Lockdown is a challenge. But, for me it also allows space for some conversations that might usually get squeezed between meetings and then forgotten.

Yesterday I had two. Both ran around how the current situation impacts us now and might do in the future. My question (or one of them, at least) is this: when life and its routines are disrupted or taken away, which wells do we draw from to sustain life and meaning? While everything changes above the surface and the shape of the future is uncertain, can we locate the underground streams that keep flowing anyway?

There is probably a better way of putting this. But, in a really stimulating conversation with a BBC friend yesterday morning we were wondering if this crisis has revealed the shallowness of many of our cultural or personal wells. It’s a question, not a statement.

For me, as a Christian, the wells – the underground streams – go back a very long way. The creation narratives in Genesis speak of order being brought out of chaos. The Exodus has a people’s settled world being ruptured and them being driven out of the familiar into the strangeness of a desert where they had to lose before they could gain – to lament the loss of a world before being in a position to reorientate towards a different future in a different place. (It took forty years.) Later the people get exiled from the land of promise (twice, in fact – in the eighth and sixth centuries BC) and take time to live with their loss … before settling in the strange land … and then, generations later, having to leave again. They return ‘home’, but discover that home is no longer what they remembered.

I could go on. The Christian tradition lives and feeds from these narratives of leaving and moving and settling only to be disrupted and moved again. And this experience is rooted in an acceptance of mortality and contingency and what goes with the freedom of living in a material world.

But, we don’t usually transition straight from one world to another. We have to stay with the loss, lamenting what has been lost, grieving for a world (or way of life) now gone. People will take a shorter or longer time to live with this. There will be anger, powerlessness and disorientation. And while this is going on some people will accept the new reality and start orientating towards creating a new world.

So, what are the narratives or assumptions that keep us nourished while all this goes on around and above us?

Christian faith does not assume a life (or world)of continuous security and familiarity. It is fed by scriptures that speak of transience, mortality, provisionality, interruption and leavings. But, they also whisper that the endings are always beginnings – the leavings open a door to arrivals that could not have been experienced otherwise. In other words, the loss can be seen as a gift – what Walter Brueggemann calls ‘newness after loss’.

So, as I have suggested to clergy in the Diocese of Leeds, we might be helped in articulating this by asking four questions: (a) what have I/we lost that we need to regain in the weeks and months ahead? (b) what have we lost that needs to remain lost – left behind in another country? (c) what have I/we gained that we need to retain in the future? (d) what have we gained recently that was useful for this season but needs to be lost if we are to move forward?

We might feel sometimes that we don’t have much to go on. The photo below is one I took on a visit to a farm in Gweru, Zimbabwe, back in 2007. During a drought and amid economic collapse, someone had planted a rose in arid ground and watered it each day. It was a prophetic challenge to the desert; it was an act of hope, of prophetic imagination. Today is not the end.

Easter Monday. All sorted, then. We’ve had the glorious light of new life and the future is all bright.

Well, not quite. Like everything in life, the end is always just a new beginning. And the beginning will demand of us not some sort of relaxation into spiritual satisfaction, but a new engagement. The journey continues.

The text I always go to today is Luke’s account of the two friends of Jesus walking back from Jerusalem to their home in Emmaus. They are still trying to work out what the whole Jesus experience was about. He wasn’t supposed to die – that doesn’t fit the theological or political template for ‘messiah’. Now, you can come to terms with the finitude of death – after all, it is an incontrovertibly factual phenomenon. But, how are we supposed to make sense of the reports that the dead man is now appearing to his friends again – the same, but different; recognisable, but strange. And those wound marks …

How to make sense of this? How to fit experience into a fixed theology or re-shape theology in order to account for real experience?

So, as they walk together – possibly a married couple – they try to work it out and get nowhere. Then a stranger comes from behind and joins them on their walk through the hills. But, instead of simply telling them how to make sense of it all (which would have saved a bit of time and proved his credentials), he asks them what they are talking about. They tell him: the weird stuff that has been going on in Jerusalem. “What stuff?” he asks. “Are you the only one who doesn’t know what’s going on?” they ask. Jesus willing to sound ignorant, irrelevant, out of touch?

