Solve: 1+1+1=?

I remember the day I started teaching the new RE GCSE curriculum to my year 10’s. My intention was to ease them in on the first day. So what better way to start than to begin with the first topic of the curriculum: the Trinity!! The looks on their faces throughout the lesson – complete confusion, skepticism and pure bafflement- was a sight to behold. (In case anyone from OFSTED is reading this, yes, I had a starter, made my objectives clear, the class was pupil-led, higher order questions were used, I constantly checked their progress etc). But what happens when you are teaching a class about a mystery? How can progress be made in a class where 1+1+1 equals not 3 but 1!

Yesterday was Trinity Sunday, a day that celebrates the nature of God as three in one: Father, Son and Spirit. Three persons in one God. Not three gods in one God but three “persons” in one God. Each person is the same substance as each other (consubstantial – remember when we had to start saying that in the creed!!!) but they are not the same person.

Before you throw down the phone or ipad in total dismay, the best example I can compare it to is the three forms of H2O – ice, steam and water. Each of them are still H20 but they are obviously completely different. Steam is not ice or water, ice is not steam or water and so on. So the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (just like ice, water and steam) are different to each other but they are one God (just as ice, water and steam are H2O no matter what form they take).

Now, you may still be tempted to switch off from this blog but the question I always ask about any mind-bending, head-bursting, brain-teasing divine doctrine is this – what difference does it make to our every day lives?? And I have asked it many times and I did not come up with an answer. Instead, it was answered for me. Let me explain.

We are told in the Bible that God is love (1 Jn 4:8). I think this is the single most important definition of the essence of who God is. God is love; not has love, not shows love, not gives love but IS love. John also tells us that love is from God. So love, its nature, its expression and its desire originates from God. The butterflies in your stomach, the quickening of the heartbeat, the deep desire to spend the rest of your life with someone whom you love, the vows spoken on your wedding day, the constant commitment to the other, the deep sharing between a parent and their child, the selfless actions to ensure a child will grow to be who they truly are meant to be; the emotions, feelings, desires, cravings, longings and commitment that are the essence of love have their origin in God.

But not in an aloof, far-off and distant God somewhere “up” in heaven “looking down” on us. No, in a triune God – three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit – who live in, move in and have their being in constant and complete love. They exist for each other and with each other. Their very existence is to love each other and to love us.

John’s letter also tells us that the Father sent the Son into the world so that we might live through him. The Son was sent in love to love us. So the Son became a human in Jesus, whose every action and word was love – the poor, the outcast, the prostitute, the beggar, the sinner all encountered this love. But in a shocking and incredible event, the Son (in Jesus) gave his life in total love by dying on the cross.

But love didn’t stop there. The Father lovingly raised the Son to new life showing us that love conquers everything; the very worst that we can do as humans and even death itself.

But love still didn’t stop there! The Son, Jesus, promised his followers the third person, the Holy Spirit, to be with them and help them bring the Gospel of love to all whom they met. Then the Son returned to the Father (what a welcome that must have been!) so as to allow the Spirit to come.

Then on Pentecost, as we saw in last Sunday’s blog, the Spirit poured out gifts (what else do you do when you love someone??) to give the disciples everything they needed to carry Jesus’ message of love to the world. But why?? Why all this loving??

Well, let’s look at another truth in the Bible. We are told in Genesis 1 that we are made in the “image and likeness” of God. In other words, we are made like God. We have been created by love to love. Think about it – what is the one thing at the heart of so many of our songs, so many poems, so many films, so much of our culture? Yes – love. If what I have just mentioned in the list are not about love, they are often about the absence of love: falling out of love, being cheated on by someone who we thought loved us, the longing to love someone who does not love us (Adele would have no albums without this!!) and so on. As humans, love takes up a lot of our thinking, feeling, believing and living. Why? Because we are made in the image of true love. Why did everyone love Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s funeral? Because it was about love!!

As well as this, we have another deep need – to belong. We are not meant to be alone – nobody is an island. Deep within the very essence of our being is the deep desire to belong – whether it is with another person, to a family, to a group of friends, social grouping, whatever it may be. Regardless, this need lies within us because we have been hardwired for it by the Trinity – the three persons belong to each other and for each other. They cannot exist apart from each other – they are not God if they do. The live in a communion of love. So we want the same in our own lives.

So why is this all important? Well, I think for two reasons.

Firstly, the teaching about God (Father, Son and Spirit) reminds us that we have been created out of love and our very nature is to love. Don’t be offended – God does not need you. God did not create you because God was lonely or bored or needed something to do. You were not created by God to see if you would live a good moral life, if you would say the right amount of prayers or go to Mass every Sunday. No, you were created because you were wanted by God, you were deeply desired by God so that you could be loved and so that you would be able to share in the love between Father, Son and Spirit. They wanted you to be in on it. They wanted you to know this life-changing love.

Please think about this. Really think about it.

If a parent has let you down or has betrayed all your turst – know that you were deeply loved before they even thought about you. If you have been hurt by a friend or a partner and the pain just won’t go away – remember that you are worth more because of this first love. If you hold a secret that you are ashamed to tell others, know that this love knows your secret and loves you nevertheless. If you constantly compare yourself to others and wish you looked like those in the pictures you pour over on social media, know that this love made you unique and delicately put you together like a work of art.

You see, this love is the basis of your whole being, your whole identity and your whole reason to live. If we could truly believe in this love, if we could dare to be open to this love, our lives would never be the same again. No insult, hurt, pain, slander, slagging or person would even come close to getting at us.

Secondly, the Trinity is important because they help us to know what the true meaning of life really is. And you know what it is. Look at two recent examples from the news. How many thousands are taking to the streets to protest against the death of George Floyd? Have you also noticed the resolve of people throughout the Covid-19 crisis to support each other, reach out to each other, raise money, clap the NHS staff and pray for each other? Where does this come from? From our deep-down belief that the real meaning of life and the essence of true humanity is togetherness, community, unity, oneness. That everyone should be treated equally. That people matter, whether it is black lives or white lives. We are one.

