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.

Advent and the Weight for Christmas

img_3263At the moment, I’m fascinated in books about words, and letters and languages. I’m finding out all sorts of intriguing facts – did you know, for example, that sixteenth-century printers used to keep their capital letters in one case and the other letters in another case, which is why letters became known as Upper Case and Lower Case?! I’ve also discovered all about homophones – words that sound the same but have no relation whatsoever to one another. Take, for example, the word “weight”, meaning a heaviness or a heavy load or object, and the word “wait”, meaning an inactivity until a future expectation happens. Clearly they are very different words.

Advent is a time of “waiting” for that future expectation – waiting for the birth of Christ, waiting for the celebration of Christmas Day. Most of us don’t enjoy having to wait for things, and, in our instantaneous and speedy world, we have all sorts of ways of hurrying things up. As the comedian Steve Wright quipped, ‘I put my instant coffee in my microwave oven and almost went back in time’!

k6rmf-glass-in-handWith this is mind, perhaps the word “wait” is not so different to its homophone-partner “weight”. Someone sent me an email this week that described how a teacher picked up a glass of water and asked a group of students how heavy it was. All sorts of answers were called out, ranging from 5 ounces to 30 ounces. The teacher then informed them that the absolute weight has no bearing on our own experience of the weight: “The weight depends on how long I hold it. If I hold it for a minute, it’s no problem at all. If I hold it for an hour, I’ll have a slight ache in my arm. If I hold it for a day, then my whole arm will start to feel numb and paralyzed. In each case, the weight of the glass doesn’t change, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes”.

i-am-waitingSometimes, when we are waiting for something or someone, it can be rather frustrating and wearisome, like an ache in the arm. It can be a somewhat unpleasant experience when we are waiting in a queue in a supermarket or we’re waiting for a friend who’s late once again. But waiting can also be far more serious and severe. Ultimately, waiting can weigh us down. It can be like carrying a heavy load for a long period. It can numb us and paralyze us when we are waiting for recovery from illness, waiting for depression to lift, waiting for light to break through grief, waiting for test results, or waiting for the hurt of broken relationships to heal.

6a01127946f41528a40120a6aceca0970b-800wiNothing can completely take away the darkness of some of our waiting. But in all our waiting, Christ can make a difference. To use another homophone, he can make the darkness lighter and he can make the heavy load lighter. In this sense, waiting doesn’t have to always be so frustrating or painful. After all, there are two times of waiting in church calendar – advent and lent – and both have something in common. Both end in new life and joy. It is, therefore, no surprise that almost all the verses in the Bible that mention “waiting” do not relate it to heaviness, pain, and oppression. Instead, they imply that we have a choice to view our waiting in a different way – as a gift where we are invited to treasure each moment. As Isaiah 40:31 puts it: “but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint”.

IMG_5184Whatever kind of waiting we are experiencing, then, we can choose to actively appreciate and cherish. Sometimes our waiting is looking forward in anticipation to a good event. This should be fun and fulfilling, but it can also lead us to live our lives in the future, rather than enjoy the gift of waiting. Over the past year, I have found myself sitting with my one-year-old son and thinking how much I’m looking forward to the next stage of his development – at first it was when he crawls, then when he walks, then when he talks. I was looking at photos of him recently and I realised how much I had missed of the stages he was at by looking to the future. I now challenge myself to appreciate where he is now – you could call it “the waiting for the next stage” – rather than wishing the next stage would come quickly.

beauty_ordinary_thingsThere are other times, though, when our waiting is not to do with anticipation, but rather we are forced to wait, due to illness or to a traumatic event. Again, while it may well be difficult, we can wait actively in these moments. During the intense period of my own back injury, before my operation, I had almost 12 months where I was laid up in bed for most of the day. I would venture out for very short daily strolls. But I taught myself to truly appreciate those walks – the beauty of nature, the conversation of friends who visited to walk with me, the silence when I walked alone, the uplifting music when I took my ipod. This was all God at work, and, in spite of my continuing pain, I could not help but celebrate His wonderful, mysterious, and holy gift of life.

large‘Active waiting’ is about finding God’s light in your journeys, however long and difficult your wait, however heavy and burdensome your weight. The poet Ralph Waldo Emerson asked the question: “how much of human life is lost in waiting?” And he’s right – how much of life is wasted, waiting for the future to happen? Our time is precious, and active waiting helps us to connect with God and appreciate our time fully. In the words of the author Sharlande Sledge, it helps us to “transform our in-the-meantime into God’s time”.

