Christian faith


So, the new year has begun. In with a bang, or with a whimper of fear and hesitation?

I was reminded this morning (while preparing for a radio interview) of the entry for New Year’s Day 1917 in the diary of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia: “The year 1916 was cursed; 1917 will surely be better!” Well, the Somme might have been appalling, but the Russian Revolution was to take the lives of Nicholas and his family (and, consequently and ultimately, millions of others) less than a year after writing his diary.

Wishful thinking is not the same as hope. Hope – which has to be vested in a vision – commits the hopeful to work towards the fulfilment of that vision. Hope has little to do with optimism: whereas optimism looks for the bright side in what happens, hope looks reality in the eye and is not diminished when that reality renders optimism as fantasy.

2017 will see the centenary of the Russian Revolution and the quincentenary of the Reformation. Both revolutions set Europe and the world ablaze. The language of freedom and a new world order exploded as an old order was challenged and assumptions (about why the world is the way it is) were questioned. And they remain pertinent as we move from 2016 into 2017.

2016 saw the rocking of an established order as the UK voted to leave the European Union and Donald Trump was elected President of the USA. Further elections in France and Germany in 2017 have the potential to further reshape Europe and the international relationships that have held the world together since the Second World War. ‘Populism’ is the word of the day – either an accolade or a term of derision, depending on whether you approve of the what the populace asked for. Whatever the choice, we face two questions: (a) 2016 showed us how easy it is to bring down; 2017 will show us whether we know how to build up. (b) we are where we are (regardless of how we got here), so how can we commit to shaping the future rather than bemoaning the past?

Photo-20161129151817817.jpgIt takes centuries to build a culture and a community; it takes minutes to destroy it. Look at Aleppo. If the commentariat is correct in judging that Brexit and Trump represent a rejection of ‘establishment’ and ‘elites’ (that is, we know what we are against), then what are we for? Put to one side the worrying irony that the articulators and leaders of the anti-establishment and anti-elitist movements are themselves the epitome of establishment and elitism, we have to ask what we wish to replace the current establishment with. My guess is that those who found common cause in ‘breaking down’ will struggle to find common cause in what they wish to see ‘built up’.

I come back to the distinction between wishful thinking and hope – the former leaving it to others to shape (as it is easier constantly to criticise and pick holes in those who try to bring about change) whilst the latter invest themselves sacrificially in making a positive difference even where this might be diminished or rejected. This is why, following Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified for it, Christians are drawn by hope and not driven by fear.

We do not know what 2017 will bring. We can fear for a (worryingly narcissistic) Trump presidency and we can come to terms with the sheer complexity of what Brexit might turn out to look like (with “the best deal” not being achievable?), but, ultimately, we will have to face the consequences of the decisions we have made whilst committing ourselves to shaping a common future in which the poor and marginalised are not left behind. Brexit is usually defined in terms of economics, trade and finance; it has to be about people, society, values and the common good of the whole nation.

We don’t know how the future might look. We do not know whether further Aleppos will curse our global humanity in 2017 – or whether revolutions might come where they have not come before. We cannot be sure what the impact of Trumpian protectionism and disregard for the environment will be. We must join in the argument as adults who take responsibility, even when the decisions do not go their way.

A reading of history makes clear that ‘now’ is never ultimate. Tomorrow will come. We must, as a people of hope, live in the reality of the day, learning from the past but drawn by a vision for and from the future, committed to shaping and not just complaining. “The Word became flesh (and dwelled among us)”, wrote John in the prologue of his gospel; our words will become flesh – one way or another – and we must take responsibility for them. Then we must use them to shape a vision that captures the imagination
and is not swayed by events, fears, conflict or destruction.

It is not enough to know what we are against, and to be angry about it; we must know what we are for, and commit ourselves to making it happen. Building up is always harder than breaking down.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in which dementia was one of the themes chosen by guest editor Carey Mulligan:

When I was a Vicar in Leicestershire I was constantly surprised by visits to elderly people who suffered from some form of dementia. Now usually silent, play a harvest hymn or sing a Christmas carol and they would join in. I well remember the agony of a wife no longer recognised by her husband, and her bemusement when he broke his silence and started singing.

With dementia it seems as if the person we love has entered a different world, and it is those who remember all too well who feel the deep sense of loss and bereavement.

Some things go very deep. And when all else has become submerged into a different sort of consciousness, a vestige of deeper identity sometimes survives. Is it just the poetry? Or the tune? Or what?
These are not insignificant questions for anyone coping consciously with the onset of their own dementia or the almost-disappearance of someone they have loved for decades. When our memory has gone, who are we? And, I might add, why do we still matter?

