God and Grenfell

1 Aberfan

Aberfan Memorial

Recently, our family travelled up to the “book capital of Britain”, Hay-on-Wye, for the day. We hadn’t banked on our three year old demanding a book in every single bookshop we stepped foot in, but, apart from a continually screaming child, we had a lovely time. On the way back, we saw signs to Aberfan, and, as my daughter was studying the tragedy that had taken place there at her school, she asked whether we could take a detour to the memorial. The memorial is on the site of Pantglas school where, fifty years ago, over 100 young children, a whole generation, were lost with the collapse of the colliery tip. There are two sections to the memorial – first, a beautiful and peaceful garden and, second, a lovely playground for children. As I watched my daughter playing on the swings and the slide, knowing she was the same age as the primary-school children who had lost their lives, my mind slipped into a prayer of protest – where were you, Lord, on that horrific day? Were you sitting on your hands on your golden throne?

2 God has FailedOn Wednesday morning, as I watched the news on TV, I found myself asking the same questions. I watched the harrowing images of the fire in the Grenfell Tower, the tears and grief of the friends and relatives, and the photos of the smiling children and adults missing. How could a loving, caring Father God allow this to happen? I started feeling disappointment with God, disheartened in my faith, a little angry even. A church in Tamworth was vandalised earlier this week, with “God has Failed” sprayed on its walls. However inane that act of vandalism was in itself, part of me could understand how people could come to that view in light of tragedies, wars, terrorist attacks, and natural disasters. If we are truthful with ourselves, many of us feel like the 50% of participants in a recent US opinion poll who, when asked for their “approval rating” for God, thought that the Almighty should be able to handle things in our world a little better.

JesusWhen we Christians start feeling that way, though, we actually stand in a long line of faithful who have challenged God when facing pain, grief, and suffering – Job, the Psalmist, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, C.S. Lewis, to name but a few. Even Jesus himself cried out on the cross, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Such a response is natural in light of our personal relationship with our Father. As in any intimate relationship, nothing is too trivial or too important, and nothing too painful or too secular, to be excluded. A father-child relationship allows us to lay bare all our humanly experiences and emotions before our creator God – not only our joys, but also our pain, our despair, our questioning, our cries for help. God is not threatened or intimidated by our prayers of protest and our honest cries of confusion. In fact, as John Bunyan wrote, “the best prayers have often more groans than words”.

None of us, whether we are people of faith or not, have any answers to explain, in the words of Dostoevsky, “the human tears with which the earth is soaked from its crust to its centre”. In facing suffering, we cannot explain away or justify its apparent senselessness. But, in asking where God is in such tragedy, we are led to relate suffering to love and hope, as St Paul does in Romans 5 (see verses 1-11). In light of my own experience of ministry to those facing so much tragedy and grief, I have come to recognise that God’s kingdom does not simply break through in our stirring moments – in beautiful walks in the countryside, uplifting pieces of music, and heartening moments with our friends and family. Instead, God’s kingdom also breaks through the dust, dirt, and despair of our suffering, and our call as Christians at times of tragedy is to focus our gaze through our tears to recognise glimpses of his love.

3 Rowan WilliamsIn an article in the Sunday Telegraph in 2004, Rowan Williams, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, reflected on the horror of the Boxing Day tsunami, which had just devastated South Asia. In facing such horrors, he wrote that our faith has no “answers”. Yet we still witness the kingdom in the sacrificial compulsion of people to care for each other and the impulse they have to make a difference. It is in those driven by, in Rowan Williams’s words, “the imperative for practical service and love” that we see God’s light shining. After all, when pain and suffering are countered, the kingdom breaks through. When people reach out to those in need, those who are oppressed, those who face heartbreak, and those who feel they have no hope, then God’s will is being done.

4 donationsWe’ve seen this in just the most amazing way these past few days. Alongside the tireless work of the emergency services and the hospitals, we have seen, on the ground, “an army of caring”, as the press have dubbed it – huge distribution centres, with donated toys, water, food, and clothes; churches, mosques, synagogues, temples all open and welcoming those of any or no faith; sports centres and community halls open; individuals travelling many hundreds of miles to help; celebrities, politicians, and bishops pulling their sleeves up and standing alongside those in their loss; locals opening their gardens and houses for anyone to pop in; people cooking meals and giving them out freely; and three million pounds donated within 48 hours.

