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

Today is not just Election Day – in the Christian calendar it is also Ascension Day. This is the day when, according to the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament, the risen Jesus ended forty days with his friends by being taken from their sight on a mountain top.

Whereas most people have some idea about what Christmas and Easter are – perhaps even Pentecost – Ascension Day tends to get overlooked… even by many Christians. I guess this might be because this isn't the easiest event to explain – packed with theology rather than aerodynamics.

Seen from the perspective of his followers, it was yet another twist in the tale. They had spent a couple of years with Jesus of Nazareth, daring to believe the world could be different and that he would be the one to lead them to freedom from Roman military occupation. They had pinned on him their hopes for a brighter future, free from oppression and humiliation.

Well, it didn't quite work out that way. Instead, they saw this man from the hill country up north dying on a Roman gallows: victim rather than victor. Several days later his friends, whose hopes and longings lay bleeding in the dirt of Calvary, found he was with them again – the same but different. They kept having strange encounters with him, questioning what this was all about.

But, with the Ascension they lost him again. And it was now up to them to work out what this all meant for them and their community for the future. Clearly, he trusted them to get on with the job for him. And the church that grew from here was a movement shaped by people who knew that the world was now a different place.

No lovely 'happily ever after' end to a sanitised story, but a harsh dose of realism for people who now faced the same challenges of living truthfully in a world of death and threat and suffering.

So, today's not a day for working out the mechanics of the Ascension, but for wrestling with its meaning. A day for letting go of the simple faith – for growing up and taking responsibility for where we go from here. No fantasy here, no romanticism, no pretending that things are better (or worse) than they are, no false hopes, no illusions, no empty promises about a glorious future or how long that future might last for them.

And that's Ascension Day. And it might just shine a light on some of the issues of the day – even suddenly deciding to support Leicester City (despite Richard III being a York City fan – obviously). It's about not being a victim of other people's decisions, but, grasping your own future with both hands, taking responsibility. Or, as Jesus didn't quite put it: “onward and upward!”

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

When I got back from the Easter celebrations in Wakefield Cathedral yesterday I had no idea what was about to happen in Lahore with the deliberate targeting of Christians in a Taliban suicide bombing. The contrast between the celebrations here and the cost for those in Pakistan could not be stronger: death and resurrection are not just theological notions, but lived realities. However, what had been on my mind up to then was Karl Marx. He talked about the cost of turning people into commodities, making people and ideas into things.

What triggered this line of musing was the report that Easter is becoming the new Christmas. Apparently, increasing numbers of people are now sending Easter cards, buying and exchanging Easter gifts, and, while seeming to reject notions of resurrection or God, seem happy to deify a bunny rabbit with eggs in a basket. As they say, it's a funny old world.

What struck me about this was summed up in a media report I read following the Archbishop of Canterbury's statements about fixing the date of Easter itself. The responses seem to refer only to the impact that this might have on shopping and the sales of stuff. Everything has a price and everything ultimately gets reduced to its economic value or usefulness as a cog in the economic machine. I guess this is the final outworking of a language that replaces the social market with a market economy.

But, I am not sure this is ultimately helpful to us as individuals or as a society. People must surely be worth more than the mere economic value they represent either as producers or consumers, even if a couple of extra days holiday – perhaps even shopping – are welcome. Christians celebrate Easter as the day the promise of Christmas became surprisingly real: that the light that has come into the world cannot be extinguished even by death or violence or destruction. Yet, as I have walked with Jesus and his friends through Holy Week to death and resurrection, the light has looked pretty dim in a world in which the power brokers flex their military and economic muscles to keep the small people in check.

Easter is an invitation to face the darkness, to stare into the empty tomb to where death is supposed to be an end, and is the opposite of escapism or fantasy. Resurrection does not deny the power of destruction or evil; rather, it looks it in the eye and goes beyond it to new life. If Christmas represents – as one songwriter put it – “earth surprised by heaven”, then Easter surprises us with the whispered hint that there is more to life than death, and more to death than destruction.

Jesus objected to people being used as mere cogs in anyone's machine – even for their own theological purposes – and, so, met his bewildered friends in their abject darkness, met them where they were. They were surprised to find that their future was open, that they could be free even when oppressed. And that is what Christians call hope.

