Advent and Christmas are always a bit of a strain for clergy as they try to find new, fresh or creative ways of telling a traditional story. How do you help people who know the ending be surprised again by that with which they assume they are familiar? (And, for that matter, how do the clergy keep themselves fresh in the re-telling?)

As I found to my cost several years ago (when I published what I still think is a good and useful little book about Christmas, but which didn't sell because of the controversy it generated…), questioning people's perceptions is dangerous. Question the 'story' or vary a detail and you get a barrage of anger, complaint and abuse. OK, that's how we are as human beings who need a consistent narrative against which we shape our assumptions about life and the world.

But, it goes further than this. What if our assumptions are completely wrong, but we shape our society according to them?

We are constantly told that “the church is out of step with culture” – and this, clearly, is supposed to be a bad thing. Yet, the job of the church – its vocation, if you like – is not to reflect or mimic or 'baptise' the culture, but to hold a mirror up to it and question it. That is not the same as being negative towards it, but it is about engaging intelligently with the culture(s) with a confidence that transcends the immediate fashion or drift.

This is what lies at the heart of debates about sexuality. It sometimes feels as if the church is having the debates that wider society can't seem to articulate or frame. Yet, at the same time, the church has to have the questioning humility that is open to the possibility that wider culture might have something to teach a church culture that also finds it hard to question its own fundamental assumptions about God, the world and us.

What sparked this thinking was something I saw on Twitter this morning. It is a slide from an Ipsos MORI survey from 2011. It demonstrates just how wide is the gulf between reality and common perception amongst the great British public. Look at the slide:

And now ask what might be the implications for cultural drift, political decision-making and media reflection on the world (and what people think) of taking perceptions as unquestionably valid, true or accurate.

Now back to Advent and Christmas (and preparing for BBC Radio 2's Good Morning Sunday with Clare Balding tomorrow).

 

Christmas Eve saw my wordy mind run into overdrive.

In the end this morning’s Christmas sermon at Bradford Cathedral focuses on the need to be surprised once again by the Christmas story. (A bit like I was when driving from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem past a Palestinian village called Abu Ghosht (which sounds like a curry, but isn’t…) and saw next to an illuminated McDonald’s sign another which read:

Sea of Life – Yes to carrots

No, I still have no idea what that was about.

Comedian Mark Thomas writes in his book Extreme Rambling:

Anyone with any taste knows that predictability is the woodworm of joy.

The surprise of the shepherds bit of the Christmas story is that they appear at all. They are the unwashed who work the hills and are probably surprised to find themselves included in the party. (I still think we might be truer to the gospel narrative if we sang ‘O come, all ye faithless…’.) Strip everything else away and we are left, like the shepherds, with the unimpressive sight of a scruffy baby in a trough – the unimpressive greatness of the small.

Helmuth James von Moltke was imprisoned in Tegel in September 1944 by the Nazis. Founder of the Kreisau Circle (opposition to Hitler), he was 37 and had a family. On Christmas Eve 1944 he wrote to his wife Freya:

My cell is a very suitable place to stay during Christmas because it makes clear that all the magic that surrounds Christmas – the loved ones and the carols, the tree and the presents – are only extras… and that it all comes down in the end to one line in the Gospel of Luke: ‘For to you today is born a Saviour.’

He was executed on 23 January 1945.

In the darkness of a world in which Syria shreds people’s lives and hopes and in which children can be shot with cold impunity in Newtown – in which people live on the streets of a civilised country and children go hungry every day – it is sometimes hard to see the light that (according to John’s Gospel) has mugged the darkness, leaving it helpless and impotent. We cry out for the light – but only agree to see it where we expect or want to see it.

Christmas shows us people who were drawn by curiosity to leave the familiar and look for the surprise. Curiosity is the antidote to joyless predictability.

It is curiosity that needs to be awoken as we encourage people (including me) to live the story in the weeks and months to come – being surprised by the God who smiles at our comforts and shines a different light into our faces.

Advent. Begins today. The start of the church's year. Already.

The point of the timing is that we live with the expectation and anticipation that ends in Christmas… which turns out to be the beginning of a story that doesn't begin or end there. God, God's world, God's people.

