Compassion and the EU Referendum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does being a Christian make us any more loving and compassionate?

lampshade - the one we got! It’s over three months now since we moved house and, considering we had Christmas and a new baby in that time, we’ve done pretty well in sorting the Vicarage out. Last week, we even got lampshades sorted in the rooms. They were delivered to the house and my wife and I put them up in the morning. Later in the day, I was sitting in the living room with a fellow vicar, under the glow of a wonderful new lampshade (the very one in the photo!). As we were chatting, my 7-year-old daughter came back from school and burst into the room. She looked straight up at the lampshade and stood staring up at it in appreciation. I reminded her that she should have first greeted us when she walked into the room. “Don’t just look up, look across as well”, I said. Quick as a flash, my colleague said “well there’s the sermon for next week!” We both laughed and got on with our meeting, but those words I said stayed with me – “don’t just look up, look across as well”.

IsaiahAs I was reading Isaiah 58 yesterday, I realised that there was not only a sermon but also a blog post in that little phrase! In that chapter God explains to his people why he is so displeased with them. They have certainly been carrying out their religious observances and duties – they have been fasting, praying, and keeping God’s commandments. The problem is, however, that they have also been exploiting their workers, oppressing the poor, being unwelcoming to the stranger, ignoring the hungry, and refusing to house the homeless. In other words, in Isaiah God is saying: “don’t just look up at me, look across at my children as well”.

Cardiff University ChaplaincyThis got me asking myself what difference our faith makes in our lives. I remember talking to one rather vocal atheist student when I was chaplain of Cardiff University and he said something that has stayed with me ever since. He charmed me by telling me what a good and compassionate person I was, but he didn’t finish there. “Yes, you’re a good, kind person, but that’s just who you are and it’s not necessarily anything to do with your faith – are you trying to tell me that, if you weren’t Christian, you’d suddenly become cruel and uncompassionate? So, basically, what’s the point of your faith?” I still find those words challenging. After all, if we are to call ourselves followers of Christ, then it must make a positive, loving, and life-affirming difference in our lives.

teabagAt the crux of this is the question whether being a Christian makes us any more loving and compassionate? Or does our faith make no difference to us outside of the hour each week that we give to going to church? Attending a church should make a huge difference to our lives, but it only does this if we allow it. It’s like having a teabag and a mug of hot water. The tea is a weekly church visit, and the water is the rest of the week. There’s no point keeping that teabag separate from the water. In fact, the tea bag is pretty useless without water. In other words, a church visit is useless if it doesn’t have an impact on each of our daily lives. So, we need to let the tea infuse the water; we need to let our faith enthuse every moment of our week – every conversation we have and every decision we make. If we don’t, we may as well stay in bed on Sunday morning. If our faith makes a difference in our daily lives, then it is priceless; if it doesn’t have any impact, then it is worthless.

The reality is, of course, that all of us are too often like the Israelites in Isaiah 58. We try desperately to allow our faith to make a difference, but end up getting our priorities completely wrong. The stand that we take as Christians on things that we think are important, blinds us from the things that really are important. Someone recently said to me how great it was that the Church can still get on front page of newspapers in its defence of “our beliefs and values”. Unfortunately, the Church’s priorities are often misplaced, and those so-called “beliefs and values” rarely reflect the heart of Jesus’s teaching. While we are busy discussing women bishops, gay marriage, and the loss of Christian influence in this country, the real message of the gospel, the message of liberation, grace, hope, peace, and joy, gets left behind. Sometimes I feel we are like the Russian Orthodox Church in 1917 – while the revolution was raging all around them, they were holding councils to discuss liturgical colours.