Memory is so important to our sense of who we are that the loss of it is always going to be grievous. So, there are two responses that I as a Christian would venture in the face of this experience.
First, the creation narratives in Genesis (which address ‘why’ questions and not ‘how’ questions) state simply that human beings are made in the image of God. All Christian ethics emerge from this. That is why every human being is ultimately valuable, worth loving and capable of redemption. So, losing my own sense of identity does not reduce my intrinsic worth. If I forget God, God does not forget me. Or, as the prophet Isaiah put it to a people who feared for their future, “See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.”

Secondly, the liturgical shaping of the year by festivals like Christmas is designed to instil deep within us – from cradle to grave – a sense of individual and communal identity. The people of Israel entering the land of promise were required to tell stories that would be handed down the generations, accompanied by simple rituals involving stuff and action – no disembodied spirituality here. This ensured that the memory was formed and recalled. It was also so that people inhabited the memory of who they were and where they had come from; it wasn’t just that life rolled on in some formless way without the waymarkers of identity.

Dementia raises big questions. But, maybe the carols get sung by the silent because they grew up hearing, telling and living the narrative of God who never forgets his people. In an age when so many rituals and the repetition of stories are losing their grip, this faces us with the question of what will form our generation’s children and root their sense of meaning and value.

This is the text of an article published today (and written in haste) in the Yorkshire Post following the attack in Berlin last night:

Any pretence at optimism about the world must surely lie bleeding in the ruins of the Christmas market at the Breitscheidplatz in Berlin. If the assassination – live on social media – of the Russian ambassador to Turkey was not shocking enough, the blood continued to flow in Germany. Remarkably, even before facts were known, the commentariat leapt to judgement on the causes of this latest atrocity.

I know Berlin well. I walked across the Breitscheidplatz only a few weeks ago while attending a conference on freedom of religion and belief. It adjoins the iconic church (the Gedächtniskirche) recognised around the world as a symbol of destruction and reconciliation in the 1940s. Yet, here, in a place of celebration and mercy a lorry is driven into crowds of innocent people, bringing death and injury. What are we to make of this?

Well, it demonstrates that there is no escape from a globalised world. That is to say, the small planet does not provide any private annexe for people who wish to live in a way that is disconnected from the lives of others. What happens in Syria impacts on Ankara and Berlin; what happens in Iraq and Yemen impacts powerfully on Italy and France. What happens in Pakistan impacts on Bradford and Dewsbury. Whether we like it or not, there are no hiding places in an interconnected world.

But, what is sobering about the latest attack (following on from the atrocities in France since the Charlie Hebdo shootings) is that conclusions were being drawn before facts were known. The suspect is a Pakistani asylum seeker … or have the police arrested the wrong man? They are unsure if the man arrested is the right one. Which means that the murderer is still at large. He might be an asylum seeker and might be an Islamist terrorist, but we don’t know. Yet, there is an explosion of assumptions. In a post-truth era it appears that any opinion will do.

Anyway, whatever the identity and motive of the perpetrator in this case, here is a sobering fact: if he is an asylum seeker who entered Germany last year when Angela Merkel opened the doors, that still leaves another million asylum seekers who have not committed a crime or abused the hospitality of the host country. What conclusions should we draw from that?

The violence in Berlin does raise other questions, however. What are we to make of people who are willing to inflict misery on others in pursuit of very particular ends? And how are we to address our own fears in the face of such shocking events – where people going about their Christmas business are mown down indiscriminately? (Discriminate murder would be no less morally offensive, of course.)

There is little comfort to be given in a world in which we are deeply connected but often in ways we don’t understand. We can cope with watching violence on the screen when it is happening far away; but, when it happens to us on the streets of our own cities we struggle to understand. Yet, if you are on the receiving end of British-made cluster bombs in Yemen or a rogue lorry in Berlin, the misery and injustice of it all seems indifferent. I suspect there will be more to come – grievances go deep across the planet, and they last for a long time.

So, is there anything to be said that doesn’t just resort to platitude or escapist wishful-thinking? I think there is.

I am a Christian – that is, a follower of Jesus Christ. Some people assume this is a bit feeble in the modern world. But, there is nothing feeble or romantic about a baby born into political and military oppression under the heel of the Roman Empire. There is nothing sentimental about growing up, firstly, as a refugee in a place that represents everything you ever wanted to escape from (Egypt) and, secondly, getting abused and ultimately executed for loving the wrong people and saying the wrong things.

Christmas brings this home. Christmas is about God opting into the world as it is with all its violence and contradiction, and not exempting himself from it. We shall move from the manger in Bethlehem to a cross at Easter and find ourselves challenged by an invitation that looks ridiculous if put in a religious box and removed from the real world: we can be driven by fear or drawn by hope. Christian hope comes to us and grasps our imagination. It comes from a God who is no stranger to suffering and who doesn’t turn his face from horror. It is a hope rooted in a refusal to see death and violence and destruction as having the final word. And we are invited/challenged to commit ourselves to being this sort of hope-bearers in the face of all the misery and fear.