Sharlande Sledge: Prayer on Waiting

Look upon us gently, Lord, for waiting is not our forte. So many things are… things like moving ahead, fixing what is wrong, planning what is next, diagnosing the problem, cramming more into one day than one person can possibly do before the sun goes down.

But waiting… when we are waiting for the light to shine, when we are waiting for the Word, when we are waiting for a wound to heal, nothing in all the world is harder than waiting.

So in your mercy, Lord, wait with us.

Be very present in waiting.  Heal our frenzy. Calm our fears. Comfort those who at this very minute are with every anxious breath and thought waiting for they know-not-what.

Transform our in-the-meantime into your time, while we wait with each other, sit with each other, pray each other into hope, surrounded by your presence, even in the darkness. Especially in the darkness. Amen

 See also:

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

‘The path of peace’ (Luke 1:79): Can our faith help us when we face depression, anxiety, and stress?

MentalHealthBrainToday is World Mental Health Day. As I was leaving St Mary’s, Ealing, London last weekend, having given a talk on finding hope and meaning in suffering, another group were coming in to use the church. This was a group for contemplation and prayer, and many of them had come early to hear my talk before their service. On chatting to them, they asked what I believe prayer and contemplation could offer to those of us who suffer depression, anxiety, and stress. I was able to answer them in detail, as my Masters dissertation at Oxford University was on that topic. The following article, which is adapted from an article I wrote a number of years back for the wonderful website Mind and Soul: Exploring Christianity and Mental Health, summarises my work at Oxford.

mental-healthIn 2006 a report on happiness in our society, written by Nick Spencer at the Theos think tank, noted that, while the British are richer than ever before, own more than ever before, and live longer and healthier lives than in the past, all the evidence suggests that people are no happier than they were thirty years ago. In fact, some studies indicate that most people are considerably less happy. Certainly, personal psychological ill-health has risen notably over the past few decades. Depression, anxiety, and stress are widespread in the UK, with the NHS spending many millions of pounds on treatments and therapy.

Mental-health-problems-007In recent years, a number of psychologists and psychiatrists have posited mindfulness as a tool for managing mood problems. Originating in Buddhism, mindfulness can be summarised as having a compassionate, non-judgemental awareness of the present moment. In being aware of the reality around us, we become fully alert to the sensations in our bodies, the flow of our thoughts, and the sights and sounds around us. When combined with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), research has shown that mindfulness can significantly transform a person suffering from a mood disorder. This research, led by scientist-practitioners such as Jon Kabat-Zinn, Marsha Lineham, Steven C. Hayes, and Williams/Teasdale/Segal, has become known as the third-wave of CBT.

Praying1It is, however, rarely appreciated that our own Christian tradition has much to offer in this sphere. The ancient practice of contemplative prayer is sometimes called ‘Christian meditation’, but is not to be confused with the more widespread Christian practice of discursive meditation. Contemplative prayer has had a long history in Christian tradition, and in the late twentieth-century it underwent a revival, largely led by the Roman Catholic religious orders but also promoted by a number of prominent Anglicans, Quakers, and Protestant evangelicals. Contemplation holds many similarities with mindfulness, and so a Christianised form of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy could potentially be created and developed.

