Good Friday. Darkness. Loss. Suffering. Death.

When I was a vicar we used to start at the church door on Good Friday and walk around the building, re-telling the story of God and his people, Jesus and his friends, and end up leaving in silence to the sound of a nail being hammered into wood. It was visceral. This year we accompany Jesus and his friends as they experience distance, fear, disorientation, dispersal and aloneness. I think it is a gift to go beyond mere imagination and into the experience itself.

Most of Jesus’s friends deserted him. They ran away and hid. And Jesus, to whom some of them had pledged total loyalty and allegiance, went to his gallows alone, naked and abused. (Although the women seem to have stuck with him all the way.)

So, where is God in all of this? And isn’t this precisely the question many people are asking during these days of viral death and debilitation? It is the question – not always articulated – that always arises when life gets a bit (or a lot) rubbish.

The trouble is that the question assumes that God is somewhere else when things are bad. Yet, the biblical narrative tells a different story. It is a story rooted in the real world of material substance, physical existence, uncontrollable events in a contingent cosmos. Christians who think discipleship is about mere spirituality, somehow divorced from the real world, are simply missing the point. Disembodied spirituality can easily become a sort of self-orientating fantasy.

The biblical story recognises the reality of being human in this contingent world. Suffering, pain, injustice and death. “What did I do to deserve the death of my loved one?” Nothing. It has nothing to do with merit or desert. If we live as mortal beings in the world, then we are subject to all that this world can throw at us. No exemptions. And being Christian means plunging into this world and not trying to escape from it.

The point here is that it is God who keeps opting in. In the Genesis story, when Adam and Eve mess it all up, it is God who comes walking in the garden in the cool of the day, asking that eternal searching question: “Adam (mortal being), where are you?” God doesn’t wait for them to come looking for him. They hide, fearing that they can now be seen through (‘naked’) and finding that to be a threat rather than a liberation. But, God takes the initiative. As he does again in the prophets. And then, Jesus fulfils what was always the calling of his people, by coming among us as one of us. He gives himself for the sake of the world and then calls those who bear his name to live out what was fulfilled in him in the first place.

In other words, God opts into the world – with all its violence, death and destruction – and does not exempt himself from it. So, our response when life is rubbish is to know that we pray – baring our heart and soul and grief and anger and confusion – to one who has no illusions about what we experience. Faithfulness is not an opt out; it is a commitment into. And it is there we find God.

So, our response is to scream and shout and weep and grieve – to complain and lament and stare into the abyss of loss. Not to avoid it, but to know that through this we will find that death does not ultimately have the final word.

Today I will contemplate the cross, entering imaginatively into the aloneness of the hunted Jesus of Nazareth. I will ask myself where I stand in this story: with Jesus as he suffers and dies? with his mother as she watches helplessly? with the friends who have run away and despise themselves for their cowardice and bewilderment? with the onlookers who wonder why someone might not do everything to stay alive rather than walk openly to their death?

I am not sure where I belong in this. but, I do know I have to stay with the emptiness for as long as the darkness persists.

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

I have no idea how I would handle watching children being brought into a makeshift hospital following a chemical attack. Or anyone caught up in war, for that matter. Mark de Rond is an ethnographer who got himself embedded with a medical unit at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan in 2012, and his book ‘Doctors at War’ is a raw, honest account of his experiences watching surgeons at work. Two things came over to me: first, the questions raised about mortality and meaning when senseless human brutality is all around, and secondly, the challenge – interspersed with sheer boredom – of not being in control of the dramas when casualties are brought in.

On Good Friday Christians stare into the eyes of helpless cruelty and loss, and are forced to live with it. But, it perhaps shines an appropriate light onto the experience of those first followers of Jesus of Nazareth who found their hopes of liberation and deliverance bleeding from a cross into the dirt.

Good Friday is not for the squeamish – however over-familiar we might be with its story of suffering. Yet, the world is not for the squeamish either. According to the Institute for Strategic Studies nearly half a million people have died in conflict in the last couple of years. Add to them the fact that the world now has nearly 22 million refugees – half of them under eighteen – and you can see the problem.

For a huge proportion of the world’s population life means suffering, struggle, pain and loss. For many there is little or no hope of return or resolution. I have just spent a week with bishops from places like Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Sudan whose stories sometimes are hard to hear.

Good Friday compels me to look the reality of such suffering in the eye and urges me not to be distracted from the uncomfortable questions it poses. And this is why Christians must not rush from the agony of Friday to the joy of Sunday’s resurrection. We can’t control the pain or the process. We still have to wake up on Saturday with the emptiness of loss and the harrowing recognition that it wasn’t all just a bad dream. We have to live with it and face it.

