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

It doesn't seem that long since we were doing this last year: looking back at the old and wondering what the new year will hold. Many people in my part of the world will be hoping for better weather and, if that fails, at least better flood defences. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard was surely right when he said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

Well, looking forwards tells me that in Europe 2016 won’t be boring. Among other things, we’ll commemorate the centenary of the Somme – where a whole generation of young men (vast numbers from northern towns and cities) was sacrificed on the altar of violence. Then there’s the likely referendum on membership of the European Union which should remind us of where the drive for union began a century ago. And let's not forget the European football Championships in the summer – where we can only hope the goals go in the right direction.

Tomorrow is always an unknown country. This month the Primates of the Anglican Communion will meet in London and make decisions about how to belong together in the future. The divisions are no secret. The outcome is, obviously, unknown. What is certain, however, is that the future might not look exactly like the past.

Now, that’s a bit of a truism. But, every human community has to comprehend difference of opinion and competing priorities. Yes, we can walk away from the discomfort of conflict; or, we can face reality and harness it for honest conversation. Difference matters.

Later this month I will be visiting Anglicans in Tanzania where our diocesan partnership links are strong. We have equally strong links with Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sweden and the United States. What these relationships do is compel Christians in very different contexts and with vastly different histories and cultures to look through the eyes of the other and feel through the skin of the other. What we take for granted when we talk about God, the world and us gets challenged by looking through the eyes of a very different people. This also means exposing our own prejudices and discovering just how much of our theology turns out actually to be cultural assumption.

So, difference is integral to all human life. We either face it hopefully … or we simply wish it away. Hope is not the same as wishful thinking; hope refuses to let go in the face of even fierce discomfort.

Writing about the prophets, one Old Testament theologian titled a book 'Texts that linger, words that explode'. Well, maybe relationships sometimes explode, but words have a habit of hanging around – the conversation always has further to go. The texts that linger form a conversation that can’t be silenced.

A hopeful 2016 is one that faces reality and keeps talking.

This is the text of an article written for the Yorkshire Post about the meaning of Christmas:

When we say that someone is 'down to earth', we usually mean that they are straightforward, unpretentious, with no airs and graces. Their feet are planted on terra firma, and they cannot be accused of being above themselves (or anybody else, for that matter). Being 'down to earth', therefore, is a good thing – something we recognise by its absence in some people's language, behaviour or demeanour.

So, it should come as no surprise that Christmas is about as 'down to earth' as you can get. Christmas might be about many things, but it is above all about God not exempting himself from the realities of the world, but opting in to all the world can throw at him (and us). Christmas is fundamentally a celebration of God being down to earth.

Now, this will sound uncomfortable to some and inconvenient to others. After all, isn't God there to be worshipped and feared? Haven't we already got God taped – if not only in order to dismiss what we don't like about religion?

Well, Christmas is supposed to surprise us – something our familiarity with various popular presentations of the Nativity militates against. But, it is meant to break across our fixed views of the world and the way it is, opening our imagination to a new way of seeing God, the world and us. It is meant to subvert our expectations of how the world inevitably has to be, inviting us to look differently, see differently and live differently in the world as it is.

Go back to the original story. God doesn't explode on an unsuspecting planet at the place of most political significance and compel everybody to turn their eyes to the great event. Most people in Palestine have no idea what is going on. That is part of the irony – the surprising and subverting. And, when it comes to it, it is outsiders – the 'great unwashed' shepherds and pagan foreigners – who are first to have their eyes opened to the mystery born in obscurity in a remote and troublesome corner of the Roman Empire.

In other words, the first Christmas draws the 'wrong people' to Jesus. Not the pious, the prepared, the priests or the pretentious, but those who don't 'belong' and those who least expect to be included. Or, as I once put it (and got into huge trouble with the media for daring to do so), the first Christmas should have led to the singing of “O come, all ye faithless…”.

Now, our familiarisation with Christmas, the sentimentalising of our consumer culture and our commercialisation of the celebration, have removed the Jesus of Bethlehem from the real world to somewhere more containable (where we don't have to worry about him growing up into a politically troublesome adult). In doing so, we allow the story itself to become rootless in the real world. And this is problematic.

