Lent – Holy Week: Open our Pain to your Peace

Recently, I was sitting on a bench facing our local city lake, Roath Park Lake. I noticed how calm and serene that lake was – the trees around it gently swaying, the ducks and swans gliding in the rippling water, even a heron fishing for his lunch. Peace. And then I glanced at the road around the lake – the hustle and bustle of buses taking people to and from city centre, children screaming and running as they came home from school, police cars with sirens speeding past, frustrated people in cars beeping their horns at each other.

We are now entering Holy Week. A week when Jesus faced betrayal, rejection, torture, pain, and death. And then we will come to the resurrection on Easter Sunday. The risen Jesus repeats two related phrases that can speak into our Holy Week this year. He says “peace be with you” and “do not be afraid” or “fear not”. After all, this journey from the cross to the tomb, and then from the tomb to new life, reassures us of two things. Firstly, it reassures us that Jesus knows what it’s like when we are going through difficult times –and he stands alongside us, with tears in his eyes, when we suffer. But, secondly, Jesus speaks into our pain and suffering – he says “peace be with you, do not be afraid“.

Now in Welsh we have two words for peace – heddwch and tangnefedd. Heddwch is a peace on the outside of us – a peace between people or between nations. Tangnefedd, on the other hand, is internal and eternal, a peace which reaches the depths of our souls. Tangnefedd is what Jesus offers us, “a peace that is beyond understanding”, as St Paul puts it, even when there is no peace outside of us.

And so this week, I want to challenge you, through remembering the suffering and abandonment that Jesus himself felt, to allow his peace to soothe your own worries, your own pain. Even though the stress, busyness, and anxiety of the world continues all around, your hearts and minds can have something of the calm and peaceful Roath Park Lake. It’s not that God’s peace will take away our problems. But it centres us, calms us, and helps us to view those concerns differently.

With everything we have been through over the past year, peace of heart may sometimes seem a distant dream. But Jesus speaks to us through our stress and struggles – he says: “peace be with you… do not be afraid”. Even if the world around us is turbulent and chaotic, our hearts can still be opened to the living water of peace, of tangnefedd. As theologian Andrew Todd put it when reflecting on the pandemic: “this is the peace which touches and holds us when we cannot touch and hold each other”.

This is the transcript of a video recorded for the Diocese of Llandaff. Click here to view video.

Opening our Lives can be purchased at any major online bookstore, including BRF, Amazon, Eden, Independent Booksellers, Church House, and Aslan.

Prayers for the Week

As we wonder about the ups and downs of your final week as a human

Lord, we ask you to

Open our pain to your peace

As we contemplate the highs and lows in our own lives

Lord, we ask you to

Open our pain to your peace

As we ask ourselves how we can best use of our days

Lord, we ask you to

Open our pain to your peace

As we are conscious of our own limitations

Lord, we ask you to

Open our pain to your peace

As we look upon our own wilderness

Lord, we ask you to

Open our pain to your peace

As we reflect upon the causes of the world’s suffering

Lord, we ask you to

Open our pain to your peace

As we call to mind people who are wrongly convicted

Lord, we ask you to

Open our pain to your peace

As we try to identify with those who are betrayed

Lord, we ask you to

Open our pain to your peace

As we ponder that isolation can occur anywhere

Lord, we ask you to

Open our pain to your peace

As we think about being transformed by you

Lord, we ask you to

Open our pain to your peace

As we remember that you are the God who brings peace out of pain, strength out of weakness, triumph out of tragedy

Lord, we ask you to

Open our pain to your peace

Amen

With thanks to Eleanor Williams, Christ Church, Roath Park, Cardiff for the prayers each week

Stephen Fry, Russell Brand, and the Theory of Everything: Part 2

TheTheoryOfEverythingPoster-01I have just returned from watching The Theory of Everything in the cinema. It was a wonderful example of finding hope and love in our broken lives. At times during the film, though, the uplifting element feels merely a superficial bandaid to cover up our feeling of helplessness and anger at the unjust pain and suffering that we witness in the film. Not only do we see Motor Neurone Disease ravage Professor Stephen Hawking’s body, but we also see the mental anguish his friends, wife and children go through as they face the consequences of a terminal disease. Like Stephen Fry, I felt like screaming to the heavens in outrage and indignation. There is certainly no “theory of everything” for Christians to explain the presence of suffering in the world. Like most people, my family and I have had our share of suffering, and, as a member of the clergy, I also have pastoral care for many who go through all manner of heartbreaking situations. The irony is, though, the only way this pain and suffering makes sense for me personally is in light of a loving and compassionate God, who reassures us that he knows what it’s like to face such anguish, stands alongside us in our tears, and affirms hope and meaning in seemingly hopeless and meaningless situations.