Those cognitive therapies that utilise mindfulness as part of treatment for mood disorders are built around three aspects of mindfulness – meditation, non-judgemental awareness, and acceptance. It is striking that Christianity has long-advocated similar principles to these three mindfulness principles, not least within the contemplative tradition of the church.

prayingHands_small_280x240Christian meditation has been varied and diverse down the centuries. It is those techniques that bear resemblance to mindfulness meditation that could be adapted and utilised most successfully for combating mental ill-health. Many of these forms of prayer are centuries old, but have recently been developed by such contemplatives as Anthony De Mello (body-awareness prayer), Thomas Keating (centring prayer), James Finley (Christian meditation), or Thomas Ryan (prayer of heart and body). Protestant contemplatives, such as Richard Foster, Joyce Huggett, Liz Babbs, and James W. Goll, have championed similar forms of prayer. ‘Shut your mouth; open your eyes and ears;’ wrote C.S. Lewis, ‘take in what there is and give no thought to what might have been there or what is somewhere else’. Just as meditation can lead to mindfulness, contemplative prayer can lead us to live contemplatively. In other words, it can help us to recognise, in the words of Jean Pierre de Caussade in the eighteenth-century, the ‘sanctity of the present moment’, and can, therefore, help us to observe our thoughts and feelings in that moment.

79bd66b9-783a-43e8-8b27-bd6a663b5c51Christian traditions are also well-versed in the concept of non-judgemental awareness. It is by resting in the ‘sacrament of the present moment’ that we begin to see our prejudices and distorted thinking from an objective viewpoint – in a sense, from God’s perspective. Our false emotional programs for happiness can be dismantled, and, while we might still be encountering the same depressive thoughts and unhelpful feelings, we are able to recognise those thoughts and feelings as distorted and dangerous. Thomas Keating refers to such thoughts, memories, and feelings as the ‘false self’, while other writers have referred to them as our ‘self-will’ (Catherine of Genoa and Teresa of Avila), ‘desires’ (John of the Cross), ‘egomania’ (Richard Foster), ‘empire of self’ (James W. Goll), or ‘ego consciousness’ (James Finley). These are our attachments to security, control, affection, and esteem. In the context of a Christianised mindfulness cognitive therapy, these are our core-beliefs that have developed through reaction and habit. As a result of noticing and analysing our thoughts and feelings, these core beliefs can be purged, rejected, or adapted.

let-go-let-godWithin many Christian traditions, not least the contemplative movement, the acceptance of God’s providence is prevalent. The ‘sacrament of the present moment’ awakens us to recognise God in each and every moment of our lives, which includes times of pain and suffering, as well as more joyful and happy times. This leads to what Jean-Pierre de Caussade describes as ‘self-abandonment to divine providence’. Through recognising God’s loving purpose, even in the midst of trials and tribulation, we can joyfully surrender ourselves to God’s will in our lives. This is all part of the ‘letting go’, which many mystics have placed at the heart of happiness, contentment, and peace. If we have the courage to trust God and to submit ourselves to Him, we will not only learn to accept unfolding events, but also ‘to embrace and bless them’. This will then help us change our relationship with the negative aspects of our being and situation, and the unhelpful and distorted feelings within us will cease to control us. This ‘courage to be’ (Paul Tillich), to affirm being, in the face of our anxieties about life and about the future, is at the heart of Christian acceptance.

Psalm46.10A number of factors would need to be in place if a contemplative programme of treatment for depression, stress, and anxiety was to be developed and sustained. Firstly, the education of laity and clergy needs to be a priority. This will counter prejudice against and misunderstanding of contemplative prayer, but also bring relationship of Christianity with mental health issues to the fore. Secondly, the training of clergy and other spiritual advisors needs to be a priority – both in traditions of contemplative prayer and in the relationship of contemplation to emotional well-being. Thirdly, the relationship between Church and mental health professionals needs to be further fostered. Both need to know about, understand, and be able to support a contemplative/meditative approach to healing. Finally, contemplative prayer groups need to be established, and ecumenical groups should be encouraged, making the groups more viable and diverse. If groups are already running, they need to be advertised more clearly and widely. Indeed, if these factors were developed and put in place, then contemplative theology could certainly hold the key to developing a Christian mindfulness, and this could significantly help those Christians suffering mental ill-health.

