Thought for the Day: The Beatles, the Beatitudes, and the God of the Unexpected

In the style of my Lent Book Opening our Lives and Advent Book Real God in the Real World, I will be sharing occasional “thoughts for the day” on various subjects on this blog. Hope you enjoy.

Recently, Peter Jackson, most famous as director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, edited footage of the three weeks in 1969 when the Beatles recorded their final album. It’s a marathon of a documentary, almost 9 hours long, but it’s also fascinating. It reveals how the creativity of the Beatles was fuelled by marmalade on toast and it shows how, in their final months as a band, the sometimes-fractious relationships between the Fab Four inspired them to compose some of their most timeless tunes, including “Let it Be” and “Get Back”. Their plan was to end the three weeks by performing in an ancient auditorium in Tripoli. Eventually, though, they simply decide to climb up to the rooftop of their studio in London and play a concert to the astounded people walking past.

As the police desperately try to gain access to the rooftop to put a stop to the concert, the filmmakers interview people on the streets below. Some are unhappy at the music blasting out, while others are excited by the final time the Beatles would ever perform in public. The interviewers then come to an ageing vicar. We might expect him to side with the greying businessmen condemning the loud music. Refreshingly, though, he doesn’t play into the stereotype of the grumpy Christian bemoaning noisy youths. Instead, he looks up to the roof, smiles warmly, and says that rarely do people get anything for free and how wonderful it was that the young people were enjoying it so much!

As I watched that joyful, unpredictable vicar, I was reminded somewhat of the God that he was following. The Bible reveals to us that our God is the God of the unexpected. Jesus’s teaching reveals a God who topples our predictions and confounds our expectations. In particular, he doesn’t side with the people who we think might deserve it. Instead, he embraces the people that our society believes should be side-lined or ignored. This God of ours brings the people on the edges of life to the centre stage – all the lonely people, as the Beatles put it, but also the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the grieving, the depressed, the anxious, the struggling, the lowly, the gentle, the marginalised, the powerless, the hated, the outsider, and the unwanted.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus astonishingly refers to these people as “blessed” (Luke 6:20-26) – or even “happy” as the Greek word used (makarios) can be translated. In God’s eyes, it is the struggling people on the edges of our society who are blessed and happy. This sharply contradicts how our world seems to work – where the rich, the capable, the successful, the powerful, and the famous are glorified, while others are viewed as expendable consumers, to sell things to or to be discarded as unprofitable or useless.

The Beatles famously sang that “all you need is love”. Whatever they meant by that, our faith reminds us that Christian love is something radically different from saccharin-sweet Valentine’s Day love. God’s love destroys the dominant worldview and ushers in a strange kingdom that has dramatic implications on our lives. It demands that we ask ourselves some searching questions. Who do we glorify in our world? Who do we demonise? How do we view certain people and groups? Are we truly living out our upside-down, downside-up, topsy-turvy, flipped-around faith? Or are we simply standing around, like the predictable people in the Beatles documentary, complaining about the noise and looking down with disdain on those who are not like us? And are we too quickly slipping into our comfort zones and descending into the stereotype of how we think a “normal” Christian should behave and react?

One thing is clear – there’s nothing normal about our faith, and neither is there anything comfortable, snug, or predictable. Instead, Jesus introduces us to the God of the unexpected and, by doing so, he rips up and tears apart all the world teaches about human nature. In our faith is a radical, revolutionary call to sacrifice, love, and compassion. Through our faith, and with our help, God can and will transform our broken world.

Thought for the Day: Hanging out with God

In the style of my Lent Book Opening our Lives and Advent Book Real God in the Real World, I will be sharing occasional “thoughts for the day” on various subjects on this blog. Hope you enjoy. The following was originally written for St Padarn’s Institute in Cardiff, Wales, where I am Tutor in Applied Theology. My role at St Padarn’s is as programme leader for the Durham University-validated MA (Theology, Ministry, & Mission).

If someone had told me a few years back that we would be in a pandemic when most of us would be at home for the majority of our time, I would have thought “well, at least it will give us plenty of time for prayer”! As it happens, for so many of us, that hasn’t necessarily been the case. Homeschooling, endless zoom calls, and family duties, not to mention the worry and stress of what we are going through, has meant finding “God time” in our lockdown lives has not always been easy.

The comedian Frank Skinner, in his latest book A Comedian’s Prayer Book, writes about fostering our relationship with God and the need for us to sit or walk, often in silence, with Him. He talks about how Johnny Cash and his best friend Bob Dylan were so close that they would sit fishing, side-by-side, for many hours without speaking and would still feel comfortable with, and uplifted in, each other’s presence. Skinner then prays to God by saying: “I’d like to think you and I are at least as close as Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan”!

