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This is the basic text of the various sermons preached in Ripon, Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield at civic services for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee over the last weekend.

Did you notice the words in the reading from Proverbs 8: wisdom; understanding; prudence; intelligence; noble things; right; truth; righteous; and so on?

Virtue matters. Still. Knowing our need of grace and wisdom is a mark of strength, not of weakness.*

Legendary guitarist and musician Jimi Hendrix famously said “knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens”. Hermann Hesse, in his Siddharta, observed that wisdom cannot be imparted; he wrote: “Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, be fortified by it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it.” Wisdom, then, has to with virtue and character, honed through experience and offered to those who listen and watch and learn and grow.

Today we celebrate how a young woman, surprised by events, face to face with mortality, accepted the role thrust upon her by circumstance and history. She is also the woman who, because of her awareness of her need to learn wisdom, grew in it over seven decades of commitment. Wisdom grows out of facing whatever the world throws at us – navigating the torments as well as enjoying the blessings of plane sailing.

The monarch whose platinum jubilee we mark today is the Princess Elizabeth who, on her twenty first birthday in 1947, made a speech in which she said this: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”

Yet, she could have no more idea than anyone else what might lie ahead for her.

It is a remarkable statement of personal commitment. But, it is more than a mere noble sentiment.

Having emerged from the Second World War and the devastation it wrought across the world – over 50 million people dead – the divisions between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies were already evident. Peace was not a given and there was little certainty about what the future might hold for an exhausted people. So, Princess Elizabeth’s commitment was made in ignorance of any political or economic developments that might occur.

In other words, she was ready to face whatever the world threw up, and to do so with one single aim: to serve not herself or her own interests, but, rather, her people and their best interests. This was not naïve; it was rooted in a clear understanding of virtue.

Of course, the years that followed saw considerable change and challenge. Just think of the creation of the Welfare State and the National Health Service – rooted in a radical vision of mutuality (for rebuilding a nation and state) which should never cease to draw admiration and never be taken for granted. Yet, this was also the beginning of the end of the British Empire (which she refers to in her statement); the intensification of the Cold War; the development of the nuclear threat (remember Mutual Assured Destruction – a nightmare with which many of us grew up as children or young people?); the swinging sixties, pop culture, drugs, American cultural hegemony; the eventual end of the Cold War, the growth of the European Union, and the hubris attached to the ‘monopolar world’ – the so-called New World Order; the optimism of the new millennium, and the rise of neoliberalism, followed swiftly by 9/11 and its response: invasions, war, the decline in public trust of institutions, regime change, terrorism, and so on; the digital revolution and its impact on communications, economics and politics; and then Brexit, the rise of the Far Right in Europe, a global pandemic, and challenges to the norms of public life and discourse. Afghanistan, Ukraine and the mass migration of humanity across the globe.

And I bet none of that was in the mind of the young princess when she made her personal commitment to service.

So, her accession to the throne in 1952, ahead of her coronation in June 1953, was not a predictable outworking of a series of convenient events that culminated in some fairytale “happy ever after” dream. Personal trauma, the shock of a different life irrupting into the stability of an emerging world. What matters is that, although not in control of events, her commitment to service proved through time and circumstance to be the leitmotif, the strong guiding hand that steered her and steeled her, come what may.

It seems to me that this is pertinent to us in our own lives as we navigate ever-changing circumstances and pressures. Through the Covid pandemic we have learned – rather rudely in some cases – that we are not in control of everything; that life can change in an instant; that “anything can happen”; that we are mortal and we all shall die; that we need to sort out what holds, roots and steers us through whatever the particular circumstances of our crazy world and our lives.

The Queen has been explicit about what this means for her – never fearing mortality or contingency. This is what she said in a broadcast following her coronation on 2 June 1953:

“When I spoke to you last, at Christmas, I asked you all, whatever your religion, to pray for me on the day of my Coronation – to pray that God would give me wisdom and strength to carry out the promises that I should then be making. Throughout this memorable day I have been uplifted and sustained by the knowledge that your thoughts and prayers were with me. I have been aware all the time that my peoples, spread far and wide throughout every continent and ocean in the world, were united to support me in the task to which I have now been dedicated with such solemnity.”

Note the passive tense there and what it suggests about dedication being mutual.

There is a slight irony with this. Until the then Bishop of Bradford set off the abdication crisis on 1 December 1936 with a narky dig at the uncrowned King’s lack of awareness of spiritual need, Elizabeth was set for a very different life as the niece of the monarch. Edward VIII’s abdication changed everything. And Elizabeth knew from the beginning God’s wisdom and strength and the support of disparate peoples. Humility is strength.

And it is this faith that has sustained her during the seven decades that she has reigned in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth.

Again, in 1992 in the wake of her children’s marital breakdowns and various scandals, she spoke openly of her ‘Annus Horribilis’, commenting that it was “not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure.” But, she thanked those who had prayed for her and her family, referring to those “whose prayers – fervent, I hope, but not too frequent – have sustained me through all these years.”

At Christmas 2014 she boldly stated that “For me, the life of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, whose birth we celebrate today, is an inspiration and an anchor in my life. A role model of reconciliation and forgiveness, he stretched out his hands in love, acceptance and healing. Christ’s example has taught me to seek to respect and value all people of whatever faith or none.”

In her Christmas address of 2016 she was even more explicit about her personal faith: “Billions of people now follow Christ’s teaching and find in him the guiding light for their lives. I am one of them because Christ’s example helps me to see the value of doing small things with great love, whoever does them and whatever they themselves believe.”