I suspect we might have to cope with more atrocities as the world has become a more dangerous place. How we respond will determine whether we are agents of hope or not.

I pray for the people of Berlin. And Turkey. And Russia. And Syria. And England. And so on. But, it is prayer that commits me not to withdraw, but to engage with the mess of it all.

This is the script of this morning's Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2's Chris Evans Show in the company of the Kaiser Chiefs, actors Michael Fassbender and Strictly judge Bruno Tonioli:

What I am about to tell you is seriously unlikely to change your life, and I don't predict a riot.

90 years ago today – 9 December 1926 – the United States Golf Association legalised the use of steel-shaft golf clubs. I assume that before then only wood was used. Or maybe papier maché? My source wasn't clear on the matter.

Now, the reason I mention this world changing event is simply because it illustrates how difficult it is to change. Apparently, there was considerable resistance in some quarters to any move to change the material used in golf clubs. But, before you wag your head in disbelief, just consider how difficult it is for most of us to get out of what has become known as our “comfort zone”. For example, what are the chances of me, a red Scouser, responding well to the suggestion that I should in future support Chelsea?

Most of us find it hard to change our mind, let alone our behaviour. Yet, the clearest invitation we get in Advent – we don't get to Christmas for another couple of weeks – is to do precisely this. The word used by John the Baptist and Jesus in some of their first recorded words is 'repent' – and it means simply that: change your mind in order to change your ways.

Easy to say, but hard to do. It's easier to see where other people ought to change than to spot our own need. Didn't someone once say something about taking the plank out of your own eye before focusing on the speck in someone else's?

OK, Jesus also told a story about someone who was mugged and who was not helped by the people you would expect to be generous, but in the end was aided by the Samaritan – the outsider who nobody trusts. In other words, we should be open to surprise and to changing the way we look and see and think and live.

So, we have a couple of weeks left to consider how, strictly speaking, we might open our mind to be surprised by Christmas – by the sight of a God who doesn't look like we might have expected. If I was a bit more trendy, I might even look into a manger and go: “Oh my God”!

 

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

This week we have heard two stories about violence and extremism that raise questions about how it is possible to move on from terrible trauma into a new future. One involves Christians who have fled from their villages in Iraq and now refuse to return. They are too afraid of violence and no longer see their houses or communities as 'home'. They are driven by fear and suspicion – and it doesn't take too much imagination to work out why. After centuries of living side by side with people of different religious commitment and ethnic identity, these societies are now fragmented, divided and shredded of trust.

The second is the conviction and sentencing yesterday of Thomas Mair for the murder of MP Jo Cox. The sheer dignity of her family in the face of this violence has been remarkable. But, now they have to reconcile themselves to a lifetime without the woman who was their mother, wife, daughter and sister, and so on. Shaping a new future in the light of such loss is not an easy task.

So, two events – one far away in Iraq where I visited refugees earlier this year, and one in my own diocese – where we see the human and social consequences of extremism which leads to isolation and violence, and where reconciliation looks hard to find. But, giving up on the possibility of reconciliation only condemns people to further isolation, fear, distrust and suspicion.

Words like “peace and reconciliation” can appear bland; but the task of reconciling is demanding and costly. It's about trying to hold together people whose experience has torn them apart. The whole point of it is that already divided, damaged and conflicted people can choose to break the cycle of hatred.

The symbol of Christianity is a cross – a man nailed to it with arms open, exposed to all that the world can throw at him, but not throwing it back. Open arms can represent welcome to all-comers; they can also hold together those at extremes who otherwise might pull apart into different worlds. And there's the risk that those doing the reconciling find themselves being pulled apart in the process.

In her first Commons speech Jo Cox said: “While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me … is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”

Hearing this again, I am haunted rather than comforted by the words of Jesus: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy… Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

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

Chatting recently to an academic who leads a leadership consultancy, I was a little surprised when he said: “The two things that the high-powered business people who come here can't talk about are failure and death.” I replied: “Oh. That's where we start.”

Christian faith begins not with a running away from failure and death, but rather with a totally realistic appraisal – based, of course, on experience – of human failure, and the facing of mortality. Come to terms with these two beasts and the rest begins to fall into place. To paraphrase Martin Luther King: what we might be wanting to live for will be determined by what we are prepared to die for.

I have been thinking about this while wondering what is going on during the last week or so in the mind of the failed US Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. She has spoken about wanting to curl up with a good book and not go out of the house. To have been so close for so long to the seat of power and then to lose it in a flash cannot be anything but hard to handle. Anyone with a shred of empathy – whatever their politics – must surely be able to comprehend this.