I spent Advent Sunday doing two services of baptism and confirmation – one in urban Bradford and one in suburban/rural Wharfedale. In both cases I met a wide range of people who have come to Christian faith and commitment not primarily through argument, but through life experience that raised big questions – existential as well as intellectual questions about why life is what it is in a world that is what it is. (This also demonstrates that some clergy are doing an excellent job 'midwifing' people into the life of God's kingdom.)

But, what struck me today – as in every Advent – is that the people of Jesus's time got stuck in an expectation that the Messiah (who would deliver them from their subjugation to the Roman Empire) would be a powerful leader who would deliver the rebellion and inaugurate the new world order. Instead they got Jesus of Nazareth. And look how they handled him.

Changing one's mind is usually something we expect other people to do.

I wonder whether those closest to Christian faith are sometimes those who find it hardest to change their mind (literally, 'repent', 'metanoia') and allow God to be bigger, more generous, less anxious than we wish him to be.

The other thing that shocks me today is that Advent, in asking us to question our fixed expectations, also invites us to look differently at who and how God is. We often seem to be obsessed with maintaining our purity – not being contaminated by the nasty or dodgy stuff of 'the world'. Yet, we are being opened up to the fact that at Christmas God opted into the world of joy and muck, and did not exempt himself from all that means. In other words, God decided that, rather than worrying about being contaminated by the bad stuff, he would contaminate the world with good stuff: generosity, grace, love, mercy, justice, hope.

That's the challenge for me this Advent: how to so shape my ministry from this way of seeing, so that the church increasingly becomes less anxious about getting dirty and more committed to shining light into darkness.

We 'do' redemption and forgiveness. So, we don't need to be afraid. Or precious. Or anxious.

So, Christopher Hitchens has died. I, for one, am sad to hear this.

Any death ends a world for those who are bereaved. And the brutality of this rupture has been brought home recently in the premature deaths – by various means – of people like Gary Speed, the young family in Pudsey, the victims of Liege. Death strips from our ‘normal’ life the veneer of self-sufficiency and confronts us with the pain of our mortality.

The odd thing about the death of Christopher Hitchens, however, is the repeated suggestion that he was in some way (and incontrovertibly) a ‘scourge’ of religious believers, trouncing by sheer intellectual sharpness the nonsense of religious belief. He wasn’t and isn’t a scourge in any sense at all. The difficulty for Christians like me (and theists in general) was that that he wasn’t ‘scourge’ enough. I don’t need to repeat the response he got from Professor Terry Eagleton (among others). Along with Richard Dawkins, Hitchens set up aunt sallies which are not only easy to knock down, but which theists might also wish to knock down. Caricatures of faith might be convenient, but they are not thereby credible.

But, that said, there was always something admirable about Hitchens’ willingness to provoke. Polemic – whether entirely rational or not – is at least interesting. It is a pity that such material will no longer come from his pen.

However, his death provokes thought not only about the impact of lifestyle choices on long-term health, but about mortality itself. We shall all die – that is the fundamental fact of life. Heidegger described human beings as ‘beings towards death’ – and he wasn’t really being miserable. Hitchens went along (as far as we can know) with Bertrand Russell’s conclusion that ‘We die, then we rot’. But, is that all there is to say?

Faith is often dismissed as a crutch on which those who cannot cope with life as it is can lean for emotional support. Apart from the fact that this (lazy) assumption rests on a further and un-argued for assumption that the non-faith world view is somehow neutral, it also fails to understand what faith is. Faith, for the Christian at least, is not some sort of credulous and escapist wishful thinking about a ‘system’ derived from fairies; rather, it is rooted in a person, a judgement and an experience. Put very briefly, a Christian is one who believes there is more to life than death, sees God in the face of Jesus of Nazareth whom death did not contain, commits himself or herself to living a life that transcends the mere satisfaction of personal needs or fulfilment, and, in the company of others who have had a similar experience of being grasped by God (including intellectually – see people like CS Lewis and GK Chesterton among others), live life to the full.

