Our Challenge this Christmas – Prophet not Profit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are we at peace with others?”

“How do we care for the environment?”

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

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

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

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

Setting the world on fire at Christmas!

candlesChristmas is nearly here, and I am busy preparing for our midnight Christmas service. My most memorable midnight service, though, was ten years ago now in the small church of Gileston in the Vale of Glamorgan in South Wales. The service had all gone smoothly until I stood up to preach. As I got more and more enthusiastic about the peace and joy that should inspire us at Christmas, I noticed that the people in the front row were beginning to wave their hands around. For a moment, I thought that they had suddenly being filled with the spirit and were manifesting a charismatic side to their worship. I started to get excited, as they started to mouth words at me. I couldn’t quite understand what they were saying, but I just imagined that they were mouthing “amen, preacher” or “hallelujah, reverend” or “preach it, vicar”. It was filling me with more and more confidence, so I got louder and louder and more enthusiastic in my delivery.

burning-flowersThen, I noticed that the whole congregation began to wave their arms and point and mouth words. I also suddenly smelt something… smoke! I turned around and to my horror I saw that a candle had fallen onto the wonderful display of flowers behind the altar and the whole display had gone up in flames! I ran up to the altar, and looked around for a fire extinguisher. Unfortunately, not one was to be found. By this point the flames were pretty fierce and smoke had filled the whole church. There was only one thing for it – I grabbed the large jug of water that we use at communion and threw it on the flames. Unfortunately, I had actually picked up the decanter of communion wine and so had thrown all our communion wine onto the burning flowers! In the end, I ran out of firefighting ideas, so I just took off my robes and smothered the fire with them! Even now, when I go back to my old parish, I am not remembered for my kind heart, my pastoral visiting, or my lively preaching. No, I am rather remembered as the vicar who threw communion wine on a fire and then stripped off and threw his clothes on it!

3-romantic-snow-flakes-christmas-baubles_1920x1200_70396I remember at the time, though, that the whole incident got me thinking about how Christmas should inspire us. We celebrate Christmas during our winter, the coldest time of the year. We’re excited if there’s any mention that it might be a white Christmas, and many of our Christmas cards have beautiful snow scenes on them. After my experience of firefighting in Gileston, though, I started viewing Christmas, not with winter and snow in mind, but with fire, light, and warmth.

christingleOf course, this is not a new image for our Christmas celebrations. Many churches have candles on their christingle oranges and light the candles of the advent wreath. With these candles we remember that Christ is the light of the world, who illuminates a way of living, a way of compassion, a way of peace that goes beyond whatever other worldview that might be in ascendance. For us at Christmas time, that means that the baby of the manger, the child of the stable can help us see beyond the consumerist haze of this season – we can see beyond our society’s desperate desire to buy, or to have, or to abuse, or to dominate. Wealth, power, authority, money – none of them are important when seen in the light of a crying child in a dirty manger, born to offer us another way of living. As Mary exclaimed when she was expecting child: “he has scattered the proud in their conceit; he has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty”.

This has huge implications on how we live our lives – on our priorities, on our politics, on the way we treat others, on our values, on how we use or money, on what we consider to be important. It challenges us to look beyond our own cold wants, needs, and desires, and to show the warmth of love and compassion to others, whoever they are and however different they may be to us.

cross-and-fire_491_1024x768I’ve been to so many carol concerts, services, and nativities over the past few weeks, but one thing links all of them – and that’s the faces of those attending. There have been so many smiles, so much laughter, and a good deal of genuine warmth. The Christmas story is certainly one that brings us hope and it makes us stop and assess what is important in our lives. After all, this is the season when we recognize the importance of love, peace, acceptance, and forgiveness. But, we must also look beyond Christmas Day. We must also commit, not just to allow God to warm our hearts, but to allow God to set our hearts on fire. By doing so, we can take the message of the season into the new year, we can live out lives inspired by the life of baby born 2000 years ago, we can help subvert the worldly values of wealth and power, and we can commit ourselves to lives of peace, hope, joy, love and compassion. That’s what the fire of Christmas is really all about.

