I never met the great Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, but I did go to his funeral in 2003. I had just been ordained as a bishop (of Croydon) in May and he died on 4 August. I was asked to attend his funeral, probably because I was one of the few bishops available in London and not on holiday somewhere remote. It was a very long service on a very hot day, but I learned a lot and it was an honour to be there.

I had read some of Metropolitan Anthony’s writings, especially on prayer. I don’t have a great for epic quotes – and quickly forget what some books have to say, even when I have only just finished them – but, the line I never forgot was this:

To pluck a flower means to take possession of it, and it also means to kill it…

This is the sort of paradox that runs through real life and makes everything we do somehow ambiguous. I can’t look at flower arrangements now without thinking of this (and hay fever).

In these strange days of lockdown and questioning, it might just offer some encouragement to those who struggle with the feeling of helplessness. When we are used to endless activity, maybe confusing this with virtue, it is easy to ask what value I have to offer when I can’t do what I normally do. For clergy this can be particularly challenging – needing to let old patterns of pastoral care and teaching die (for a time?) before we can orientate towards creating something new that is untested and feels less incarnational, perhaps.

Plucking a flower kills the flower, cutting off its lifeblood and turning into a possession for my limited and temporary pleasure. It has become a utility rather than a living thing. And we are taught that commodifying living things is not something of which to be proud – especially when it involves killing them. But, we still do it. And one could argue that we cannot live without doing it. Even beauty cannot be cost-free.

This illustrates the messiness of the world and what it means to live in it. The biblical narrative tells us that God is no stranger to this sort of paradox. Not only are the Psalms riddled with expressions of bewilderment, exuberance and lament at the difficulty of all this, but the Jesus bit is all about God opting into the whole business of living with contradiction and not exempting himself from it.

Sometimes we just have to learn to live with it. To stop trying to resolve every conundrum. To be patient with those who are slower to fix or accommodate to it. To recognise the call to humility that (to mix my metaphors) swimming in this mortal pool inevitably provokes.

No wonder, as the apostle Paul acknowledged, that “the whole creation groans in anticipation” of the fulfilment of all things while the ‘not yet’ persists.

This is the script of this morning's Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 from Chewton Glen. Twelve couples will be driving the twelve classic cars from here to Cliveden after the show ends. The musical guest is Mark King, epic bassist from Level 42.

Well, here we go. The Dirty Dozen are standing by the cars, ready to rev, and burning to … er … burn up the road to Cliveden.

I've got to tell you, though: they don't look very dirty to me. Maybe I am missing something, but they all look clean and fresh – after knocking back the bacon rolls while the show has been going on.

Yet, I guess 'dirty' is what they are doing, even if dirty doesn't describe their demeanour. Because what they are doing is giving huge amounts of money to help children in need – and that is what we call getting down and dirty where it matters.

I would say that, wouldn't I? I'm a Christian and the whole point of Christian living is to do what Jesus did: get stuck in, down to earth, getting hands and feet dirty where it counts. Not sitting somewhere a million miles above the muck and bullets of real life, but opting right into it and paying the price, if necessary.

So, the Dirty Dozen might be enjoying themselves in the classic cars, but this is because a pile of cash is driving out of their wallets and into children who need to know that they matter, that they are loved, that they are worth getting down and dirty for.

It seems to me that there are two types of people: those who use a car to get from A to B, and those for whom the drive is both the A and the B. And, of course, this isn't the exclusive preserve of motoring: as I read in one of my holiday books, “There are just some kind of men who're so busy worrying about the next world they've never learned to live in this one…”.

So, let the Dirty Dozen drive. And let the children thrive. And let me remember that choosing to get our hands dirty in this world might be a big ask, but it is what we are made for. Drive on, you mucky people.


And here is the alternative script I didn't do on the show, but managed to smuggle in nearly a dozen Level 42 song titles:

I just got back from a sunny holiday yesterday. Ten days and I managed to read ten books – not one of them about cars. I am sorry.

But, what a sight this morning as the Dirty Dozen get set to hit the road any minute now. I can't see Prince's Little Red Corvette or Bruce Springsteen's Pink Cadillac … or, for that matter, the Clash's Brand New Cadillac. But, in my head I can hear the Beatles imploring us to Drive My Car – and, yes, I do know it is a euphemism.

It seems to me that there are two types of people: those who use a car to get from A to B, and those for whom the drive is both the A and the B. And, of course, this isn't the exclusive preserve of motoring: as I read in one of my holiday books, “There are just some kind of men who're so busy worrying about the next world they've never learned to live in this one…”.

Somehow these have to be held together, don't they? Concern for the destination matters – otherwise we just drive round in circles, going nowhere and literally killing time; but, the journey is as important as the arriving. In other words, the living – and how we live it – can't be cut off from the question of what we are living for.

Standing in the light of this recognition, we can happily drive into the sun. All around there are clouds, yes, but, all I need is to take a look and discover that heaven is in my hands. Not somewhere over there, but here. I don't need to build myself a rocket to get away from here; here is where the true colours are to be found and seen.

Does that sound a bit cryptic? Well, basically, Jesus once said that he was here so that we might live life in all its abundant fullness: not just for self-satisfaction, but so that everyone might thrive – that's why it is in our hands to sacrifice ourselves so that others (especially, perhaps, the children in need) might thrive.

So, let the Dirty Dozen drive!