That brings us back to the main belief about the Trinity. The three persons, even though they are different, are one. The live in a communion, a unity and a oneness of love. We really are made in their image. What we want, they want. Where there is injustice, racism, prejudice, homophobia, poverty, human trafficking, suffering, starvation or addiction, our objections and protests and right actions is a reflection of their love crying out for community, unity and oneness.

Next time you pray, bless yourself slowly in the name of the Father, the the Son and the Holy Spirit and allow yourself to be surrounded by and to be part of that incredible love.

1+1+1=1. Easy, isn’t it?!

I would love to have known what the royals were thinking during this!!! Love is the way.

Inside Out

Today’s post has been kindly written by Lydia from Youth for Christ:

At the beginning of March when it looked like we were heading towards lockdown my sister made the very wise decision, like many others, to invest in Disney+. Throughout lockdown we have been making our way through all our childhood favourites.

The other day I was watching one of my favourite Disney Pixar films, Inside Out. If you haven’t seen it, it’s about an 11 year old girl called Riley, whose family moves to San Francisco leaving behind her life and friends in Minnesota. She and her five core emotions, Fear, Anger, Joy, Disgust and Sadness, struggle to cope with her new life. Her parents encourage her to be the happy, smiling girl that she has always been but in the midst of change and uncertainty, Riley struggles with this and struggles to deal with the mix of emotions that she is feeling.

As I watched this film, it struck me that we also find ourselves in a time of change and great uncertainty and, maybe just like Riley, we are struggling to cope with all the different emotions we are feeling all at once – overwhelmed by the news we see everyday, the sadness we feel because we miss and lose loved ones, fear of what our futures might look like and so many other feelings. It also struck me how okay it is to have these feelings, that how in the midst of a pandemic it is very natural that we would be feeling a lot of things all at once and it’s okay to take some time to process how we feel.

Urban Dictionary has released a new phrase to sum up this feeling, they call it a ‘Coronacoaster’:

The truth is that we are living in uncertain and overwhelming times and it is okay to feel all the emotions that you are feeling. Give yourself the space and time to feel the emotions.

Remember that you are not alone, and there is a God who cares for you. The Bible tells us in 1 Peter 5:7 that we can cast all of our cares onto God because he cares for us. He cares how you are feeling, the good, the bad and everything in between. Isaiah 43:2 reminds us that God is always with us, even when we are going through the deep waters, even when we are overwhelmed by our emotions and the world around us. God is with us. God is with you.

One Sunday in prison…

Photo by Colin Lane

There was an Irish comedian called Dave Allen who did a series of shows in which he spoke about the Trinity – the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost (this was the name given to the Holy Spirit many years ago). As part of his routine, he told a story about when he attended a funeral as a young boy and he had watched the priest doing the final blessing at the graveyard.

Some time later he was with his father at a religious event and when he blessed himself, instead of receiving a reassuring pat on the head, he earned himself a smack round the ear! He asked his father what he had said wrong. The young Dave Allen did not hear the priest clearly at the funeral that day, for when he repeated the blessing to his father, he said “In the name of the Father, the Son and into the hole he goes”!

As irreligious or as offensive as some may find a joke like that, Dave Allen was actually touching on a nerve. The fact is that a number of us Christians know a lot about the Father, quite a lot about the Son but often know very little about the Holy Spirit. I once heard the Holy Spirit called the “poor relation” as many Christians often address their prayers to the Father or the Son. It is rare that people might pray to the Holy Spirit. One of the tragedies or our Catholic faith is that many young people have received confirmation but know very little about the Holy Spirit and the gifts that the Spirit gives.

Yet, and this is the irony, yesterday was all about the Holy Spirit. It was the feast of Pentecost, in which Christians celebrate the pouring out of the Holy Spirit promised by Jesus to the disciples. This event changed these men and women forever. And it changed the course of history.

So what or who is the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is the one that brings Jesus to life within Christians. Jesus referred to the Spirit as the helper, the comforter and the advocate. He knew his disciples needed help to do what he was asking them to do and this was it. The Spirit would make them fearless, courageous, full of understanding, knowledge and wisdom and this would lead them to bring greater love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control to whomever and whatever they encountered.

I could write about the Holy Spirit from what I know is in the Bible. But, instead, I want to share with you an actual incident that took place in Liverpool prison six years ago on Pentecost Sunday. (I could write about events in the school also but that is another blog post!!)

I was working as a chaplain in HMP Liverpool and I had organised an afternoon Pentecost service. I had put it on in the afternoon because I knew that anyone who really wanted to be there would come to it as there had already been Mass in the morning. To my absolute astonishment, forty men signed up for the service. But only thirty were allowed in the chapel without prison officers. I took a huge risk and said nothing. Forty signed up so forty were coming.

Pentecost Sunday afternoon came and we all gathered in the chapel. I had about ten Christian volunteers with me who were going to pray in pairs with each of the men. The volunteers were going to pray for whatever the men told them they needed help with and they were also going to pray for the Holy Spirit to be with the men.

So the service began. The men sang every song and listened to every word that was spoken. I gave a sermon to them and one man (we will call him Mark) listened intently to me. However, at one stage he stopped me mid-sermon (he was a burly, tough looking lad so when he spoke, you listened!) and said “Listen lad, what you’re saying is nice and all that but I have been trying to come off drugs for years. I have done everything and nothing has worked. So what can I do?”

I stopped to think. To be honest I panicked. He was respected by the others. A poor answer meant that I could lose the room. And with no officers, forty prisoners and ten non-violent, peace-loving, offer-the-other-cheek-if you-are-hit Christians, that really couldn’t happen.

And then I heard myself say these words: “But that’s your problem Mark. YOU keep trying. YOU keep trying to do everything. What I am saying to you today is that someone else can do it for you. Instead of you trying to control your life, you need to hand it over to this someone so they can control it for you. Instead of you doing it, allow it to be done to you.”

