Compassion and the EU Referendum

Tom and JerryHaving a toddler in your house introduces you to all sorts of strange and colourful TV programmes with some intriguing titles – Twirlywoos, Hey Duggee, Messy goes to Okido, Rastamouse, and the list goes on. My two-year-old’s favourite show, though, is not so new-fangled – it’s the old classic Tom and Jerry. He avidly watches the original series from the 1940s and 1950s. Most Tom and Jerry episodes are the two enemies competing with each other. There are, though, a number of them that see the cat and mouse working together, to overcome obstacles. My son’s very favourite episode is, what he calls, the “baby one”, where the couple join together to care for a little baby who gets into all sorts of scrapes.

NewspapersAt our toddler’s insistence, our household is presently watching that Tom and Jerry episode on a continual loop. The care and compassion shown by the sworn enemies towards a helpless baby has provided a welcome break on our TV screen from the toxic atmosphere of hate and vitriol that the EU Referendum seems to have birthed. So much of the literature I’ve had through my door, not to mention the front pages of newspapers that I walk past in newsagents, are rooted in fear – principally, fear of outsiders who are, it is claimed, coming here to take our jobs, use our health service, and commit heinous crimes. This past week, the bishops of Church in Wales have issued a joint statement announcing their intention to vote to remain in the EU and noting that the emotive language of fear and distrust is overshadowing any meaningful discussion, with immigrants being ‘demonised’ in the debate.

Good Samaritan 1Certainly, the tone of the campaign has denigrated the weakest of our communities, and, in reflecting on Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan, those lying on the road to Jericho are not being ignored, but are being actively derided, as hate, divisiveness, and bigotry has been spread in our country. Our challenge as Christians is to model the Good Samaritan, and not to turn our heads to look the other way like the Priest and Levite. Jesus, of course, never referred to the ‘Good’ Samaritan. I find the word ‘good’ to be rather insipid and bland. These days, it’s used when a dog collects a stick you’ve thrown or when a toddler eats his greens – “good boy, good boy”. My own suggestion would be to rechristen the parable as ‘the Compassionate Samaritan’ – here was someone who entered the suffering of his neighbour, treating him as he would a brother or sister.

Good Samaritan 2It is natural to think Jesus himself would act as the Samaritan did in this story – he offers healing and wholeness to those whose wounds he sees and cries he hears. But the incarnation leads us also to see him in the wounded, dying man on the road to Jericho – “truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). Jesus enters the suffering of the distressed and depressed. Our call is to recognise him in that suffering – in the eyes of the mother queuing at the Foodbank, the refugee pleading for hospitality, the so-called immigrants who feel unwanted and alienated by the rhetoric of hate; in the eyes of the poor, the disabled, the grieving, the ill. Our role is to see Jesus in each and every person and be ready to offer our own love and care to them, whoever they are.

Good Samaritan 3And yet too often the discussions around whether we leave or stay in the EU have not been about the unique beauty and worth of each person, but have been about what is best for us personally. Such fear and self-centredness was the response of the priest and Levite in this parable. The Compassionate Samaritan didn’t say, “wait there, before I do anything – what’s in this for me?” He didn’t ask the question, “what’s better for me – to keep walking or to stop and help?” He didn’t check whether the beaten body at the side of the road was a different nationality, different gender, different race, different sexuality, than he himself was. Compassion is not about individual satisfaction or personal gain. Neither is it about being comfortable. As Christians, our role in politics is not to ask what is best for us. Rather, we simply need to ask: “what’s the most compassionate thing to do?”

european-union-eu-flag-missing-star-brexitThere are undoubtedly Christians on both sides of the debate surrounding the EU Referendum. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, maintains that leaving would harm the poorest in our society, while his predecessor, Archbishop Rowan Williams, and Archbishop Barry Morgan of Wales have noted that the EU has led to a “fairer, safer, and cleaner world”. Certainly the benefits it has brought in terms of peace, human rights, scientific research, animal rights, environmental care, reducing chemical pollution, and artistic and cultural interchange, relate directly to Kingdom values. Other Christians, though, have argued that we could continue to champion these values if we left the EU. Gillan Scott, in Christian Today, has written that “there is no reason why we cannot continue to show generosity, sacrifice and reconciliation to our European neighbours outside of the EU”. There is certainly truth in that viewpoint. However, just because we could build a more loving and compassionate society having left the EU, that doesn’t mean we would do that. As a football fan, I know that scoring a goal through individual brilliance is always possible, but most goals are scored as a team, working together. Many Christians purport that “Together Stronger”, the tagline of my beloved Welsh football team, is the more effective attitude in facing the deep-seated problems of our time – poverty, climate change, human rights, and so on.

hopeIn the past week, we’ve seen posters vilifying refugees fleeing war zones, English football fans chanting anti-European slogans while mercilessly teasing children who are begging on French streets, and a senseless and brutal murder of a devoted MP that may have been perpetrated because of her compassion for the downtrodden and helpless. My hope is that, whatever people vote for in this Referendum, their choice will not be rooted in the fear or distrust of the Levite and Priest on the road to Jericho, but in the peace, hope, and generosity of spirit of the Compassionate Samaritan. Our faith challenges us to expand our circle of compassion to all people and all living things, not merely those who are “like us”. There is a biblical imperative to care for each other, not simply as neighbours, but as family. This is what ‘good news’ is all about. Our country, and indeed our world, needs healing, not hostility; peace, not prejudice; freedom, not fear; hope, not hate. “A dark shadow of disappointment stubbornly follows our obsession with personal satisfaction;” writes theologian Miroslav Volf, “we are meant for something larger than our own satisfied selves”.

