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.

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

Recently I was in Stuttgart and took part in a two-hour discussion with the German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and the former Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan. The theme of the event – which took place before more than ten thousand people – focused on a question: is the world spinning out of control?

It's a good question, isn't it? Austerity at home and protests on the streets; financial and economic brinksmanship in Greece – with the implications for the rest of Europe of a Grexit; the continuing brutality of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq; Ukraine and the confidence of a re-energised Russia; political instability and the threat of climate change. And that's just a sample from today's headlines.

The German Foreign Minister began by saying that the world has never been in such a dangerous place. Kofi Annan claimed that, actually, the world has never been safer. But, both went on to remind the audience of how the world was in the first half of the twentieth century, and only then compare with today.

I listened to this exchange and concluded that they were both right. It depends on your perspective. Only seventy years ago the world buried tens of millions of people who had died as the result of world war. Of course, this had been the second of these: we hadn't actually learned from the so-called 'war to end all wars' just a couple of decades before. I remember, as a small child, the Cuba missile crisis and the pervasive mood of fear. The Cold War itself, with the threat of nuclear annihilation, has also been quickly forgotten.

It seems to me that every generation thinks it might be the last. That the crises and challenges of today are the ultimate ones. That things have never been so bad. A bit like crime statistics: even if the figures go down, people for some reason still feel the fear. There are, of course, other examples.

Well, if you look at what fills the headlines and our screens, the world is in a pretty bad way. And it isn't hard to fuel the fear. But, hope has always defied this sort of thing. The Jews in exile in the eighth and sixth centuries BC faced the horrors of dislocation and alienation, but their poets fired their imaginations, helping them see beyond their immediate experience to what could one day come to be. Christian hope is rooted not in a simple reaction to the present challenges, but in being grasped by a vision of a different way – and then committing oneself to making it happen. The Christian vision of the Kingdom of God involves neither naïveté nor fantasy, but committed hope.

Perhaps what we need today is fewer analysts and commentators, and more poets: holding out a vision that fires the imagination and won't let us go.

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

In a previous life I worked as a Russian linguist at GCHQ in Cheltenham. As everybody knows, this is an institution now under public scrutiny because of its power to hold enormous amounts of information about any and all of us, usually without us being remotely aware of it.

I don't know about you, but the mere mention of the word surveillance triggers memories of George Orwell's 1984 or the world of the KGB and Stasi. Surveillance can only be bad or sinister, can't it? But, here we hit on a fundamental problem at a time when serious concerns are being raised about the limits that should be imposed on surveillance agencies as to the nature and quantity of data they should be allowed – or required – to hold.

The basic conundrum here is that we live in a society that wants – nay, demands – total security from threat, injury or conflict at the same time as demanding total privacy from any sort of unwanted intrusion. But, this circle simply can't be squared. If we want security from threat – for example, from terrorists on our streets or snoopers in our computers – we must accept a certain loss of privacy. In a world of technological complexity – in which the sinister experts in the field do their plotting in the dark places most of us don't even know exist – there is no alternative but for those whose job it is to protect us to have access to data.

There are two problems here, it seems to me. First, it is inherent to the nature of intelligence that any data might potentially be useful, and, therefore, should be collected and stored. But, who discriminates between what is useful and what is not? And how? Secondly, in a society that wants protection, we also have obligations that then impinge on what we sometimes lazily think of as rights. That is in the nature of a society – that we accept curbs on rights in order to protect the common good.

This goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve have grasped for power, they discover they are transparent and hide. Like them, we don't want to be seen through. Perhaps that's because many don't trust those who do the seeing – even if, as in Eden, this transparency is supposed to set us free from fear.

I am one of those who thinks that intrusion by the State or large corporations should be minimal, that surveillance services should be watched, scrutinised and held to account, and that the benefit of doubt should always be given to the individual. But, I can't then complain if something goes wrong on the social field because of my demand for privacy. There is always a cost either way.

This balance of individual rights with societal obligations is difficult to achieve. It seems to me, however, that fundamental to our judgement on the boundaries of privacy is the recognition that we can't have it both ways.

