Walking the Pilgrim’s Way

I am now over halfway through my pilgrimage from the eastern corner of North Wales to the far western tip of its peninsula. This is the medieval Pilgrim’s Way, from Basingwerk Abbey to Bardsey Island. I have experienced so much in the 80 miles I have walked – two cathedrals (St Asaph and Bangor), Neolithic stone circles and menhirs, Bronze Age mounds, beautiful scenery, fascinating nature, and lots of uplifting conversations (from an enthusiastic metal detectorist to a daring escapologist). In these experiences, I have, in the beautiful words of the late Bishop Saunders Davies, experienced creation at its most translucent, glimpsing the grandeur and glory of its creator.

Alongside these uplifting and inspiring moments, though, I have also been struggling with excruciating pain in my right knee. Hoping for relief, I have washed it in the ancient wells of St Winefride’s (Holywell) and St Celynnin (above Conwy) and prayed at the famous healing cross of Tremeirchion. Eventually I was inspired to speak to a physiotherapist for advice! It seems my patella tendon is inflamed, a condition that will require physiotherapy when I get back. He strongly advised a rest day or two, so I am lying in bed at the moment, frustrated and sore, with a pack of frozen peas on my knee. Tomorrow I will rejoin the Pilgrim’s Way at Clynnog Fawr, where St Beuno founded his monastery in the early 7th century. From there, I will walk over 30 miles in three days and, all being well with crossing, sail for Bardsey Island on Saturday.

Andrew Jones, in his book Pilgrimage [BRF 2011], suggests pilgrimages often echo Jacob wrestling with God in Genesis 32. Jacob wrestles all night and he emerges from the battle with his hip dislocated. Jones maintains that, from then on, “Jacob’s strength was actually in some way in that limp”. His extraordinary encounter had left him scarred but stronger. As I know from situations in my pastoral work, suffering is often senseless and tragic, but, when we emerge from difficult times, our scars can help strengthen us and our wounds can help us reach out to others in compassion. Christians believe that God does not cause or delight in our suffering, but, when we do suffer, he can redeem our times of trial and bring us to new life. It makes little sense that Jacob Epstein’s huge statue of the resurrected Christ above the nave at Llandaff Cathedral in Cardiff, Wales has no wounds on his hands and feet. Jesus’s body was scarred by sin and violence, but rose again and lived. Likewise, the difficulties we go through cannot be erased entirely. The fact they leave us hurt and scarred, though, does not rule out resurrection.

Pilgrimage very much echoes this process of renewal. After all, through pilgrimages we are led, in both our joy and pain, to new purposes and different perspectives – our eyes are opened to a connection with the eternal (through places, people, and objects) and we are helped to move forward with hope, joy, and compassion in our hearts. Yet we cannot avoid the fact that the glory of the resurrection involved the darkness of the cross and the tomb. As such, despite frustration and pain, I know that my inflamed knee, as well as my aching back and my sore blisters, will teach me, feed me, and inspire me as much as the numerous uplifting moments of grace when God’s hope and joy have broken through on each stage of my journey.

On Saturday, I will, God willing, step onto Bardsey Island, my destination. This beautiful, remote, and tranquil island was known in the Middle Ages as the “Rome of Britain” and was such an important place for medieval Christians that three visits there was considered the equivalent of a pilgrimage to the Holy See. It is said that the island became the graveyard of 20,000 Celtic saints. It might, therefore, seem paradoxical that it was, and continues to be, a place that holds the promise of new life and new beginnings. Perhaps there is significance in the fact that the head of the island points eastward, as if to Jerusalem and to the risen Christ. As such, I journey on, embracing both the pleasures and pains of this pilgrimage, with the hope, and indeed expectation, that I will be blessed with restoration, renewal, and resurrection.

