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.

Stephen Fry, Russell Brand, and God in a suffering world: Part 1

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Click to view Russell Brand’s reply to Stephen Fry

So much has been written on Stephen Fry’s recent interview on Irish television, in which he was asked what he’d say if he was confronted by God at the pearly gates. His answer described the divine as a “capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain”. Fellow-comedian Russell Brand’s responded to Fry on his YouTube channel, and, whether Brand would describe himself as “Christian” or not, he sums up much of what I have written about in two of my books – Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering and The Compassion Quest. Instead of contributing yet another response to the plethora of discussions already on the web, I have decided to post a series of extracts from those books – extracts that relate directly to the questions Stephen Fry asks and to the responses Russell Brand gives. The first extract sets the scene:

Color Purple“In Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Colour Purple, the main protagonist Celie, a poor, uneducated, black girl living in the Deep South of the United States in the 1930s, describes to a friend the God to which she was introduced at a very young age. ‘He big and old and tall and greybearded and white;’ she explains, ‘you wear white robes and go barefooted’. This God was a distant, authoritarian figure, who had been used for centuries to justify the power that whites held over blacks and that men held over women. Celie admits that it was, therefore, easy for her to discard her out-dated, white, male deity. ‘When I found out, I thought God was white, and a man, I lost interest’, she confesses. This, however, was only the beginning of Celie’s faith journey, and the novel describes her eventually laying aside her negative concept of God and moving towards a radically different, incarnational portrayal of the divine.

DawkinsBy today, while very few Christians would hold to a God who could be described as ‘white’ and a ‘man’, a theologically traditional view of God is still in ascendance. Yet, in recent years, the traditional image of God has found itself under vitriolic attack. Writers such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens certainly influence the thoughts and beliefs of their readers, but, more than this, they reflect and affirm the already deeply-held hostility of an increasingly atheistic society towards faith. Speaking about ‘God’ is regarded as being as nonsensical as speaking about Father Christmas or the tooth fairy. ‘Fairies don’t exist, because we don’t see them. If we don’t see things, they don’t exist’, explained my 5-year-old daughter. Dawkins’s analogy of faith being akin to believing in a Flying Spaghetti Monster runs along a similar line of argument – believing in a God we can’t ‘see’, ‘touch’, or ‘hear’ is as ridiculous as believing in a fantastical creature. Dawkins’s image has particularly been taken into the hearts of atheist and agnostic internet bloggers, one of whom famously adapted an image of Michaelangelo’s ceiling at the Sistine Chapel by replacing the Almighty with the Spaghetti Monster. One of his tentacles reaches out to touch Adam’s finger, with the tagline ‘Touched by his noodly appendage’.

misunderstandingSuch criticism of the traditional image of God is now widespread in our society. Young people especially regard such a critique as supporting their worldview and culture, and many of their idols, from comedians like Ricky Gervais and Eddie Izzard to TV celebrities like Derren Brown and Stephen Fry, affirm their views. For us to counter such misunderstanding and prejudice about the Christian God, we ourselves must embark on a liberative faith journey like the one taken by Celie in The Colour Purple. By undertaking such a quest, we must aim to develop our image of God to reach a way of viewing the divine, and a way of speaking about the divine, which can make sense to the post-modern, scientific mind-set, but still holds on to a theologically sound and time-honoured foundation. After all, such joviality about the Flying Spaghetti Monster hides a serious issue that Christians have to face. Traditionally, the Christian concept of God has been unashamedly other-worldly and, to the unbelieving mind-set, such a supernatural God is increasingly seen as ‘unbelievable’. At the foundation of this traditional, ethereal view of God, however, is not Christianity itself, but rather the secular lens through which our faith has universally been read.”

(extract taken from Trystan Owain Hughes, The Compassion Quest SPCK, London 2013)

See also the following blog posts:

Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering (blog post)

“Love reminds us why”: God and the mystery of suffering

 

 

“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…

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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”.

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.

“Camels leaping through needles”: Jesus, Exaggeration, and Hyperbole

hyperbole 1When I was growing up my dad had numerous phrases that used to annoy me – “this house is lit up like a Christmas tree”, “you know money doesn’t grow on trees”, and “if your friend put their hand in the fire would you put yours in?” The one that used to infuriate me more than any other, though, was: “how many thousands of times have I told you not to exaggerate?!” Now I’m older, and my life involves preaching and writing, I realise the dramatic importance of exaggeration and hyperbole. Exaggeration is, of course, not always a good thing, but, as long as we recognise that this technique is being used, it can certainly be helpful. Even as a child, I knew that money didn’t literally grow on trees, but the phrase taught me something about the value of not squandering what we have. And I never literally saw a friend put his hand into a fire, but the phrase help teach me to resist peer pressure. And leaving my bedroom light on doesn’t literally look like dozens of sparkling lights on a Christmas tree, but the phrase helped me to recognise the impact that wasting electricity has on the environment.

