What is the theology of safeguarding? Building welcoming communities of love and grace (Ministry Blog Series – 4)

In a change from my normal blog posts, I have been sharing a number of theological papers on ministry that I have written down the years, including for the Doctrinal Commission of the Church in Wales . This post was written as a blog post for the Diocese of Llandaff in the Church in Wales.

Safeguarding. It’s a word that, to some people, brings to mind another seminar we are made to attend and just another box to tick. When it comes down to it, we sometimes feel we have better things to do than sit through another safeguarding course or read yet another email or article on the subject.

The reality is, though, that safeguarding is absolutely integral to our faith. It’s part of our calling and should be central to our discipleship, ministry, and mission. As Christians, each of us has an important role to play in promoting welfare of children and vulnerable adults. Paying attention to interpersonal boundaries and power imbalances is far from being an inconvenience, but is intrinsic to a life-giving, compassion-filled faith.

Perhaps understanding the theological and biblical roots of safeguarding can inspire and challenge us to a fresh vision of the importance of fostering a culture of safety in our churches. After all, as theologian Krish Kandiah puts it, in the Bible there is “a clear mandate, motivation and mission to ensure that those who are or may be vulnerable are heard, defended, and treated appropriately, effectively, fairly and compassionately”.

The theological foundation for safeguarding stems from our creation in the image of God. Who we know God is, and how we know he acts, sets the precedent to how we should relate to each other. Jewish theologian Martin Buber wrote: “in the beginning was relationship”. In other words, God is relationship and the concept of the loving Trinity, God as ‘three in one’, brings that home to us. So, our call as Christians is to reflect the relationship that God is – loving, affirming, welcoming, caring, and protecting.

After all, in Psalm 121, God himself is described as our “keeper” and the Hebrew word used there (somereka) can be translated as “safeguard”. In fact, even the theological concept of “salvation” relates to this, as the root of the word “salvation” in Greek (soteria) implies safekeeping. So, care and compassion are at the core of God’s very being. As a result, we ourselves are challenged to live out God’s radical care and love, ensuring we advocate for the lowly, the lost, and the least in our communities. As the book of Proverbs puts it (31:8): we “speak up for people who cannot speak for themselves and protect the rights of all who are helpless and defenceless”.

And, of course, this relates to the cross, which stands at the very centre of our faith. By acknowledging the horror and pain of the cross and God’s presence in Jesus’s cries of agony, we are compelled to challenge all forms of manipulation, violence, and suffering. The cross is, as theologian Elaine Brown Crawford puts it, “an eternal statement that humans should not be abused”.

The agony of the cross then leads to the resurrection, which further affirms our commitment to fostering safety for those who are under threat, ushering in transformation, new life, and hope for individuals and communities. And, just as the resurrected Jesus had scars on his body, so we also stand alongside those who bear their own hidden scars, not least those who have been ignored and failed by the Church in the past.

So, churches are mandated to become places that embody a kingdom where the dignity and ultimate worth of all is championed. While the structures and processes of safeguarding may seem inconvenient on occasion, they are an essential part of this mandate. They can become instruments of God’s kingdom, whereupon children and vulnerable people can be helped to flourish and can be provided with the safe places they desire and deserve. As such, safeguarding is not only at the heart of God’s being and will, but is at the heart of our own identity as Christians, underpinning everything we do, everything we stand for, and everything we are. It is through championing the absolute centrality of care and safety in our churches that we can truly build welcoming, hopeful, compassionate communities of love and grace.

Thought for the Day: The Beatles, the Beatitudes, and the God of the Unexpected

In the style of my Lent Book Opening our Lives and Advent Book Real God in the Real World, I will be sharing occasional “thoughts for the day” on various subjects on this blog. Hope you enjoy.

Recently, Peter Jackson, most famous as director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, edited footage of the three weeks in 1969 when the Beatles recorded their final album. It’s a marathon of a documentary, almost 9 hours long, but it’s also fascinating. It reveals how the creativity of the Beatles was fuelled by marmalade on toast and it shows how, in their final months as a band, the sometimes-fractious relationships between the Fab Four inspired them to compose some of their most timeless tunes, including “Let it Be” and “Get Back”. Their plan was to end the three weeks by performing in an ancient auditorium in Tripoli. Eventually, though, they simply decide to climb up to the rooftop of their studio in London and play a concert to the astounded people walking past.

