Week Six: Compassion’s real challenge
Our scripture reading today: Romans 8: 35 – 39.
As a writer, I had always dreamed of speaking at the wonderful Hay Festival in Wales. One year, I received an e.mail out of the blue – my dream had come true. The e.mail invited me to speak at Hay in the Parc. I sat back and imagined Hay in the Parc taking place in a lush, green park, with everyone sitting around drinking Pimms, eating canapes and enjoying the sunshine as they listened to famous authors reciting prose and poetry. But the I read the rest of the e.mail. The ‘Parc’ in question was no idyllic, verdant park, but Parc prison, the secure category B jail in South Wales.
As I sat in the prison beforehand, the chaplain took the opportunity to brief me very generally of the crimes for which the prisoners I would be meeting were being detained. They had not been imprisoned for speeding offences or petty theft, but for crimes that I found completely abhorrent. I began to think about the victims of their crimes. I’m sure that I was echoing the very attitudes that this group of people must face on release back into the community.
One of the prisoners I met, let’s call him Will wrote in the collection Windows: Christian writings from HMP Parc –
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 2.00pm. But to me that meant nothing, I had just lost mt 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 being wifey 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.
There are no conditions to God’s love. He does not say, ‘Change, and then I will love you’. He loves us in the hope that we will want to be transformed. It is not surprising that most of us find this hugely challenging, especially when we consider heinous crimes and notorious criminals.
As Will wrote at the end of his contribution in Windows:
As I sat in the chapel listening to what was being said something happened to me. I started to not 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 telling me a story about a bloke called Jesus. After chapel, I went back to my cell from hell, but this time it was different. It was the same cell, but it did not feel so cold and I never felt like I was by myself again.
Buy a copy of a newspaper today. Look through it and ask yourself who in the news stories upsets you or makes you angry? Be truthful with yourself by considering the kind of people you might find it difficult to show compassion towards. Take time in prayer to ask God to help you see others as he sees them.
Taken from ‘Opening our Lives’ by Trystan Owain Hughes p.150 -153.
Week Five: Hyperbole and consequences
Our scripture reading today: Matthew 18: 6 – 9.
When I was growing up my dad had numerous phrases that would annoy me – ‘This house is lit up like a Christmas tree’; ‘Money doesn’t grow on trees’; and ‘If your friend put their hand in the fire would you put in yours?’. The one that used to infuriate me more than any other, though, was, ‘How many hundreds of times have I told you not to exaggerate?’. Exaggeration (hyperbole) is not always a good thing, and can lead us to deceit or lies. Even as a child, I knew that money didn’t literally grow on trees, but the phrase taught me something about the value of not squandering what we have. I never literally saw a friend put his hand into a fire, but the phrase taught me to resist peer pressure. Leaving my bedroom light on doesn’t literally look like dozens of sparkling lights on a Christmas tree, but the phrase helped me to recognise the impact that wasting electricity has on the environment.
Today’s reading is graphically violent if we take it literally – people with millstones tied around their neck getting thrown into the sea of having their eyes plucked out and their hands and feet cut off. By Jesus’ time, hyperbole, metaphor and pictorial language were techniques used by rabbis, the teachers of the day. As G. K. Chesterton put it, ‘Christ had even a literary style of his own…the diction used by Christ is quite curiously gigantesque – it is full of camels leaping through needles and mountains hurled into the sea’.
While they shouldn’t be taken literally, Jesus’ hyperbolic statements should still be taken with utmost seriousness. Today’s passage teaches us something radical about God’s will and how our ways should be transformed by following him. Everything we do, Jesus is telling us, has profound effects on both others and ourselves. Violence, prejudice, greed, selfishness and objectifying others – they all have unhealthy consequences.
Take some time to consider your innermost thoughts and emotions. Be open and truthful with yourself about any struggles you have to control – lust, anger, envy, hatred, selfishness or greed. Be kind to yourself about your inclinations, but ask Jesus to help you transform yourself daily into his image.
Taken from ‘Opening our Lives’ by Trystan Owain Hughes p. 121 123.
Week Four: God loves mis-shapes
Our scripture reading today: John 2: 1 – 11.