6 rainbowA friend of mine who lives directly opposite Grenfell Tower posted the following on her facebook page yesterday: “There is a place for God in this. He is in the hearts of those who feel empty and want to do something, he is with those who give money or time to help, he is with us as we weep and mourn. But can we see it? Do we recognise him where he is to be found?” There are certainly times when we, his followers, can’t offer any words to explain tragedy, less still can we take any pain away. But we are comforted that, through the cross, God knows about grief, loss, pain, abandonment, and fear, and, because of this, he stands alongside those who cry out in distress and agony. In very real and practical terms, he does this through the love and compassion of those who are made in his image. As Teresa of Avila put it: “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.” On Mount Sinai, God revealed himself as “the God of compassion and mercy” (Exodus 34:6), and so when his people, of whatever background or tradition, are inspired to reach out in compassion, God himself is present. That is the hope that springs from suffering, that is the glimpse of God’s kingdom, that is the rainbow in the storm.

 

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

Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pain may well remind us that we are alive, but love reminds us why we are alive” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“Pain may remind us that we are alive, but love reminds us why we are alive” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

Since Wm Paul Young chose to include this quotation from my book Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering in his book Cross Roads, the follow-up to his multi-million best-seller The Shack, I have had enquiries from as far as Sweden, Brazil and Australia asking me about where the quotation appears in my book. As I recently stumbled across that same quotation on a wonderful picture by the Disney fine artist Noah, I thought that this might be the time to post on this blog the section of my book (pp. 16-17) that includes the quotation.

“Pain may remind us that we are alive, but love reminds us why we are alive” (Trystan Owain Hughes)Finding Hope and Meaning was written when I was diagnosed, at the age of 34, with a degenerative spinal condition. Health is the one quality that is widely regarded as determining a person’s happiness and fulfilment. Despite pain and frustration, though, my illness inspired me to reflect on where meaning and hope can be sought in our suffering and then to apply the fruits of this reflection in my day-to-day life. The book, therefore, does not try to offer a comprehensive theology of suffering, but it simply muses on one personal way of approaching suffering, a way that affirms the paradox that learning how to suffer and how to wait patiently is the secret of finding joy and hope in our lives. When reading the following, then, please keep in mind that it is taken out of context, so may not, without the rest of the book, do justice to the complexity and horror of our pain and suffering.

“Pain may remind us that we are alive, but love reminds us why we are alive” (Trystan Owain Hughes)“The concept of growth through the long wait of our suffering is not specifically Christian.  Other world religions, contemporary psychology, and secular culture in general recognises that meaning, formation, and development can be forged through trials and troubles.  ‘It’s only when you’ve been in the deepest valley,’ mused Anthony Hopkins in his role as Richard Nixon in the film Nixon, ‘will you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain’.

“Pain may remind us that we are alive, but love reminds us why we are alive” (Trystan Owain Hughes)The uniqueness of the Christian response to suffering is, however, found in the centrality of God’s grace. As such, we are faced with yet another paradox. The tears and tragedy of the cross is a sign of God’s love for us precisely because it guarantees His loving presence in our own tears and tragedies. God is love, and just a glimpse of that love can powerfully illuminate the darkness that we are going through.  ‘And here in dust and dirt, O here,’ wrote the Welsh seventeenth-century poet Henry Vaughan, ‘The lilies of His love appear’.

“Pain may remind us that we are alive, but love reminds us why we are alive” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

We can, then, aim to draw closer to God’s love in the midst of our suffering. Pain may well remind us that we are alive, but love reminds us why we are alive. Thus, we need to re-train our minds to recognise those times in our daily lives when God’s light breaks through our darkness – times we hitherto have taken for granted or ignored. These moments have a cumulative ability to transform, illuminate, and bring us hope. Held as a hostage for many years in a dark room in Beirut, Brian Keenan recalls how he made a candle from small pieces of wax and string from his clothing fibres. ‘Quietly, calmly a sense of victory welled up in me’, he later wrote, ‘and I thought to myself without saying it, “They haven’t beat us yet. We can blot out even their darkness”’. Light, of course, does not avoid darkness. Rather, it confronts it head-on.  ‘The light shines in the darkness’, asserts the Gospel of John 1:5, ‘but the darkness has not understood it’. Likewise, love’s concern is not the avoidance of suffering, but rather its transformation, as our painful experiences become productive and strengthen us.

Jesus certainly knew that the existence of evil and suffering was a mystery to humankind. He would have been well-acquainted with the book of Job and with the psalms of sorrow, and he stood before his people as the suffering servant of Isaiah.  Yet, he himself was more concerned to proclaim the mystery of love than give hollow platitudes about the mystery of suffering.  Love, like suffering, cannot truly be explained. It can, however, be experienced.”

“Pain may remind us that we are alive, but love reminds us why we are alive” (Trystan Owain Hughes)