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.

Why I agree every Christian should be a tree-hugging environmentalist

christianity-the-environmentLast week I shared an article on facebook urging Christians to care for God’s wonderful creation. This is something that is close to my own heart, but it is also something that I presumed, by now, was blindingly obvious to people of faith. I was, however, to be shocked and saddened at the response of some Christians. There were numerous comments that I thought were long-gone from the Christian tradition:

“I won’t be too concerned about the environment. It’s dying and cursed anyway”

“Surely winning souls is more important than protecting the forests. Get your priorities right.”

“Nothing in the Bible talks about tree hugging environmentalists.”

“I fear for your salvation if you think environmentalism is gospel issue.”

“Work on what is lasting – souls, souls, SOULS!”

christians-and-the-environmentJust as Christ wept over Jerusalem, I’m quite certain that he is weeping when he sees how some of his disciples are talking about, and treating, his wonderful creation. This indifference and distain towards God’s wonderful creation is long-standing. In the 1960s, a famous article appeared in Science magazine accusing Christianity of being at the root of our environmental predicament. Lynn White claimed that our faith is guilty of regarding itself as ‘superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for slightest whim’.

Certainly much has changed for the better in recent years, with many Churches and denominations issuing guidelines to help their care for God’s creation, detailing information about environmental issues such as recycling, using renewable energy solutions, and reducing pollution. However, my facebook thread shows that there are still Christians whose concern for individual salvation blind them from the importance of stewardship and care for the gift of God’s creation.

The irony is that their dearly-held attitude is not scriptural at all. Certain philosophical and cultural movements in the past have been so pervasive in their influence on our faith that they have defined its very character and led us to truly believe that we are true to the Bible when we ignore the plight of our natural world.

heart-body-soul1. Platonism: In its first few centuries, Christianity found itself heavily influenced by Greek Platonic dualism, which differentiated starkly between the soul and body. As a result, Christian tradition followed Gnosticism in becoming ambivalent towards physical matter. This is shown in our paradoxical attitude towards the body, which, on one hand, is seen as the Temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19-20), and, on the other hand, sees bodies as something to be embarrassed about. Thus, the only important thing to some Christians is “souls, souls, SOULS!” This ignores completely that all creation will be renewed and that resurrection is about spiritual bodies, rather than merely souls (see 1 Corinthians 15:35-49).

cogito2. Cartesianism: One of the results of Rene Descartes’ ‘I-think-therefore-I-am’ philosophy in the eighteenth century was that it affirmed the reality of our ‘thoughts’ and ‘emotions’, while doubting the experiences of our bodily senses. The physical world became separated and alienated from us, and we began to further identify with our minds, rather than with our bodies or the natural world. The Cartesian world became, therefore, a world of alienation between body and mind, between person and person, and between human and nature. Christians have been influenced by this in a far deeper way than many would like to admit.

cross green3. Poor theology: The influence of Platonism and Cartesianism on our faith led to many years of poor theology, where biblical texts were handpicked to champion individual human salvation and other sections of the Bible were conveniently ignored. We are left with a bleakly individualistic and person-centred theology that is alien to much of the Bible and to the spirituality that Jesus himself practices in the gospels. Salvation, after all, is not merely about us as individuals, as even our destiny is bound up with the entire created order (Romans 8:18-25). In the Old Testament, we are given a picture of wonderful harmony in nature at the end of time, as the lion lives with the lamb, the leopard lies with the goat, and the small child peacefully leads all the creatures (cf. Isaiah 11:6). In the New Testament, the images of the future Kingdom are, likewise, communal and harmonious – the banquet, the wedding feast, the choir of all nations, and the New Jerusalem. This all has significant implications for the way we relate now to each other and to the world around us. To remain faithful to the biblical evidence, we cannot separate the individual, the community, and the entire created order – in the past, the present, or the glorious future. ‘For by him all things were created;’ writes St Paul to the Colossians (1:16-7), ‘things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together’.

jesus 2Rather than being dualistic and individualistic, then, our faith should recognise that the world is not an enemy of the spirit. There is no getting away from the fact that matter truly matters to God. The Old Testament gives detailed rules on protecting trees and forests (see Deuteronomy 20:19 and Numbers 35:2ff), while God’s involvement with nature is later shown in Jesus’ special relationship with the created order, and his parables, miracles, and sayings are infused with the natural world. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the risen Jesus was initially mistaken for a gardener!

noahDarren Aronofsky’s recent blockbuster Noah received much criticism, but it did reflect that very truth about God’s care for all of creation, not only humankind. This is not new-age mysticism, as some would like us to believe, but it is at the heart of the covenant with Noah. After all, this promise was, we are told, an “everlasting covenant” made between God and “all living creatures of every kind on the earth”, a fact that is mentioned eight times in as many verses (Genesis 9:9-17)! When we see a wonderful rainbow decorating our sky we should, therefore, be reminded, not only of God’s compassion for us flawed and frail humans, but also of his unceasing love for all of his creation. And if God’s priority is to show love and compassion for “all life on the earth” (Genesis 9:17), then, as Christians, that should surely also be an imperative part of our own calling.