One of the sad bits of being a bishop is that, not being part of any particular parish community, you don’t follow the ‘story’ of Christmas (or Easter or anything else) through together. It means you have to create your own consistency and not succumb to a fragmentary ‘living with the story’, picking it up only through various one-off engagements in parishes and institutions.

2011 (Jan-July) 1197This year I have heard some great stories from parishes of how they are ‘living the story’, opening up the shape of Christmas in such a way that the familiar becomes refreshed and the mystery deepened. (One church had a stable built around and over the Communion table with the nativity scene built under and into it – and the Eucharist is celebrated from within the stable!)

So, we are now almost there. I am thinking through my sermons for Christmas Eve Midnight Communion at St Barnabas, Heaton, (about fifty metres from my house) and Christmas morning at Bradford Cathedral. Unlike many of my episcopal colleagues (who are clearly more focused than I am ), I find it hard to script something ahead of seeing the congregation. I know where I am going with each sermon and I have done the preparation, but I don’t want to be pinned down to a script that might be not quite right (in terms of language, illustration or content) in the particular circumstances of each service. I prefer to engage people where they are rather than simply deliver something I wrote days ago in a study.

So, I will post something once they are done.

However, my quick thought today is simply that Christmas feels like the end of a journey when, in fact, it is simply the start of another. Mary and Joseph leave home, have a baby, then set out into a threatening unknown (where they eventually become asylum seekers in a place – Egypt – that represents to their people only threat and oppression). Shepherds leave their work, have a surprising encounter in the town, then (presumably) go back to work? Magi set out on the basis of their astrology, find their goal in a surprising place, then find themselves regarded as ‘problems’ as they head away.

All these find that the end of their journey drives them off in a new direction – and not one that is necessarily comfortable.

wpid-Photo-10-Apr-2012-1307.jpgWe are almost there… but will discover that the journey doesn’t end with some sort of ‘fulfilment’ that closes everything down. Drawn by curiosity and a vision for the future (rather than being simply driven by a memory of the past), they go off in new directions, changed by their experience and challenged by being at the centre of God’s activity in and for the wider world.

So, I am for curiosity, adventure and walking into the unknown. It is what we do anyway – as none of us knows what tomorrow might bring. And it compels us once again to opt into all the world can throw at us and not exempt ourselves from it.

Christmas speaks not of escapism, but of willing engagement. Whatever the eventual cost. Or, to look at it through the eyes of a poet, as 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.

Members of the Meissen Commission worked hard on educational and musical matters all this morning before going up to the Wartburg this afternoon. This is the castle where Martin Luther spent many months being protected after his excommunication by the Pope. Not only did we do the tour, but we also joined in worship in the Kapelle and heard a superb sermon – pointed, brave, sharp, engaging – by the pastor, Martina Berlich. (I hope to get a text and will say more about one particular story, if I get it.)

You can't help but be impressed by the courage of Martin Luther, even if you don't agree with his theology or way of expressing it. To stand out and risk everything is not something we all do every day. Over dinner we were talking about how the churches in this part of Germany handled the Nazizeit…

When I got back after the visit to the Wartburg, with Telemann's cantata and Luther's courage playing around my mind, I discovered a load of emails and tweets about a story I knew nothing about – my 'enthusiastic support' for the churchads.net Christmas advert campaign.

For the record, I don't like it. And I said that when asked about the original concept. But, what I like isn't the point. The advert is aimed at getting people to notice it and talk about it. It is aimed not at those already in the club, but those outside. If it upsets Christians, we have to ask if this is, in fact, what the Jesus of the Gospels did, too. It was the religious people who nailed Jesus because they thought he was 'tacky' and 'blasphemous'. Christians get upset regularly by anything that pushes the implications of God truly becoming human – and, therefore, doing human things.

As I said in my quote, this advert will upset some people. So what? Everyone gets upset by something, and upsetting the Daily Mail is not exactly hard. I couldn't see the Daily Mail in Jerusalem of the first century defending the Jesus of the Gospels. This is just posturing.

I feel a bit cut off from the discussion because here in Germany there are more important things to think about than an ad campaign upsetting people. Also, I just heard on Twitter that Malcolm Wicks MP (Croydon North) has died: a great man, a great MP, great company, and a great servant of his constituency. Very sad and I wish I had known he was so ill.

Just to conclude with some Lutheran perspective: I picked up the following Martin Luther quotes on cards at the Wartburg:

Das ist der Teufel in uns, dass niemand genug hat! (The devil in us is that no one ever has enough!)

Für die Toten Wein, Wasser für die Lebenden – das ist eine Vorschrift für Fische. (Wine for the dead, water for the living – that is a recipe for fish.)

And perhaps the briefest and best wisdom at times of pressure:

Lang ist nicht ewig. (Long time is not eternity.)

Advent, which begins on Sunday, ignites the anticipation of Christmas. It is all about God coming among us, where we are, in the ordinary stuff of life. It comes as surprise and it bursts quietly into a world that has got used to ‘things being the way they are’.

This is a brilliant expression of it.

When I was a vicar I had a competition with myself to get a Bruce Cockburn lyric into every Christmas sermon. I never failed.

I wish I was well-read enough to quote clever literary giants and ancient saints – which some seem to manage effortlessly. But, I will stick with Saint Bruce for this year again, wishing all readers of this blog a very happy celebration of the Incarnation and a new year that will bring much joy amid the usual stuff of life:

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.