Does being a Christian make us any more loving and compassionate?

lampshade - the one we got! It’s over three months now since we moved house and, considering we had Christmas and a new baby in that time, we’ve done pretty well in sorting the Vicarage out. Last week, we even got lampshades sorted in the rooms. They were delivered to the house and my wife and I put them up in the morning. Later in the day, I was sitting in the living room with a fellow vicar, under the glow of a wonderful new lampshade (the very one in the photo!). As we were chatting, my 7-year-old daughter came back from school and burst into the room. She looked straight up at the lampshade and stood staring up at it in appreciation. I reminded her that she should have first greeted us when she walked into the room. “Don’t just look up, look across as well”, I said. Quick as a flash, my colleague said “well there’s the sermon for next week!” We both laughed and got on with our meeting, but those words I said stayed with me – “don’t just look up, look across as well”.

IsaiahAs I was reading Isaiah 58 yesterday, I realised that there was not only a sermon but also a blog post in that little phrase! In that chapter God explains to his people why he is so displeased with them. They have certainly been carrying out their religious observances and duties – they have been fasting, praying, and keeping God’s commandments. The problem is, however, that they have also been exploiting their workers, oppressing the poor, being unwelcoming to the stranger, ignoring the hungry, and refusing to house the homeless. In other words, in Isaiah God is saying: “don’t just look up at me, look across at my children as well”.

Cardiff University ChaplaincyThis got me asking myself what difference our faith makes in our lives. I remember talking to one rather vocal atheist student when I was chaplain of Cardiff University and he said something that has stayed with me ever since. He charmed me by telling me what a good and compassionate person I was, but he didn’t finish there. “Yes, you’re a good, kind person, but that’s just who you are and it’s not necessarily anything to do with your faith – are you trying to tell me that, if you weren’t Christian, you’d suddenly become cruel and uncompassionate? So, basically, what’s the point of your faith?” I still find those words challenging. After all, if we are to call ourselves followers of Christ, then it must make a positive, loving, and life-affirming difference in our lives.

teabagAt the crux of this is the question whether being a Christian makes us any more loving and compassionate? Or does our faith make no difference to us outside of the hour each week that we give to going to church? Attending a church should make a huge difference to our lives, but it only does this if we allow it. It’s like having a teabag and a mug of hot water. The tea is a weekly church visit, and the water is the rest of the week. There’s no point keeping that teabag separate from the water. In fact, the tea bag is pretty useless without water. In other words, a church visit is useless if it doesn’t have an impact on each of our daily lives. So, we need to let the tea infuse the water; we need to let our faith enthuse every moment of our week – every conversation we have and every decision we make. If we don’t, we may as well stay in bed on Sunday morning. If our faith makes a difference in our daily lives, then it is priceless; if it doesn’t have any impact, then it is worthless.

The reality is, of course, that all of us are too often like the Israelites in Isaiah 58. We try desperately to allow our faith to make a difference, but end up getting our priorities completely wrong. The stand that we take as Christians on things that we think are important, blinds us from the things that really are important. Someone recently said to me how great it was that the Church can still get on front page of newspapers in its defence of “our beliefs and values”. Unfortunately, the Church’s priorities are often misplaced, and those so-called “beliefs and values” rarely reflect the heart of Jesus’s teaching. While we are busy discussing women bishops, gay marriage, and the loss of Christian influence in this country, the real message of the gospel, the message of liberation, grace, hope, peace, and joy, gets left behind. Sometimes I feel we are like the Russian Orthodox Church in 1917 – while the revolution was raging all around them, they were holding councils to discuss liturgical colours.

WWJDOur call, then, is to realign our priorities. One way of doing that is to ask ourselves those four little words that used to adorn many teenage bracelets in the US – ‘what would Jesus do?’ The phrase has almost become a parody, but that shouldn’t mask the importance of reflecting on the question. Where would Jesus’s priorities be channelled if he were living today? Would he, nicene creed or doctrinal confession in hand, be desperate to root out those whose theology was not the same as his? Would he be bemoaning the fact that this country is becoming more multi-cultural and mixed-faith? Would he rile against those same-sex couples who want to commit themselves to a lifetime of love and faithfulness? Would he be worrying about a person of a different gender to him being in a spiritual position of authority? OR would he be actually be more concerned with living out the love and compassion that is so missing in so many lives in today’s world? Would he be standing alongside those seeking asylum, the hungry, victims of domestic violence, victims of human trafficking, those in prison, those in hospitals and hospices, those campaigning for the environment, victims of sexual abuse, and those oppressed by gender, race, or ethnicity?