See also:

Advent and the Weight for Christmas

Unto us a Child is Born: A new baby at Christmas

Things-with-wings: A Christmas Reflection

Are you sitting comfortably? Christmas and the wonder of story

Advent and the Weight for Christmas

img_3263At the moment, I’m fascinated in books about words, and letters and languages. I’m finding out all sorts of intriguing facts – did you know, for example, that sixteenth-century printers used to keep their capital letters in one case and the other letters in another case, which is why letters became known as Upper Case and Lower Case?! I’ve also discovered all about homophones – words that sound the same but have no relation whatsoever to one another. Take, for example, the word “weight”, meaning a heaviness or a heavy load or object, and the word “wait”, meaning an inactivity until a future expectation happens. Clearly they are very different words.

Advent is a time of “waiting” for that future expectation – waiting for the birth of Christ, waiting for the celebration of Christmas Day. Most of us don’t enjoy having to wait for things, and, in our instantaneous and speedy world, we have all sorts of ways of hurrying things up. As the comedian Steve Wright quipped, ‘I put my instant coffee in my microwave oven and almost went back in time’!

k6rmf-glass-in-handWith this is mind, perhaps the word “wait” is not so different to its homophone-partner “weight”. Someone sent me an email this week that described how a teacher picked up a glass of water and asked a group of students how heavy it was. All sorts of answers were called out, ranging from 5 ounces to 30 ounces. The teacher then informed them that the absolute weight has no bearing on our own experience of the weight: “The weight depends on how long I hold it. If I hold it for a minute, it’s no problem at all. If I hold it for an hour, I’ll have a slight ache in my arm. If I hold it for a day, then my whole arm will start to feel numb and paralyzed. In each case, the weight of the glass doesn’t change, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes”.

i-am-waitingSometimes, when we are waiting for something or someone, it can be rather frustrating and wearisome, like an ache in the arm. It can be a somewhat unpleasant experience when we are waiting in a queue in a supermarket or we’re waiting for a friend who’s late once again. But waiting can also be far more serious and severe. Ultimately, waiting can weigh us down. It can be like carrying a heavy load for a long period. It can numb us and paralyze us when we are waiting for recovery from illness, waiting for depression to lift, waiting for light to break through grief, waiting for test results, or waiting for the hurt of broken relationships to heal.

6a01127946f41528a40120a6aceca0970b-800wiNothing can completely take away the darkness of some of our waiting. But in all our waiting, Christ can make a difference. To use another homophone, he can make the darkness lighter and he can make the heavy load lighter. In this sense, waiting doesn’t have to always be so frustrating or painful. After all, there are two times of waiting in church calendar – advent and lent – and both have something in common. Both end in new life and joy. It is, therefore, no surprise that almost all the verses in the Bible that mention “waiting” do not relate it to heaviness, pain, and oppression. Instead, they imply that we have a choice to view our waiting in a different way – as a gift where we are invited to treasure each moment. As Isaiah 40:31 puts it: “but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint”.

IMG_5184Whatever kind of waiting we are experiencing, then, we can choose to actively appreciate and cherish. Sometimes our waiting is looking forward in anticipation to a good event. This should be fun and fulfilling, but it can also lead us to live our lives in the future, rather than enjoy the gift of waiting. Over the past year, I have found myself sitting with my one-year-old son and thinking how much I’m looking forward to the next stage of his development – at first it was when he crawls, then when he walks, then when he talks. I was looking at photos of him recently and I realised how much I had missed of the stages he was at by looking to the future. I now challenge myself to appreciate where he is now – you could call it “the waiting for the next stage” – rather than wishing the next stage would come quickly.

beauty_ordinary_thingsThere are other times, though, when our waiting is not to do with anticipation, but rather we are forced to wait, due to illness or to a traumatic event. Again, while it may well be difficult, we can wait actively in these moments. During the intense period of my own back injury, before my operation, I had almost 12 months where I was laid up in bed for most of the day. I would venture out for very short daily strolls. But I taught myself to truly appreciate those walks – the beauty of nature, the conversation of friends who visited to walk with me, the silence when I walked alone, the uplifting music when I took my ipod. This was all God at work, and, in spite of my continuing pain, I could not help but celebrate His wonderful, mysterious, and holy gift of life.

large‘Active waiting’ is about finding God’s light in your journeys, however long and difficult your wait, however heavy and burdensome your weight. The poet Ralph Waldo Emerson asked the question: “how much of human life is lost in waiting?” And he’s right – how much of life is wasted, waiting for the future to happen? Our time is precious, and active waiting helps us to connect with God and appreciate our time fully. In the words of the author Sharlande Sledge, it helps us to “transform our in-the-meantime into God’s time”.