At the covid-restricted inauguration of the General Synod in November 2021, the Queen was represented by Prince Edward who read her address. Commenting on the more than fifty years since she and her husband had attended the very first General Synod, she said this: “None of us can slow the passage of time; and while we often focus on all that has changed in the intervening years, much remains unchanged, including the Gospel of Christ and his teachings. The list of tasks facing that first General Synod may sound familiar to many of you — Christian education, Christian unity, the better distribution of the ordained ministry. … But one stands out supreme: ‘To bring the people of this country to the knowledge and the love of God.’“

Which brings us back to the point. From before her accession to the throne she knew her need of God, God’s grace and wisdom; of the support of those in her domain, especially by their prayers; of the need for humility in leadership; for love in the exercise of power. As the world has changed around her – for the better in the end of colonialism and Empire, for the worse in increasing conflict following the war that was supposed to end all wars – she has not moved from the central convictions and rooted humility that has sustained her for more than seventy years.

So, as we celebrate this remarkable and unprecedented – and probably never to be repeated milestone, we can rightly give thanks for her faith and witness, for her commitment to democracy and the rule of law, for her discipline and selfless service, for her resilience and humour, for her courage and constancy, for her character, virtue and dignity, for her love of God and world.

Joshua set out into the unknown territory of Canaan, confident only in the promise that he would never be forsaken. His people grew a culture of wisdom, hewn out of the rocks of change and adversity, of suffering and hope – learning through centuries that wisdom matters and that service must always be rooted in humility and faith.

Here in Yorkshire, whatever life throws at us or in our way – personally, socially, politically, economically, and so on – we, too, can be grasped in our imagination by an example of character and service that shines a light on how a good life can be lived.

May God bless and save the Queen.

Amen.

* In several of the five occasions I added observations about (a) Paddington Bear being about how an outsider/immigrant teaches Brits how to be better examples of civility and generosity, but is upstaged this time by the Queen; and (b) how in the House of Lords, when the Queen does her Speech, she sits before the three legs of parliamentary democracy (the Executive, the Legislation and the Judiciary) who do their work in the name of Her Majesty … and she does her work ”in the name of God”. While doing this, she looks up to see the statues of the barons of Magna Carta … and there you have the UK constitutional arrangement in a single chamber. However, the conventions that hold that arrangement are fragile and depend on trust, integrity, consistency and wisdom.

This is the basic text of a sermon I preached this morning in the Georgenkirche in Eisenach, Germany. This is the church where Johann Sebastian Bach was baptised and where Martin Luther preached. This service concluded a series of sermons over the last year or more – 67 in total. The service also saw the premiere of a Cantata by Uri Caine, commissioned as part of the Thüringer Bachwochen.

Ganz zu Beginn dieser Predigt lass mich euch mit einer kurzen Geschichte ermutigen!

Drei Männer wanderten in den Bergen. Sie kämpften sich ihren Weg durch die Bäume und versuchten, ihre Hütte vor dem Einbruch der Nacht zu erreichen. Plötzlich stießen sie auf einen reißenden Fluss. Das Wasser lief den Berg hinunter und die Männer hatten keine Ahnung, wie sie den Fluß überqueren sollten. Aber es gab keine Alternative – sie mussten unbedingt diesen Fluss überqueren, aber sie wussten nicht wie.

Der erste Mann betete: „Gott, gib mir bitte die Kraft, um diesen Fluss zu überqueren.“Pouff! Plötzlich wurden seine Arme größer; seine Brust erweiterte sich und seine Beine wurden stärker. Dann warf er sich in den Fluss hinein und schwamm auf das gegenüberliegende Ufer. Ein paar Mal ist er untergegangen und wäre fast ertrunken. Aber, endlich, ist es ihm gelungen, das Ufer zu erreichen, und er schleppte sich total erschöpft an Land.

Der zweite Mann beobachtete den ersten Mann und er betete: „Gott, gib mir bitte die Kraft und die Mittel, um diesen Fluss zu überqueren.“ Pouff! Plötzlich wurden seine Arme größer; seine Brust erweiterte sich und seine Beine wurden stärker; und ein Kanu tauchte vor ihm auf. Er paddelte eine lange Stunde durch das Wasser und schließlich, total erschöpft und nachdem er zweimal gekentert war, schleppte er sich aus dem Wasser und auf das gegenüberliegende Ufer.

Der dritte Mann hatte die zwei Freunde beobachtet und er betete: „Gott, gib mir bitte die Kraft, die Mittel… und die Intelligenz, um diesen Fluss zu überqueren.“ Pouff! Plötzlich verwandelte ihn Gott in eine Frau! Er schaute in seine Handtasche, holte eine Karte heraus, ging hundert Meter das Ufer entlang, und überquerte die Brücke.

Gebet kann uns überraschen. Im Gebet beschäftigen wir uns nicht nur mit Gott, der unser Vater im Himmel ist, sondern wir setzen uns – unsere Weltanschauung, unsere Art zu sehen, zu denken und zu handeln – dem prüfenden Licht von Gottes Wesen und Willen aus. Wenn wir durch das Beten nicht verändert werden, dann, wahrscheinlich, beten wir nicht.

Vor dieser Herausforderung stehe ich, wenn wir jeden Tag im House of Lords mit Gebet anfangen. Den Geschäften der Regierung und der nationalen Gesetzgeber gehen mehrere Gebete voraus, beginnend mit dem Vaterunser – keine leere Wiederholung vertrauter Worte, sondern eine bewusste Öffnung für Gottes Art, die Welt und die Agenda vor uns zu sehen. Es ist mir immer sehr unangenehm. Es sollte uns allen unangenehm sein, wenn wir unsere Debatten an Gottes Gedanken messen. Wessen Reich sollte kommen? Wessen Wille soll auf Erden geschehen … und nach wessen Kriterien? Im Bezug auf die Lieferung von Waffen nach Ukraine, zum Beispiel? Oder Maßnahmen, die die demokratischen Freiheiten der britischen Bevölkerung einschränken?

