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.

Compassion and the EU Referendum

Tom and JerryHaving a toddler in your house introduces you to all sorts of strange and colourful TV programmes with some intriguing titles – Twirlywoos, Hey Duggee, Messy goes to Okido, Rastamouse, and the list goes on. My two-year-old’s favourite show, though, is not so new-fangled – it’s the old classic Tom and Jerry. He avidly watches the original series from the 1940s and 1950s. Most Tom and Jerry episodes are the two enemies competing with each other. There are, though, a number of them that see the cat and mouse working together, to overcome obstacles. My son’s very favourite episode is, what he calls, the “baby one”, where the couple join together to care for a little baby who gets into all sorts of scrapes.

NewspapersAt our toddler’s insistence, our household is presently watching that Tom and Jerry episode on a continual loop. The care and compassion shown by the sworn enemies towards a helpless baby has provided a welcome break on our TV screen from the toxic atmosphere of hate and vitriol that the EU Referendum seems to have birthed. So much of the literature I’ve had through my door, not to mention the front pages of newspapers that I walk past in newsagents, are rooted in fear – principally, fear of outsiders who are, it is claimed, coming here to take our jobs, use our health service, and commit heinous crimes. This past week, the bishops of Church in Wales have issued a joint statement announcing their intention to vote to remain in the EU and noting that the emotive language of fear and distrust is overshadowing any meaningful discussion, with immigrants being ‘demonised’ in the debate.

Good Samaritan 1Certainly, the tone of the campaign has denigrated the weakest of our communities, and, in reflecting on Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan, those lying on the road to Jericho are not being ignored, but are being actively derided, as hate, divisiveness, and bigotry has been spread in our country. Our challenge as Christians is to model the Good Samaritan, and not to turn our heads to look the other way like the Priest and Levite. Jesus, of course, never referred to the ‘Good’ Samaritan. I find the word ‘good’ to be rather insipid and bland. These days, it’s used when a dog collects a stick you’ve thrown or when a toddler eats his greens – “good boy, good boy”. My own suggestion would be to rechristen the parable as ‘the Compassionate Samaritan’ – here was someone who entered the suffering of his neighbour, treating him as he would a brother or sister.

Good Samaritan 2It is natural to think Jesus himself would act as the Samaritan did in this story – he offers healing and wholeness to those whose wounds he sees and cries he hears. But the incarnation leads us also to see him in the wounded, dying man on the road to Jericho – “truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). Jesus enters the suffering of the distressed and depressed. Our call is to recognise him in that suffering – in the eyes of the mother queuing at the Foodbank, the refugee pleading for hospitality, the so-called immigrants who feel unwanted and alienated by the rhetoric of hate; in the eyes of the poor, the disabled, the grieving, the ill. Our role is to see Jesus in each and every person and be ready to offer our own love and care to them, whoever they are.

Good Samaritan 3And yet too often the discussions around whether we leave or stay in the EU have not been about the unique beauty and worth of each person, but have been about what is best for us personally. Such fear and self-centredness was the response of the priest and Levite in this parable. The Compassionate Samaritan didn’t say, “wait there, before I do anything – what’s in this for me?” He didn’t ask the question, “what’s better for me – to keep walking or to stop and help?” He didn’t check whether the beaten body at the side of the road was a different nationality, different gender, different race, different sexuality, than he himself was. Compassion is not about individual satisfaction or personal gain. Neither is it about being comfortable. As Christians, our role in politics is not to ask what is best for us. Rather, we simply need to ask: “what’s the most compassionate thing to do?”

european-union-eu-flag-missing-star-brexitThere are undoubtedly Christians on both sides of the debate surrounding the EU Referendum. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, maintains that leaving would harm the poorest in our society, while his predecessor, Archbishop Rowan Williams, and Archbishop Barry Morgan of Wales have noted that the EU has led to a “fairer, safer, and cleaner world”. Certainly the benefits it has brought in terms of peace, human rights, scientific research, animal rights, environmental care, reducing chemical pollution, and artistic and cultural interchange, relate directly to Kingdom values. Other Christians, though, have argued that we could continue to champion these values if we left the EU. Gillan Scott, in Christian Today, has written that “there is no reason why we cannot continue to show generosity, sacrifice and reconciliation to our European neighbours outside of the EU”. There is certainly truth in that viewpoint. However, just because we could build a more loving and compassionate society having left the EU, that doesn’t mean we would do that. As a football fan, I know that scoring a goal through individual brilliance is always possible, but most goals are scored as a team, working together. Many Christians purport that “Together Stronger”, the tagline of my beloved Welsh football team, is the more effective attitude in facing the deep-seated problems of our time – poverty, climate change, human rights, and so on.