Camel 2In the Bible, Jesus uses exaggeration and hyperbole on numerous occasions, as he connected with his listeners by expressing deep truths in a nonliteral manner. He came from a Jewish tradition that was steeped in this technique of writing and speaking. “You are all together beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you”, asserts the Song of Songs in the Old Testament (Song 4:7). I’m sure Solomon’s beloved was stunningly beautiful, but even the very best of us have a couple of flaws! By Jesus’ time, hyperbole was a technique used by some rabbis, the teachers of the day. Jesus, though, particularly employed this technique, often as a way of grabbing his audience’s attention or to shock them into recognising the deep truth he was asserting. As G.K. Chesterton put it, “Christ had even a literary style of his own; the diction used by Christ is quite curiously gigantesque – it is full of camels leaping through needles and mountains hurled into the sea”.

eyesThe Sermon on the Mount has many such examples. When Jesus refers to lust, for example, he says “if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away… and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell”. This passage clearly shouldn’t be taken literally, not least because its literal fulfilment won’t achieve the desired goal anyway. One of my closest and oldest friends has been blind since childhood, and I remember once discussing this passage with him. “Believe me, Trystan”, he said over his pint of beer, “tearing someone’s eyes out won’t stop them lusting!”

no-means-noWhile such a statement should not be taken literally, it should still be taken seriously. This passage teaches us something far deeper, far more radical about God’s kingdom. Everything we do, Jesus is telling us, has profound effects on both others and ourselves. Objectifying those of the opposite sex is not something that has no consequences. It can hurt and damage people directly, and can also damage society. We are left with daily news reports about sexual abuse, human trafficking, and rape and assault, while young people of both sexes are pressurised into a stereotype of how they should be acting in relationships and are given impossible ideals of how they should be looking.

man-praying1Jesus’ exaggerated statements in the Sermon on the Mount, then, are not to be taken literally. But neither are those statements trying to make us feel guilt or hatred towards ourselves. Instead, they are trying to encourage us to recognise the radical nature of God’s kingdom and the impact that should have on how we think and act. In my last blog post, I emphasised the importance of us looking outside of ourselves to stand alongside those oppressed by gender, race, and ethnicity. But we need also to look inside of ourselves at our own personal issues, be they lust, anger, envy, hatred, selfishness, or material greed. How we think and how we act in our daily lives has an impact, not only on our own wellbeing and on other individuals, but also on our society and on our environment. If we really want to challenge the world, we must start with challenging ourselves. And if we really want to change the world, we must start with changing ourselves.

“Love reminds us why”: God and the mystery of suffering

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

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

Since Wm Paul Young chose to include this quotation from my book Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering in his book Cross Roads, the follow-up to his multi-million best-seller The Shack, I have had enquiries from as far as Sweden, Brazil and Australia asking me about where the quotation appears in my book. As I recently stumbled across that same quotation on a wonderful picture by the Disney fine artist Noah, I thought that this might be the time to post on this blog the section of my book (pp. 16-17) that includes the quotation.

“Pain may remind us that we are alive, but love reminds us why we are alive” (Trystan Owain Hughes)Finding Hope and Meaning was written when I was diagnosed, at the age of 34, with a degenerative spinal condition. Health is the one quality that is widely regarded as determining a person’s happiness and fulfilment. Despite pain and frustration, though, my illness inspired me to reflect on where meaning and hope can be sought in our suffering and then to apply the fruits of this reflection in my day-to-day life. The book, therefore, does not try to offer a comprehensive theology of suffering, but it simply muses on one personal way of approaching suffering, a way that affirms the paradox that learning how to suffer and how to wait patiently is the secret of finding joy and hope in our lives. When reading the following, then, please keep in mind that it is taken out of context, so may not, without the rest of the book, do justice to the complexity and horror of our pain and suffering.

“Pain may remind us that we are alive, but love reminds us why we are alive” (Trystan Owain Hughes)“The concept of growth through the long wait of our suffering is not specifically Christian.  Other world religions, contemporary psychology, and secular culture in general recognises that meaning, formation, and development can be forged through trials and troubles.  ‘It’s only when you’ve been in the deepest valley,’ mused Anthony Hopkins in his role as Richard Nixon in the film Nixon, ‘will you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain’.

“Pain may remind us that we are alive, but love reminds us why we are alive” (Trystan Owain Hughes)The uniqueness of the Christian response to suffering is, however, found in the centrality of God’s grace. As such, we are faced with yet another paradox. The tears and tragedy of the cross is a sign of God’s love for us precisely because it guarantees His loving presence in our own tears and tragedies. God is love, and just a glimpse of that love can powerfully illuminate the darkness that we are going through.  ‘And here in dust and dirt, O here,’ wrote the Welsh seventeenth-century poet Henry Vaughan, ‘The lilies of His love appear’.

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

We can, then, aim to draw closer to God’s love in the midst of our suffering. Pain may well remind us that we are alive, but love reminds us why we are alive. Thus, we need to re-train our minds to recognise those times in our daily lives when God’s light breaks through our darkness – times we hitherto have taken for granted or ignored. These moments have a cumulative ability to transform, illuminate, and bring us hope. Held as a hostage for many years in a dark room in Beirut, Brian Keenan recalls how he made a candle from small pieces of wax and string from his clothing fibres. ‘Quietly, calmly a sense of victory welled up in me’, he later wrote, ‘and I thought to myself without saying it, “They haven’t beat us yet. We can blot out even their darkness”’. Light, of course, does not avoid darkness. Rather, it confronts it head-on.  ‘The light shines in the darkness’, asserts the Gospel of John 1:5, ‘but the darkness has not understood it’. Likewise, love’s concern is not the avoidance of suffering, but rather its transformation, as our painful experiences become productive and strengthen us.

Jesus certainly knew that the existence of evil and suffering was a mystery to humankind. He would have been well-acquainted with the book of Job and with the psalms of sorrow, and he stood before his people as the suffering servant of Isaiah.  Yet, he himself was more concerned to proclaim the mystery of love than give hollow platitudes about the mystery of suffering.  Love, like suffering, cannot truly be explained. It can, however, be experienced.”

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