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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.

The language used in the House of Commons last night is probably unprecedented. Drawing the name of a murdered MP into the fight was, at the very least, questionable. To describe the contribution of female MPs, pleading with the PM to moderate his language in the light of violence and death threats, as ‘humbug’ is appalling.

I am the bishop of a diocese in which Jo Cox is remembered with massive affection and in which there is great sensitivity to utilisation of her for political purposes. Her family are not just names to be traded.

Words are not neutral – they can become weapons. Words in the mouth of leaders can shape the language and behaviour of all sorts of people, and not always positively. The challenge of leadership is to lead, to behave like the adult in the room, to see the big picture, to hold the long-term perspective, and not to lose sight of the key issue.

The Prime Minister has a particular and weighty responsibility in our current crisis to lead by example. A fundamental element of strong leadership, rooted in character, is to demonstrate humility. The language he is using is destructive and has caused distress. An apology would be in order. More importantly, he needs to lead a recalibration of language, mood and relationship. What we are witnessing currently is the further corruption of our public discourse and the norms of democratic debate.

A colleague said to me this morning that we are in urgent need of recovering the three Rs: respect, responsibility and restraint. Respect for people (opponents as well as friends), the law and language; taking responsibility for our own language and behaviour as well as the common good; restraint even when provoked.

It is incumbent on those who lead to tell the truth, use language wisely (with a view to consequences) and behave with responsibility and respect.

Having the gift of space to read and think, it must not be wasted. While in Sudan last week I read Lindsey Hilsum’s biography of murdered journalist Marie Colvin, In Extremis, and Orhan Pamuk’s novel The Red-haired Woman. Now in Jena, Germany, I am reading Francis Spufford’s True Stories and Other Essays. This morning I took a look around the bookshop and read Mark Twain’s The Awful German Languagewhich had me laughing from the first to the last page.

Jena is where Hegel taught and where Schiller met Goethe. On the hills above the town Napoleon had his own encounter with German determination. On 14 October 1806 at the twin battles of Jena and Auerstedt Napoleon defeated the Prussian armies, subjugating the Kingdom of Prussia to the French Empire for the next six years. There were 50,000 casualties, the soil rich with the blood of now-forgotten humanity.

I mention this because I am reading Spufford’s excellent essays in a particular place and at a particular time – a place with its own history and memory and a time in which the shape of Europe is once again the object of struggle, albeit not military. I read and enjoyed Golden Hill (just after finishing Robert Harris’s Conclave – both having a similar twist in the tale), but have not yet read his other novels. In his essays he addresses one of these, Red Plenty, and describes the attempt to recreate for a distant generation a sense of the possibility that the USSR held out during the 1960s and ’70s.

This isn’t some naïve approval of Soviet statism or nostalgic reference to planned economies, but, rather, an exercise in trying to enable a new generation to inhabit a world that is now long gone. Most people now simply recall the collapse of the Soviet experiment – with few tears shed – and cannot imagine what it was to live through it without the benefit of hindsight. These essays need to be read in order to do justice to his case (and I now need to read the novel itself).

This has caught my own attention because it recalled for me an experience I had some years ago when I had been asked by a media production company to write an obituary for Pope John Paul II that could be broadcast in the event of his death. With a limited word-count I wanted to capture his part in the destruction of Soviet Communism, but in an evocative word or two. I chose to speak of ‘Politbüro’, but was told by the producer that this sounded ‘political’. I clarified that it is political, and that that is the point. Subsequent discussion led to a sort of enlightenment moment for me: the producer was in her mid-twenties, was born around the time of the fall of the (Berlin) Wall, and had no lived experience of the Cold War or a divided Europe. She had grown in the unipolar world of capitalist free-market monopoly. I, on the other hand, had grown up with the threat of nuclear cataclysm, had known people whose family was separated by the borders of East and West Europe, and had then worked at GCHQ as a professional linguist at the fag end of the Cold War (the first half of the 1980s).