Beten ist zu keiner Zeit einfach – tatsächlich genauso komplex wie eine menschliche Beziehung. Wenn ich wissen möchte, was meine Frau denkt, kann ich das nicht einfach tun, indem ich ihr gelegentlich sage, was ich von ihr will. Gemeinsam müssen wir ein Gespräch pflegen, das sich im Laufe der Zeit ändert, wenn wir in Liebe und Hingabe wachsen. Im Laufe der Jahre verändert sich unser Gespräch. Wenn ich jetzt mit meiner Frau dasselbe Gespräch führe wie vor 45 Jahren, ist etwas schief gelaufen. Und so ist es mit dem Gebet. Die Beziehung wächst und die Sprache ändert sich.

Das Gebet schafft hinter den Augen eine Linse, durch die wir den Geist – den Sinn – Gottes allmählich klarer wahrnehmen können. Und dazu lädt Jesus seine Freunde ein, wenn sie ihn um Anleitung zum Beten bitten. Was Jesus in Lukas 11 und seiner längeren Form in Matthäus 6 anbietet, ist ein Manifest für sein Reich – das heißt, wie wir Gott, die Welt und einander im Licht von Gottes Blick sehen sollten. Deshalb muss uns das Gebet herausfordern, um uns zu transformieren. Und es gibt keine Abkürzungen zur Transformation.

Der Schlüssel liegt in den einleitenden Worten: „Vater! Dein Name wurde geheiligt“.

“Vater.” Die erste Erwähnung Gottes als Vater in den Heiligen Schriften erfolgt im Exodus, als der Pharao gebeten wird, die Israeliten zu befreien. Jesus verbindet Gott also bewusst mit Befreiung. Aber Befreiung erfordert die aktive Zustimmung derjenigen, die befreit werden sollen. Schließlich hätten sich die Israeliten dafür entscheiden können, in der Vertrautheit Ägyptens zu bleiben, anstatt es zu verlassen und das Risiko einzugehen, das Rote Meer zu überqueren.

Das Wort Vater ist aus dem aramäischen Abba übersetzt, was dieser Beziehung, die im Gebet wächst, ein Gefühl der Intimität verleiht. Aber darauf folgt sofort: „Dein Name werde geheiligt.“ Heilig. Getrennt. Intimität gefolgt von Ehrfurcht. Die Heiligkeit wird so angerufen, dass sie implizit meinen Mangel an Heiligkeit anerkennt … und daher die Notwendigkeit für den Rest des Gebets.

Ich habe mich oft gefragt, ob die Sprache der Anbetung und der Lieder der Kirche uns entweder Intimität oder Distanz bietet, aber nicht ein Gleichgewicht zwischen beidem. In England betont der Aufstieg charismatischer Anbetungslieder die Intimität und verliert manchmal das Element der Ehrfurcht, das unseren Mund verschließt und uns, wie Jesaja, in Schweigen lässt. (Bestimmt hat Johann Sebastian Bach das verstanden – genauso wie bei der Kantate heute, wenn die Musik und die Worte uns zum Schweigen bringen.) Dennoch sprechen viele traditionelle Hymnen von Wahrheiten über Gott und bieten wenig Raum für Emotionen. Jesus bringt beides in seinem Gebet zusammen: Gott ist unser Vater, aber er ist auch der Schöpfer des Universums und nicht nur mein bester Freund.

Das ist für mich in einem wunderbaren Lied des kanadischen Musikers Bruce Cockburn zusammengefasst. Die Worte sind in meinen bischöflichen Ring eingraviert – ein Zeichen meiner pastoralen Verantwortungen als Bischof: “Love that fires the sun keep me burning.” („Liebe, die die Sonne entzündet, hält mich am Brennen.“) Da haben wir es wieder: das Kosmische und das Intime in Liebe zusammengehalten.

Und hier kommen wir wieder auf die Herausforderung des Willens Gottes zurück. In meiner Diözese versuche ich immer wieder, Pfarrer/innen dazu zu bewegen, ihren Gemeinden beizubringen, die Worte des Vaterunsers richtig auszusprechen. Das heißt: Wenn ich durch Gottes Augen auf Gott, die Welt und mich/uns blicken soll, was könnte ich erwarten, in Bezug auf die Realität unserer gegenwärtigen Erfahrung zu sehen? Oder anders gefragt: Wenn Gottes Königreich kommen soll, wessen Königreich muss vertrieben werden? Denn die Betonung sollte auf dem Pronomen liegen: nicht „Dein Reich komme“, sondern „Dein Reich komme!“ – nicht die Herrschaft von Cäsar oder Putin oder die globalen Finanzsysteme oder die Märkte.

Und wenn Gottes Königreich hier und jetzt zu sehen wäre, wie würde es aussehen? Menschen würden satt, Sünden würden vergeben und Menschen würden nicht in Versuchung geführt. Hier würden wir die menschliche Gesellschaft sehen, die von gegenseitiger Liebe und Verantwortlichkeit geprägt ist. Tatsächlich bin ich der Hüter meines Bruders. Und ich kann von Gott das nicht erwarten, was ich denen, unter denen ich lebe, nicht anzubieten bereit bin.

