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!”.

Lent Week 4: Open our Ways to your Will

“What are the chances of that happening?” I’ve said that phrase so many times recently that I’ve been researching whether there is any meaning behind coincidences. Not so long ago, a BBC Radio 4 series recounted spectacular coincidences – like in 2001 when 10 year-old Lucy Buxton in Staffordshire released a balloon from her garden with her name and address on it. It landed 140 miles away in Wiltshire in a garden of another 10-year-old girl… who, amazingly, was also called Lucy Buxton! Now, coincidences in our own lives may not be so spectacular, but they can still stop us in our tracks – like when we’re thinking of someone and the phone pings and it’s a text from them. “What are the chances of that happening?” we say.

And I’ve noticed that there have been quite a few posts on social media recently referring to such coincidences. Last week, I read about a friend of mine who was listening to Whitney Houston’s “I will always love you” on his car’s CD Player and he thought to himself “it’s not as good as the original”. So he turned his CD player off and his radio kicked in. What was playing? Yes, Dolly Parton’s original version of “I will always love you”!

Now, such coincidences in our own lives can easily be dismissed as, well, just coincidences. But perhaps, if we open ourselves up, we can recognise these coincidences happening more often in our lives and even recognise meaning behind them. And I’m certainly not the only one to believe this. From the great psychologist Carl Jung to the contemporary Cambridge University biologist Rupert Sheldrake, others have suspected these synchronistic moments have deep meaning. In fact, these may be moments when God reveals himself to us, guides us and speaks to us. One popular book in America suggests this is when God is winking at us, reassuring us of his presence or pointing us in some direction he wants us to take.

So, we can open our ways to his will by noticing him wink at us in all sorts of ways – sometimes this comes through coincidental events, but other times it is through things people say to us, or little signs we notice in our daily routine, or loving thoughts that flash across our minds, or something we read or watch and find inspiring, or perhaps even something we dream about.

So, this week I want to challenge you. Ask yourself… What is God pushing you towards? What little signs has he given you? Are you awake to his movement in your life? Have you noticed him wink at you? How is he guiding you to live out his love and compassion in your life? How does he want you to serve him?

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

In the week of Mothering Sunday –

So that we always recall that mothering happens in many places and in many ways

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ways to your will

So that we recognise the mother in ourselves

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ways to your will

So that we value the role of all forms of mothering

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ways to your will

So that we bring our own experiences of mothering to you

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ways to your will

So that we support those who are mothering

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ways to your will

So that we learn from mothering

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ways to your will

So that we recognise that mothering is hard

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ways to your will

So that we can reassure those who think they’re not cut out for mothering

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ways to your will

So that we let ourselves be mothered

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ways to your will

So that we see you as the model of all our mothering

Lord we ask you to

Open our ways to your will

Amen

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

Lent Week 3: Open our Hearts to your Love

Recently I was introduced to an album called “The Anarchy Arias”. It is a collaboration between the English National Opera, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and Glen Matlock, who was in a famous punk band in the 1970s. These songs are the punk, new wave, and rock songs that I would listen to as a teenager, but played by a wonderful orchestra and sung by talented opera singers. What isn’t there to love about that?! Well, in one particular way, it misses the mark and misses the point. These songs were brash protests against problems that still exist in our society, and now they suddenly seem tame. In this new setting, even the lyrics just don’t have the radical and shocking punch that they had in the 1970s, and much of the power and protest has now been lost.

When I was considering what it means to open our hearts to God’s love, I was reminded of the Anarchy Arias. For two thousand years, Christianity has been known as a faith of love. Jesus’s teaching on love, not to mention his life of love, has inspired groups and individuals to challenge the status quo, to stand up for those are oppressed, to speak for those with no voice, and to lay down their lives for those in need. Yes, people like St Francis, William Wilbourforce, Corrie Ten Boom, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa; but also countless other nameless people who lived out the sacrifice that Christian love demands of us. This call on our lives is radical and revolutionary and it bucks the prevailing individualistic and materialist worldview in today’s world.