Sharlande Sledge: Prayer on Waiting

Look upon us gently, Lord, for waiting is not our forte. So many things are… things like moving ahead, fixing what is wrong, planning what is next, diagnosing the problem, cramming more into one day than one person can possibly do before the sun goes down.

But waiting… when we are waiting for the light to shine, when we are waiting for the Word, when we are waiting for a wound to heal, nothing in all the world is harder than waiting.

So in your mercy, Lord, wait with us.

Be very present in waiting.  Heal our frenzy. Calm our fears. Comfort those who at this very minute are with every anxious breath and thought waiting for they know-not-what.

Transform our in-the-meantime into your time, while we wait with each other, sit with each other, pray each other into hope, surrounded by your presence, even in the darkness. Especially in the darkness. Amen

 See also:

Unto us a Child is Born: A new baby at Christmas

Things-with-wings: A Christmas Reflection

Are you sitting comfortably? Christmas and the wonder of story

Reasons to be Thankful: A Year in Review

This year has been a bit of a whirlwind. We welcomed a new little baby into our family, we moved house, I left Cardiff University chaplaincy to become director of ordinands for the diocese of Llandaff and vicar of Christ Church, Roath Park, Cardiff (Wales, UK), and all that on top of writing this blog and having two books published. So, this is a short review of the blog and publications, as I say goodbye to 2013 and welcome in the New Year.

Thank YouFirst, can I say a huge “thank you” to all who have supported my writing over the past year. I especially appreciate those of you who have read the blog, have shared posts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+, have bought or read my books, and have recommended others to read my blog or books. Thank you SO much – I really do appreciate all your support.

The blog: Finding Hope, Meaning, Faith, and Compassion

RunnerUpUACA

When I started the blog in February, I would never have guessed how successful it would have become, culminating, in November, with the runner-up award for the “Up-and-Coming Blog of the Year” at the Christian New Media Awards in London.

Over the past year, many thousands of people have read the pages of this blog, with May and December being the most popular months. It is especially widely read in the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Canada, and Germany, but there are also a sizeable number of readers in Brazil, Sweden, and France.

The five most popular blog posts have been, in descending order:

5) “A Satsuma is not a Failed Orange”: Listening to God’s call

4) Crime and Compassion: Does Mick Philpott deserve any compassion?

3) Unto Us a Child is Born: A new baby at Christmas

2) Women Bishops – This is Wales, calling the Church of England

1) “Jesus, do you hate me?” Gay Marriage, the Church and Compassion

The Compassion Quest

The Compassion QuestMy book The Compassion Quest was published in February by SPCK. It was endorsed by Tony Campolo and Graham Tomin, it ended the year with an average of 4.9 stars on Amazon (after 18 reviews), and it was reviewed very favourably in blogs, journals and magazines. For a newly updated blog post detailing the wonderful response that The Compassion Quest received see:

Who else has ever invited Charles de Foucauld, Margaret Thatcher, Philip Pullman and Nick Cave to the same party?

Real God in the Real World

Real God in the Real WorldReal God in the Real World was the official BRF Advent Book for 2013. Again, the response to it were great – an average of 4.8 stars on Amazon (after 9 reviews), excellent reviews in blogs and magazines, and two wonderful endorsements by Alister McGrath and Gerald Kelly. This all meant that 2013 ended on a high, as the book sold out of its first print run after only 2 months and had to be reprinted. It was also great to have a ringing endorsement from a recent review in The Good Bookstall: “Hughes writes with a warmth, authentic insight and real delight. The writing style is fresh and engaging… I am such a fan of Trystan’s other more complex, challenging, and nuanced books… This book is a perfect antidote to the chaos of the Christmas season – a worthy companion in the advent season. Here’s to this and more Rev T O Hughes writing in the not too distant future!”

