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.

Some thoughts on Remembrance Sunday: War, pacifism, and chaplains

British Army Medics Depart To Provide Ebola Support In  Sierra-LeoneWhen I was a child, most of our holidays were based close to army barracks. My dad was a chaplain for the army cadets and the territorial army, so we would travel with him to our destination, where he would work for a week in the barracks and we would holiday in a town close by. He would then join us for the second week of our holiday. I never knew really what he did in those barracks, but I remember the worry that, if a big war broke out, my dad could be called up to be shipped out with the soldiers. That time never came, thank God, and, by now, I know a little more of the amazing pastoral work carried out by the chaplains of the armed forces. Just last week, I was talking to someone whose friend is the chaplain of the military medics who have recently travelled down to the West Coast of Africa to assist with the humanitarian and health workers who are fighting Ebola.

British+Army+HQ+Coordinates+Afghan+Operations+PuXZR6qSQnklMy understanding of, and respect for, the chaplains of the armed forces increased further recently when I read the memoirs of Sergeant Sidney Stewart. Stewart was a survivor of the famous Bataan Death March during the Second World War – the forcible transfer of around 80,000 prisoners, who were made to walk many miles to a prisoner of war camp in the Philippines. After 12 days of walking, with over 14,000 men dying on the march, Stewart describes how even the survivors themselves were “dying men at the end, haunted by fear, eaten by pain and fever”. Yet one man brought hope, comfort, and calm to the tormented and beleaguered prisoners. This was a chaplain, called Father Cummings, who was inspired into selfless compassion at the silent, hopeless faces all around him. “’I must work harder;’ he said to Stewart with a sigh, ‘these men need me’”.

Father CummingsOnce they were at the camp, the hardships continued and within two years another 8,000 prisoners had died. Yet Father Cummings urged the survivors to let go of their hatred of the captors. Teaching forgiveness and love, Stewart notes that he himself, and others around him, began to change their view of those persecuting them. He notes that one prisoner, inspired by the chaplain, put it this way: “we’ve learnt to understand… their beliefs, their religion, their way of life. Many of them are like men all over the world, no better, no worse. They too like to take out their photographs and show pictures of their wives and children. They too long the war to end so they can go home again”.

DSC_6665smallTowards the end of the war, Father Cummings’s final gift to the prisoners, as they were herded back to Manila, and then on to Japan, in the foul hold of ships, was to teach them the power of the Lord’s Prayer. “Suddenly from the depths of the hold I heard a voice like the voice of God. Father Cummings began to speak. The sound was clear and resonant and made me feel he was talking to me alone. The men became quiet. ‘Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…’” Every few hours, the lone chaplain would pray that prayer out loud, and, when he did, a calm descended and all the crying and shouting ceased. The Prayer “floated like a benediction through the hold, caressing everyone of us… I felt that God listened, that God watched us, and that God cared… I lived only for that prayer of faith and hope. It was the only strength I had. His voice was like the voice of God to me”. Stewart claimed that his own survival was, in no small part, due to the faith and hope that Father Cummings inspired. As for the lowly chaplain himself, he died in the arms of the Sergeant, towards the end of the sea journey. Appropriately, he passed away while reciting the Lord’s Prayer one final time – his last words being “give us this day our daily bread”.

Nicholas+Cook+British+Army+HQ+Coordinates+zePhvjDxou6lAs someone who abhors war and especially the thought of any civilian casualties and deaths, I am glad I do not have to make decisions regarding the safety of our country and other countries worldwide. My heart leans heavily towards pacifism, but it does battle with my head when I consider so-called “just” causes. Ultimately, I simply can’t ignore Jesus’s radical call in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”. This battle between my heart and head will, no doubt, continue. What I do know, though, is that the chaplains to the armed forces have down the years, and continue this day to, give their lives to stand alongside young, frightened men and women who are sent to places of conflict and war. In the midst of fear, hatred, and death, they champion to them lives of love, compassion, and forgiveness. That is the “daily bread” they offer them. For this, we should be grateful to them.

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.