So, consider this. The baby of Bethlehem was born into a world in which life was very cheap and expectations very limited. This world was dominated by a military power that ordered every part of life and society and dealt brutally with those who challenged its hegemony. The land into which the baby was born was occupied and its people humiliated. Under threat of persecution and death, the baby and his family fled to another country, becoming refugees and asylum seekers in a land whose very name (Egypt) represented slavery, misery and hopelessness. Terrorist groups emerged from the hill country of the north from time to time, bringing death and destruction to those places where the Roman forces exercised their power.

It sounds a bit familiar, doesn't it? A world of insecurity and threat. Not a million miles from a world of ISIS, terrorism, fear and uncertainty.

Well, this baby would grow into the man who defied all power and denied all fear by inviting people to think again (or 'repentance' as it is sometimes known). What if there was to be a people who were not driven by fear, but drawn by hope? What if we could be down to earth, but not bound by earth? What if, while remaining rooted in and committed (body, mind and soul) to this world, we could be free to sit lightly to our status and dignity, our security and self-fulfilment, loving our neighbour as ourself and putting their interests before our own? What might this world look like? What would a society like this lead to?

This is basically what Christmas is all about. God doesn't wait for us to get our act together and sort out our integrity before coming to him with a plan. Rather, God takes the initiative, coming among us as one of us and, ultimately, opening his arms to us in an embrace that absorbs all that the world can throw at him, but without throwing it back.

And this is the point of getting to a church for a carol service. I love the aesthetics of candle light and familiar carols. But, what the church is actually doing – well or badly, but always fallibly – is to create a space, for an hour or two, during which we can be confronted afresh by the mystery of God's surprise – that even God is down to earth, right where we are.

I remember being in Indonesia in 1999 and failing to comprehend the rules of the road. The traffic looked chaotic. It was impossible to work out who had the right of way in which circumstances and where. But, the experience set me up well for being driven from south to north Sri Lanka, back again, then across into the mountainous country where I am writing this (at over 2,000 metres, the first place to have a heater in the room rather than air conditioning… and it is hammering down with warm rain).

Broadly speaking, today's western mind needs to know the rules, if only to know when they are being broken. Traffic feeding onto a roundabout from the right has right of way, and traffic waiting to drive onto the roundabout has to wait its turn.

Yet, here, as in Indonesia (and two memorable drives through Athens in the rush hour in a friend's car – which taught me how to pray better), the 'rules' are different. Yes, there are white lines, yellow lines, traffic lights and kerbs. But, there is little waiting, little respect for ideas such as those that dictate that “cars joining a major road from a side road should wait until they can safely do so without interfering with the traffic flow”. They just go. And, somehow, it seems to work. Nobody gets cross and we have seen only two minor accidents. The only rule seems to be: everyone on the road has as much right as I do to go where they want and when they want and how they want.

I guess this means that even the driving is based on relationship and not rule. You watch, you flash your lights, you beep your horn, and you go … and you somehow end up in the flow. Don't ask me about overtaking.

Talking here with the Bishop of Colombo about the Anglican Communion, it leaves me wondering if we have (at least) two conflicting assumptions about the 'rules' by which such a communion should be shaped. There are those who insist on the letter of every law being applied, and there are those who just, somehow, want to make it work – messy as it looks and is – and are less worried about the rules and more about the mutuality of the relationships.

Yes, I know this is neither deep nor original; but, it is what is wheeling its way around my mind while thinking and conversing about a range of matters to do with God, the Gospel, the Church and Christian mission in the world's we inhabit.

This afternoon we visited an old colonial church. The plaques on the walls reveal just how many people here died in their 20s and 30s. We then went on to visit a home for destitute children – up to 40 boys and girls from toddlers to almost 20. What struck us was the dedication of people who decide to do one thing with their life – giving it for the sake of such children. No concern for promotion or variation, no manoeuvring for the next job. Single-minded commitment to one thing and for life.