And to finish…

At the beginning of the year, it was nice surprise to find out that my book Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering had been quoted by Wm Paul Young (author of The Shack) in his latest book Cross Roads, alongside CS Lewis, Bobby Kennedy, and Paul Simon! Since then, Cross Roads has been translated into many different languages, and so my quotation has been appearing on Twitter and Facebook in many different guises. To finish this short review of 2013, here is that quotation in every form I have, thus far, discovered it on social media sites:

Please feel free to use or share this image

Please feel free to use or share this image

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

“El dolor bien puede recordarnos que estamos vivos, pero el amor nos recuerda por qué lo estamos” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“Verdriet mag ons er dan wel aan herinneren dat we leven, liefde herinnert ons eraan waarom we leven” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“Schmerz erinnert uns daran, dass wir leben, aber die Liebe erinnert uns daran, warum wir leben” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“Mae poen yn ein hatgoffa ein bod ni’n fyw, ond cariad sy’n ein hatgoffa pam yr ydym ni’n fyw” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“A dor pode nos fazer lembrar que estamos vivos, mas o amor nos faz lembrar por quê” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“Bolest nám možná připomíná, že jsme naživu, ale láska nám připomíná, proč žijeme” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“Si la souffrance nous rappelle que nous sommes vivants, c’est l’amour qui nous rappelle pourquoi nous vivons” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“Lehet, hogy a fájdalom emlékeztet arra, hogy élünk, a szeretet viszont arra emlékeztet, hogy miért élünk” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“Bolest nám možná připomíná, že jsme naživu, ale láska nám připomíná, proč žijeme” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

Are you sitting comfortably? Christmas and the wonder of story

hailA few days ago, I attended my 12-year-old son’s school Christmas concert. While his is not a church school, the event took place at a local church. My son was taking the role of a shepherd from Bethlehem, trying to explain to his boss why he had lost all his sheep after he and his mates had run into town to find a child in a stable. He insisted that he had nothing to do with the cut-price lamb being sold in town the following morning, and he swore that he’d not been drinking when he had heard great noises and seen lights in the sky. While he was performing, Cardiff was hit with the most ferocious hailstorm that I have seen in years. So, as he said the words “there were great noises in the sky”, the heavens opened and the church’s stained-glass windows sounded like they were about to shatter. I overheard one parent say to another on the way out, “I loved the wonderful sound effects when the shepherd was speaking!”

We hear so much these days about rechristening Christmas as the “winter festival”, but this event, based in a church and introduced by the local vicar, was very much rooted in faith. Or perhaps it’s more correct to say it was based around a story – a story of a newborn that gives flesh, heart, and spirit to all our hopes and desires, all our needs and wants.

The Hobbit JackanoryI have always loved stories. I remember running home from school as a child, out of breath and with legs aching, because I didn’t want to miss the TV programme Jackanory, where a famous person sat in a big armchair and read from a children’s novels. When I go out to visit schools now, despite all the technology available, I’ve noticed that school children still love to sit and listen to teacher simply reading a good storybook, just as they love to hear a nighttime story from mum or dad.

The reality is, of course, that people of all ages get stories and people have always loved telling and hearing stories – from amphitheatres of the Greeks and Romans to the Elizabethan plays of Shakespearean England. The popularity of TV programmes, soap operas, films, and books bear witness to the fact that stories are still a language people can understand. If we, as a church, want to connect with generations that are seemingly lost from our congregations, we need to be looking to story.

With all this in mind, I’ve often been tempted simply to tell a ten-minute story instead of a sermon on a Sunday morning. I wonder if I’d get complaints? “There’s not enough exegesis”; “there’s not enough teaching”. The lack of explanation in Jesus’ parables, of course, would have confused some people, but he urges us in the Parable of the Sower to make our own interpretations. “Blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear”.

parablesIn fact, the writer Rob Lacey made a detailed assessment of Jesus’s words and teaching. In his book Are we Getting Through?, he concluded that Jesus spoke to the general public in two different ways: he either told stories or he asked questions. These stories were memorable, intriguing, and vivid, using images and objects that the people of his day could identify with (sheep, coins, trees, vineyards). Yet, in the two thousand years since Jesus, the church seems to have decided it knows better. Our church services rarely include stories, not even in many of our sermons! Furthermore, we Christians are far more inclined to give answers than ask questions.