WWJDOur call, then, is to realign our priorities. One way of doing that is to ask ourselves those four little words that used to adorn many teenage bracelets in the US – ‘what would Jesus do?’ The phrase has almost become a parody, but that shouldn’t mask the importance of reflecting on the question. Where would Jesus’s priorities be channelled if he were living today? Would he, nicene creed or doctrinal confession in hand, be desperate to root out those whose theology was not the same as his? Would he be bemoaning the fact that this country is becoming more multi-cultural and mixed-faith? Would he rile against those same-sex couples who want to commit themselves to a lifetime of love and faithfulness? Would he be worrying about a person of a different gender to him being in a spiritual position of authority? OR would he be actually be more concerned with living out the love and compassion that is so missing in so many lives in today’s world? Would he be standing alongside those seeking asylum, the hungry, victims of domestic violence, victims of human trafficking, those in prison, those in hospitals and hospices, those campaigning for the environment, victims of sexual abuse, and those oppressed by gender, race, or ethnicity?

leastAlthough it is dangerous to put any words into Jesus’s mouth, there is no doubt that he would identify with these groups. This can be seen in Matthew 25, which scholars tell us Jesus said with Isaiah 58 in mind. “‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’” So, when we do live out our faith in our everyday lives and when we let our hour on Sunday infuse and enthuse the rest of our week, this is exactly what we will be doing – finding God in everyone we meet and treating them as if they were Jesus himself. That rather changes that phrase that we started with: “don’t just look up, look across as well”. The paradox is that when we look across at our neighbours, we actually are looking up, because we are looking at him! So, don’t just look up at him, but look across at him as well.

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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Pencils in the Hand of God

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.

Advent 2

“Everything terrible is something that needs our love”: Some thoughts on Margaret Thatcher and compassion

idealismLast week, I posted an interview that a prominent law blog had conducted with me on the subject of “Compassion and Crime”. I suggested that, however difficult it is, we are called to show compassion to all. Largely, the responses I received were positive, but one or two were angry and vitriolic, suggesting that some criminals were beyond redemption and, for people such as the recently-convicted Mick Philpott, the question of capital punishment should be reconsidered in the UK. I would be the first to admit that my theology is idealistic, utopic even, but surely all Christians are called to idealism. Why else do we cry ‘thy Kingdom come’ each time we pray the prayer Jesus himself taught us? As Reinhold Niebuhr put it, the Kingdom is all about ‘the relevance of the impossible ideal’.

leastWhile I would embrace the term idealistic, the uncompromising challenge of the incarnation is clear. It’s not only about recognising Jesus in people that we get on with, in our friends or our family. The real challenge of the incarnation is something we Christians are called to live with, often uncomfortably, every day of our lives. This is the challenge for us to recognise Jesus in everyone. As the parable in Matthew 25 puts it: “‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me’”. In other words, we are even called to serve “the least of these” as if we were serving Jesus himself. This demands that we recognise Christ in even the most needy, the most corrupt, the most depraved, the most lost, the most wretched, the most hated. As Rainer Maria Rilke put it, recently quoted by Colin Farrell in the film London Boulevard [2010]: “everything terrible is something that needs our love”. That’s a huge challenge. Christian love is certainly not unrealistic. In fact, it is very often all too realistic, as it recognises that the path of compassion is also the path of crucifixion.

An American friend of mine, Ben Irwin, wrote a thought-provoking blog post this week, reflecting on the untimely death of pastor and author Rick Warren‘s son. He notes that St Paul makes a similar challenge to Matthew 25 in his letter to the Romans. In Romans 12, St Paul urges us to mourn with all those who mourn and to bless those who persecute us. Although my friend’s post was written before Thatcher’s death, both Matthew 25 and Romans 12 hold a particular challenge to us all this week.

Margaret_Thatcher_death__the_newspaper_front_pages

I personally found Margaret Thatcher’s policies detestable, not least because many of them go against what I hold to be the Christian ideal. Still, I know that I am called to recognise Jesus in everyone and to show compassion to all, especially those who grieve and mourn. Likewise, those who see the positive in Thatcher’s legacy should equally be challenged to show compassion towards those who suffered, and still suffer, as a result of her policies and towards those who continue to protest against her legacy. As my friend concluded his post:

“St Paul wasn’t just talking about how we treat other Christians, those who think exactly like we do, or those we find it easy to like. We bless, we rejoice, and we mourn with any and all, because we believe that no one is beyond redemption. We believe that no one is beyond God’s love. It’s not easy to mourn with those we dislike. But perhaps the true test of our willingness to follow Jesus is not our ability to grieve at the suffering of our friends, but at that of our enemies. So today, I will grieve with Rick Warren. But I’ll be honest and I’ll admit that it’s easy for me to do so. It’s easy to grieve with those whom I like. So I will also pray for the strength to grieve with my enemies when they stumble or when they suffer loss.”