Jesus lets them tell their story in their terms. Only when they have framed it in their way – noting that it doesn’t compute – does Jesus offer to re-tell the story of God and his people in a way that re-describes both experience and theology.

Yet, it is only when they get to the couple’s home that they eventually recognise who their accompanier was. Yes, the penny dropped while they were breaking bread together; but, what they noted was that their hearts had been burning within them while they were listening to him ‘re-describe reality’ (in Brueggemann’s phrase) and frame the Scriptures afresh.

And us?

Today we are invited to walk – maybe for the first time – in the company of others who don’t quite ‘get it’, asking the real and powerful questions and trying together to work it all out. No just saying “This is the word of the Lord” as we so readily do in church, but, rather, a wrestling with the meaning of this stuff as if our life depended on it. Taking it (and Jesus) seriously by arguing with him and listening to him. Not just passing on as if he is theologically interesting so long as he demands no shaking up of me or my thinking.

The Church’s calendar takes from Easter on a journey of re-discovering this Jesus – rehearsing the story and trying to hear it afresh. It invites us to find someone else, read the story again together, argue the toss about what it all means, and see where it leads. (Which might be back to Jerusalem, but changed by what happened on the way to our Emmaus.)

That is the point of the church in the days to come.And we can do this on the phone, on Zoom, on FaceTime, or in any other medium. We can do it over the garden fence or across the balconies. We can do it any way we like.

We just need to take it seriously enough to do it. The journey starts with a single step.

Palm Sunday. Normally Christians would be walking through the streets with a bemused donkey before beginning Holy Week in church. Not this year. This year we have the unwelcome and uninvited gift of stepping back and re-focusing on what Christian faith – rooted in this Jesus who enters Jerusalem with us friends – says to us while the church is being the church differently.

When Jesus turned his face towards Jerusalem he knew what might await him there. You don’t challenge religious authority or the military powers of the Roman Empire without considering the likely cost. Messiahs were popping up all over the place (see ‘The Life of Brian’) – all offering ultimate solutions to those who ‘believe’, but all ending up on crosses. Jesus was, like the Old Testament prophets, open-eyed about power and resistance and cost.

The trouble is that his friends don’t get it. They have invested their hopes in the Galilean carpenter being the best chance of messianic liberation. When the crowds come out and cheer, they think they are on to a winner. Jesus suspects differently. This always makes me recall Cromwell’s remark to Fairfax when riding through cheering crowds, that they would equally have shown up to see him hanged. Crowds are fickle; affections and convictions can be turned over in seconds; people who think acclaim has the final word are usually shortsighted.

I can only imagine the loneliness of Jesus – accompanied by friends who just don’t get what is going on here … in the words of the great Crowded House song, ‘Together Alone’. It is often harder to be lonely in a crowd when you see what no one else sees.

So, Jesus is alone in company. His friends don’t spot this aloneness and read the ‘now’ as the end. And the crowds will soon turn when the wind blows in a different direction.

Jesus is going to challenge power – social, political, military, religious – right at its heart. But, he is not going to do it in the way anyone might suppose. He will look feeble and ridiculous. He will look like he has lost the argument. The crowds – even some of his friends – will suspect he’ll has been a fraud all along. And Jesus knows they won’t even begin to understand all this until much, much later.

I think Palm Sunday opens up the space to re-think who Jesus is and what he is about. If I think he really is the messiah, then is this because he simply confirms to an image (an assumption?) of what messiahship looks like? Is it because I find it convenient to my theological preferences? Or am I as open as his friends ultimately needed to be to re-think, re-imagine, re-conceive what hope, freedom and commitment look like through the eyes of this Jesus?

Am I with the crowd – Jesus to offer quick entertainment and easy solutions; with his friends – hopeful, but stuck with a prejudice of what Jesus ought to be, do and say; or with Jesus himself – prepared to stare even my own convictions in the eye and examine them afresh under the silent gaze of the man heading toward a cross?

This is the text of an article published in the excellent and impressive Yorkshire Post today.