This isn't to be romanticised. Yet, here are children who would otherwise have no home and no experience of genuine and long-term love. The motivation seems to be simple: God, in Jesus Christ, invites us to share in his ministry of generous love, open service, unsentimental commitment and costly reconciliation. We can respond with realism and joy; or we can walk away.

It is a brilliant trip so far, and one that is giving to me far more than I can give in return. (Apart from the Delhi belly…)

 

The spiritual leaders (bishops of the Landeskirchen) of the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland has today published a statement in response to the challenges posed by mass migration and the current refugee crisis. The English text can now be read here. The press notice can be read here, and the link to the signed statement is at the bottom:

The statement reads as follows:

Zur aktuellen Situation der Flüchtlinge Eine Erklärung der Leitenden Geistlichen der evangelischen Landeskirchen Deutschlands

„Wie köstlich ist deine Güte, Gott, dass Menschenkinder unter dem Schatten deiner Flügel Zuflucht haben!” (Psalm 36, 8)

1 Gott liebt alle seine Geschöpfe und will ihnen Nahrung, Auskommen und Wohnung auf dieser Erde geben. Wir sehen mit Sorge, dass diese guten Gaben Gottes Millionen von Menschen verwehrt sind. Hunger, Verfolgung und Gewalt bedrücken sie. Viele von ihnen befinden sich auf der Flucht. So stehen sie auch vor den Toren Europas und Deutschlands. Sie willkommen zu heißen, aufzunehmen und ihnen das zukommen zu lassen, was Gott allen Menschen zugedacht hat, ist ein Gebot der Humanität und für uns ein Gebot christlicher Verantwortung.

2 Der Mensch steht im Mittelpunkt aller Bemühungen. Viele Menschen sindweltweit auf der Flucht. Die große Herausforderung besteht darin, jedem Einzelnen gerecht zu werden. In ihrer Not begeben sich Menschen auf der Flucht in Lebensgefahr. Es ist humanitäre Pflicht, alles zu tun, um Menschen aus Seenot und vor anderen Gefahren zu retten. Gegen menschenverachtende Schlepperbanden und mafiöse Strukturen innerhalb und außerhalb Europas muss mit polizeilichen Mitteln vorgegangen werden. Die wirksamsten Maßnahmen gegen die Gefahren auf der Flucht bestehen in legalen Zugangswegen nach Europa. Wir fordern deshalb legale Wege für Schutzsuchende und begrüßen Diskussionen über ein Einwanderungsgesetz, das neue Zuwanderungsmöglichkeiten für Menschen auf der Suche nach Arbeit und einem besseren Leben eröffnet.

3 Unsere Gesellschaft steht vor einer großen Herausforderung, aber auch unsere Kräfte sind groß. Wir sind dankbar für die vielfältige Hilfsbereitschaft! Allen, die ehrenamtlich oder beruflich, aus Kirche, Zivilgesellschaft, Staat und Politik helfen, eine Willkommenskultur zu leben und mit einem beispiellosen Einsatz für die schnelle und menschenwürdige Aufnahme und Unterbringung von Flüchtlingen zu sorgen, danken wir von ganzem Herzen! Mit Entschiedenheit wenden wir uns gegen alle Formen von Fremdenfeindlichkeit, Hass oder Rassismus und gegen alles, was eine menschenfeindliche Haltung unterstützt oder salonfähig macht. Sorgen und Angst vor Überforderung müssen ernst genommen werden, dürfen aber nicht für menschenfeindliche Stimmungen missbraucht werden.

4 Als Kirche prägen wir das Zusammenleben in dieser Gesellschaft mit. Daher treten wir dafür ein, gelebte Willkommenskultur und die damit verbundene Integration zu einer zentralen Aufgabe unserer Gemeinden und Einrichtungen zu machen.

