Christian faith


This is the text of this morning’s sermon for Easter Day at Ripon Cathedral:

Acts 10:34-43 & John 20:1-18

Language matters. Describing the latest military attack on Afghanistan as the ‘mother of all bombs’ is shocking in its ‘boys’ toys’ trivialisation – or glorification of extreme violence. And it does not bode well at a time when nuclear war seems more likely than at any time since the end of the Cold War – especially given the unpredictability of the President of the United States and his predilection for changing his mind quickly and inconsistently. To say nothing about the Great Leader of North Korea.

An unusual way to begin a sermon for Easter Day? Maybe. But, this is the world we now live in at Easter 2017, and Christian worship cannot be an escape from it. But, rather than dropping high explosives onto other human beings, Easter explodes something different and more challenging into the world we know: Easter drops into the dark violence of the modern, sophisticated, scientific age the subversive light of resurrection.

And that is what we are here for this morning. We do not simply memorialise an event that happened two thousand years ago somewhere far, far away. We do not merely cross our fingers and wish for a deus ex machina to intrude into the insurmountable problems of human living and sort it all out. Nor do we rush with relief to resurrection before we have properly looked the cruelty of Friday and the horrifying emptiness of Saturday in the eye and lived with our mortality.

No, we are here this morning to have our lives transformed by an encounter with the risen Christ; anything less and we have missed the point.

It reminds me of the story of the bat that flew one night into the bat cave, hung itself upside down (as, apparently, bats are wont to do) and closed its eyes, blood dripping from its mouth. The other bats smelled this and said to him: “You’ve found something – you’ve got to show us where it is.” “Leave me alone,” said the bat, “I just want to go to sleep.” “Noooo,” cried the other bats, “you’ve found something – you’ve got to show us where it is.” In the end the bat gave up and said, “OK, follow me.” He flew out of the cave, followed by thousand of eager bats. They flew down the valley, around the hill, up over the crag and down into the next valley before rounding a wooded outcrop and turning into the next valley. As they approached a forest the bat stopped and hovered in the air, thousand of bats hovering behind him, full of anticipation. “You see that forest?” said the bat? “Yeah, yeah, yeah…,” hissed the bats. “You see that rock to the left of the forest?” “Yeah, yeah, yeah…”. “You see the tree next to the rock?” “Yeah, yeah, yeah…” “Well, I didn’t!”

You see, there is a difference between looking and seeing. And sometimes we see, but don’t understand. And sometimes we don’t understand, so we turn away and look somewhere else for we know not what.

So, consider the first evangelists: Mary Magdalene, Peter and the other disciple. Mary, a woman – significant in itself – sees the disturbed grave, but doesn’t venture in. Instead, she goes and fetches the blokes. They come running – probably suspecting a criminal religious or political plot – and Peter goes first into the empty tomb, followed eventually by the other friend of Jesus. Mary waits outside, distraught. And none of them suspect resurrection. According to verse 8, the friend “believes”, but this can only refer to believing Mary’s story that the body is missing. Mary, herself, just looks in and is distressed.

In other words, they look and they see, but what they see makes no sense. So, the men leave and go back to their homes. Back to their homes? Not even to their other friends to tell them the bad news? Not to the authorities to ask what they have done with the corpse? Not to the newspapers to report the scandal? No, they go back home – to the places where they know their place, where life is ‘normal’, where they have some control, where there are no surprises.

It is only Mary, the woman, who, having had her weird encounter with the characters in white and the supposed gardener, is given an even weirder message to convey to the friends of Jesus, and goes to find them: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” But, when she finds her friends she actually says to them, “I have seen the Lord.”

Now, this is not a merely incidental detail of a far-fetched story. Had I been Jesus I might have said to Mary, “It’s me … I’m back again!” But, Jesus gives her some theology to be getting on with. And he will not let her hang on to him like some sort of shrine god.