There are some memories I try to forget. Anything involving Liverpool losing to a Manchester club, for example. But, there are others.

Years ago, when our children were young, we used to lead summer venture holidays for teenagers. We did this for years at a variety of locations in England. The final three years we took over a school near Alton Towers in the Midlands. Inevitably, we spent a day each time at the famous entertainment park, trying not to get too wet too early on the water rides. Then there was Oblivion. You got in a carriage and it very slowly climbed a very steep rail until it levelled out at the top. Then it stopped. You waited, trying not to look down several hundred feet. Then, it shunted forward and sent you plummeting almost vertically towards the ground.

I wouldn’t dare do it now.

It feels a bit like that in England in these strange times. Outside my window everything is quiet: no planes in the sky, no cars on the road, no children playing in the park. It feels like we are waiting for something to happen – for the promised escalation in deaths and casualties from the invisible virus that is sweeping the globe. It feels very uncomfortable. Waiting always does, especially when we know we have no control over what might happen next.

Well, this experience might seem strange to us; but, it is how most of the world’s population live every day. The difference is that we in the West have taken a rare sense of continuity and security for granted, and have been seduced into thinking that we can control our lives and destiny.

There are many reasons for this, but they are for another time and another medium. For now, we can simply recognise that what we are currently enduring will, if we’ll let it, strip away some of the false securities and illusions we have grown to assume. The current lockdown has removed some of our freedoms – of movement and association, for example – but it might also remove some of our fantasies of individual self-sufficiency. Enforced isolation will prove extremely challenging for many people as we seek to use technology and other creative measures for maintaining – indeed, building – social connection at a time of threat and fear.

For Christians this dual experience of both waiting and self-examining is (or ought to be) normal. We are now heading towards the end of Lent, a period of withdrawal, contemplation, fasting and prayer. At this time each year we strip back the ‘stuff’ that fills our life. We re-read the story of Jesus as he walks with his friends towards what turned out to be a cross. We try to live in the moment, not jumping ahead to Easter’s resurrection before we have lived with the uncertainty and not-knowing of the journey itself. We place ourselves alongside these people-like-us as they struggle with not knowing where they were headed. And, as we go, we dig beneath the veneers of our own self-sufficiency, rediscovering what is too quickly forgotten: that we are mortal; that we are interdependent; that we are not masters of the universe; that an acceptance of our mortality is the beginning of freedom.

Now, this might sound a bit ‘niche’. But, the forgotten disciplines of the Christian Church through more than two thousand years might actually offer us a perspective and a resource as we navigate our current uncharted waters. Identifying our propensity for selfishness might push us towards greater patience and generosity with others. Learning to wait for whatever is to come … might just help people gain some acceptance of not being in control of life. Learning to create order where the daily routine feels a bit loose … might just offer a better form of self-control.

This isn’t about mere piety for the sake of it. What I am suggesting is that the space in which we now find ourselves – unwanted, uninvited, unwelcome – is where we are. We either embrace and explore it, or we just hunker down resentfully and hope it passes.

Someone once said: when you are in the desert, don’t look for the flowers that grow in the fertile areas; look for the flowers that grow only in the desert. For, if you spend your energies looking for roses, you will be very upset and frustrated. There are some flowers that grow only in the desert – try re-focusing and look for them.

On a similar theme is a meditation by an Asian theologian called Kosuke Koyama who once wrote a book called ‘Three Mile-an-Hour God’. When we enter a desert, says Koyama, our first instinct is to get out as quickly as we can. But, we need to resist the temptation, learning instead how to live in the present moment and face the slowed-down truth about ourselves and the world. That is what Lent invites us to do.

It is clearly a truism to say that we live in strange times. We face an unprecedented challenge. Yet, we also have unprecedented means of building our communities and strengthening our bonds. Social media, foodbanks and support of NHS staff. Constant connection with isolated and vulnerable people – even those down our own street or in our own block whom we would normally pass in the street and hardly recognise. Our antennae can now be raised, our sensitivities sharpened.

Now is the time to turn fear into faith and hope into action.

One of the challenges of Lent for Christians is to avoid confusing process with event.