Setting the world on fire at Christmas!

candlesChristmas is nearly here, and I am busy preparing for our midnight Christmas service. My most memorable midnight service, though, was ten years ago now in the small church of Gileston in the Vale of Glamorgan in South Wales. The service had all gone smoothly until I stood up to preach. As I got more and more enthusiastic about the peace and joy that should inspire us at Christmas, I noticed that the people in the front row were beginning to wave their hands around. For a moment, I thought that they had suddenly being filled with the spirit and were manifesting a charismatic side to their worship. I started to get excited, as they started to mouth words at me. I couldn’t quite understand what they were saying, but I just imagined that they were mouthing “amen, preacher” or “hallelujah, reverend” or “preach it, vicar”. It was filling me with more and more confidence, so I got louder and louder and more enthusiastic in my delivery.

burning-flowersThen, I noticed that the whole congregation began to wave their arms and point and mouth words. I also suddenly smelt something… smoke! I turned around and to my horror I saw that a candle had fallen onto the wonderful display of flowers behind the altar and the whole display had gone up in flames! I ran up to the altar, and looked around for a fire extinguisher. Unfortunately, not one was to be found. By this point the flames were pretty fierce and smoke had filled the whole church. There was only one thing for it – I grabbed the large jug of water that we use at communion and threw it on the flames. Unfortunately, I had actually picked up the decanter of communion wine and so had thrown all our communion wine onto the burning flowers! In the end, I ran out of firefighting ideas, so I just took off my robes and smothered the fire with them! Even now, when I go back to my old parish, I am not remembered for my kind heart, my pastoral visiting, or my lively preaching. No, I am rather remembered as the vicar who threw communion wine on a fire and then stripped off and threw his clothes on it!

3-romantic-snow-flakes-christmas-baubles_1920x1200_70396I remember at the time, though, that the whole incident got me thinking about how Christmas should inspire us. We celebrate Christmas during our winter, the coldest time of the year. We’re excited if there’s any mention that it might be a white Christmas, and many of our Christmas cards have beautiful snow scenes on them. After my experience of firefighting in Gileston, though, I started viewing Christmas, not with winter and snow in mind, but with fire, light, and warmth.

christingleOf course, this is not a new image for our Christmas celebrations. Many churches have candles on their christingle oranges and light the candles of the advent wreath. With these candles we remember that Christ is the light of the world, who illuminates a way of living, a way of compassion, a way of peace that goes beyond whatever other worldview that might be in ascendance. For us at Christmas time, that means that the baby of the manger, the child of the stable can help us see beyond the consumerist haze of this season – we can see beyond our society’s desperate desire to buy, or to have, or to abuse, or to dominate. Wealth, power, authority, money – none of them are important when seen in the light of a crying child in a dirty manger, born to offer us another way of living. As Mary exclaimed when she was expecting child: “he has scattered the proud in their conceit; he has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty”.

This has huge implications on how we live our lives – on our priorities, on our politics, on the way we treat others, on our values, on how we use or money, on what we consider to be important. It challenges us to look beyond our own cold wants, needs, and desires, and to show the warmth of love and compassion to others, whoever they are and however different they may be to us.

cross-and-fire_491_1024x768I’ve been to so many carol concerts, services, and nativities over the past few weeks, but one thing links all of them – and that’s the faces of those attending. There have been so many smiles, so much laughter, and a good deal of genuine warmth. The Christmas story is certainly one that brings us hope and it makes us stop and assess what is important in our lives. After all, this is the season when we recognize the importance of love, peace, acceptance, and forgiveness. But, we must also look beyond Christmas Day. We must also commit, not just to allow God to warm our hearts, but to allow God to set our hearts on fire. By doing so, we can take the message of the season into the new year, we can live out lives inspired by the life of baby born 2000 years ago, we can help subvert the worldly values of wealth and power, and we can commit ourselves to lives of peace, hope, joy, love and compassion. That’s what the fire of Christmas is really all about.

See also:

Advent and the Weight for Christmas

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

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

‘You don’t have to be an angel to be a saint!’ Today is All Saints Day. Last year I posted a reflection on the day. I have been pleasantly surprised at the popularity of that blog-post, and so I thought I would post it again. Thank you for your support of my blog over the past year, and I hope you enjoy reading this again.