When we think we have grabbed hold of Jesus, we soon discover that he will not be contained or controlled – even by our most powerful need for comfort or resolution or healing from grief. He moves on … as we, too, must move on, taking responsibility for what we do with the – often unbidden and unwelcome – experiences we have had visited upon us.

But, back to the point: what we are doing here this morning.

Mary did not go back to church. She did not write a book about her self-fulfilment. She did not simply reflect on what some theologians call ‘the Christ event’; rather, she became an articulate witness. “I have seen the Lord.” And only having put her own credibility on the line did she then go on to tell the friends what the risen Jesus had said to her.

And for us? We cannot simply come this morning to celebrate a notional event, to worship a good idea, or to maintain the edifice of a credible faith. We come together to encounter the risen Christ, and then to go out into the world in the light of this and tell the good news: that contrary to Hollywood, the news and the rumours of what is normal, death, violence and destruction do not have the final word. Christian faith is rooted in the fact that Jesus who was fully alive before being fully dead is dead no longer. Not that he sprung back to life like some sort of zombie, but that, as the Apostle Paul put it, God raised Christ from the dead. That is where Christian hope lies: that God raised a very dead Jesus of Nazareth and brought new life – life that still bears the wound marks of human suffering and doesn’t simply wipe out reality – to a very confused world.

I just wonder how we respond to this story? Or, perhaps putting it a little more sharply: not to the story, but to the content that the story conveys? The reality of a surprising and world-shattering encounter with the risen Christ who shows us the face of a God who will not be defeated by the misery of pain and loss, but shines light where even eyes are closed and darkness is at least familiar. Where we look, but don’t immediately see; where we see, but don’t understand; where we are surprised and confounded, but still go away and become articulate witnesses of how the risen Christ transforms our living and our dying.

Of course, this is only the beginning. Meeting the risen Jesus in the garden of death and decay becomes the impetus for challenging death and decay wherever we see or experience them. On Good Friday we were compelled to look death and destruction in the eye and not look away. No romanticism; no religious escapism; no convenient spiritual comfort; no relief from all that the world can throw at God and us. No. We were offered the gift of staring in the face our mortality and the immense power of death – living with the loss and the emptiness and the abandoned desolation of seeing our hopes and faith bleeding into the dirt of a rubbish tip outside the city walls – and finding our grief interrupted by the gentle, whispered sound of our name being voiced by the one whose all-too-real death was not the end.

Today – Easter Day – we are being invited to meet this risen Christ and to take the good news of resurrection into a world dominated by too much bad news. To offer the refugee and asylum seeker the hope that there is a future to be lived and a new life to be enjoyed; to question the political priorities of leaders whose vision dehumanises or breaks people down; to challenge injustice and public practices that exalt the mighty and denigrate the meek. After all, the risen Jesus is the same Jesus who challenged the religious securities of Pharisees who were content to use excluded and abused people to make theological points in their petty little power games. The risen Jesus is the same Jesus who healed the wrong people on the wrong day and in the wrong way. (Read the gospels and you will see what I mean.) The risen Jesus is the same Jesus who taught his friends to pray that God’s kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven, but then embarrasses the pray-er with the obligation to be the answer to his or her own prayer: “Forgive us our sins … as we forgive those who sin against us.” The risen Jesus is the same Jesus who exposes our insecurities and fears, offering freedom in the company of others and the healing that comes from mercy and love.

Do you see the point? We can sing our hymns and pray our prayers this morning and leave as we arrived – perhaps warmed by the experience, but indifferent to the need for commitment and a clear willingness to belong to this risen Jesus who sends us out – like Mary Magdalene – not with a solution to a problem or a heart-warming spiritual experience, but with a compulsion to tell the story of redemption and hope, and to work out in the company of friends what all this stuff means for us and the world in a world that now looks very different.

It is this experience that led Paul the Apostle to write to beleaguered Christians facing imperial threat that “for me to live is Christ, to die is gain”.