This isn’t easy. It isn’t comfortable. But, it is necessary if we are to begin to comprehend the lived experience of too many people for whom hope has evaporated in loss or suffering. Christians would add that the cross also offers a lens through which to approach the real world where God makes himself no stranger to all that can be thrown at him – or at us. And this is why the forgiveness of the cross is never cheap, never romantic, never merely notional. It asks us not to look away.

Today I will decide how to respond to the challenge to make Friday good.

This is the script of this morning's Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2's Chris Evans Show with Sara Cox:

It's probably a good thing that I am sitting here in my office in Leeds this time because I am about to admit a shameful secret. I have never watched a complete Formula One race. I am sorry, and I am very embarrassed to confess this in front of people who love the sport.

Maybe I'm a bit thick or just a bit slow. But, the speed of it all makes it difficult to work out what is going on. I think I need a good guide and I promise to listen to Suzi Perry's show on Monday.

Perhaps Good Friday is a good day to bury such a poor confession. Whereas the cars aim at speeding everything up, Good Friday slows everything down … to a stop, in fact.

Do you remember the story? The baby of Bethlehem has grown into the annoying rabbi Jesus of Nazareth, and the powers that be decide to sort him out once and for all. So, after a betrayal and a mock trial, they nail him and watch him die. And there, in the dirt of a rubbish tip outside Jerusalem, all the hopes of Christmas lie bleeding into despair.

Now, we know that the story doesn't end here. After the sheer emptiness of Saturday, when the loss and bereavement press in and refuse to be ignored, Sunday comes with an empty tomb and a resurrected Jesus, taking some frightened people by surprise and whispering that death, violence and destruction do not have the final word in this world, after all.

The trick is not to jump to Sunday until we have learned to live with Friday and Saturday. Slow down. Stop. Wait. Live with the loss and make darkness your friend for a while.

All this is powerfully real to me as I spent last week in Northern Iraq listening to the experiences of ordinary people whose lives, families and communities have been destroyed in the most unimaginably brutal ways by ISIS. For them Sunday is a very long way away. Yet, even for some of them, the darkness brings them closer to the light – as one songwriter put it.

So, I won't be running away from Friday – I'll just be surprised by the defiance of Sunday when it comes. Happy Easter, but not just yet.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans Show with Sara Cox. Guests included UB40 and there are four of their song titles embedded in the text.

Well, if it’s all busy busy busy in the studio this Good Friday morning – and it sounds like it is – then you’ll already understand something of what was going on during the first Good Friday.

Far from being a deeply meditative religious experience way back in Jerusalem two thousand years ago, everyone was actually going wild. There was a massive political ferment, and loads of the people hoped they were on the brink of being liberated from Roman occupation. The city was full of parties and lots of red, red wine was flowing down the throats of people crying for freedom.

It all sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it?

Anyway, the man of the moment – and the cause of the trouble on this particular Friday – was being built up as the great saviour of the people by some, and the great enemy of the people by others. It’s a terrible position to be in, isn’t it – especially when you’ve just spent the last few years telling everyone to love each other to death. But, Jesus of Nazareth has a final meal with his hopeless mates, gets arrested while praying in a garden, then gets tried before an embarrassed judge, and, finally, gets nailed.

What a waste.

Well, the reason we call this Friday ‘good’ is not because it’s a good story; it’s because the death of this Jesus changed the world. It also changed the personal world of people who were part of it.

Jesus’s friends had just bigged themselves up: “Jesus, if they’re going to get you, they’re going to have to go through me first.” Then the big men caved in under challenge, and most of them ran away when it all got too hard. Betrayed, denied and deserted: that was how Jesus experienced Good Friday.

But, the good bit is that this wasn’t the end of the story. The misery of Friday’s crucifixion was followed by the unbearable emptiness of Saturday, but opened the way to a surprising Sunday. ‘Where did I go wrong’ becomes ‘light my fire’ when people disillusioned by their own failure discover that this isn’t the end of the story.

Good Friday? It’s a labour of love.

This is the script of this morning's Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 with Zoe Ball.

When I was a kid in Liverpool I always felt I must be the stupid one. What could possibly be good about Good Friday? A bloke gets tortured and executed; his best friends – having sworn undying allegiance to him – all run away and leave him to the women (who obviously had stronger stomachs); then he gets buried and it all seems such a useless, tragic and embarrassing waste. He was only in his early thirties and all the raised hopes just lay bleeding in the dirt.

Not exactly for the fainthearted, is it? But, that is what Good Friday is about: Jesus of Nazareth coming to a grizzly end. That'll teach him to stand up to the authorities and to question the way the world is.

You know, the best bit about this story – the story that gives today its name – is that none of the people involved in it knew what might happen next. Jesus's friends never quite grasped what he was on about, and Jesus himself felt abandoned during his final moments.

Now, how real is that? I mean, let's not be squeamish – we've all heard on the news just now about Syria and Ukraine and the ferry tragedy in South Korea as well as other places where human suffering is all too real.