Nun, dies befasst sich eindeutig nicht mit der Komplexität der menschlichen Ethik in einer komplexen Welt. Dieses Gebet beantwortet nicht jede Frage nach Werten und Gemeinschaftsverhalten. Es sagt uns nicht direkt, wie wir den Krieg in der Ukraine, den Krieg im Jemen, oder die Herausforderung der Einwanderung in Europa angehen sollen – noch nicht einmal die Folgen des Brexit. Aber es eröffnet uns die Möglichkeit, dass meine Vorurteile in Frage gestellt werden müssen. Metanoia – Buße – Veränderung.

Der Schlüssel steht wiederum am Anfang des Gebets: „Dein Name werde geheiligt.“ Für uns im Westen ist unser Name wie ein Etikett, ein Identifikator. Meine afrikanischen Freunde finden das lustig. Als wir in London lebten, hatte mein jüngster Sohn einen Freund, der Nigerianer war. Ich habe einmal den Fehler gemacht, ihn nach seinem vollen Namen zu fragen – wir kannten ihn nur als Temi. Er hatte ungefähr fünfzehn Namen, die ihm alle von Mitgliedern seiner Familie und der örtlichen Gemeinde gegeben wurden, als er noch ein Baby war. Und jeder Name sprach von dem, was sie in ihm sahen oder auf ihn hofften. Namen hatten eine Bedeutung, und die Person sollte dem Namen, der ihnen gegeben wurde, gerecht werden oder darin leben.

So ist es für das Volk Gottes in der Bibel. Wenn wir von Gottes Namen sprechen, erschließen wir seine Natur, seinen Charakter, wer Gott ist. Und das wirft natürlich die Frage auf: Was ist eigentlich Gottes Charakter? Die Antwort lautet: Lies die Heilige Schrift und schaue schließlich auf Jesus. Wir lesen also die Evangelien und sehen, wie Gott ist, wie sein Reich aussehen wird (Heilungen, Provokation der Verlierer, auf den Kopf gestellte Werte usw.). Und die Logik ist ganz einfach: Wenn Christen „in Christus“ sind, müssen sie wie Jesus aussehen … was uns den Charakter – den Namen – Gottes zeigt.

Wenn wir dieses Gebet beten, streben wir daher danach, verändert zu werden und zu Akteuren bei der Veränderung der Welt zu werden. In diesem Sinne sollten wir das Gebet Jesu wie folgt lesen:

Vater!

Geheiligt werde DEIN Name.

DEIN Reich komme.

Gib uns UNSER täglich Brot Tag für Tag

Und vergib UNS UNSERE Sünden;

denn auch WIR vergeben JEDEM, der an UNS schuldig wird.

Und so weiter.

Dieses Gebet vereint Christen auf der ganzen Welt und zu allen Zeiten – auch wenn uns so viele andere Dinge trennen. Dieses Gebet ist nicht unser Besitz – es gehört Jesu – auf Englisch: the Lord’s Prayer. Aber wir sind eingeladen, mitzumachen – mit Zuversicht und Demut, in Anbetung und Hingabe.

Aber wie die Männer, die zu Beginn dieser Predigt in den Bergen wandern, müssen wir offen sein für die Kraft, die Werkzeuge und die überraschende Weisheit Gottes, wenn wir gemeinsam durch eine komplizierte Welt navigieren wollen.

This is the text of my article in today’s Yorkshire Post.

Nearly three thousand years ago a Middle Eastern poet wrote words that must have sounded like nonsense to his audience: “The people who walked through darkness have seen a great light.” It goes on to say: “those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.”

It sounds alright in a candle-lit church during a carol service, but does it mean anything when you get out of the building and back into the realities of life?

Well, Isaiah was addressing people who were fearful about the future. They belonged to a small territory which was always being squeezed by neighbouring powers or the competing great empires. They were unsure to which side of the latest threat they should pledge their allegiance. And, of course, this meant political, economic and military allegiance. The question these people faced every day was how to ensure their security and freedom in an uncertain world in which the future was often shaped not by themselves, but by others. Calculation was always a bit of a gamble.

Isaiah wants to warn his people to remember who they are, what they are about and where they have come from. And, running through their story was an apparently ridiculous notion that however dark their circumstances became, the light of God’s presence couldn’t be snuffed out. Not just God’s presence when everything was going well for them, but when the darkness descended and the future seemed to be shutting down. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

I think this is pertinent to where we find ourselves in Yorkshire this Christmas. If 2020 was a challenging and dark year for so many people, 2021 promised much before delivering little certainty. Promises of a return to ‘normal’ gradually got forgotten as the world came to terms with continuing uncertainty and viral predominance as the only norms. We continued to learn that human beings cannot control everything and are not invincible kings of the world. Infections, illness, bereavement, death, isolation can’t be organised according to convenience.

But, the interesting thing here – to which we become inured by familiarity – is that this is precisely the sort of world Isaiah wrote in and into which a baby was born in Bethlehem. The story of Christmas is not essentially about making us feel comfortable, but, rather, about God opting into the radical discomfort of a world such as this. The real world we know and enjoy and endure. Darkness is part of that reality and can’t be avoided. Indeed, light has no reference if there is no darkness against which it becomes meaningful.

Which, in itself, sounds all a bit miserable. But, the Christmas story is one to surprise us in every generation. For it invites us to look for the light that is there when the going is tough and the gloom seems all-powerful. One of the radical challenges the grown-up Jesus would bring to his people was simply this: don’t just look for the presence of God when all is well, your problems are solved, your mum is healed or you think all is going to be OK in the world; look for the presence – the light – of God even while the darkness persists. In terms of Jesus’s first friends, this sounded like: “Can you spot the presence of God in your world even while you remain under Roman military occupation, your freedoms are curtailed, illness is all around and the chances of your children surviving infancy are pretty low?