The beginning of being a Christian is coming to terms with – by facing and naming – death. We are mortal. We shall die. But, the sting of death is drawn by the conviction that death neither ends nor ridicules all that has gone before it. No escapism here.

The end is in the beginning. At Christmas we celebrate God coming among us as one of us. In being born, death became inevitable – and, with it, grief, loss, fear, and everything else that makes us alive. But, as the great Bruce Cockburn put it:

Like a stone on the surface of a still river, driving the ripples on for ever, redemption rips through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe.

Last Monday I left home early and drove through the most beautiful countryside up to the north of my diocese. The Yorkshire Dales are gorgeous anyway, but add in a massive dollop of snow blizzards, high winds and freezing temperatures, and you get a bit of a taste of wild life. I was there two days, visiting clergy and parishes, dropping into village schools, chatting with colleagues and loving the views (when you could see them). I remarked to a friend that, unlike in London (where I spent the last eleven years), here the weather is real: real driving sleet, real snow, real winds – the sort of weather that makes you realise you’re alive.

Well, I hesitate a little before loving this too much: Scotland is enduring enormous storms today. I was at Bradford University with my wife for a graduation ceremony and even inside the building we were aware of the hammering rain outside… when it began to drip through a light fitting on the stage inside.

And if the weather isn’t enough, Angela Merkel has begun the Euro-Summit with the claim that the euro has ‘lost credibility’. European leaders are aiming their weapons at David Cameron – who faces pressure from inside his own party as well. Trying to hold some middle ground might not be possible when the high winds start blowing across the small island we call home.

All this paints an inauspicious picture for those graduating from the university today. Many of them now have degrees in subjects I never knew existed. But, sitting in the Great Hall for the first time since I graduated from this same place thirty one years ago, the names of some of the degrees summed up the insecurity of the world in which we now live: lots to do with security, international justice, criminology, conflict resolution, etc. Many of the graduands came from parts of the world where conflict was real and not just the notional theme of some academic study.

This is not the best time to be emerging from the academy and looking for work. But, it will certainly stretch the creative ingenuity of those who want to make things happen.

This wild world comes together with the world of the church (believe it or not). The parishes I visited in the Yorkshire Dales this week are communities of real people who live, work and move in a world of transience, mortality and insecurity. Anyone close to the land cannot be a stranger to the contingency of living in a changing world. They can’t hide in the bubbles of imaginary security that can so easily be created in the glass towers where numbers on a screen cease to relate to anything real. I once argued with an economist that money doesn’t exist – that it is simply a system of values set in ratios agreed by some arbitrary conventions for mutual benefit; he thought this was a bit naive (and it might be). But, as we have seen in the last three years, economies that appeared sound simply collapsed like a deck of cards. Empires that appear invincible simply melt under pressure. Nothing stands still – and we forget our mortality at our peril.

I am dead proud of the clergy I met who get stuck in to their communities, often against the odds and with limited resources, sometimes with little confidence and too little reward. But they stay in the heart of communities, available to all, a visible reminder (with their congregations and church buildings) of that prophetic Christian refusal to go away – committed to accompanying people through their living and dying, enjoying and losing, celebrating and weeping. Like God at Christmas, they embody that gift that is freely offered, that looks vulnerable and sometimes weak, that opts into the real world, that names reality and embarrasses fantasy, and that cries hope for a future when the present seems to be closing wildly in.

I know Christmas is coming, but Easter hasn’t quite disappeared yet.

Last Easter saw the launch of the Real Easter Egg – the UK’s first ever Easter egg to mention Jesus and tell the Easter story on the box. Produced by Manchester-based Meaningful Chocolate Company, the aim was to make real the Easter themes of hope and new life by donating profits from the egg to charitable causes. How about this?

Over £25,000 has been given to charity from profits made by sales of The Real Easter Egg. David Marshall, from the Meaningful Chocolate Company, said:

I am thrilled to be able to donate over £21,000 to Traidcraft Exchange and over £4,000 to Baby Lifeline. In addition to this, we paid a fee to The Fairtrade
Foundation to support their work, including its education programme. Our farmers received a guaranteed price for their cocoa and sugar as well as a
Fairtrade Premium of $60 a tonne to invest in their community’s wellbeing. With over 80 million eggs sold in the UK every year, we have a long way
to go in our campaign to make The Real Easter Egg the gift of choice by the faith and wider community. Next Easter we hope everyone will look out for The
Real Easter Egg. Buying this egg is a way of reclaiming the festival and a way of communicating key aspects of the Christian faith in an attractive yummy
gift.