What we are doing here this morning is nothing less than the stuff of life and death, of living and dying. The worst we can do is to be indifferent to it.

Later in this service we will be invited to come forward to receive bread and wine – or to receive a blessing which is freely offered. Bread and wine are tangible and taste-able tokens of all I have spoken about just now – the body and blood of Christ who poured himself out that we might be free to live differently, confounding the depressing narratives of the world we inhabit and promising life out of death. Like Mary Magdalene, Peter and their friend, we come to a place of death and loss and bewilderment – and maybe even hopelessness – and we come with empty hands and opened eyes. We cannot grab or demand or hold onto what we receive. We simply receive what is given – what is gift – and we consume them. They become part of our body – the fullness of God’s promise in the flimsiness of a wafer and a sip of wine. We thank God for them, and for what they represent. But, we are then sent out into the world (in the power of the Spirit) to live and work to the praise and glory of the God who raised Christ from the dead. That’s the deal.

So, I invite you to come with honest hearts and eyes wide open, not hiding behind a fear of being found out, or the pride of thinking that I can’t dot all the Is or cross all the Ts. Come with your fears about your living and your dying, about loss and love and pain and joy. Come with empty hands and a will to live life from today as a resurrection person amongst a community of resurrection people who have the same experience as you, but cannot escape the haunting claim of a God who loves you to death and beyond.

Maybe – for some of you – today might be an Easter Day on which your own transformation might begin. Surely, this is good news. Surely, this can draw from us a Hallelujah of relief and praise – one that means that from this day forward we know ourselves to be a people no longer driven in a threatening and uncertain world by anxiety and fear, but drawn by hope in the God of resurrection who comes to us, where we are, speaks our name, and sends us from the place of death to live life.

This is the mother of all hope – the mother of all mercies.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:

I have no idea how I would handle watching children being brought into a makeshift hospital following a chemical attack. Or anyone caught up in war, for that matter. Mark de Rond is an ethnographer who got himself embedded with a medical unit at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan in 2012, and his book ‘Doctors at War’ is a raw, honest account of his experiences watching surgeons at work. Two things came over to me: first, the questions raised about mortality and meaning when senseless human brutality is all around, and secondly, the challenge – interspersed with sheer boredom – of not being in control of the dramas when casualties are brought in.

On Good Friday Christians stare into the eyes of helpless cruelty and loss, and are forced to live with it. But, it perhaps shines an appropriate light onto the experience of those first followers of Jesus of Nazareth who found their hopes of liberation and deliverance bleeding from a cross into the dirt.

Good Friday is not for the squeamish – however over-familiar we might be with its story of suffering. Yet, the world is not for the squeamish either. According to the Institute for Strategic Studies nearly half a million people have died in conflict in the last couple of years. Add to them the fact that the world now has nearly 22 million refugees – half of them under eighteen – and you can see the problem.

For a huge proportion of the world’s population life means suffering, struggle, pain and loss. For many there is little or no hope of return or resolution. I have just spent a week with bishops from places like Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Sudan whose stories sometimes are hard to hear.

Good Friday compels me to look the reality of such suffering in the eye and urges me not to be distracted from the uncomfortable questions it poses. And this is why Christians must not rush from the agony of Friday to the joy of Sunday’s resurrection. We can’t control the pain or the process. We still have to wake up on Saturday with the emptiness of loss and the harrowing recognition that it wasn’t all just a bad dream. We have to live with it and face it.

This isn’t easy. It isn’t comfortable. But, it is necessary if we are to begin to comprehend the lived experience of too many people for whom hope has evaporated in loss or suffering. Christians would add that the cross also offers a lens through which to approach the real world where God makes himself no stranger to all that can be thrown at him – or at us. And this is why the forgiveness of the cross is never cheap, never romantic, never merely notional. It asks us not to look away.

Today I will decide how to respond to the challenge to make Friday good.