The reality is, though, that we’ve probably heard the phrase “God is love” countless times by now. And it’s easy to hear things so often that we just get used to them. The power and inspiration can be drained away from even the most life-giving and profound messages. Just like the Anarchy Arias, Christian love can become something bland and staid, worse still it can become sickly sweet and saccharine.

So, this week, let’s try and recapture something of the radical and revolutionary thing that is Christian love. Imagine that you’ve never even heard of Jesus. And then someone explains, first, that the creator of all loves you completely, unconditionally, so much so that he would die for you. This is a huge comfort. And then they go on to explain that, because God’s love is for all, we’re not simply called to put up with one another, or like each other when it’s convenient, but to love one another. This is a huge challenge. So, this week, embrace the comfort; feel his deep, unwavering love for you. But also embrace the challenge; in whatever way you can, reach out to others in love, help them in practical ways and reassure them of their ultimate worth.

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

If we take happiness, health, success for granted

Lord, we ask you to

Open our hearts to your love

If we take where we’ve come from and where we’re going for granted

Lord, we ask you to

Open our hearts to your love

If we take our present surroundings for granted

Lord, we ask you to

Open our hearts to your love

If we take others for granted

Lord, we ask you to

Open our hearts to your love

If we take ourselves for granted

Lord, we ask you to

Open our hearts to your love

If we perceive that others take us for granted

Lord, we ask you to

Open our hearts to your love

If we witness others being taken for granted

Lord, we ask you to

Open our hearts to your love

If we go along with a system that takes people for granted

Lord, we ask you to

Open our hearts to your love

If we forget that you never take your creation for granted

Lord, we ask you to

Open our hearts to your love

If we want to follow you, grant our prayer:

Lord, we ask you to

Open our hearts to your love

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.

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!

Our Challenge this Christmas – Prophet not Profit

This is my first guest blogger on the “Finding Hope, Meaning, Faith, and Compassion” blog. The writer, Gareth Erlandson, is a young Masters student who is training for Anglican ordained ministry. I heard him give the talk below last week and I was personally moved and inspired by it (and not, rest assured, because it namechecks me!). I, therefore, asked him to adapt it into a blog post for publication on this blog. I hope it also inspires you in these weeks running up to Christmas:

When I started teaching about twelve years ago, I shared a house with an old school mate who would drink coffee from a mug emblazoned with the words “Jesus is Coming – Look Busy!” I often think of that mug during Advent – the four weeks running-up to Christmas. We tend to be so busy this time of year, as we supposedly wait in hopeful anticipation for Jesus’ coming – racing around buying presents, eating ourselves to bursting at Christmas meals, rushing from concert to concert. Last week I lost three hours driving around Cardiff on the hunt for the perfect Christmas tree, only for it not to fit in our lounge after all that!

The prophets of the Bible knew what it meant to look forward with hopeful anticipation. In light of their message, we can view the busy run-up to Christmas in a very different way. Rather than preparing materially for Christmas, we can try to take time to prepare ourselves. By doing so, Jesus can challenge us – challenge us to make the old new, to fix the broken, to dispel darkness with light.

But what does it mean to be prophetic? Well, it is certainly nothing to do with crystal balls, wizards, or seeing into the future. Rather, the words and actions of both the Old Testament prophets and John the Baptist in the New Testament encourage us to get right personally with God as we await for his arrival, and a large part of that includes our actions. In other words, there is a political and social edge to our call to be prophetic. After all, being a prophet is to call out against everything that is broken in the world. This can be brokenness within ourselves, in our relationships with others, in the community and wider society, and of the environment. The Bible encourages us to recognise this prophetic voice within us (Rom. 12:6) and tells us that, when we use our spiritual gifts to strengthen, encourage, and comfort others (1 Cor. 14:3), we are doing God’s work (1 Pet. 4:10).

I recently heard blogger and author, Trystan Owain Hughes, challenge a group with these “Questions of Love”:

“How do we share God’s love with people?”

“How are we compassionate and kind to the suffering?”

“Are we at peace with others?”

“How do we care for the environment?”

These, to me, could be summarized in one question: “Do we take our political and social responsibilities seriously?” Asking such a question is the start of prophecy, but we also need to listen for God’s answers and this demands time and space. John the Baptist himself is referred to as one “calling in the wilderness”. He takes time out of the hustle and bustle of everyday living to listen to God’s voice and, by doing so, it is God’s message that he proclaims.