How Great Thou Art: Elvis Presley and his Faith

ElvisA few months back I wrote a post about pop music and faith, and I have been astounded by its popularity – the post still has regular traffic from across the world. This has led me to post the following article that I wrote ten years ago, when I was based one summer in Washington DC, for a website that has long since disappeared. The article has a special significance this week, as it was exactly sixty years ago that an unknown 19-year-old recorded his first record. That single was “That’s All Right (Mama)” and it wasn’t long before Elvis Aaron Presley was being dubbed “The King of Rock’n’Roll”.

ElvisprayerOnly a few hours before Elvis’s death, his close friend Rick Stanley heard him reciting a Christian prayer of repentance. ‘Dear Lord,’ he prayed, ‘please show me a way. I’m tired and confused and I need your help.’ Elvis may well be remembered for shooting televisions, pain-killer addiction, and womanising, but the King of Rock’n’Roll should also be remembered for another side to him. Elvis was, of course, also a deeply religious individual, and his faith was central to his life. Like all of us, he had a flawed personality, but his intentions were clear to all his friends. ‘He was a deeply spiritual man;’ noted Ray Walker of The Jordanaires, the legendary quartet that sang with Elvis for many years, ‘he was more spiritual than anyone around him’.

elvis2The Pentecostal faith of Elvis’s childhood certainly shaped his music. Not only did his secular rock’n’roll records borrow from the musical experiences of his Southern church upbringing, but he also recorded gospel songs throughout his life. In fact, Jerry Schilling, one of the Memphis Mafia, Elvis’s closest confidents, claims that Elvis would enjoy nothing more than escaping the mansion and going to the piano at his little gym. There he would sing gospel songs and old spirituals for hours on end. His recorded gospel songs proved remarkably popular, from “Peace in the Valley” and “Run On” in the 50s and 60s to “I Got Confidence” and “Amazing Grace” in the 70s. The record “How Great Thou Art” earned Elvis his first Grammy Award, and he would win two more Grammy Awards for his gospel recordings. ‘I know practically every religious song that’s ever been written’, he once boasted.

Praying ElvisIt seems, however, that faith was not merely a musical journey for Elvis. His friends have claimed that he knew the Bible better than most ministers do, and in his periods of self-loathing he was said to rely for comfort and grace on the Scriptures. When away from his Bible, his friends recall that he would leave it open on Corinthians 13, St Paul’s great ode to love. Likewise, prayer was central to his life. Before every concert he would insist that his band prayed with him, and, during his 70s concerts especially, he would interject thoughts of inspiration and passage readings from the Bible. His faith also inspired him in practical and humanitarian ways, as he spent time with friends who needed comfort and gave generously to charities. ‘He wasn’t faking it, and people can tell that,’ notes Jason Freeman of the Legendary Sun Studio in Memphis. ‘He was very spiritual, and that attracted a lot of people to him.’

By the mid-sixties, Elvis concluded that he was aimed to fulfil two desires in his lifetime. Firstly, he wished to create a music that brought happiness to people; and, secondly, he aimed to perform a higher purpose or service for God.  This higher purpose, he later claimed, would be to show to his fans the truth of Christianity, and the love and peace it brought to him. Certainly his own faith empowered him in so many ways. ‘His religious faith told him “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so”, to quote a popular Southern religious song,’ claims Charles R. Wilson of the University of Mississippi, ‘…so his faith gave him much inspiration’.

Elvis-Hard-Rock-stained-glassIt is certainly ironic that an Elvis-religion (sometimes called Elvism, the Presleyterian church, or Presleyanity) is being alluded to by fans and social-critics alike. ‘Fan clubs are churches,’ notes Vernon Chadwick, ‘impersonators are priests, song lyrics are scripture, souvenirs are relics, sightings are Second Comings, and of course Graceland and Memphis are the holy land’. This is surely a far cry from what Elvis himself would have wanted. After all, Elvis’s friend and gospel superstar J.D. Sumner recalls an incident during a concert in Las Vegas. A woman approached the stage carrying a crown on a purple, velvet pillow. ‘It’s for you,’ she said to Elvis, ‘you’re the king’. Without hesitation, Elvis took her by the hand and answered in his kind, drawling voice: ‘No, honey, I’m not the king. Christ is the king. I’m just a singer’.