the bibleAnd it’s not only Jesus either. Our faith is founded on story. The recent Channel 5 series The Bible has shown just some of the wonderful tales of faith and courage from Genesis through to Revelation. Story is integral to our faith, from Adam and Eve, Abraham, Joseph and his colourful coat, Moses, David and Goliath, and Samson and Delilah, to the stories of Christmas and Easter, the parables, and the adventures of St Paul. And the great thing about these magnificent stories of our faith is that every story has two levels – two “storeys”, if you like. In other words, they have the story itself, wonderful and fantastical. But, beyond that, is another level, another “storey” – and that is how does the story speak to us? What profound and eternal truths can we take from the story?

tell-me-a-storySo, this Christmas, why not do two things. First, why not start to really listen to stories. After all, God speaks to us through stories. Ask yourself, what is he saying to you? Allow his story to inform the stories you engage with – the story of a small child born in a dirty stable, a story of hope, a story of peace, a story of love. How does that story relate to the stories you listen to? How can the stories you hear inform your faith, teach your faith, challenge your faith.

But, secondly, I challenge you to tell stories this Christmas. You’ll be with your friends and families, so have the confidence to share stories with them – tales that you find fascinating yourself or tales of your own life. My own daughter is obsessed with stories of my childhood. Almost every dinnertime, she will suddenly say: “Tell me a story of when you were young, daddy”. I must admit, I’m running out of little-mischievous-Trys stories by now, and am tempted to start making some up! But it’s not only children – in the same way that my daughter loves hearing my stories, when I go to visit parishioners I love hearing their stories about their lives and families.

we-all-have-stories-to-tellBut, in telling stories this Christmas, why not also allow those stories to interact with the spirit of the festive season. Share stories, ones you have read or seen on television, and explain how they have inspired you towards Christ’s hope, compassion, and forgiveness. But, perhaps most importantly, tell your own personal stories by letting people know how your lives have been transformed by his story – the eternal story of peace and love that began when “the hopes and fears of all the years” were met in the cry of a newborn.

Related articles

Unto us a child is born: A new baby at Christmas

Christmas is Coming: But do we really need the nativity story?

Things-with-Wings: A Christmas Reflection

Pencils in the Hand of God

Unto Us a Child is Born: A new baby at Christmas

Only Fools and HorsesAfter eight months and three weeks of waiting, my wife and I have been blessed with the arrival of a beautiful baby boy. It was an 18-hour labour and, after all that I saw and experienced over that time, I can confirm that the birth of a baby is painful and tiring. To be fair, it was also quite difficult for my wife! After my friend’s child was born, he tells me he had an Only Fools and Horses moment. He almost fainted at the screams and the blood he witnessed, then the midwife looked over and asked “how are you bearing up?” My friend answered, “I’m fine, thank you”. To which the midwife replied, “I was actually talking to your wife”. My own faux pas at the delivery was not quite that bad, although I now know that the answer to “would the father like to cut the umbilical cord?” can certainly be “no thank you”, but it definitely should not be “no way”… I think my wife has just about forgiven me by now!

For all my squeamishness at the blood and pain of the birth, though, it was a truly magical event that will stay with me for the rest of my life. But, of course, the magic continues now as we welcome our newborn into the family. The constant care that a small baby needs has really struck me – to be fed, to be winded, to be changed, to be kept warm (but not too warm), to be rocked when crying, to be clothed, to be washed, to be kept safe. In fact, the reality is, of course, that a newborn can do nothing at all themselves. They are utterly and completely reliant on others. If we were to leave our baby in a room by himself, he would not last more than a day or two. His beautiful and valuable little life is wholly in our hands.

baby horseAs I was rocking our new bundle of joy to sleep a few days go, with the lullaby tones of my “Babies go U2” CD playing in the background, I was thinking about the complete reliance of children on their parents. This utter dependence is even more marked in comparison to other species. My own dad was brought up on a farm and I remember him telling me that most animals (horses, cows, sheep) are able to walk a matter of hours after birth. Yet, by the time our new little boy takes his first steps it will almost be Christmas again. Likewise, most birds start flying and hunting for their own food after two months. I’m not expecting our son to be preparing breakfast in bed for mum and dad for a good few years yet! In so many ways, our new child’s reliance on us will certainly continue for years to come – I know my own mum would say that it finished with me when I was around 35!