hopeIn the past week, we’ve seen posters vilifying refugees fleeing war zones, English football fans chanting anti-European slogans while mercilessly teasing children who are begging on French streets, and a senseless and brutal murder of a devoted MP that may have been perpetrated because of her compassion for the downtrodden and helpless. My hope is that, whatever people vote for in this Referendum, their choice will not be rooted in the fear or distrust of the Levite and Priest on the road to Jericho, but in the peace, hope, and generosity of spirit of the Compassionate Samaritan. Our faith challenges us to expand our circle of compassion to all people and all living things, not merely those who are “like us”. There is a biblical imperative to care for each other, not simply as neighbours, but as family. This is what ‘good news’ is all about. Our country, and indeed our world, needs healing, not hostility; peace, not prejudice; freedom, not fear; hope, not hate. “A dark shadow of disappointment stubbornly follows our obsession with personal satisfaction;” writes theologian Miroslav Volf, “we are meant for something larger than our own satisfied selves”.

Animals and Faith

An interview with Dr Greg Dixon, a veterinary surgeon and researcher in animal welfare science, ethics and law

WimpyWhen I was growing up, I didn’t have a pet for any length of time. I had a rabbit named Twm Twitch for a few months, I had a guinea pig named Rupert for a few weeks, and I had a newt for a few days, before he escaped and I found him shrivelled up on the kitchen floor. I wasn’t really an animal-person, unless they were on my plate, next to my potatoes and carrots. I soon took a job in Wimpy burger bar and persuaded my then-girlfriend to give up her vegetarianism and start eating proper food – quarter-pound Wimpy burgers with that lovely pink relish. Animals, to me, were expendable and exploitable – “things” given to us by God to be eaten, worn, and used for our own purposes, however selfish and self-centred those purposes may be.

noah-ark05In my early twenties, I underwent a road-to-Damascus experience in my attitude to animals. It all came from reading the conclusion of the story of Noah’s flood, when God makes a covenant with his people, a covenant which expresses his love and care (Genesis 9:8-17). As I read that passage, it suddenly dawned on me that the covenant between God and his people in the Old Testament, which then became Jesus’s ultimate covenant in the New Testament, is not simply about humankind. The most striking aspect of the covenant with Noah is that it is between God and ‘all living creatures of every kind on the earth’, including ‘the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals’. As if to hammer this home, that fact is mentioned five times in that short Genesis passage alone!

SchweitzerWith this realization, I began to view Jesus’s teaching on love in a completely different way. It became evident to me that our call to compassion and care should not simply include those of the same species as us, but should embrace all living things. The medic and theologian Albert Schweitzer called this ‘reverence for life’. In so many matters, we Christians have our faith boxed up, over in one corner – we unpack it and it comes out on Sundays and it sometimes comes out for issues that relate directly to injustices towards people. But other matters, such as animal rights, are seen as issues that are quite distinct from our faith, and are boxed up in the opposite corner to our faith. In this way, there is often a fundamental disconnect between our faith and some critical ethical and societal issues. By now, I believe that animals are very much part and parcel of God’s kingdom and are due care and compassion from those of us entrusted to stewardship of his creation. So I’m delighted that a veterinary surgeon, Dr Greg Dixon, has agreed to speak to me about the issue of animal rights.

Before we go on to talk about your academic research in this area, Greg, can you tell us something about your job as a vet.

Greg-Dixon“Nowadays I work at a local practice in Cardiff, Wales, UK with a strong interest in canine and feline internal medicine, always happy with an ultrasound machine or an endoscope trying to figure out why the dog or cat is ill and what I am going to do about it. Many people view their pet almost as a family member, and I hope that by helping the pet I can help the people too. But before I came to Cardiff I was a ‘mixed’ vet working with farm companion animals. I have worked over the years closely with dairy cows, and on sheep and pig farms. I was never fully signed up to the farming practices to which I was exposed. I felt I was always a bit like Hawkeye in M*A*S*H – I didn’t agree with the war, but kept patching up the boys and sending them back to the front!”

And tell us something about your PhD research.