NB to read some reasons why I am undertaking this pilgrimage, please take a look at my last post: Follow your Blisters: Embarking on Pilgrimage

Follow your Blisters: Embarking on Pilgrimage

Today I begin to walk the 135-mile pilgrimage across the top of North Wales known as “The Pilgrim’s Way“. This ancient route is the trail that mediaeval pilgrims took from Basingwerk Abbey on the Dee Estuary, near to the Wales-England border, to Bardsey Island at the very westernmost tip of North Wales. Why I am I putting myself through this long walk? Why embrace the blisters and sore joints? I think there are three reasons:

1) Challenge: Twelve years ago, I underwent major back surgery and, later, wrote a book (‘Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering’ [SPCK 2010]) reflecting on the challenge of pain and suffering for people of faith. I continue to be surprised by the impact that book has had, and continues to have, on people facing various trials and tribulations. Only earlier this week, I replied to a wonderfully uplifting email from a person who had been given my book while serving a sentence in prison. I was moved to discover that he regarded my book as one of the cogs in the wheel that had helped him turn his life around. The positive impact that my book has had on people helps lift me when I feel frustration in reflecting on the fact that chronic pain is still very much part of my daily life. However, I have now built up my strength so as to be able to walk for long distances, and this walk is one way for me to once again face down, and hopefully overcome, these struggles.

2) Charity: I am now vicar of a church in Cardiff, Wales, UK. I have seen some amazing transformation in the church, and in our local community, over the past few years. Not only has the church grown considerably over the past five years and is now a thriving mix of people of all ages and backgrounds, but our church hall, which we see as a gift to our local community, is being used by many different community groups. It is bringing hope, learning, company, compassion, and joy to people of all ages – from babies and toddlers to the infirm and elderly. Unfortunately, that hall is now not fit for purpose, and is having to be demolished. We are, therefore, building a new hall. Everything raised from the sponsorship of this walk will be going towards this new community church hall which will hugely benefit our local community. If you are able to give something, however small, I’d be hugely grateful Thank you! Diolch!

www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/trystan-hughes-walk

3) Change: “To live is to change,” wrote Cardinal Newman, “and to be perfect is to have changed often”. The journey of a pilgrimage moulds and changes us, as the places we visit break through and transform us from the inside. As preparation for this pilgrimage, I have read some wonderful books about the nature of spiritual journeying (by Andrew Jones, Sally Welch, Peter Owen Jones, Charles Foster, and more) and about the history and makeup of the Welsh countryside. I am, therefore, ready to embrace the change that will come through my experience of the beautiful churches and medieval shrines I will visit, the inspiring ancient forests I will walk through, the Roman road I will tread, and the breathtaking prehistoric monuments I will pass (menhirs, stone circles, round barrows, cairns, and so on). However, I start this walk with my knees already sore and my back aching as usual, and so I am reminded that our transformation in pilgrimage is, more than often, through the adversities we face and the pain we feel, rather than simply in the fun and fulfilment. After all, we grow and learn as much by our following our blisters as we do by following our bliss.

Why Christians should be the first to stand alongside Muslim brothers and sisters

 

abdullah-al-mulla-at-inter-faith-weekGrowing up in North Wales did not introduce me to a plethora of different faiths and nationalities. Three times a year, though, my family travelled down to the big smoke – Cardiff – to visit my grandparents. While we were there, we’d travel into the city centre, and there we would see people of different races and nationalities, women wearing hijab, and men in long flowing gowns. It all fascinated small-town Trystan and I remember asking my mum whether these people who looked so different from me were Christian. She told me that some of them were, but some were of other faiths, and she added, “but whether they’re Christian or not, God loves them and he wants us to love everyone, whatever their background, whatever their race, whatever their faith”. “But mum,” I retorted, “didn’t Jesus say that no one comes to God, except through him?” To my surprise, my mum answered, “no, Trystan, he didn’t say that”. Before I could rush to my bookcase to show her John 14:6 in my children’s Bible, she explained – “Jesus did not say that no one comes to God except through him, Jesus said no one comes to the Father except through him”.

By seeing God as our “father”, we Christians hold that we are brought into a particular type of relationship with God – a relationship of trust, of forgiveness, of unconditional love. This is a relationship that reflects a human relationship between father and a daughter or son. This personal relationship is one of the amazing things that I, as a Christian, believe makes my faith unique. Jesus came to show us how to attain that relationship, because that relationship reflects who and what God really is – a God of love, a God of forgiveness, a God of compassion.

img_2255We Christians believe that Jesus offers us that unique relationship, but the consequence of that belief is not that other faiths should be disparaged or dismissed – quite the opposite. Our belief doesn’t mean that we Christians own God and that we should box him up as our special property. It doesn’t mean that those of other faiths, and even those of no faith, don’t connect and engage with God. It doesn’t even mean that people of other faiths don’t have their own relationship with God. And it certainly doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t love, laugh with, learn from, and stand up for people of other faiths. This is perhaps something of what Desmond Tutu meant when he said: “God is not a Christian”.