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

I am not going to find this an easy week. Holy Week, when Christians walk with Jesus and his friends towards what he knows will be a death. Their journey begins with a triumphant entry into the city, proceeds through a celebration meal – the Last Supper – and collapses into betrayal, denial, judgement and execution. Despite having been warned of what was to come, the friends of Jesus just didn't get it.

The 'not easy' bit comes from being asked to walk the story as if I didn't know the ending … although I do know about Good Friday, empty Saturday and the resurrection of Easter Day. It's a bit like trying to experience again the tension you felt when you watched a thriller for the first time … when watching it for the second or third time – when you know what happens.

Well, Holy Week is different for me this year. I have just got back from a week in Iraqi Kurdistan with several colleagues. We listened to the rationales and pleas of politicians and officials, and we visited aid projects in Erbil and Duhok – way up north. We drove within a few miles of Mosul and the Isis lines. But, most powerfully, we met individuals and families whose stories spoke loudly of Good Friday and betrayal and suffering and destruction.

On our second day we drove into the northern Kurdish hills to visit a camp for internally displaced people – people known not by their names, but by their category: IDPs. We trudged through mud and sat in small single-room portakabin 'homes' listening to stories of unimaginable suffering – not only of Yazidis and Christians and Shia Muslims, but also of Sunni Muslims from Syria and Iraq. Isis kill anyone, and they destroy everything.

In the days ahead we met families who lost everything in a moment. When they hear demands that they should return home, they wonder where that might be: their actual home is no longer there, there is no social infrastructure hanging around waiting to be re-kindled, there is no trust left between erstwhile neighbours who have now betrayed or been betrayed in the most brutal fashion.

Add to this picture that fact that only 9% of promised international humanitarian aid has actually been paid in and you can see the difficulty of feeling hopeful – hopeful for the displaced and refugee people, or hopeful for a resurrection of order.

In John's Gospel, as his friends and family watch him die, Jesus commits his mother's care to his friend. If resurrection can only follow crucifixion, then this commitment to hospitality, care and love cannot be ducked. While the situation in Iraq lies rooted in despair, it must surely be the responsibility of those who stand watching to take responsibility for the remarkable humanitarian efforts going on in the distance – to make small steps of hopefulness where grand gestures appear as empty as spent shrapnel.

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

In the middle of last week I got back from a ten-day visit to Tanzania. Not only are my feet still moving to the rhythms of the music and the energy of the dancing – in schools as well as churches – but I have come home looking differently at what had previously been familiar.

My experience reminded me of the late German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt who wrote a book several years ago in which he kindly offered his advice to anyone thinking of standing for election to the German Bundestag: don't even think about it unless you speak at least two foreign languages to a competent degree. Why? Well, because, he says, you can't understand your own culture unless you look through the lens of another culture – and to do that you have to know something of (or, better, 'inhabit') the language. After all, language goes deep and some things can't be translated; they have to be intuited.

Well, I don't speak Swahili, but this is partly what was going on for me in Tanzania: not everyone sees the world as I do. For example, how are we to understand the significance of the first meeting in a thousand years between the Pope and the Patriarch of Moscow last week? Seen through an English lens, it might look merely odd. Seen through the eyes of a people whose religious memory goes deeper into centuries of division, and it will resonate more profoundly.

Or, politically, where the resurgence of Putin's Russia appears threatening in the West, but has a different complexion when seen by Russians whose recent history of collapse has been crying out for re-empowerment. Tensions over Syria, for example, have to be seen through Russian eyes, not just our own, if we are to see more clearly what is going on there.

None of this is new. Listening to Tanzanians describing their experience of life and loss, I could not help but look through their eyes at my own. And this exposes the limitations of my own imagination and understanding of the world – even my world. My mind was being changed.

This is what is referred to in the Bible as 'repentance' – the freedom to change one's mind – or, to put it more visually, to re-grind the lens behind the eyes that shapes the way we see God, the world and us.

It is no surprise, then, that for Christians this period of Lent is intended partly to clear away the stuff that stops us repenting. It creates the space in which we can once again, in humility, submit our perceptions, our convictions and our prejudices to the searching eye of love and justice and mercy and generosity. Or, for Christians like me, to have the courage not just to give up chocolate for a few weeks, but to dare to look and see differently that with which we had become comfortable or familiar.

 

This is the text of the sermon preached on BBC Radio 4 at Ripon Cathedral in the Christmas Day service at 9am:

It was only very recently that I heard about the tradition at Ripon Cathedral of giving out apples at the end of the Christmas service. I bet the kids can't wait for Easter when they'll get chocolate instead.

