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.

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

Thought for the Day: Hanging out with God

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. The following was originally written for St Padarn’s Institute in Cardiff, Wales, where I am Tutor in Applied Theology. My role at St Padarn’s is as programme leader for the Durham University-validated MA (Theology, Ministry, & Mission).

If someone had told me a few years back that we would be in a pandemic when most of us would be at home for the majority of our time, I would have thought “well, at least it will give us plenty of time for prayer”! As it happens, for so many of us, that hasn’t necessarily been the case. Homeschooling, endless zoom calls, and family duties, not to mention the worry and stress of what we are going through, has meant finding “God time” in our lockdown lives has not always been easy.

The comedian Frank Skinner, in his latest book A Comedian’s Prayer Book, writes about fostering our relationship with God and the need for us to sit or walk, often in silence, with Him. He talks about how Johnny Cash and his best friend Bob Dylan were so close that they would sit fishing, side-by-side, for many hours without speaking and would still feel comfortable with, and uplifted in, each other’s presence. Skinner then prays to God by saying: “I’d like to think you and I are at least as close as Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan”!

Finding moments just “to be” with God is so important for our relationship with Him, whether we are sitting quietly in our living room, chopping vegetables while preparing our dinner, taking a stroll in our local park, waiting for a bus or train to arrive, or simply having our daily shower. Eric Clapton once sung how he had finally found a way to live life to all its fullness – by living “in the presence of the Lord”. Centuries earlier, the seventeenth-century monk Brother Lawrence said a similar thing in urging Christians to “practice the presence of God” in their everyday lives.

Why do we do this? This was a question I faced as I was putting my seven-year-old to bed last week: “what’s the point of praying, daddy?” There’s nothing like a small child to challenge your theology at the end of a long day! I then remembered what Archbishop Desmond Tutu had said about prayer. Spending time with God, I told my son, is like sitting next to a fire on a cold day. We feel the warmth and we take on the attributes of the fire – we become warm. Similarly, when we put ourselves in God’s presence, we somehow take on his attributes. God is love, so we become more like him – less judgemental and more loving. On hearing this, my son snuggled down, wrapped his duvet around himself, thought for a while, and said “hmmm, yes, hanging out with God just makes sense”.

So, this week, I want to encourage you to find some time, in whatever way you can, simply to be with God. Feel close to him. Practice his presence. Rest in the warmth. Embrace his love. Why? Well, because, you know, hanging out with God just makes sense.

Lent Week 5: Open our Actions to your Compassion

In the most recent version of the film Ben Hur, Pontius Pilate is discussing the threats to the Roman Empire in first-century Palestine. At that time, it was the zealots, the revolutionary Jewish group attempting to overthrow Roman rule, who were the greatest worry to the authorities. But Pilate’s concern was rather an obscure Jewish prophet called Jesus of Nazareth, who was teaching people that love is the true nature of every person. Pilate concludes with these words: “this man calms people with his compassion – he is more dangerous than all of the zealots combined”.

Like the word love, “compassion” is another word that’s rather lost its power in recent years. We so often hear politicians, journalists, and world leaders use the word. Sometimes it can seem a rather insipid and bland way of saying that we should be nice and kind to people. The reality is, though, that the call of compassion is a revolutionary call. Compassion demands that we treat others, whoever they are, whatever they’ve done, as if they were in our families, that we share both their joys and their sorrows. This is a radical way of viewing the world around us. Indeed, it even goes beyond human relationships and challenges our attitudes to the environment and non-human life.

Not that this radical compassion is an easy choice for us to make in our day-to-day lives. So much so, that we often end up sidelining compassion and taking the less-potent steps of charity, sympathy, or pity. I once watched a documentary where Tom Shadyac, the director of the film Bruce Almighty, was interviewing his father, who had founded a hospital for children with cancer. His dad described witnessing so much love and compassion in his church each week. But at the end of the service, so many of the congregation would go out to their cars, go home and just get on with their lives; their compassion will be switched off for the rest of the week. He finishes by describing himself sitting and crying at the end of a service when reflecting on how infrequently we live out God’s compassion. Perhaps we can adapt a quotation by G.K. Chesterton – “it is not that compassion has been tried and found wanting; rather, it has been found difficult and so left untried”.

So I want to challenge you this week to recognise, embrace, and then live out what is radical about compassion. To break through the “us” and “them” attitudes so prevalent in our society. To embrace those who are stigmatised and demonised in our world. To recognise the beauty and worth of God’s creation and of each and every person, whoever they are, whatever their background; to recognise them as our brothers and sisters, to look at them and see Jesus himself looking back at us.