5 Mit Sorge sehen wir die Hintergründe und Ursachen der Flüchtlingsbewegungen: Klimaveränderungen, Kriege, Verfolgung, Zusammenbruch staatlicher Gewalt, extreme Armut. In diese Fluchtursachen ist auch unsere Gesellschaft vielfältig durch globale Handelsbeziehungen, Waffenlieferungen und nicht zuletzt durch einen Lebensstil, der die Ressourcen der Erde verbraucht, zutiefst verwickelt. Eine Umkehr von diesen ungerechten Verhältnissen ist an der Zeit.

6 Uns in Deutschland ist aufgrund unserer Geschichte in besonderer Weise bewusst, welches Geschenk es ist, Hilfe in der Not und offene Türen zu finden. Ohne die Hilfe, die uns selber zu Teil geworden ist, wären wir heute nicht in der Lage, mit unseren Kräften anderen zu helfen. Wir als Leitende Geistliche wollen uns dafür einsetzen, dass Europa jetzt gemeinsam handelt und seinen humanitären Verpflichtungen gemeinschaftlich nachkommt. In der Gewissheit, dass Menschen unter Gottes Flügeln Zuflucht haben, bringen wir die Not aller Menschen in unseren Gebeten vor Gott und bitten ihn um Kraft für die vor uns liegenden Aufgaben.

The EKD previously pubished a helpful statement here on the refugee challenge (9 September) in Europe and it helpfully contains links to other church/Christian statements.

The World Council of Churches has published the following statement:

Today the countries of Europe are confronted with the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. But compassion and action seem to be tragically insufficient to meet the pressing need. This is so despite the tragedies reported daily from the shores and borders of Europe – let alone from the countries from which these people have been forced to flee by conflict, oppression and extreme poverty.

It is now absolutely and critically necessary that all European states take their proper responsibility in terms of reception and support for people seeking refuge, safety and a better future for themselves and their families. This cannot be left only to the states where they enter first.

Taking responsibility for human beings in desperate need must be done without discrimination on any criteria other than their needs. We are shocked to hear of some countries rejecting refugees on the basis of their religion.

Today, Europe – both West and East – is being tested on the strength of its commitment to human dignity and rights. This is a test of our human values and Christian legacy.

Some churches are taking a lot of responsibility in this situation, even beyond their capacities. WCC member churches in many of the affected countries are providing support to refugees and migrants, and raising the awareness of their congregations and state authorities to the need for a compassionate response, in spite of limited resources and of their own difficulties. The WCC encourages churches in countries of arrival, transit and ultimate destination in their efforts to welcome the stranger, and to model a compassionate response to people in such desperate need. We need ecumenical cooperation in these efforts, in order to ensure that they make the greatest possible contribution to alleviating this terrible suffering.

The WCC and its member churches’ commitment to supporting refugees and displaced people is part of its original condition and calling. When the World Council of Churches came into existence in 1948, the disastrous humanitarian impacts of the Second World War were still a very present reality. The international community was still struggling to cope with the massive population displacements caused by conflict and crimes against humanity. Churches and their specialized ministries were key actors in the humanitarian response to this unprecedented suffering, and have continued to be in the forefront of assisting refugees and immigrants, from emergency relief to long-term support.

This commitment is shown in many parts of the world also today. During these last days I have seen how the churches in Latin America are responding to the situation of migrants and internally displaced people in their own contexts.

The WCC continues to challenge churches worldwide to rediscover their identity, their integrity and their vocation as the church of the stranger. For we are the Church of Jesus Christ, the child refugee (cf. Mathew 2:13).

“I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” Matthew 25:35.

There is a fundamental question underlying responses to the current migration and refugee challenge in Europe. In the question behind the title of Primo Levi's arresting book, it is simply: what is a man? What is a human being?

If the answer is that a human being is valued according to their economic contribution, potential or liability, then that will have a profound influence in shaping our response, both emotionally and intellectually.

If, on the other hand, a human being has inherent value – not simply because she exists or is valued by those who say she has value, but because she is made in the image of God and infinitely loved – then the response will be consistent with that. A Christian response must begin with a biblical understanding of what makes a human person – everything else has to flow from that.

