Why the Lord’s Prayer really is dangerous and offensive

The agency that handles British film advertising for the major cinema chains, Odeon, Cineworld and Vue, has banned a Church of England’s advert featuring the Lord’s Prayer because it believes it would upset or offend audiences. I am currently in the process of writing my next book on this short 70-word prayer. For me, the question of “why has this advert been banned?” should be recast as “how can Jesus’s radical call-to-action be seen as anything other than dangerous, offensive and inflammatory?”

Our Father who art in heaven

tutu 1By referring to God as our Father, we are making a statement about God’s loving relationship with us, but we are also saying something profound about our relationships with each other. If God is our father, then we are compelled to treat each other as if we are brothers and sisters. This is a revolutionary call to show love and compassion to those who we don’t get on with and those don’t agree with. It is a call to care for the ill, the poor, the hungry, the disenfranchised, the refugee, the alienated, and the oppressed. As Desmond Tutu puts it: “In God’s family, there are no outsiders. All are insiders. Black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight, Jew and Arab, Palestinian and Israeli, Roman Catholic and Protestant, Serb and Albanian, Hutu and Tutsi, Muslim and Christian, Buddhist and Hindu, Pakistani and Indian – all belong… We are members of one family. We belong… God says, ‘All, all are my children’. It is shocking. It is radical”.

Hallowed by thy name

poor_children04To Jesus’s disciples being “holy” (“hallowed”) would have meant something very different from how we might view the word. In the Old Testament, God’s holiness is frequently related to his role as deliverer and redeemer of the oppressed. The theologian Karl Barth asserts that by praying that God’s name be hallowed, we are asking that we become worthy bearers of God’s name in our loving and compassionate actions. ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy’”, God tells Moses in Leviticus. We have, then, a revolutionary imperative – to stand alongside the poor, to defend the defenceless, to liberate the persecuted, to offer justice to the oppressed, to speak for those with no voice. Holiness is a radical call to action, and not a retreat into inaction.

Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven

This is not an appeal for us to wait for God to reveal himself. It is God who is waiting – he is waiting for us to open our eyes and recognise his kingdom breaking through all around us. God’s kingdom comes to us through those driven by “the imperative for practical service and love” (Rowan Williams). When pain and suffering are countered, the kingdom breaks through. When violence, wealth, power, and prestige are opposed, the kingdom flourishes. When people reach out to those in need, those who are oppressed, and those who feel they have no hope, then God’s will is being done. The revolutionary call of the kingdom is to bring God’s light to the most hopeless and desolate situations.

Give us this day our daily bread

money-bread-16570679_sIn this line we are, first of all, asking God to help us combat poverty. It is commendable that we support food banks and other ventures to help those struggling on the bread line, but it is scandalous that such charities need to exist in the first place. “We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside,” asserted Martin Luther King, “but one day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed”. Secondly, though, by asking for “daily bread”, we are also asking God to keep us away from wealth. The predominant ‘story’ that our society teaches us is that money matters, that it is worth something, that it is something we should be desiring. Christians are called to question this myth of money incarnate, and offer a liberating alternative. After all, the gospel of grace and selflessness surely stands in direct opposition to the financial law of supply and demand.

Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us

forgive“Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive”, asserted CS Lewis. Forgiveness is difficult, but it is what God expects from us. It is part and parcel of what it means to be Christian. It’s not an optional extra for us. It is, though, radical and revolutionary. After all, forgiveness is far harder and braver than retaliation and hatred. But we do get a pay-off through forgiveness. By forgiving, we are released from our personal prisons, to move forward and onward in our lives. The Huffington Post recently reported that many in the Middle East are turning towards forgiveness, rather than retribution, for the terrible crimes of Islamic State. “I won’t do anything to them,” one young Christian refugee said after seeing her community and family decimated by the group, “I will only ask God to forgive them”.

Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil

moneyTemptations promise us joy and fulfilment. Our faith, though, teaches us the radical truth that we are being sold a lie. The comedian Russell Brand was drawn at an early age into a world of wealth, fame, and excess. “I was treating a spiritual malady… I was actually seeking salvation”, he writes. It is not easy for us to grasp that lasting joy and fulfilment will not be found in those places where we have been told excitement, fun, and fulfilment comes from. Brand writes that he sometimes sees old photographs of himself emerging from London nightclubs with blonde women on his arms. “I can still be deceived into thinking, ‘Wow, I’d like to be him’, then I remember that I was him”, he concludes. Temptation merely promises us fleeting joy; faith reminds us that a deeply satisfying life can only be found in spiritual peace. This is a message that our world does not want to hear; it is a truth that our world does not want to face.