Is it not true that the measure of the man or woman is not how they handle victory, but how they handle defeat? Living with failure can be a gift in that it dismantles pretensions, dismisses illusions and disables hubris? Think of St Peter – protesting that he would stand by Jesus of Nazareth whatever happened … before running away when identified as one of his friends from Up North. Peter's self-image bled into the soil beneath the cross where Jesus died … but, he found a renewed future in a conversation with the risen Christ back on the beach where he worked as a fisherman.

This is not romantic nonsense – a sweetening of the bitter pill of defeat. Rather, it is realism born of the experience of people throughout the generations. Defeat can be humiliating, embarrassing and painful – especially in the light of the great claims to power made during an election campaign. Yet, it can bring freedom, release and the possibility of a new start in a new world in which we are no longer measured by our trophies, but by our humanity. Confronted afresh by our mortality, defeat can give us the opportunity to strip away the illusions and face the truth.

One word for this is 'repentance' – in the Greek this means literally 'to change your mind'. It means daring to look differently at the world and ourselves in order to see differently in order to think differently in order to live differently. Or, to put it differently, to snatch hope from the jaws of defeat.

This is the text of an article published in the Yorkshire Post today:

A couple of years ago a book was published that offers readings, prayers, poems and reflections for Remembrance. It is called ‘Hear My Cry’ – a repeated and heart-felt wrenching of the spirit taken from the Psalms.

But, it is the subtitle that grabs the attention: ‘Words for when there are no words’.

It sounds like a ridiculous paradox, yet anyone who has ever found themselves in despair will know exactly what it means. There are times in life – and always in the face of death – when we find ourselves empty and silent. As human beings we seem made to make shape out of chaos; but, bereavement can leave us simultaneously speechless and desperate for order. And we find we cannot control the grief or make it better.

In such circumstances we sometimes need the words of others when we have no words for ourselves. Someone else needs to provide the vocabulary for grief, the words for when we have no words and silence is too painful.

If this is true of most bereavements, it is particularly true when death is violent and distant. To lose a son or father or daughter or wife or husband in the course of military conflict brings a particular silence, a particular grief. The distance and the unknowing of the context makes the death more grievous – even if death is always death.

I have never lost anyone close to me in war, but my parents lived through the bombing of Liverpool during World War Two. I also took part in the intelligence support for British forces in the South Atlantic, and saw the consequences for those who were involved and had to live with the deaths of friends and colleagues.

If Remembrance Day did not exist, I think we would need to invent it. For two reasons:

First, we need to create a public event of remembering the people and events that have shaped the society to which we belong and in which we invest. Those whose loved-ones have died in conflict on our behalf need that public recognition of their loss. For their loss is our loss. Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn watched the coffins of slain Canadian troops being carried off a military aircraft in Afghanistan several years ago, and wrote a song about it. Having described in the most moving language the tragedy and dignity of what he had witnessed, he writes: “Each one lost is everyone’s loss, you see; each one lost is a vital part of you and me”. That’s why need to remember publicly.

The second reason is that we simply cannot know who we are if we don’t remember where we have come from. It sounds obvious, but it isn’t easy to do. Our memories are selective and some memories do need to be left where they belong: in the past.

The story of Israel in the early chapters of the Bible is one in which public acts of remembering are integral. Prior to entering the Land of Promise the people are warned that they will too easily forget that once they had been migrants and slaves in a foreign land. Once they got their own land and built new lives they would prosper … and forget their own origins. Basically, they would then begin to treat other people as their slaves. So, the year was broken down into festivals that would compel the people to re-tell and re-enact their story, passing it on to their children and future generations. It would cost them the first and best ten percent of their harvest. And the edges of their fields would be left for homeless, hungry and sojourning people to find sustenance. That sounds like a twenty percent tax for starters.

Most religious communities shape the year similarly, celebrating festivals that shape our memory and remind us of what matters – especially that we are mortal, that we shall one day die, that a good society might be worth dying for. The loss of such festivals in secular society might be more costly than we realise.

The point is that we as a society need at least one day a year when we re-member – literally, put back together the parts (members) of our own story. We need to recall the cost that people have paid and continue to pay for preserving the freedoms we have. We need to recall with honesty and integrity those things which we should celebrate and those of which we should be ashamed – from which we might learn for the future.

That is where Remembrance Day fits in. Whether directly connected to the dead or bereaved, we come together in local communities to create space for remembering our common story. It stops the routine of life and creates silence in which we drop words for when words need to stop and silence reigns. We do it together, conscious of how fragile our lives are and how fragile our civilisation is.

It is said that we should know for what we would die. I think we should ask ourselves for what we, in the light of our mortality, will live for.

 

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