It sounds a bit academic to ask a question of (what I call) theological anthropology in the face of such immediate need, but it is important that we do. It is important that our political leaders are clear about their answer to this question and why they think what they do think.

Taking this seriously will help us to distinguish between a response dominated by cost benefit analyses and one shaped by a humanitarian assumption that chooses to make a choice of principle and then pays the price (socially, financially, economically, and so on). Yes, the economic and social questions need to be raised and faced; but, do they follow a committed response to immediate need or precede it?

When listening, viewing or reading coverage of the current challenge and political responses to it, I think this is the question to ask in order to understand what motivates the response.

(I wrote this while listening to a lively debate at the EKD (German) Kirchenkonferenz on what statement to make about these matters. The statement will be published next week and I will publish it on this blog as soon as I get the final published version.)

 

So, the BBC is being hounded again as if the producers are leftie, hand-wringing imbeciles. Songs of Praise is coming from Calais, and some people don't like it. Nothing to do with the French, of course.

Songs of Praise usually gets slagged off for being … er …Songs of Praise. Often the critique is that it is bland or anodyne. Well, not now it isn't.

The decision to record in the Jungle of Calais, right at the heart of where migrants are trying desperately to find a new life in a place of safety, is absolutely the right one. There are two reasons for this:

  1. Christian Faith is about God in the real world, not relegated to some imaginary fairy land where it can't do any harm or embarrass anyone. The Psalms – the hymn book Jesus used – are full of lament, question, anger, frustration and challenge: why do the rich always prosper, why are the dice always loaded in favour of the powerful, why do the oppressors seem to get away with it? In other words, faith impacts on politics.
  2. Worship, as suggested above, does not happen in the abstract. It pours out of hearts and minds and bodies and mouths of real people – often where the realities of life are the most difficult. The Incarnation – seen particularly in the cross of Calvary – is about God opting into the reality of human life and suffering and not exempting himself from it. He comes to where the pain is most acute and does not turn away.

So, why does broadcasting from Calais cause such a wild reaction? Part of the answer lies in the ideological drum being banged by those – particularly in the media – who want to sell off the BBC and turn it into just another media outfit. Stuff the world reputation and its inherent value. But, I wonder if Calais is just too difficult for us when we feel human compassion, but intuit its clash with political preference.

If we don't like being exposed to worship from Calais, then it is for us to face the hard question of why – not simply to project this on to the soft target of the BBC.

The BBC is doing precisely what it is there for – something no other channel would do, probably. Instead of being dissed, the BBC and its producers of Songs of Praise should be praised for doing their job and doing it well.

(I have just seen Steve Chalke's good piece on the same theme here.)

 

Happy New Year!

I hope.

Here are some (unedited) preliminary thoughts on Day One.

Of course, for most people on the planet it promises to be no more happy than the last year. The horrors of persecution of minorities – especially Christians – on some parts of the planet show no sign of abating; and some countries in the sophisticated liberal west show no sign of offering hospitality to those doing the suffering.

In the UK we face a general election within a few months. The political parties still dance to a first-past-the-post tune when the reality of political allegiance sounds a coalition melody. Unlike other European countries which shape their rhetoric and policy making around coalition inevitabilities, our parties will play an unconvincing game of macho posturing before then having to “do a Lib-Dem” later in May. How many elections might it take before the realities impinge on the rhetoric and the electorate begins to be treated as intelligent (as well as politico-media literate).

The big challenges ahead include: the role of xenophobia or racism in the general election; whether hospitality is offered to refugees and asylum-seekers from places where loss and suffering have become intolerable; public ethics are to be shaped by more than populism.

At the root of all this lies a fundamental question – one that should be put to every candidate in the May election: “What is your theological anthropology?” OK, not in those words. Try: “What is a human person? Why does a human person matter? How do you know?”

These aren’t merely academic philosophical questions. They go to the heart of that from which all policy commitments will follow. For example, if we state that every human being has value (and rights – although the possession of rights cannot be simply derived from existence), how does that shape our policy with regard to letting Africans drown in the Mediterranean Sea, Yezidis freeze on a mountain, Christians get butchered in Syria, or wealth lie in the hands a handful of people in the rich world. I think we will find that policy is disconnected from stated anthropology – or that the stated anthropology is assumed rather than argued for.