That is a shorthand way of saying that the stories we read in the scriptures cover a period of time, and we need to try to live with the narrative, not conflate it.

So, for example, the people to whom Isaiah addressed his writings three thousand years ago did not know the middle or end of their story. Those who were warned that exile might well be coming (Isaiah 1-39) didn’t know what that exile would mean in reality. Which is probably why they went into denial and didn’t take the threat seriously. Those who went into exile in Babylon experienced existential (as well as physical and material) loss, but they would soon have to come to terms with a new reality. Nostalgia wouldn’t help, nor would wishful thinking.

But, they also had no idea how long exile would last. There was no template for how to live in the strange land, with its different routines, languages, expectations, limitations, and so on. Even the immediate future was uncharted territory. We know what happened over the following decades, but they didn’t. So, they had to work it out as they went along, never sure they were reading the times right or not.

Sounds familiar?

We need to use our imagination to dig beneath the text. If you were born at the beginning of exile, you might have some memory of ‘home’. But, if you had grown up into your mid-adulthood in exile, exile is normal. What then of the memory of a home you didn’t know? So, how do you live, but also how do you think about how you live?

The point is that we can read these texts today in our search for wisdom, and even be surprised by how contemporary the recorded experience is. Basically, human beings face the same questions in every age. Yes, we have to navigate the particular channels of today’s phenomena; but, we should not be so arrogant as to suppose we are unique or even original.

A reading of the ancient texts tells us that we always need to expand our concept of time. The exiles were in for the long haul. Generations might be born, live and die in exile. Their grandchildren and their grandchildren might know no other reality.

So, the question remains: does our confidence – our faith – lie in a set of personally positive circumstances or some equation for securing a future? Or does it lie in a conviction that transcends the immediate good or ill that being human necessarily brings us? In Christian terms, does my faith lie in a formula … or in the person of the God who takes a longer view and, as we will re-live at Easter,  defies death itself?

The silence outside the house is a little unnerving. The birds clearly haven’t spotted the problem yet – they just keep tweeting. But, otherwise, here in Headingley, the skies are empty, the roads still and the stillness remarkable.

This morning I called a number of people to see how they are doing. All are in good spirits. But, we are only at the start of this mass experiment in dispersed togetherness. All the signs are that the lockdown will soon get tighter, but this means that we will all need to get more creative with how we relate and communicate.

Already there are some brilliant examples of how to do this – and the ability of people to find (or make) the funnies amid the misery is simply stunning. Twitter has come into its own.

The challenge for many people unused to limited company and social restriction will be how to establish some shape to each day – a routine that offers some order to an indeterminate future. For me this forced purdah means I shall spend longer in Morning and Evening Prayer each day. I will walk for exercise each day (without touching anyone out there, of course). I will study more, read more, and watch more films. I’ll also be on the phone and social media more, checking that vulnerable people and colleagues are OK.

I also intend to resume more regular posting on this blog than has been possible for several years. Radio scripts and journalism will still go up, but I’ll be offering more – possibly daily. We will be streaming some action/reflection stuff in Holy Week and Easter and I will also write. Provided there is something worth hearing, that is.

Christians read the Bible every day and some of us try to dig under the words to work out how these would have been heard by those to whom they were addressed. One of the themes that emerges time and again, but is easily missed when things are calm, is that of time. We cannot always control – and are never exempted from – what the world can throw at us; but we can learn to live faithfully through it all. Deserts, exiles, strangeness, loss, disorder and chaos: they are the experiences that gave rise to our scriptures as people tried to work out who God is, what life is for, and why we matter.

So, I guess we now enter an uninvited and unwelcome time of exile in which we have an opportunity to dig deep into ourselves and ask hard questions about life, the universe and everything. It might become a time of reorientation – like a hard retreat that compels is to face ourselves and the society we shape. As so many people suffer loss of loved ones, we will ask into which activities or relationships we invest our time and money; as so many lose jobs, homes or livelihood, we can decide if the economy exists for people or people for the economy.

Hard times, maybe; but, possibly times for renewal, too.