There was silence. Some of the lads beside him tried to read his face. He looked at me trying to figure it out. He sat back in his chair and nodded at me. I continued on.

The Christians with me then spread out in the room in pairs and the lads went to them for prayer. I saw Mark going to a couple and I looked on anxiously. He must have been with them for about fifteen minutes. They prayed and prayed. What was worrying me was that Mark did not look happy at all. He was looking quite angry. When they had finished he sat back in his chair with his head in his hands.

We ended the service and the men went back to their cells. Mark didn’t come near me – I was quite alright with that. That last thing I wanted was an angry Mark bellowing at me that this was a waste of his time, that he could have had a visit with his partner and kid or that he could have been listening to the footy on the radio. I went home wondering what was going on in his head.

The next day I was walking through the wing and I saw Mark bounding towards me. My guard went up and I quickly checked for the nearest alarm button. Then I saw something. A big beaming smile across his face. He said to me “Lad, do I look different?” I looked at him and muttered “, Mark…” and he interrupted me saying “Well, I feel different. That was amazing yesterday!! I thought it was going to be a load…sorry Father (for some reason Mark always thought I was a priest)..I thought I might be wasting my time. But I never ever thought anything like that could happen to me!!” He then gave me a big hug.

We sat down and he told me that when the couple prayed with him, he could feel all the anger coming up inside him (which is why he was looking angry!). All the anger from his past, all the anger towards those he had been fighting with in his gang, all the anger towards his parents and all his anger at life in general. He had then felt exhausted and suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of peace – a peace that he had never felt before. Ever. And he knew it wasn’t from him. He knew it was the Holy Spirit.

I sat dumbfounded. Of course, I didn’t let on…I kept saying “You see, I told you” and “Of course this happened..” But underneath I was overwhelmed. But the next thing he told me astounded me even further.

“I went back to the cell” he continued “and I got my phone out (I didn’t want to know that part, I thought to myself) and I rang the lads and told them I don’t want no drugs coming in here. I know its gonna get me in a lot of trouble but, lad, I don’t care. I am done with it. I read my Bible until I fell asleep. Things are different.” Cue more back-slapping, hand-shaking and hugging.

This is great, I thought to myself. Something amazing has happened here. But how long will it last? The proof that an experience like this is genuine is how much a person’s life changes afterwards. We can have these euphoric moments but the enthusiasm can fade after some weeks.

I finished in HMP Liverpool two months later. In those two months, Mark never turned back to his old way of life. He became the top cleaner on the wing, a trusted helper for the officers and he attended my Bible study groups. The joy he experienced that day never faded. Yes, there were ups and downs. But he still never went back to his old ways. After that, I don’t know what became of Mark.

The Holy Spirit is powerful. What can seem impossible to us, the Spirit can make possible. What can seem like a habit that can never be broken, a darkness that can never be lifted, a grief that can never be overcome or a loss of direction that can never be reversed – all these things can be undone and changed by the Holy Spirit.

We can’t do it ourselves. Mark learned that. I have learned it. Our culture and our society will tell us that the answer lies within us; we can make the change. But how many self-help books do we need to read? How many psychics do we need to consult? How many diets, selfies, apps or counsellors do we need to get to that place of inner-peace? In the end, for Christians, the Holy Spirit gives us something super-natural that, in turn, gives us a sense of identity and a rootedness that no person, place, experience or thing can give us. And whatever comes our way, we are more than conquerors.

Mark, after his experience in prison on that Pentecost Sunday, would probably say with St. Paul: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,  neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37-39).

That is my prayer for you too.

Peace, be still.

This morning’s post has been written by Lydia from Youth for Christ. Thank you so much Lydia!!!

There is a story from the Bible I have been thinking about a lot recently. It’s the story of Jesus calming the storm and it is found in the Gosepel of Mark, chapter 4:35-41. You can read it here: 

In this story we find the disciples in the midst of a storm and they are really scared. A lot of the disciples had been fishermen so they were used to sailing and probably had faced storms before but this storm is so wild and fierce that they are scared. It is unlike any storm they have faced.

 As I read this it struck me that we also are facing a storm that is unlike any storm we have faced before and maybe, like the disciples, we are scared of what this storm will bring – the uncertainty that the storm brings, the destruction and grief that may come with this storm.

Maybe we also find ourselves, like the disciples did, questioning if Jesus even cares about the storm that is going on around us. Where is God in this pandemic and why isn’t He doing something about it?

But, as we read in the story, Jesus was still in control and with just a word he calmed the storm. And he can do the same in our lives. With just one word he can calm the storms in our lives.

Whether the storms come to a stop or not, we can trust that Jesus is always with us. The Bible tells us that he is never going to leave us or forsake us, that is a promise that he makes to us.

I have been listening to these two songs a lot during the past few weeks and reminding myself that the peace that is talked about in the Bible is the same peace that I can have today and, even in the midst of a pandemic, I can be safe in the knowledge that Jesus is still in control and his peace is my peace.

I really encourage you to listen to these songs and hold onto his peace today. We must not forget; the Bible tells us in 1 John 4:18, that God’s perfect love casts out fear.

The next blog post will be on Monday, June 1st.

Mental Health Awareness Week: You are strong when you feel weak.

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. I think it is one of the most important weeks in the calendar year. When you think about it, we have gyms everywhere to help us get physically fit, while there is so much emphasis on social media and in our magazines on being fit and healthy, eating the right foods, having a proper diet, having the right body size and so on. And a lot of this is good and right. We do need to look after our physical health.

But when it comes to mental health, things get a bit more hazy. While we are able to have lengthy conversations with our mates about our physical health and what we are doing to get fit or lose weight, we don’t seem to be able to talk about mental health in the same way. It feels more private, more personal, awkward, even embarrassing…not something you would talk to your friends about over a meal or during a night out.