Jesus-in-the-breadlineAnother sad passing this past week has been that of Brennan Manning, the author of the wonderful The Ragamuffin Gospel which has had a profound influence on many of us. I’m quite sure he won’t be getting an ostentatious, ceremonial funeral. We would do well, however, to remember this week, and every week, his aim of trying to see grace in every situation. “What makes a genius?”, he wrote. “The ability to see. To see what? The butterfly in a caterpillar, the eagle in an egg, the saint in a selfish person, life in death, unity in separation, God in the human”. He might well have added: “Jesus in everyone”.

For more on this theme, see chapter 4 “Bringing Jesus Down to Earth” in The Compassion Quest.

“Who else has ever invited Charles de Foucauld, Margaret Thatcher, Philip Pullman and Nick Cave to the same party?” The Compassion Quest’s first month

I will post a “proper” blog-post very soon, but I just wanted to update you on The Compassion Quest. It’s been nearly 4 weeks since it was published, and sales for the book have, in the first month, already surpassed sales of my first book Winds of Change, published nearly 14 years ago now. Thanks for all your support! Reviews have been great, with 11 reviews on Amazon (nine giving 5 stars and two giving 4 stars), a number of very positive reviews in blogs (including from poet and author Gerard Kelly), and a very good review in Christianity magazine.

Here are some of the comments in the reviews, with links: (NB I have updated these to include also more recent reviews)

The Compassion Quest (SPCK 2013)

The Compassion Quest (SPCK 2013)

“Very readable book… [Hughes] writes with compelling passion and authority. 4 out of 5 stars” (Christianity magazine)

“Highly readable style… The writing is fast-paced but has real depth. Alongside the high-brow theologians and writers, Hughes’ text is peppered with film references, song lyrics and news stories from around the world.  Who else has ever invited Charles de Foucauld, Margaret Thatcher, Philip Pullman and Nick Cave to the same party? You won’t be bored. You will be challenged. Highly recommended.” (Gerard Kelly’s blog)

“This is a brilliant book by someone who knows what they’re talking about and knows how to communicate in a clear, contemporary way… This book will help you to see how life works in a different way, and I highly recommend it… 100 pages of wonderful writing, great content and many challenges that we all need to think about” (Dean Roberts’ award-winning blog)

“Some books baptise us with both tears and smiles. And make us stop, look, listen. And make us turn around” (Simon Marsh’s blog)

“In the week that has seen the Church lose the wonderful gift of the author Brennan Manning whose seminal text ‘The Ragamuffin Gospel’ has touched the lives of so many, it’s refreshing to read another voice that gets the true simplicity of the Gospel and can articulate it to a modern audience. 8 out of 10 stars” (Pete Ould’s An Exercise in the Fundamentals of Orthodoxy blog)

“A powerful and compelling vision of compassion and stewardship for all of creation… A challenging and engaging call to be Christ’s people of compassion… [Hughes’s] view of the Incarnation is stunning… An interesting and unique perspective on Christian compassion that bears careful scrutiny, and its overarching challenge is one the Church would do well to read” (Thomas Creedy’s blog)

“Brilliant and accessible theology for real people… Confident, humble wisdom grounded in good scholarship and expressed in beautiful, accessible prose. 5 out of 5 stars” (David Meldrum’s blog from South Africa)

“There is much food for thought in this book” (The Church Times)

“A worthwhile drawing together of spiritual wisdom from an impressively wide range of sources. The author presents a persuasive and often moving case for the interconnectivity of all things under God… None of the illustrations feels forced or clumsy and some of Hughes’s personal and family asides are genuinely charming” (The Church of Ireland Gazette)

“If someone were to ask me which two books, beside the Bible, they should read in order to assist their Christian journey, I would suggest The Shack by William Paul Young and The Compassion Quest by Trystan Owain Hughes. The Compassion Quest is, in my view, the ultimate manual on compassion” (Croeso)