For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory

In 1975, a team of students from Manchester University subverted BBC’s quiz University Challenge by answering every question they were asked with the name of a Communist leader: “Karl Marx”, “Trotsky”, “Lenin”, “Che Guevara”, and so on. As Christians, though, the answer to all our questions really is “Jesus”. He offers life, he offers a new way of thinking, he offers a profound transformation in our understanding of the concept of power. His is not extrinsic power, foisted on us all from outside, compelling us to be obedient. His is, rather, an intrinsic authority, persuading us and inspiring us to join him on a revolution of compassion. As we face terror on the streets of Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere, the Lord’s Prayer is a dangerous, radical alternative to today’s powers of military muscle, violent extremism, fleeting fame, and rapacious wealth. But Jesus offers a different kingdom, a different power, a different glory. Jesus offers radical and revolutionary love.

To view the Church of England’s advert: www.youtube.com/watch?v=vlUXh4mx4gI&

 

“We don’t do God”: A call for faith to inspire politics

Religion-and-PoliticsIt has become popular in recent years to divorce faith and politics, and to treat them as if they are separate domains that don’t have any bearing on one another. When the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair attempted to talk about his Christian faith in an interview with the magazine Vanity Fair, his communications manager Alistair Campbell immediately stopped the interviewer’s questions. ‘We don’t do God’, was Campbell’s now famous retort. However, I believe that the attempt to separate faith and politics is not only unhelpful and unrealistic, but can also ultimately be dangerous and have grave consequences.

While there are certainly examples of where faith has been, and is still being, misused in the political sphere, this should certainly not mask the amazing social and political reform that has been inspired by faith. It could even be argued that the majority of great political reformers down the centuries have been motivated by faith, and many have even used religious language to express their views. In the UK, we have had a long tradition of faith inspiring political and social action – not least William Wilberforce’s stand against slavery in the eighteenth century, the faith-based leadership of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1970s, and the profound Christian influence on the main political parties down the centuries. As former Prime Minister Harold Wilson put it, even the Labour Party owes more to Methodism than to Marxism. The picture is the same worldwide, with faith motivating individuals (like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Mikhail Gorbachov, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu) to bravely challenge corruption and prejudice.

Believing in the Dignity of All: Desmond M. TutuIt is, of course, not surprising that so many people are inspired through their faith to engage either directly or indirectly in the political sphere. In the Christian tradition, the Bible brims full of social justice, peace, equality, and freedom. As Desmond Tutu once famously stated: “When people say that the Bible and politics don’t mix, I ask them which Bible they are reading”. In all his tireless campaigning, in South Africa and beyond, Tutu has always maintained that poverty, sexism, homophobia, and racism are not merely political problems, they are spiritual and moral issues. “The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person,” he asserted. “When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, ‘Now is that political or social?’ He said, ‘I feed you’. Because the good news to a hungry person is bread”.

Jesus’s ‘Sermon on the Mount’ has especially inspired countless political leaders, not least Gandhi (“when your country and mine shall get together on the teachings laid down by Christ in this Sermon on the Mount, we shall have solved the problems not only of our countries but those of the whole world”) and Barack Obama (“a passage so radical that it’s doubtful that our Defence Department would survive its application”). Yet Jesus’s social and political influence went far beyond one sermon.  Jesus’ very presence, along with his teachings in general, were regarded as such a threat to the political powers of Rome and Jerusalem that they conspired to rid themselves of this first-century Palestinian rebel rouser.

obama prayingIf Jesus was concerned with engaging practically and compassionately with society and the world around us, surely it is only natural that Christians allow their relationship with him to do likewise. Barack Obama, for example, was not raised in a religious household, but he was moved to his baptism as an adult precisely because he saw in faith a vehicle for social change.  In his autobiography he talks about politics leading him to faith and faith leading him to politics. On the one hand, it was his work as a community organiser for churches in Chicago that led him to be drawn towards a political life. The pastors and other Christians who worked with the unemployed, drug addicted, and poverty stricken in the city “confirmed my belief in the capacity of ordinary people to do extraordinary things”. On the other hand, it was the power of religious traditions to spur social change that drew him to faith. The African-American religious tradition, as he put it, “understood in an intimate way the biblical call to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and challenge powers and principalities”.