This isn’t easy stuff. A Christian anthropology begins in an acceptance that each human person is made in the image of God. Everything stems from that. It goes on to face the reality of human failure (‘sin’) and the power of redemption. This is why Christian hope is not rooted in wishful thinking or a rootless optimism in the progress of human nature, but in the person of God who refuses to let violence, death and destruction have the last word. You may disagree with this anthropology, but at least it is clear why a Christian thinks people matter. And this stuff isn’t easy because, having taken this on board, we still have to work out in an imperfect world how to establish in a contested political space policies that might command support as well as compromise.

It seems that, despite the evidence of the centuries, there is still a widespread assumption that human beings are on an upward trajectory that will eventually lead to world peace. Hegel’s dialectic is somewhat attractive as a descriptor of historical development, but it still assumes that there is an end-point at which the dialectic ceases and we remain static in a state of wonderfulness. On what basis does this assumption rest other than wishful thinking or a blind prejudice that persists in the face of all the evidence? Christians prefer ‘hope’ to optimism.

So, the election campaign ahead of us will be challenging – for a host of reasons. Fundamental questions need to be asked about the anthropologies and moral bases of political judgement and policy – rather than us settling for the usual suspects playing the usual games and indulging in the usual point-scoring rhetoric that is demonstrably leaving most of the electorate cold.

In the context of these macro questions and challenges other realities have to be addressed in 2015. Top of my list is the fact that 2015 is the first full year of life for the Diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales. This time last year we still had four months to go before the Appointed Day (the day – Easter Day – when the three historic dioceses of Bradford, Ripon & Leeds, and Wakefield would cease to exist and the single new diocese would begin life). We still did not know who would be the first diocesan bishop of Leeds – and I didn’t know if I would have any job in the Church of England after Easter. The future was full of uncertainties.

We go into 2015 with a full team of bishops and a clearer administration. The clergy and churches have been remarkable in continuing their mission in parishes and institutions amid so much continuing uncertainty about future shape and direction. We have begun to grasp nettles – and to identify which nettles need to be grasped, and by whom and when. We now face a year of establishing new governance and structures, focusing on evangelism, nurture and growth, whilst taking seriously our responsibility to serve our local communities in all their diverse complexions. The priority of the poor stands at the heart of all this.

However, the press of priorities has itself to be prioritised. We have to hold our nerve and retain our discipline as we tackle each element of diocesan life, vision, purpose and means in turn. We have to be systematic. We will make mistakes in all this, but they will be honest mistakes. And I am confident that we can renew our confidence, build our capacity (and face the cost of doing so) and ‘inspire by being inspired’ as we shape our future.

So, I look forward to 2015 with hope, faith and realism. No romanticism or vague aspirational optimism. My guess is that it will be a complex year, and that prioritising will not be easy at any level for society, politics or church. But, we can go for it with a theological anthropology that provides parameters within which to live: that the God who has made us in his image sets us free from fear, compels us to love our neighbour as ourself, promises us nothing other than a cross for doing so, and captures our imagination with a vision that takes the world seriously (what Christmas is all about – God opting in to it) whilst placing it into the context of eternity (where death is refused the final word).

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

“God surprises earth with heaven!”

Now, that would be the sort of headline that might provoke either interest or ridicule. At any time of year it would sound odd. Yet, that is what Christmas is essentially all about.

In the tweet generation, when everything has to be expressed concisely, it doesn't tell the whole truth about everything, and it doesn't pretend to close down all argument. Instead, it opens up the mind and the imagination to the possibility of surprise.

The rumour abroad is that Christians either want to spoil the fun of Christmas for themselves and everyone else, or endlessly bang on about a fairy story in which God and Santa Claus suffer an identity crisis. Neither is true – as any actual experience would confirm.