“By 2001 I had become very interested in Animal Welfare and Ethics, taking a further professional exam in the subject and helping to set up the Animal Welfare Science, Ethics and Law Veterinary Association. I was offered a PhD at Bristol Vet School, which is a centre for the study of Animal Welfare Science. I went to study the welfare of laying hens there for 3 years! My particular research was looking into the risk factors for the feather and vent pecking in laying chickens. This, in the worse cases, can lead to chickens consuming each other. Contrary to what many might think, this injurious behaviour happens mostly in free-range birds and not caged layer birds. There are few farming systems that are without their welfare problems, when practiced on a commercial scale. Sometimes a well-intentioned change leads us from the frying pan, into the fire.”

So, what led you to research animal rights in particular?

“In my veterinary work and in my research I was exposed to many farming practices, and particularly those of intensive pig farming, commercial abattoirs and broiler (chicken meat) farming led me to deeply question the way we treat our fellow creatures. This, together with much reading and discussion with my colleagues, farmers and philosophers led me to the conclusion that many of these practices, deeply engrained in our culture, are actually very hard to defend in a consistent manner.”

You seem to be saying that animals are not treated well, in general, in this country? Why do you think animals are treated so poorly?

Broiler-chickens“It depends which animals we are thinking of. I know some chihuahuas who live like kings! However, those animals that we consider only in an instrumental fashion perhaps do not fare so well. I am very concerned about the 850 million broiler chickens who are slaughtered annually in the UK, of whom, in their short 6 week lives, 28% (that’s 126 million sentient individual birds) are so severely lame that if they were horses they would be shot! Now, some might argue that are farm animals are kept better in the UK than in some other countries. That may or may not be the case, but that is not tantamount to treating animals well. In some pig abattoirs the line rate can be 60 pigs per minute, with commercial pressure on not dropping the rate. I think it can easily be seen that this kind of time pressure can easily result in those pigs, killed at the rate of one-per-second, not being treated well. I think that if we did to labradors what we do to those pigs on a daily basis, there would be a revolution! The huge demand for cheap animal products exerts an intense commercial pressure that often comes down, in various ways, directly upon the animals.”

What can we do, then, to ensure animals are treated better than they are?

gull“Well, of course, we can treat the animals we come into direct contact with well – I think that is the easy part, mostly. Being nice to dogs and horses is normally a pleasure. But what if we come across an injured gull, considered to be a nuisance by many people here in Cardiff? Do we have any duties to them? If so, do we discharge them well? But we also have social relations, mediated through the commodities of animal products, with many more animals than we come into direct contact with, and this is the difficult part. Can we alter our consumption patterns? Could we consume to improve the way we affect these animals’ lives? There is an analogy with people: we all mostly try and most of the time succeed in treating the people we come into direct contact with well. But we have social relations with many more people, mediated via the commodities we consume. Sometimes we try and treat those people we never meet, that make our coffee or our clothes, better by supporting fair trade or boycotting certain goods.”

As Christians, we see compassion and love of people as part of our mission… why do you think that some Christians miss the importance of compassion and love towards animals? From what you know about the Christian message, do the attitudes of Christians surprise you at all?

earth steward“I think that some Christians, like most people, might miss the importance of compassion towards animals. It may be reflected in that contentious translation in Genesis: ‘be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it; rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground’ (Genesis 1:28). ‘Rule over’ is sometimes translated as ‘have dominion over’. But this, at face value, could imply that humans, being on top of a hierarchy, are able to put nature and its creatures to whatever use they see fit. There are, of course, alternative readings and those that talk of ‘stewardship’ rather than ‘dominion’ may cast a different light on our responsibilities. I’d like to take a second to do a bit of social history. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association was founded by Quakers and enjoyed support from the great and the good of the day, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. They erected, by public subscription and generous donation, water fountains for the public and cattle drinking troughs throughout towns and cities. In those days, there was no public water supply and cholera was rife. There were animals throughout towns and cities, unlike today. The benefactors were concerned for the welfare of both people and animals – concern for one did not exclude concern for others. We are not always in a ‘lifeboat’ situation in which someone must be thrown overboard to save the others. The philosopher Mary Midgley once wrote that “compassion is like a magic liquid, the more you pour it, the more there is!” One of the motivations of the Association was, of course, for temperance – before the new drinking troughs, drovers could often only source water for their cattle at pubs that they were obliged to frequent! Nowadays the troughs are often used as ornamental flower boxes. I remember one well in Lewes, East Sussex, UK where I used to live. Alongside it had the imperative from Proverbs to ‘open thy mouth for the dumb’. And that is what I have tried to do in this interview!”