Similarly, for us, we must listen out for God’s voice and then proclaim it. Some Christian traditions refer to five basic signs that God is speaking – through scripture, pictures, emotions, physical reactions, or everyday “words of wisdom”. Such signs can appear in our “mind’s eye” but can equally crop up in our everyday lives. But time and space is needed to recognise these signs. We need, in other words, to follow John the Baptist’s example by stepping back from the humdrum in order to hear God’s voice. In doing so, though, we also need to be careful. We only truly know if we’re hearing from God if what we perceive is compatible with God as revealed in Scripture. In other words, are the messages we are hearing leading us to loving actions? After all, “God is love” (1 John 4:16).

We can see numerous examples of prophetic responses to God’s call. One fictional example is in a book of which many of us will be watching filmic versions over the next few weeks. Scrooge’s ghostly visitors in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol act as prophets, leading the miserable miser to transform his own relationships and the lives of the poorest in his society. A more recent and real life example is that of my wife, who was disturbed on a shopping trip by the increasing number of homeless people sleeping on the streets of Cardiff (Wales, UK). Taking some time to reflect on this experience, three words of wisdom came to her – “Greggs the Bakers”. On her next trip into town, Greggs was her first port of call, where she bought a stack of gift cards which she now distributes to the rough sleepers in the city whenever she pops in for a bit of Christmas shopping.

Advent is certainly a time we should be getting excited for Christmas and so that naturally means we are busy – don’t feel guilty about that! But we could also commit to taking just a few extra moments each day to ask God to show us where and how the broken world needs healing. Then, we can take time and space to listen as he answers us. This is how we, like the prophets of the Bible, can help bring light into the world, just as Jesus did 2000 years ago at the first Christmas.

Compassion and the General Election

camerons_1625564iOn the morning of Friday 8 May 2015, after his party’s triumph at the general election, David Cameron gave his victory speech on the steps of 10 Downing Street. His final words, replayed endlessly on TV and radio, referred to the United Kingdom as a country with “such great compassion” and with the potential to build a proud future. “Together, we can make Great Britain greater”, he concluded.

compassion-definitionThat the Prime Minister chose to use the word “compassion” at this point is not surprising, as he has used the word on numerous occasions over the past five years in referring to the policies that he is espousing. Yet the word should not be treated lightly. The root of the English word is from the Latin compassio, meaning “to suffer with”. In other words, when someone suffers, we suffer with them and somehow feel their pain. It is, in a nutshell, love-in-action. In the New Testament, Jesus is described as being “moved to his guts with compassion” (splanchnizomai) for those suffering. While in the Old Testament, the word for compassion, rachamim, is related to the Hebrew term for womb (rechem). The Arabic language has the same link between compassion (rahmah) and womb (rahem). In other words, compassion means we treat others as if we shared the same womb with them, as if they were our brothers and sisters.

Compassion is not just a buzzword to be used when it is convenient for politicians and political commentators to try to show how much they care. Instead, compassion is a challenge to each and every one of us to treat others, whoever they are, as if they are related to us – as if they are, quite literally, our brothers and sisters. For Christians, it is at the heart of how we should be treating each other and how we should be act towards the world around us. And yet, while entrepreneurial skills are taught in schools to children as young as six and seven, compassion is rarely seen as an important aspect of educational policy. And while successive governments talk about compassion in the NHS, nurses and doctors feel that they are forced to sideline a truly compassionate attitude in favour of finance and targets. And while our hearts go out to the migrants who lose their lives in the bid to reach our country, compassion is certainly lacking in some of the anti-immigration rhetoric we have heard recently.