leastAlthough it is dangerous to put any words into Jesus’s mouth, there is no doubt that he would identify with these groups. This can be seen in Matthew 25, which scholars tell us Jesus said with Isaiah 58 in mind. “‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’” So, when we do live out our faith in our everyday lives and when we let our hour on Sunday infuse and enthuse the rest of our week, this is exactly what we will be doing – finding God in everyone we meet and treating them as if they were Jesus himself. That rather changes that phrase that we started with: “don’t just look up, look across as well”. The paradox is that when we look across at our neighbours, we actually are looking up, because we are looking at him! So, don’t just look up at him, but look across at him as well.

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?

 

“It could have been me”: Some thoughts on Prison and Compassion

prison 10Next week I’ve been invited to speak at a weekly book group for prisoners in a Category B prison. Over the past few months, the group has been reading and discussing my book Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering. I feel very privileged that this group of male prisoners have chosen my book as a starting point to explore their own backgrounds and situations.

From my past experience of visiting prisoners, I know that many will have had traumatic backgrounds which are often contributing factors to their present predicaments. I was personally blessed with an upbringing that shielded me from many of the more unpleasant or unhelpful experiences that some people go through as children or teenagers. Yet, I have no doubt that, if I had more malevolent formative experiences and influences, then my life would have turned out very differently. As the sixteenth-century English reformer John Bradford is purported to have exclaimed when he saw a group of prisoners being led to their execution: ‘there but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford’.

prison 5The role of compassion is to grasp and accept this difficult realisation – the realisation that, if circumstances were different, our actions and behaviour could be drastically altered. As a prison teacher explains to Kristin Scott Thomas in the recent French film I’ve Loved You so Long:

‘I spent 10 years teaching in a prison. I realised that people in prison were like me. They could have been in my shoes, or I could have been in theirs. It’s such a fine line sometimes.’

In the past I have taken groups of young students to a prison for young offenders, as part of a University course on social action. After the visits, the students would reflect on their experience. Every year they would report back the same experience. They would explain that, as they chatted to the inmates there was a dawning realisation that these young men were not ‘evil’ or ‘bad’. In fact, they were, by and large, young, energetic people like themselves, with similar interests, dreams, and aspirations. The only real difference was that most of the prisoners had either fallen in with the wrong crowd, had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, or had experienced unfortunate childhoods which had influenced their later actions.


prison 1On one occasion, I took a group to visit a maximum-security Category A prison. Once we had got through all the prison checks and had been escorted through half-a-dozen locked gates and doors, we were met by an amicable helper. He sat us all down in a room, served us tea, and made pleasant chitchat with us. After twenty minutes of friendly conversation, he asked us if we were concerned in any way about our visit. Our students proceeded to tell him how worried they were about actually meeting the inmates face-to-face, all of whom were incarcerated for serious crimes. ‘Well, I’m afraid you’re actually talking to one of the bad ‘uns right now’, the helper answered my stunned students. Before we had realised that he was a ‘criminal’, we had been able to relate to this man as a fellow human being and we had seen beyond the label to how God saw him – loved and embraced, whatever his past misdeeds.


prison 4To be compassionate means recognising our common humanity with others, whoever they are and whatever they’ve done. Part of this journey is to become aware of our own backgrounds, prejudices, and conditioning, so that we view people as they truly are, rather than as we imagine them to be. By doing so, we acknowledge that all are fully loved by God and, thus, we cannot fail to be moved by their suffering. After all, our call is not simply to sympathise with another person’s predicament. Rather, it is to recognise that, if circumstances were different, we could be in the same position as them. This drives us to the radical compassion of the New Testament, as we are drawn to actively enter and share the suffering of the other person: ‘remember those in prison as if you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured’ (Hebrews 13:3).

To explore this theme further, see Chapter 6 ‘There But for the Grace of God” in my book The Compassion Quest.

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