This is why I think Christmas should be a great celebration. It is a defiant rejection of the notion that darkness always wins. It dares to see through the immediate and re-frame ‘reality’ in the light of the light that, as John’s Gospel puts it, cannot be extinguished. This isn’t fanciful romanticism or, even worse, some form of easy escapism – religion as an opiate to keep people calm; rather, it takes the world seriously, looks tragedy in the eye, and still insists that this is where God is to be found.

I once got into big trouble for suggesting in a book that the carol ‘O come, all ye faithful might usefully be rephrased to say ‘O come, all ye faithless.’ I wasn’t actually proposing we sing different words to it, but musing that all the people in the Nativity story are odd. They don’t fit the bill when it comes to contemporary expectations of kingship. Wouldn’t God go for the people who are likely candidates for sainthood? Instead, he draws in shepherds (while at their work – not in church), foreign (pagan) stargazers, hotel owners, probably ordinary family members, and whoever else was around at the time. These weren’t people who had found all the answers, but they knew the daily struggle to survive in a complex and contingent world. And it was to them that the light appeared, interrupting the routine of the everyday and illuminating the hint of a possibility that the darkness doesn’t have the last word after all.

Go to a carol service this Christmas and this is the story to be discovered, the experience – light in the darkness – to be had. It might seem to be hidden behind a screen of tinsel and candle wax; but it draws us into the light that guides us through uncertainty and fear.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on the Zoe Ball Breakfast Show on BBC Radio 2.

I have always felt a bit deprived. I don’t have a middle name. Apparently, I was called Guy for the first few weeks of my life; but my parents then decided that I was born too close to Guy Fawkes Night, so changed it to Nicholas … and didn’t give me a middle name. That means I had no options when I got fed up with Nicholas.

Unlike my youngest son’s Nigerian mate at school who had fifteen names and, technically, could have used any of them.

But, I was stuck with Nicholas. Over the years I got called Nick, but that was the only option for change. About forty years ago my in-laws gave me a glass paperweight on which was written something like: “Nicholas – winner of great victories; strong leader”. I thought they were having a laugh … or, at least, trying to make a point.

But, today my name comes into its own. 6 December is St Nicholas’ Day and is celebrated around the Christian world. Nicholas was Bishop of Myra and died in the year 343. And his story is where we get Father Christmas from.

If you’re looking for a powerful, triumphant leader in St Nicholas, you’ll have to change the way you think about strength, power and leadership. Nicholas turned it all upside down.

He was born into a wealthy family of Greek Christians in Turkey. Orphaned when very young, he used his inherited wealth to support sick and poor people. The Father Christmas bit comes from his dropping bags of gold coins down the chimney of three sisters whose father couldn’t pay their dowry, so risked them having to go on the streets. The rest, as they say, is history.

Well, if that’s how power, strength and leadership are to be understood, then I am proud to be a Nicholas. The old saint was a follower of Jesus who, rather than marauding around the planet with a sword, was born as a vulnerable baby in a cowshed … and opened his arms on a cross, welcoming all that the world could throw at him, but not throwing it back.

St Nicholas got it. And I got the name. Now, I have to live up to it.

Today is Thanksgiving in the USA – the 400th celebration. I wrote this script for Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme while in the House of Lords in London. By the time I got back to Leeds late evening, the news had moved on and this script was no longer appropriate. As I said in the last post, here is the original script which I publish simply to illustrate how this slot works and how a new script is sometimes required in the early hours of the morning.

Every time I hear the term “peanut butter and jelly” I want to shout “it’s jam!” – quite a lot in the last few days as they are the names given to the American turkeys whose lives have been spared by the President for Thanksgiving. I gather they are now living in a hotel – but, we’d better leave that thought for another time.

Peanut Butter and Jelly are probably unaware that today is the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving event. The early settlers in America had good reason to be grateful. They had escaped the old world of monarchy and religious control, and had overcome the initial challenges of shaping a life in their new world. And their instinct was to be grateful for their new freedom … which, of course, brought with it new limitations and challenges. It was a beginning, but not an end.

However, there is a clue in the phrase “their new world” that not everyone had reason to be grateful for this new settlement. I guess the 90 indigenous people who sat down with the 53 new settlers 400 years ago could not have imagined what was to follow – violence, dispossession and a legacy of cruelty and tension. It won’t come as a surprise, then, that many indigenous Americans celebrate a National Day of Mourning instead of Thanksgiving.

If anything, this recognition should evoke in anyone a certain humility in the face of a complex history. As we know, the scars of our ancestors’ continue to bleed for generations to come. And it is really complicated to work out what ‘justice’ or healing might look like for people who live now in a different world, but a world shaped by the grievances or victories of the past. But, complexity doesn’t solve the paradox. Closer to home, look at Sathnam Sangera’s ‘Empireland’ or the continuing injustice experienced by the Windrush generation.

I have to apply imagination and empathy to this exercise. The legacy of my own ancestors has not landed me in a bad place, after all. But, I come from a Judeo-Christian tradition that compels us to look through the eyes of the other. The Israelite settlers in the Land of Promise instituted rituals – involving body, mind, spirit and economics – so that they would never forget that once they had been slaves and must not enslave others. They didn’t learn quickly. Mary’s song – the Magnificat – makes clear that good news for the poor will be costly for the rich, and Jesus’s own ‘manifesto’ in Luke’s gospel recognises that liberation for some causes a problem for others.