Towards the end of The Theory of Everything, as the couple face separation and divorce, Stephen Hawking looks at his wife, tears running down both of their faces, and utters four words that are so difficult to hold onto when we face times of darkness – “everything will be ok”. The wonderful peace behind those words, affirmed by Jesus himself and then countless Christian thinkers down the ages from Julian of Norwich to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is at the heart of the Christian response to suffering. The following extract is taken from my book Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering and asks whether we can make any sense of our suffering:

Cinema-Paradiso“In the film Cinema Paradiso (1989) the character Alfredo voices a sentiment that many of us feel at times in our lives. ‘With all due respect to the Lord who made the world in two or three days,’ he says, ‘I’d have taken a bit longer, but certain things I could have done better’. If we were playing God, there are certainly things about our fallen world that we may well want to change. Even at happy and upbeat times in our own lives, twenty-four hour news channels serve as a constant reminder that the dark side of life is uncomfortably close. The world continues to be troubled in so many different ways – wars, natural disasters, murder, child abuse, prejudice, hatred, and racism. When we personalise suffering, the situation seems even worse, as each one of us has endured pain and suffering at many levels during our lives. We may have lost someone we love, have been affected by illness or disability, have experienced broken relationships, have lost a job, or have experienced other traumas in our lives. Such incidences often take us by surprise, as they strike without warning and with devastating consequences. The playwright Christopher Fry compares the impact of suffering on our lives with an innocent walk on a minefield. ‘One minute you’re taking a stroll in the sun,’ he writes, ‘the next your legs and arms are all over the hedge’. He simply concludes that ‘there’s no dignity in it’.

XTC-Dear-God-69045The presence of such awful and indiscriminate suffering in the world is certainly one of the greatest challenges to belief in a loving God. As misery breaks through and our worlds are turned upside-down, words like ‘grace’ and ‘mercy’ often seem defunct. It is, therefore, unsurprising that the unfairness and injustice of life is one of the principal reasons given for rejection of God. In the song ‘Dear God’, the 1980s group XTC stood alongside many of their fellow agnostics and atheists in positing the depth of pain and misery in the world as a reason for their apostasy. God stands accused of failing His creation, as wars, natural disasters, and vicious diseases render him culpable. The song concludes that Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are nothing but ‘somebody’s unholy hoax’.

st teresaChristians themselves have long recognised that suffering has the potential to alienate people from the faith. ‘If this is the way you treat your friends, it is little wonder you have so few of them’, the sixteenth-century mystic St Teresa of Avila was overheard screaming up at God when her ox cart overturned. The consequence of suffering is, however, often more wide-reaching than a mere rejection of faith. Many fall into resentfulness, intolerance, callousness, or insensitivity as a result of their afflictions. It is certainly not our place to judge those who succumb to such bitterness or hard-heartedness, but each and every one of us does have the option of taking a different path through the dark night of our pain.

“Pain may remind us that we are alive, but love reminds us why we are alive” (Trystan Owain Hughes)In facing our suffering, then, our aim should not be to explain away or justify, in the words of Dostoevsky, ‘the human tears with which the earth is soaked from its crust to its centre’. Rather, our aim should be to start to make larger sense of, and ultimately learn through, the apparent senselessness of our circumstances. After all, if we are to find meaning and hope in our lives, then it must be equally valid, if not more valid, in times of suffering as it is in times of comfort. Furthermore, at the centre of that search for meaning and hope must be the experience of the world’s freely-given love. Our world may well be deeply flawed in its present form, but it still offers us a wonderful experience of the love that flows from joyous and life-affirming gifts such as laughter, nature, memories, art, and other people. Nietzche reminded us that ‘he who has a why to live can bear with almost any how’. It is in these gifts, which for Christians could be termed ‘glimpses of transcendence’ or ‘rumours of another world’, that we can discover the why in our torn and troubled lives.”