Trystan Owain Hughes

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

saint babyI was due to be born on November 1st, which is ‘All Saints Day’ in the Western liturgical calendar. My mum was excited about delivering her own personal saint. In the week running up to the day, she, therefore, did everything she could to induce labour – from rough country drives to long mountain walks. On the night before All Saints Day, she even fell for the old wives tale of consuming a large dose of castor oil. Unfortunately, I didn’t appear, and all…

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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!’

Reasons to be Thankful: A Year in Review

This year has been a bit of a whirlwind. We welcomed a new little baby into our family, we moved house, I left Cardiff University chaplaincy to become director of ordinands for the diocese of Llandaff and vicar of Christ Church, Roath Park, Cardiff (Wales, UK), and all that on top of writing this blog and having two books published. So, this is a short review of the blog and publications, as I say goodbye to 2013 and welcome in the New Year.

Thank YouFirst, can I say a huge “thank you” to all who have supported my writing over the past year. I especially appreciate those of you who have read the blog, have shared posts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+, have bought or read my books, and have recommended others to read my blog or books. Thank you SO much – I really do appreciate all your support.

The blog: Finding Hope, Meaning, Faith, and Compassion

RunnerUpUACA

When I started the blog in February, I would never have guessed how successful it would have become, culminating, in November, with the runner-up award for the “Up-and-Coming Blog of the Year” at the Christian New Media Awards in London.

Over the past year, many thousands of people have read the pages of this blog, with May and December being the most popular months. It is especially widely read in the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Canada, and Germany, but there are also a sizeable number of readers in Brazil, Sweden, and France.

The five most popular blog posts have been, in descending order:

5) “A Satsuma is not a Failed Orange”: Listening to God’s call

4) Crime and Compassion: Does Mick Philpott deserve any compassion?

3) Unto Us a Child is Born: A new baby at Christmas

2) Women Bishops – This is Wales, calling the Church of England

1) “Jesus, do you hate me?” Gay Marriage, the Church and Compassion

The Compassion Quest

The Compassion QuestMy book The Compassion Quest was published in February by SPCK. It was endorsed by Tony Campolo and Graham Tomin, it ended the year with an average of 4.9 stars on Amazon (after 18 reviews), and it was reviewed very favourably in blogs, journals and magazines. For a newly updated blog post detailing the wonderful response that The Compassion Quest received see:

Who else has ever invited Charles de Foucauld, Margaret Thatcher, Philip Pullman and Nick Cave to the same party?

Real God in the Real World

Real God in the Real WorldReal God in the Real World was the official BRF Advent Book for 2013. Again, the response to it were great – an average of 4.8 stars on Amazon (after 9 reviews), excellent reviews in blogs and magazines, and two wonderful endorsements by Alister McGrath and Gerald Kelly. This all meant that 2013 ended on a high, as the book sold out of its first print run after only 2 months and had to be reprinted. It was also great to have a ringing endorsement from a recent review in The Good Bookstall: “Hughes writes with a warmth, authentic insight and real delight. The writing style is fresh and engaging… I am such a fan of Trystan’s other more complex, challenging, and nuanced books… This book is a perfect antidote to the chaos of the Christmas season – a worthy companion in the advent season. Here’s to this and more Rev T O Hughes writing in the not too distant future!”

And to finish…

At the beginning of the year, it was nice surprise to find out that my book Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering had been quoted by Wm Paul Young (author of The Shack) in his latest book Cross Roads, alongside CS Lewis, Bobby Kennedy, and Paul Simon! Since then, Cross Roads has been translated into many different languages, and so my quotation has been appearing on Twitter and Facebook in many different guises. To finish this short review of 2013, here is that quotation in every form I have, thus far, discovered it on social media sites:

Please feel free to use or share this image

Please feel free to use or share this image

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

“El dolor bien puede recordarnos que estamos vivos, pero el amor nos recuerda por qué lo estamos” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“Verdriet mag ons er dan wel aan herinneren dat we leven, liefde herinnert ons eraan waarom we leven” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“Schmerz erinnert uns daran, dass wir leben, aber die Liebe erinnert uns daran, warum wir leben” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“Mae poen yn ein hatgoffa ein bod ni’n fyw, ond cariad sy’n ein hatgoffa pam yr ydym ni’n fyw” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“A dor pode nos fazer lembrar que estamos vivos, mas o amor nos faz lembrar por quê” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“Bolest nám možná připomíná, že jsme naživu, ale láska nám připomíná, proč žijeme” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“Si la souffrance nous rappelle que nous sommes vivants, c’est l’amour qui nous rappelle pourquoi nous vivons” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“Lehet, hogy a fájdalom emlékeztet arra, hogy élünk, a szeretet viszont arra emlékeztet, hogy miért élünk” (Trystan Owain Hughes)

“Bolest nám možná připomíná, že jsme naživu, ale láska nám připomíná, proč žijeme” (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?