If Peanut Butter and Jelly understand anything of their happy situation today, they might also see that not all turkeys will be celebrating their joy. Thanksgiving and humility belong together.

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

Last Sunday evening we held a celebration in Bradford Cathedral. Christians, Muslims and Jews and many others came together – not an unusual phenomenon – to remember Dr Rudi Leavor who died recently in his 90s. Rudi was loved by people across our communities and he is greatly missed.

Rudi was a refugee to this country from Germany. He and his parents escaped what became the Holocaust. He grew up, set up a dentistry business, chaired the Bradford Synagogue for over twenty five years, and was a crucial holder of the memory in West Yorkshire, insisting that we recognise the fragility of our democracy and civility. He was loved by all who knew him.

Did he “game the system”? I ask the question because the phrase is being used frequently at the moment. Not only is it applied to politicians and PPE contracts, but also to the Iraqi asylum seeker who tried to attack a hospital in Liverpool a couple of days ago. Systems, it seems, are there to be gamed.

In the case of Emad al Swealmeen, the allegation is that he converted to Christianity in order to ‘play’ his asylum application. Inevitably, this has raised questions about the motives of all asylum seekers. Yet, the Refugee Council has also published research this week that indicates that 70% of those landing on our shores are demonstrably fleeing persecution. Which then raises the question as to why it is easier to extrapolate from one example – Emad al Swealmeen – rather than another – Dr Rudi Leavor? Or the huge majority of those who do not go rogue, but become good citizens who make our country stronger?

Gaming the system is an easy conclusion for me to draw, but only if I lack empathy or imagination. Living on this island seems to make it hard for many to look through the eyes of those whose experience drives them to extreme decisions – like leaving home and crossing the globe in order to survive, let alone thrive.

The three Abrahamic traditions that gathered in Bradford Cathedral last Sunday have much in common. One is the mandate in our scriptures to pay attention to people who are poor and marginalised. In the Hebrew Scriptures a people approaching settling in a new land are commanded to make provision for those who are hungry, homeless or – for whatever reason – in need. A tenth of the harvest is to be left in the ground so that there is always something for the dispossessed to eat.

In other words: yes, mistakes will be made; systems will be gamed; good will will be mocked. But, that doesn’t remove the moral obligation to love our neighbour.

Professor Lyndal Roper’s biography of Martin Luther was a brilliant read. Published in 2017, it looked at this remarkable,strange, brave and conflicted character from 500 years ago through a different, psychological, lens.

Now Roper has published a follow-up series of lectures and it is illuminating, disturbing, challenging and a great read. Like me (but for different reasons) she was present in Wittenberg in 2017 when Germany and the Church was celebrating the quincentenary of the birth of the Reformation in 1517 when Luther allegedly nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Schloßkirche.

So, she introduces the book with a glimpse into how this was celebrated – exhibitions, new studies and kitsch. The substance of the book is vivid. Roper digs deeply into the way Luther’s ‘brand’ was created and shaped in a way that looks terribly modern.

However, the chapter on Luther’s anti-Semitism is a hard read. I first went to Wittenberg with Rowan Williams in 2006 – it was freezing – and was shocked to be taken outside the Stadtkirche to see the depiction of the Judensau under the eaves. Luther’s anti-Semitism cannot be avoided, and Roper spares no mitigation.

If you thought Twitter invented the sheer nastiness of undisciplined and inhumane language in media, think again. What Luther published – and the language he used to attack his opponents – should surprise and shock, even today. The book gives lots of examples, but they are alarming, shaming and often very funny. Luther was not for the faint hearted.

Luther, like all of us, was complex and contradictory. Understanding him matters because his legacy – the theme of the book’s exploration – has made such an impact on the world. You can’t understand Europe, Germany, the development of world politics, Christianity or history without understanding Luther and his legacy.

This is a great, stimulating, illuminating and very accessible book.

And, if you put “Wittenberg” into the search on this blog, you’ll get a number of entries over the last decade or more and some photos. (You will also admire the fact that if you stand to one side of Luther’s statue outside the Marktkirche in Hannover and look back, it looks like he is doing Scottish country dancing.)

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought with Zoe Ball on BBC Radio 2.

It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that if you make a film about a place, loads of people then want to go there to see with their own eyes. ‘The Dig’ is a case in point. I watched the film the day it came out and was captivated. If you haven’t seen it, it’s about the discovery of an Anglo-Saxon burial ground at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk in 1939, and the movie – with Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes – explores how it nearly didn’t happen at all.

Visitor numbers have shot up since the film was launched – so, I do understand the draw to see the place. When I was a vicar in Leicestershire we had the shaft of a Saxon cross in the churchyard, dating back to the mid-800s. I baptised in a Norman font that had been there for a thousand years (Norman was the period, not its name). We drank wine out of an Elizabethan chalice. People through the ages in that village had seen and touched these objects as the world changed around them.

I guess there is something powerful about a physical connection with people in the past that makes us realise that Now is transient, and one day we will all be someone else’s past.

Next Saturday I’ll be ordaining 23 new clergy at Ripon Cathedral. I have encouraged them all to go down into the Saxon crypt, reputed to be the oldest stone-built place of Christian worship in England. The people who brought Christianity to these islands were brave and radical, giving up their lives for the sake of love and rejecting the brutal plays for power through violence that characterised much of life then. And they were here.

The past might be a foreign country in many ways, but we need physical things that connect us, that remind us of where we have come from, of who we are and what has shaped us. This should not come as a surprise to me: Christian faith is rooted in the conviction that God once took flesh, opting into the material world of stuff.