Over the next few weeks, of course, another baby will take the limelight in most of our lives. Welcoming a newborn into his new home has got me thinking about our Christmas celebrations in a new light. In his letter to the Philippians, St Paul writes about God humbling himself through the suffering and crucifixion. At Christmas time, though, we remember a different kind of humbling. This isn’t the humiliation of death, but the humiliation of birth. The almighty, omnipotent, all-powerful God, who created everything and sustains all that exists, became a helpless, weak, and vulnerable baby.

baby JesusAnd let’s not kid ourselves, this was no “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”. The wonderful and awesome God became someone who couldn’t turn himself over, who couldn’t control his bowels or bladder, who coughed and spluttered as he fed on his mother’s milk, who screamed and shrieked to get his parents’ attention, and who had to be taught to walk, to talk, and to say his “please’s” and “thank you’s”. Our strong, immortal God became completely reliant on us weak, mortal humans. He put His life into our hands.

That very fact is at the heart of the incarnation – of why God became human. By humbling himself, first as a baby in a dirty wooden manger and then as an adult on a dirty wooden cross, this awesome and infallible God shows us that he knows what it’s like to be small and very fallible. He knows what it’s like to be cold and hungry, he knows what it’s like to be hated and bullied, he knows what it’s like to be depressed and anxious, and he knows what it’s like to cry and grieve. But he also knows what it’s like to feel love and longing, he knows what it’s like to laugh until tears appear, he knows what it’s like to enjoy the company of friends, and he knows what it’s like to appreciate the beauty of nature. In a nutshell, he knows what it’s like to be us.

A nativity scene in a children's nativity playI went to the nativity of our church’s nursery on Friday. It was a wonderful event, full of cute shepherds and angels, visiting a saintly little baby Jesus, who was placed lovingly and carefully in a manger full of clean straw. At one point, the children filed past baby Jesus and each gave the beautiful baby doll a sweet kiss on the forehead. Christians should certainly not completely abandon the sanitized, sentimental, and fluffy picture of the birth of Jesus. It has its place in the tinsel-tinged celebrations of this wonderful season.
But neither should we forget the raw reality of what being born into this often-cruel world meant for Jesus. Without the dirt, the tears, the pain, the laughter, the joy, the hunger, the illness, the grief, the thirst, the friendship, and the death, we are left with a distant and remote God, and Christmas teaches us that our God is neither distant nor remote.

Our baby sleepingAnd so, last night, as I was watching our baby’s beautiful little body gently rising and falling as he slept, I prayed that he grows to know that, whatever happens to me or my wife, he has another Father who understands him completely, who loves him infinitely, and who accepts him unconditionally; a Father who cries when he cries and laughs when he laughs; a Father who understands exactly what it’s like to be him.

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Things-with-Wings: A Christmas reflection

This video is a short reflection from Real God in the Real World, on the beauty and power of nature. Real God in the Real World is the official advent book for BRF. It is a lively, engaging, and accessible look at Christmas, using personal stories, illustrations from popular culture and the arts, as well as daily Bible readings. The book can be bought from all good bookshops and online retailers, including from BRFonline  and Amazon UK / Amazon US

“A thoughtful and helpful guide to the Advent season, rich in wisdom and insight” (Alister McGrath, King’s College London)

“This is a devotional that fizzes with the pleasure of an advent calendar: each day, as you open a new chapter, you will find yourself looking forward to the gems the author has for you” (Gerard Kelly, The Bless Network)

Hope you enjoy the video! Please do feel free to share, or to use in churches or small groups to aid discussion.

Thanks to my friend (and ordinand at St Michael’s Theological College, Llandaff, Wales) Christopher Frost for producing, editing, & directing the video and to my brother Gwynan Hughes for composing & performing the music.

View sample pages from Real God in the Real World here

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

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 that happened was that she spent the next few days on the toilet! In fact, it took another whole week for me to appear. When I arrived in the world, my father informed my mum that she really did have her own little saint, as November 8th is, in fact, ‘All Saints of Wales Day’! However, my behaviour over the next 18 years quickly dispelled the saintly hopes she had. “Perhaps it would be more appropriate if you’d have been born on Halloween”, I recall her once telling me!