Lucy (for that was her name) couldn’t intuit what I felt in my bones. She couldn’t imagine the world I had thought solid and permanent. I couldn’t explain or describe to her what it felt likeat the time to live in this world, not knowing what was to happen in 1989. A new generation of producers and gatekeepers was growing up who had no experience of what for me had been formative, integral and essential. (I kept the word in my script.)

This is what Spufford addresses in his novel and explains in his essays. We are all time-bound. I can try to explain or describe the thought world I inhabit, but, shaped as it is by my actual history and my personal limited visions and experiences, I have now to allow others to inhabit their world and bring to their conversation (and judgements) the assumed permanences of their perspective, knowing that they are provisional, limited and partial.

It reinforces the need to listen carefully in any dialogue, to interpret wisely, and to learn again to look – with humility – through the eyes of the other at why the world is the way it is and what can and cannot be taken for granted as common.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2. In the studio were Lee Mack, Paloma Faith, Tom Kerridge and Catherine Tate and the Kingdom Choir. Last time before Chris moves to Virgin after Christmas.

‘Tis the season to be joyful, ‘tis the time to be glad. Apparently. And so it should be, too. Christmas is about God surprising earth with heaven and leaking some hope into the stuff of human life.

A remote fairy tale? Some might think that, but the stories in the gospels tell of ordinary people – sometimes the unlikely people – finding light interrupting their darkness and opening up a new future.

So, ‘tis indeed the season to be joyful and a time to be glad. But, ‘tis also the season to have humdingers of arguments and family squabbles. How do I know this – when my own family exemplifies perpetual and imperturbable peace and harmony, (of course)?

I read in a newspaper on the train yesterday that it’s good to argue with your partner and bad to keep it all in. The article was actually about couples where one vents their feelings and irritations and the other keeps schtumm – keeping in what really needs to get out. It seems it’s bad for your health to do this.

And, as Christmas approaches with the speed of a kid running away from the sprouts, we all know that tensions rise and tempers flare. The pressures of money, time and relationships all pile on, and some people cope with it better than others.

I know people this Christmas who will be spending the day in a church or community centre with people who are alone, lonely or otherwise isolated. Many bishops will be going into prisons where ‘happy Christmas’ sounds a bit hollow. I will be in two cathedrals (because I am greedy and have three of the things in my Diocese), conscious that apparent joy can hide grief … and it needs someone to help it out.

So, ‘tis the season to look out for your neighbour – to look behind the tree and the tinsel to the flashes of pain and grief that might be lurking underneath. But, it’s also the time to belt out the carols – even the ones that have a baby who never cried – , be surprised by heaven, and to have your imagination grasped by a God who comes among us as one of us and whispers behind our defences: “I am with you, I am on your side.”

So, the PM is prepared to go to war on Spain over the status of Gibraltar, is she? (Well, “showing the Falklands resolve” isn’t quite the same thing, but you get the point.) We will fight for the rights and sovereignty of Gibraltar, will we? And what exactly is this to look like? The referendum result has dumped Gibraltar and the government now has to try to square a very round circle.

About ten days ago there was a debate in the House of Lords on the question of Gibraltar in the wake of Brexit. The report itself was good, clear and helpful, but one or two of the questions arising from it needed (I believed) to be pressed. Members of the Gibraltar government sat in on the debate. I have never been there and have not previously had a great interest in the place.

However, the challenge to Gibraltar seemed to me to focus on one of the major problems we face as we negotiate our departure from the European Union: realism. The government keeps issuing bland statements of optimism, but neglects to articulate clearly the fact that it has little or no control over delivery of a desired outcome. So, this is the text of my speech:

My Lords, I endorse all that has been said so eloquently. The report is excellent, but for me it raises a number of questions. The main one concerns the fact that throughout the referendum campaign, and subsequently, we have repeatedly heard statements such as, “We will get a good deal”, and, “We will do this and we will do that”, when in fact we do not hold the power in a lot of this—it will have to be negotiated.