This is the text of my sermon at this morning’s Maundy Thursday Chrism Eucharist for the Diocese of Leeds in Bradford Cathedral.

1 Samuel 3:1-10 & Luke 7:36-50
I find this the hardest service at which to preach each year. Not because of the occasion, but because it is powerfully moving to see so many clergy together. I am immensely proud of the clergy of this diocese who exercise their ministry faithfully week in week out, day in day out, usually unseen. I am very grateful.

The best birthday card I got last year was of Satan, fully equipped with horns and tail, reading the Bible in bed and saying, “Bit harsh…”

I know the feeling. Reading judgements about yourself or the church and feeling that you can’t control the narrative, even when the narrative is either simplistic or one-sidedly erroneous – often in the media. It is particularly irksome when the damage is done from within and by those whose vocation n it is to build up and not break down.

A bit harsh?

The story is this. An ancient middle-eastern man called Elkanah has two wives; one – Penninah -has given him children, the other – Hannah – has not. But, in a surprising reversal of expectation, it is Hannah whom Elkanah loves best. In a moment of tender affection, and after yet another long year of barrenness accompanied by the humiliating ridicule of her fertile fellow wife, he says to her: “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”

What a question. The answer is clearly “no”. Hannah, deeply distressed, prays that if God will give her a son, she will commit him to a lifetime of no alcohol or grape juice, no shaving or having his hair cut, no hanging around corpses – you can read the full list of Nazirite rules in Numbers chapter 6. My guess is that some of these rules were easier to keep than others. She duly gives birth, weans the boy, then hands him over to the priest. Actually, the text says that she “lent him to the Lord” (verse 28). She lent him.

Now, let’s just step back at this point and notice some of what is going on here. This woman has a hard life: loved by her husband, mocked by her fellow, humiliated in society, and unable to be at peace with herself or others. Yet, she had done nothing to deserve this. Don’t talk to Hannah about justice.

But, the song she sings at this point of blessing-followed-by-loss contradicts what we might assume to be a justified cry for relief from obligation. Couldn’t she break her vow, now that her longed-for son is born? Couldn’t God give her a break – even just to confound the smugness of Penninah? Yet, she sings of hope and freedom, of a God who brings light into dark places and who raises up those who have fallen low. Her song is the one picked up by Mary when her son is about to be born – the deeply subversive song of God’s paradoxical kingdom in which the wrong people are celebrated. The Beatitudes haunt this text, too, like the whispering of melody behind the raging noise of chaos and injustice.

In other words, life is rubbish. Even the good bits don’t satisfy, because other bits keep scratching away like a running sore that won’t stop weeping.

But, then the story moves away from Hannah to the priests at the shrine at Shiloh. If Hannah is the one who appears not to have God’s blessing, then the priests have forgotten what they are there for. The meaning and purpose of the sacrifices have been corrupted to the point that the young priests see the celebration of religious ritual as a means for their own self-fulfilment, power and greed. Religion has become a vehicle for something else. How Shiloh is fallen. And faithful Eli has to hear harsh prophecies about the fall not only of the shrine, but also of his own family. It is a miserable picture that is painted here.

Perhaps the point is rammed home in the reading we read earlier from chapter three. If the old time religion had lost the plot, then God would, as one commentator puts it, simply “bypass the established priesthood and disclose his intentions concerning that same priesthood to a novice”.

A bit harsh?

Well, the picture then looks like this – and I wonder if this sounds a little familiar to us in 2017: “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” Oh dear. Clearly there were many words spoken and many visions propagated in those days; but, how should the people discern the rare words of the Lord amid the cacophony of the shrine worship, political promises, voices claiming to be God’s voice, and religious allegiances? How are they to discern which of the many competing visions of God and his ways is the right vision? How might they work out whether their eyesight is myopic or dimmed? How do they know what is reality and what is truth?