For more on this subject, see my book The Compassion Quest (Chapter 1 “Faith and the Universe”).

“Pencils in the Hand of God”: Some thoughts on All Saints Day

Real God in the Real WorldBelow is a reflection taken from ‘Real God in the Real World‘, my latest book that can be used in groups or by individuals over the Advent and Christmas period. Each day begins with a bible reading and then uses lively personal stories and engaging illustrations from popular culture and the arts to reflect on the reading. The reflection below takes Revelation 7:9-17 as its starting point:

saint babyI was due to be born on November 1st, which is ‘All Saints Day’ in the Western liturgical calendar. My mum was excited about delivering her own personal saint. In the week running up to the day, she, therefore, did everything she could to induce labour – from rough country drives to long mountain walks. On the night before All Saints Day, she even fell for the old wives tale of consuming a large dose of castor oil. Unfortunately, I didn’t appear, and all that happened was that she spent the next few days on the toilet! In fact, it took another whole week for me to appear. When I arrived in the world, my father informed my mum that she really did have her own little saint, as November 8th is, in fact, ‘All Saints of Wales Day’! However, my behaviour over the next 18 years quickly dispelled the saintly hopes she had. “Perhaps it would be more appropriate if you’d have been born on Halloween”, I recall her once telling me!

Last year on my birthday, I was invited to a local church to be quizzed by a large group of teenagers about my work as a University chaplain. Three other people have also been invited – a local teacher, someone who works with the homeless in the city, and someone who works for the Samaritans. All evening we were grilled by these inquisitive youngsters, as I answered questions as diverse as “why do you do what you do?”, “What is the meaning of life?”, and, more popular than you might think, “how much do you get paid?!” When I was first asked to attend this evening I naturally enquired why I was being asked to give up my birthday. The vicar who is organising the event informed me that it was to commemorate All Saints of Wales Day, and they were asking a number of modern-day saints of Wales. I nearly fell off my chair laughing when I realised I was to represent a ‘modern-day saint’. Yes, I do my best to help other people, but I’m certainly no St Francis or Mother Teresa!

saintsAfter thinking about it for a while, though, I soon realised that my reaction revealed my own prejudices about what a saint actually was. I’ve always pictured saints as very holy people, with smiling faces, often immortalised in stained glass windows, with little birds landing on their shoulders and halos over their heads. In some ways, today’s reading from the book of Revelation (7:9-17) might allow such a misunderstanding, as this godly group wear white robes and hold palm branches in their hands. However, seen in the context of the rest of the Old and New Testaments, our view of sainthood is challenged. Both St Luke and St Paul paint a much more human and down-to-earth portrait of sainthood, as they refer to those early Christians in Jerusalem and elsewhere as “saints” (e.g. Acts 9:13, 32; Philippians 4:21, and so on), and today’s reading reveals that saints are “a great multitude from every nation, tribe, people and language”.

In reality, of course, there is nothing super-human about sainthood, and thus we are all called to be saints. As Mother Teresa herself once said, all of us have the ability to become ‘pencils in the hand of God’. Sometimes our actions are clearly worthwhile – just think of the selfless work of hospital staff, of carers, of the emergency services, and so on. Sometimes, though, our actions might seem insignificant to us – when we visit a lonely relative, or take time to listen to a friend in need, or when we simply smile and say a nice ‘hello’ to our neighbours. Often we’re so hung-up about our failings that we can forget that all our seemingly minor saintly actions bring so much light and love to the world around us. As Albert Schweitzer, a former Nobel Peace Prize winner, once said, ‘we certainly don’t have to be angels to be saints’!