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

Because you want us to keep thinking big

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

Because you want us to imagine what other people are going through

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

Because you want us to develop a thin skin

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

Because you want us to contemplate what will happen if we don’t get involved

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

Because you want us to be confident that we can make a difference

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

Because you want us to bring remote issues close

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

Because you want us to reflect on what we can do

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

Because you want us to be stewards of our world

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

Because you want us to look out for those who are on the margins, in the shadows, in too deep, on the brink

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

Because you want us to do all this to help bring in your kingdom

Lord we ask you to

Open our actions to your compassion

Amen

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

Lent Week 4: Open our Ways to your Will

“What are the chances of that happening?” I’ve said that phrase so many times recently that I’ve been researching whether there is any meaning behind coincidences. Not so long ago, a BBC Radio 4 series recounted spectacular coincidences – like in 2001 when 10 year-old Lucy Buxton in Staffordshire released a balloon from her garden with her name and address on it. It landed 140 miles away in Wiltshire in a garden of another 10-year-old girl… who, amazingly, was also called Lucy Buxton! Now, coincidences in our own lives may not be so spectacular, but they can still stop us in our tracks – like when we’re thinking of someone and the phone pings and it’s a text from them. “What are the chances of that happening?” we say.

And I’ve noticed that there have been quite a few posts on social media recently referring to such coincidences. Last week, I read about a friend of mine who was listening to Whitney Houston’s “I will always love you” on his car’s CD Player and he thought to himself “it’s not as good as the original”. So he turned his CD player off and his radio kicked in. What was playing? Yes, Dolly Parton’s original version of “I will always love you”!

Now, such coincidences in our own lives can easily be dismissed as, well, just coincidences. But perhaps, if we open ourselves up, we can recognise these coincidences happening more often in our lives and even recognise meaning behind them. And I’m certainly not the only one to believe this. From the great psychologist Carl Jung to the contemporary Cambridge University biologist Rupert Sheldrake, others have suspected these synchronistic moments have deep meaning. In fact, these may be moments when God reveals himself to us, guides us and speaks to us. One popular book in America suggests this is when God is winking at us, reassuring us of his presence or pointing us in some direction he wants us to take.

So, we can open our ways to his will by noticing him wink at us in all sorts of ways – sometimes this comes through coincidental events, but other times it is through things people say to us, or little signs we notice in our daily routine, or loving thoughts that flash across our minds, or something we read or watch and find inspiring, or perhaps even something we dream about.

So, this week I want to challenge you. Ask yourself… What is God pushing you towards? What little signs has he given you? Are you awake to his movement in your life? Have you noticed him wink at you? How is he guiding you to live out his love and compassion in your life? How does he want you to serve him?

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

In the week of Mothering Sunday –

So that we always recall that mothering happens in many places and in many ways

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ways to your will

So that we recognise the mother in ourselves

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ways to your will

So that we value the role of all forms of mothering

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ways to your will

So that we bring our own experiences of mothering to you

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ways to your will

So that we support those who are mothering

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ways to your will

So that we learn from mothering

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ways to your will

So that we recognise that mothering is hard

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ways to your will

So that we can reassure those who think they’re not cut out for mothering

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ways to your will

So that we let ourselves be mothered

Lord, we ask you to

Open our ways to your will

So that we see you as the model of all our mothering

Lord we ask you to

Open our ways to your will

Amen

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

Lent Week 3: Open our Hearts to your Love

Recently I was introduced to an album called “The Anarchy Arias”. It is a collaboration between the English National Opera, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and Glen Matlock, who was in a famous punk band in the 1970s. These songs are the punk, new wave, and rock songs that I would listen to as a teenager, but played by a wonderful orchestra and sung by talented opera singers. What isn’t there to love about that?! Well, in one particular way, it misses the mark and misses the point. These songs were brash protests against problems that still exist in our society, and now they suddenly seem tame. In this new setting, even the lyrics just don’t have the radical and shocking punch that they had in the 1970s, and much of the power and protest has now been lost.

When I was considering what it means to open our hearts to God’s love, I was reminded of the Anarchy Arias. For two thousand years, Christianity has been known as a faith of love. Jesus’s teaching on love, not to mention his life of love, has inspired groups and individuals to challenge the status quo, to stand up for those are oppressed, to speak for those with no voice, and to lay down their lives for those in need. Yes, people like St Francis, William Wilbourforce, Corrie Ten Boom, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa; but also countless other nameless people who lived out the sacrifice that Christian love demands of us. This call on our lives is radical and revolutionary and it bucks the prevailing individualistic and materialist worldview in today’s world.

The reality is, though, that we’ve probably heard the phrase “God is love” countless times by now. And it’s easy to hear things so often that we just get used to them. The power and inspiration can be drained away from even the most life-giving and profound messages. Just like the Anarchy Arias, Christian love can become something bland and staid, worse still it can become sickly sweet and saccharine.