These are hard questions, and they are made flesh in the person of the old priest Eli whose eyesight began to grow dim. He recognised the decline in some of his own perceptions and made space to allow the next generation to grow and to look and to see differently. The errant generation of young priests are bypassed by a God who will not be played off by religious professionals who have lost their sight of the glory of God that once drew them.

And the young prophet – that is, the one who will see clearly the world as God sees it – finds himself addressed by this God … addressed by name and called out to a new service.

Now put yourself into his ephod (as it were). Your mother took a vow that you had no say over. You take a vocational path that did not come to you via the careers officer. And, if her own life had been tough and contradictory enough, she has now shared the misery with you by bequeathing you a life not of your choosing, but of obligation anyway.

Yet, Samuel accepts this and makes this vocation his own. He chooses to go with it, discovering as he does (and as he grows as a person and as a prophet) that life is pretty messy and that there is no place for the self-indulgence of rights and self-fulfilment. Obedience is not a popular word, but it is one that has a place in the life of those who do not complain about their lot, but choose to make the best of what they have inherited.

I just wonder if this text, this story, has anything to say to us here in the Church of England, in the Diocese of Leeds, today? Maundy Thursday, when we re-live that poignant moment at which Jesus confounds convention, kneels at the feet of his friends – and of his betrayer and his denier and his doubter – and washes their feet. Maundy Thursday, when we see Jesus calling his people back from the manipulations and seductions of power and religious game-playing, and asking them to watch and listen and learn and do. Maundy Thursday, when he knows that life is closing in, that suffering awaits, that he could escape it all, but chooses the way of obedience.

After all, this is the same Jesus who, as we heard earlier, has a knack of bringing out of embarrassing dead ends something surprising and new. A woman intrudes into a party at which she is not a guest, and weeps all over Jesus, anointing his feet with expensive oil. The stand-off between propriety and humanity is electric as everyone waits to see which way Jesus would jump. In the end, as Tom Wright puts it, “Jesus keeps his poise between the outrageous adoration of the woman and the outrageous rudeness of the host” and comes up with something fresh and unexpected … and outrageous to those watching whose religion is fairly simple: keep the rules, avoid dirty people, and prioritise your own purity. Read the story: Jesus turns convention on its head and pours out grace where harshness had dominated.

I think both these stories hit on the same point and address us today with hard questions. Do we number ourselves with the religious professionals who have lost the plot, or do we allow ourselves to be outraged by grace … being grasped once again by the power of mercy? Do we rail against the call of God and the demands or privations of an obedient priesthood, or do we deliberately choose life and joy and commitment to an obligation we would sometimes rather throw off? Do we complain about our lot – especially when it seems inherited or not our fault or not by our choice – or do we, like Samuel, accept the choosing of God and get on with it, learning as we grow?

I don’t ask these questions glibly – or miserably. I ask them because I think they cry out from the texts we didn’t choose this morning. There might be much that we find irksome about the Church of England in 2017 – but, we are part of it and called to serve in it as clergy or lay disciples and ministers. If this is the case, then we must love the church as God’s gift and the locus of his vocation. This does not mean that we sit back and let it be; but, it does mean that we pray like Hannah and don’t mock like Penninah. It means that we pray and shape an uncertain future, conscious of our obligation to future generations to bequeath the faith that makes such demands of us. It means that we be open to hear the prophetic witness that questions our priorities, our attitudes and behaviours, challenging us to recover the vision that contradicts the easy visions and learns to listen for the word of the Lord that is – remember – rare, but not absent.

Our readings today invite us to take responsibility for the calling God has given us – to be faithful in our time to the gospel that draws and drives us. Not to blame other people or other generations for what we have inherited, but to take responsibility for accepting what is and helping make it what it might become. We might refer to this dynamic in words such as ‘loving, living and learning’.

Our diocese is nearly three years old. We began with no infrastructure, no governance, no integrated data, no inherited vision, not even the right number of bishops to do what we were being asked to do. We faced many challenges and it sometimes seemed that all the odds had been stacked against us making this work. But, thanks to the hard-won commitment, faith and – sometimes reluctant – persistent generosity of both clergy and laity, we started this year as a single entity. I do not take this for granted.