animal babyThank you so much for speaking with us, Greg. I think we would agree that, with regards animal rights, intensive farming, laboratory experiments, live exports, and so on, the old adage “this is the way it’s always been” is no excuse. As Christians, we are challenged to question what we’ve been taught, to read the Bible and to view everything in the light of Jesus’s love and compassion. But our faith is not just about viewing the world in a certain way – it’s also about changing the world. We need to live out the gospel, not simply talk about it. And, with this particular issue, we can do some practical things to take steps towards change: we can pray for all living things, educate ourselves on the issues surrounding animal welfare, read the Bible with the importance of all creation in mind, get involved in campaign (sign petitions and so on), support charities, be selective in shopping (fast food stores, for example, have an appalling record in not taking seriously animal welfare of farmed animals), and spread the word by encouraging friends, family, and colleagues also to educate themselves. Getting our priorities right is certainly the first step, but the next step is for us to ask God to inspire us into action.

See also:

Blog posts

Why I agree every Christian should be a tree-hugging environmentalist

Horses with no Names: What’s Faith got to do with Horsemeat?

Websites

SARX: Christian Animal Welfare

Creature Kind

Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals

 

Compassion and Refugees

As I sat in my local doctor’s surgery last week, a young boy started staring at me. He was of middle-eastern origin and was not much older than the age of the Syrian child in the photographs that have recently shocked the world. I smiled at him and said “hello”, but he simply kept on staring with inquisitive eyes. Noticing this one-sided conversation, his father nodded his head towards me, smiled, and said in a strong accent to his reticent child: “come on now – say hello to your uncle”. A smile broke across the hitherto unresponsive little face and a big cheerful “hello” followed.

HopeTo be called an “uncle” by a complete stranger got me thinking of our response to those coming to Europe and those attempting to cross the channel to make a home in our “green and pleasant land”. A number of commentators have challenged us to see beyond labels that are placed on such people. They are certainly not “scroungers”, “criminals”, and “benefit cheats”, but we are also urged to see beyond their labels as “refugees”, “immigrants”, or “migrants”. We are challenged to see them instead as “people”, just like you and me. As Christians, though, our call is to go even further than this. After all, Christ did not simply see “people”, and to see the kingdom of God as a kingdom of “people” is to miss how radical a call we have on our lives.

compassion-definitionPoliticians of all sides of the political spectrum have used the word “compassion” on many of occasions in recent weeks. There seems to be a consensus that compassion is essential when treating those fleeing from war, conflict, and turmoil. Yet “compassion” is not simply a buzzword to be used when convenient and it is essential that we do not miss the profound depth of the challenge of “compassion”. The English word derives from the Latin words cum and pati, meaning ‘to suffer with’. In other words, when we feel compassion towards others, we suffer with them. We don’t make judgements on their backgrounds or motives, but we put ourselves in their shoes and truly feel their suffering.

rechemThe Hebrew word for compassion is even more revealing. In the Old Testament, the most frequent word that can be translated “compassion” is the word rachamim. ‘The Lord Almighty said: “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion [rachamim] to one another”’ (Zechariah 7.9). The word is related to the Hebrew term for womb, rechem, indicating that our compassion for those around us should reflect family bonds. The same link with the word womb (rahem) can be made with Arabic word for compassion/mercy (rahmah), which is found frequently in the Qur’an. In other words, compassion is about treating others as if they were in the same family as us, as if they were our own flesh and blood, as if they had shared the same womb as we did.

WelcomeThe French Cistercian monk Charles de Foucauld referred to this concept as the “universal brotherhood” – that we treat everyone as our brothers and sisters. If we are to interpret compassion in this way, as the great monotheistic religions do, this is a huge challenge to our lives and our politics. How many politicians treat so-called “immigrants” as if they were related to them? The most wonderful thing about the widely-reported response to the present crisis in Germany is that many are actually welcoming refugees into their own homes. Through an “Air B’n’B” website, many hundreds of Germans, including students, single-mothers, and retired couples, offered their homes to refugees from countries such as Syria, Somalia, and Burkina Faso. That is compassion. That is truly treating others as family.