Make no mistake, we have come a long way. There was a time when having a mental illness used to be shameful or seen as a stigma in society but it has now become somewhat more accepted. We are talking about it more and that is a good thing. But I say “somewhat” – more still needs to be done.

People still feel the need to cover up any issues they are experiencing in regard to their mental health. Sometimes they try to cover it up by getting physically fit and, then, by looking good they feel good. And there is no doubt that looking good does make you feel good! However, when looking good is used to cover up not feeling good, the relief we get is only short lived. This is quite common within the celebrity culture which you see on your social media – you will see lots of photos of some celebs looking incredible, showing off their recent weight loss, dressed in the best designer clothes and sparkling jewellery but these celebs’ private lives can often turnnout to be chaotic due to their struggle with mental health issues. How many times have we said, “Well, you would never have thought they had that!” when these celebrities have admitted their addiction or their struggle with depression.

Forget celebrities, it can be someone we personally know. The very person we thought “had it all”, whose lives seemed to be blissful, who seemed so “together” or so “normal,” sometimes turns out to be someone who has been struggling with their mental health. When we hear of relatives or friends who are suffering from, say, depression, suddenly it is hard to know what to say. Do you say anything? Nothing? Should you mention it to them? Wait for them to bring it up in conversation?

We find it hard to know what to do with what we can’t see. If we have a sickness bug or we have broken a leg, we can see the effects of the illness or the injury. There is evidence that proves there is something wrong with us. And usually it can be seen to get better – time in bed or long term physiotherapy for example. But we can often struggle to admit we have a problem when we are burnt-out from too much work, when we wake up every morning and wish that we could sleep and sleep as we can’t bear to face the day or when we can’t find any joy or happiness in everyday things anymore. We might catch ourselves thinking “I just need to pull myself together” or “Why am I crying again!” or “People will think I am just looking for attention.” So we can suffer in silence.

So why is there still a stigma? Why is there still shame attached to our struggles with mental health? Why the silence? I think there are many reasons but I am going to focus on what I think is the reason: it is seen as weakness. We, as a society, struggle with what we can’t see; we find it hard to understand and deal with the emotions and feelings from experiences of grief, loss, depression, anxiety, self-harm, suicidal thoughts. And the reason we struggle with it is because there is no easy fix. No straightforward healing. No clear way of seeing things changing. It is easier to deal with our body than our minds. And there is always the lurking fear that people will think we are pretending, looking for attention or that others will think we are not strong enough.

What has our Christian faith got to say to all this? Quite a lot actually and, once again, there is not enough space here to go into it. There have been quite a number of studies done to show how religion and spirituality can positively affect our mental health. But I want to just focus on something St. Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians (see it here:

Paul speaks of a thorn in the flesh. We still don’t know what he means by this. But we think that it was something that he was suffering with for a long time. It seemed a constant problem for him. He had asked God to take it away three times but God had instead said to him that grace is all he needed because God’s power is made perfect in weakness. Now I am not suggesting for one minute that God is happy for someone to have a mental illness so that God can show off great power. No, there is something deeper here. It’s the last line – for when I am weak, then I am strong.

God is effectively saying to Paul; I know that you see this as a weakness and I know you wish you didn’t have it, but my grace will bring you through this. When you admit your weakness, your inability to overcome this, then my power will shine through. And then will things change.

And I have seen this truth again and again throughout my life. When a student has come into my office in tears because they were desperate and wanted help, it was then that changes started to happen. When an addict in the prison admitted they were powerless over their past and their addiction, then the healing began. When the depressed young university student admitted he had suicidal thoughts, then his life was saved.

What we need to recognise is that when people admit they have a problem, when they say they are at rock bottom, when they tell someone they can’t go on any more, this is a great strength. They are being truly strong because they have the courage to admit it. Their weakness has become their strength.

But there is something more. St Paul talks about boasting about his weaknesses. He says “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” He is not ashamed of his weaknesses, any more, the mistakes he has made, they way he is mocked and ridiculed. Instead he will boast about them. Why? Because he is able to say that despite all these things, he is stronger than ever before. They have not overcome him. They have not overwhelmed him.

Why not? Because of his faith in Jesus. In a Jesus who died as the ultimate weak person – as a common criminal nailed to the cross. He didn’t speak up for himself. He didn’t defend himself. He didn’t try to stop others insulting him or beating him. Someone had to carry the cross for him. He forgave his killers, which was the weakest thing you could possibly do in that culture. And his life ended as a naked and beaten criminal hanging on a cross. For the people back then, there was no greater sign of failure and weakness. But that was not the end. The resurrection signalled a new hope – out of despair, depression, grief, sin and even death, could come new life.

And this gives believers today incredible hope and helps them to say with St Paul – when I am weak then I am strong. These words have inspired so many songs and poems, so many films, so many quotes, so many self-help books, so many memes and social media posts. It has led so many people to be bold enough to speak openly about their mental illness because so many others have gained strength from hearing about their “weakness.”

Meditation, yoga, self-help books, crystals, tai-chi or mindfulness are often recommended as ways of helping to improve our mental health. And there is no doubt these have impacted greatly on people’s lives. But St Paul is talking, not about a “what” here, but a who.

He is saying that a person, Jesus, has radically changed his life and how he deals with this thorn in his side. There is now no more shame, no more stigma, no more pretence. He is who he is. When he admits he can’t, he is saying God can. He realises that the moment he admits he can’t do it himself, that is when he allows God to take over. It is not surprising that this notion is key to people taking part in AA meetings – to admit they are powerless over their addiction and to trust in a higher power to help them overcome it. Many people who have struggled with the symptoms of a mental illness have found great freedom in admitting they can’t go it alone, that they too need help and not just from people.

