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.

Compassion and the General Election

camerons_1625564iOn the morning of Friday 8 May 2015, after his party’s triumph at the general election, David Cameron gave his victory speech on the steps of 10 Downing Street. His final words, replayed endlessly on TV and radio, referred to the United Kingdom as a country with “such great compassion” and with the potential to build a proud future. “Together, we can make Great Britain greater”, he concluded.

compassion-definitionThat the Prime Minister chose to use the word “compassion” at this point is not surprising, as he has used the word on numerous occasions over the past five years in referring to the policies that he is espousing. Yet the word should not be treated lightly. The root of the English word is from the Latin compassio, meaning “to suffer with”. In other words, when someone suffers, we suffer with them and somehow feel their pain. It is, in a nutshell, love-in-action. In the New Testament, Jesus is described as being “moved to his guts with compassion” (splanchnizomai) for those suffering. While in the Old Testament, the word for compassion, rachamim, is related to the Hebrew term for womb (rechem). The Arabic language has the same link between compassion (rahmah) and womb (rahem). In other words, compassion means we treat others as if we shared the same womb with them, as if they were our brothers and sisters.

Compassion is not just a buzzword to be used when it is convenient for politicians and political commentators to try to show how much they care. Instead, compassion is a challenge to each and every one of us to treat others, whoever they are, as if they are related to us – as if they are, quite literally, our brothers and sisters. For Christians, it is at the heart of how we should be treating each other and how we should be act towards the world around us. And yet, while entrepreneurial skills are taught in schools to children as young as six and seven, compassion is rarely seen as an important aspect of educational policy. And while successive governments talk about compassion in the NHS, nurses and doctors feel that they are forced to sideline a truly compassionate attitude in favour of finance and targets. And while our hearts go out to the migrants who lose their lives in the bid to reach our country, compassion is certainly lacking in some of the anti-immigration rhetoric we have heard recently.

The reality is that true compassion (compassio, rachamim, splanchnitzomai) is not championed in Westminster, just as it is not championed in Fleet Street, or the City, or the Old Bailey, or Eton or Oxford or Cambridge. Unfortunately, the establishment – the people that run our country, the institutions that hold sway in our land – are far more interested in finance, profit, and power than in reaching out to the marginalised and disadvantaged. As a society, we have been peddled a lie that our priorities should be individualistic, materialistic, and self-serving. Worse still, we have been made to believe that it is weak and naïve to champion love, kindness, and compassion over material prosperity, egotism, and competition.

hopeYet, as a Christian, I believe we need not be disheartened. Much has been made of the recent general election being an election of negativity and fear – we are told that many voted out of fear of what the future might hold. Christians, though, are not people of fear – we’re people of hope. And that hope doesn’t start in the Houses of Parliament, it doesn’t start in the media or the press, it doesn’t even start in church buildings. Hope starts in our hearts. It starts in our hearts because that’s where compassion begins to flower. And once the buds of compassion break through, then communities start to be reinvigorated, and those communities, in turn, can transform society.

“The kingdom of God is within you”, Jesus declared (Luke 17:21). Once we realise that God’s Kingdom starts inside and then grows outwards, then we’ll start to recognise signs of that kingdom. It’s like throwing a pebble into water. God’s kingdom is the kingdom of ever-increasing circles – compassion starts in our heart, and then grows outwards, impacting on more and more people, bringing hope and transforming futures.

RussellAfter all, Jesus didn’t start his revolution by toppling governments and worldly kingdoms. Many of his followers wanted exactly that. The zealots were opposed to Roman rule, and scholars believe many of them followed Jesus expecting him to instigate such a revolution. His revolution, though, was a very different uprising. The comedian Russell Brand wears a T-shirt with the word “revolution” on it, but with the second, third, fourth, and fifth letters in a different colour – “r-E-V-O-L-u-t-i-o-n”. If we read those four letters backwards, it spells the word “L-O-V-E”. And that’s how Jesus started his revolution – simply by telling his followers to love one another.

Revolution starts with love; it starts with love-in-action. It starts with compassio – suffering with other people. It starts with splanchnitzomai – being so moved to our guts with compassion that we simply have to act. It starts with rachemim – treating everyone as if they had shared the same womb as us… the immigrant, the carer, the school teacher, the nurse, the food bank user, the disabled person on benefits, the homeless person, the prisoner, the unemployed person, the substance abuser, the sick in hospital, the terrified pregnant teenager, the young man struggling on minimum wage, the elderly person in a care home with no visitors for many months. Compassion asks – do we really think of them, and treat them, as if they were our own brothers and sisters?

compassion-is-the-real-money-thumbCompassion should be the only currency that really matters, not the pound or the dollar. Some may think that’s naïve and unrealistic. Sometimes I think that even Christians think that Jesus himself was just a little bit naïve, impractical, or utopian. If Jesus were around now, we might quietly speculate that he’d conclude that things are actually far more complex that he first realised. Things are, in fact, far less complex than we ourselves realise. Jesus knew exactly what human nature was about. On the very night that he was tortured and murdered, he simply said: “my command is this: love each other as I have loved you”.

change-just-ahead-370x229As a Christian, as a person of hope, I am quiet certain that change will come, that transformation will take place. But this change will not start in Westminster, or in the City, or on Fleet Street. Change starts in our hearts, and then grow outwards. If we live out compassion in our daily lives, the kingdom of God cannot fail to break through into our communities and, as a consequence, that will transform our society – bringing light to places of darkness, bringing love to those who suffer prejudice or disadvantage, bringing hope to those who think they have no future. “My command is this: love each other as I have loved you”.

Setting the world on fire at Christmas!