So, what is spiritual always needs a touching place.

This is the basic text of my Maundy Thursday sermon in Bradford Cathedral and streamed for the clergy and lay ministers of the Diocese of Leeds:

“Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.” (2 Corinthians 4:1)

We do not lose heart. Good for Paul.

But, what if we do? What if mood or circumstance or experience close down our horizons and dim the lights of love and vocation? What if the exigencies of the last year have ground us down and diluted our confidence? What if we are no longer sure how to do our ministry when the ground has moved and the familiar ways don’t work any longer?

Do we carry on pretending, in the hope that things will improve? Or that my mood will change when the sun comes out and the trees begin to blossom? Or that God will do a miracle and transform my personality and make everything OK again? (I remember when I was younger thinking that this is exactly what God had done to me; but, it turned out to be the steroids.)

Well, I recently had a conversation with someone I hadn’t met before who challenged my contention that what we need in these strange and testing times is hope and not optimism. Optimism assumes that things will get better – often despite all the evidence; whereas hope draws us through the reality, however good or bad that might actually prove to be. I think the challenge was around whether that hope ought to be showing a bit more brightness (optimism) – an upbeat vision for the future. I will return to this shortly, but it is a challenge I have thought about a lot since the conversation.

Because I think this goes to the heart of where we are as a church – and as clergy and lay leaders – emerging from a dreadful year of lockdowns, isolation, tragedies and loss. Without warning, we have had to adapt practices, invent new rituals, create community using unfamiliar media, try to shape a changed workload – especially when the normal means for exercising pastoral care have collapsed. It has reminded me of my feeling as a parish priest that if I were to have a slogan or motto, if would be in three-foot high letters around my study wall and would say – confidently – “Everything you do is wrong!”

I wasn’t being miserable. It’s just that if I visited one person, then I wasn’t visiting a couple of hundred others, and, to someone’s mind, I will have made the wrong choice. In ministry we get used to having to set priorities in pastoral care that might always prove to be the wrong ones. But, we get on with the job anyway, despite a lack of certainty regarding our choices.

And this last year has demanded of our churches and ministers an exhausting willingness to change, innovate, limit and expand – and all without any certainty that we are, in fact, getting it right.

Did some of us feel overwhelmed by the new demands? Yes. Did others among us look at our neighbour’s creative enthusiasms and feel inadequate (not least, technologically)? Certainly. Did some use lockdowns as an excuse for laziness? Possibly. Did others become manically activist and hide the fear behind new initiatives or organisation? Probably. Did some feel paralysed by insecurity or dread of being seen to fail? Inevitably. And did some look at their neighbour’s weakness and compare themselves accordingly? Maybe.

And that is all OK. If that complex of reactions is the reality, then that’s what we will deal with. But, how might we think about all this on this day, as we sit with Jesus and his friends as they rehearse their foundational story and celebrate the liberation of his people in the Exodus? How are we to think about our re-commitment to our vows as ordained clergy or our commissioning as lay leaders and disciples of this same Jesus?

(I am conscious today that we celebrate this service in communion with our sisters and brothers in very different contexts across the globe, particularly in Sudan, Tanzania, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, the USA, Germany and Sweden. The contexts might differ, but the commitment is the same.)

Luke 22:24-30

Jesus has come with his friends to celebrate the Passover meal. Their minds are full of hope that the liberation of God’s people, celebrated in this meal, might now – this year – be incarnated afresh as Jesus leads the expulsion of the Roman blasphemers, heralding the return of God among them. They have been praying for several hundred years for this moment, repeatedly being let down by would-be messiahs who promised much, but always delivered only disillusionment. Yet, now, what Jesus had spoken of as the “Kingdom of God” was imminent – something to be anticipated and celebrated. Spirits are high.

Yet, here, in this upper room, Jesus is surrounded by people who have missed the point and argue about their status. For one of them, Judas, Jesus is not going about things in the right way and his hand is going to have to be forced. No doubting Judas’s passion for the kingdom of God or his personal commitment to seeing it realised. Another of them has a self-image that is illusory and deceptive: Peter might think he is made of granite, but will soon discover that his rock is actually leaky limestone.

Betrayal, denial, illusion, optimism. All are there in that room.

It’s the loneliness of Jesus that gets me.

Yet, what Jesus does is take a longer-term view. He re-frames the story of Israel’s liberation, knowing that his friends don’t quite get it. Broken bread and wine outpoured will one day make a different sense for them, but not just now. Jesus isn’t trapped in the ‘now’ to the extent that he can’t see the way forward. He knows also that things said and done now will, when circumstances have changed, complete a picture. A bit like when you look at one of those 3-D images that look like a mess until your eyes re-focus and you suddenly see the dinosaur looking out at you.

In other words, and translating this to our context, being a minister or leader in the name and image of the Christ whose name we bear means seeing beyond the moment, looking into an uncertain future, but knowing that re-telling the story, re-framing the narrative, adding different colours to the picture, might only make sense later. Our job is to look further and deeper and to tell the truth that goes beyond fear.

Terry Eagleton, the Roman Catholic Marxist philosopher, literary theorist and theologian, in his book Hope Without Optimism glosses St Augustine as follows: “There is no love without hope, no hope without love, and neither hope nor love without faith.” (p.41)

You see the point? We articulate hope because we love the people we serve, and we do all this in faith because the world is uncertain and people are a mystery.

At this Passover meal Jesus strips everything back to its essentials, conscious of the contradictions and limitations of the people with him, then goes out to pray as events take their tragic course. Which suggests that our task is also to articulate the heart of the gospel, expose ourselves I prayer to the God who has no illusions about the nature of the rock from which we are hewn, and then face events with faith and love and courage. Even with hope.