Christians just want to hang on to the reason for the season; but, they want to do so with all the celebration we can manage. And why? Because, having spent the four weeks of Advent preparing – opening our minds and hearts to the coming mystery of God's surprising presence among us – we want to let joy erupt through the present darknesses and fill our life with light.

Which brings us back to tweeting and surprise. How do we express something of the mystery, challenge, joy, celebration, misery of Christmas in simple sentences that can be understood … but that scratch away at the back of the mind and awaken our curiosity? The discipline of tweeting helps.

For example, in a country that faces an obesity epidemic in the face of supermarkets that waste thousands of tonnes of food every week, too many people go hungry. Not a little bit peckish, but hungry. Children turn up at school unfed. Parents with several low-paid jobs between them are humiliated into using foodbanks, feeling they have let themselves and their children down. And the same people feel the commercial pressure to buy the 'right' things whatever the cost. How might we reflect this in 140 characters? “No room at the inn? Room for everyone in church – where all will be loved.”

This Advent and Christmas the churches across many of our Yorkshire towns and cities have been running, hosting and resourcing shelters for homeless people. They have made space for medical attention and changes of clothing. They have opened up their sacred spaces for camp beds, kitchens and care. These have been staffed by volunteers, and in several cases food has been provided by local mosques. Without shouting about it – and with no ulterior motives – churches have been making real something of the mystery of Christmas: “God with us, God among us, God one of us, God for us.”

And it is here that we are brought back to the element of surprise that has escaped many at Christmas. We have been anaesthetised by the saccharine of Christmas kitsch into accepting our role as advertising fodder and consumers of stuff. Yet, pop out of home and shops into the unfamiliar place where the story is re-told by people you know and see every day, and see if there might be the slightest glint of surprise. Is there anything in the Christmas narrative – even in the school nativity play, full of sheep, towels and the odd intrusive alien – that opens us to a glimpse of something bigger and deeper?

For example, we just accept that in the original gospel stories there are shepherds and wise men. OK, despite the obvious time gap between their appearances, we lump them together in the stable in Bethlehem and don't think any more about it. Yet, shepherds were the workers in the fields – managing and defending with their life the sheep they didn't own – and the Magi were foreign astrologers. In some cases shepherds did the dirty work with the animals so that their bosses could attend to their religious duties and keep themselves clean. Magi came searching in (for them) strange places and, finding their pilgrimage's end in a slum rather than a palace, then discovered just how dangerous being an immigrant traveler can be: the local power brokers tried to have them dealt with.

It sounds familiar, doesn't it? So much for human progress in the two thousand years since then – especially when it comes to our treatment of 'foreigners'. We too easily think God (and our satisfaction) must be found in places of holiness and cleanliness, of brightness and comfort; yet, Christmas tells us that God meets us where we are, in the places of agony and muckiness, of loneliness and fear, and welcomes first those whose curiosity leads them from the familiar places of security into the places of risky vulnerability.

And this goes to the heart of Christmas. We can celebrate with joy only when we are open to surprise – not only the surprise of God coming among us as one of us, but the risk that he might still do so through us to those who are still the most vulnerable in our society. And that includes our neighbours whose loneliness or fear might be hidden from us by the veneer of sufficiency.

I think Christmas is about “being drawn by hope and not driven by fear”. It is about “the Christmas presence you've always wanted”. At Christmas “redemption rips through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe” (Bruce Cockburn) as “the eternal breaks through into time – and time bleeds into eternity”. Here “the light mugs the darkness and there's nothing the darkness can do about it”. Like the shepherds, it is about “hearing songs of light in the nighttime of fear” and “daring to dance in this world to a tune that haunts us from another”.

As “hope looks despair in the eye … and doesn't blink first,” may this Christmas be happy and holy.

 

This is the script of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, written in the face of the horrors of Gaza, Syria, Ukraine and all the other bloody conflicts filling the news screens, and with a strict word limit.

Way back in 1978 Boney M did a terrible thing: they took a song of desperate lament and turned it into a disco dance hit. ‘By the rivers of Babylon’ was a boppy little number with a very catchy tune, but the music bore no relation to the content or the meaning of the words.