So, this week, let’s try and recapture something of the radical and revolutionary thing that is Christian love. Imagine that you’ve never even heard of Jesus. And then someone explains, first, that the creator of all loves you completely, unconditionally, so much so that he would die for you. This is a huge comfort. And then they go on to explain that, because God’s love is for all, we’re not simply called to put up with one another, or like each other when it’s convenient, but to love one another. This is a huge challenge. So, this week, embrace the comfort; feel his deep, unwavering love for you. But also embrace the challenge; in whatever way you can, reach out to others in love, help them in practical ways and reassure them of their ultimate worth.

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 take happiness, health, success for granted

Lord, we ask you to

Open our hearts to your love

If we take where we’ve come from and where we’re going for granted

Lord, we ask you to

Open our hearts to your love

If we take our present surroundings for granted

Lord, we ask you to

Open our hearts to your love

If we take others for granted

Lord, we ask you to

Open our hearts to your love

If we take ourselves for granted

Lord, we ask you to

Open our hearts to your love

If we perceive that others take us for granted

Lord, we ask you to

Open our hearts to your love

If we witness others being taken for granted

Lord, we ask you to

Open our hearts to your love

If we go along with a system that takes people for granted

Lord, we ask you to

Open our hearts to your love

If we forget that you never take your creation for granted

Lord, we ask you to

Open our hearts to your love

If we want to follow you, grant our prayer:

Lord, we ask you to

Open our hearts to your love

Amen

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

What has the Trinity got to do with everyday life?

Today is Trinity Sunday, when the Church remembers that God is “one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”. Three in one, one in three. If that has always confused and perplexed you, then welcome to the club! It’s no coincidence that many priests make sure their curate is on the rota to preach on this particular Sunday! But just because it is a complex doctrine, it is far from an outdated or pointless belief. In fact, as much as any other Christian belief, the Trinity gets to the heart of what God is all about and what he expects of us. There are, after all, two important things we can say about the Trinity.

Firstly, the Trinity is a mystery. However much thought goes into it, however much we study, we’ll never fully understand the Trinity. I used to ask my students to think of analogies of what “three in one” could mean – some would follow St Patrick in suggesting shamrocks (three leaves in one sprig), others would suggest water, one element that can be three forms: liquid, steam or ice. And I even remember one group being particularly inventive by suggesting the theology of a creme egg – one sweet in three parts: the chocolate, the sickly sweet white part, and the smooth yellow centre. All this, of course, is not particularly helpful to understanding what is essentially a great mystery about God. And perhaps understanding this mystery is less important than asking why our faith teaches this mystery – what does it mean to us that God is three in one?

Well, that is where we come to second point and this turns everything else about the doctrine upside down. The philosopher Martin Buber wrote: “In the beginning was relationship”. And that little word is at the heart of what the Trinity means – “relationship”. The early church theologians described the Trinity as a dynamic dance of love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. After all, love can’t exist in isolation, it can’t exist by itself. So, yes, the Trinity is a mystery. It is, though, a mystery that discloses something very simple about God. It reveals that God, in the very depths of his being, is relationship; God is love.

This has huge implications in our world of suffering, illness, grief, oppression, prejudice, violence, and inequality. It is when we step out of our isolated, selfish selves, it is when we enter into caring, peaceful, and compassionate relationships with each other, with nature, with our environment, that God is revealed to the world. The Christian philosopher Gabriel Marcel talks about “absolute availability”. Because God is relationship, love is not an optional extra for Christians and that has, in our local and global world, far-reaching expectations of each of us. The doctrine of the Trinity demands that availability, responsibility, relationship, care, compassion, and love permeates all that we are and all that we do, whether in person or online, in our thoughts, in our words, or in our actions, in how we spend our money or how we spend our time.

In other words, the Trinity demands that we are “absolutely available” to others, to be a loving and life-enhancing gift to them – to stand alongside them in their pain, to weep with them in their grief, to rejoice with them in their good news, to stand up against oppressive systems that dehumanise them, to shine the light of justice on those who misuse power, to call to account those who blindly ignore our groaning earth, to expose those who pedal lies and falsehoods, to speak up for those whose voices are silenced. After all, it is because God is the Trinity, because God is relationship, that Martin Luther King stated that life’s most persistent question, life’s most urgent and important question, is: “What are you doing for others?” So, I challenge you to reflect on your life and ask yourself that little question – “What are you doing for others?”

A prayer
Father God,
Through the Power of your Spirit,
And the Grace of your Son,
Help us to each to play our part in turning the world upside down
Through your compassion, care, peace, hope, and love.
Amen.

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!

Our Challenge this Christmas – Prophet not Profit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are we at peace with others?”

“How do we care for the environment?”

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

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

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

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