Part of my ministry involves journeying with people who are themselves called to Christian ministry. In my first meeting with a candidate, I ask them who has helped them on their Christian journey – who, down the years, have helped them to connect with God, to see God in different places. Sometimes they mention friends, sometimes family members, sometimes someone in church. When I ask myself that same question there are so many people that come to mind – my mum and dad, my old school chaplain, a lecturer at university, a close friend of mine in my first job, a number of Christian writers whose books I have read but I have never met, and my wife Sandra.

img_0658But I would also add another name to that list. And that is the name of a man called Sameh Otri.  Sameh is now a lecturer in the Middle East, but he was, a few years ack, my fellow chaplain in Cardiff University. Sameh is a humble person, a deeply spiritual person, a compassionate person, an inspirational person. But what makes him different from many of the people on my list is that Sameh is a Syrian Muslim – he was the Muslim chaplain to the University. Yet I learnt so much about God, about faith, about prayer, about love, through Sameh.

img_1927I remember meeting up with Sameh for coffee one spring morning, for example. As we sat down in a Cardiff café that serves just the best cakes, Sameh said to me “oh no! I just remembered, it’s Lent for you, so you must be fasting and can’t eat anything!” I explained to him that actually, for Christians, fasting during Lent was very different to fasting during Ramadan, and that Christians usually give up something specific, like chocolate or cakes. “Ah I understand now”, he said as he chose a big slice of cake, “so what did you give up?” “Oh no”, I quickly replied, “what I meant was that other Christians give up something during Lent, but I haven’t given up anything and so can eat as much cake as I want!” This led to a lengthy conversation on why fasting is important, why self-discipline and self-control are helpful, and how fasting can bring us closer to God. I must admit, and not for the first time with Sameh, I went away with my faith challenged and, in some little way, changed.

img_1899Sameh taught me so much during my time as chaplain and it would be nice to think that he is now chatting to friends in his local mosque in Buraydah, telling them that he also learnt something about God through me. Our call is to both teach others and learn from others, whoever they are. It would be good if all of us could open our eyes, our ears, and our minds to allow people of other faiths to teach us something about God and about our faith. In the gospels, there are gentiles who are learning about God through Christ and his disciples, but it is clear that Jesus wanted his followers to also learn something about God and faith through them – “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith”, he said to his disciples about a centurion (Luke 7:9). We live in a world that’s increasingly obsessed with differences, and with trying to encourage us to fear and distrust those who are different from us and those who have different views from us. But that’s not how Jesus worked. He didn’t want to make people the same as him so he could engage with them. He simply reached out to all people, and encouraged his followers both to love others and to learn from others, whoever they are, however different they may be to them.

Why the Lord’s Prayer really is dangerous and offensive

The agency that handles British film advertising for the major cinema chains, Odeon, Cineworld and Vue, has banned a Church of England’s advert featuring the Lord’s Prayer because it believes it would upset or offend audiences. I am currently in the process of writing my next book on this short 70-word prayer. For me, the question of “why has this advert been banned?” should be recast as “how can Jesus’s radical call-to-action be seen as anything other than dangerous, offensive and inflammatory?”

Our Father who art in heaven

tutu 1By referring to God as our Father, we are making a statement about God’s loving relationship with us, but we are also saying something profound about our relationships with each other. If God is our father, then we are compelled to treat each other as if we are brothers and sisters. This is a revolutionary call to show love and compassion to those who we don’t get on with and those don’t agree with. It is a call to care for the ill, the poor, the hungry, the disenfranchised, the refugee, the alienated, and the oppressed. As Desmond Tutu puts it: “In God’s family, there are no outsiders. All are insiders. Black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight, Jew and Arab, Palestinian and Israeli, Roman Catholic and Protestant, Serb and Albanian, Hutu and Tutsi, Muslim and Christian, Buddhist and Hindu, Pakistani and Indian – all belong… We are members of one family. We belong… God says, ‘All, all are my children’. It is shocking. It is radical”.