In fact, more than 72,000 eggs were sold and it was bought by thousands of people attending churches and a significant number of schools. Bulk orders ranged from 48 to 600 eggs at a time. Supermarkets Morrison’s, Waitrose, Co-op, and Booths stocked the egg across hundreds of stores as well as hundreds of independent retailers and community/church/Cathedral shops supplied by Traidcraft. According to the company, the egg sold out quickly with many supermarket customers walking past two-for-one offers to buy The Real Easter Egg. There were calls from retailers, schools and churches requesting eggs a month before Easter but the eggs had sold out. In 2011 The Real Easter Egg was endorsed by leading figures including The Archbishop of York and Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ben Kingsley and cast members of Coronation Street. It also won backing for a national competition sponsored by a Ecclesiastical Insurance.

The number of eggs has been dramatically increased for 2012 but churches, schools and Cathedral shops are being asked to make bulk orders by mid February 2012 to avoid disappointment.

Now, we don’t have to wait for Easter 2012. Last month The Meaningful Chocolate Company revealed its Meaningful Tree Decorations, an interactive chocolate gift and a new way to tell the Christmas story!

Way back in 1987 Belinda Carlisle hat a hit with the song Heaven is a Place on Earth (from the album Heaven on Earth). I don’t particularly like it, but, as if to prove it is time to get back to work, it has been playing around my mind. It’s the usual sentimental stuff, reducing heaven to the latest romance. But, the theology is probably better than intended:

Ooh, baby, do you know what that’s worth ?
Ooh heaven is a place on earth
They say in heaven love comes first
We’ll make heaven a place on earth
Ooh heaven is a place on earth…

…When I’m lost at sea
I hear your voice
And it carries me

In this world we’re just beginning
To understand the miracle of living
Baby I was afraid before
But I’m not afraid anymore.

So, heaven is not airy-fairy future stuff, but to be rooted and lived here and now. It begins with love and takes away the need to fear. Just as throughout the Bible it is God who keeps taking the initiative and comes to us (we don’t go to him), so in John’s ultimate vision (in Revelation) it is the ‘heavenly city’ that ‘comes down to earth’.

So, we are a weird people who live now as if heaven were already here. After all the challenge of Jesus was whether or not people could dare to believe that God is present even while the Romans remain. Or is God – as popular atheism thinks of Christian thinking – just the crutch there to help us resolve all our problems and prove himself by sorting everything out in our ultimate favour? Jesus seems to think that people who are open to the possibility of God being present in this world – despite the ‘evidence’ of particular circumstances – are those who are free from fear and can truly live. Read the Gospels – that’s the story.

Anyway, I was rather surprised before Christmas to see the following poster in a hotel foyer:

I wasn’t sure if I was being asked to value heaven at £99 or what. But, I certainly hadn’t realised it could be so easily accessed!

I am in Berlin for a few days with my youngest son – a bit of a boys’ holiday. We managed to escape all the snow in England, but here it is freezing cold, foggy and snowing. It’s fantastic. And, contrary to the UK news media, nobody talks about the weather here – they just get on with it: it is just ‘weather’.

Anyway, we popped into the Berliner Dom yesterday evening so I could show Andy where I preached last September. He was impressed with the whole place and the enormous organ (over 7,200 pipes apparently…). But, while he wandered round looking at things (like the enormous pulpit under the enormous dome) I sat down quietly and looked around. And that is when I had my mini-epiphany.

It’s not great. I just noticed an enormous nativity/crib scene set up in a recess to one side of the ‘sanctuary’. The figures were… er … enormous. But, there was only Jesus, his family and the shepherds (plus, maybe, the odd cow – I can’t remember who else was there). Absent from the scene were the Magi.