As the police desperately try to gain access to the rooftop to put a stop to the concert, the filmmakers interview people on the streets below. Some are unhappy at the music blasting out, while others are excited by the final time the Beatles would ever perform in public. The interviewers then come to an ageing vicar. We might expect him to side with the greying businessmen condemning the loud music. Refreshingly, though, he doesn’t play into the stereotype of the grumpy Christian bemoaning noisy youths. Instead, he looks up to the roof, smiles warmly, and says that rarely do people get anything for free and how wonderful it was that the young people were enjoying it so much!

As I watched that joyful, unpredictable vicar, I was reminded somewhat of the God that he was following. The Bible reveals to us that our God is the God of the unexpected. Jesus’s teaching reveals a God who topples our predictions and confounds our expectations. In particular, he doesn’t side with the people who we think might deserve it. Instead, he embraces the people that our society believes should be side-lined or ignored. This God of ours brings the people on the edges of life to the centre stage – all the lonely people, as the Beatles put it, but also the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the grieving, the depressed, the anxious, the struggling, the lowly, the gentle, the marginalised, the powerless, the hated, the outsider, and the unwanted.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus astonishingly refers to these people as “blessed” (Luke 6:20-26) – or even “happy” as the Greek word used (makarios) can be translated. In God’s eyes, it is the struggling people on the edges of our society who are blessed and happy. This sharply contradicts how our world seems to work – where the rich, the capable, the successful, the powerful, and the famous are glorified, while others are viewed as expendable consumers, to sell things to or to be discarded as unprofitable or useless.

The Beatles famously sang that “all you need is love”. Whatever they meant by that, our faith reminds us that Christian love is something radically different from saccharin-sweet Valentine’s Day love. God’s love destroys the dominant worldview and ushers in a strange kingdom that has dramatic implications on our lives. It demands that we ask ourselves some searching questions. Who do we glorify in our world? Who do we demonise? How do we view certain people and groups? Are we truly living out our upside-down, downside-up, topsy-turvy, flipped-around faith? Or are we simply standing around, like the predictable people in the Beatles documentary, complaining about the noise and looking down with disdain on those who are not like us? And are we too quickly slipping into our comfort zones and descending into the stereotype of how we think a “normal” Christian should behave and react?

One thing is clear – there’s nothing normal about our faith, and neither is there anything comfortable, snug, or predictable. Instead, Jesus introduces us to the God of the unexpected and, by doing so, he rips up and tears apart all the world teaches about human nature. In our faith is a radical, revolutionary call to sacrifice, love, and compassion. Through our faith, and with our help, God can and will transform our broken world.

Lent Book with Resources – Opening our Lives: Devotional Readings for Lent

Thinking of a Lent book for your daily reading this year? Or are you leading a weekly Lent group in your church? Allow Opening our Lives: Devotional Readings for Lent to challenge and inspire you this Lent. As well as daily reflections and weekly questions in the book itself, the following videos might also aid your reading and/or discussion:

Week 1: Week 1 Lent – Open our Eyes to your Presence – YouTube

Week 2: Week 2 Lent – Open our Ears to your Call – YouTube

Week 3: Week 3 Lent – Open our Hearts to your Love – YouTube

Week 4: Week 4 Lent – Open our Ways to your Will – YouTube

Week 5: Week 5 Lent – Open our Actions to your Compassion – YouTube

Week 6 (Holy Week): Week 6 Lent – Holy Week – Open our Pain to your Peace – YouTube

Easter Sunday: Easter Sunday – Open our World to your Hope – YouTube

Extra: Interview with Trystan Owain Hughes about ‘Opening our Lives’ – the official BRF Lent Book for 2021 – YouTube

Extra: Easter Tiny Perfect Moments – A Reflection Recorded for High School Pupils – YouTube

Official BRF Lent Book 2021

Official Archbishop of Wales Lent Book 2021

Endorsed by Bishop Ruth Bushyager, Amy Boucher-Pye, Bishop June Osborne, and Bishop Graham Tomlin.