So if you struggle with issues around your mental health, know that you can be a powerful sign of hope for others. Please know that when you admit you need help, you have never been stronger in your life than at that moment. Yes, do everything you can to get the help you need – tell someone whom you trust, contact your GP, keep taking the medication you have been prescribed, whatever it is – but don’t forget you can turn to the Lord in prayer, saying again and again if you have to, “I can’t, you can.” Then you will invite into your life a powerful companion, who will give you the strength and hope that will bring you through each day and who will remind you that he is greater than what your mind could ever tell you.

Loving God, we pray today for those who are confronted by the sadness, ambiguity and confusion of mental illness, and for those upon whom they depend for attention and compassionate care.

Look with mercy on all whose illness brings them weakness, distress, confusion or isolation.
Provide for them homes of dignity and peace; give to them understanding helpers and the willingness to accept help.

We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Experiencing the joy of TikTok

I had two memorable encounters with TikTok.

I was in the chaplaincy office during lunchtime one day and some of the students were discussing it. I had an idea what it was but, being a very cool and hip chaplain (!!), I managed to hide my utter ignorance and un-hipness (is that even a word?), nodded and smiled, ahh-ed and yes-ed at their chat about the latest videos they were watching. I even said “Yes!” when their questions began with “And sir, you know when….” Nope, hadn’t a clue. As soon as they were out the door, I started to google. Frantically.

The second encounter was more up-close. Mrs. Landor (our Head of RE) and myself took some of our Faith in Action students to the Lenten Youth Alive Mass in Crosby. Before we went to Crosby, we stopped off at McDonald’s in Aintree for some food before Mass (as you do). That’s when I learned the power of TikTok. Towards the end of the meal, the students were moving to different locations in the restaurant, putting down their phones and dancing in front of them. I didn’t know what to do – should I tell them to sit down or let…tiktok? I decided to get them back in the bus…we were finished anyway.

We then drove to Crosby, parked opposite the church but, since we were early, we decided to wait in the bus. Moments later, the girls are up out of their seats, phones down, dancing, giggling and laughing. Mrs Landor and I stared out through the windscreen as the bus rocked and shaked to the music and dancing of TikTok. Suddenly, we weren’t too early for Mass!

If you look up the purpose of TikTok on their website, you will read this: “Our mission is to inspire creativity and bring joy.” The expressions of the girls that night in McDonald’s, the giggles and laughter in the bus in Crosby was nothing but pure, simple, harmless joy. Don’t get me wrong, there will always be negative content on TikTok as there would be on any social media or video platform but there is also so much content that provides simple joy and inspiration. TikTok, for the most part, fulfills their mission.

Joy is at the heart of the gospels. It is interesting that Jesus was often criticised by the religious authorities for his joy. He announced the beginning of his mission not with words but with a gesture – a six hundred and eighty litres of wine gesture to be exact. The prophets had always used the image of a wedding feast to symbolise the coming of God’s reign; a big banquet of food and lots of wine!! And Jesus used this wedding feast, not to show off his wine making abilities but as a way of announcing the joyful reign of God.

Just as my expectations of how joy could be expressed were challenged that night, the religious authorities struggled to understand the way that Jesus shared joy with others. He often had meals (mostly parties) with people who were looked down upon by these authorities. They were tax-collectors, prostitutes and general sinners. And no doubt, there was dancing, laughter, wine, food and music. And this is where Jesus found joy – in the most unexpected places and with the most unexpected people. No wonder he was called a glutton and a drunkard by his jealous enemies.

And joy was found in the stories he told – the joy of the father seeing his lost son again, the joy of the woman finding her lost coin, the shepherd finding his lost sheep. He brought joy to those he met – the blind man who could now see, the leper who could go back to his family after being healed, the man whose daughter was dead but was brought back to life. And finally in his resurrection – the joy of knowing that death is not the end.

God delights in joy and creativity. This is where God is to be found. We don’t often associate God with the creativity and joy of dance, music, drama, YouTube or TikTok but any means, considering it is safe, harmless and kind, by which we can bring each other laughter, hope, comfort, healing and joy are from a Creator God who loves to give us these gifts to do exactly that. Johann Sebastian Bach, the amazing composer of classical music, said that he wrote the notes but God wrote the music while Martha Graham believed that dancers were the athletes of God.

Back to that night. At Mass, Fr Simon Gore gave a stunning sermon to the young people about where we find our true identity. He spoke honestly about all the ways that our culture, especially social media, can lead us to doubt our self-worth and our self-identity. And there is no doubt that social media can lead many to compare themselves with each other, to depend on the amount of likes they get for a post as a way of gauging acceptance by others, thus causing anxiety and stress. But Fr Simon stressed to them that our real identity is found in God – we have been created and loved into existence. We are God’s children. Nobody and nothing can take away this unshakeable identity. In other words, people didn’t create us so they can’t define us. And knowing this is a true source of joy.

So what was the experience of joy that evening for our young people? A delicious McDonald’s meal shared with friends, dancing and singing to TikTok and a Mass in which they were reminded they were deeply loved.

Not a bad evening’s work.

Why grades don’t define you…

The post for today has been written by Lydia from Youth for Christ. If you struggle with doing exams in general or are nervous about what grades you may get in the summer, this is a must-read!! Lydia knows what she is talking about!!

When I was a young person and right up until I graduated last year, I used to hate the month of May. May was always a bad month in school because it was the start of exam season. All the months of lessons and revising came to an end and I had to put all that learning down on paper in some way that made sense and would hopefully get me a good enough grade so I could move onto the next step in my academic journey. However I was never very good at exams, no matter how hard I tried, my mind would just go blank as soon as I got into that exam hall and my grades reflected that. I had to sit my Maths GCSE 3 times before I passed with a C, and I am not that bad at Maths but Maths exams are a whole other story for me.

But we find ourselves in a time where exam season has been cancelled. Young people will not sit exams this year, they will not have to sit in that exam hall trying to recall everything they have learned. And they will have to rely on the predicted grades from teachers to get them to where they are heading next.