Aha, I thought, they will produce them on 6 January and stick them where the now departed shepherds were – and this will prove how biblically and theologically ‘on the button’ the Germans are. But, no – I was wrong. They had gone one further and done something even more imaginative and thoughtful. Look at the photo below (I know it’s a bit dark, but my phone camera doesn’t ‘do’ dark…):

See them? They are on the opposite side of the church, peering out from the distant organ loft and pointing to the nativity scene in the distance. They are on their way, but there is time and space to get over first.

I just thought this was great – and very vivid. The Magi come late, but they are on their way, even if the people at the heart of the action don’t realise it yet.

I wonder if our churches might try this next year: have the Magi on the opposite side of the church through Advent (when they began their journey?) and Christmas – then bring them closer until Epiphany when they replace the shepherds. It’s a thought…

One of the more amusing elements to have come out of the last week’s ridiculous media frenzy about Christmas carols is the dawning realisation that I have a typing problem. Those who have commented in the media on press reports about my book Why Wish You a Merry Christmas? clearly have either a credulity problem or a literacy problem. But mine is a typo problem.

For some reason, every time I type the word ‘bishop’ it turns out as ‘bihsop’. ‘Which’ comes out invariably as ‘whihc’. But the best by far is that ‘brain’ keeps coming out as ‘brian’. During the last week or so I have repeatedly used the phrase ‘engage your brain’ (verbally and in writing) and only later realised that I have actually invited people in writing to ‘engage their brian’.

What on earth can this mean?

Last week I contributed to a BBC Radio 2 documentary celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Perhaps there is something deep down within my psyche that wants to identify with the misunderstood bloke who ends up being crucified despite proclaiming he is not who everyone thinks he is. In fact, the programme took as its title the wonderful line spoken by Terry Jones as Brian’s mother in the film: ‘He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!’

So, what might it mean to ‘engage your (inner) Brian’?

It might mean:

  • telling the truth even though nobody wants to listen
  • seeing the Romans miss the point (correcting the grammar of your graffiti while ignoring the content of it)
  • belonging to fractious parties and learning that it has always been thus when human beings try to work together
  • learning that your mother was right…

I’m sure others could add more imaginatively to this, but I just thought it was funny.

Yesterday (among other things) I ordained six new non-stipendiary deacons at Croydon Parish Church. I was struck again by the charge given to them during the service:

Deacons are called to work with the Bishop and the priests with whom they serve as heralds of Christ’s kingdom. They are to proclaim the gospel in word and deed, as agents of God’s purposes of love. They are to serve the community in which they are set, bringing to the Church the needs and hopes of all the people. They are to work with their fellow members in searching out the poor and weak, the sick and lonely and those who are oppressed and powerless, reaching into the forgotten corners of the world, that the love of God may be made visible.

CofElogoThis is a powerful reminder that the Church of England organises itself on the basis that we are ‘present’ in every community, attempting to fulfil the charge given us. (Bishops and priests do not cease to be deacons and their ministry must surely always be exercised in a diaconal way.) This means that we are present in some of the places of this country that have been abandoned by others. When other professionals leave the communities in which they work in order to return to their homes elsewhere, our guys stay and live (often with their families).

So, if you want to know what is going on in our communities – especially our poorest or most challenging communities – it is often the Vicar who knows the reality of being there with the local people 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And because of the nature of the clergy role and vocation, they are often privy to experience of local life and lives that others do not get to see.

This is one of the reasons I am immensely proud to be associated with the clergy in the Church of England. And it is a reason they ought to be listened to more by politicians who pronounce on matters such as poverty. Poverty is not an issue – it is about people with real lives, real hopes and real fears.

In a discussion last night with health professionals, their consensus was that you only change people’s lives and aspirations one at a time. It is slow, hard and often disappointing. Policies might set a framework, but if the policy suggests that the policy will change people’s lives, it is mistaken. It is slow, grinding, regular, costly work with people – day by day, week by week, month by month and year by year – that brings real change.

But who is going to pay for that?

Anyway, we get a further reminder about the Christian connection to poverty, disconnectedness, immigration, exile and fear in the new Christmas campaign from ChurchAds.net. Here is an article about it and here it is:

nativity_09_churchads