The reality is that true compassion (compassio, rachamim, splanchnitzomai) is not championed in Westminster, just as it is not championed in Fleet Street, or the City, or the Old Bailey, or Eton or Oxford or Cambridge. Unfortunately, the establishment – the people that run our country, the institutions that hold sway in our land – are far more interested in finance, profit, and power than in reaching out to the marginalised and disadvantaged. As a society, we have been peddled a lie that our priorities should be individualistic, materialistic, and self-serving. Worse still, we have been made to believe that it is weak and naïve to champion love, kindness, and compassion over material prosperity, egotism, and competition.

hopeYet, as a Christian, I believe we need not be disheartened. Much has been made of the recent general election being an election of negativity and fear – we are told that many voted out of fear of what the future might hold. Christians, though, are not people of fear – we’re people of hope. And that hope doesn’t start in the Houses of Parliament, it doesn’t start in the media or the press, it doesn’t even start in church buildings. Hope starts in our hearts. It starts in our hearts because that’s where compassion begins to flower. And once the buds of compassion break through, then communities start to be reinvigorated, and those communities, in turn, can transform society.

“The kingdom of God is within you”, Jesus declared (Luke 17:21). Once we realise that God’s Kingdom starts inside and then grows outwards, then we’ll start to recognise signs of that kingdom. It’s like throwing a pebble into water. God’s kingdom is the kingdom of ever-increasing circles – compassion starts in our heart, and then grows outwards, impacting on more and more people, bringing hope and transforming futures.

RussellAfter all, Jesus didn’t start his revolution by toppling governments and worldly kingdoms. Many of his followers wanted exactly that. The zealots were opposed to Roman rule, and scholars believe many of them followed Jesus expecting him to instigate such a revolution. His revolution, though, was a very different uprising. The comedian Russell Brand wears a T-shirt with the word “revolution” on it, but with the second, third, fourth, and fifth letters in a different colour – “r-E-V-O-L-u-t-i-o-n”. If we read those four letters backwards, it spells the word “L-O-V-E”. And that’s how Jesus started his revolution – simply by telling his followers to love one another.

Revolution starts with love; it starts with love-in-action. It starts with compassio – suffering with other people. It starts with splanchnitzomai – being so moved to our guts with compassion that we simply have to act. It starts with rachemim – treating everyone as if they had shared the same womb as us… the immigrant, the carer, the school teacher, the nurse, the food bank user, the disabled person on benefits, the homeless person, the prisoner, the unemployed person, the substance abuser, the sick in hospital, the terrified pregnant teenager, the young man struggling on minimum wage, the elderly person in a care home with no visitors for many months. Compassion asks – do we really think of them, and treat them, as if they were our own brothers and sisters?

compassion-is-the-real-money-thumbCompassion should be the only currency that really matters, not the pound or the dollar. Some may think that’s naïve and unrealistic. Sometimes I think that even Christians think that Jesus himself was just a little bit naïve, impractical, or utopian. If Jesus were around now, we might quietly speculate that he’d conclude that things are actually far more complex that he first realised. Things are, in fact, far less complex than we ourselves realise. Jesus knew exactly what human nature was about. On the very night that he was tortured and murdered, he simply said: “my command is this: love each other as I have loved you”.

change-just-ahead-370x229As a Christian, as a person of hope, I am quiet certain that change will come, that transformation will take place. But this change will not start in Westminster, or in the City, or on Fleet Street. Change starts in our hearts, and then grow outwards. If we live out compassion in our daily lives, the kingdom of God cannot fail to break through into our communities and, as a consequence, that will transform our society – bringing light to places of darkness, bringing love to those who suffer prejudice or disadvantage, bringing hope to those who think they have no future. “My command is this: love each other as I have loved you”.

Stephen Fry, Russell Brand, and the Theory of Everything: Part 2

TheTheoryOfEverythingPoster-01I have just returned from watching The Theory of Everything in the cinema. It was a wonderful example of finding hope and love in our broken lives. At times during the film, though, the uplifting element feels merely a superficial bandaid to cover up our feeling of helplessness and anger at the unjust pain and suffering that we witness in the film. Not only do we see Motor Neurone Disease ravage Professor Stephen Hawking’s body, but we also see the mental anguish his friends, wife and children go through as they face the consequences of a terminal disease. Like Stephen Fry, I felt like screaming to the heavens in outrage and indignation. There is certainly no “theory of everything” for Christians to explain the presence of suffering in the world. Like most people, my family and I have had our share of suffering, and, as a member of the clergy, I also have pastoral care for many who go through all manner of heartbreaking situations. The irony is, though, the only way this pain and suffering makes sense for me personally is in light of a loving and compassionate God, who reassures us that he knows what it’s like to face such anguish, stands alongside us in our tears, and affirms hope and meaning in seemingly hopeless and meaningless situations.