Last year on my birthday, I was invited to a local church to be quizzed by a large group of teenagers about my work as a University chaplain. Three other people have also been invited – a local teacher, someone who works with the homeless in the city, and someone who works for the Samaritans. All evening we were grilled by these inquisitive youngsters, as I answered questions as diverse as “why do you do what you do?”, “What is the meaning of life?”, and, more popular than you might think, “how much do you get paid?!” When I was first asked to attend this evening I naturally enquired why I was being asked to give up my birthday. The vicar who is organising the event informed me that it was to commemorate All Saints of Wales Day, and they were asking a number of modern-day saints of Wales. I nearly fell off my chair laughing when I realised I was to represent a ‘modern-day saint’. Yes, I do my best to help other people, but I’m certainly no St Francis or Mother Teresa!

saintsAfter thinking about it for a while, though, I soon realised that my reaction revealed my own prejudices about what a saint actually was. I’ve always pictured saints as very holy people, with smiling faces, often immortalised in stained glass windows, with little birds landing on their shoulders and halos over their heads. In some ways, today’s reading from the book of Revelation (7:9-17) might allow such a misunderstanding, as this godly group wear white robes and hold palm branches in their hands. However, seen in the context of the rest of the Old and New Testaments, our view of sainthood is challenged. Both St Luke and St Paul paint a much more human and down-to-earth portrait of sainthood, as they refer to those early Christians in Jerusalem and elsewhere as “saints” (e.g. Acts 9:13, 32; Philippians 4:21, and so on), and today’s reading reveals that saints are “a great multitude from every nation, tribe, people and language”.

In reality, of course, there is nothing super-human about sainthood, and thus we are all called to be saints. As Mother Teresa herself once said, all of us have the ability to become ‘pencils in the hand of God’. Sometimes our actions are clearly worthwhile – just think of the selfless work of hospital staff, of carers, of the emergency services, and so on. Sometimes, though, our actions might seem insignificant to us – when we visit a lonely relative, or take time to listen to a friend in need, or when we simply smile and say a nice ‘hello’ to our neighbours. Often we’re so hung-up about our failings that we can forget that all our seemingly minor saintly actions bring so much light and love to the world around us. As Albert Schweitzer, a former Nobel Peace Prize winner, once said, ‘we certainly don’t have to be angels to be saints’!

Christmas is Coming: But do we really need the nativity story?

AdventMost of us look forward to Christmas each year. A recent poll revealed why people continue to love the festive season. The reasons were varied – time with family, giving gifts, the food and drink, catching up with old friends, watching children opening their presents, good television, and so on. The “real meaning” of Christmas, however, was positioned lower down in the list. For many, Christ is slowly being relegated from the Christ-mas season.

ricky gervais christmasIn a promotional video for their internet podcast, which has been downloaded over 300 million times, the comedian Ricky Gervais quizzes his radio producer and friend Karl Pilkington on the significance of the nativity story. Pilkington’s answer is revealing and reflects an increasing trend in society’s attitude towards the festive season: ‘[The nativity] is not important. It’s so not important this story. I don’t need an old story… I could do without it. If someone said we’re getting rid of it, I’d go “all right”’.

Those of us who are Christian, though, know very well that the nativity is not simply an ancient story from a dusty old book. The incarnation is about experiencing Christ now. A wonderful consequence of the ‘Word made flesh’ is that Jesus is still involved in a dynamic relationship with the world. After all, God did not only reside in human form for a fleeting thirty-three years, but is still engaged in every part of our everyday lives.

Real God in the Real WorldThe BRF Advent book for 2013, Real God in the Real World, encourages us to use our festive season to recognise Christ in the world around us – not only in our prayer and worship, but also in the beauty of nature, in the friends and family with whom we celebrate the season, and in our everyday activities over the Christmas period and beyond.

Each day we are given a thoughtful consideration of a Bible passage. This will explore the passage through poetry, literature, film, or a lively anecdote, as the scripture is brought to new life. Each day also includes a practical application of the passage’s reflection, to aid us in discovering Jesus’s presence over the festive season. Thus, as we journey through Christmas together, we will start to open our eyes, ears, and hearts to Christ all around us, and, as we do, we will find that the Word is still becoming flesh today!

Real God in the Real World can be purchased directly from BRF, from Amazon, or from your local bookstore. It can be used as for personal reflection or, by using the group discussion questions at the back of the book, it could be used in an Advent group.

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