Finding moments just “to be” with God is so important for our relationship with Him, whether we are sitting quietly in our living room, chopping vegetables while preparing our dinner, taking a stroll in our local park, waiting for a bus or train to arrive, or simply having our daily shower. Eric Clapton once sung how he had finally found a way to live life to all its fullness – by living “in the presence of the Lord”. Centuries earlier, the seventeenth-century monk Brother Lawrence said a similar thing in urging Christians to “practice the presence of God” in their everyday lives.

Why do we do this? This was a question I faced as I was putting my seven-year-old to bed last week: “what’s the point of praying, daddy?” There’s nothing like a small child to challenge your theology at the end of a long day! I then remembered what Archbishop Desmond Tutu had said about prayer. Spending time with God, I told my son, is like sitting next to a fire on a cold day. We feel the warmth and we take on the attributes of the fire – we become warm. Similarly, when we put ourselves in God’s presence, we somehow take on his attributes. God is love, so we become more like him – less judgemental and more loving. On hearing this, my son snuggled down, wrapped his duvet around himself, thought for a while, and said “hmmm, yes, hanging out with God just makes sense”.

So, this week, I want to encourage you to find some time, in whatever way you can, simply to be with God. Feel close to him. Practice his presence. Rest in the warmth. Embrace his love. Why? Well, because, you know, hanging out with God just makes sense.

Easter, Notre Dame, and Climate Change

Today is a joyful day – Jesus is risen – Alleluia! His resurrection brings hope and promise in so many ways. Today is a joyful day because of the promise of resurrection in the future – death is not the end. Alleluia! Today is a joyful day because of the hope of new life now – it gives us hope to those suffering in this life – the grieving, the oppressed, the anxious, the ill, the imprisoned. Alleluia! Today is a joyful day because it holds new hope for the whole of creation – there will come a day when creation itself will be renewed and transformed. Today is a joyful day because it brings hope and promise for new life now for God’s magnificent creation. Alleluia!

We are often reminded at our churches about the hope that Easter brings to humankind, both in the future and the present. Rarely, though, do we hear about the hope that Easter brings to the whole of creation. Yet the biblical narrative insists this is the case and our Easter traditions are littered with reminders of this fact. In Jesus’s first appearance, he is even mistaken for a gardener, and Christians have long used imagery from nature to remind us of his promise of new life – eggs, lambs, bunnies, and chicks. And that is before we consider the New Testament’s insistence that, in Christ, the natural world finds its completion. “Behold I make all things new”, as Revelation puts it (21:5). In other words, the most important moment in our faith, the resurrection, speaks directly into the most pressing challenge to our generation – climate change.

It was inspiring this week to see the reaction to the tragedy of the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral. In the flames that we all witnessed in our screens, we had a symbol of helplessness, loss and sorrow – a crucifixion, if you like. On the streets of Paris, there were tears and lamentation, with the realisation that something sacred was about to be lost to future generations. The horror and the disbelief, however, was soon transformed into something very different – a refusal to consign beauty to ashes and a desire to rebuild and give life to the smouldering, sacred ruins. It may take many years, but the cathedral will again became a symbol of hope, new life, and resurrection. Notre Dame will rise again. “Behold, I make all things new!”

But, of course, one majestic Cathedral is not “all things”. Many other things are still broken in the world, and many other things are being destroyed daily, not in accidental fire, but through greed, exploitation, and avarice. These things are being lost at a rate that is staggering and heartbreaking – rainforests, glaciers, whole species of insects, animals, fish, and birds. And the crisis, in changing our world’s climate, is now also threatening human life across the world. My wife recounts the words of an RE teacher in her school in Germany: “we say to our grandparents “why didn’t you do any thing when the holocaust was happening?”, but our grandchildren will say to us “why didn’t you do any thing when the environment was dying?”” As in the burning Notre Dame, God’s groaning, suffocating creation is another symbol of tragedy, loss, and sadness – another crucifixion. Something sacred is again about to be lost to future generations.

A few days ago, my 5-year-old son came to me and, out of nowhere, said: “when I grow up, daddy, and you die, can I have your grey bath towel?” I’m not sure about my bath towel, but it did get me thinking – what will we leave him and his generation? In the distant future, I would love to be able to say to them and their children and grandchildren:

“Yes, we rebuilt the wonderful Notre Dame for you, so you can visit to be filled with the grandeur of God’s glory. But we also did much, much more to show you the meaning of Easter Sunday and the resurrection. We fed the hungry, we freed the oppressed, we defeated racism, xenophobia, and all forms of discrimination and hatred, we brought comfort and hope to those who mourn, we offered peace to those who suffer, we gifted good news to those who feel despairing and hopeless, and we lived out the Easter promise of new life for all creation… and so we left for you clean seas full of fish not plastic, clean air for you to breathe, clean water for you to drink, and green and healthy forests brimming with foliage, animals, insects and birds.”