 

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

It's perhaps indicative of the original trauma itself that yesterday I got the shivers when I heard the A Level results were being published. I remember well – when I went with my dad to my old comprehensive school in Liverpool to get my results nearly forty years ago – the feeling of dread … the sense that the whole of the rest of my life depended on what would be revealed in the next ten minutes. Melodramatic? Maybe. But, I've never forgotten the experience.

Looking back, I think I saw education in rather narrow terms. Qualifications were a means of advancement – allowing me to move on to the next thing I wanted to do in life, which was to go to university. There was something functional about the whole thing: get qualifications in order to get the place in order to get the degree in order to get the job, and so on. And there are plenty of commentators today who would observe that this functionalism has become the be all and end all of education. Perhaps we should recover the German distinction between 'education' and 'training'.

Well, the whole process surely must be more than creating incarnated CVs. When the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome nearly two thousand years ago he stressed that we need to be transformed “by the renewing of our minds” – that is, to allow our world view, our assumptions about who we are and why we are here, about what matters and why, to be re-shaped over time. But, Paul refused to accept that this can be done apart from consideration of how we use our bodies and spirits – what we choose to worship and how we do our ethics.

Funnily enough, this is the understanding that gave rise to universities in the first place. Education was seen as the development of the character of a person in community, and not just a means of getting jobs to earn money. Not surprisingly, it was primarily about expanding the world of a student into a freedom to live universally – an opening up and not a closing down of perception and experience. And, contrary to some of today's dominant cultural worship of 'success', this approach assumes we have something to learn. It is rooted in the humility that knows how little we know, and how hard it is to change our minds.

Essentially, then, this suggests that we need to recover – at the heart of our assumptions about education – that education is a means to an end and not an end in itself: the end is the formation of character, and qualifications simply help us to measure how far that character is being shaped.

There are many homes in England today that burst with celebration or are quiet with uncertainty. It can only be hoped that all students will see their value going beyond results that only measure a little of what matters … and possibly say nothing about who they are as persons.

 

This is the text of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme. I wanted, within the constraints of length, to shine a different light on some of what is going on in the world.

I really don't feel old enough for this, but my grandson is about to start school in September. But, the prospect fills me with a mixture of pleasure and dread. At some point in the next ten years we will have to sit though a school production of 'Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat'. Apparently, there's no escape.

Believe it or not, this is a deeply subversive musical … but not because of its biblical origins or its frequent replaying: it is because one song in particular is very dangerous.

To put it bluntly: it is just not true that “any dream will do”. Look around at the world outside and this becomes blindingly obvious. The 'dream' that drives ISIS (Islamic State) in Syria and Iraq is one most of us would claim will not do. It gives the lie to that other oft-repeated mantra: “It doesn't matter what you believe as long as you are sincere.” That sort of thinking would cheer the heart of a Pol Pot or his newly-jailed henchmen.

The problem here is that in our liberal culture we have divided the dream (or, what we think and believe about the world and why people matter) from consequent behaviour. In other words, we have allowed a disconnect between idea and action – one that is being reconnected by all sorts of ideologically driven groups around the world, often with bad results. Our problem, however, is that we don't understand any longer the legitimacy of action or commitment following idea or belief.

In fact, it is worse than this. We often speak as if any world view will do as long as it is liberal-western (and, therefore deemed to be neutral), but then insist that any religious world view – regardless of its integrity – is to be kept private in case it might make a difference. Which, I always thought, was the whole point.

At the root of all this is the uncomfortable fact that human beings act out of deeply-rooted assumptions about why the world is the way it is. The task, then, is to question the dream that drives the action and see if it is a dream that really will do.

This is what drives the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. The prophets of the Old Testament constantly hold up a vision of what human society ought to look like and hold the people to it. As Amos says, don't dare to worship a God of mercy, but then go out and trample on the heads of the poor. Don't praise a God of justice, but then institutionalise corruption in the legal systems that allow the rich and powerful to buy advantage. In the Gospels Jesus uses story and image to plant ear worms in the imagination of his friends and enemies – words that scratch away at mind and conscience, making us restless for the fulfilment of a different vision.

I think Joseph's technicolour dream is worth revisiting. It replaced vengeance and injustice with mercy and love. It allowed those who had betrayed him to be free to live again.

 

 

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