(extract taken from Trystan Owain Hughes, Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering SPCK, London 2013)

See also:

Stephen Fry, Russell Brand, and God in a suffering world: Part 1

Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering (blog post)

“Love reminds us why”: God and the mystery of suffering

Stephen Fry, Russell Brand, and God in a suffering world: Part 1

brand

Click to view Russell Brand’s reply to Stephen Fry

So much has been written on Stephen Fry’s recent interview on Irish television, in which he was asked what he’d say if he was confronted by God at the pearly gates. His answer described the divine as a “capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain”. Fellow-comedian Russell Brand’s responded to Fry on his YouTube channel, and, whether Brand would describe himself as “Christian” or not, he sums up much of what I have written about in two of my books – Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering and The Compassion Quest. Instead of contributing yet another response to the plethora of discussions already on the web, I have decided to post a series of extracts from those books – extracts that relate directly to the questions Stephen Fry asks and to the responses Russell Brand gives. The first extract sets the scene:

Color Purple“In Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Colour Purple, the main protagonist Celie, a poor, uneducated, black girl living in the Deep South of the United States in the 1930s, describes to a friend the God to which she was introduced at a very young age. ‘He big and old and tall and greybearded and white;’ she explains, ‘you wear white robes and go barefooted’. This God was a distant, authoritarian figure, who had been used for centuries to justify the power that whites held over blacks and that men held over women. Celie admits that it was, therefore, easy for her to discard her out-dated, white, male deity. ‘When I found out, I thought God was white, and a man, I lost interest’, she confesses. This, however, was only the beginning of Celie’s faith journey, and the novel describes her eventually laying aside her negative concept of God and moving towards a radically different, incarnational portrayal of the divine.

DawkinsBy today, while very few Christians would hold to a God who could be described as ‘white’ and a ‘man’, a theologically traditional view of God is still in ascendance. Yet, in recent years, the traditional image of God has found itself under vitriolic attack. Writers such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens certainly influence the thoughts and beliefs of their readers, but, more than this, they reflect and affirm the already deeply-held hostility of an increasingly atheistic society towards faith. Speaking about ‘God’ is regarded as being as nonsensical as speaking about Father Christmas or the tooth fairy. ‘Fairies don’t exist, because we don’t see them. If we don’t see things, they don’t exist’, explained my 5-year-old daughter. Dawkins’s analogy of faith being akin to believing in a Flying Spaghetti Monster runs along a similar line of argument – believing in a God we can’t ‘see’, ‘touch’, or ‘hear’ is as ridiculous as believing in a fantastical creature. Dawkins’s image has particularly been taken into the hearts of atheist and agnostic internet bloggers, one of whom famously adapted an image of Michaelangelo’s ceiling at the Sistine Chapel by replacing the Almighty with the Spaghetti Monster. One of his tentacles reaches out to touch Adam’s finger, with the tagline ‘Touched by his noodly appendage’.

misunderstandingSuch criticism of the traditional image of God is now widespread in our society. Young people especially regard such a critique as supporting their worldview and culture, and many of their idols, from comedians like Ricky Gervais and Eddie Izzard to TV celebrities like Derren Brown and Stephen Fry, affirm their views. For us to counter such misunderstanding and prejudice about the Christian God, we ourselves must embark on a liberative faith journey like the one taken by Celie in The Colour Purple. By undertaking such a quest, we must aim to develop our image of God to reach a way of viewing the divine, and a way of speaking about the divine, which can make sense to the post-modern, scientific mind-set, but still holds on to a theologically sound and time-honoured foundation. After all, such joviality about the Flying Spaghetti Monster hides a serious issue that Christians have to face. Traditionally, the Christian concept of God has been unashamedly other-worldly and, to the unbelieving mind-set, such a supernatural God is increasingly seen as ‘unbelievable’. At the foundation of this traditional, ethereal view of God, however, is not Christianity itself, but rather the secular lens through which our faith has universally been read.”