In our passage today the organisers of the wedding really messed up. This miracle is often considered for it’s symbolic importance, with the ‘choice wine’ representing Jesus himself. At a more basic level, though, the miracle represents Jesus’ offer of hope at our times of need. Running out of wine at a wedding might not sound disastrous. However, in first-century Palestine the wedding banquets would last a whole week and if anything went wrong it brought disgrace on the families.
In our ways, I’m sure we can all relate to these wedding arrangers. We all make mistakes and get things wrong. Sometimes these mistakes are small, but sometimes they can have serious consequences. When we mess up, it can embarrass, depress and worry us. This is where Jesus steps in, as he did at the wedding in Cana. He may not change the situation itself, but he can certainly change the way we view the situation. A disastrous mistake can become an opportunity, just as a wasted chance can lead to something useful. After all, he helps us to view our mistakes as He views them – with love, understanding and forgiveness.
When I was a child, I adored chocolates that were called mis-shapes. These were all the chocolates that had gone wrong in the factory. The fact they were not perfect made me love them even more – each pack was unique and, when I opened them, I never knew what I was going to get. In some way, all of us reflect those chocolates. Most of us are broken and none of us is perfect. But we are all unique, and many possibilities and opportunities can spring from our imperfections. Most important of all is the fact that, even if we don’t live up to the expectations of others and ourselves, God loves us for who we are. All of us are mis-shapes, but we must never forget that I am not the only one who loves mis-shapes – God loves mis-shapes too!
Think of a time you have made a mistake, when you said or did the wrong thing. As you leave this incident with God, take time in stillness and silence to thank God for loving you, whatever mistakes you have made. Then commit yourself to loving others whatever mistakes they have made. Ask Jesus to help you see others through His eyes.
Taken from ‘Opening our Lives’ by Trystan Owain Hughes p.84 – 86.
Week Three: Memories
Our scripture reading today: Deuteronomy 3: 5 – 9.
Our world is certainly a very different place from when many of us grew up. The temptation is, therefore, to focus on the past as a better and safer place – a place of community and unity, where it was easier to define what was good or bad, right or wrong. One of my favourite music albums is ‘The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society’ by The Kinks. Ray Davies looks back longingly at his childhood and is desperate to reverse the clock and return to a simpler, happier time. Among the things he longs to return to are the local village green, Sunday school, fresh air, custard pies, billiards, Desperate Dan and china cups. Then, in one song, he meets an old friend Walter, who has changed so much from their school days, and he soon realises that going back in time is not an option. We can’t bring back the old days. But, he notes as he walks away from Walter, what we do still have is our memories. People change, things change, times change, but memories remain.
There is something about heaven and eternity in our memories. C. S. Lewis writes about his childhood, when he built a toy garden with his brother. He knows he can’t return in this life to that paradise lost, but his memory of that toy garden, he says, points to a future without suffering, worry or pain. It points to paradise regained.
Our God is not merely the God of the past. He is the God of the present and the future. So, as Christians, our call is not to complain and grumble about how thing’s aren’t what they used to be. Our call is not to be cynical and sceptical about the state of the world around us. Our call is certainly not to let our precious memories imprison us and impede us from moving forward. Rather, we need to be inspired, by both the Israelites in the Old Testament and the disciples in the New Testament, to use our past to inform and transform the present and give us wonderful hope for the future.
Think back to a happy, joyful time in your life – it could be a period of your childhood or another time in your past. Enjoy your memories of that time – think of all the people and places that were special to you then. To finish, commit to God that you will use the gift of time in your life to bring God’s hope and love to your community and your present relationships.
Taken from ‘Opening our Lives’ by Trystan Owain Hughes p.74 – 77.
Week Two: God of the in-between times
Our scripture reading today: Matthew 4: 18 – 22.