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also:

Advent and the Weight for Christmas

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

Things-with-wings: A Christmas Reflection

Are you sitting comfortably? Christmas and the wonder of story

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”.

“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)

Shouting “Love” over Barbed Wire: Some thoughts on Prison Sunday

Hay on Wye Festival 3As a writer, I’ve always dreamed of being invited to speak at the wonderful Hay on Wye book festival. Earlier this year, I received an email out of the blue. My dream had come true, albeit in a very unusual way. The email invited me to speak at the “Hay in the Parc” festival. I had heard of Hay in the Parc, and had always imagined it to be the section of the Hay Festival that takes place in a wonderful park, with everyone sitting around drinking Pimms, eating canapés, and enjoying the sunshine as they listen to famous authors reciting prose and poetry. However, this e-mail informed me that this was far from being the case. The invite was, in fact, far more challenging and interesting. The “Parc” in question was no Hyde Park or Roath Park, but was instead Parc prison, the secure category B jail in Bridgend.

Actor Keith Allen takes part in the 2012 Hay in the Parc literary festival at Parc prison, Bridgend.Hay in the Parc is a sister literary festival to the principal festival in Hay. Its aim is to help inspire prisoners and, ultimately, to change their lives, especially as the majority of whom (according to a recent article in The Guardian) have a reading age below that of a 10-year-old. The festival offers opportunities for prisoners to engage with authors and to attend creative writing classes, and, since it began in 2008, it has touched the lives of around 2,000 prisoners.

prison 11My own visit turned out to be quite an experience. Having written a book on compassion, I thought it would be easy to face this group of prisoners. As I sat in the prison chapel beforehand, the chaplain took the opportunity to brief me (in a non-specific way) of the type of crimes for which prisoners in Parc were being detained. As I talked to her, it dawned on me that many of them were not in prison for speeding offences or petty theft, but, rather, for crimes that I found completely abhorrent. I began to think about the victims of their crimes and it led me to feel angry and upset. I realize now that I was echoing the very attitudes that this group of people must fear they will face on being released back into our community. Writing about (and preaching about) seeing the face of Christ in everyone with whom we come into contact is easy. Living that out in our daily lives is much harder. Yet, once the prisoners were in the room, their humanity, their engagement, their humour, their humility, and their sense of hope, drew me a little way down the path of seeing them as God sees them.

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In talking with the prisoners about suffering, the theme of my book Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering that many had read as part of their prison book group, helped me realize the deep pain and suffering each one of them had been through, either before their crime or since their conviction. So much so that I learnt that these prisoners contributed to a moving collection of poetry and prose, entitled “Windows: Christian Writings from HMP Parc”. Throughout the book, their words reflect the sense of abandonment, loneliness, and alienation that they feel. As one of the contributors candidly wrote:

Prison cell“It started like any normal day, but this was the day I died. Yes, I said died, well at the time it felt like I had just died. I no longer had a first name, I was given a number and sat in a room that felt so cold and dark, but looking at the clock on the wall it was saying 2pm, but to me time meant nothing. I had just lost my life, my family, everything I own… I would sit on my bed reflecting on who I was and what I had done before coming to prison and how much better it would be to kill myself; this hell would end. I would close my eyes and I was back home with my family and it would be just a normal day, the wife doing wifely things and the kids just being kids. Then I would open my eyes and I was back in this cold cell that I call hell” (by ‘Will’)

In the foreword to this book, Archbishop Barry Morgan suggests that these prisoners have grasped the essence of the Christian gospel in their writing – that God loves us, unconditionally without any strings attached. On Prison Sunday, with churches across the UK remembering those affected by prison, this is the very message that Christians should be shouting from the rooftops and over barbed wire – God loves all of us, unconditionally without any strings attached.

McVeighIn the illustrated version of Philip Yancey‘s book What’s so Amazing about Grace?, there is one page where the only words printed are “the one God loves”, and, above that, is a small square of mirrored paper, where we look directly at ourselves. Powerfully, as you turn the next page, the words “like me” are printed and, above them, we see a big picture of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma bomber who killed over 160 people. I know that I am loved by God, just as he loves you and he loves all the victims of crime, who certainly need our complete support and care. But the radical thing about God is that he also loves those jailed in Parc Prison and he loves the prisoners in other jails worldwide. Likewise, he loves the families and friends of prisoners whose lives are often torn apart at their conviction.

It’s true that God wants people to change, but God’s love will always come before any action on their part. There are no conditions to God’s love. He does not say “change, and then I will love you”. He loves us anyway in the hope that we will, some day, want to change. Whatever we do, whatever we think, whatever we say, whoever we are, he loves us. That’s the scandal of God’s gracious love. That’s the most difficult thing to accept about God’s love. But that’s also the most unique and beautiful thing about God’s love.

God's love

Most of us will find that hugely challenging, especially when we consider heinous crimes and notorious criminals. Personally, I certainly find it hard to comprehend. But this is not about me, and it’s not about what I feel. It’s not about you, and it’s not about what you feel. It’s about God, and it’s about how he feels. Nothing or no one is beyond his love. This is the reason why one prisoner could write these powerful and peaceful words at the end of his contribution to Parc Prison’s book:

“As I sat in the chapel listening to what was being said something happened to me. I started not to feel alone. This guy who was talking seemed like he was talking to me, even though the room was filled with other prisoners. It felt like he was just telling me a story about a bloke called Jesus. After chapel, I went back to my cell from hell, but this time it felt different. It was the same cell, but it did not feel so cold and I never felt like I was by myself again” (by ‘Will’)

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See also:

“It could have been me”: Prison and Compassion

Crime and Compassion: Does Mick Philpott Deserve any Compassion?