Despite urging that we get the best for Gibraltar, I want to be assured that the Government is stress-testing all the scenarios, including the worst-case ones. We owe it to the people of Gibraltar to do that because it was not done in preparation for the referendum itself.

If you look through the eyes of Spain, you find that it is not good enough for us simply to say, “We mustn’t compromise on sovereignty”. What if the Spanish hold out sovereignty, play a long game and say, “We’ll just sit this out. We won’t give equivalence”? What if the EU does not give Gibraltar equivalent status? What if Spain wants to use sovereignty or cross-border access and frontier issues as a bargaining chip? We cannot simply stand there and say, “Well, you can’t”. I want to know that we are stress-testing this. Who has the power? After all, we have spoken of having a clean Brexit; what if the Spanish take us at our word? That has to be thought through and our response to it considered.

Particular questions are raised here. As I indicated, if the EU declines to give equivalent status after Brexit, what then? What is the cost to the UK, already alluded to in this debate, if Gibraltar is given no access in future to EU programmes? Has that been costed out? In paragraph 29 of the report, we read about the strong economic links to the UK, specifically the City, should the single market be infringed in some way. But what if the City effectively moves to Frankfurt or Paris? We keep saying, “Well, it won’t”, but what if it does? We do not hold all the cards.

Paragraph 36 says that, if access to the single market is restricted,

“the rest of the world beckons”.

So does outer space. It does not mean that we can get what we want. Where is the realism that comes from looking through the eyes of those who do not hold the best interests of the UK as their priority?

Paragraph 50 says that, for Spain to intensify border controls would be regarded as an “aggressive act”. Frankly, why should it not? It did not choose this. I suspect that, if the boot were on the other foot, we might be rather aggressive as well.

I just want to be reassured that these scenarios are being stress-tested in the way that they were not before we went into this business in the first place. We owe it to the people of Gibraltar.

I pressed similar questions a day or two later in respect of the environment, agriculture and the ending of subsidies for farming in parts of my diocese.

My point (not as articulately put as it should be, I admit) is that we need all scenarios stress-tested – including the worst-case ones – in order not to feed people with false promises that we cannot deliver. The triggering of Article 50 has not “taken back control”, but has handed it to the 27 EU countries who will, rightly, now look to their own best interests (as the UK would have done if, for example, France had unilaterally decided to depart).

If the UK is to prepare – and that does not mean just government – then we need to know the best and worst options that lie before us.

A meeting of bishops from the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Churches is coming to an end here in Birmingham. It has been a stimulating, encouraging, challenging and good time together. In brief, we have looked at the international scene, the European scene, prayer and evangelisation, and where we go from here together.

Haunting the meeting is the spectre of a Trumpian revolution in the United States – with considerable implications for the rest of the world – and the debate about Brexit.

One of the interesting features of debate about the USA and Brexit is the constant attempts to close down debate on detail on the grounds that “we won, so shut up and let the winners get on with it”.

Politics cannot be run only by politicians. Politics is about people who hold different views, different values and have different priorities. In other words, all of us. A vote does not end the conversation. Had the UK voted to remain in the European Union, there is little chance that those who ‘lost’ would be accepting the status quo and going quiet; nor should they.

The referendum on membership of the EU delivered a decision to leave. However, almost half of those who voted did not vote that way. It was not overwhelming or decisive (as has often been stated). The country is divided – almost in two – over the matter. So, how we proceed from here must take seriously the concerns of the half the country that does/did not want to leave the EU. How we leave matters. The language we use in the course of the debate (on how to leave) matters.

From my own experience – and despite some of the public posturing – some of those in government take the 48% seriously and understand the need to hold the country together.