Today my new book is published by SPCK. Titled Freedom is Coming, it offers readings for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany based on Isaiah 40-55.

It is intended to make further sense of what Christmas is about and where Christian hope actually lies in a complex world.

This is the text of a commissioned article published in the excellent Yorkshire Post yesterday:

A quick story.

A little boy sat in his room trying to write his Christmas letter. He wrote: “Dear Jesus, I have been a really good boy this last year, so please can I have a bike for Christmas?” He knew this was a bit of a fib, so, he threw it in the bin and tried again: “Dear Jesus, I have tried really hard this year and have mostly been a good boy; so, please can I have a bike for Christmas?” Again, he knew this was pushing it a bit; so, in the bin it went, and then he wrote: “OK, Jesus, I haven’t been great this year, but I can try harder next year, … if you give me a bike for Christmas.” Then he threw it in the bin and gave up. “I need some fresh air,” he thought, and went out for a short walk before trying again. As he went around the corner, he glanced inside a garden and saw a large Nativity set near a neighbour’s front door. He checked no one was watching, nipped in, grabbed Mary, and hid her under his coat. Then he ran home, went up to his room, got out his pencil and paper and wrote: “If you wanna see your mother again, gimme the bike!”

At a time in our nation’s history when all the talk is of ‘deals’, it might be salutary to realise that deals are not everything. Christmas tells us that we can’t bargain with God and there are no deals to be done.

Does this sound a bit odd? Well, it should do. We now seem to live in a culture that values economics, money and trade above all else. Each time I ask (in the House of Lords, for instance) for whom the economy exists, I get blank looks. That the economy exists for the sake of people – and not vice versa – seems counter-cultural these days. Not everybody welcomes the question: what is the vision that Brexit is supposed to fulfil, and how do we quantify ‘the national interest’?

Christmas has something powerful to say to us as individuals – yes; but, it also challenges our social assumptions and rhetoric. Christmas says that people matter more than money, generosity more than the grasping of rights, love more than competition for advantage. Christmas whispers to an unsuspecting world that God comes into the ordinary and makes it extraordinary – not waiting until the world and our lives are all sorted, but coming among us as one of us and not open to bargaining, deal-making or competing.

This is why Christmas creeps up on us once a year, inviting us to put aside the truth claims of politicians, the power claims of those who have lost sight of dignity and social order, the pompous pretensions of those for whom status is everything. The baby of Bethlehem is born to parents whose relationship is socially questionable; born in obscurity in territory occupied by a military power; born to be hunted by a king and sent into exile for his own protection. A refugee as a toddler, he will lose his father by the age of 12, leave his family by 30, and be dead within two or three years.

And this is where the no-deals come in. The people who would respond to Jesus were those who knew they had no pretensions to uphold – that God comes to them anyway. And to those who assume that God is distant, standing remote from the muckiness of the world and keeping himself clean, Christmas says that God plunges into the heart of the real world – right into the places where the pain is most acute and life most bewildering or challenging. When I pray, this is a God who knows where I am and we are.

So, I will sing the carols of God’s free offering of himself in love to a complicated and sometimes brutal world. And I will still feel a little unease when the organ strikes up with Adeste Fideles and its glorious descants: I still think we should be singing “O come, all ye faithless”. For Christmas is the opening of God’s arms – and, therefore, of the arms of those who bear his name and claim faith in him – to a world that hasn’t asked for him, but longs for liberation and healing and redemption. No deals. No bargains. No competition. Just grace, mercy, generosity and the possibility of a new start and a different way.

Fantasy? Nonsense? Or a message that dares us to think again about who we want to be and how we want our society to be shaped?

Christmas can be sidelined into some religious compartment that we drag out once a year but keep tamed and away from real life. We can keep it as a remote and other-worldly fairy story … or we can dig deeper into the familiar story and ask what the God behind this story offers to people everywhere. For myself, I will consider again the response that Christmas – God surprising earth with heaven – invites from me: to follow the Jesus of the gospels, wherever this leads, whatever it costs, and however it challenges my assumptions about the way the world is.