“Easy, attractive, and thought-provoking reading” (Church Times)

“Hughes‘s comments, based upon sound scholarship, are written out of his experiences and inspire the reader to look more closely at the things of faith“ (Methodist Recorder)

“Blending story, insight and commentary… weaving wisdom from the Bible with stories from his life, examples from books and movies, and insights from great Christian thinkers… a rich resource that will give you plenty to not only ponder but to put into practice” (Women Alive magazine)

Available from all good bookstores, including Eden, Amazon, BRF, Waterstones, and CHB.

Hope – A Christmas Reflection

The recent movie A Boy Called Christmas tells the magical story of how the young St Nicholas met Blitzen and the elves and became the Santa Claus we all know and love. At the start of the film, the King of Finland, played by Jim Broadbent, speaks to his subjects about the dark times they are living in. He says these words: “We all know times are hard. I mean really, really, really hard. I can’t remember the last time I smiled. Can you? What is there to smile about? We’re all miserable. We’re all missing something. And I think we know what that is… Hope. We all need hope.”

After the past few years, many of us can relate to those words. We live in times of turmoil – fractious political uncertainty, heart-breaking environmental damage, toxic ideological divisions, desperate asylum seekers, and, of course, an unforgiving pandemic. In his latest book, the New York Times bestselling author Mark Manson suggests that we all need hope to survive “the way a fish needs water” and, without a hope of a brighter, better future, “we spiritually die”. And he suggests that one of the essential things to build and maintain hope is a sense of control. In other words, if we lose a sense of control over our lives, we lose hope.

How many of us have felt in control of our lives over the past 18 months? Very few, I imagine. But what the pandemic has actually done is taught us a timeless truth about control. It’s taught us that the narrative of self-control is a lie – none of us have any real control over virtually anything! Our health, our jobs, our partners, our children, our weather – none of us have control over them!

Christmas, though, is a time when we’re reminded that, for all our lack of control, hope still lives on. This season opens our eyes to the small glimmers of promise all around us, twinkling like the tree lights in our living rooms. In the Christmas story, the angels announce to the shepherds the coming of a great hope – a Saviour who’ll usher in a new world. No doubt the shepherds were expecting to be told that this hope was to be found in a capital city or in a great palace, in the guise of a charismatic politician or a famous world leader. Instead, the hope entered our world in a helpless baby in a dirty manger in a grubby stable, born to two nobodies surrounded by braying animals, in a small seemingly unimportant town.

Despite the lack of hope in that scene, though, we know that somebody was in control. And, of course, in our own hopelessness, however bad things get, however dark it seems, however stormy the seas, we know that somebody is in control. That is why the light shines in the darkness. And it all started with that first Christmas morning. As the opening words of one Christmas song puts it: “A ray of hope flickers in the sky, A tiny star lights up way up high”.

That star in the night sky pointed to a Christ child who came to us in poverty and weakness, in a seemingly dull, unimaginative scene. But this is the beginning of the glorious colourful nativity that fills our lives and delights our hearts each Christmas, this is the dawn of a new hope. This is the reassurance that, if we lay down our desperation for control, the one who is in control will open our eyes, our ears, our hearts to moments of hope in small things in seemingly unimportant places.

So, yes, when we are reaching out to others through foodbanks or medicines or vaccines or education or charities or environmental care, this is God’s hope in action. But hope is also birthed in our smaller, seemingly insignificant actions – when we’re taking the time to help a neighbour, when we’re reassuring a friend with kind and uplifting words, when we make a phone call to someone who is lonely or struggling, when we speak out for justice for those who are desperate or marginalised, and when we practice kindness and compassion and patience. This is when God’s light is breaking through all around us, reassuring us, in the words of Maggie Smith in that film A Boy Called Christmas: “the darkest night will end, the sun will rise, and Christmas mornings will come again, when anything and everything can happen”.

To watch a recording of this reflection: https://youtu.be/reEAQMEd9D0

Lent Week 1: Open our Eyes to your Presence

Ever since he heard it mentioned in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, my youngest son has become obsessed with Turkish Delight. We have to buy it in bulk for him. It’s not particularly great for his teeth, so he’s only allowed one small slither a day. Yesterday morning he asked for his daily treat of Turkish Delight. I told him that if he ate it then, he wouldn’t have another treat for the rest of the day. He thought for a moment and then said: “imagine a treat that lasts forever”.