Beyond the stained-glass windows: Radical compassion and our everyday lives

Compassion and sufferingOver the past few weeks, I have given talks on compassion in various places – at Parc prison in Bridgend, at the Theology Cafe at the Gate Arts Centre in Cardiff, at numerous Mothers Unions across south-east Wales, and for a Living Faith group (the diocese of Llandaff’s course aimed at exploring faith in today’s world) at my chaplaincy in Cardiff University. Next week I will give a paper on compassion and healthcare at a conference in Birmingham. Before I go, though, I want to post something on a question that has been asked at many of my talks and has been e-mailed to me as a response to my blog posts – why do we have to be quite so radical in our compassion? I have therefore adapted a section from my book The Compassion Quest and hope you find it helpful in considering this question. Over the past few months, I have been assisting at St John the Baptist’s church in the centre of Cardiff, so I also include some photographs that I have taken of the stained-glass windows there, which take up the theme of compassion.

Compassion and JesusWhile the Old Testament presents God as compassion and urges us to imitate him in our everyday lives, the New Testament goes a step further, by giving us a tangible, living example of God as compassion and providing a blueprint for a radical model of compassion in our own lives. The person Jesus embodies the very heart of compassion. Christ’s love is a love that empties itself of status, power or privilege and takes on the form of a servant to others. Referring directly to compassion, the New Testament in fact uses two different Greek words. The first word is eleeo, which is primarily used by those who appeal to Jesus for healing. The second word, splanchnizomai, expresses a deeper and more passionate form of compassion. In modern parlance it could literally be translated ‘to be moved in one’s guts’, and is used for Jesus’ own reaction to those who are pleading for healing. Jesus, therefore, responds to those who plea for basic compassion (eleeo) with a compassion that is intimate and intense (splanchnizomai). The pain and suffering of others engenders not merely superficial sympathy in Jesus, but rather affects him in the core of his being. Jesus was compassion incarnate – compassion made flesh – and it is this deep-seated compassion that leads him to do something about the suffering with which he is confronted. It might be said, then, that it is not necessarily the physical healing itself that reveals God in Jesus’ miracles, but that God is revealed in the compassion that leads to the cure. ‘The mystery of God’s love is not that our pain is taken away,’ wrote Henri Nouwen, ‘but that God first wants to share the pain with us.’

Compassion and JesusNot so long ago, Philip Pullman, the agnostic author, published an apocryphal retelling of Jesus’ life, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. This book vividly expresses the scandal of such radical compassion. Jesus is presented as having a twin brother, simply called ‘Christ’, who follows him around the Palestinian countryside, interpreting his teachings and his actions. He is particularly shocked at Jesus’ teaching about God’s compassion and grace. The parables Jesus tells (the good Samaritan, the prodigal son, the lost sheep, the great feast, and so on) describe a universal love that is arbitrary and undeserved, almost like a lottery, and the twin brother believes that this is simply a ‘horrible’ way of viewing love. Furthermore, Jesus’ lifestyle reflects this ‘unfair’ concept of love. He mixes with undesirables like tax collectors and prostitutes, he claims to be ushering in a time of compassion by announcing the coming kingdom of God, and he condemns much of what was considered as virtue at the time. In Pullman’s tale, the whole situation seriously disturbs the scoundrel ‘Christ’, and so he completely rejects his twin brother as naive and delusional. Yet it is this very attitude that is the crux of both the teachings and the actions of the Jesus that we Christians follow – an uncompromising, self-giving, unconditional compassion that transcends religious, political or ethnic differences. ‘What is needed is a radicalism that leads beyond both the right and left,’ writes Jim Wallis, the Christian political activist who serves as spiritual advisor to Barack Obama, ‘that radicalism that can be found in the gospel which is neither liberal nor conservative but fully compassionate.’

Compassion and JesusCompassion should therefore be at the very centre of the life of every Christian, rather than at the periphery. We should be championing it to our children and teaching it in our schools above the desire for success and achievement. Albert Schweitzer argued that children have a basic capacity for compassion, which needs to be nurtured if it is to grow and thrive. Furthermore, once compassion is fostered in our children and in ourselves, we would more than likely see a snowball effect, as people ‘pay it forward’, as the film of that name put it. The more we give, the more others (and often ourselves) will receive in return. Individuals, communities and societies are thus enlivened and brought hope through this process. Like ripples on a pond, our compassion will have far-reaching effects on far more people than we realize. ‘If money goes, money comes,’ claimed Dr Aziz in E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, ‘if money stays, death comes.’ Our faith does not remain behind stained-glass windows, where its pious and sanctimonious character confirms itself as irrelevant and trivial. Rather, we give ourselves joyously in radical compassionate love for others, as we act, in the words of Etty Hillesum who died at Auschwitz, ‘as a balm for all wounds’.

For more on this theme, see chapter 5 “Radical Compassion” in The Compassion Quest.