Christian faith


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.

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

Just about a year ago I skirted the Isis stronghold of Mosul in Iraq. I was out there with colleagues visiting refugees, internally displaced people, church leaders and politicians in Kurdistan – particularly in and around Erbil and Dohuk. We spent time with Muslims, Christians and Yazidis, hearing harrowing stories of loss and fear and hope.

Yet, Mosul, so solid a base for Isis only a year or so ago, is now seeing the possibility of release and relief. How the mighty fall.
This shouldn’t come as any surprise. After all, this is the part of the world where civilisation as we know it actually began. When you read the narratives of three thousand years ago which we call the Old Testament, the events recorded took place here – between the Tigris and the Euphrates. Here we find the ruins of the most ancient societies – where human beings brought order out of chaos and the first empires were built.

And this is what the story of Iraq teaches us. Now is not the end. There was a time when mention of the words Babylon, Assyria, Egypt or Rome struck fear into the hearts of ordinary people – not least those conquered by the apparently invincible powers. Living in what is often called ‘the ultimate Now’, it is hard to see beyond the suffering or success of the present day – to hang on to the possibility of freedom or the defeat of the empire which controls life and death now.

So, when we read texts like those of the Old Testament – their poetry, their protest and passion – the point is clear: empires come and go; the powerful will be brought down and the meek raised up; tomorrow will not always look like today.

But, such a perspective demands a rare discipline. We have to be able to see the present as transient – not the defining reality. Put differently, we have to be drawn by hope and not driven by fear. Our central core as individuals and as a society has to be rooted in a clear understanding of what makes a human being and what makes a humane society. Christians would say that whatever the state of the world now, wherever power is seated, it is the God of resurrection who draws us into a future that is not held captive to the past. It is a vision drawn from a reading of history and scriptures that keeps power and suffering in perspective – that death, violence and destruction do not actually have the final word.

Now, not everyone will be fired by the same conviction. But, the warning to Babylon, to Isis, to global military, economic and political powers, has not changed since human society emerged in what is now Iraq: you won’t be here for ever and you might be called to account.

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.

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