“By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept… How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” This song – which is taken from Psalm 137 – is wrenched out of the guts of a people whose world has been lost – possibly for ever. Here they sit in exile, expelled from their homeland, being mocked by their captors while they weep in humiliation. After all, how can they sing songs of praise to their God when the evidence of their desperate experience tells them it has all been a big mistake?

Well, Boney M aren’t the only culprits when it comes to putting words to inappropriate music. But, this is the song that comes to my mind when I see the images brought to us from just about every corner of the globe by hugely brave journalists and film crews. Attempts to rationalize the immensity of human suffering in the world today must surely come second to some attempt at empathy. Our brains might be engaged, but our first response must be the surge of emotional horror and lament that is dragged from deep within us as we see the human suffering laid bare before us.

Now, Psalm 137 is not a comfortable song; nor is it a song for the comfortable. It ends with a shrill cry of pain and hatred: “God, I wish you’d take the children of my enemies and smash their heads against the rocks.” But, it isn’t there to justify an ethic. It isn’t there to suggest it is right to think such awful things of other people’s children. It is there for two reasons: first, to confront us with the reality of how deep our own human hatred can go, and, secondly, to tell us not to lie to God (thinking he can’t handle that reality or the depths of human despair).

If we thought the twentieth century of bloodshed and slaughter was bad enough, the twenty first is already proving pretty grim. Like everybody else, I have views on what is happening in the Middle East and closer to home in Ukraine – including the persecution of Christians in Iraq and elsewhere. And, having grown up in Liverpool in the aftermath of the Second World War with grandparents who well remembered the First, I am haunted by the human propensity for what historian Christopher Clark has called the “sleepwalking” into global conflict. Where does all this leave the myth of human progress?

“By the rivers of Babylon” perhaps gives us a vocabulary for times such as this – admitting the horror and the helplessness, but surrounded by other songs that compel compassionate response and action that is rooted in hope of a better future.

This last sentence is a reference to the fact that the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures tackle the hard task of imagining a future where one looks impossible.

 

I was asked by the BBC to come down to Chewton Glen in Dorset to do Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show this morning. A number of very generous and interesting people have donated huge amounts of money in an auction and are involved this week in driving various Ferraris and other expensive cars as their reward. A number of these cars are parked on the lawn at the hotel here and yesterday evening there was an amazing dinner to which I was generously invited and before which I said grace.

It has been great fun – and I have been able to keep the reading, the work and the emails going while traveling and staying here. But, any Pause for Thought seems inadequate and clunky in such a context. Anyway, for what it is worth, this is what I offered:

“Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz? My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.”

Now, that's what I call a prayer! Why beat about the bush asking for a bike when your ambitions might run a little deeper?

I have no idea what was going through Janis Joplin's mind when she sang that song way back in October 1970, but it still makes me smile when I hear it today. And … she recorded it in a single take.

Now, I don't know what it says about the relative value of cars – frankly, if push comes to shove, I would be happy to settle for the poor old Porsche – but it does say something about what prayer is all about. For prayer is not an exercise in ethical cleansing, but a commitment to honesty. It involves telling God the truth and not pretending that we are actually holier than we are.

Go back several thousand years and you find the poets – the Psalmists – throwing their politeness to the wind and saying it as it is. “God, I am up to my neck in it and where are you?” “God, I wish you'd take my enemies and smash them to bits.” “God, why do the wicked prosper while the people who try hard to get it right just end up getting it in the neck?”

Of course, the awkward bit about this is that once we have put the question to God, he seems to turn it back to us to take responsibility for what we do with it ourselves. Prayer is never an escape from responsibility, but, rather, involves being thrust into the heart of it. Tell God the truth and you can't then duck the implications of what you have said to him.

So, this morning I am with Janis Joplin. Tell the truth and aim high. Expect generosity – but then you have to start being generous. It all hangs together. Expect love, then give it.

So, as our drivers set off for their long drive today, let me encourage you with the words of the ancient prophet Elijah: “Hitch up your chariot and get going before the rain stops you.”