I'm now wondering what hidden traditions the other two cathedrals in this diocese have stored up for today. But, given all the traditions that accompany Christmas, at least Ripon still has the power to surprise. Apples on Christmas Day. Really.

Yet, this is what Christmas is supposed to do to us: surprise us … with the presence of God – what John in our gospel reading calls “his glory” – where we least expect it. After all, the people we read about in the original nativity stories had been longing for this – to know that they had not been abandoned, and that God would be among them again. Decades of military occupation by the Roman imperial forces had driven deep the stain of humiliation – the Creator of the Universe apparently defeated by the pagan gods of power and caprice. Where was God to be found when all the evidence of experience and our eyes tells us that he is not here … where we are?

Well, there is a theme running through the biblical story, and it isn't particularly comfortable. For people who think that God is only present where everything is sorted, every problem resolved, every indicator positive, Christmas becomes the epitome of embarrassment. For here, in the birth of the baby in Bethlehem, we are dared to look differently … and see God among us while everything in life remains a mess. The Romans are still here, still fleecing the people, still crucifying the protestors. Life is cheap. And pagan victory is rubbed in the faces of the poor, deluded people who keep hope alive in the face of 'reality'.

But, the people among whom God comes in Jesus of Nazareth are invited to re-think reality – not to be optimists, just hoping everything will somehow get better for them, but hopers who see through the transience of today's powers to the haunting shadow of God's smile: I am for you – Emmanuel, I am with you. Not to make everything nice and tidy. Not to take you out of the world's mess. But, to come to you and stay with you – right where you are, whatever happens, however long history takes.

And this is what goes to the heart of Christmas. God appears not to invade the present in a display of power and glory, but to be born as each of us has been born, and to slip into a tired, complicated, threatening and unsuspecting world at a particular time and in a particular place. No God of generalities or airy-fairy spirituality here – just one who gets stuck in, is down to earth, and who opts in to all that the real world is, and does not exempt himself from it. For those whose world has changed at Kellingley Colliery last week and the Redcar steel industry in recent months, this is particularly relevant where practical hope has to be encouraged and nurtured in the months and years ahead.

Let's just pause for a moment and think about who it was who got invited to the first viewing of the scrap of humanity lying in the feeding trough in that obscure town in that obscure part of the ancient empire. Shepherds are workers, doing their stuff out on the hills, minding their own business, expecting nothing. Yet, they, the religious outsiders, are first to get a Christmas surprise. Later – probably several years later – it is pagan astrologers who come in from the cold in search of something they probably expected to find somewhere more interesting or significant. Again, outsiders to the religious establishment of the time.

It's as if we are being surprised by a God who somehow climbs around the secure walls of our expectations and slips through our prejudices – especially the prejudices about God favouring either our pet religious projects or our self-condemning hesitations about our own worthiness. No, here we hear God whispering about a new way, meeting us where we are, but opening our eyes to a glimpse of living in a new world right in the heart of this world – opening our ears to the haunting echo of a different melody, a rhythm that invites a different dance.

That's what was happening in Bethlehem that night. And that is what we are celebrating this morning. Not just the warm familiarity of a myth that makes us feel better, or the reminder of a fantasy that temporarily anaesthetises us from the horrors and uncertainties of our complicated lives. But, the invasion in the present – as it is – of a new and surprisingly realistic hope.

In fact, the invitation of Christmas might be summed up as this: we need no longer be driven by fear, but can be drawn by hope.

Why? Well, simply because the hope we will glimpse in Jesus as he grows from the baby of Bethlehem to the man of Calvary is one that is shaped not by some formula for self-improvement, nor some political or military project for sorting out the “wrong sorts of people”; rather, it is rooted in the person of God whose face we will see in Jesus and in whose person we will be dared to trust.

Drawn by hope, not driven by fear. In this world, but not of it. Down to earth, but not bound by earth. Invited not to escape from the real world, but, trusting in the faithfulness of God, to plunge ourselves into the depths of the real world as it is now.

So, today we should be tempted – not by apples, perhaps; that one didn't end so well, after all, did it? – to be surprised by the smile of God in the midst of experience. To see in this baby the seed of an inconceivable fruitfulness – that even in and through us, where we are , how we are, as we are, God might give birth to a tiny glimpse of that light that no darkness can extinguish.

A happy Christmas, indeed.