However, Obama, like other Christians involved in social and political change, emphasizes that bringing his faith into politics certainly does not mean losing respect for those with different beliefs. In fact, the Christian faith teaches that all life is sacred, and so faith should actually lead to more respect and reverence for the world around us – for the environment, for animals, and for all other people, whether they share our beliefs or not. In other words, yes, our faith should inform and inspire our political views, but these views should also be transformed into universal, rather than religion-specific, values.

Keith Hebden protest drone warfareBy doing this, people of faith should echo the prophets of the Old Testament by being the first to speak out and protest against corrupt governments, greed-obsessed corporations, ethically-blind companies, and environmentally-damaging activities. A friend of mine, who is a Church of England vicar (and author of Seeking Justice: The Radical Compassion of Jesus), regards his tireless work for ethical and social justice as absolutely integral to his faith, and, as a result, he has even been arrested on numerous occasions while campaigning against drone warfare, nuclear weapons, and hate preaching. Other Christians, of course, work from the inside of the political systems to effect change, just as Daniel did in the Old Testament. Either way, the faith of each individual could contribute so much to the important issues of poverty, welfare cuts, economic debt (personal and national), the environment, asylum seekers, international aid, and so on.

Wall faith politics

For the Christian, God is connected to every single aspect of our lives and of the life of the world. Church does not start and finish on Sunday, but continues in whichever community God has placed us. I would argue that it is a duty for Christians, along with people of other faiths, to bring their faith into the political and social realm. If we do not, we run the danger of ending up with what Barack Obama calls “bad politics”, where the only people who bring their faith into the social and political sphere are those who want to misuse both politics and faith. By leaving our own faith out of our politics, we leave a vacuum in politics for those with insular and hateful beliefs, or for those who cynically use faith for their own means.

I once heard it said that religion is like water poured on our hearts. We all have either thorns or flowers growing in the garden of our hearts. If we pour water on thorns, they will grow. And so religion can make the thorns grow and choke the goodness in our hearts. This will then engender hatred, prejudice, and disunity. On the other hand, if we pour water on flowers, they will also grow. And so faith has the potential to make the flowers in our hearts flourish and thus bring so much love, joy, and peace to the world. Our aim should not be to stop faith being involved in politics. Rather, our aim should be to make sure that people have flowers, and not thorns, growing in their hearts, so that a loving, compassionate, and liberating faith can inspire politics and bring hope and new life to individuals, communities, and societies.

politics and faith

  • The above was a talk I gave to over 100 sixth formers at the Sixth Form Faith Day on Faith and Politics at St Teilo’s High School, Cardiff. In an exciting project, the sixth form students are starting their own “faith blog”, dealing with issues surrounding faith and society. In due course, I will provide the link.

“Get ready, I’m going to serve”: What has tennis got to do with ministry?

Canon John RowlandsLast night I preached at the 40th anniversary of the ordination to priesthood of Canon John Rowlands, Rector of Whitchurch (Cardiff), Canon Chancellor to Llandaff Cathedral, and former Principal of St Michael’s Theological College, Llandaff. On his request, I have edited the sermon and include it here:

Four years ago I was appointed as chaplain of Cardiff University. As I was curate of John’s parish at the time, he called me to his office to congratulate me. He was especially excited about having a big leaving party and service for me here at St Mary’s, Whitchurch, and he suggested I should make it on a Sunday afternoon. He left it for me to arrange the rest. I decided on a date, sent out all the invitations, and then met him again to organise further details. When I told him the day it was to take place on, he opened his diary, flicked through the pages to July, and, to my surprise, the blood drained from his face. Now, I knew something was seriously wrong, because, due to John’s famous love of the sun, it is quite difficult for his face to turn white! When he could finally speak, he stammered: “but it’s the Wimbledon final!” Well, those of us who know John well will know he is a huge tennis fan, but when the colour finally came back to his cheeks, he very kindly said: “for you, Trystan, for my first time in decades, I will give up watching the Wimbledon final”. I felt truly affirmed and loved… and then he added “unless, of course, Andy Murray gets to the final, and then you’re by yourself!”

murray serveFor the first time in my life, I ended up praying for the two weeks of Wimbledon that a British player would not get to the final. God kindly answered my prayer and Andy Murray was knocked out in the semis! As I was thinking about today’s gospel reading (Matthew 20:20-28), though, John’s love of tennis came to mind. The term “tennis” actually comes from the French word tenez (“hold on”), so it refers to the command “Hold on, I’m going to serve” or “Get ready, I’m going to serve”. The game actually has its roots in ancient Greece, but was then developed in medieval France, which explains much of the French terminology. Believe it or not, modern tennis was invented by a Welshman – Walter Wingfield, born in Ruabon, North Wales in the early nineteenth century – and the first ever proper game of tennis was played at a garden party in Nantclwyd Hall, Denbighshire. Interestingly, Wingfield and his friends used their servants to deliver the first ball of every point. So that’s how the tennis terms “serve” and “service” began to be used – because of the role of real servants.