Today’s passage describes Jesus calling four of his disciples – Peter, Andrew, James and John. Apart from what they did for a living, we know very little about the early lives of any of these disciples. In the same way, we actually know very little of what Jesus did in the first 30 years of his life. I challenged myself to see God in everything I saw. An unshaven man walked past, pushing an empty pushchair and smoking a cigarette. I walked past a small school, where I could hear the laughter of children. I noticed an impressive school garden that had been immaculately tended by teachers and pupils. A woman, dressed all in white, came out of a shop clutching an enormous bottle of Coke and a small bottle of vodka. A friendly old lady came over and started chatting to me, and, as I looked back at her rough skin and dirty clothes, I saw God’s light shine through her eyes. As I got back in the car, I thanked God for allowing me to see his light despite the rain and mess. I thanked him for being there in the ordinariness of that journey back to the car.
It is relatively easy to see God in the special, uplifting moments in our lives, and we also find ourselves meeting him in the difficult and painful times. But God is to be found in the in-between times, too, in the missing years. ‘Life, in it’s humdrum sense, is worth avoiding’, bleakly asserts 80’s rock star Morrissey in the biopic England is mine (2017). As Christians, the challenge is not to avoid those times, but rather to open our eyes to discovering God in those ordinary moments. In the book The Old Ways (Penguin, 2012), Robert MacFarlane describes a walk that he had made a thousand times before, in the field by his house. But this time he was walking at night, after it had been snowing all day. His eyes were opened anew to the beauty and the wonder of that pathway. He writes, ‘The snow caused everything to exceed itself and the moonlight caused everything to double itself’.
Our lives have occasional highs and occasional lows, but, most of the time, they can be rather mundane. As Christians, we need to remember that God is present in the everyday, ordinary moments of our lives. Our God is also the God of the in-between times. He is the God of the humdrum, the monotonous and the commonplace. With him, those moments don’t stay mundane. He brings joy, hope and beauty to even the most ordinary moments.
Meister Eckhart, the 14th-century theologian, wrote that ‘we are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born’. In other words, our call is to look beyond the ordinary and to search for God in our midst, however he comes to us. Take some space and time to reflect on the past 24 hours. First, think of where God’s light has shone in a clear and obvious way – perhaps through the beauty of nature or the kindness of family and friends. Now take time to think of the in-between times – where has his light shone in your more ordinary, mundane, everyday moments?
Taken from ‘Opening our Lives’ by Trystan Owain Hughes p.26 – 28.
Week One: Not looking, but seeing
Our scripture reading today: Colossians 1: 15 – 20.
When I was growing up, my taid (grandfather) used to sit with his little cap on, spitting occasionally into the roaring fire, telling us stories about his childhood. One of the stories was about the great Welsh revival. It was 1904 and the Holy Spirit was sweeping through Wales like a forest fire. The great revivalist, Evan Roberts, would visit the chapels of Anglesey and preach to the packed buildings for hours. Things are certainly different today. The churches and chapels are still standing on Anglesey, but many are now garages, community centres and supermarkets. The congregations at the buildings that continue to be places of worship are often dwindling and ageing.
It is too easy for Christians to feel downhearted at the state of the church today and, indeed, at the state of the nation or the world. In his parables about the kingdom, though, Jesus challenges us to look beyond what is at the surface. It may look insignificant (a mustard seed, some yeast, a net or a field), but it is something much more precious. As Henry David Thoreau noted: ‘The question is not what you look at, but what you see’. Jesus challenges us to open our eyes to the kingdom of God in our everyday lives and to perceive God in our daily existence. God is inextricably woven into our lives and the challenge of our faith is to recognise him each day.
In the BBC comedy Blackadder Goes Forth, set during World War I, General Melchett unfurls a map of the battlefield, leans over it and bellows, ‘Oh man, it’s a barren and featureless desert out there, isn’t it?’ His assistant, Captain Darling, looks at the blank paper and replies, ‘I think you want the other side, sir’. If we open our eyes, we can learn to recognise the other side of this world, woven into our lives – in the beauty of nature, in the friendships we foster and in the kindness we witness.
The Welsh poet R.S. Thomas reminded us that burning bush moments of finding God in the tapestry of our lives are like the ‘pearl of great price’ of Jesus parable – we should be selling everything to experience them. What does this mean practically in your own life? Have a think about when God’s joy and wonder has broken through in your life, perhaps at surprising moments. Finally, commit yourself to looking beyond the surface and to recognising God in the ordinary everyday.
Taken from ‘Opening our Lives’ by Trystan Owain Hughes p.23 – 25.