But, the story doesn't end here. Sunday is coming. And what looks like an ending is transformed into a surprising new beginning in which we are confronted at the heart of human grief with a man telling us not to be afraid. As I put it in an article recently, Easter cries out to us with the invitation to be drawn by hope and not driven by fear.

The great Leonard Cohen encourages us in one of his best songs to “give up your perfect offering; there's a crack in everything – that's how the light gets in.” He's right. And the beginning of freedom seems to come with the acceptance that all of us are cracked – or not all that we are cracked up to be.

Maybe that's why this Friday is Good. It reminds us to lose our pretensions and illusions. The story doesn't end with the cracks – Sunday is coming.


It’s that time of year again. Easter is when the press do their ‘isn’t the church rubbish’ and ‘isn’t Christianity hopeless’ stories. So, in the middle of an excellent ecumenical Good Friday walk of witness in Ilkley, I got a phone call from a national newspaper about the story they are running on Easter Day.

Lindau crossI won’t spoil their fun (yet), but doesn’t this just get wearying? I would feel professionally a little embarrassed to keep doing the same thing every year and not find anything original or interesting to do instead.

Be that as it may, Good Friday happens to be a good day to think through this year’s shock charges against the Church. (That’s ironic, by the way.)

The Church of England is getting a bit of a kicking these days for not being ‘relevant’. I think the phrase this time is ‘out of touch’. Now, apart from the usual stuff about ‘out of touch with what or whom’, this sort of question in a poll simply tells us nothing. The main point, however, is that it has never been the job of the church to be ‘relevant’. Of course, the church has to live in the real world and understand/speak the language(s) of the cultures in which it serves. But, when ‘relevance’ is taken to mean that the Church should go with the flow of popular culture – for no other reason than that the popular culture is assumed to be unquestionably unquestionable – then the church has to dig into its tradition in order to find its bearings.

And what does this mean? Well, start with the prophetic tradition. The prophets of the Hebrew scriptures got a seriously hard time for saying what people (especially powerful people) didn’t want to hear, and for not saying what the people (especially the powerful people) did want to hear. Being popular or ‘relevant’, whilst nice and affirming, can never be the primary motivating aim of the Christian church. If, for example, we are to change our mind/practice on ethical questions, then we must do so because it is right to do so and not (as some politicians and media commentators seem uncritically to think) because ‘most people think this way today’.

wpid-Photo-10-Apr-2012-1307.jpgAnd the Good Friday light on this? Well, as I observed in Ilkley this morning, if Jesus had been asked to submit a business plan before going walkabout in Galilee and beyond, he would never have got the contract. Three years and then dead? Call that ‘being relevant’? Was Jesus ‘in touch’ with popular culture? Dead in less than three years was not an encouraging fact for people who think the business of God’s people is simply to give people what they want, to say what they want to hear, or do what people want them to do.

Just read the first few chapters of Isaiah. Or any of the Gospels. Or… er… anything else in the Bible.

The second charge (yawn) is that the church is doing a bad job at offering moral leadership. It doesn’t take much thought to realise that this is closely linked to the first charge. I remember Rowan Williams saying to me that when people ask him to lead, what they really mean is to go in the direction they want to see him go in. And when they ask him to be prophetic, they simply want to hear him say loudly what they want to hear him say loudly. To not lead in their direction and to not say loudly what they want to hear means quite simply that he is not leading and is not prophetic.

Let’s take a moment of embarrassed silence to think about the nonsense this represents.

OK, that’s that dealt with. But, what the story does challenge the church with is (a) how to articulate its story and its life in languages that can be heard and understood, (b) to engage in conversation with culture rather than simply shouting at it (which is what some people mean by ‘moral leadership’), (c) to get stuck into the world as it is in a way that offers an alternative to the usual cycles of destruction and violence, and (d) to be more confident in putting itself ‘out there’, even if we get a good kicking (deserved or underserved), get ridiculed or end up having to say “we got it wrong”.

After all, what’s the worst that can happen? Unlike some Christians in today’s world, no one has tried to martyr most of us yet.

wpid-Photo-12-Apr-2007-0945.jpgGood Friday confronts us with mortality, death, endings and the bleeding loss of a world and a future – the disillusionment and betrayal of those who dared to think that God might be present in their world and found their hopes bleeding in the dirt of a rubbish tip on the edges of Jerusalem. If we stay with today’s experience, we might as well pack up and go home. But, Sunday will come and those who thought Friday confirmed the world’s mantra that ‘might is always right’ will find some embarrassment by Monday.

I am not worried about being relevant or having my leadership criticised or ridiculed. I am concerned about how we tell with credibility, conviction and imagination the story of Easter surprise – shining new light into a world that too often accepts that death, violence and destruction have the last word.