For some young people they will be pretty happy with this – I know as a young person I would have been made up. But I have spoken to some young people where this is not the case. There is a sense of sadness, a sense of it not being fair, they have worked so hard for months, for years, all building up to this month where they can put pen to paper and when their hard work would finally pay off. And now it’s cancelled, it’s over. They just have to wait till results day to find out what their grades have been decided for them. What a nervous wait, just sitting and wondering.

As I was trying to find words for my young people at church to encourage them in this time, I realised that my advice for them now is the exact same message I would give them if the exams were still taking place. It’s this – grades do not define who you are. Good or bad they do not define you. God defines who you are. Whatever happens with grades we know that God has a plan for our lives and the Bible tells us that it’s a good plan, it’s a plan to give you a future and to give you hope. God knows what he has in store for you. So in this strange time, hold onto that hope and remind yourself that your grades, good or bad, do not define who you are, God does. When I left college, I didn’t have the best grades but I managed to get into university and, through a lot of hard work and determination, I graduated last summer with a first. Because my grades don’t define who I am, God defines me and he always has a plan for my life and it is a really good plan.

So in this time of uncertainty we can hold onto the hope that God has a good plan for us and that grades do not define who we are.

Like Father, like Son.

Have you ever wondered if you were on the right track in life? If you were going in the right direction? Have you ever got fed up with the lies and false claims of the media, politicians, Twitter news feeds or even other people in your life, so much so that you have been desperate to find out the real truth? Ever thought to yourself “Is this what life is really all about?” or “What is the purpose of my life?”

These are questions that we all ask, regardless of who we are or what we do, what our background is or what faith we profess. They are deeply human questions. So when Thomas expresses his confusion to Jesus in yesterday’s gospel ( about not knowing “the way,” Jesus responds with these words: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one can come to the Father except through me.”

The interpretation of this statement has caused all sorts of issues down through the years. The most significant issue has been the view that Jesus is saying that the only way we can know God the Father is through him. So this line has then been interpreted to mean “Christianity is the true religion; all others are wrong.” This causes a problem in our current society where equality is valued above all else. No religion can be above another and so the common view today is that all religions are the same anyway. The simple response to this statement is no, they are not. And it is not just me saying this, it is all the world religions too!

They are all very different and, in the past, when I have worked with Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Jewish chaplains in a university and in the prison service, they too would claim that their religion is the not the same as other religions. We all have different beliefs. The Catholic Church says that, yes, all major religions have something important within them that is good and true but, and this is the important bit, the Christian faith has something that leads in a unique and special way to knowing God the Father. Well, not something but someone; a person – Jesus.

And the clue is found in the next words of Jesus: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” and then, “Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and that the Father is in me?”

In other words, Jesus and God the Father are inseparable. They are one and the same. And this belief is found in the doctrine of the incarnation – God is a Trinity; God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit and God the Son became a human being in Jesus of Nazareth. So when people two thousand years ago saw Jesus curing a sick man, healing a leper, preaching on the shoreline, sitting with the worst sinners at a meal, throwing tables around the Temple, being arrested, hanging on a cross – it wasn’t just Jesus, it was God being and acting in this way.

For the first time in history, we could actually know God in a real way. I mean really know God. Before this, for most of the human race, there were many gods who had different characteristics but nonetheless remained unknowable and unpredictable. These gods were worshipped in fear. For the Jewish people, God was a loving and caring God who had chosen a people to be in relationship with but still remained unknowable to some extent and distant, especially as the Jewish people still believed that the sins of their ancestors still had not been forgiven. The proof? They did not have their own land, their own king and their own rule. They were waiting for the Messiah to change all this. In the meantime, they had to follow all 613 commandments in the hope that God would offer forgiveness and send the Messiah.

But in Jesus, we see who this God, God the Father, really is. We see a God who tells people through stories that they are deeply loved; he is like a father waiting for his upstart of a son to return home and who watches every day for him until he does so. He sits among those who were considered the outcasts of society and tells them he is for them and that they will be the first into his reign of love. He reaches out and touches the untouchable lepers and women in society showing that human categories of clean and unclean have no place in his reign. He rages at the religious leaders who try to make him a burden on people by the way they check to see if people are following every single religious law and, yet, they themselves were complete hypocrites.

But what is more shocking is that this God, unlike any other belief about god or gods in the history of time, can be vulnerable and weak. God asks a teenager permission to be born in her. God places his divine life in the hands of young parents to be kept safe and secure. This God cries in anger and sadness, this God stays silent in the face of his abuse and the false accusations levelled at him. And most shocking of all, and this is where most other faith adherents will shake their heads in disbelief, this God took on our mistakes and sin and allowed humans to nail him to a cross, suffer the most horrendous pain and die like a common criminal.

So when people think that Jesus was just a wise man, a great moral teacher, another religious guru, a great prophet or a leader of new spiritual movement, there is no way that he can be the Way, the Truth and the Life. Why? Because he is not God.

And this was Jesus’s whole reason for being.

And this is why so many people who have lost their way in life have found the way forward again through their faith in Jesus. This is why so many people, who could not believe they are loved and accepted for who they are, discover the truth that they have a value and worth that does not depend on anybody or anything in this life. This is why so many people whose lives have gone off the rails, whose lives seem meaningless, have discovered real life in following Jesus. Why? Because Jesus is the way of the Father, the truth about the Father and the life of the Father. And through their faith in Jesus, many people have discovered the true source of meaning and purpose in life.

Personally, I have seen it first-hand myself. I have seen hardened drug dealers in prison discover the truth about their lives and so completely change their lives because of an encounter with God. I have seen students who were struggling with their self-esteem suddenly rediscover their lives again when they know that God created them out of love. I have witnessed many people completely change their attitudes and mindset when they discover that the true way to happiness is not through having things or trying to be someone they are not, but through believing in someone who completely believes in and died for them.