I’d love to be able to say to them that our world became a symbol of hope, new life, and resurrection – that our planet has risen again. “Behold, I make all things new!”” But will we be able to say this to future generations?

Today is all about good news, and there is good news here – it is not too late and resurrection is hardwired into nature. Plant a tree and things already start to change and be renewed. Yes, we desperately need wholesale changes by businesses and governments to combat climate change. But we also need to remember that our own little acts make a difference. As Pope Francis put it, in an encyclical on climate change that he presented as a gift to a visiting President Trump: “an integral ecology is also made up of simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness”. He then lists some of those little acts that can make a difference, that can help bring new life, hope, and resurrection to the natural world – using public transport, car-pooling, planting trees, turning off lights, recycling, and so on. As the activist Howard Zinn wrote: “we don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change – small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world”. This is the mustard seed principle (Mark 4:39-32) – small acts can lead to big change. After all, a snowflake never feels responsible for an avalanche, but every snowflake is making a difference.

Today is Easter Day, tomorrow will be Earth Day, as it is every April 22nd. Both days speak of new life and new hope. A BBC News report earlier this week said of Notre Dame: “this gift to all humanity will rise again”. And that is true. Within a decade, that wonderful cathedral’s bells will ring again, worship and praise will again resound from its pews, and its art and architecture will again speak to people of God’s glory. But we are called to ensure that creation, God’s ultimate gift to humanity, will also rise again. That is our mission, that is our challenge. By acting as God’s hands and feet, even in our smallest actions, we can affirm that all things will be made new. As Eric Liddell, who won gold in the Paris Olympics in 1924, detailed in the Oscar-Winning film Chariots of Fire, wrote: “God is not helpless among the ruins… God’s love is still working. He comes in and takes the calamity and uses it victoriously, working out his wonderful plan of love”. Behold God makes all things new. He is risen. Alleluia!

Storms of Life: Finding Hope in our Suffering

Since I underwent spinal surgery 12 years ago, I have had to face daily pain, but, through exercise and pain management, I have been able to manage its intensity. Eight weeks ago, though, only a day after I finished a 135-mile pilgrimage, I felt a level of pain I had not experienced in a decade. In the following few weeks, the pain got increasingly worse and I have had to endure numerous medical appointments and scans. Alongside the physical pain, there has also been the accompanying mental angst. These worries about the future have torn me away from the present and are invariably worse in the dead of night, when I’ve had no distractions to keep negative thoughts polluting my mind.

bear huntWe live in a society that attempts, as best it can, to avoid pain and suffering. Sometimes, though, the storms of life are inescapable. Last week, someone visited me as I lay on my sofa. “You need to face your pain like the great Bear Hunt”, they said, rather cryptically. It was only when my four-year-old son chose “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” as his bedtime story a few nights later that I understood something of what she meant. In this classic children’s book, we join a family as they search for a bear by facing various challenging terrains – forest, mud, long grass, and snow. With each different environment, we are told that “We can’t go over it; We can’t go under it; Oh no, we have to go through it!”

Sometimes we have to face the reality that our times of pain, hurt, affliction, or grief are unavoidable. At those times, we have to “gird up our loins”, as the Bible puts it (Job 40:7; 1 Peter 1:13), and face the misery of suffering head on. At those times, we cannot be like rugby players, skilfully sidestepping opponents. Instead, we are forced to be like American football players, confronting opposite numbers head-on by crashing into them. Each of us will face, in the words of St Paul, a “thorn in our flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7), and sometimes there is no other path other than to “take up our cross”, as Jesus told his disciples (Luke 9:23).

IMG_2964On my long pilgrimage which followed the coastline of North Wales, I spent many hours gazing out at the Irish Sea as I rested with my lunch or my trusty flask of tea. During those three weeks of walking, I noticed how the sea was brimming with life and activity – seals, porpoise, puffins, gannets, boats, fishermen, surfers. But I also observed how quickly the sea could be transformed, sometimes slowly from day-to-day, but other times in a matter of hours. When my four-year-old son is drawing the sea, he will immediately reach for the blue crayon. By spending a length of time staring out to the changeable sea, though, a plethora of beautiful colours emerge. These are often related to the sea’s condition – sometimes threatening and disturbingly dark, but, on other occasions, calm and crystal clear. One day, as I sat on a rock on the edge of a clifftop, I wrote in my notepad that the waves were like rolling, unforgiving white juggernauts crashing against the headland. The very next day, by now on a sandy beach, I jotted down that the sea was a serene stillness gently caressing the golden shoreline.