But, the challenges have not gone away. We face financial challenges and we must address the declining numbers of deployable clergy available to us in the coming decade and beyond. We will face the challenges posed by buildings and structures, and by people who do not want to change. We will see again that people and places thrive when they grasp the opportunity to choose change and don’t see themselves as victims of someone else’s terrible or malign decisions. Remember, Easter chants the mantra that we are not driven by fear, but are drawn by hope.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, if our feet are washed by the Lord who kneels before us in humility, should we not speak well of one another, seek the best of one another, and believe the best of one another? Should we not be generous, even though we know we kneel before our denier, our betrayer, our doubter? Are we not called back to a vision of love and mercy and grace that pulls out of polarised tension something new and fresh and hopeful? Do we believe ourselves invited as a church to shine the light of mercy on the intrusive woman and not just to show our cleverness in embarrassing the Pharisee?

We come today to re-affirm ordination vows and to recover the priority of our own discipleship of Jesus Christ. In doing so we allow the light of his face to shine into the dark places of our own prejudices, judgments and fears, leaking grace like an extravagant ointment onto the tired and dusty feet of our faltering journeying. And we pray that the Lord whose church we are, and whose beloved we are told we are, will anoint us for the next stage of our ministry – as a diocese, as ministers of the good news, as disciples and followers of Jesus.

Here I am, for you called me. Here I am, for you called me. Here I am, for you called me.

This is the script of an article written in London within hours of being released from Westminster Abbey in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on Parliament yesterday. It was published in the Yorkshire Post this morning.

When I got to the Bishops’ Room in the House of Lords on Wednesday morning the screen above me said ‘Threat Level Severe’. It usually says that. And I usually ignore it. I park my coat, grab the papers for the day’s sitting, then head for the library or the tea room.

That particular day I had some meetings before preparing to lead Prayers in the chamber at 3pm. I was already in there when a colleague told me that something had happened outside. Within minutes we were locked down and told to remain in the chamber. The rest is, as they say, history.

Having been moved by heavily armed and camouflaged police to a courtyard at the other end of the Palace of Westminster, we could look through the archway to the scene where the policeman Keith Palmer had been killed by a terrorist. The story of the mayhem outside was beginning to drip through. School children on a visit to Parliament were kept with us while we awaited further instruction. Having been moved into Westminster Hall, scene of many triumphs and tragedies throughout history, we were eventually taken over to Westminster Abbey where we remained until released around 9pm.

From a Palace of democracy to an Abbey of prayer.

The police were magnificent throughout. The emergency services were massively impressive. Parliamentary staff were utterly professional. Westminster Abbey swung into action and showed not only pastoral care (and prayer), but also the hospitality that characterises such places. Parliamentarians, visitors and officials – more than 1,000 of us – used the time to talk and wait and conduct the sort of human relationships that defy the chaos that some would wish to reap. People around Westminster showed courage and compassion, helping the injured and dying on the bridge, holding those whose life had been horribly changed for ever.

Here we saw the worst and the best of humanity. And here we saw the brutal reality of human mortality in a world that shares both fragile beauty and appalling violence.

I am writing this only two hours after getting out of Westminster, so my thoughts are immediate rather than considered. But, my thoughts are irrelevant to those of the families torn apart by this particular violence. So, why offer them now?

Well, it is human to wish to bring order out of chaos, to make some shape from the destructive formlessness of mayhem. In the coming days millions of words will be written and spoken about how this criminal tragedy happened. Many will provide analysis, others judgment. Assumptions will be made about the motives or mental state of the perpetrator. And, no doubt, his religious affiliation – should there have been one – will be held up for inspection and condemnation. And why not?

