Editor’s note: This story appeared in the December 2021 edition of The Daily Universe Magazine.
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Teal is a chaplain, fellow and lecturer at Pembroke College at Oxford University. He was a visiting scholar at the Maxwell Institute this semester and is good friends with Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Teal gave a forum address on Oct. 26 focused on “sojourning” and seeing across boundaries between different faiths. Before heading back to England in November, he shared some Christmas memories and insights with The Daily Universe.
Q: What are some of your favorite Christmas traditions and memories?
A: Oh, it’s funny. I mean, I suppose I’ve been a professional Christmas character as a minister since 1988. And so Christmas is one of my busy periods. It’s a great privilege to be part of a whole spectrum of people celebrating the unique impact of God on the world in the birth of Jesus Christ. We have in Oxford, something called Nine Lessons and Carols, which is where I’m an Oxford chaplain — where Elder Holland came actually and he preached at one of them. And they’re always immense services in terms of daring to hope in our mortal lives, which are often grubby and smeared and marked by ambition and failure, and then ambition again.
There is this wonderful value given to every human being through the birth of a child and I think that’s… whatever celebrates that, whatever reflects that. Be it Christmas carol singing in the streets of Yorkshire or midnight communion, which is always one of the most aesthetically beautiful things the Church of England does, Nine Lessons and Carols. But I guess my most wonderful moment on Christmas Day is sleeping in the afternoon after a big Christmas lunch and having done all the services and to think well, yeah, even human recreation and collapse is part of what… there’s nothing alien to God in this Christ child. Nothing about our human experience, nothing at all, is now alien to him so I can snooze away and recover.
Q: What does the birth of Christ mean to your faith specifically and to you?
A: There is nothing alien about any human experience to God because of the Incarnation, because of the coming in the flesh, in our mortality of the Son, of Jesus Christ. So I think there’s that and the other thing that I like about Christmas is that it seems to help us all to remember, however clever we become, how sophisticated our lives — there is something quite magical about going to a simple nativity, or a simple carol service. About enjoying the magic of Christmas with young kids and around the Christmas table, to have a whole spectrum of generations. I love that. And you do generations pretty well in Utah, and in the Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but I think that’s one of the moments where even Catholics and Protestants, you know, in Europe where religion isn’t as well attended and as vivid and as impactful as it is here in Utah. That’s a moment when we can actually rediscover that wonder of being human by seeing, whether you’re old or young or anything in between. It’s okay to to be amazed.
Q: What do you hope the BYU community takes away from Christmas this year and remembers?
A: Well, I say I hope this but I know… I really believe you will do this, because what I’ve seen from students and staff here is that the dignity the birth of Christ gives to all human beings is something that nothing can wipe away. No accident of our mortal life can wipe away that eternal dignity. And when (Elder Holland) was at Oxford… he was talking about his father dying around Christmas and he went into the hospital and thought, how can this be happening at Christmas time? And got quite upset and just went for a walk around the ward. And then heard, from the natal units, a newborn cry. That there is even in those moments of our dismay, there are always signs of hope.
And what I would hope people would take away from (this semester) is that whatever’s happened, good or bad, joy or disappointment, we are all connected and that Christmas can really enable us to deeply value other people’s journeys as part of our own. It’s a time to reach out in support of those who have perhaps been hurt by life or relationships or whatever. But it’s also a time to recognize that wonderful connection that we do belong to each other, not just because you all support Cougars, but you do belong to each other on a much more deeper level. So to take that away, is that there’s that wonderful solidarity that you have been given and that Christmas reminds us of.
Shortly after Teal arrived in Utah, he suffered burn injuries on his feet after walking on patio tiles. He spent three and a half weeks at the University of Utah burn unit in intensive care and had skin grafts on both feet twice.
Q: Did your faith help you get through that or how did your faith affect you in that situation?
A: It was pretty pivotal. It was really important. You realize that being a Christian is being part of a community. That certainly came across. Phone calls and visits from a whole spectrum of people were amazingly renewing… It’s nice that people just come and sort of break up the tedium of the day. That was good.
Teal also has a prayer book he uses to write down names of people to keep in his prayers. Elder Holland and Sister Patricia Holland were on the list.
This was a way of connecting me to people back in Oxford. I felt quite a long way away from my wife and family in many ways, but in another way, I’ve never felt as close to them, despite being that distant and I think that’s a way in which faith gave me that resource.
Q: What can the BYU community do to become more Christlike?
Teal shared a story of when he was walking around campus and heard someone shout “Reverend Teal!” from a tree. This was someone he knew from when she served a mission in London.
A: Don’t stop reaching out as you’re doing all these activity things as students — shout at people from a tree. Keep on making friendships because friendships are really, really, really important.
Don’t weaponize truth. Don’t make it a weapon to hurt somebody else. Truth is only ever truth when it is in love. And truth is always kind. And if you don’t tell truth with a kind perspective, people know there’s no tenderness beneath your honesty, and it’s not going to work.
I would say the hardest thing to say to everybody is never lose hope in the mercy of God when you’re feeling that you’re failing, that you’re inadequate or that you’re not worthy. Accept the fact that despite everything, the foundation is that you are accepted. That God loves you. Now, there are lots of childlike songs that you could sing at this point like the famous one “I Am a Child of God” which is absolutely right.
But there comes a point where in life we think we’re the only person that’s ever done this, or ever felt this or thought this and that we’re therefore unworthy. Those are not thoughts which will build us up. And they are not the truth. Because however, whatever we’ve done, it’s not as if we painted ourselves in the corner. We always have that possibility of joyful repentance. Accept the fact that you’re accepted and that you’ve never gone beyond the Father’s love. The depths of the infinite Atonement go way under the worst of our moments. So don’t despair at yourselves.