And the same applies to you. Do you sometimes feel weak? You will be told that  “My grace is all you need, for my power is greatest when you are weak.” (2 Cor 12:9). Do you feel anxious? You will be reminded that “God’s peace, which is far beyond human understanding, will keep your hearts and minds safe…” (Philippians 4:6-9). Do you think you don’t matter? You will be told “Even the hairs of your head have all been counted. So do not be afraid; you are worth much more than many sparrows!” (Luke 12:7). Do you feel weighed down by problems or worries? He says “Come to me, all of you who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)

This is why many people, including myself, believe in Jesus as the Way, the Truth and the Life. As I referred to at the start of this post, in our lifetime we will be presented with so many ways, different kinds of truth and lots of advice on how to get the best out of life. But none compare with knowing Christ. And we believe that knowing him means that we know the Father.

And it can be truly life-changing.

If you can make some time, take a look at this talk delivered by Nicky Cruz, a former leader of the violent New York gang, the Mau Mau’s.

When you need some encouragement…

I would like to share this story with you:

Two men, both seriously ill, occupied the same hospital room. One man was allowed to sit up in his bed for an hour each afternoon to receive his daily medical treatment. His bed was next to the room’s only window. The other man had to spend all his time flat on his back. The men talked for hours on end. They spoke of their wives and families, their homes, their jobs, their involvement in the military service, and places they had been on holiday.

Every afternoon when the man in the bed by the window could sit up, he would pass the time by describing to his roommate all the things he could see outside the window. The man in the other bed began to live for those one-hour periods where his world would be broadened by the description of activity and colour of the world outside. The window overlooked a park with a beautiful lake. Ducks and swans played on the water while children sailed their model boats. Young lovers held hands and walked amidst flowers of every colour of the rainbow. Grand old trees graced the landscape, and a fine view of the city skyline could be seen in the distance. As the man described his view from the window in exquisite detail, the man on the other side of the room would close his eyes and imagine the picturesque scene.

One morning, the nurse informed him that the man beside the window died. As soon as it seemed appropriate, the other man asked if he could be moved next to the window. The nurse was happy to make the switch, and after making sure he was comfortable, she left him alone. Slowly, painfully, he propped himself up on one elbow to take his first look at the world outside. Finally, he would have the joy of seeing it for himself. He strained to slowly turn to look out the window beside the bed. To his surprise the window faced a brick wall.

The man called for the nurse and asked what could have compelled his deceased roommate to describe such wonderful things outside this window. The nurse responded that the man was blind and could not even see the wall. “Perhaps he just wanted to encourage you,” she said.

It can be easy in our current situation to focus on the negative. Even though we are hearing that we have passed the peak of the virus and that there may be some easing of restrictions in the near future, we are still hearing terrible statistics in the news about people who are dying from the virus and how social distancing may be the norm for some time to come. Some of you reading this may have a loved one desperately sick at present or may have even lost someone in recent days to the virus.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:11, St. Paul says: “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.” In this letter, St Paul is writing to some new converts and he is trying to build them up as their faith is being tested severely. Everything around them is challenging their newfound faith and hope and it could be so easy for them to slip back into their old ways of thinking and living.

For us, it can also be easy to get lost in the bad news and allow ourselves to wallow in what brings our mood down. I know that constantly checking the news has often brought my mood down as the 24-hour news media keep repeating the same bad news over and over again. And it can make me feel both helpless and hopeless. But there is something that we can do to change this and both St. Paul and this story give us some guidance.

Firstly, encourage people around you. Even though you don’t feel like it, do it. There is no doubt that when we do kind acts for others, it has a significantly positive impact on our mood. Send that text, join in that family Zoom chat, bake something for a next door neighbour, write a note for friend or simply tell your children you love them. It is clear that the man in the story is unwell and, what is more, he is blind. But, despite this, he consistently and unfalteringly gave the other patient hope each day. He helped the man see what he could not see. And our kindness and encouragement to others will impact on us; “so let us not become tired of doing good; for if we do not give up, the time will come when we will reap the harvest.” (Galatians 6:9)

Secondly, notice the signs of encouragement and hope around you. And I mean notice. It is so easy to quickly flick through our news feeds on social media and only half-glance at the good news stories and feel a faint flicker of encouragement. If you are in the midst of sickness or experiencing the grief of losing someone close to you, it can be difficult to really feel the love and support you receive through cards, texts or in conversation with others. Instead, just like the patient listening to the man telling him the imaginary scenes outside his imaginary window, we need to try to absorb and notice with intention.

So instead of just clapping on Thursday night for the NHS, notice how you feel as you take part in this expression of love and appreciation for these wonderful people. Look around your street, look at the faces of the people clapping, the excitement of the children making noises, the sound of the clapping reverberating around your street, the warm waves of good-bye as you go back into your homes. When you close the door, sit down and spend a moment absorbing what you have just seen and done. Allow it to lift your spirits and give you hope.

Maybe instead of just quickly scrolling through your news feed on your social media, take the time to notice the stories that inspire, all the organisations that are providing so many supportive and encouraging ways for people to stay healthy and well, the videos that make you laugh out loud (and allow yourself to laugh), the kind comments and expressions of love that people are posting for all to read. Notice, appreciate and enjoy the goodness of people, the love that people want to share and the indomitable spirit that is the human spirit.

If someone you love has recently died during this difficult time, even in the midst of your grief, make a decision to notice. Notice the outpourings of love that are coming to you through conversations and texts on the phone, letters and cards that you are receiving, the hugs and expressions of love that you are getting from those you live with, the thoughtfulness of your priest or funeral director as they try to make things easier for you. Love and hope are greater than death.

And what of God? At the heart of our faith is the belief in the incarnation. Specifically, it means that God the Son became human in a man, Jesus of Nazareth. But this way of God entering into our world is not just limited to thousand years ago. Our faith also tells us that we can experience the presence of God through our present shared lived experiences of love, comfort, encouragement, acceptance, joy, gratitude and compassion. It is in these moments that we are in touch with something greater than us. When we feel love from another, when we are encouraged by a text, when we stand in solidarity with our neighbours on a Thursday night, in these moments, we experience something of God. As the poet Patrick Kavanagh wrote; “God is in the bits and pieces of everyday.”