We’re now at the beginning of Lent. And it’s been a strange and difficult year, with so many churches, shops, schools, colleges, and workplaces having been closed. But this week, I challenge you to view the beginning of Lent as an opportunity to open up – to open up your eyes to God’s presence all around you. After all, through connecting with God‘s presence we connect with something of eternity. We connect with “the treat that lasts forever”, to use my son words.

But how does that relate to Ash Wednesday and to Lent? Well, the monastic tradition has always seen the contrition, the saying sorry, at the beginning of Lent as not simply being sorry for the things we have done. It’s also about being sorry for the things we haven’t done – and, in particular, according to the tradition, it is being sorry for the times we haven’t appreciated and savoured those moments of beauty, love, hope, and joy that break into our lives. The beginning of Lent gives us the opportunity to say sorry for those times and then commit ourselves to doing things differently from now on – to consciously open our eyes to where God comes to us in our lives each day.

So, this week, I encourage you, however difficult life might be at the moment, to recognise God all around you – in your daily walks, in the green shoots of nature that are starting to spring up all around us, in the birds in your gardens and parks, in your family at home or further afield, in the friendships you are fostering through text or phone calls, in the music you listen to and the films you watch, in inspirational sacrifices (such as we’re seeing from NHS workers, teachers, and other workers at the moment), or in the small moments of kindness that you witness as you go about your daily lives. By doing this, you can experience just something of that “treat that lasts forever”. Or, in the words of poet William Blake, you can experience “a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower… Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour”.

This is the transcript of a video recorded for the Diocese of Llandaff. Click here to view video.

Opening our Lives can be purchased at any major online bookstore, including BRF, Amazon, Eden, Independent Booksellers, Church House, and Aslan.

Prayers for the Week

If we want to take a deep breath at the start of Lent

Lord, we ask you to

Open our eyes to your presence

If we want to set off in a different direction

Lord, we ask you to

Open our eyes to your presence

If we want to increase our openhearted awareness of the world around us

Lord, we ask you to

Open our eyes to your presence

If we want to recall what we haven’t done

Lord, we ask you to

Open our eyes to your presence

If we want to do better next time

Lord, we ask you to

Open our eyes to your presence

If we want to stop over-complicating things

Lord, we ask you to

Open our eyes to your presence

If we want to cut down on our tendency to catastrophise

Lord, we ask you to

Open our eyes to your presence

If we want to keep being patient and kind

Lord, we ask you to

Open our eyes to your presence

If we want to remember why we’re doing this

Lord, we ask you to

Open our eyes to your presence

If we want to look beyond death to life

Lord, we ask you to

Open our eyes to your presence

Amen

With thanks to Eleanor Williams, Christ Church, Roath Park, Cardiff for the prayers each week

Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word – An Appeal to White Majority Churches

This is a tale of two photos. Two photos that show the difference between what following Jesus has too often become and what following Jesus should be. One a photo of the so-called “leader of the Free World”, after having ordered tear gas on peaceful protesters, holding the bible aloft in front of a church. The other a photo of tearful white Christians kneeling in front of grieving black Christians in the hometown of the murdered George Floyd, asking for forgiveness for many decades of bigotry and racism. One a photo that encapsulates dominance, force, abuse of power, arrogance, and injustice. The other a photo of humility, contrition, equality, compassion, and love.

The world has recognised the photo of the US President for what it is – a shameless and shameful hijacking of the spiritual. The other photograph is taken from a video of a prayer service that was shared widely on social media. It has been described by Piers Morgan as the one powerful moment during the past few days that gives us hope that the present situation differs from many past protests. Not that all commentators have viewed the incident so positively. A British journalist in Russia Today, who also writes for The Sun newspaper, describes the moment as a “cringeworthy and ostentatious display of self-flagellation”. The article even quotes from the Bible (Deuteronomy 24:16) in criticising this group for apologising for the sins of the past. “They will not help heal racial divisions,” the author concludes, “they only serve to heighten them”.