The problem with religion is that it involves people. Violence is not a religious problem, it is primarily a human one. It all too often has a religious root or complexion, but violence is not the sole preserve of religious individuals or communities. If you don’t believe me, then look at the mass murders that characterised the 20th century. But, that does not exonerate or excuse violence when it does have a religious root.

Human beings seem to find violence and destructiveness quite easy to slip into. Yet, at the heart of Christian faith is a man who was crucified by religious and pagan imperial powers that couldn’t cope with love or mercy or forgiveness or generosity. Jesus wasn’t a mere do-gooder who annoyed people by telling them to be endlessly nice to each other. Rather, he got nailed because he lived and embodied and taught a faith that was so radical that it placed a huge question mark above the natural impulses of human beings to love power.

And yet even those who follow him find it easy to miss the point and turn protection of the faith into a commodity of power or preservation.

And Christians are not alone in this. Religious people are always prone to lose the heart of their faith to a divine construct designed to justify their own narrow interests. This is why the Old Testament prophets cry out at the tragic irony of a people who worship a merciful God whilst displaying anything but mercy to those around them. It is a scandal. But, it is also deeply human.

So, what is there to say about the carnage in Westminster? Well, it happened. It is impossible to have total security. The Palace of Westminster is about as intimidating as you can get: armed police everywhere, security checks at every entrance and exit, concrete blocks and solid railings surround the buildings. But, there is no such thing as total security. Determined people, lone-wolves set on murder and mayhem, will not be stopped by barricades. It is the responsibility of everyone to be alert to danger.

And now life must carry on. Parliament resumes and I shall lead Prayers at 11am on Thursday. We will express our grief, shock and sadness – especially for those killed, injured, bereaved or traumatised by the events of Wednesday. But, then we shall carry on and do our business in the two Houses of Parliament. Democracy will not be damned by this violence.

The murderer would have been disappointed to find that he didn’t stop the world – he just got off while we carry on.

The beginning of wisdom, says the Book of Proverbs, is fear of God. This means simply that when we acknowledge our own human fragility, weakness and accountability to more than ourselves, we begin to live with humility, generosity and carefulness. It might sound a bit deep, but it is this wisdom that emerges from Westminster today: that we might reflect the mercy of God in how we serve one another – especially where innocent blood is shed.

 

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (written late last night after getting out of Parliament):

I entered the chamber of the House of Lords yesterday afternoon, ready to lead prayers. A colleague came in and said there had been an incident outside involving gunshots. Very quickly the whole of the Palace of Westminster was locked down. Over the next five hours we were moved from place to place, ending up for several hours in Westminster Abbey.

The normality of the day had been ripped apart in acts of wanton violence that beggar imagination. The ordinariness of life – tourists posing for photos with policemen at the gates of Parliament, people walking to and from work – collapsed in tragedy and misery. Words cannot comprehend the depths of shock as news filtered through of what had happened. Someone said to me: “the world feels less safe today.”

The world of words is not short of explanations or interrogations. Even before we know the facts, judgments are made. This is inevitable in a world of instant communication. But, words are also needed as we attempt to grasp what has happened.

I turn to the Psalms. This Hebrew poetry collection is not for the squeamish or those who like to keep their religion tidy. One minute these poets are laughing at the absurdities of human beings, the next they are raging at God because of the injustices and cruelties of this world. And they were certainly no strangers to violence or horror. They knew what it was to be hunted; but they also knew the power of mercy and love and hope.

And that reflects what many of us in Parliament witnessed yesterday. While we were being kept secure by a remarkable police force, they were outside dealing with the unknowns of terror and the loss of a colleague. The parliamentary staff were professional and, as always courteous. Visitors, including parties of school children, were looked after by MPs who managed to keep everything calm and human. The emergency services did their stuff with discretion, skill and humanity. Westminster Abbey took in over one thousand people and made the experience as good as they could.