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

Today has been designated 'Buy Nothing Day' in over sixty five countries. By now, of course, it might have spread even further afield.

I like the idea of 'Buy Nothing Day', not because I'm one of those miserable people who damn consumerism in a script written on an iPad while sitting in a warm room on comfortable furniture with music playing on the stereo and my smart phone buzzing. Every time I hear John Lennon's 'Imagine' – usually being highlighted for its encouragement to imagine no religion – I wonder how he ever got away with “imagine no possessions” written on a grand piano in an exclusive Central Park apartment.

Well, 'Buy Nothing Friday' is a reaction to what has become known as 'Black Friday' – a day of mass consumerism rooted in encouragement to greed as opposed to 'Good Friday' which roots us in self-denial and loss rather than self-fulfilment at all costs. Black Friday is a transatlantic import that many people hoped would die the death of British good taste and a sense of proportion; but, it seems to have taken hold in a culture whose consumerist monster can never be over-fed.

Well, apart from the obvious observation that for many of our poorest people Black Friday will come and go like Thirsty Thursday or Sad Sunday, we do seem to fall prey all too easily to the advertisers' siren seduction – that more stuff will make our lives more complete. We are more than the stuff we have. Shopping doesn't make us more human.

But, if I was going to indulge today, there's only one thing I would go for: Adele's long-awaited new album 25. I admire her for not allowing it to be dribbled out on music apps, and insisting on holding to the integrity of the album in the mode of its release.

But, the real reason is that her music doesn't just entertain – it stirs the soul and evokes some very human experiences.

Her last album gave a voice to the strangled emotions of love and loss and regret and wounding. She not only experienced “losing in love”, but lived with the pain of it. No cheap resolutions, no easy pretence that being dumped puts an end to love. And in her poetry she reminded me of the Psalmists of old: owning up to the agonies and fragilities of human experience – not something you necessarily get from buying a bigger telly or more clothes.

Like those Psalmists, we have to learn to live with what is actually happening in us and to us, and not simply try to wish it (or buy it) away. I guess whether we indulge in Black Friday or abstain on Buy Nothing Friday, there's something about Adele's lingering expressions of grief and joy that could still make it quite a good Friday.

 

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

There's an oft-repeated story that St Francis of Assisi told his Friars to “go out and preach the gospel – use words if you have to”. Like many famous sayings, however, there is no evidence that he ever actually said it. And if he did, then he was wrong. Language is as important as lifestyle in telling the truth about who we really are and what we really think matters.

Well, a week on from the appalling events in Paris it is interesting that in times of tragedy or challenge, the most unlikely people resort effortlessly to the language of prayer. “My thoughts and prayers are with the victims,” we've heard; and we've seen people kneeling, praying before makeshift shrines and at packed services in the Notre Dame cathedral. But, prayer to whom? And with what content or intention, we might ask?

Well, language is rarely reducible to a single meaning that is immediately obvious. So, when people ask for prayers for a particular person or situation, perhaps it doesn't need to be factually broken down into substantive parts, but can be taken as evidence of an emotional need to look beyond ourselves for order or meaning – or even rescue. After all, in the Christian tradition prayer is not about presenting shopping lists of requests to a god whose job it is to make life comfortable, convenient or secure for us. Rather, prayer is that exercise that, bringing us into the presence of God, gradually exposes us to the mind of God towards ourselves and the world where we are. Inevitably, this then exposes us to the need to change so that we gradually see God, the world and ourselves through God's eyes.

Now, I realise that there are people who think prayer is a bit of a weird and esoteric practice for people who like that sort of thing. Put like this, however, it is not surprising that it is open for anyone. Prayer invites us to be open and honest with God and one another – to tell the truth about our fears and anxieties as well as about the things that make us scream with joy. It's like being stripped back so that we see as we are seen.

There is a word for this process, but it is a word that is often misunderstood. 'Repentance' does not refer to some abjectly miserable confession of moral guilt, but – literally from the Greek word 'metanoia' – to 'change your mind'. It's a bit like having the lens behind our eyes – sometimes called our worldview – re-ground or re-shaped so that we see everything differently.

If any word is useful in these days of anxiety and fear, then 'metanoia' isn't a bad one. It allows for the possibility that the present situation does not have the final word, and that we will be able to see differently. No wonder Jesus told people to not be afraid – before shining a new light on their fearful experience and opening up the possibility of what one writer has called 'newness after loss'. That there is hope.

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