So be encouraged.

Loving God, give me eyes to see as you see. In the bits and pieces of this very strange life that I live at present, help me to see that every expression of love and hope, compassion and kindness, encouragement and support that I see or hear or read or experience, is your way of telling me this simple truth; “I am with you.” Help me to believe, help me to see. Amen.

When a gate isn’t just a gate…

Whenever I have discussed being a Christian with young people, whether it has been in the classroom, the chaplaincy office or wherever, one of the assumptions that I often hear is that being a Christian means you have to stop enjoying yourself. Instead, you have to follow all the rules that tell you not to do this and not to do that. You can’t drink. You shouldn’t watch certain types of films. You can’t listen to Nikki Minaj. You shouldn’t say horrible things about other people on Snapchat. Watching Love Island is out. You…just…can’t…enjoy yourself!!! And young people are not the only people to hold this view – this has also come up in conversation with adults. There is a sense that following the Christian faith makes life that bit more dull and serious.

When I dug a little deeper with my students, it wasn’t simply that they were afraid they would have to stop enjoying themselves. It was (and you may have guessed it from the above examples) the fact that they couldn’t enjoy themselves if they did “bad” things. Moments that, for them, were examples of being free, living in the moment, having a good time, living on the edge and enjoying the adrenaline rush that comes with risk-taking. And not doing these things or to be seen not wanting to do them would make them very boring. And you would not be the kind of person with whom anyone would want to be friends. But going deeper again…it was also the fact that they didn’t like the idea of being told what to do. What young person does? And do any of us like being told what to do? No, we don’t. And I think, in all of this, there is a genuine fear that faith can stifle our enjoyment of life.

But their fears about our faith being primarily about do’s and don’t’s is not without foundation. Whenever I have run evangelisation programmes in churches, I have heard so many older people talk about how their experience of faith was one of fear of God or the Church rather than an experience of a loving relationship with God. And this has broken my heart. When they do have an experience of God’s love through these programmes, they can’t believe how different they feel. One lady, who was eighty-seven years old, said to me: “I can’t believe I have never felt this way about God.” She was unburdened, uplifted and set free. She was filled with life and life to the full…and she still is today.

BUT…and there is a but. Yes, our faith does require us to change our behaviour. We just can’t do whatever we want. Jesus’s first word, when he began to preach, was “Repent.” In other words, change your life. So yes, there is a need to follow rules or guidance.

However, it is all about perspective. And the perspective that can help anyone with the above assumptions was found in yesterday’s gospel. And it involves a gate. Yes, a gate…please keep reading! Yesterday’s Gospel can be found here:

In Palestine, during Jesus’ time, sheep were treated somewhat differently than they are in the UK today. Here, sheep are largely kept for killing, but in Palestine, they were kept mainly for their wool. This meant that sheep could be with their shepherd for quite a number of years. And of course, the shepherd got to know their sheep and vice-versa. Added to this, the sheep would always respond to their shepherd’s voice and would never follow a stranger.

Now, during the warm seasons in Palestine, flocks of sheep that were out on the hills rarely returned at night to the village. Instead, the shepherd would bring them together into sheepfolds on the hillside. These were often open spaces enclosed by a wall. So the sheep entered the sheepfold through an opening but there was no gate.

However, this is the important part. At night, the shepherd himself lay down across the opening and acted as the gate. No sheep could get out without crossing over him. He, literally, was the gate. And this is what Jesus is trying to say about himself in the gospel.

But why does the shepherd lie across the opening for the sheep? If we use the sentiments behind the above assumptions of the students, he is trying to “keep them in” or “not let them escape.” Quite negative assumptions. But there is another perspective. Instead, the shepherd is trying to protect his own. He is stopping them getting out because they might get lost, be killed by a fox or stolen by someone. And he is also stopping any animals getting in to attack the sheep. In other words, the sheep are safe and secure with the shepherd acting as their gate. And this shepherd leads the sheep to pasture every day – to the best areas of grass that will feed, nourish and help the sheep grow. And, as a result, they will be safe and saved.

Jesus also refers to thieves and robbers who try to steal, kill and destroy. There are so many things about our world that I love, but there are so many things we find in our world that does what these thieves will try to do. How many people have had their self-esteem stolen by the pressures to conform to the stereotypes portrayed on social media? How many people have had their lives destroyed by alcohol or drug abuse? How many people have been killed as a result of fighting, bullying, unprovoked attacks, bombings and war? How many children, women and men have been stolen and sold into slavery? How many communities have been destroyed by the political gambling and game-playing of politicians? How many have been killed in the name of religion and ethnicity? The list could go on.

My response to the young people I have encountered is that our faith is led by a shepherd who wishes to protect us from what can harm us most. This shepherd wants to decide what comes in and goes out of our lives – not to oppress us, not to stop us making our own decisions, not to stop us enjoying ourselves, but to protect us from all those things in our lives that might steal, destroy or kill. But more than that – so that we can have life and life to overflowing! And that is a good shepherd.

Maybe as we begin this week, we can take a look at our own lives. Are there things that steal a part of our identity, that regularly destroys something of us, that kills any dreams or hopes or love that is left in us? These could be situations, people, places or events. What would it be like to allow Jesus to be the gate, the one who decides who and what comes in and out of our lives? A scary thought – we might suddenly feel that old fear of not being free any more or of having to follow rules.

But we must keep in mind the image of the shepherd lying across the opening of the sheepfold – to protect his sheep so as to save their lives. This is the image of God that Jesus presents – a shepherd who is not only willing to protect us but a shepherd who is willing to give his life up for us. And if we take the risk, we will have more enjoyment in life than we could ever imagine.

You might find this song helpful in allowing you to reflect on these questions.