2 Corinthians 3:17-4:12

This is why Paul can confidently urge the Christians in Corinth to hold mercy and encouragement together. “Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.” We will not be discouraged because each of us knows that our ministry is rooted in the mercy of the God who knows us, and that this mercy has to be experienced before it can be shared.

And what is this ministry of which Paul writes so passionately? Well, he speaks in chapter 2 of “proclaiming the good news of Christ.” He goes on to tell us that we are the “aroma of Christ to God”. We are a “letter, to be known and read by all” – “ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit”. (3:6)

This vocation has not changed from Corinth to now. Paul writes passionately about his sufferings and chides the Corinthians for their fickleness, desertion and easy distraction. In other words, he walks in the shoes of the Jesus he serves … in being surrounded by people like you and me and Judas and Peter and all the rest of them. His world is one of uncertainty and fear. His own mortality was ever before him and he demonstrates in this painful letter the real impact on himself of the pressure to adapt, innovate, move on and drive mission, despite the poverty of the tools he had to implement his task.

Does this sound familiar? It should do.

As Paul goes on to note, the treasure of the glory of God is contained in clay jars. After this last year we need no reminder of our limitations and fragilities. But, we also find ourselves re-orientated towards the glory rather than the clay. We fix our eyes on the glory of God and the promise of the good news of Jesus Christ, empowered by that same Spirit that breathes and blows through the chaos of creation bringing order and life.

As spring has brought sunshine and warmth, and as restrictions have been relaxed and people congregated in parks to leave their rubbish in heaps, people in our communities are grasping at optimism and cheerfulness. The vaccines are working their scientific magic and people are booking holidays in the summer. The world feels a bit brighter and shouldn’t we all be joining in and talking it up?

Well, maybe. But, for us as clergy and lay leaders – all of us followers of the Jesus who went to a cross and bore the wound marks in his resurrected body – we are called to a deeper task: to be both realistic and hopeful, courageous and cautious, and to navigate the changing territory with faith, hope and love. If everything opens up, we will not aim simply to go back to how it was in early 2020; and if we face further lockdowns, we won’t be knocked off course, but will adapt again. For our vocation is not to tick boxes or hibernate until the ‘normal’ resumes, but, rather, to navigate reality and create new norms – ones of faith and hope and love … whatever the circumstances that shape our every day.

I guess that what I am commending is what Walter Brueggemann calls “a return to the land of promise that will be ordered, organised and lived out in freshly faithful ways”. (Virus as a Summons to Faith) Freshly faithful among a people whose strength lies in what the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka called “the solidarity of the broken”.

This is why we now need to open our churches and consider how they can be a locus of hope and joy for our communities, not just our congregations. The need for joyful evangelism has never been greater. One day soon we shall be able to sing again; and when we do, we need to offer vocabularies for all the questions, lamentations, hopes and fears, aspirations and meditations that lead us to open our hearts and voices to the God of mercy who has engaged us in this ministry.

Thank you for all your service in the last year. Thank you for being colleagues and not competitors – the very message Jesus was trying to get through the skulls of his friends. Thank you for your patience and longsuffering. Thank you for ordering pastoral care and for kindling the flames of theological and spiritual hope. Thank you for praying when words have failed; for burying the dead when you couldn’t do justice to the bereaved; for living with criticism and a sense of failure, but with conviction and determination. Thank you for keeping people connected, for sacrificing much in order to love your neighbour through this curse of a public health disaster. Thank you for holding out a confident joy in times of stress and struggle.

We are not out of the woods yet. When we do finally emerge, the world – and the church – will be different. And this is a glorious opportunity to take stock, let go, newly embrace, innovate, negotiate, navigate and shape a different future. This is our vocation now, and we are in it together. No shame, no fear.

For “since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.” Or, as John Bell put it in a song I quoted at this service in 2019 – the last time we met together in one place:

Sing, my soul, when light seems darkest,

Sing when night refuses rest,

Sing though death should mock the future:

What’s to come by God is blessed.

Amen.

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

Good news! In only four weeks the days start getting longer again. The light will start to grow.

But, for me, the next four weeks won’t just herald the end of lockdown or the approach of the Christmas juggernaut, it’ll bring something even more powerful as we look towards the end of a tough year for everyone. Advent – the season that dares to defy the darkening days and awaken our imagination to the possibility of hope – and it starts next Sunday.

I was once in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, engaged in a difficult conversation with the then deputy Foreign Minister, a rabbi. At one point he stood up and banged the table. He said: “Sometimes it seems as if there is no light at the end of the tunnel. But, it is not because the light is not there; it’s because the tunnel is not straight.” And I wrote it down as I thought it might be a good line for a Pause for Thought script one day.

It’s a vivid image, isn’t it? Drive through the Mersey Tunnel and you’ll get the idea as the road bends around in the darkness. (And ignore the late great Terry Pratchett’s line: “There was a light at the end of the tunnel, and it was a flamethrower.”)

But, Advent, as we anticipate Christmas, beckons us to wait – to look and watch and not be done in by the present gloom. For the people of the first Christmas this meant yearning for the end of military occupation and daily suffering or humiliation. The light was coming into the world and no darkness – not even imperial Roman violence – would be able to kill it off. Or, in the words of the songwriter Bruce Cockburn, in the darkness we are actually “closer to the light”.

So, in this sense, Advent needn’t just be for Christians. I think it offers an invitation for all of us in these days of gloom to lift our eyes towards the light that will come, however bendy the tunnel we are in.

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