Yesterday we saw the worst of human depravity – that empty, soulless vacuum from which joy has been sucked – but the Abbey was filled with conversation as we saw the best of human society and compassion. And maybe the Abbey was the best place for us to be – a place not only of refuge and mercy, but a locus of hope… a place whose very stones bear witness to the mess and muck as well as to the glory of human beings who struggle to make sense of it all. Here God is worshipped and here people laugh and weep and think and speak. Here is a space that refuses to stick God in a box where he can remain unsullied by the realities of a complex life.

Parliament will resume today and life will carry on. But, my prayers are for those whose lives are now for ever changed.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans Show with Michael Ball:

If you are anything like me, there are times in the day when you just need to switch your mind and give your ‘serious head’ a bit of a break. That’s what the internet is for – social media in particular.

One I turn to simply posts clips from local newspapers or photos of newspaper billboards. I can’t tell you the title because it’s a bit rude – but it always makes me laugh. Try these genuine headlines:

“Dog ate pair of giant knickers”

“Delight as man grows banana in garden” (That’s Surrey for you.)

“Chaos as badgers snub their new home”

Chaos?! Life must be quiet in Macclesfield.

The best of the recent ones – actually from the Somerset Gazette – has to be: “Village People upset at YMCA plans”.

It’s not exactly at the level of North Korea and the threat of nuclear conflict, is it? Or even how many full-time jobs a man can have?

But, for most people the local is as important as the national or the global. What happens in the neighbourhood has an impact on your day in a way that Russian espionage against Hillary Clinton does not. ‘Nude man’s rampage at tea rooms’ might be a bigger story in Cambridge than Harrogate in the same way that windy weather in London is irrelevant to the hardy northerner.

Why does this matter? Well, principally because it reminds us of what a songwriter once called “the greatness of the small”. For Christians this is bread and butter to the way we see our faith and the world: God comes among us, as one of us, at a particular time and in a particular place – in Jesus of Nazareth.

The small matters – just as the local matters. In a world that trumpets greatness, power, wealth and image (if not always truth), I believe we can make a powerful difference to one person by paying attention to what lies before our very eyes. As the proverb goes: change the world for one person and you change the world. Which is the spirit in which to understand Comic Relief this week.

So, today I’ll laugh when I read the hot news that “Puddle splash victim vows revenge” and remember that loving your neighbour starts just here.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans Show:

Well, we’re one day into Lent and I’m already struggling. The next five weeks give us time for self-examination – not the same thing as selfish introspection – and I never find this comfortable. And it reminds me of a very long car journey (from Leicestershire to Linz in Austria) with my family nearly twenty years ago.

The biggest surprise was not my youngest son marvelling for hundreds of miles down the Autobahn at the size of the place called ‘Ausfahrt’ – it actually means ‘Exit’ – but when the same small voice asked me: “Dad, in Star Trek why do they say ‘Beat me up, Scottie’?”

How we larfed.

What it proved, of course, is how easy it is to mishear or misunderstand what is really going on or what someone is actually trying to say. Just how long my son had mused on the masochistic nature of Star Trek I have no idea; but, it clearly coloured his take on sci-fi.

This isn’t new, is it? A reading from the Bible yesterday complained that God’s people had got the wrong end of the stick. They were supposed to fast and pray in order to expose themselves to the real stuff deep within them and examine their common life; but, they had turned this spiritual discipline into a way of showing off how pious they were. And Isaiah the prophet asks: can’t you see the irony when you pray to God for the poor while trampling all over them? If the language of your worship contradicts the living of your life – or the shaping of your society – why aren’t you embarrassed?

The point is that it is dead easy to spot the gaps between the talk and the walk of other people, and really hard to spot our own. It’s what Jesus pointed to when he suggested people should pay attention to the plank in their own eye rather than the speck of dust in someone else’s.

Well, that’s easier said than done. But, while hoping that Scottie recovers from his self-generated beatings, I now have the next month or so to shine a light on my own gaps and see what – under the gaze of a merciful God – can be done about them.

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