As a church leader in a white majority church in the UK, though, I believe apology and contrition is the only place we must start in response to the brutal murder of George Floyd and to the racism and bigotry that still blights our world. Make no mistake about it, the burden of guilt is on all our shoulders. Speaking out against arrogant politicians or corrupt law keepers is imperative, but this must not hide our own culpability or blind us from our own propensity to bigotry, prejudice, and hatred. Not that our contrition should incarcerate us in self-reproach and shame. It must be, instead, a step towards recognising our common humanity with all and towards the promise of new beginnings and new life.

Rather than contradicting Scripture, as the Russia Today journalist maintains, this is what our faith demands of us. It is not by accident that Jesus taught us to pray ‘forgive us our sins’. Sin is not merely a personal and private problem. There is corporality and communality in our transgressions. In Romans 3:23, St Paul maintains that “all have sinned and fall short”, using a Greek aorist tense which implies everybody’s cumulative past and employing a Greek phrase (‘fall short’) which suggests a continuing present. In other words, our personal wrongdoings are linked to the entirety of humankind’s sinful history, and so we are called to confession and repentance for the deafening silence of both our country and our church on so many atrocities and hurts, as well as for the hate-filled and dehumanizing rhetoric that groups of innocent people have faced, whether those of a different race, faith, sexuality, gender, physical ability, or nationality.

However, when it comes to acknowledging our complicity in acts of exploitation, injustice, hatred, and cruelty, sorry seems to be the hardest word. It is costly and painful for us to look at the perpetrators of historical crimes and see our own faces reflecting back. Our history, though, is littered with the evils of our ancestors. Our compatriots have been involved in dreadful atrocities, and our faith has so much for which to be remorseful. Humility, empathy, and compassion lead us to confess our own part in driving the nail into Christ’s hand, thrusting the sword into the so-called ‘infidel’ in the crusades, screaming for death to young girls accused of witchcraft, fervently applauding the charismatic Führer of the Third Reich, burning crosses on lawns in 1960s Alabama, preaching hate against our gay neighbours, and signing contracts to destroy swathes of rain forest.

But contrition alone is not enough. Asking for forgiveness for the past holds pressing implications on both the present and the future. Repentance is not simply a case of saying sorry – we need to act out our sorry. In the Old Testament, Nehemiah did not simply confess the sins of his ancestors, he committed himself to rectifying those transgressions. By saying sorry for the sins of the past, we commit ourselves to standing alongside the oppressed, to repairing relationships, to giving voice to the hurting voiceless, to championing love, service, and justice in our own lives, and to imploring God to keep us from descending again into prejudice, hatred, or abuse.

So, we ask for forgiveness for years of mistreatment of his wonderful creation and we shed tears for the treatment of numerous groups of people in the past and present – black people, women, the disabled, gay people, transgender people, Jews, Muslims, immigrants, aboriginal people, native Americans, and many other groups. By repenting of the transgressions of all people at all times, we enter a place of healing, hope, and new life. In this place, we commit to identifying where prejudice, inequality, violence, exploitation, greed and abuse still occur in our communities, society, and world, and we commit to playing our part in birthing a future of equality, compassion, and love. And it all starts with standing with those in George Floyd’s hometown and, with our tears mingling with those running down the cheeks of both black and white, repeating the prayer that they prayed:

“Father God, we humble ourselves before you and we ask for forgiveness from our black brothers and sisters for years and years of systematic racism, of bigotry, of hate. We pray for our white, black and brown brothers and sisters who have had the courage to expose the blatant racism in our own hearts. We pray that black men and women be free from fear and hopelessness. We take a knee as a sign that we honour them, we love them; as a sign that You love them. In Jesus’s name, Amen”

Easter, Notre Dame, and Climate Change

Today is a joyful day – Jesus is risen – Alleluia! His resurrection brings hope and promise in so many ways. Today is a joyful day because of the promise of resurrection in the future – death is not the end. Alleluia! Today is a joyful day because of the hope of new life now – it gives us hope to those suffering in this life – the grieving, the oppressed, the anxious, the ill, the imprisoned. Alleluia! Today is a joyful day because it holds new hope for the whole of creation – there will come a day when creation itself will be renewed and transformed. Today is a joyful day because it brings hope and promise for new life now for God’s magnificent creation. Alleluia!

