unimportant town.

Despite the lack of hope in that scene, though, we know that somebody was in control. And, of course, in our own hopelessness, however bad things get, however dark it seems, however stormy the seas, we know that somebody is in control. That is why the light shines in the darkness. And it all started with that first Christmas morning. As the opening words of one Christmas song puts it: “A ray of hope flickers in the sky, A tiny star lights up way up high”.

That star in the night sky pointed to a Christ child who came to us in poverty and weakness, in a seemingly dull, unimaginative scene. But this is the beginning of the glorious colourful nativity that fills our lives and delights our hearts each Christmas, this is the dawn of a new hope. This is the reassurance that, if we lay down our desperation for control, the one who is in control will open our eyes, our ears, our hearts to moments of hope in small things in seemingly unimportant places.

So, yes, when we are reaching out to others through foodbanks or medicines or vaccines or education or charities or environmental care, this is God’s hope in action. But hope is also birthed in our smaller, seemingly insignificant actions – when we’re taking the time to help a neighbour, when we’re reassuring a friend with kind and uplifting words, when we make a phone call to someone who is lonely or struggling, when we speak out for justice for those who are desperate or marginalised, and when we practice kindness and compassion and patience. This is when God’s light is breaking through all around us, reassuring us, in the words of Maggie Smith in that film A Boy Called Christmas: “the darkest night will end, the sun will rise, and Christmas mornings will come again, when anything and everything can happen”.

To watch a recording of this reflection: https://youtu.be/reEAQMEd9D0

Thought for the Day: Friendship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lent Week 5: Open our Actions to your Compassion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prayers for the Week

Because you want us to keep thinking big

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

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

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

Because you want us to develop a thin skin

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

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

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

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

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

Because you want us to bring remote issues close

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

Because you want us to reflect on what we can do

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

Because you want us to be stewards of our world

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

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

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

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

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

Amen

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

What has the Trinity got to do with everyday life?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easter, Notre Dame, and Climate Change

Today is a joyful day – Jesus is risen – Alleluia! His resurrection brings hope and promise in so many ways. Today is a joyful day because of the promise of resurrection in the future – death is not the end. Alleluia! Today is a joyful day because of the hope of new life now – it gives us hope to those suffering in this life – the grieving, the oppressed, the anxious, the ill, the imprisoned. Alleluia! Today is a joyful day because it holds new hope for the whole of creation – there will come a day when creation itself will be renewed and transformed. Today is a joyful day because it brings hope and promise for new life now for God’s magnificent creation. Alleluia!

We are often reminded at our churches about the hope that Easter brings to humankind, both in the future and the present. Rarely, though, do we hear about the hope that Easter brings to the whole of creation. Yet the biblical narrative insists this is the case and our Easter traditions are littered with reminders of this fact. In Jesus’s first appearance, he is even mistaken for a gardener, and Christians have long used imagery from nature to remind us of his promise of new life – eggs, lambs, bunnies, and chicks. And that is before we consider the New Testament’s insistence that, in Christ, the natural world finds its completion. “Behold I make all things new”, as Revelation puts it (21:5). In other words, the most important moment in our faith, the resurrection, speaks directly into the most pressing challenge to our generation – climate change.

It was inspiring this week to see the reaction to the tragedy of the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral. In the flames that we all witnessed in our screens, we had a symbol of helplessness, loss and sorrow – a crucifixion, if you like. On the streets of Paris, there were tears and lamentation, with the realisation that something sacred was about to be lost to future generations. The horror and the disbelief, however, was soon transformed into something very different – a refusal to consign beauty to ashes and a desire to rebuild and give life to the smouldering, sacred ruins. It may take many years, but the cathedral will again became a symbol of hope, new life, and resurrection. Notre Dame will rise again. “Behold, I make all things new!”

But, of course, one majestic Cathedral is not “all things”. Many other things are still broken in the world, and many other things are being destroyed daily, not in accidental fire, but through greed, exploitation, and avarice. These things are being lost at a rate that is staggering and heartbreaking – rainforests, glaciers, whole species of insects, animals, fish, and birds. And the crisis, in changing our world’s climate, is now also threatening human life across the world. My wife recounts the words of an RE teacher in her school in Germany: “we say to our grandparents “why didn’t you do any thing when the holocaust was happening?”, but our grandchildren will say to us “why didn’t you do any thing when the environment was dying?”” As in the burning Notre Dame, God’s groaning, suffocating creation is another symbol of tragedy, loss, and sadness – another crucifixion. Something sacred is again about to be lost to future generations.

A few days ago, my 5-year-old son came to me and, out of nowhere, said: “when I grow up, daddy, and you die, can I have your grey bath towel?” I’m not sure about my bath towel, but it did get me thinking – what will we leave him and his generation? In the distant future, I would love to be able to say to them and their children and grandchildren:

“Yes, we rebuilt the wonderful Notre Dame for you, so you can visit to be filled with the grandeur of God’s glory. But we also did much, much more to show you the meaning of Easter Sunday and the resurrection. We fed the hungry, we freed the oppressed, we defeated racism, xenophobia, and all forms of discrimination and hatred, we brought comfort and hope to those who mourn, we offered peace to those who suffer, we gifted good news to those who feel despairing and hopeless, and we lived out the Easter promise of new life for all creation… and so we left for you clean seas full of fish not plastic, clean air for you to breathe, clean water for you to drink, and green and healthy forests brimming with foliage, animals, insects and birds.”

I’d love to be able to say to them that our world became a symbol of hope, new life, and resurrection – that our planet has risen again. “Behold, I make all things new!”” But will we be able to say this to future generations?

Today is all about good news, and there is good news here – it is not too late and resurrection is hardwired into nature. Plant a tree and things already start to change and be renewed. Yes, we desperately need wholesale changes by businesses and governments to combat climate change. But we also need to remember that our own little acts make a difference. As Pope Francis put it, in an encyclical on climate change that he presented as a gift to a visiting President Trump: “an integral ecology is also made up of simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness”. He then lists some of those little acts that can make a difference, that can help bring new life, hope, and resurrection to the natural world – using public transport, car-pooling, planting trees, turning off lights, recycling, and so on. As the activist Howard Zinn wrote: “we don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change – small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world”. This is the mustard seed principle (Mark 4:39-32) – small acts can lead to big change. After all, a snowflake never feels responsible for an avalanche, but every snowflake is making a difference.

Today is Easter Day, tomorrow will be Earth Day, as it is every April 22nd. Both days speak of new life and new hope. A BBC News report earlier this week said of Notre Dame: “this gift to all humanity will rise again”. And that is true. Within a decade, that wonderful cathedral’s bells will ring again, worship and praise will again resound from its pews, and its art and architecture will again speak to people of God’s glory. But we are called to ensure that creation, God’s ultimate gift to humanity, will also rise again. That is our mission, that is our challenge. By acting as God’s hands and feet, even in our smallest actions, we can affirm that all things will be made new. As Eric Liddell, who won gold in the Paris Olympics in 1924, detailed in the Oscar-Winning film Chariots of Fire, wrote: “God is not helpless among the ruins… God’s love is still working. He comes in and takes the calamity and uses it victoriously, working out his wonderful plan of love”. Behold God makes all things new. He is risen. Alleluia!