Towards the end of The Theory of Everything, as the couple face separation and divorce, Stephen Hawking looks at his wife, tears running down both of their faces, and utters four words that are so difficult to hold onto when we face times of darkness – “everything will be ok”. The wonderful peace behind those words, affirmed by Jesus himself and then countless Christian thinkers down the ages from Julian of Norwich to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is at the heart of the Christian response to suffering. The following extract is taken from my book Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering and asks whether we can make any sense of our suffering:

Cinema-Paradiso“In the film Cinema Paradiso (1989) the character Alfredo voices a sentiment that many of us feel at times in our lives. ‘With all due respect to the Lord who made the world in two or three days,’ he says, ‘I’d have taken a bit longer, but certain things I could have done better’. If we were playing God, there are certainly things about our fallen world that we may well want to change. Even at happy and upbeat times in our own lives, twenty-four hour news channels serve as a constant reminder that the dark side of life is uncomfortably close. The world continues to be troubled in so many different ways – wars, natural disasters, murder, child abuse, prejudice, hatred, and racism. When we personalise suffering, the situation seems even worse, as each one of us has endured pain and suffering at many levels during our lives. We may have lost someone we love, have been affected by illness or disability, have experienced broken relationships, have lost a job, or have experienced other traumas in our lives. Such incidences often take us by surprise, as they strike without warning and with devastating consequences. The playwright Christopher Fry compares the impact of suffering on our lives with an innocent walk on a minefield. ‘One minute you’re taking a stroll in the sun,’ he writes, ‘the next your legs and arms are all over the hedge’. He simply concludes that ‘there’s no dignity in it’.

XTC-Dear-God-69045The presence of such awful and indiscriminate suffering in the world is certainly one of the greatest challenges to belief in a loving God. As misery breaks through and our worlds are turned upside-down, words like ‘grace’ and ‘mercy’ often seem defunct. It is, therefore, unsurprising that the unfairness and injustice of life is one of the principal reasons given for rejection of God. In the song ‘Dear God’, the 1980s group XTC stood alongside many of their fellow agnostics and atheists in positing the depth of pain and misery in the world as a reason for their apostasy. God stands accused of failing His creation, as wars, natural disasters, and vicious diseases render him culpable. The song concludes that Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are nothing but ‘somebody’s unholy hoax’.

st teresaChristians themselves have long recognised that suffering has the potential to alienate people from the faith. ‘If this is the way you treat your friends, it is little wonder you have so few of them’, the sixteenth-century mystic St Teresa of Avila was overheard screaming up at God when her ox cart overturned. The consequence of suffering is, however, often more wide-reaching than a mere rejection of faith. Many fall into resentfulness, intolerance, callousness, or insensitivity as a result of their afflictions. It is certainly not our place to judge those who succumb to such bitterness or hard-heartedness, but each and every one of us does have the option of taking a different path through the dark night of our pain.

“Pain may remind us that we are alive, but love reminds us why we are alive” (Trystan Owain Hughes)In facing our suffering, then, our aim should not be to explain away or justify, in the words of Dostoevsky, ‘the human tears with which the earth is soaked from its crust to its centre’. Rather, our aim should be to start to make larger sense of, and ultimately learn through, the apparent senselessness of our circumstances. After all, if we are to find meaning and hope in our lives, then it must be equally valid, if not more valid, in times of suffering as it is in times of comfort. Furthermore, at the centre of that search for meaning and hope must be the experience of the world’s freely-given love. Our world may well be deeply flawed in its present form, but it still offers us a wonderful experience of the love that flows from joyous and life-affirming gifts such as laughter, nature, memories, art, and other people. Nietzche reminded us that ‘he who has a why to live can bear with almost any how’. It is in these gifts, which for Christians could be termed ‘glimpses of transcendence’ or ‘rumours of another world’, that we can discover the why in our torn and troubled lives.”