After all, when we see others as our kin, all their labels will peel away. The Jesuit contemplative Anthony de Mello used an analogy of a menu in a restaurant. However much we might salivate while considering the list of food, not one of us will decide to eat the actual menu. It is the food that we want to eat, not the words about the food! As far as possible we must attempt to experience people themselves, rather than experience the labels that we or other people put on them. As soon as we slap a label like “immigrant” and “refugee” on a person, our understanding of that individual becomes distorted. We start to see the label rather than the person, and every label, of course, has undertones of approval or disapproval. My wife is German. When I look at her lovingly over a romantic meal, I do not stare into her eyes and say, “darling, you are such a beautiful immigrant”. Likewise, in our church community we have individuals from across the globe who are active in the congregation. None of us see them as “immigrants”. Once we know a person, they cease to be a label and they simply become family.

family 2As I sat in that doctor’s surgery, it made perfect sense to be called “uncle” by that little boy. If God is our father, as we pray in the prayer Jesus himself taught, then we are compelled to treat each other as if we are brothers and sisters. As Christians, there is no opt-out clause in Christ’s invitation to view others as “family”. Instead, it’s at the very heart of our faith and is fundamental to our radical call to live out the compassionate kingdom. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it: “I hope we can accept a wonderful truth – we are family! We are family! If we could get to believe this we would realise that care about ‘the other’ is not really altruistic, but it is the best form of self-interest”.

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

 

 

“Pencils in the Hand of God”: Some thoughts on All Saints Day

‘You don’t have to be an angel to be a saint!’ Today is All Saints Day. Last year I posted a reflection on the day. I have been pleasantly surprised at the popularity of that blog-post, and so I thought I would post it again. Thank you for your support of my blog over the past year, and I hope you enjoy reading this again.

Trystan Owain Hughes

Real God in the Real WorldBelow is a reflection taken from ‘Real God in the Real World‘, my latest book that can be used in groups or by individuals over the Advent and Christmas period. Each day begins with a bible reading and then uses lively personal stories and engaging illustrations from popular culture and the arts to reflect on the reading. The reflection below takes Revelation 7:9-17 as its starting point:

saint babyI was due to be born on November 1st, which is ‘All Saints Day’ in the Western liturgical calendar. My mum was excited about delivering her own personal saint. In the week running up to the day, she, therefore, did everything she could to induce labour – from rough country drives to long mountain walks. On the night before All Saints Day, she even fell for the old wives tale of consuming a large dose of castor oil. Unfortunately, I didn’t appear, and all…

View original post 597 more words

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”.

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

MentalHealthBrainToday is World Mental Health Day. As I was leaving St Mary’s, Ealing, London last weekend, having given a talk on finding hope and meaning in suffering, another group were coming in to use the church. This was a group for contemplation and prayer, and many of them had come early to hear my talk before their service. On chatting to them, they asked what I believe prayer and contemplation could offer to those of us who suffer depression, anxiety, and stress. I was able to answer them in detail, as my Masters dissertation at Oxford University was on that topic. The following article, which is adapted from an article I wrote a number of years back for the wonderful website Mind and Soul: Exploring Christianity and Mental Health, summarises my work at Oxford.

mental-healthIn 2006 a report on happiness in our society, written by Nick Spencer at the Theos think tank, noted that, while the British are richer than ever before, own more than ever before, and live longer and healthier lives than in the past, all the evidence suggests that people are no happier than they were thirty years ago. In fact, some studies indicate that most people are considerably less happy. Certainly, personal psychological ill-health has risen notably over the past few decades. Depression, anxiety, and stress are widespread in the UK, with the NHS spending many millions of pounds on treatments and therapy.

Mental-health-problems-007In recent years, a number of psychologists and psychiatrists have posited mindfulness as a tool for managing mood problems. Originating in Buddhism, mindfulness can be summarised as having a compassionate, non-judgemental awareness of the present moment. In being aware of the reality around us, we become fully alert to the sensations in our bodies, the flow of our thoughts, and the sights and sounds around us. When combined with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), research has shown that mindfulness can significantly transform a person suffering from a mood disorder. This research, led by scientist-practitioners such as Jon Kabat-Zinn, Marsha Lineham, Steven C. Hayes, and Williams/Teasdale/Segal, has become known as the third-wave of CBT.

Praying1It is, however, rarely appreciated that our own Christian tradition has much to offer in this sphere. The ancient practice of contemplative prayer is sometimes called ‘Christian meditation’, but is not to be confused with the more widespread Christian practice of discursive meditation. Contemplative prayer has had a long history in Christian tradition, and in the late twentieth-century it underwent a revival, largely led by the Roman Catholic religious orders but also promoted by a number of prominent Anglicans, Quakers, and Protestant evangelicals. Contemplation holds many similarities with mindfulness, and so a Christianised form of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy could potentially be created and developed.