 

See also: Rock of Ages: Pop music, faith, and the challenge to the Church today

Together we stand: The importance of Christian unity

Family‘Though the body is made up of many parts, it is still one body’ (1 Cor 12:12). Last night I preached at a big service in Cardiff for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I started by taking about my family in North Wales. I am from a large family – I have three brothers and one sister. I tease my parents by telling them that they kept trying until they got one they liked! All five of us siblings look quite similar, but we’re actually very different people. We have different personalities (some of us are very firey and others pretty chilled), we have very different jobs (one brother is a headmaster, another trained as a gamekeeper and a plumber, and so on), we have different interests (one brother is a twitcher who travels the country birdwatching, another has STFC tatooed on his arm and travels the country following his favourite football team Shrewsbury Town, another was a finalist in the Welsh version of the X Factor (‘Can i Gymru’), and so on). So we all have same mother and father, we’re all brothers and sisters, but we have our own unique and precious characteristics that I know our parents love and cherish.

Christian UnityIt dawned on me this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity how our own families reflect the Church. From the time of the disciples, groups of Christians have thought and acted very differently. The early Christians in the book of Acts, for example, disagreed whether Christians should practice Jewish customs or not. By today, all us churches are very different in the way we worship, in our priorities, and in our theology. But let’s not forget that we are similar in one important way: we all pray ‘Our Father’, rather than ‘My Father’. So we’re all brothers and sisters in Christ, with Paul’s letters even referring to the churches as brothers and sisters. So we’re brothers and sisters who have our own unique and precious characteristics – ones that our Father in heaven loves and cherishes, and ones that we should appreciate in each other.

Jerry lee lewisWhen the five of us North Wales siblings were younger, we were brought up in beautiful Snowdonia. My Grandparents, who lived in the big smoke of our capital city Cardiff, used to call us the feral mountain children, and I quite often tease my own children by insisting that I was raised by wolves on the slopes of Snowdon. In reality, of course, we had no links with wolves, but I do remember that we all fought like cats and dogs when we were kids! I remember one punch up with my older brother that began with an argument as to who was more famous – Jerry Lee Lewis or Suzanne Vega. Twenty years later, I’m still certain I was correct – I mean, who is Suzanne Vega anyway?! By now, despite all our past fights and despite our differences personalities, we brothers and sister all get on very well, and we so enjoy meeting up with each other.

Winds of ChangeAgain, just as brothers and sisters go through changes in the way they treat each other as they grow-up and mature, so the relationships of churches and denominations have developed. Five hundred years ago we were literally killing each other, and even only 50 years ago, there was so much hatred, bitterness and prejudice on all sides. My first book, Winds of Change, researched church relationships in Wales during the twentieth century, and, as I trawled through old newspapers in dusty archives, I remember being shocked at what I was reading –  local chapel members attacking Catholic priests with stones, Anglican bishops announcing that all other churches in Wales were intruders, and Catholics claiming those outside Rome were not going to heaven. Well, things have certainly changed. We are so used to saying that things have changed for the worse. So we should rejoice and thank God for a change for the better – our churches have grown-up and matured, and we now lovingly recognise each other as brothers and sisters.

unityWe must remember, though, that relationships do not survive without effort. I am close to my brothers and sister because I phone them, we visit each other, we write e-mails to each other, I try to remember their birthdays (although there’s a lot of them!), and so on. Likewise, my relationship with God is alive because I talk to him in prayer, I listen for his voice in life, I recognise him in the people I meet, I study and read his book, and so on. So, in this Week of Christian Unity we might want to make a promise to ourselves that we will nurture our relationship with our brother and sister Christians – not just this week, but throughout the year. We could visit each other’s churches, we could pray for each other, we could support each other in any events organised – coffee mornings, special services, kids events, social nights, and so on. We can let those outside our churches know that, to us, religion is not something that divides, but is something that brings us together. After all, we are all parts of the body of Christ, and, to quote 1 Corinthians, ‘there should be no division in the body, but its parts should have equal concern for each other’. As Psalm 133 announces, ‘how good and how pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell in unity!’