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

When I heard yesterday that North Korea had tested another nuclear weapon, it was the language that caught my attention. What was detected in Japan and South Korea was described as “an artificial earthquake”.

I know what is meant by this – that it wasn’t a case of the earth moving of its own accord, but caused by a deliberate explosion. Yet, it is still an earthquake and there is little artificial about its effects. These go well beyond the realms of the physical world – they shock our imagination.

Interestingly, the language of apocalypse is beginning to find its way back into common currency, coloured no doubt by biblical images conjured up over centuries to depict the fiery end of the world. And there is nothing artificial about the fear that such associations engender – even if we don’t lie directly in the line of potential fire – or our sense of helplessness as we watch events unfold.

We have been here before – President Kennedy brought the world to the brink when in 1961 he challenged the Soviet Union and its plans to put missiles on Cuba. The world held its collective breath.

In similar circumstances now, it might be worth recalling what Apocalypse is really all about. The biblical Book of the Apocalypse – usually known as Revelation – contains vivid imagery of conflicts and choices set in a context of lurid cosmic battles.

Yet, contrary to much popular belief, it wasn’t intended to be a prediction of the end of the world. Rather, it was written from exile to a Christian community that was suffering terrible persecution at the hands of a Roman Emperor who, if nuclear weapons had been available to him, might well have behaved like Kim Jong-Un. This form of apocalyptic writing used image and metaphor to encourage the persecuted not to compromise and not to give up hope. Why? Because the present needs to be seen in the context of the cosmic and the eternal. Death, violence and destruction do not have the final word – even in this world. Judgement means ultimate justice. And Christians are called to be drawn by hope, not driven by fear. However weird that looks to anyone else, that is the deal.

Now, you can’t easily accuse the tortured recipients of this letter of escapism or other-worldly fantasy. Rather, they were compelled – as are many Christians in some parts of the world even today – to choose whom they will serve. This is about digging to the foundations of what we believe we are about and for whom we exist… now in this world.

We don’t know how the latest threat and challenge will turn out. But, we can ask fundamental questions about why we think the world and human life are worth preserving in the first place. And that might guide our thinking away from potential ultimate destruction towards committed life-building here and now.

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

Loving your neighbour as yourself is harder than it sounds. But, I would argue, it is also much more interesting than it seems. For example, it assumes that we might need to get to know our neighbour, and, at least, try to look through their eyes.

If travel does broaden the mind, then holidays such as this weekend when many Brits are enjoying a break abroad, surely open up the opportunity to look, listen and learn differently. And this is where we hit the problem: language.

Almost all Brits abroad will expect the natives to understand and speak English. And, to our embarrassment, they probably will. And they will pride themselves on their polyglottal skills.

Language learning in Britain continues to decline. According to statistics reported in newspapers last week, the numbers studying languages at school and university are falling fast. Some voices claim that this really doesn’t matter – that we can pick up a bit of German or Spanish later in life … if and when we need it.

Except that a language is not a commodity that can be simply picked off the shelf when convenient or expedient. To learn a language is more than to wield a tool; rather, it is to inhabit the world that language shapes.

At the age of 91 the former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt wrote that we can’t understand our own culture unless we look at it through the eyes of another culture … and to do this we need to know language. In fact, he suggested learning two. For most Europeans this isn’t a problem; they constantly cross borders and entertain foreigners. Communication matters beyond mere functionality.

Not so here. It seems to me that political language in the UK has been coloured by the assumption that anything has value only in so far as it fulfils an economic end. Accordingly, we too easily regard language learning as a waste of time unless it leads to high-earning job in the future. But, I remember a German businessman in a hotel explaining to a monoglot British counterpart that although their negotiations were done in English the English couldn’t understand what was being said behind their backs – and that this put the Brits at a disadvantage. No response.

And this is why it is vital that children and young people learn other languages – at least in order to open their minds to different ways of seeing, thinking and interpreting the world. If loving your neighbour assumes knowing your neighbour, then learning the odd language opens up a world of wonders.

And let it be said at times of international insecurity, stress and fear: there is never a more important time to listen through the ears and look through the eyes of my neighbour – if only to see ourselves as we are seen.