We are often reminded at our churches about the hope that Easter brings to humankind, both in the future and the present. Rarely, though, do we hear about the hope that Easter brings to the whole of creation. Yet the biblical narrative insists this is the case and our Easter traditions are littered with reminders of this fact. In Jesus’s first appearance, he is even mistaken for a gardener, and Christians have long used imagery from nature to remind us of his promise of new life – eggs, lambs, bunnies, and chicks. And that is before we consider the New Testament’s insistence that, in Christ, the natural world finds its completion. “Behold I make all things new”, as Revelation puts it (21:5). In other words, the most important moment in our faith, the resurrection, speaks directly into the most pressing challenge to our generation – climate change.

It was inspiring this week to see the reaction to the tragedy of the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral. In the flames that we all witnessed in our screens, we had a symbol of helplessness, loss and sorrow – a crucifixion, if you like. On the streets of Paris, there were tears and lamentation, with the realisation that something sacred was about to be lost to future generations. The horror and the disbelief, however, was soon transformed into something very different – a refusal to consign beauty to ashes and a desire to rebuild and give life to the smouldering, sacred ruins. It may take many years, but the cathedral will again became a symbol of hope, new life, and resurrection. Notre Dame will rise again. “Behold, I make all things new!”

But, of course, one majestic Cathedral is not “all things”. Many other things are still broken in the world, and many other things are being destroyed daily, not in accidental fire, but through greed, exploitation, and avarice. These things are being lost at a rate that is staggering and heartbreaking – rainforests, glaciers, whole species of insects, animals, fish, and birds. And the crisis, in changing our world’s climate, is now also threatening human life across the world. My wife recounts the words of an RE teacher in her school in Germany: “we say to our grandparents “why didn’t you do any thing when the holocaust was happening?”, but our grandchildren will say to us “why didn’t you do any thing when the environment was dying?”” As in the burning Notre Dame, God’s groaning, suffocating creation is another symbol of tragedy, loss, and sadness – another crucifixion. Something sacred is again about to be lost to future generations.

A few days ago, my 5-year-old son came to me and, out of nowhere, said: “when I grow up, daddy, and you die, can I have your grey bath towel?” I’m not sure about my bath towel, but it did get me thinking – what will we leave him and his generation? In the distant future, I would love to be able to say to them and their children and grandchildren:

“Yes, we rebuilt the wonderful Notre Dame for you, so you can visit to be filled with the grandeur of God’s glory. But we also did much, much more to show you the meaning of Easter Sunday and the resurrection. We fed the hungry, we freed the oppressed, we defeated racism, xenophobia, and all forms of discrimination and hatred, we brought comfort and hope to those who mourn, we offered peace to those who suffer, we gifted good news to those who feel despairing and hopeless, and we lived out the Easter promise of new life for all creation… and so we left for you clean seas full of fish not plastic, clean air for you to breathe, clean water for you to drink, and green and healthy forests brimming with foliage, animals, insects and birds.”

I’d love to be able to say to them that our world became a symbol of hope, new life, and resurrection – that our planet has risen again. “Behold, I make all things new!”” But will we be able to say this to future generations?

Today is all about good news, and there is good news here – it is not too late and resurrection is hardwired into nature. Plant a tree and things already start to change and be renewed. Yes, we desperately need wholesale changes by businesses and governments to combat climate change. But we also need to remember that our own little acts make a difference. As Pope Francis put it, in an encyclical on climate change that he presented as a gift to a visiting President Trump: “an integral ecology is also made up of simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness”. He then lists some of those little acts that can make a difference, that can help bring new life, hope, and resurrection to the natural world – using public transport, car-pooling, planting trees, turning off lights, recycling, and so on. As the activist Howard Zinn wrote: “we don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change – small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world”. This is the mustard seed principle (Mark 4:39-32) – small acts can lead to big change. After all, a snowflake never feels responsible for an avalanche, but every snowflake is making a difference.