(extract taken from Trystan Owain Hughes, The Compassion Quest SPCK, London 2013)

See also the following blog posts:

Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering (blog post)

“Love reminds us why”: God and the mystery of suffering

 

 

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

Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering

Recently I was privileged to have been asked to contribute a guest post on my story for the “God and Suffering: Our Story” series on the wonderful Thorns and Gold blog. The Thorns and Gold blog explores themes of suffering, faith, and hope, and is certainly worth following. Here, though, is my own guest contribution to that blog:

shutterstock_113875279Ten years ago my life changed completely when I was diagnosed with a degenerative spinal condition and required major back surgery. This story would be a far more interesting if I could write about an injury playing rugby for my beloved Wales or while skiing at the Winter Olympics. Alas, no. It was an injury sustained playing badminton in the local sports hall that led to the investigations that discovered prolapsed and degenerative disks. Within three months of the initial injury, the pain in my lower back and my legs was excruciating and unceasing. I was unable to sit or stand for longer than a few minutes. I was stuck, quite literally, lying on a sofa all day, unable to go to work or to socialise outside of the house.

my-god-my-god-why-have-you-forsaken-meSix months later I was lying in a hospital bed in the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in London and I opened my Bible on Psalm 22. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest”. My eyes filled with tears as the words echoed the emptiness and frustration I was feeling. Physical pain, combined with the mental anxiety of facing a long-term, chronic condition, led me to ask questions most of us face at some point in our lives: What’s the point of this suffering? Why doesn’t God stop suffering? Is life really worth this pain?

tears2During a lengthy recovery, which included hospitalisation for two months, my view of these big questions of theodicy began to change. I saw that the mystery of suffering was far less important than the mystery of love. On returning to ministerial work in churches in Cardiff, Wales, I came to realise that the most joyous smiles often mask terrible pain and tragedy – bereavement, divorce, illness, disability, addiction, or chronic pain. At some point in our lives, each of us has to face suffering. Whilst none of us are given the option of rejecting suffering, we are blessed with the choice of the path that we take through the dark night of our pain.

Through my own experience of suffering I realised that, while I couldn’t change the pain I was feeling, I could change my attitude towards the situation. Slowly, but surely, I began to re-wire my ways of viewing the world, as I embarked on a journey of forging meaning from the apparent meaninglessness of suffering. This was certainly not an easy process, and involved soul-searching, tears, and prayer. I was convinced, though, that the one thing that we have left through any amount of suffering, great or small, is a choice of how we react to what we are enduring. As an Arabian saying reminds us: ‘The nature of rain is the same, but it makes thorns grow in the marshes and flowers in the garden’.

hope_in_focusFor all of us, opening our eyes to moments of God’s light and grace, even in our times of suffering, have a cumulative ability to transform, illuminate, and bring us hope. Held as a hostage for many years in a dark room in Beirut, Brian Keenan recalls how he made a candle from small pieces of wax and string from his clothing fibres. ‘Quietly, calmly a sense of victory welled up in me’, he later wrote, ‘and I thought to myself without saying it, “They haven’t beat us yet. We can blot out even their darkness”’. Light, of course, does not avoid darkness. Rather, it confronts it head-on. ‘The light shines in the darkness but the darkness has not understood it’ (John 1:5).

Cappella_Sistina_Sistine_Chapel_2476394326Ten years on and I am still unable to sit or stand for long periods. Much of my life is, therefore, spent pacing around rooms (even during meetings) or lying down (while I prepare lectures or sermons). I also use icepacks, heat patches, and a tens machine on a daily basis. Through the whole experience, though, my view on suffering has changed radically. No longer do I regard suffering as something that stops life from being lived. Instead, I aim to find hope and meaning in those small, seemingly insignificant areas of life that I took for granted before my injury – in nature, in friendship, in family, in laughter, in the arts, in memories, and so on. Most of us, after all, are like flies crawling on the ceiling of Sistine Chapel – we are unaware of the depth of beauty and joy all around us.

reflections on Christ - crucifixionI can truly say, then, that God has been vividly present in my pain. Not that he wants us to suffer, either directly or indirectly. Rather, he is present in our suffering, helping to redeem and transform it. As the Old Testament shows us, God suffers alongside the persecuted, imprisoned, and victimised. ‘In all their distress, He too was distressed’ (Isaiah 63:9). Likewise, Jesus’s sorrows on the cross show us that God truly understands our dark times. As such, he can meet us in our afflictions, bringing meaning and hope at the most unlikely times. God is love, and just a glimpse of that love can powerfully illuminate the darkness that we are going through. ‘And here in dust and dirt, O here,’ wrote Welsh poet Henry Vaughan, ‘The lilies of His love appear’.

cropped-there-is-always-hope-2516881-1Those times when the still small voice of calm seems mute may well be frequent for us, but my own experience is that, even in that silence, we can actively listen for his voice. By doing so, we affirm the importance of love, joy, hope, and meaning in our dark times, rather than dwelling on the horrible reality of suffering. Even though it may not feel like it at the time, our trials and tribulations are, therefore, turned into triumphs of our will and spirit. After all, like diamonds, which sparkle all the more brightly the more facets are cut, our lives reflect God’s light all the more brilliantly when we have many cuts.