Now, when I read about that, and reflected on John’s love of tennis, it got me thinking about today’s celebrations. “Get ready, I’m going to serve”. Forty years ago, John dedicated his life to Christ in a specific way when he was ordained to the priesthood. One year earlier, he had been ordained as a deacon. The word deacon, of course, is from the Greek word diakonos, meaning “servant”. In St David’s Cathedral that day, he therefore vowed to live a life of service – service to Christ and service to all of us. In other words, he was proclaiming to the world: “Get ready, I’m going to serve!”

apprenticeWhen you are ordained priest, of course, you continue to be a deacon, so you continue to serve the people around you. You are not their boss or their better, but their servant. This is very different from the attitude of the rest of society, which sees promotion to leadership as something which slowly relieves you of menial tasks. I hate to admit that I avidly watch the TV show “The Apprentice” – my excuse is that it gives me material for sermons like this! In “The Apprentice”, almost all the contestants seem to have egos the size of small planets and Alan Sugar seems to be impressed if kindness, compassion, and selfless service are placed to one side in the pursuit of money, authority, and power.

From our reading today (Matthew 20:20-28), it’s clear that Jesus taught a very different, counter-cultural view of the world. He overturned the value structures of our world. James and John were arguing about esteem and honour – they wanted to sit next to Jesus, in positions of privilege and power. The other disciples probably wanted such honour and prestige themselves, which is why they were so angry at the request. Jesus answered that those who follow the Servant must become servants themselves.

Servant Heart - handsThose of us who are ordained will sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that the most important thing is that we look talented and worthwhile to the outside world… that we are a good preacher, or we have had a good career, or appear on TV or radio often. But, in reality, congregations care about something far simpler… the foundations. Has my priest got a servant heart? My vicar was there for me when my loved one died, or my vicar good at affirming and encouraging me, or my vicar made me a cup of tea and gave me some time when I felt sad or lonely…

Servanthood is what ministry is all about – approaching everything and everyone with a servant heart, however big or however small the task. But, of course, ministry is not only about being ordained. Each and every one of us is called to ministry, and part of the servant role of a good priest is to recognise the skills and talents of others, and to nurture and encourage others to live lives of servanthood. How many of us down the years have been approached by our vicar or rector and encouraged to help in all sorts of ways? Jesus’ first action when he returned from the wilderness was to gather together an unlikely team. Likewise, down the years, as chaplain, principal, and rector, John has affirmed and encouraged so many of us here in our own ministries – whether we are priests, deacons, church wardens, PCC members, lay ministry members, cleaners, choir members, junior church leaders, servers, readers, flower arrangers, or musicians.

appreciateAnd I know for the fact that he appreciates what is brought to the church by each one of us. When I was curate here in the benefice, I got tired of hearing from John how brilliant his former curate Ben Andrews was. Then I left here and chatted to the present curate Pete Mortimer, and Pete let slip that he was tired of hearing how brilliant Trystan Owain Hughes was. And it was great to be able to reassure Pete that his successor, when that happens, will get tired of people telling him how brilliant Pete Mortimer was! And that goes the same for every other person who is involved in this benefice, lay or ordained, past or present.

This affirmation, this building up of individuals and encouraging them in their own lives, is what servant priesthood is all about and it should be an inspiration and encouragement to us all, whether we are priests or not. After all, we’re all called to servanthood. We don’t need to be great intellectuals, we don’t need to be eloquent speakers, we don’t need to be wealthy, we don’t need to be highly gifted or talented. All of us, whatever our backgrounds, have something to contribute to God’s Kingdom on earth. All of us are called to tennis – to “get ready, and go out and serve”.

Martin Luther KingSo I’ll finish with some words from Martin Luther King, delivered in a sermon only two months before his death: ‘Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. All you need is a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love’.