I have not changed my view that much of the language of certainty and promise is at least speculative and at worst fantasy. This means that we have to be prepared for huge disillusionment and further resentment when many of the Brexit promises turn out to be unfulfilled. Yes, the gains must be identified, too, it is the deficits that will provoke the reaction.

Donald Trump might well be doing what he said he would do – which is his prerogative – but democracy means that the debate continues. If lies are told, this matters; and the nature of the lies must (if we believe truth has any value) be named. However, not everything inconvenient to my preferences are necessarily lies.

It is right that serious questions are asked about policy from any democratically elected government. Protest must be legitimate. The questions we must ask about the questions raised pertain to very basic stuff: what is a human being? why do people matter? what is a good society? from what (theological) anthropology do our values and moral judgments derive? what responsibility do I take as a citizen for shaping our collective common life?

For Christians the answers will be rooted in the nature of the world as God’s creation, people as made in the image of this creator God, and neighbourliness being rooted in more than seeing others as commodities or merely economic entities.

 

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.

Here is a photo from last week of a young friend from Austria standing beside a road sign in Liverpool last week.

Penny Lane is famous the world over because the Beatles sang about it. But, when I was a kid, it was the place we went to the barber’s or the shops. The ordinary became the extraordinary. And, despite the Beatles tours, it still is a place ordinary people go to the bank, the barber’s, the shops… and engage in the stuff of ordinary life.

Why start with this? Partly because it formed the starting point for my book Finding Faith: Stories of music and life – in which I try to write about life and God and the world in ways ordinary people can understand. In other words, I am not writing for academics or people familiar with church. Secondly, however, is the reminder that there are two ways of addressing human questions: one is to start with God or the Bible or texts and go from them to our experience, the other is to start with human experience and then relate it to the other things. The former is OK for people already ‘in the club’, or who ‘speak the language’; the latter is where most people naturally start – with the experience they have, the questions they face, the life they live.

(In writing this I am reminded of my initial attempts as a vicar to write baptism preparation materials for our baptism preparation teams to use with the parents of those wanting their children baptised. The first materials failed – they began with biblical texts and were largely alien to those unfamiliar with them. I re-wrote them, with each session beginning with the experience of the parents, and then finding a biblical story or analogy that provided a vocabulary to express – or a framework in which to play around with – God, the world and us.)

Having watched the remarkable, soulful, poignant, funny, colourful, magnificent triumph that was last night’s Olympic Games Opening Ceremony (our Austrian friend was there), I turned to a book by Rosemary Lain-Priestley which she had kindly sent me, and which is called Does My Soul Look Big in This? I have a problem with books that look as if they will indulge in introspective narcissism and the title and cover didn’t encourage me. The reality was different.

Rosemary Lain-Priestley is a well-known broadcaster and writer, and I know her as a trustee of the Sandford St Martin Trust which I currently chair. She begins where people are, uses her own experience as a springboard for ruminations on spiritual development that is rooted in the real stuff of life, relationships and society. Taking the whole person seriously, she muses around the things of life that make or break us, that build or demolish us. She starts with real human experiences, real questions, then digs down a bit and rummages around what is thrown up. She draws on biblical (and other) stories to illustrate or amplify, often bringing to life images that had become over-familiar.

En route she quotes from people like Richard Rohr, Andrew Rumsey, Purple Ronnie and others. She considers what feeds the soul when we endure or enjoy experiences such as change, loneliness, depression, pilgrimage, joy, connectedness and gift. It brought to my mind people such as Mike Riddell and evoked Leonard Cohen’s “there is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in”. Like Danny Boyle’s Olympic representation of Britain, it is self-deprecating and humane throughout.

Written by a woman, most illustrations are self-consciously female. But, as a bloke, it is always vital to be compelled (or invited) to look through the lens of someone ‘not like me’. The Church of England gets a kicking I would want to argue with, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I would commend the book to anyone – it offers a recognition of common experience and invitingly suggests a way of living in and from that experience.

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