Beyond the stained-glass windows: Radical compassion and our everyday lives

Compassion and sufferingOver the past few weeks, I have given talks on compassion in various places – at Parc prison in Bridgend, at the Theology Cafe at the Gate Arts Centre in Cardiff, at numerous Mothers Unions across south-east Wales, and for a Living Faith group (the diocese of Llandaff’s course aimed at exploring faith in today’s world) at my chaplaincy in Cardiff University. Next week I will give a paper on compassion and healthcare at a conference in Birmingham. Before I go, though, I want to post something on a question that has been asked at many of my talks and has been e-mailed to me as a response to my blog posts – why do we have to be quite so radical in our compassion? I have therefore adapted a section from my book The Compassion Quest and hope you find it helpful in considering this question. Over the past few months, I have been assisting at St John the Baptist’s church in the centre of Cardiff, so I also include some photographs that I have taken of the stained-glass windows there, which take up the theme of compassion.

Compassion and JesusWhile the Old Testament presents God as compassion and urges us to imitate him in our everyday lives, the New Testament goes a step further, by giving us a tangible, living example of God as compassion and providing a blueprint for a radical model of compassion in our own lives. The person Jesus embodies the very heart of compassion. Christ’s love is a love that empties itself of status, power or privilege and takes on the form of a servant to others. Referring directly to compassion, the New Testament in fact uses two different Greek words. The first word is eleeo, which is primarily used by those who appeal to Jesus for healing. The second word, splanchnizomai, expresses a deeper and more passionate form of compassion. In modern parlance it could literally be translated ‘to be moved in one’s guts’, and is used for Jesus’ own reaction to those who are pleading for healing. Jesus, therefore, responds to those who plea for basic compassion (eleeo) with a compassion that is intimate and intense (splanchnizomai). The pain and suffering of others engenders not merely superficial sympathy in Jesus, but rather affects him in the core of his being. Jesus was compassion incarnate – compassion made flesh – and it is this deep-seated compassion that leads him to do something about the suffering with which he is confronted. It might be said, then, that it is not necessarily the physical healing itself that reveals God in Jesus’ miracles, but that God is revealed in the compassion that leads to the cure. ‘The mystery of God’s love is not that our pain is taken away,’ wrote Henri Nouwen, ‘but that God first wants to share the pain with us.’

Compassion and JesusNot so long ago, Philip Pullman, the agnostic author, published an apocryphal retelling of Jesus’ life, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. This book vividly expresses the scandal of such radical compassion. Jesus is presented as having a twin brother, simply called ‘Christ’, who follows him around the Palestinian countryside, interpreting his teachings and his actions. He is particularly shocked at Jesus’ teaching about God’s compassion and grace. The parables Jesus tells (the good Samaritan, the prodigal son, the lost sheep, the great feast, and so on) describe a universal love that is arbitrary and undeserved, almost like a lottery, and the twin brother believes that this is simply a ‘horrible’ way of viewing love. Furthermore, Jesus’ lifestyle reflects this ‘unfair’ concept of love. He mixes with undesirables like tax collectors and prostitutes, he claims to be ushering in a time of compassion by announcing the coming kingdom of God, and he condemns much of what was considered as virtue at the time. In Pullman’s tale, the whole situation seriously disturbs the scoundrel ‘Christ’, and so he completely rejects his twin brother as naive and delusional. Yet it is this very attitude that is the crux of both the teachings and the actions of the Jesus that we Christians follow – an uncompromising, self-giving, unconditional compassion that transcends religious, political or ethnic differences. ‘What is needed is a radicalism that leads beyond both the right and left,’ writes Jim Wallis, the Christian political activist who serves as spiritual advisor to Barack Obama, ‘that radicalism that can be found in the gospel which is neither liberal nor conservative but fully compassionate.’

Compassion and JesusCompassion should therefore be at the very centre of the life of every Christian, rather than at the periphery. We should be championing it to our children and teaching it in our schools above the desire for success and achievement. Albert Schweitzer argued that children have a basic capacity for compassion, which needs to be nurtured if it is to grow and thrive. Furthermore, once compassion is fostered in our children and in ourselves, we would more than likely see a snowball effect, as people ‘pay it forward’, as the film of that name put it. The more we give, the more others (and often ourselves) will receive in return. Individuals, communities and societies are thus enlivened and brought hope through this process. Like ripples on a pond, our compassion will have far-reaching effects on far more people than we realize. ‘If money goes, money comes,’ claimed Dr Aziz in E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, ‘if money stays, death comes.’ Our faith does not remain behind stained-glass windows, where its pious and sanctimonious character confirms itself as irrelevant and trivial. Rather, we give ourselves joyously in radical compassionate love for others, as we act, in the words of Etty Hillesum who died at Auschwitz, ‘as a balm for all wounds’.

For more on this theme, see chapter 5 “Radical Compassion” in The Compassion Quest.