Today is Easter Day, tomorrow will be Earth Day, as it is every April 22nd. Both days speak of new life and new hope. A BBC News report earlier this week said of Notre Dame: “this gift to all humanity will rise again”. And that is true. Within a decade, that wonderful cathedral’s bells will ring again, worship and praise will again resound from its pews, and its art and architecture will again speak to people of God’s glory. But we are called to ensure that creation, God’s ultimate gift to humanity, will also rise again. That is our mission, that is our challenge. By acting as God’s hands and feet, even in our smallest actions, we can affirm that all things will be made new. As Eric Liddell, who won gold in the Paris Olympics in 1924, detailed in the Oscar-Winning film Chariots of Fire, wrote: “God is not helpless among the ruins… God’s love is still working. He comes in and takes the calamity and uses it victoriously, working out his wonderful plan of love”. Behold God makes all things new. He is risen. Alleluia!

Storms of Life: Finding Hope in our Suffering

Since I underwent spinal surgery 12 years ago, I have had to face daily pain, but, through exercise and pain management, I have been able to manage its intensity. Eight weeks ago, though, only a day after I finished a 135-mile pilgrimage, I felt a level of pain I had not experienced in a decade. In the following few weeks, the pain got increasingly worse and I have had to endure numerous medical appointments and scans. Alongside the physical pain, there has also been the accompanying mental angst. These worries about the future have torn me away from the present and are invariably worse in the dead of night, when I’ve had no distractions to keep negative thoughts polluting my mind.

bear huntWe live in a society that attempts, as best it can, to avoid pain and suffering. Sometimes, though, the storms of life are inescapable. Last week, someone visited me as I lay on my sofa. “You need to face your pain like the great Bear Hunt”, they said, rather cryptically. It was only when my four-year-old son chose “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” as his bedtime story a few nights later that I understood something of what she meant. In this classic children’s book, we join a family as they search for a bear by facing various challenging terrains – forest, mud, long grass, and snow. With each different environment, we are told that “We can’t go over it; We can’t go under it; Oh no, we have to go through it!”

Sometimes we have to face the reality that our times of pain, hurt, affliction, or grief are unavoidable. At those times, we have to “gird up our loins”, as the Bible puts it (Job 40:7; 1 Peter 1:13), and face the misery of suffering head on. At those times, we cannot be like rugby players, skilfully sidestepping opponents. Instead, we are forced to be like American football players, confronting opposite numbers head-on by crashing into them. Each of us will face, in the words of St Paul, a “thorn in our flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7), and sometimes there is no other path other than to “take up our cross”, as Jesus told his disciples (Luke 9:23).

IMG_2964On my long pilgrimage which followed the coastline of North Wales, I spent many hours gazing out at the Irish Sea as I rested with my lunch or my trusty flask of tea. During those three weeks of walking, I noticed how the sea was brimming with life and activity – seals, porpoise, puffins, gannets, boats, fishermen, surfers. But I also observed how quickly the sea could be transformed, sometimes slowly from day-to-day, but other times in a matter of hours. When my four-year-old son is drawing the sea, he will immediately reach for the blue crayon. By spending a length of time staring out to the changeable sea, though, a plethora of beautiful colours emerge. These are often related to the sea’s condition – sometimes threatening and disturbingly dark, but, on other occasions, calm and crystal clear. One day, as I sat on a rock on the edge of a clifftop, I wrote in my notepad that the waves were like rolling, unforgiving white juggernauts crashing against the headland. The very next day, by now on a sandy beach, I jotted down that the sea was a serene stillness gently caressing the golden shoreline.

IMG_2845Like the changeable sea, our life journey is ever-changing. Sometimes all seems tranquil – we are blessed with times of joy, times of pleasure, and times of celebration. But sometimes storms rage around us – we have to face times of pain, times of anxiety, and times of grief. “There is a time for everything,” ponders Ecclesiastes (3:1), “and a season for every activity under the heavens”.

At those seasons of suffering in my own life, it has helped to remind myself that, like the rolling waves of the tide, our lives have a natural ebb and flow. Life is not a straight line, from birth to death, emerging from darkness and returning to darkness, or, indeed, from light to light. Rather, life is cyclical. The winters of our suffering can certainly be dark, long, cold, and painful, but spring will always burst forth. We wait for the snowdrops, because we know the daffodils will soon follow. We trust the nature of the seasons that this will happen, just as those of us who are Christians learn to trust that God will lead us out of our wait, however long and painful. The sixth-century theologian Boethius describes life as a wheel: “we rise up on the spokes, but we’re soon cast back down into the depths. Good times pass away, but then so do the bad. Change is our tragedy, but it’s also our hope. The worst of times, like the best, are always passing away”.

daffodilsThis thought, and this way of viewing the world, is helping me face the difficult wait of my own recuperation. As such, it is gradually transforming my anxious thoughts by giving me the strength to notice and value those little signs of spring breaking through the harshness of winter – to notice and value those daily moments of joy and grace that break through my continuing pain and frustration. This is as powerful a healing as any physical healing could offer. As an old proverb puts it: “Sometimes God calms the storm, but sometimes God calms the sailor”.