See also my book Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering and the following blog posts:

“Love reminds us why”: God and the mystery of suffering

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

Worry may not kill you, but it can stop you living

“Love reminds us why”: God and the mystery of suffering

“Pain may well remind us that we are alive, but love reminds us why we are alive” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“Pain may remind us that we are alive, but love reminds us why we are alive” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

Since Wm Paul Young chose to include this quotation from my book Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering in his book Cross Roads, the follow-up to his multi-million best-seller The Shack, I have had enquiries from as far as Sweden, Brazil and Australia asking me about where the quotation appears in my book. As I recently stumbled across that same quotation on a wonderful picture by the Disney fine artist Noah, I thought that this might be the time to post on this blog the section of my book (pp. 16-17) that includes the quotation.

“Pain may remind us that we are alive, but love reminds us why we are alive” (Trystan Owain Hughes)Finding Hope and Meaning was written when I was diagnosed, at the age of 34, with a degenerative spinal condition. Health is the one quality that is widely regarded as determining a person’s happiness and fulfilment. Despite pain and frustration, though, my illness inspired me to reflect on where meaning and hope can be sought in our suffering and then to apply the fruits of this reflection in my day-to-day life. The book, therefore, does not try to offer a comprehensive theology of suffering, but it simply muses on one personal way of approaching suffering, a way that affirms the paradox that learning how to suffer and how to wait patiently is the secret of finding joy and hope in our lives. When reading the following, then, please keep in mind that it is taken out of context, so may not, without the rest of the book, do justice to the complexity and horror of our pain and suffering.

“Pain may remind us that we are alive, but love reminds us why we are alive” (Trystan Owain Hughes)“The concept of growth through the long wait of our suffering is not specifically Christian.  Other world religions, contemporary psychology, and secular culture in general recognises that meaning, formation, and development can be forged through trials and troubles.  ‘It’s only when you’ve been in the deepest valley,’ mused Anthony Hopkins in his role as Richard Nixon in the film Nixon, ‘will you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain’.

“Pain may remind us that we are alive, but love reminds us why we are alive” (Trystan Owain Hughes)The uniqueness of the Christian response to suffering is, however, found in the centrality of God’s grace. As such, we are faced with yet another paradox. The tears and tragedy of the cross is a sign of God’s love for us precisely because it guarantees His loving presence in our own tears and tragedies. God is love, and just a glimpse of that love can powerfully illuminate the darkness that we are going through.  ‘And here in dust and dirt, O here,’ wrote the Welsh seventeenth-century poet Henry Vaughan, ‘The lilies of His love appear’.

“Pain may remind us that we are alive, but love reminds us why we are alive” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

We can, then, aim to draw closer to God’s love in the midst of our suffering. Pain may well remind us that we are alive, but love reminds us why we are alive. Thus, we need to re-train our minds to recognise those times in our daily lives when God’s light breaks through our darkness – times we hitherto have taken for granted or ignored. These moments have a cumulative ability to transform, illuminate, and bring us hope. Held as a hostage for many years in a dark room in Beirut, Brian Keenan recalls how he made a candle from small pieces of wax and string from his clothing fibres. ‘Quietly, calmly a sense of victory welled up in me’, he later wrote, ‘and I thought to myself without saying it, “They haven’t beat us yet. We can blot out even their darkness”’. Light, of course, does not avoid darkness. Rather, it confronts it head-on.  ‘The light shines in the darkness’, asserts the Gospel of John 1:5, ‘but the darkness has not understood it’. Likewise, love’s concern is not the avoidance of suffering, but rather its transformation, as our painful experiences become productive and strengthen us.

Jesus certainly knew that the existence of evil and suffering was a mystery to humankind. He would have been well-acquainted with the book of Job and with the psalms of sorrow, and he stood before his people as the suffering servant of Isaiah.  Yet, he himself was more concerned to proclaim the mystery of love than give hollow platitudes about the mystery of suffering.  Love, like suffering, cannot truly be explained. It can, however, be experienced.”

“Pain may remind us that we are alive, but love reminds us why we are alive” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

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.

prison 4

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’)

prison 10

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.

prison 11