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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get down off the cross Jesus, we could use the wood!”: Speaking for those with no voice

crucifixBritish weather is certainly strange. Every time there is a hint that spring is about to burst through, another cold spell brings us right back down to earth! In one of the recent cold spells, I was on a retreat with a friend in a small house in the grounds of a convent outside Monmouth in South Wales. The house was beautiful, but it was freezing cold. I even took to wearing blankets around the house, which I imagine seemed a bit strange to those also on retreat there! At one point, my friend and I were desperately trying to light the fire in the large, icy living room, but the logs and kindling were cold and damp. In a cry for help, my friend looked up at the large crucifix above the fireplace and exclaimed, “get down off the cross Jesus, we could use the wood!”

poverty

Over supper that evening, I asked my friend about his somewhat inappropriate remark. He explained that it was a quotation from a Tom Waits song, later covered by Willie Nelson, and, far from being disrespectful, he maintained that, for him, this little phrase summed up the heart of his faith. After all, he continued, far too often we Christians get too uptight about our worship and our theology. Jesus, on the other hand, would be the first to give up a lofty, privileged view above a beautiful mantelpiece, to help the freezing cold, hungry, poverty-stricken families across the world. As he munched on his cheese-on-toast, my friend lamented that the Church overemphasises the importance of “good” theology and “correct” worship, but forgets how absolutely central our everyday actions should be in our Christian life.

I certainly wouldn’t want to diminish and devalue the centrality of prayer and worship in our faith, and, as a theology lecturer of almost twenty years now, I know that a solid theological underpinning of our beliefs is essential. I can’t help thinking, however, that my friend was making a crucially important point. Both of us agreed that if Jesus were here in front of us in physical form, he would do anything for those who are struggling and suffering. Perhaps we should be adapting the oft-used phrase “What would Jesus do?” (WWJD) to “What would Jesus do for others?” Admittedly, WWJDFO would not be as catchy(!), but the answer would be much more simple. What would Jesus do for others? He would do everything for them… even die for them.

Still Not Love Politics?This should inspire Christians to see it as their duty to speak out for those who have no voice in our society. In the Sunday Telegraph last weekend, 42 Church of England bishops signed an open letter protesting against the Government’s proposed changes to the benefit system – changes that will drive children and families into poverty. This is not an example of a Church interfering with politics, but, rather, is an example of the body of Christ doing exactly what Christ’s literal body would be doing if it were around today in flesh and blood. “We have a duty to support those among us who are vulnerable and in need,” stated the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Devotion to Christ, then, does not mean we become imprisoned behind stained-glass windows, worshipping Christ the King. Rather, it means we minister to those people, broken and impoverished, who need us the most and whom we regard as Christ (Matthew 25:34-45).

BeggingMartin Luther urged his readers to draw Christ into flesh. In other words, we must not spiritualise Jesus into something powerful and ethereal, but we must bring him into even the most mundane and troubling aspects of our everyday lives and of our society. He must be allowed to inject new life into people and structures and to transform individuals and societies. And the only way he can do this is by getting down off his cross of glory, giving the wood to those in need of warmth, and living among us in the hurt, grime, and mess of our everyday lives.

“I was walking down 125th Street, and suddenly I stopped. I looked at everything in amazement. It was like I’d just woken up from a dream that lasted my whole life. And I realised that, if God isn’t somewhere out there in heaven, he’s right here, in the dirt” (Jack Kerouac On the Road)

For more on this theme, see chapter 4 “Bringing Jesus Down to Earth” in The Compassion Quest.