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.

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

St Paul's TalkIt’s been a busy summer of giving talks, sermons, and radio thoughts-for-the-day. This hectic time is not over, as I am due to visit London in a few weeks time to speak at St Paul’s Cathedral (1pm Sunday 5 October), St Mary’s Ealing (6pm 5 October), and on Premier Christian Radio (11.10am Monday 6 October). Time has not allowed me to write many blog posts recently, so I thought I’d share some of the talks I’ve given, in churches, conferences, and on radio. The first talk is on fear and worry:

 

child-with-toy-airplaneTwo weeks ago, my eight-month old son did something that I hadn’t done until I was 25 years old – he flew in an aeroplane for the very first time, as we visited his grandma in Germany. Perhaps it’s because I had not flown as a child, but I’m not a good passenger on an aeroplane. I can just about cope once we’re in the air, but during take-off I am a nightmare. I remember once travelling to Malta with my sister and the take-off was so bumpy that my nail marks remained in her hand for days afterwards. A few years later, I was travelling to Lourdes in France with a friend of mine. He still recounts the story, describing me praying the Lord’s Prayer as we took off. The problem was that I was praying it out loud. And, to top it off, I was wearing my dog collar at the time, so all the other passengers started panicking, seeing a vicar sweating buckets and loudly praying as we took off! But two weeks ago, as the fear started building up in me during take-off, I looked across at my baby son who was on his mum’s lap. He didn’t know what was happening, and so had no fear in him whatsoever – he was smiling away, chewing the seat belt and flirting with the woman who was sitting next to him. At that moment it suddenly dawned on me that my fear was stopping me being fully alive, it was stopping me really enjoying the moment.

worry-notThe experience also led me to reflect on how I have in the past allowed fear to rule my life. When I wrote my book Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering, most people presumed that it was about coping with pain, because of the degenerate back condition that I have. It was, however, actually about the suffering that we all go through in our minds when things go wrong – when we are ill, when we are grieving, when we are lonely, and we are depressed, when we are anxious. Fear is like a worm that gets in your mind and stays there wriggling around. Of course fear doesn’t kill you, but it certainly can stop you living. And the real irony is that our worries most often never come to fruition. ‘Who says worry doesn’t help?’ I once overheard someone quip, ‘It certainly does help – every time I worry about something it doesn’t happen!’ A recent film called About Time put it another way: “the real troubles in your life will always be the things that never crossed your worried mind”. And isn’t that just true – we’ve got enough to worry about in real life without worrying about things that haven’t happened yet. The problem is, of course, that letting our fears and worries go is not an easy thing.

MtSinaiBut, as a Christian, I know there’s good news in all this. That good news is that my faith, and my God, is not in the business of stopping people living, but is rather in the business of bringing life, of bringing joy, of bringing love into our lives. I picked up my Bible yesterday and read the story of Elijah searching for God when his life was threatened and he faced fear and hopelessness. When he finds God (1 Kings 19:11-13), it is not in a powerful earthquake or the swirling wind, as we might expect to find an almighty, transcendent being, but rather in stillness and in the “sound of sheer silence”. In other words, when we’re facing fear and worry, God can seem distant, but we’re challenged to listen for him in the very ordinariness of our everyday lives.

let-go-let-godPerhaps like Elijah, we need stillness and calm to help us connect with God and combat our worries and fears. But God can come and touch our hearts in all sorts of ways in our day-to-day lives – meeting up with a friend, listening to music, spending time in prayer, reading a good novel, a walk in the beautiful countryside, doing a good deed for somebody, and so on. When we connect with God in any of these ways, our hearts can be lifted, if only for a brief moment, and then slowly but surely he helps us let go of our worries and he carries us through our anxieties.