IMG_2845Like the changeable sea, our life journey is ever-changing. Sometimes all seems tranquil – we are blessed with times of joy, times of pleasure, and times of celebration. But sometimes storms rage around us – we have to face times of pain, times of anxiety, and times of grief. “There is a time for everything,” ponders Ecclesiastes (3:1), “and a season for every activity under the heavens”.

At those seasons of suffering in my own life, it has helped to remind myself that, like the rolling waves of the tide, our lives have a natural ebb and flow. Life is not a straight line, from birth to death, emerging from darkness and returning to darkness, or, indeed, from light to light. Rather, life is cyclical. The winters of our suffering can certainly be dark, long, cold, and painful, but spring will always burst forth. We wait for the snowdrops, because we know the daffodils will soon follow. We trust the nature of the seasons that this will happen, just as those of us who are Christians learn to trust that God will lead us out of our wait, however long and painful. The sixth-century theologian Boethius describes life as a wheel: “we rise up on the spokes, but we’re soon cast back down into the depths. Good times pass away, but then so do the bad. Change is our tragedy, but it’s also our hope. The worst of times, like the best, are always passing away”.

daffodilsThis thought, and this way of viewing the world, is helping me face the difficult wait of my own recuperation. As such, it is gradually transforming my anxious thoughts by giving me the strength to notice and value those little signs of spring breaking through the harshness of winter – to notice and value those daily moments of joy and grace that break through my continuing pain and frustration. This is as powerful a healing as any physical healing could offer. As an old proverb puts it: “Sometimes God calms the storm, but sometimes God calms the sailor”.

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

Nick Cave stained glassTen years ago, I taught a University module on pop music and the Christian faith, which was the first such course to be taught in the UK. One of the essays I would give the students was on Australian rock star Nick Cave’s perspective that pop music expresses our desire to reach out to the sacred. “Ultimately,” he writes, “the love song exists to fill, with language, the silence between ourselves and God, to decrease the distance between the temporal and the divine”. This viewpoint inspired me to write a later article in Anvil: The Journal for Theology and Mission, which argued that a conversational approach to pop music should be an integral part of the Church’s outreach, especially in connecting with younger generations. The article is still available online: ‘Pop Music and the Church’s Mission’.

one republicMy thoughts on this subject have not changed. In fact, when I hear the lyrics of the music that my children play, I am more convinced than ever that pop music holds both a great challenge and a wonderful opportunity for Christians today. Our pop charts continue to be full of spiritual searching, with many songs suffused with direct religious imagery and references. “Baby, I’ve been, I’ve been praying hard… Seek it out and you shall find”, sing One Republic on ‘Counting Stars’, presently at number 3 in the UK charts (compare Matthew 7:7-8). Other recent songs have been even more direct with matters of faith. “When food is gone you are my daily meal; When friends are gone I know my saviour’s love is real”, sung Florence and the Machine on their 2009 hit single ‘You’ve got the Love’.

madonna like a prayerNone of this is new, of course. Faith and spirituality have always had an intimate relationship with pop and rock music, from Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones (just listen to ‘Shine a Light’ and ‘I Just Want to See His Face’ on 1972’s seminal album ‘Exile on Main Street’), through to Madonna, Coldplay, Mumford and Sons, and U2 (whose songs are even used in some churches to form the structure of a communion service, cleverly entitled the ‘U2charist’).

Avril LavigneFor most songs, however, it is not their direct rooting in theology or Christian imagery that encourages those of faith to take note of them. Rather, it is the fact that they deal specifically, if often unwittingly, with key Christian themes such as sin, salvation, love, responsibility to one’s neighbours, hope, loss of innocence, compassion and redemption. In so many songs, there is an implicit, rather than an overt, sense of transcendence, which accompanies a real search for hope and meaning in a seemingly cold and uncaring world. “I don’t know who you are, but I’m, I’m with you”, sung Avril Lavigne on her 2003 award-winning song.

moby - jesusWith such a deep spirituality within much of today’s popular music, engagement and dialogue is essential, especially if the Church is to understand generations that are largely lost to its fold. Christians are called to a dynamic relationship with popular culture, in the same way that St Paul considered, and engaged with, the cultural and social make-up of the people to whom he was preaching (Acts 14:1-20). After all, both music and poetry harbour, to use Karl Rahner’s phrase, ‘the eternal marvel and silent mystery of God’ and so it is absolutely imperative that the Church takes seriously their contemporary forms. As William Romanowski puts it: “We need a different kind of Christian approach – an engaged, critical, and productive involvement with the popular arts – grounded in a faith vision that encompasses all of life and culture”.