Those cognitive therapies that utilise mindfulness as part of treatment for mood disorders are built around three aspects of mindfulness – meditation, non-judgemental awareness, and acceptance. It is striking that Christianity has long-advocated similar principles to these three mindfulness principles, not least within the contemplative tradition of the church.

prayingHands_small_280x240Christian meditation has been varied and diverse down the centuries. It is those techniques that bear resemblance to mindfulness meditation that could be adapted and utilised most successfully for combating mental ill-health. Many of these forms of prayer are centuries old, but have recently been developed by such contemplatives as Anthony De Mello (body-awareness prayer), Thomas Keating (centring prayer), James Finley (Christian meditation), or Thomas Ryan (prayer of heart and body). Protestant contemplatives, such as Richard Foster, Joyce Huggett, Liz Babbs, and James W. Goll, have championed similar forms of prayer. ‘Shut your mouth; open your eyes and ears;’ wrote C.S. Lewis, ‘take in what there is and give no thought to what might have been there or what is somewhere else’. Just as meditation can lead to mindfulness, contemplative prayer can lead us to live contemplatively. In other words, it can help us to recognise, in the words of Jean Pierre de Caussade in the eighteenth-century, the ‘sanctity of the present moment’, and can, therefore, help us to observe our thoughts and feelings in that moment.

79bd66b9-783a-43e8-8b27-bd6a663b5c51Christian traditions are also well-versed in the concept of non-judgemental awareness. It is by resting in the ‘sacrament of the present moment’ that we begin to see our prejudices and distorted thinking from an objective viewpoint – in a sense, from God’s perspective. Our false emotional programs for happiness can be dismantled, and, while we might still be encountering the same depressive thoughts and unhelpful feelings, we are able to recognise those thoughts and feelings as distorted and dangerous. Thomas Keating refers to such thoughts, memories, and feelings as the ‘false self’, while other writers have referred to them as our ‘self-will’ (Catherine of Genoa and Teresa of Avila), ‘desires’ (John of the Cross), ‘egomania’ (Richard Foster), ‘empire of self’ (James W. Goll), or ‘ego consciousness’ (James Finley). These are our attachments to security, control, affection, and esteem. In the context of a Christianised mindfulness cognitive therapy, these are our core-beliefs that have developed through reaction and habit. As a result of noticing and analysing our thoughts and feelings, these core beliefs can be purged, rejected, or adapted.

let-go-let-godWithin many Christian traditions, not least the contemplative movement, the acceptance of God’s providence is prevalent. The ‘sacrament of the present moment’ awakens us to recognise God in each and every moment of our lives, which includes times of pain and suffering, as well as more joyful and happy times. This leads to what Jean-Pierre de Caussade describes as ‘self-abandonment to divine providence’. Through recognising God’s loving purpose, even in the midst of trials and tribulation, we can joyfully surrender ourselves to God’s will in our lives. This is all part of the ‘letting go’, which many mystics have placed at the heart of happiness, contentment, and peace. If we have the courage to trust God and to submit ourselves to Him, we will not only learn to accept unfolding events, but also ‘to embrace and bless them’. This will then help us change our relationship with the negative aspects of our being and situation, and the unhelpful and distorted feelings within us will cease to control us. This ‘courage to be’ (Paul Tillich), to affirm being, in the face of our anxieties about life and about the future, is at the heart of Christian acceptance.

Psalm46.10A number of factors would need to be in place if a contemplative programme of treatment for depression, stress, and anxiety was to be developed and sustained. Firstly, the education of laity and clergy needs to be a priority. This will counter prejudice against and misunderstanding of contemplative prayer, but also bring relationship of Christianity with mental health issues to the fore. Secondly, the training of clergy and other spiritual advisors needs to be a priority – both in traditions of contemplative prayer and in the relationship of contemplation to emotional well-being. Thirdly, the relationship between Church and mental health professionals needs to be further fostered. Both need to know about, understand, and be able to support a contemplative/meditative approach to healing. Finally, contemplative prayer groups need to be established, and ecumenical groups should be encouraged, making the groups more viable and diverse. If groups are already running, they need to be advertised more clearly and widely. Indeed, if these factors were developed and put in place, then contemplative theology could certainly hold the key to developing a Christian mindfulness, and this could significantly help those Christians suffering mental ill-health.