“A deeply thoughtful and introspective book… accessible… reflective… It doesn’t feel like a work of popular theology, or a pious sermon, but an honest reflection on what it means to be Christian… The book made me stop and think, and it has forced me to reconsider the way I view myself and my relationships” (On Religion)

“The Compassion Quest is a beautiful book inviting us to humble awe, to find God and each other in the everyday and to rescue us from lazy, culturally skewed discipleship which has the powerful lording it over the powerless” (Dave Meldrum blog lists The Compassion Quest as one of his Books of the Year)

Compassion Quest launch

Article in Croeso newspaper about the launch of The Compassion Quest

“Get down off the cross Jesus, we could use the wood!”: Speaking for those with no voice

crucifixBritish weather is certainly strange. Every time there is a hint that spring is about to burst through, another cold spell brings us right back down to earth! In one of the recent cold spells, I was on a retreat with a friend in a small house in the grounds of a convent outside Monmouth in South Wales. The house was beautiful, but it was freezing cold. I even took to wearing blankets around the house, which I imagine seemed a bit strange to those also on retreat there! At one point, my friend and I were desperately trying to light the fire in the large, icy living room, but the logs and kindling were cold and damp. In a cry for help, my friend looked up at the large crucifix above the fireplace and exclaimed, “get down off the cross Jesus, we could use the wood!”

poverty

Over supper that evening, I asked my friend about his somewhat inappropriate remark. He explained that it was a quotation from a Tom Waits song, later covered by Willie Nelson, and, far from being disrespectful, he maintained that, for him, this little phrase summed up the heart of his faith. After all, he continued, far too often we Christians get too uptight about our worship and our theology. Jesus, on the other hand, would be the first to give up a lofty, privileged view above a beautiful mantelpiece, to help the freezing cold, hungry, poverty-stricken families across the world. As he munched on his cheese-on-toast, my friend lamented that the Church overemphasises the importance of “good” theology and “correct” worship, but forgets how absolutely central our everyday actions should be in our Christian life.

I certainly wouldn’t want to diminish and devalue the centrality of prayer and worship in our faith, and, as a theology lecturer of almost twenty years now, I know that a solid theological underpinning of our beliefs is essential. I can’t help thinking, however, that my friend was making a crucially important point. Both of us agreed that if Jesus were here in front of us in physical form, he would do anything for those who are struggling and suffering. Perhaps we should be adapting the oft-used phrase “What would Jesus do?” (WWJD) to “What would Jesus do for others?” Admittedly, WWJDFO would not be as catchy(!), but the answer would be much more simple. What would Jesus do for others? He would do everything for them… even die for them.

Still Not Love Politics?This should inspire Christians to see it as their duty to speak out for those who have no voice in our society. In the Sunday Telegraph last weekend, 42 Church of England bishops signed an open letter protesting against the Government’s proposed changes to the benefit system – changes that will drive children and families into poverty. This is not an example of a Church interfering with politics, but, rather, is an example of the body of Christ doing exactly what Christ’s literal body would be doing if it were around today in flesh and blood. “We have a duty to support those among us who are vulnerable and in need,” stated the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Devotion to Christ, then, does not mean we become imprisoned behind stained-glass windows, worshipping Christ the King. Rather, it means we minister to those people, broken and impoverished, who need us the most and whom we regard as Christ (Matthew 25:34-45).

BeggingMartin Luther urged his readers to draw Christ into flesh. In other words, we must not spiritualise Jesus into something powerful and ethereal, but we must bring him into even the most mundane and troubling aspects of our everyday lives and of our society. He must be allowed to inject new life into people and structures and to transform individuals and societies. And the only way he can do this is by getting down off his cross of glory, giving the wood to those in need of warmth, and living among us in the hurt, grime, and mess of our everyday lives.

“I was walking down 125th Street, and suddenly I stopped. I looked at everything in amazement. It was like I’d just woken up from a dream that lasted my whole life. And I realised that, if God isn’t somewhere out there in heaven, he’s right here, in the dirt” (Jack Kerouac On the Road)

For more on this theme, see chapter 4 “Bringing Jesus Down to Earth” in The Compassion Quest.