Hallowed by thy name

poor_children04To Jesus’s disciples being “holy” (“hallowed”) would have meant something very different from how we might view the word. In the Old Testament, God’s holiness is frequently related to his role as deliverer and redeemer of the oppressed. The theologian Karl Barth asserts that by praying that God’s name be hallowed, we are asking that we become worthy bearers of God’s name in our loving and compassionate actions. ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy’”, God tells Moses in Leviticus. We have, then, a revolutionary imperative – to stand alongside the poor, to defend the defenceless, to liberate the persecuted, to offer justice to the oppressed, to speak for those with no voice. Holiness is a radical call to action, and not a retreat into inaction.

Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven

This is not an appeal for us to wait for God to reveal himself. It is God who is waiting – he is waiting for us to open our eyes and recognise his kingdom breaking through all around us. God’s kingdom comes to us through those driven by “the imperative for practical service and love” (Rowan Williams). When pain and suffering are countered, the kingdom breaks through. When violence, wealth, power, and prestige are opposed, the kingdom flourishes. When people reach out to those in need, those who are oppressed, and those who feel they have no hope, then God’s will is being done. The revolutionary call of the kingdom is to bring God’s light to the most hopeless and desolate situations.

Give us this day our daily bread

money-bread-16570679_sIn this line we are, first of all, asking God to help us combat poverty. It is commendable that we support food banks and other ventures to help those struggling on the bread line, but it is scandalous that such charities need to exist in the first place. “We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside,” asserted Martin Luther King, “but one day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed”. Secondly, though, by asking for “daily bread”, we are also asking God to keep us away from wealth. The predominant ‘story’ that our society teaches us is that money matters, that it is worth something, that it is something we should be desiring. Christians are called to question this myth of money incarnate, and offer a liberating alternative. After all, the gospel of grace and selflessness surely stands in direct opposition to the financial law of supply and demand.

Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us

forgive“Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive”, asserted CS Lewis. Forgiveness is difficult, but it is what God expects from us. It is part and parcel of what it means to be Christian. It’s not an optional extra for us. It is, though, radical and revolutionary. After all, forgiveness is far harder and braver than retaliation and hatred. But we do get a pay-off through forgiveness. By forgiving, we are released from our personal prisons, to move forward and onward in our lives. The Huffington Post recently reported that many in the Middle East are turning towards forgiveness, rather than retribution, for the terrible crimes of Islamic State. “I won’t do anything to them,” one young Christian refugee said after seeing her community and family decimated by the group, “I will only ask God to forgive them”.

Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil

moneyTemptations promise us joy and fulfilment. Our faith, though, teaches us the radical truth that we are being sold a lie. The comedian Russell Brand was drawn at an early age into a world of wealth, fame, and excess. “I was treating a spiritual malady… I was actually seeking salvation”, he writes. It is not easy for us to grasp that lasting joy and fulfilment will not be found in those places where we have been told excitement, fun, and fulfilment comes from. Brand writes that he sometimes sees old photographs of himself emerging from London nightclubs with blonde women on his arms. “I can still be deceived into thinking, ‘Wow, I’d like to be him’, then I remember that I was him”, he concludes. Temptation merely promises us fleeting joy; faith reminds us that a deeply satisfying life can only be found in spiritual peace. This is a message that our world does not want to hear; it is a truth that our world does not want to face.

For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory

In 1975, a team of students from Manchester University subverted BBC’s quiz University Challenge by answering every question they were asked with the name of a Communist leader: “Karl Marx”, “Trotsky”, “Lenin”, “Che Guevara”, and so on. As Christians, though, the answer to all our questions really is “Jesus”. He offers life, he offers a new way of thinking, he offers a profound transformation in our understanding of the concept of power. His is not extrinsic power, foisted on us all from outside, compelling us to be obedient. His is, rather, an intrinsic authority, persuading us and inspiring us to join him on a revolution of compassion. As we face terror on the streets of Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere, the Lord’s Prayer is a dangerous, radical alternative to today’s powers of military muscle, violent extremism, fleeting fame, and rapacious wealth. But Jesus offers a different kingdom, a different power, a different glory. Jesus offers radical and revolutionary love.

To view the Church of England’s advert: www.youtube.com/watch?v=vlUXh4mx4gI&

 

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”.