(extract taken from Trystan Owain Hughes, Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering SPCK, London 2013)

See also:

Stephen Fry, Russell Brand, and God in a suffering world: Part 1

Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering (blog post)

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

What does God want from me? Love, Ebola, and the terrifying answer

God-Faith-and-Love-god-28925578-1024-768I few years back I was taking a service at a home for the elderly. I read the words from the New Testament: ‘the greatest commandment is love God, and the second is this: Love your neighbour’. Without warning, an elderly woman at the back of the room shouted ‘I don’t love my neighbour’. I didn’t know what to say – I looked at the nurses and they looked at me, but the moment of silence gave the woman the opportunity to add: ‘and, listen ’ere vicar, if you knew her, you wouldn’t love her either’!

Mary_Ann_Stephenson_final_10_no_1I remember walking away from that home for the elderly and thinking that woman had taught me something – that it’s easier to preach about love and compassion, than to put it into action in our lives. I can imagine the reaction of those who were listening to Jesus when he told them to love God and love others. They would be struggling to keep the 613  commandments in the Jewish Scriptures. So imagine their delight when Jesus comes along and says, actually, all they really need to worry about are two commandments – love God and love each other. It sounds so easy!

British Army Medics Depart To Provide Ebola Support In  Sierra-LeoneA few days ago I was reading about the 225 military medics – doctors, nurses, and consultants – who are going out to join other humanitarian and health workers in fighting Ebola in West Africa. These are amazingly brave people, putting themselves under so much risk to stand alongside suffering people. Of course, they will be given so many rules to keep – washing their hands, using disinfectant on surfaces and handles, wearing protective suits, using sanitizing gel, and so on. But, in reality, those rules are the easy part when compared to the fact that they are going out there in the first place. That was the “love” bit of the equation – that they are willingly offering their lives to go out to places of war, disease, or suffering, to stand alongside injured or sick people. The “love” bit, not all the rules they keep, is the really difficult bit of the equation.

Igods-loven reality, all of us, if we put our minds to it, could keep a set of rules. But our call as Christians is not simply to keep rules or law, or even to be good or act kindly towards people, our call is love other people. My love for my wife is not about me keeping her rules (although she does appreciate when I hang my bath towel up and put the toilet lid down!). My love for my wife is not even about me being nice to her (although she does appreciate the occasional flowers and compliments about her clothes!). Love demands something far deeper and more sacrificial from us. It asks us to stand alongside the other person in all their joys and all their suffering. And Jesus asks that we treat all people, even strangers or people we don’t like, in this way – to treat all people as they were in our own family, as if they were our own brothers and sisters. That’s the real challenge to all of us who are baptised. We’re not promised an easy life in baptism, as even Jesus himself, who lived a perfect life of love, ended up being crucified. But showing love and compassion to all around us, however we might be feeling, however they might be acting, that is what our faith is all about.

CominternIVThe atheist philosopher Slavoj Zizek suggests that all of us need to know what is expected of us, how we should act. Those without a belief in God, often end up trusting another “Big Other” to give guidance. So, Soviet Communism talked about the greater good of the “people” (the proletariat). So everything and anything could be justified in Soviet Russia, even torture and murder, as long as it could be argued that it was for the good of the “people”. Zizek argues that those who believe in God are left with the same need to know what is expected of us, how we should act. The psychoanalyst Jaques Lacan described this with an Italian phrase che voglio? – “what do you want?” It’s a terrifying question – “what does God want from me?!”

LoveIn that passage that I read in the home for the elderly, we get our answer, and God answers very simply. He says, “I want you to love”. He says “forget your detailed rules and commandments, I simply want you to love”. That’s a terrifying answer to the terrifying question. It’s terrifying because it’s difficult – it’s hard to show love to people who have hurt you, it’s hard to show love to people who have acted terribly, it’s hard to stand alongside others in their most heart-breaking and difficult moments, it’s hard to prioritise our relationship with God with so many other demands on our time, and it’s hard to put love for the environment and other living creatures ahead of our own selfish wants. But although it’s a terrifying answer, it’s also an amazing answer. It’s an answer that can inspire us to live such great lives, and can bring individuals, communities, and societies so much hope and new life. “What does God want from me?” we ask. And God simply answers, “I want you to love”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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